For more than a month there has been a push by some Mormon authors to get people to read more Mormon fiction. What has been called the Mormon Lit Blitz has in some corners gone full steam. They have sent books to family and friends, discussed to varied degrees what is available, and generally advertised the movement.
Despite all the work that has gone toward the Mormon literature blitz, not much seems to have changed. As one participant stated with sadness and confusion after books were returned by parents without having read them, “My assumption is that they were offended by the book (though maybe not, maybe it was something else). But I still don’t know what to make of the book’s return. I’ve never had my parents return a gift before. I’m surprised that was what they decided to do.” Not speaking for the parents, but for Mormon readers, it isn’t that surprising considering the tortured history of Mormon fiction. It is filled with missteps, bad literary output, mirror image antagonism, and general frustration. 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.
The Deseret Book Dilemma
For most of the history of Mormon writing, what gets published has been determined by a single company. This has changed with self-publishing, but the damage has been done. Most of the available products are filtered through this small and power bloated entity. Distribution is only part of the larger dysfunction. The kind of product created over the years has a life of its own for good or ill.
For the most part its safe reading. There is nothing scandalous or sensationalistic in the writing. Its clean, dependable, and predictable. 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. They just need to find a way around the patch of weeds rather than hacking at the obstacles. Like Anikan Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, the outcome is assured and the final turn is not earned.
The Other Extreme
Looking for alternatives didn’t help the situation for those who wanted more. True, the conflict in other works was more complicated and characters had real battles. What happened on the way to the final was a distortion of Mormon life if not a repudiation. They don’t resonate with faithful Mormon’s view of the religion any more than the other above described choices.
As examples, “The Lonely Polygamist” should be considered Mormon literature because it was written by someone who was at least in the mainstream Church if he isn’t still. The most famous Mormon fiction “The Backslider” must also be examined. The first deals with a group that most Mormons cannot relate to and reject. It is also filled with vulgarities (not just swear words). Then there is “The Backslider,” the very name puts a question mark on its appropriateness. The description isn’t any better with its mention of the protagonist, “constrained only by strict moral education,” and “mask of feigned righteousness,” whose redemption impresses few because its unconventional and perhaps blasphemous or he doesn’t leave the Church.
Presentation and Distribution Problem
What of the new crop of books that Mormon writers are trying to bring to a wider audience? There are a lot to hurdles with such a long history behind it without a good track record. Sometimes its a matter of wanting the best of both, or multiple, worlds whatever they might be and it can’t be pulled off. Other times its doing more than getting the word out. Distribution is more than half the battle and no books, libraries, or universities carry them for those who want to know what they are buying first. This is true for any self-published (see shameless plug for a book) genre work.
Even if they did carry them, there is the need to explain what to expect. Having a nice cover and a quick blurb won’t be enough. Passing them out to friends and family, as demonstrated at the start, is also not the answer. For “No Going Back,” homosexuality is the concern of a small and vocal political minority that most Mormons don’t come in contact. Why should the average and conservative Mormon read the book that the author indicated is the intended audience? Those who support the books can be its own worst enemy, such as when one reader of “Bound on Earth” said, ““But did my sister just go and write any run-of-the-mill novel? That’s like asking if anybody who drives a Prius voted for McCain. Of course not!” In other words, its not for the average politically conservative Mormon reader who, by the way, is shallow.
Even the covers can be fraught with obstacles. That “Death of a Disco Dancer” cover really needs changed if the writer wants people to read the book. Is it horror? Is it a comedy? Is it 70s historical fiction? Is it all three? Is it even about Mormons since that is the only circles I have seen it discussed? (I know I can read what its about and even a criticism at Millenial Star, but the point is presentation).
Wrapping it up, it comes down to at least four things that get in the way of a Mormon readership. There is lived experiences, politics, literary quality, and presentation. That is a whole lot to work with and some of it out of the writer’s control. Not easy and I wish the best of luck.