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Pastel Covers, Real People
In early January, a box thudded onto my front porch like a late Christmas gift from a distant relative in the Midwest. The 34 books contained within were the entries in the "contemporary novel" category for the Christy Awards, a competition inaugurated in 1999 to encourage quality writing in the fast-growing market for Christian fiction. My assignment as one of seven judges: rate the novels on a 1-to-10 scale in elements ranging from characterization to plot to overall enjoyment. ("If you hadn't had to read this book for review purposes," our instructions on that last point helpfully clarified, "would you have finished it?")
Here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it's safe to say that Christian fiction has an image problem. Hearing of my assignment, friends expressed emotions ranging from sympathy to shock. Many assumed I was wading through several installments of the Left Behind series (not so—those books reside in the "futuristic" category) or the Christian equivalent of bodice rippers (which have their own category as well). No one seemed to think that reading 34 contemporary Christian novels was a plum job. In short, you won't score any points among the scandal-of-the-evangelical-mind crowd by being a Christy Award judge.
But only a few books into my three-month-long sojourn in the land of Christian fiction, I realized that I had been given an opportunity that every curious mind welcomes—a new cultural landscape to explore. In the December 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, David Brooks took readers on a tour of "Red America," acting as a kind of docent guiding his latte-and-biscotti peers through the Bush-leaning regions on the map of the 2000 presidential election. Red America is where Christian fiction thrives, and like Brooks, I found more there than meets the eye.
What meets the eye first, however, is the covers. The palette of Christian fiction is heavy on pink, rose, fuschia, and pale colors of all hues. And also on cursive writing. The cover designers have done ...