Around 2006-2007, Roger Federer broke men’s tennis. He won six out of eight Grand Slam titles, often with a dominance that seemed otherworldly. It reached a point where you admired what was happening, but it also brought up an uncomfortable thought: this wasn’t particularly exciting anymore. Half of the fun of sports and competition is that the outcome, supposedly, should be in question. We watch a game to see who wins. It is much less fun to watch a game assuming the outcome . . . to watch simply to see how Federer would win. And so men’s tennis had a unique problem. It had the greatest talent the sport had ever seen, and yet he was so good that he actually made things less compelling. And a number of people feared that he’d actually ruin the sport.
The 13th annual Christy Awards were held in Orlando on Monday night. Overall, the event is a wonderful chance to celebrate Christian fiction for its growth and breadth and depth. It’s a chance to dress up and break bread together. To sit in a room of fiction nerds and talk about Jesus, the ultimate storyteller. It’s a great evening that, I think, has a growing problem on its hands. Things get tricky when it comes time to announce a winner.
“It’s an honor just to be nominated.” We say the words and we try to mean them, but c’mon, if that were true we wouldn’t bother with announcing a winner. And so we do. And when the announcements are made…
Steven James, winner in Suspense for the third time for The Queen.
Julie Klassen, winner for the third straight year in Historical Romance, for Maid of Fairbourne Hall.
Anne Elisabeth Stengl, first ever winner for her first two novels, for Veiled Rose.
And Lynn Austin, winner for the eighth time (and fifth in a row) for Historical, for Wonderland Creek.
Lynn Austin is the Christy Award’s Roger Federer. On one hand, she’s everything that’s right with Christian fiction–talented, insightful, spiritual, creative–and yet she’s almost rendered these things meaningless.
The folks at the Christy Awards, Donna Kehoe and the board, know this. In fact, Donna went out of her way before the winners were announced to talk about they had taken steps this year to address concerns that the same authors keep winning. Judges were switched to new categories. New judges were brought it.
Then the awards were announced and . . .
This year may have tipped the balance. Changes are likely going to be forthcoming. In the past, organizations like RWA have addressed this issue by inducting multi-time winners into a “hall of fame” of sorts. Three wins and you can’t be nominated in a category anymore. That’s certainly an option . . . though it presents its own problems. And it impacts Bethany House and Baker Publishing Group disproportionately.
My (totally unsolicited) suggestion is to try and make the “Just being nominated is an honor” mean something a bit more. I recommend shrinking the categories–Contemporary, Romance, Suspense, Speculative, Historical–and honoring three books in each. Then, from those fifteen books a single “Book of the Year” would be named. It’s probably a terrible suggestion and it might not change anything. Maybe Lynn Austin would win that every year, too. But I doubt it.
Or maybe you do just stop naming “winners.” Historically, publishers have not seen a large sales uptick from being named a winner. You might risk all publicity though, if you simply try to honor twenty-seven books are whatever it would be.
A final option is to simply hope for what happened in men’s tennis to happen for us. Before men’s tennis could overreact and make Federer play blindfolded or something, the unthinkable occurred. The greatest tennis player of all time started getting beat. And not because he’d gotten old, but because someone improved. Rafael Nadal, a bull of a Spaniard, rose to the challenge and suddenly the entire sport had to gather itself. We’d gone a century in creating a player as amazing as Federer, and yet now, a mere three years later an even better player had appeared. Nadal arrived in all his relentless brilliance and just as folks agreed, “No, THIS, is the best player of all time” Nadal started to lose to gritty Serbian Novak Djokovik. Could he really be the GOAT? And Federer is still around (he just won Wimbledon) and poor Andy Murray is the greatest player ever who has no shot at being the greatest player ever. It’s an embarrassment of riches. (And a plain old embarrassment for US tennis. We stink.)
Tennis’ darkest hour turned out to be its finest. From 2008 to the present, if you love men’s tennis there has simply never been any better played. Federer’s brilliance forged Nadal who in turn created Djokovik. None could exist without the others. None would be as amazing without the others.
I’d love to see that in CBA fiction. There are truly amazing writers writing. Find your best story. Find your deepest inspiration. Lynn Austin is across the net from you right now, looking at you and saying, “Bring it.” * Heed that challenge and may we all be better for it.
*Lynn Austin is a wonderful person, one of my favorite in the industry. In no way is she doing anything like I’m implying. She’s humble and grateful for her success and the praise bestowed upon her and really doesn’t seek any of it for herself. Sorry, Lynn, for turning you into Roger Federer for the sake of this post.