In a letter to editor in chief Carl F.H. Henry explaining why he declined to write for Christianity Today, C.S. Lewis said, “My thought and talent (such as they are) now flow in different, though I trust not less Christian, channels.…If I am now good for anything it is for catching the reader unaware—thro’ fiction and symbol. I have done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but I now feel quite sure those days are over.” Lewis’s observation neatly sums up the impetus behind Lion Fiction, a newly launched imprint of British publisher Lion Hudson PLC, which encompasses five imprints altogether and is represented in the United States by Michigan-based evangelical Christian publisher Kregel Publications.
Lion Fiction thus offers Christian fiction of a different sort, aiming to reach both religious and secular readers by relying on narrative thrust, believable characters, and boundary-crossing context to create an imaginative awareness of spiritual truths without battering-ram preachment. “We’re trying to offer spirituality in fiction form but without an agenda, because most books on the Christian faith have something to sell, and that compromises the integrity of the novel,” explains publisher Tony Collins, also publisher of Lion Hudson’s Monarch imprint,
While Collins declares that he does not mean to impugn fellow Christian publishers, he does highlight ways in which he expects Lion Fiction titles to stand apart. “My problem with much Christian fiction is that I don’t fundamentally believe the motivation,” he says. Instead of having characters serve as mouthpieces, manipulated to larger purpose by the author, he wants them to live their lives realistically, so that basic principles can unfold from their actions—the truth told slant, as it were. That way, the narrative can explore the attraction and affirmation of belief, as much secular fiction does not, without painting itself into its own tight corner.
This nondoctrinaire approach contrasts with much American Christian fiction, insists Collins, which is “really confined to the United States in terms of market because the culture is so profoundly different, he says. “In Britain, a secular humanist consensus dominates; Christians and Muslims have common cause because of common problems.” Though American Christian fiction ranges from gentle reads to apocalyptic thrillers, it can have a strongly confessional streak, with devout characters turning routinely to prayer and the Bible. That, Collins argues, can keep those without formal faith—or faith of any kind—from engaging meaningfully with the text. It’s a missed opportunity.
“We want to invite authors to paint with the entire palette,” proclaims Collins, “to show that goodness can be attractive, to invite plot development that invites spiritual growth and spiritual decay, and to build plots and characters around profound Christian insights.” For instance, Katharine Swartz’s The Vicar’s Wife, released here in fall 2013, explores a family’s rapprochement after a stressful move from Manhattan into an old vicarage in the husband’s native England, while Anna Thayer’s forthcoming “Knight of Eldaran” fantasy series folds faith into the narrative without fanfare, given the 500s England setting. Edoardo Albert’s Edwin: High King of Britain, which treads Bernard Cornwell territory, contains “a religious element [that] does not detract from the political and dramatic aspects of the history…[but] lends an extra dimension of psychological turmoil” (PW).
Perhaps the best example of Lion Fiction’s intentions in the Christian fiction arena is Mel Starr’s “The Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon,” set in 1300s England and featuring Master Hugh, surgeon and bailiff to Lord Gilbert of Bampton Castle. (The most recent titles, Rest Not in Peace, appeared here in October 2013.) When American academic Starr approached Collins a half dozen years ago proposing to publish his chronicles with Lion Hudson, Collins immediately spotted the commercial and metaphysical possibilities of the subject. The success of the first chronicle, The Unquiet Bones—it has sold some 40,000 copies, allowing Starr to buy the Corvette Stingray of his dreams—helped persuade Collins that the Lion Fiction imprint was feasible. Initially published with Lion Hudson’s Monarch imprint, Starr moved on to the Lion Fiction imprint upon its launch in 2013, and his books are published in a range of languages from Turkish to Korean—sometimes by secular publishers.
Starr’s Hugh de Singleton is not an overtly religious man, but he is an inherently good one, and it would certainly be doing violence to history if religious issues didn’t arise naturally in the course of his duties. For instance, Of Unhallowed Ground, which LJ called “a lively blending of intriguing suspense and telling historical detail,” raises the important doctrinal question of whether a hanged man took his own life, as well as the broader ethical question of how Hugh should proceed when he discovers that the man, despised in the community for the harm he did during his lifetime, might have been murdered. In that way, Starr’s titles embody the big themes Collins hopes to see represented in all Lion Fiction titles: the power of truth, the nature of service and servant leadership, the place of sacrifice, the potency of forgiveness, the possibility of redemption, and the place of healing and reconciliation in human affairs.
For American readers, the charms of misty Northumbria and contemporary Britain might well give Lion Fiction titles added appeal (anyone for Elizabeth Flynn’s Game, Set and Murder, featuring a dead body at Wimbledon?), and North America is in fact the publisher’s largest overseas market. But Lion Fiction really publishes for a world market. “The Christian faith is a southern hemisphere faith now, with a truly vast increase in church attendance in Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” says Collins. “The U.K. market is quite small. So when I’m assessing a book, it must appeal equally in Milwaukee and Melbourne as it does in Manchester”—not to mention Manila, Malindi, and Monterey.
As a result, Collins is looking for books that transcend locality and the attendant social barriers. A story can truly belong to its own time and place and yet speak more broadly, as does faith itself. To illustrate, he cites Francine Rivers’s Redeeming Love, “a grand story set during the Gold Rush, which affected so many parts of the world. We picked it up about ten years ago and sell it by the shedload.” Given the broad reach of the British Empire, “English history is to a surprising degree world history,” surmises Collins, which makes a book like Albert’s Edwin a part of many readers’ past. In the long run, it’s easier to sell fiction into another culture than nonfiction, and Lion Fiction’s titles can embrace the world.
For now, Collins is building Lion Fiction slowly, with the goal of 24 or 25 titles annually. (Lion Hudson publishes 200 books a year across its five imprints.) Heretofore, Christian fiction wasn’t really published in Britain, which gives Lion Fiction a lion’s share of the market and a chance to set the tone. The mails bring new manuscripts daily, with new authors, many unagented, to be signed and developed. Collins is willing to go in any direction he thinks will work—he recently found himself delighted after a young colleague persuaded him to read Beth Moran’s Making Marion, a Sophie Kinsella–like example of chick lit that he will release here this summer. At the moment, Collins and his colleagues are working like demons, if one may, to push Lion Fiction forward. But, as he acknowledges, “We’re having a ball.”