Much as I enjoyed my first LDStorytellers Writing Conference (too much of which I missed, due to family circumstances) and the Whitney Awards Gala Banquet (made all the more enjoyable by such fine table company as Stephanie Fowers, Crystal Liechty, and fellow finalist, Shannon Guymon), I came away with more questions than answers about Mormon Literature, in general, and my own writing, in particular:
1) Can there be a “Mormon Literature” which is recognized by the national and international market?
I know Mormon Lit has been discussed ad infinitum on blogs and in chat rooms all over the internet but, putting aside for now the appropriate definition, can it be embraced by the big publishing guys in NY the way Jewish Lit is, given its current distribution? And should it be?
Taking into account the 3-fold mission of the Church, I believe it should be. But the way it is currently being published and distributed (for the most part), I don’t see it having a real chance. LDS writers are encouraged to go with LDS publishers (many of the biggest of whom are owned by Deseret Book) and, thus, their work is marketed mostly to LDS bookstores (also, to a large extent, controlled by DB). Only the youth, science fiction, and speculative genres have made any inroads nationally. Those of us who write historical, romance, and general fiction must be content with the insular LDS market. And that market seems to have very little taste for literary fiction, if you judge by what gets placed on the shelves in LDS bookstores (though Angela Hallstrom’s “Bound on Earth” may be making some room there).
Of course, I know better. There are many, many men and women in the Church who, like me, enjoy “literary” fiction… we simply don’t buy it at LDS bookstores. But, if LDS bookstores won’t stock Mormon literary fiction (and they won’t as long as Deseret Book-owned LDS publishers don’t publish it), then does it have a shot at the national market? I’m talking about a good literary novel that throws a truthful, positive light on the Church. I’m not sure, but I’m hoping it does have a chance.
2) What is Mormon Literature?
Is ML made up of stories about Mormons? Or is it stories by Mormons, reflecting their world view as seen through the prism of the Church? Or does true ML deal solely with the restoration of the Church and its legacy? I have no clear answer here.
If it is the first–stories about Mormons, then does it have to be about Utah Mormons? What if it’s a story about a Mormon who grew up far away from Utah, who has little in common with the Utah Mormon experience? Does that make it less marketable in Utah, where most of the LDS bookstores are?
If a Mormon writer is living in “faithful adherence to the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ” (as Elder M. Russell Ballard put it in “Filling the World with Goodness and Truth,” Ensign, July 1996, p. 10), then I believe his/her faith cannot help but be reflected in his/her work. But does that make it “Mormon Literature?”
Must Mormon Literature deal solely with the Restoration of the Church and its Legacy (as implied by Elder Boyd K. Packer in “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord,” Ensign, August 1976, p. 60), or are there other ways to help advance the Kingdom of God (such as inspiring a reader to repent and better perfect him/herself)?
3) What exactly is the purpose of LDS publishing companies? Should there be any changes?
If you read all of the mission statements of those companies owned by Deseret Book (Deseret Book, Covenant Communications, Bookcraft, and Shadow Mountain), there is very little difference with regard to their interests in fiction. They are looking for good, clean, marketable fiction that uplifts and inspires. Parables Publishing seems to be open to work that is a bit more discomfiting (though still inspiring) and Zarahemla Publishing makes no bones about being different and wanting edgier work.
So there does appear to be a range, but that range is deceptive on closer examination. The huge majority of LDS titles published belongs to the imprint of DB or one of its affiliates. And I’ve been given to understand that LDS bookstores won’t stock anything from Zarahemla. I imagine they will stock “Bound on Earth” (published by Parables), as it won a Whitney for Best Novel by a New Author. But Parables only has a handful of other titles.
So long as one company essentially has a monopoly on the kind of Mormon literature published for the LDS market, writers aiming for that market are hobbled in their creativity. I believe it would be better to have a variety of independent publishers geared to the LDS market.
4) Is the LDS market driving LDS publishers, or are they driving the market?
This question is important because, like it or not, since Deseret Book is Church-owned, members of the Church tend to see any of their products as Church-approved… and any books not published by them or their affiliates as “iffy,” at best. Some members might even assume that if a writer’s book wasn’t published by a DB imprint, then it must not have been “moral enough.”
And how do we judge the morality of a book? Again, as I pointed out in a comment on Emily’s blog, Orson Scott Card made a very thoughtful argument for the place of evil in literature. As long as it is depicted for what it is, and not advocated or enacted, then it is necessary and useful for the sake of truthfully reflecting on life.
Brigham Young said, “Upon the stage of theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it…” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church–Brigham Young, Chapter 26, p. 188) I would imagine his reflections on the theater would extend to literature, in general.
I believe the only way to judge is by the Spirit. And the closer we heed the Spirit, the more refined our tastes will become. I’ll have to admit, it was not easy to research and write The Reckoning. In fact, during the research phase, there were some days in which I felt such darkness. By the time I finished, I felt as if I had lived through that kind of imprisonment and torture. Perhaps I overdid it. I’m not sure. I do know that it was truthful and it showed evil for what it is. I can’t imagine I will ever write another book with that level or kind of violence again. Indeed, it is interesting that my very next novel has absolutely no violence. It was almost as if I needed to flee to a more peaceful place.
5) Why are LDS publishing personnel and Whitney Finalists allowed to vote in the final phase of the Whitney Awards?
They should be recused, as should finalists, since they are hardly objective. They will naturally vote for their own work, so what good is their vote? I have a sincere appreciation for the Whitney Awards and all the work that has gone into developing them. But I feel it would be much more conducive to rewarding the best work among LDS writers (thereby inspiring even more excellence) if a panel of non-partial (perhaps even non-LDS) expert judges were to select the winners from among the finalists. In this way, if these expert judges are chosen carefully, the national market may begin to get wind of the terrific writing by so many in our Church.
6) Why are self-published books allowed in the Whitney competition when they have no access to the LDS market and, thus, no real shot at winning?
The Whitney Academy should either go all in (i.e., let self-published books take part and make sure they, along with other traditionally published books, are read by the final judges), or deny them access to the competition. Of course, I would prefer the former option, particularly since self-published works are increasing in both number and quality.
And in conclusion:
7) What did I learn most from this conference and the Whitney Awards?
I learned that the LDS writing community is welcoming, but insular, and if I want to market my work to the LDS community I will need to play by the rules of LDS publishers. I learned that self-publishing is no longer the way to go for me. It would be better to find a small publisher, even if I continue to aim for the national market. And, most importantly, I learned that there are some terrific LDS writers with real talent. Despite all my questions, my hopes for Mormon Literature (however you want to define it) are greatly encouraged!
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