Chip MacGregor

September 8, 2010

Still talking books and authors…


Okay, so on Monday I spent some time answering questions from people about which books I’ve been reading and what I like. On Tuesday I got this response from someone: “Well, there’s really only ONE BOOK – the Bible. It’s more than a book, so nothing compares to it. But books written by the muse of man that I have enjoyed would include…”

Um… where do I start? First, there isn’t only “one book.” There are a lot of books, many of great value – even to people of faith. Second, I’ve never heard of a book that wasn’t “written by the muse of man.” For crying out loud. Third, that is without a doubt the most pompous note I’ve received in years. 

Look, I appreciate that I have people of faith reading my blog. I'm a person of faith, and I represent a lot of Christian books. But I also live in the real world, not some hokey spiritual world where we need to always point out that we are religious. So give it a rest. Learn to write words that people want to read and you'll find more success. Geez…

Janet wrote to say, “Looking at all the religious fiction writers being published today, who do you 
think will be read and admired 25 years from now?”

First, this is a great question. It's also a bit of a slippery topic, since "popularity" and "longevity" don't always go hand in hand (in writing or in any other art). Tastes change and that pushes the culture away from one author and toward another. For example, Ernest Hemingway has long been considered one of America’s greatest writers. But as readers have moved away from his books, and as time has marched on, his reputation as a stylist has flagged considerably. And his buddy F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was reduced to writing B-movie scripts late in life because the reading public had soured on his work, now commands great respect from the literary community. So… you never know how time is going to treat writers.

Let me offer an example in religious publishing: I think Terri Blackstock is one of the best of the Christian thriller writers right now. However, with the contemporary feel of her books, I doubt people will be reading and studying her work in 25 years. That’s not to run her down – it’s simply to say they are contemporary stories, and those tend to fade quickly. (Remember just a few short years ago? We were all reading Tom Clancy.) As an agent, I don't want any of the authors I represent to think I'm running down their work if I don't select them as "writer of the century." But that's the hand I'm playing with this post today.

Second, in my view, your question begs a recency debate. Twenty-five years from now, I believe they'll still be reading and discussing Madeleine L'Engle and Walter Wangerin… but is it fair to name two of the old guard in CBA? I don’t know. So this is a stab in the dark. I think, 25 years from now, people will still be reading Sue Monk Kidd novels, and the “Hawk & the Dove” trilogy from Penelope Wilcock. I think the jury is still out regarding Francine Rivers, even though that may sound silly when you consider her success. And I can think of about five or six writers who could make this list if they continue to build on their talent, but they simply don't have a big enough body of work yet for us to make a clear judgment (names on that list would include Leif Enger and Haven Kimmel, who have immense talent and will need to match that with big ideas). I also think that there are numerous authors who have the talent and desire to do exceedingly well in this business, but to this point their books haven't quite matched up to their ability, so we need to be patient and see what happens over time. 

Third, this points to a question for writers: What are the qualities that make a story timeless? Doubtless that would include facing the great questions of life, and having likable characters face difficulties we all can relate to. But the problem with trying to create timeless fiction is that tastes change so much. Would LEFT BEHIND have been as popular today as it was in the 1990’s? No. Would HARRY POTTER have been as wildly successful in the 1950’s as it was fifty years later? I doubt it. So I think every writer writes for his or her own time, for their own generation, not for eternity.

On the nonfiction side, we can see something similar. People a quarter-century in the future will still be reading Frederick Buecher and John R.W. Stott, but they've become old-guard. I'd say the current names that will have a lasting impact are Alister McGrath and Brennan Manning (maybe John Piper, but I'm leery). I'm in the minority in thinking Brian McLaren is a flash in the pan, and I don't think names like John Eldredge and Max Lucado will have staying power beyond their lifetimes, being too tied to our current culture. Finally, I should note that I honestly think a couple of current authors I represent have the depth and talent to make a list like this, but they haven't yet had the success or the longevity needed to prove me correct yet.

Betting on authors 25 years in the future is a bit like betting horses — much depends on things beyond skill. There is timing, topicality, significance, and God's sovereignty (for my super-spiritual friends) or, if you don't mind my saying so, good old fashioned dumb luck. But I think a few of these folks are likely candidates. Would love to know who you think we'll be reading in 25 years.

And by the way, author Jim Rubart (the writer of the new bestseller ROOMS) is doing a booksigning with Paul Young, author of THE SHACK, this Friday night in Seattle. It's at the University Village Barnes & Noble at 7. If you're in the area, stop in and say hello.


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