Monday, May 07, 2012

Why I DO Read Mormon Fiction

I had a fantastic weekend at the 9th annual LDStorymakers Writers Conference, which was followed by the Whitney Awards gala. The weekend those two events happen is something I look forward to all year.

I've been part of the LDStorymakers guild almost since its inception. I was something like #18 to join, and there are now somewhere around 200 members. I taught at the first conference, which was about 1/10 the size of the one we just held. 

I signed my contract with Covenant just over 10 years ago, and in that time have become familiar with the LDS publishing industry, market, and authors in a way I couldn't have otherwise. Thanks to the Whitney Awards program, and the desire to cast a vote as part of the hundreds-strong voting academy, I read more LDS fiction every year than most people, and I'm quite sure I read far more LDS fiction than the author of THIS POST.

It really got under my skin. I tried to set it aside, but after a weekend of seeing and hearing serious writers learning and bettering their craft, after months of reading books and voting for the best of the best, and after an inspiring Whitney Awards gala this past weekend, I just can't keep my mouth shut.

The post pretty much lambasted LDS fiction as anything but worthy of reading. So here I'll address some of the arguments made in that post and then explain why I do read Mormon fiction.

The post contends that:
The Mormon author that wants to get published is either faced with the cringe worthy fluff of Mormon publishers or the appetite for the salacious in national publishing.
I contend that there's a far broader spectrum than those two extremes, and that further, neither the LDS market nor the national market deserve such condemnation.

Has "cringe worthy fluff" been published in the LDS market? Absolutely, especially in its infancy. I'll go so far as to say it is still being published at times.

But the entire market isn't like that. 

For that matter, the national market also has plenty of cringe-worthy fluff. I imagine that any market has mediocrity. It's the nature of the arts. But the amount of fluff and the proportion of it are changing. In the ten years I've been publishing here, I've seen a huge increase in the quality of work. 

The post also claims that Mormon fiction has no real problems or decent stories or characters. I have to wonder if the author has read more than a handful of books. And if they read even that much, I'm quite sure that handful happened to be the fluff still on shelves. 

He claims to not read Mormon fiction and then describes Mormon fiction, as if he's read it, yet his description shows his initial claim: he hasn't read it, so he doesn't know what he's talking about. 

If he tested the waters, he certainly didn't go to someone knowledgeable to ask for an accurate sampling of the range of fiction out there, or he wouldn't be making these claims. (Bookstore employees don't count; they're paid to promote the latest release, whether they've read it or not.)

Are there no decent stories, characters, or problem? Hardly. 

Here's one element of the current market that a lot of people don't know yet: Lots of LDS readers aren't looking for blatantly LDS stories; they simply want to be able to pick up a book in their favorite genre (mystery, romance, etc) and not have to worry about compromising their values (or flipping pages). And no, that doesn't mean the entire national market is "salacious," either. But it is harder to pick up a book, knowing beforehand whether it has content you'd rather not stumble upon. In other words, a lot of "Mormon fiction" (as defined by the author of the post, as books published by LDS presses) isn't really about Mormons at all.

I've read my share of awful LDS fiction, complete with trite characters and shallow problems. 

I've also read deep, meaningful LDS fiction. A lot of it.

As with the national market, the books with the most depth in some ways will be the literary titles. And, just as with the national market, literary fiction always sells fewer copies. 

It's no shock that the big publishers stick primarily with genre fiction. So do the Big 6 in New York. Publishing is a business, and the bottom line matters. It matters even more with small presses, where the profit margin is smaller. They have to sell a certain amount of books to stay in business. 

The result is fewer literary books, but, increasingly, higher-quality genre novels.

While the LDS presses do cater to a conservative audience, I don't believe it's the pathetic audience he describes: 
 the average politically conservative Mormon reader who, by the way, is shallow.
Okay, yes, shallow, uber conservative, readers exist. But that's an awfully broad brush to paint the "average" LDS reader with. The longer I'm in this market, the more I'm convinced there is no "average" LDS reader. I've come across readers like the ones he describes, but they aren't in the majority. The readers I come in contact with and hear about are far more discerning and demanding of their reading material than he gives them credit for.

More to the point, I take issue with his sweeping description of the entire market:
Any serous reader automatically finds it stifling and boring. The protagonist doesn’t have any real conflict to overcome. Sure there is conflict that exists, but the choices made aren’t very hard and therefore no real struggle to overcome. 
I consider myself a serious reader. I wasn't an English major for nothing. 

Off the top of my head, I can think of many examples that contradict his claim, lots of books from a variety of writers. And yes, I include myself in that number of novelists who write books that aren't boring, that do have "real conflict" and "real struggle."

To me, one of the biggest red flags of the post is that it pretty much wrote off every writer except, it seems, for himself, as he has aspirations of his own to write and publish, and perhaps some obvious fringe LDS writers. 

Why include only the LDS writers who have largely left the faith? I don't see why someone has to pretty much abandon their faith to write good fiction. 

I also don't see how criticizing and writing off an entire market is either useful or honest. 

Or remotely valid. 

Personally, I'm honored to be part of the LDS writing community. I've made some of the best friends a woman could ask for. I've had some of the greatest experiences of my life here. I've read a lot of fantastic work.

Have we achieved Orson F. Whitney's prophecy of having "Miltons and Shakespeares of our own"? 

No, of course not. But we're raising the foundations, moving upward all the time, so that some day, someone else down the road will be there when it happens.

I love the fact that Milton and Shakespeare were popular writers, the equivalent of genre writers in today's world. "Hacks," as some people call genre writers today. I don't think we'll reach the heights Whitney spoke of with only fringe and literary works, although they, too, will surely be part of the cannon.

I believe that LDS literature will grow and improve at the rate we support and encourage one another and at the rate we recognize the best, constantly raising the bar. That's why the Whitney Awards were first started. And in the five years the awards program has been underway, I have watched that bar continually go up. 

Kudos to those writers working hard in spite of outdated stereotypes and prejudices about what they do and the market they do it in.

Yes, I read Mormon fiction. More people should.


Tasha Seegmiller said...

You know, there were such stereotypes in LDS literature for such a long time that I didn't want to read it, but increasingly, I'm finding I'm thrilled by more and more "Mormon Fiction," both mainstream and market specific.

Great post.

Luisa Perkins said...

You GO, girl! I second every word.

Wm said...

Well said, Annette.

I'm, frankly, a bit tired off people spouting off about LDS fiction or Mormon fiction (or works that are both) that clearly have read very little in the field. Or who judge a field because of their particular tastes.

Also: I had forgotten that I had gotten a bit feisty in the comments over there.

Braden Bell said...

Sing it! Amen. Well said.

Tristi Pinkston said...

*Clap clap clap clap* Will you marry me? Er ... can I post this link on Facebook?

Betsy Schow said...

Well done. I agree whole-heartedly. I had almost the exact same conversation with someone two months ago about Mormon music being "safe" and "mediocre". A one note kind of thing. The other party was painting DB as a shadow organization of the church, bent on taking the creativity out of us all.

Apparently uplifting is cliche.

Good post Lyon

Cheri Chesley said...

Beautifully said. But I am hardly surprised. :)

Josi said...

Look out, detractors, or we'll sic our Lyon on ya! Love every word, Annette.

Karen said...

Well done! I am very thankful to all the LDS fiction writers that provide me with clean, uplifting books.

Karlene said...

Back in the early 1980s, I reviewed LDS fiction (by assignment) for a local newspaper. A lot of what I was asked to review was bad. Really bad. For a long time, I completely avoided LDS fiction.

But about 12 years ago, I changed my mind. The books were getting better. And better. And now, some of the best books I read each year are by LDS authors.

Thanks for the rebuttle!

The Damsel in Dis Dress said...

Great points, well expressed. Thanks!

Braden Bell said...

One other thought. Then I'll go away. One of the things that bothered me about that post was what I felt was an unspoken presumption that good literature just emerges.

Individual authors and entire movements both get better with practice and time. Good art does not just pop, Athena-like, out of someone's head one day.

Studying music, art, or theatre history shows this. Early American theatre was silly and shallow. It matured and grew over the years. Lots of misses and then some hits. And then, "Death of Salesman," "Glass Menagerie," and "My Fair Lady."

It takes year--generations even for individuals and groups to flower fully. We shouldn't mock the early stages because they aren't masterpieces. We should be grateful they started the process.

Nor should we berate those who are doing the best they can and pushing forward--pushing both their own skill as well as the whole form as well.

Finally: excellent point about Shakespeare. Since most people encounter him now in English classes there is a presumption that he was stuffy and dry. Not so. He was a hugely successful, commercial writer and the more literary, elite set did not always like him much. Same with Dickens.

Ok, now I'm done.

mark dutch oven cookbook! said...

One big reason why we haven't yet created a Milton, Shakespeare, or even a Mozart or Rembrandt is simply that we haven't had TIME.

All of these have stood the test of time. Hundreds or even thousands of years of screening and endurance testing has proven these great classic works.

By contrast, Mormons have only been Mormons for 150 years or so, and we've only had a popular arts movement for the last (I'm guessing, here) 30-40 years? Our works have not yet stood the test of time, because there hasn't been time to test them.

At the risk of invoking the cliche, time will tell...

Sherrie said...

Amen Sister! Way to get em! I actually prefer to read LDS Fiction over any other genre. My most favorite books of all time are by LDS authors. I wish we could get them made into movies! I LOVE LDS Writers and the stories they tell that help keep me so entertained with a good plot, fun characters, and a great uplifting message! So keep it up!

Susan Anderson said...

I have to admit that Mormon fiction does not make up a very big part of my reading, and I have not been entirely impressed with it in the past (yours excluded, of course).

However, I think the writing is getting better all the time, and I am having so much trouble finding books that aren't overtly sexual that I am probably going to be moving towards Mormon fiction more and more. I've also been reading more "Christian" fiction, for the same reason.



Amazon's famous Prime Day events are huge for so many reasons, and for bookworms, it's even better: books aren't high-ticket ite...