Every once in a while, just for fun, I go to Amazon.com and search under the term “Buddhist fiction.” I am always pleasantly surprised to see novels and short story anthologies that I already know of amidst works that I have not seen before. Last year I walked into a large bookstore and saw an entire table piled high with copies of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize short-listed novel A Tale for the Time Being. I actually jumped up and down, smiling and clapping (really, I did – I have a witness to prove it and thankfully she understood my scholarly glee and was not at all embarrassed by my outburst). That experience made me wonder how I might react if I walked into a national chain bookstore and saw a row or section of books under a “Buddhist Fiction” sign. For I now see Christian Fiction sections in bookstores on a regular basis.
These two photos were taken this past summer in two different bookstores. The photo on the left was taken at a Chapters store in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and the photo below was taken at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Minnesota. As you can see, they are both photos of bookstore sections categorized as Christian fiction.
I haven’t gone loopy – I know this blog is about Buddhist fiction, but there are no library or bookstore categories for Buddhist fiction. Yet. As far as I can find, there were no library or bookstore categories for Christian fiction until roughly a decade ago (or maybe fifteen years ago for libraries), even though Christian fiction broke into the publishing market in a big way in the 1980s with romance novels in the same formula fiction format as Harlequin Romance novels. This sub-genre would be followed up in the mid-1990s with the immense popularity of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s dispensationalist Left Behind series.
In an article on Christian fiction entitled “No Longer Left Behind: Amazon.com, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America”, Paul Gutjahr talks about the size and vibrancy of twentieth-century American Protestant publishing. He describes Christian novels as works “explicitly populated with Christian characters who partake in edifying narratives bent on espousing orthodox Christian doctrine and encouraging a Christ-like ethic of behaviour” and infers that the popularity of these novels grew with the sale of Christian books in general. Gutjahr asserts these sales reached a whopping 14 percent share of the country’s publishing industry in 1996. Perhaps this share is still growing in the twenty-first century. At the very least, there is evidence that the sub-genre of Christian fiction is growing and developing as well. Just search Amazon.com for Amish fiction as proof.
So I wonder, as Buddhism becomes more and more mainstream in North America, when might we see a section labeled Buddhist Fiction in national chain bookstores? Time will tell. It always does.
* Paul C. Gutjahr. “No Longer Left Behind: Amazon.com, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America” in Book History, Vol. 5 (2002), pp. 209-236.