Tag Archives: publishing

Toward a Definition of Christian Literature

Chroniccandy Many of you have asked for it, but I’m still waiting on that “wilderness” speech from Wangerin. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get a book out of it, but in the meantime, let me share what I felt was the most powerful aspect (there are interesting correlations here to Eugene Peterson’s speech, “What Are Writers Good For?”): writers call words from the wilderness, ascribing meaning and definition to the world, just as God did in the beginning. There is a direct lineage from that first Word that spoke everything into existence and the first man who was told to name everything. The Word is God. Everything you create is a holy act.

Does that not influence your taste for candy books?

To continue from last time, I believe that as long as our books support separation from the world, we will have nothing like the sort of literature Flannery O’Connor believed in. There is no place for it currently in CBA. Donna Kehoe, director of the Christy awards, has shared the profound idea that the word “Christian” was never intended to be a modifier. And O’Connor believed this so much that she wrote fiction as an incarnational art, trying to provide a direct experience of intrusive grace.

Now I’m not calling for worshiping books or worshiping the holy act of writing them. But this idea of art incarnate, of word become flesh, is an important one. CBA resembles the great Christian culture that has severed the gospel from its intended function of redeption and made it vague and weak through a sanitized, unrealistic creation. Without the truth of the reality God saves us from, there is no glory. Ted Dekker has said that without using the black brush, the white doesn’t stand out as starkly. Cut out the raw and ugly, and grace and redemption are tamed, manageable, moldable into whatever unobtrusive shape we please.

The symbols and metaphors of our stories are not mere clay to be molded—we are the clay. We are molded by the words as we struggle to pin them down, and we’ve forgotten this in our self-first mentality. Authors are merely the turnstile for the wondrous truths passing through. Why are the experiences of our classic literature no longer available? We need to recast an artistic vision that’s compatible with the urgings in scripture to “do all to the glory of God.” Rather than dismissing the instruction, we need books that make it their duty to call us back to it. I believe this is the only way to create “words of art” that become vessels of grace and mercy.

Of course, many disagree. I don’t think we need to make books any longer or shorter, smarter or dumber, commercial or literary. There’s a middle ground I’m pushing for. This middle ground is in pushing for books that respond to the paradoxes of humanity and the world, the books I feel CBA has forgotten by separating from those things.

Too many of our books teach separation. It’s time to reconnect.

In our arts, our churches, our entire philosophy as Christains “in the world but not of it,” we need revolution. There are too few places in modern culture Christians haven’t pulled away. Raised to be separatists—“set apart”—we’ve followed this to other conclusions. We now accept the functions of spirit as separate from the physical. We accept people taking the gospel out of the world. We even do it ourselves. We don’t think of reality as symbols of something greater. Symbols are separate from reality. These divisions reduce our efforts, try to extract the paradoxes, tame the mysteries, and make authentic experiences of grace less available. As Walter Wangerin said, good writers call meaning from the void, create something tangible out of the wilderness. But if the tangible world is too fallen, too evil, too scary for Christians, we can’t see the beauty God created us to enjoy, let alone create something beautiful in response to it.

This spirit of division has permeated more aspects of our faith than we know. The expression of our faith is seen in all parts of our lives, so this is a very real, very destructive problem. The main divisions I’m seeing do the most damage to our books:

  • The artificial division between spiritual and physical.
  • The artificial divison between Christian culture and North American culture.
  • The artificial division between sacred and secular.
  • The artificial division between entertainment and edification.

This last one is where I’ve spent the most time on this blog. I carry the quote before me, “Those who make a distinction between entertainment and education don’t know the first thing about either.” Entertainment educates. Education edifies. Edification inspires and that experience, when seen through a Christian lens, can be worship.

So what entertainment is worshipful? Can I praise God by reading People magazine? Reading about Nick and Jessica should be fine, right?

I’ll let someone else make that case. For us, I think we need to seek unity of those two goals.

These divisions become judgments, rules defining our popular Christian aesthetic. For all the lip service paid to the power of story and the “master storyteller’s” use of it in teaching truth, there is still very little of it actually being used. Truth is reality, but Christian books prefer to create their own reality. Why do we divide entertainment from teaching if Jesus didn’t? His stories were both, just as by nature, all stories are both. There is no perfect balance of entertainment to instruction in a story since it is always, all of it, both. It may be lesser degrees of both at any given time, but they always go together in quality writing. In fact, that’s my definition of quality writing. Making instruction entertaining.

There’s one division I do think is a holy sanction. It’s buried in this post, if you were paying attention…

Reality Check #1: Charisma Sells

So. A while back I promised some revelations about the inner workings of Christian publishing, for which you’ve all been exceptionally patient. I do appreciate it, as I’m trying to get this silly novel in shape. But I’m excited about some of the discussions going on post-ICRS on the CBA landscape, and I just can’t stay silent ’bout some unavoidable publishing realities no longer!

Now I apologize if some of you are so up on the Christian publishing news and processes that you know this stuff already. There’s always Dave’s insightful and informative blog you can learn more from. But over the course of the next few months, I’m going to be grinding up some sacred cows and a few of you are going to have to drink the water. There’s been a lot of idealism about publishing put forth, some of it by me in the early days of this blog, and I think it’s time some of that was balanced with a healthy dose of reality. So if you stick with me through this process, I think you’ll find some enlightening food for thought.

Fact is, in my weaker moments I worry about how I’m coming off. Oftentimes, it’s just this selfish, like the familiar worry that I’ve alienated allies in this business and that when I do finally pubish my first novel, there will be some major negative reception, like, in the Christian publishing guide I’ll be listed as Mick Silva, See Ignorant Critical Rube, page 289. Every author dreads finding themselves surrounded by bad publicity, shunned by their contemporaries, and/or lambasted in Publisher’s Weekly as a writer that’s “probably good enough for the Christian market.” And as I say, in my weaker moments, that’s me.

In my better moments, I’m more concerned about the kind of works we’re producing in Christian publishing, when the dominant force is sales, and what has sold well previously, either for another house or in another market, like in, say, film, television, or popular music. Even though most people will tell you they’re most interested in what is new, unique, fresh, or different, the fact is, Sales folks know what’s familiar sells. Joel Osteen will sell more with a book on fashionable dog sweaters than any of us with the hottest topic in the country, whatever that might be. And sure, Joel’s dominance is the result of a dynamic ministry that’s taken years to establish, and an incredible message that’s been crafted and positioned to reach the widest demographic possible. But those are intangibles. What you could point to as reasons for his appeal can just as easily be cast as reasons to publish Joe Schmoe’s book on fashionable dog sweaters. Joe’s been speaking for 165 years and has a church of 27 zillion, but you don’t see him getting a publishing deal. So what’s the difference?

In a word: charisma. Now there are arguments to be made for the importance of charisma when you’re a fiction author as opposed to a nonfiction, self-help, motivational author (See Chris Farley as Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker on SNL). Yes, I agree fiction authors should be largely immune to these considerations, but the fact is, many of you don’t have book contracts because you aren’t charismatic about your business in the most complimentary meaning of the term. And you can complain all you want about platform publishing and celebrity-driven projects, but the fact is, the Osteens of the world have something others want, and that’s always going to be more marketable than the no-name dog sweater guy.

So, you know this already? Okay, but have you sat down to work on it? Where’s your charisma coming from? Publishers want people with charisma, and when I realize that, I look at myself sitting on the other side of the table from my editor self and I realize I have some work to do. Sure I’ve got some ideas, some humor and cynicism, maybe a little unusual experience to contribute to my work, but really, what’s marketable about me? Unless I can step up and be comfortable with the idea of selling my ideas and my mission while holding my own in the high water of publicity and promotions, I’m not going to prove to any acquisitions editor the merit of my message. And frankly, that motivates me.

I don’t want to be a Matt Foley, repelling people. I want to make people feel good having been with me. I want them to catch the vision. Fact is, that’s an unqualified skill of the best authors in Christian publishing. There are many more essential qualities that go with charisma–not least of all an ability to phrase your message in a compelling and memorable way. But those skills get plenty of lip-service, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about the charisma aspect very often.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s been my rumination for the evening. Tune in next time when we’ll look at another large-ish reality influencing publishing decisions. Until then, keep practicing those engaging looks and compelling responses in your bathroom mirror.

Life as research: Confessions, Part 1

You know what I love about being a writer? No, besides all the beautiful babes. Seriously! It’s that you’re never wasting time. Any time you spend paying attention is helping you become a better writer. No time spent just observing is time wasted. No time spent reading is wasted. No matter what you’re doing as a writer, you’re doing research. That’s a pretty sweet deal, right?

I think I realized this sometime during college. After graduating, traveling, working, and getting married, in the end, I saw moving to Colorado Springs (of all places!) as little more than an extended research trip for us. That’s the God’s honest truth. The fact that it’s still going on six years later may lead you to some other mistaken conclusion, but my whole goal has always been to gather experience for writing. Which is the central reason for this blog, if you want the whole truth. And that I’m still young (and dumb) enough to be writing far-too-truthful things on this blog about my hare-brained ideas for influencing CBA, and being confidently assured something is going to come of sharing it with you here. Certainly, my experience in Christian publishing so far has been useful for such a lofty goal as being a paid writer, and ten times better than anything I got in college (no hard feelings Westmont). And the fact that there are people like you out there who are entertained by my idle prattle and evasive self-deprecation here convinces me to hope that maybe it hasn’t all been just a big mistake.

One can always hope.

Some of you know that when my wife and I first considered moving here from Seattle, having just been married a few months, it was for a job in the publishing department at Focus on the Family. Uh, yeah. Plenty of people warned us. And yes, it was for a low-level, assistant editor job, lowest you could go without being in the mailroom, but that was all beside the point. It was a job in publishing and the fact was it came with some good benefits and a nice relocation allowance. I wasn’t going anywhere as a house-cleaner/drink-slinger with an English degree. So we decided nothing more than a 2-year trial to get my feet wet and see what we could see. Now almost 6 years later, I’ve acquired some book-editing experience and I’ve worked with a select group of people who’ve taught me some incredible (and unrepeatable) things about making books work. And in the general sense, it’s been a little like reading Left Behind or The Da Vinci Code. Wonderful and horrible at the same time. But above all irreversible.

Along the way, I’ve gotten to spend some significant quality time evaluating what makes good books bomb and what shoots bad ones to the top, some of which I’ve pissed and moaned about here. Overall, the editing gig has been an experience I can’t recommend fully to people until I know why it is they’re asking. Yes, there are a few sad sacks who wonder if they might enjoy my job if I were to get run over by a truck or something, and it just happened that they were next in line for my life of luxury and glamour as a CBA acquisitions editor.

Cue nervous laughter.

Yet since it’s been my good fortune to live this extended research trip into the Christian mecca, I’ve strived to share a few things over the past months and years, particular to my vantage point and deepening education in American Christianity, books, publishing, and the CBA industry. I’ve alienated myself and also made some allies sharing my prejudices and fresh-baked assumptions, figuring my central purpose for writing books could serve for the blog as well: the more me I can share, the less me I have to die alone with. But why-ever you’ve come and whoever you are out there, whether waiting to take my position, or just hoping I’ll publish your book before the truck immortalizes me, make a venture back to this greasy spot on the information superhighway over the next few weeks for some never-before-shared confessions and (potentially useful) revelations, some of which will no doubt come in handy for that future job interview.

So there’s my irresistible set up. More to come…stay tuned.

On Reading, Writing, and Acquistions: How do you choose?

So this morning I went off googling every which way soaking up all my necessary facts, trends, and data. And then I remembered our topic: Put God first.

Oh yeah! So instead, I started thinking some more about the standard sources with which we typically measure successful publishing. The presses, the lists, booksellers, agents, media, and basically whatever else you can think of. Here’s an example.

Publisher’s Weekly Best Religion Books. Among the 10,
• David Dark, The Gospel According to America (Westminster John Knox)
• Bruce Feiler, Where God Was Born (Morrow)
• Brennan Manning, The Importance of Being Foolish: How to Think Like Jesus (Harper San Francisco),
• Vinita Hampton Wright, The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life (InterVarsity).

Aside from what you think of the books, if you analyze the list, you’ll find, first off, it’s entirely nonfiction, some “narrative nonfiction,” yet each comes alongside readers rather than entreating them to “listen and learn.” They are diverse, mainly Christian with a couple Jewish, one Buddhist, and about important topics, well-researched, and are conversational at the popular level. Yet they are all authoritative authors. The best seller among the 10 is Bruce Feiler’s, Where God Was Born.

Interesting, right? Definitely some insights to look into more there. Okay, and here’s another snippet: Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. An example of a critical and bestselling success. USA Today notes that Didion wrote the book in the midst of her pain and loss. The heart-wrenching craziness definitely transmits on the page. Though you’d never wish to go through the war it took to get there, great wars always make great generals.

Good thought again. When written truthfully and well, life’s most difficult events can make some of the best books.

Unexamined, all our reading/writing/acquisitions choices are slipshod. In my burgeoning acquisitions strategy, I began with an amalgam of loosely-held assumptions and semi-proven techniques either adopted or appropriated from other related life experiences. Follow the trends, the zeitgeist, the bottom line. But in the end, I know it really comes down to God’s will. What’s this message adding? What’s the author’s character? Will this go the distance and will they still uphold the important things?

Of course awareness of the culture to which you publish is a fundamental source. And yet, do you put God first? Interesting how that changes things. It’s so simple. You’ll frequently hear this debate going on at writers conferences and behind publishing doors, arguments for “felt need” vs. literary merit. Literary quality is the supposed high road. But which of those puts God first?

I’ve got a screensaver that bounces around the phrase in 3D font, “So what?” It’s a reminder to me to constantly put myself in the reader’s shoes, the “felt need” camp. But also, “So what’s the one thing that really matters?” Why do people really need to read this particular book? Will it truly improve their lives if it doesn’t put God first? Not mentioning him in every paragraph, of course. He needs to permeate.

I’ll say it again. Our motivation in everything—and yeah, publishing too—should be God first. And that means many things. But primarily, have more faith than reason. Join him rather than lead. Resist the world rather than conform. Ensure humility to ensure profitability. Even literary quality needs to take a backseat.

I’ve learned something over the last year of this blog: Disillusionment and discontent are just fuel. We need to put them in the engine that will encourage the primary factor in making our reading, writing, and acquisitions choices.