By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
Defining a genre can be difficult, and artists usually aren’t eager to be assigned a tag and labeled part of a movement.
If you don’t think so, try dropping the phrase “Southern writer” in an Oxford bar or coffee house, and see how many literary types bristle and shift in their seats. Faulkner, they’ll tell you, has as much in common with Nabakov and Joyce as he does with Welty and Morris.
In the last decade, however, a genre of literature has emerged whose coherence is defined as much by the market it serves as by the character of its prose.
When the phrase “Christian fiction” appears on the ordering invoices at the Itawamba County Pratt Memorial Library, Cindy Jamerson has a pretty accurate idea what’s she’s getting.
“The books tell you about people who believe in God, about people who solve problems and overcome obstacles through faith,” said the branch librarian, who last year received a $2,000 grant to beef up her selection of Christian fiction.
“God is found throughout the book.”
That’s about as good a definition as you’ll find for a category of books that in the last 10 years has grown as quickly as kudzu up a Mississippi hillside.
Each week Jamerson watches about half of her 250-title selection walk out the door, going home under the arms of people of faith – mostly women – who have strong allegiances to particular authors and series.
“In the library business, you learn quickly that you have to know your customers,” said Jamerson. “This is what they want to read, what they love.”
According to an old adage, there’s nothing new under the sun, and Christian fiction, one might argue, is as old as the written word.
Perhaps the oldest poem in the English language, “The Dream of the Rood,” is a dialogue between a narrator and the cross of Jesus. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” both Christian-based, are staples of Literature 101 classes nationwide.
The historical precedent for Christian literature can be stretched back as far as one feels intellectually honest, but, as Jamerson indicated, today’s books often have a kind of laser-like focus in their demographic appeal.
Folks as diverse as television evangelist Pat Robertson and conservative talk show host Glenn Beck have recently tried their hand at Christian fiction, but most of the successful authors focus on a select demographic that provides their bread and butter.
For men, there are the fast-paced mysteries of former Pentecostal minister Frank Peretti, who writes of demons and monsters and intrigue. Then, there’s the work of former Denver Broncos place kicker Jason Elam, who blends the themes of sports and religious, fanatical terrorism.
Among women, pastoral romances are the most popular.
At Lifeway Christian Store in Tupelo, manager Chris McCormick walked among four, 12-foot sections of Christian titles, and pointed out a common theme.
“The Amish stuff is very popular,” he said, smiling.
The glossy covers showed pretty, bonneted young women staring glassy-eyed over wheat fields, and horse-drawn buggies riding into sinking suns.
Memphis resident Annalisa Daughety chose to set her installment of the popular “Love Finds You” series among an Amish community in Charm, Ohio. She sees a romantic aspect to the simple rhythms of Amish life, one that appeals especially to modern females.
Daughety, who grew up reading such “chick lit” standards as “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” sees nothing wrong with customizing her work for a niche reader. Like Jamerson, Daughety feels her books are meeting the needs of a reading public who, in an over-sexed culture, are searching for alternative forms of entertainment.
“I see this as a kind of ministry,” said the Arkansas native and graduate of Freed-Hardeman University.
“Women and young girls – like everyone else – are searching for wholesomeness and meaning in life, and fiction can reach them in meaningful ways,” she said.
Eighty-two-year-old Dee Harbor of Fulton is one of those searchers. Her favorite author, Tracie Peterson, writes a lot of period fiction, like frontier romances, but its the subject matter, rather than any particular author or series that keeps Harbor, a committed United Methodist, coming back.
“I just don’t like dirty books,” she said. “I like to be able to read something without blushing.”
Art and message
It was more than a decade ago when the apocalyptic “Left Behind” series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, took Christian fiction out of obscurity and onto Wal-Mart shelves and the New York Times best-seller list.
Neither the Christian Booksellers Association, which formed in 1950, nor the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks the sales of religious fiction, so it’s hard to quantify the market.
However, the total sales of Christian products, including everything from books to holy water fountains, is estimated at $3 billion annually. Surveys by the Booksellers Association indicate that books other than the Bible account for about 28 percent of those sales.
There are over 200 publishing houses that serve the Christian public’s growing demand for Christian fiction, including Zondervan, Good News/Crossway, Bethany House, Moody and Broadman and Holman, just to name a few.
Nashville-based publisher Thomas Nelson launched its fiction division in 2004, and today controls over 20 percent of the market, publishing about one out of every five novels sold.
While some publishers take a more evangelical route, Nelson’s senior vice president and publisher, Allen Arnold, attributes his company’s success to prioritizing the art of storytelling over that of delivering a message.
That doesn’t mean, however, that craftsmanship and evangelism are opposed.
“A Christian world-view allows – even demands – we deal truthfully with the issues of life,” said Arnold. “We don’t live in a G-rated or saccharine-sweet world.”
He added, “But, we shouldn’t confuse a ‘real’ representation of life with what I’d term ‘gratuitous,’ which really serves to excite and shock. I always encourage our authors to ‘run to the story,’ and to get on paper what God has uniquely given them to tell.”
Fiction, said Arnold, shouldn’t be escapism. Stories, like parables, should help the reader understand life and live it more authentically.
That philosophy is reflected in the work of some of Nelson’s more well-known authors, such as thriller and fantasy writer Ted Dekker, whose books have sold more than 3 million copies, and Andrew Klavan, whose novels “True Crime” and “Don’t say a Word” were made into Hollywood films.
Ole Miss graduate and Korea and Vietnam veteran Donn Taylor shares Arnold’s view that the duty of Christian fiction is first of all to entertain.
“Fiction doesn’t prove anything,” Taylor, who lives near Houston, Texas, told a group at the Pontotoc library on Wednesday, adding that the tension between craftsmanship and message is as old as Edmund Spencer’s “Faerie Queene,” a Christian allegory published in the 16th century.
Taylor’s mystery novel “Rhapsody in Red,” published by Moody, reflects the attention to literary craftsmanship that came from his career as an English professor.
Some of “Rhapsody’s” passages really sing: “Somewhere in the building a window banged open, and a blast of cold swept through the hall. With it came a premonition of some unseen force taking control of my life, boxing me in, making me remember things long forgotten…Incongruously, the musicians in my head launched into the piccolo obligato to a John Philip Sousa march.”
Monica Lamelas of Fulton has been an avid reader all her life, and enjoys everything from Hemingway to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to Christian fiction of the Amish variety.
By-and-large, she said, you really can’t compare the prose quality of contemporary Christian fiction with such giants of the literary world, but, perhaps, that’s an unfair and unnecessary comparison.
“There are, of course, great Christian authors whom I enjoy, like C.S. Lewis, and Tolkein,” she said. “But, these days, I read books by people like Beverly Lewis not because they’re great literature, but because everything in the book is centered on how faith shapes the characters’ lives.”
Hope and message
Tuesday night Annalisa Daughety, Donn Taylor and a panel of four other Christian fiction writers spoke to a group of 100 at Blue Mountain College. They good-naturedly shared their struggles with finding a publisher, and breaking into the business. They also talked about how faith and prayer are an important part of their work.
Nineteen-year-old Casey Luther, a Blue Mountain student, was all ears. He’s finished a couple of manuscripts, one a romance, the other a fairy tale, and he was eager to make some contacts and to start figuring out how to get published.
“This kind of literature makes me hopeful,” said the Potts Camp native and member of the campus group, “The Scribblers.” At a reception in the Guyton Library, he worked his way down the dais of authors, shaking hands and beaming with enthusiasm.
When asked how he’d define Christian fiction, Luther paused for moment, then said, “Well, I think the intent has to be to spread the gospel.” Then, he added, “But, good writing is always important. I think the two go hand-in-hand.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org