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New writing prize aims to raise the quality of Christian fiction

Time was, you couldn't keep good writers from producing fiction with Christian themes that appealed to readers of all religious stripes. Dante's "Divine Comedy" has always been at least as well-read by his "damned" as by his "saved," and any number of young souls every year are tempted by Lucifer in John Milton's "Paradise Lost."

But much of modern Christian fiction has lost that excitement, that draw, that quality of writing, says Lillian Miao, publisher of Paraclete Press in Orleans, Mass. "Definitely, there's been a long period where it feels like we don't have many very good people writing along these lines," she says.

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Ongoing complaints within the Christian Booksellers Association echo that sentiment. So starting this spring, Paraclete, a Christian multimedia company, is offering a new award to encourage writers of Christian-themed literary fiction.

The 2004 Paraclete Fiction Contest, open to new and emerging novel writers as yet unpublished by major houses, will be judged by Lief Enger, author of the widely acclaimed "Peace Like a River." Paraclete hopes the award will attract authors "writing thoughtfully about the landscape of faith." The publisher cites as examples Christian fiction writers like Mr. Enger, Ron Hansen ("Mariette in Ecstasy"), and Sue Monk Kidd ("The Secret Life of Bees"), as well as writers of books involving interfaith dialogue like Yann Martel ("Life of Pi") and Chaim Potok ("My Name is Asher Lev").

Ideally, Dr. Miao says, submissions would be written from a Christian perspective but appeal to a general, or not solely Christian, readership. "This goes back to the question: Are you a Christian, a writer, or a writer who happens to be Christian?" she says. "I'd say the latter. The two, to me, don't separate. If you are a Christian and a writer, it will come out. You can't help it."

The deadline for contest entry is Feb. 1, 2004, with complete details available at www.paracletepress.com/fictionaward. The winner will be announced at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing (www.calvin.edu/academic/engl/festival.htm) to be held this April in Grand Rapids, Mich., and will receive $2,000 in advance royalties and a contract with Paraclete for publication of the novel.