Sunday, July 23, 2006

No Brainer

Levi's Will by Dale Cramer aka the best Christian fiction writer on the market ( though I am still awfully fond of the Thoenes ) won the Christy Award. This may not mean a lot in the grand scheme of secular bookselling, but I have tried to inflitrate him into the Faulkner/Harper Lee/ Leif Enger readership so I hope my small contribution is somehow aiding a bigger effort. Namely, take the two Christian extremes ( Apocalyptical horror a la Frank Peretti and Jenkins/ Lahaye and Mail-Order Bride Historical series with amish people and goats ) and even them out into something greater; Something so fantastic you can slide it to a secular friend without them knowing what they are reading. The archetypal safe fare of poorly written first person romantic narratives paired with the recent fascination with celtic people, the slave trade and composers of hymns as the male leads, should instead be replaced by sterner stuff; books that are literary and challenging and substitute a bludgeon over the head with a more subtle ethical background. Grace at the foremost, yes, but not the kind of grace that expects your reader to be spoonfed the gospels.... or moreover, the kind that shovels it down your throat if your unsuspecting mouth seems to be drooping wide. I want to be proud of Christian fiction. I want to pair the Dostoyevsky and Hugo I slid into the Christian Library I worked at with contemporary pseudo-masterpieces.

A Retrospect: I once engaged in a book I thought held eons of potential. It was set in Oxford in the 1960's and its major motif was that of the Inklings---that famous theological grouping that held Lewis, Williams and Tolkien at the now infamous Eagle and Baby. Here, the aforementioned would gather and plot and discuss--Sometimes deliciously allowing a brilliant female to intercept their predominantly male gatherings. (Here, of course, I refer to my theological goddess/mystery maven Dorothy L. Sayers ). I eagerly read on gathering that the book was peppered with romance, and thought my delight.... Shakespeare. However, there was a car crash, a weepy wide-eyed night worthy of Lavyrle Spencer and, horrifically, a sequel where the once ambitious Shakesperian scholar-to-be traded her Oxford education for a potential brood of children( at the tender age of 21, I believe ) because God had called her to raise a large family. Words cannot descibe how incensed I was at the author and the book. Who am I to question the Will of the Almighty when it comes to dropping higher education to raise children? But, with few other books to counter this familial archetype, I was distraught. If readers who dapple fleetingly in the Christian market are subjected to women adhering to a long-passe social role, how can we ever convince them that there is light outside of Mitford, that not all Christian women are baking in the kitchen, and that the whole of the Christian marketplace is not the rainy-day, feel-good squishiness of Karen Kingsbury.

I want Christian Fiction with heart and guts and brains. When I was in elementary school, my young and developing imagination had no problem seeping the works of Janette Oke and BJ Hoff. The italicized prayers were wonderfully appropos, the cheesy covers ( the gawdawful covers ) with their pastels and portraits of ladies bonneted and gentleman in strawhats and suspenders did not phase me. Then, I grew up and titles like " When Hope Springs New" didn't cut it anymore. For a long time the Christian market did not exist outside of the "prairie" romance; The long series where books 2 and 7 were always out of print or unavailable. And, when it did occasionally stray from the expected, it was only to delve into the antiromance, the antonym. Raise your hands if you're still freaked out by Peretti's Door to the Dragon's Throat. Throw in a Chuck Colson and a Grant Jeffrey for good measure and you have a wavering pendulum. Sappy historical and death, destruction apocalyptic with one or two of a Grisham like law book in between. And is it utterly impossible for these people to throw anything remotely literary into this jargoning jingoism? I was delighted to read " Because of Winn Dixie " by Kate Di Camillo because I found strings of religion in the figure of a mangy mutt. How desperate are we?!?!

Yet in lapses of despair, I have never ever given up on the potential of a great Christian read. Perhaps something that leans more to the Tolkienian ideal of Pre-Evangelim.... a Christian book that has more to do with ethical themes and a woven strand of subtle grace than down right allegory or sermonizing.

Ironically, the book Christy by Catherine Marshall , the namesake of Cramer's recent award, seems still ( and encouragingly) to be a placid middle ground for some readers. Even if it has never been published with a cover worthy of its inner-genius, it is the antidote for a the rumbling rant I have presently typed. I had a customer today come back after falling head-over-heels for Neil MacNeil ( hel-lo! She's human, isn't she? ) and tell me " My friend told me that this was a Christian book. Is that true?" Ahh.... bliss. Carry on Dale Cramer. Break down the barriers and please spare us from the sisterchicks, the uber-apocalyptic destruction scenes ( with the low budget Kirk Cameron spinoffs ) and most of all the new Austen-ish vein of taking a heroine and throwing her in calamitous situations only your great grandmother would find even remotely amusing. If she does crosswords in her spare time, even worse!


Carl V. Anderson said...

As a christian I gave up on the idea of there being good christian fiction long ago, which is really sad in its own way. Now I for one enjoyed the Mitford books because I hadn't read anything like that in awhile and I thought both main characters were strong in their own way. I liked that she was an author and that they were both older adults still willing to let romance be a part of their life. However most other stuff just isn't that good.

I'm probably just too cynical, but the Peretti books and things of that ilk just don't do it for me.

Of course I'm not entirely convinced that there is a real need for overtly religious fiction. I'd rather read a good story like Lord of the Rings or something that has an underpinning of belief in it but is not preachy. I'm not sure that we need fiction to win over the lost. There are plenty of good books out there with upright, moral heroes and heroines. That being said though it is sad that few writers seem to be able to capture both a good story and one that is rooted in good christian theology.

Anonymous said...

Here, here. *toasts your rant* Most editors in the Christian market will agree with you. Trouble is, we have to cater to the Christian bookstore customer, who is generally a housewife who ADORES Francine Rivers or Lori Wick or somesuch.

One of my favorite CBA authors is Lisa Samson. Literary, edgy. Love her writing. Not so preachy as others. Beth Pattillo's Betsy books are also fun, though much more lighthearted. Chick lit. (And I line-edited the second one - wink) Liz Curtis Higgs is supposedly really good, too, but I haven't got around to reading her yet. One of these days.