Bookish Radness, Changing the World

Diversity in Christian Fiction – A Series | Part 2

Hello everyone! Today Amy Green joins us for my Diversity Series. I’m really enjoying the discussions that are happening and voices that are sharing. This isn’t the most comfortable of topics, but as I’ve said before, it’s too important to stay quiet about. I hope you’ll read it and as always, share your thoughts on it!

Diversity in Traditional CBA Publishing
by Amy Green

The question isn’t really ever phrased, “Is there enough diversity in Christian fiction?” It’s “Why is there a lack of diversity in Christian fiction?” Indie publishing has given us inspirational fiction from authors of color, as well as novels with characters from a wide ethnic and cultural range, but traditional publishing doesn’t seem to be there yet.

There are a few possible explanations. As the fiction publicist of Bethany House, I start with the fact that we only publish about two new-to-us authors a year and maybe one true debut author—with the slots so few, it’s not surprising that authors of color are finding it hard to break in to traditional publishing. Everyone is finding it hard to break in.

Beyond that, it’s speculation on a complex question.

Maybe agents aren’t encouraging authors to write protagonists from diverse backgrounds, knowing it isn’t as safe as the tried-and-true.

Maybe established authors aren’t mentoring authors of color because they don’t run in the same writing circles.

Maybe Caucasian writers don’t feel they have the authentic experience to write from the point of view of someone of a different ethnicity.

Maybe the few times a traditional publisher did go out on a limb and publish a book with non-white protagonists, they got burned with low sales.

Maybe most of the people headed to the inspirational shelves of a bookstore just don’t want to read diverse fiction.

Maybe authors of color gravitate toward certain genres that don’t do as well in CBA.

It’s a tricky question that leads to a series of other tricky questions, but we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about them. Because while there is no simple solution, change almost always starts with a conversation like the one we’re having right now. With that in mind, I’ll do my best to add a few thoughts to the discussion.

From time to time, one of our acquisition editors speaks to college students in writing or publishing programs and has them go through an exercise called “Fantasy Publishing.”

To play, you look at descriptions of the pros and cons of manuscripts that might come across your desk, along with the advance money you’d need to pay. Given a certain budget, you pick the projects you want to publish…and then listen to the editor’s verdict on how each of them turned out. None of the books listed were real projects, but all of them could be.

Included in the list are potential blockbusters, obscure literary works, run-of-the-mill fiction…and two novels relating to the topic of diversity. One is a well-written romantic suspense novel with an interracial romance. Another is a chick lit style novel written by an African American author. Both have race as a factor that might make the books a harder sell.

In the “Results” page, both potentially-controversial books sell a good amount for their genre. The comment beside one of them expresses the hope that many editors have about good books in an unpredictable industry: “It’s hard to keep a truly well-written book down.”

Occasionally, in real life as in Fantasy Publishing, strong stories that aren’t the market’s “usual” will break out with unexpected success, and this is what every editor would love to see happen. This is why you see them contracting the occasional “risky” project.

But often, more cautious sales projections are accurate, predictions about what CBA readers will buy and what they won’t are confirmed, and even stories that editors know are well-written don’t succeed like they’d hoped. I say this not as a way to dodge blame, but just to give you a bigger picture of what’s going on with the books CBA publishers choose to contract.

When I think specifically about why established authors don’t often include a diverse cast in their main characters, I remember the nervous chatter in writing circles when a CBA author whose protagonist was of a different ethnic group was slammed by critics, mostly in the secular world, not for telling a bad story but for venturing into what they felt she didn’t have a right to portray. I can’t help but wonder if authors think, “I don’t have the authority or knowledge to write authentically about people who belong to minority groups.” “What if I get it wrong and it feels like a stereotype?” “Maybe this isn’t my story to tell.” Those, I think, are legitimate concerns, and some genres and stories (Amish or Regency, for example) simply don’t lend themselves to diversity.

Of course, it’s also been fun reading the comments on Jamie’s original post where people share books and series that feature people of color, as well as non-white authors who are traditionally published. At Bethany House, I personally think our most striking cover of 2016 was Angela Hunt’s Delilah, featuring a heroine of mixed race. And Jill Williamson’s new fantasy series, The Kinsman Chronicles, has one white character in the entire saga—for me, the complex cultures she created contribute to the fresh, original feel of the series because it doesn’t take place in the traditional European setting.

When I asked her to talk about this subject with me, Jill admitted that it’s probably easier to write characters of different races and backgrounds in a completely invented world. She said, “I think it’s important for CBA authors to write the stories God puts on their hearts, to write honest stories. Diversity is a huge trend in ABA, and most editors and agents will caution authors against writing to trends. At the same time, CBA authors can write about anything general market authors write about. We just tend to write it differently. The challenge often comes with the treatment. Authors who are going to write about any kind of minority that they are not a part of—racial, disabilities, and others—had better do their research so that the treatment is honest and respectful in how it’s handled.”

That’s where we are right now. I can’t tell the story of where we’re going, except to say this: I’m hearing more and more people who notice a gap and want to do something about it, people who are starting conversations just like this one.

Before I close out, I want to address another line of speculation, one that relates to you. Yes, you, the person reading this post.

Maybe you’re an author whose books haven’t included much diversity, and you have good reasons that haven’t been addressed. Maybe you’re a reader who doesn’t like the comment that publishers shy away from portraying people of color on covers because they have had lower sales. Maybe, like me, you’re a publishing employee who knows the complex backstory behind which projects reach contract stage and which ones don’t.

Maybe reading this series of posts makes you slightly uncomfortable, because you are not racist, and somehow, even talking about this makes you feel like someone’s accusing you of that.

Here’s the thing: we can’t respond well to this issue (or any issue) from a posture of defensiveness.

When you hear that the Christian fiction community might have fallen short in this area, don’t jump to blame someone. I know that was my first reaction, and it’s not helpful.

Just listen. Hear stories that are different from your own, whether it’s by reading the comments on these posts, seeking out novels by minority authors, or following Christians who speak about race and faith on social media. Ask questions of yourself—not how other people or systems out of your control need to change, but what small things you can do to change. And pray for God to bring reconciliation through his church in all areas, but specifically in the area of racial division.

I know that got really big really fast. But I’m convinced we’re not just talking here about why authors of color tend to feel out of place in the inspirational writing community or why covers portray mostly one ethnicity. It’s bigger than that. It’s harder than that.

As racial tensions mount in our country, this feels especially important for Christians to talk about. Let’s not leave it to the pastors and theologians. Don’t get me wrong, their work is critical…but I want to bring in the storytellers and fiction readers too.

You can’t change everything. Neither can I (although sometimes I’d like to). But you can listen to understand, read to learn, love others more, and enter into potentially uncomfortable conversations with grace and humility.

Thank you so much Amy for sharing! I would love to hear what you think about this post and our discussion as a whole. Did you find yourself getting defensive when this was first brought up? Are you more open to discuss these issues? Please share any and all thoughts!

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