Why I Don’t Read Mormon Fiction

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.

51 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Read Mormon Fiction

  1. I’m glad you wrote this. I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I am always on the hunt for good books, uplifting books, clean books and books that will make me think. I know I’ve read something good when I come to the end and I’m sad to leave that world behind.

    I agree with you about Deseret Book, and I rarely, if ever buy their books, for the very reasons you listed. However, I think you can find good books, even “Mormon” books outside of the DB universe. I think self-publishing, smaller epublishing outlets and so on, are on the rise. I know my sister-in-law (annettemackey.com — yes that was a shameless plug) does a lot to self promte on twitter and facebook. She sells a lot of books that way.

    I also think, perhaps if LDS authors went for a wider audience, they would be more sucessful. I know there is a very thriving Christian fiction genre out there. I’ve read several books in the last few weeks and months that were not written by Mormon authors, but were clean and uplifiting none the less.

  2. There is a really good “Mormon novel” out there called “The Shakeress.” (Not really a Mormon novel, but has some elements).


    I still think OSC’s book “Saints” is a wonderful read and very faith-promoting.

    I would recommend “The Work and the Glory” series to anybody wanting to be introduced to the basics of Mormon history. Not wonderful writing, but worth reading (and yes I know there are historical inaccuracies, but there is also a lot of things the author gets right). There are several other worthwhile books if you browse through Deseret Books.

    Don’t under any circumstances read the “Twilight” series! Oops, too late.

  3. I agree that the “middle” fiction books have some major difficulties in terms of marketing and distribution. I also don’t think that they are for every Mormon reader everywhere (although I’d say that you can be politically conservative and still very much enjoy and relate to Bound on Earth — sometimes pithy, well-meaning quotes should just be ignored). Most books aren’t for every reader everywhere.

    I’ve been trying to think of what to suggest to M* readers and you in particular Jettboy. And what I’ve actually come down to is one of my own works, which I didn’t want to do, but I think it best represents why I think there is value in representing the Mormon experience in literary form: Gentle Persuasions, which was published in Dialogue and is now available to read for free, and, imo, thrums with orthodoxy. It’s a series of short short stories all around the theme of priesthood holders making/receiving home visits. It takes as a starting point that the Church is true, but that all of us who are part of it are human and how that plays out as we carry out our duties (in this case priesthood duties).

  4. I think part of the problem is that Mormon fiction tends to be like really long and drawn out Ensign articles. There are plenty of excellent LDS authors (Brandon Mull, Brandon Sanderson), but I can’t think of any that are mainstream in the “Mormon fiction” genre. (I should note that I’ve not read the tennis shoes amoung the Nephites series)

    I keep hoping for a mainstream fiction book (or series) where there are LDS characters, but being LDS is part of their character, not the entire point for their being.

  5. “I keep hoping for a mainstream fiction book (or series) where there are LDS characters, but being LDS is part of their character, not the entire point for their being.”

    I have been saying that for years. The only book I have come across that does that successfully is “Lost Boys” by Orson Scott Card. Like you said, there are plenty of Mormon authors (just thought of plugging for this interesting book) who still don’t use Mormon characters. It would be nice to see more Mormons writing novels with Mormons and not just about them.

  6. Deseret book gets it right sometimes. Dean Hughes Children of the Promise series is the first example that springs to mind as one that many people who didn’t think they liked LDS fiction enjoyed. But it’s still a niche, in that it’s both LDS fiction AND historical fiction, so that whittles down the potential readership even more. As good as I understand it to be, its still not a book every Mormon would enjoy, let alone every Mormon reader.

    Part of the problem is that we live in an age where “readers” define themselves as much by what they don’t read as what they do read. And they can’t just say, “I don’t like X.” It’s “X is garbage.”

    The literary fiction crowd gets to feel superior to the sci-fi and fantasy crowd, the sci-fi and fantasy crowd get to feel superior to the romance crowd, and everybody gets to feel superior to the Twilight crowd.

    And so some teenager comes along who never really liked reading, and they pick up something like Twilight or a Jack Weyland novel, and they LOVE it, they completely relate to it, and they think, “Wow! I can relate to this! This is fun! I thought books were all about adultery or slavery or dogs who die at the end of the book or people who talk in old English and kill themselves, because that’s what all the books I read in school were!”

    And they want to talk about it with somebody. None of their friends read, so that’s out. So they rush up to “that” person, the one with the houseful of books, the one they think they now share a secret with.

    And when they tell “that” person what they’re reading, that person turns their nose down at them and tells them what they’re reading isn’t “real” fiction, and “Oh, how can you even STAND to read that?”

    And the kid decides they are alone, and are weird, and since they’re teenagers they think that’s bad, and they miss out on the chance to develop a life long love of reading.

    In the case of LDS readers, this means they don’t get more LDS books, which means Deseret Book continues to pay small advances and yeild small royalties, which means anyone who has the talent to make money at this publishes elsewhere, in other genres.

    So my first advice to anybody trying to win Deseret Book readers out into the “Indie” LDS markets is to stop telling the Deseret Book readers you’re trying to make up for their inadequate fiction. People LOVE Jack Weyland, and the Work and The Glory, and other things that we “real” readers feel an absolute need to belittle to prove how sophisticated we are.

    Those people are on our side. They want amazing, powerful, unforgettable LDS fiction as badly as we do. Making ourselves their enemies doesn’t help.

    And by refusing to go where they’re at, to see what they’re doing and see how the mainstream LDS writers are trying to bridge the gap from their side, it makes the mainstream LDS readers uncomfortable, because it makes them think we’re opposed to orthodoxy.

    It’s always a mistake to assign someone on the opposite side of the argument the opposite viewpoint of your own. Just because we’re seeking sophistication in our fiction doesn’t mean that the people who are the “Deseret book readers” crave a lack of sophistication.

    What we’re talking about are people who really, really love the Savior. And they fear anything that they think might be seeking to lead them away from Him. They don’t look at anything that proports to be LDS in terms of “literary merit” or “depth of character” or anything else. They look at it in terms of what they see as being, “Is this book going to bring me closer to the Savior than I am right now, or is this book, and this viewpoint, a little further away from the Savior than I am right now and than I want to be?”

    That’s not say that they are opposed to “literary merit” or “depth of character.” They just want it on their terms. It’s not the primary priority.

    And honestly, their primary priority just isn’t one I can find it in my heart to fault them for.

    Then, there’s the big swath in the middle. These are women like the women in the Relief Society book club my wife goes to every month. They read all kinds of stuff-memoirs, fiction, non fiction, church books, self-help books, everything. They’re faithful LDS women, and they’re open to reading pretty close to anything.

    These are the kinds of readers I think both sides are trying to reach. To say we’ve never reached them would be a misstatement. They’ve brought out books from both sides–both the mainstream and the indie stuff.

    The question is, how we reach them more consistently and more directly.

    And above all, make every new and excited reader feel welcomed to the fold.

  7. I disagree with your assessment of what’s out there in Mormon fiction today. There are several mystery writers like Stephanie Black and Jeff Savage who write twisty, engaging novels without any overtly Mormon characters. And, just to mention it in case you weren’t aware, the Whitney Awards also highlight the best in fiction by Mormon authors each year and I think you might be surprised at who makes those lists.

    I think it all comes down to what you are looking for in your reading material. I am looking for entertaining books that are equivalent to national fiction without the vulgarity and sex that usually comes along with national titles. The Mormon market has expanded to include writers who fill that bill, but so many people judge the market on what was available five or ten years ago. I think the market of today is worth another look.

  8. Excellent comment, Bob. I completely agree.

    And to follow up on what Julie has said with an example:

    I think that Lemon Tart by Josi S. Kilpack is an excellent example of a cozy mystery. It doesn’t involve Mormon characters, although the content level is in line with Deseret Book’s content guidelines (and, of course, part of why those content guidelines don’t feel off is because cozies tend to be less PG-13 rated than other mysteries).

  9. Wm, I also love Josi’s cozy mysteries. The entire series is worth reading! Another good author is Rob Wells. His book Variant is getting some great reviews. Of course, if you’re into horror, his brother Dan Wells has a series, “I Am Not A Serial Killer” that is really creepy.

  10. Very interesting post, and very interesting comments afterward. Bob, you stated my feelings beautifully, as did Julie. And I agree with Wm as well.

    Let me throw an analogy out there. Let’s say you walk into Burger King, and you want to eat a pizza. You know you’re not going to get pizza at Burger King, so why are you there? When it comes to the LDS market, there are certain guidelines that are followed because of the nature of the LDS reader. If that’s not for you, you can go somewhere else and find something that will be more to your liking rather than complaining about it.

    If you like books written for the LDS market, you will find a wide variety of subjects and craft levels, just like you’ll find a wide variety of pizza out there – some of it’s cardboard, and some of it’s succulent and to die for. It does exist. It really does.

  11. Variant is fantastic. And also an example of why the Mormon market is a good thing. Rob’s early forays into that market aren’t the greatest (which he would be the first to admit), but they did set the stage for his success with Variant. As Julie has noted the same is true of various other LDS authors. In turn, that means the genre fiction that DB/Covenant produces has upped its’ game as well. Now much of it isn’t my cup of Postum. But it’s really all about sampling works and finding what you like.

    Also I second the recommendation for Dan’s series — it’s what convinced me that horror, just as LDS literary critic Michael Collings has said, is a moral genre, something I was very dubious about before. While it does not feature LDS characters, there are some strong thematic LDS resonances.

  12. As a Mormon author who writes “Mormon” books and has been told I’ve sold my soul to do so, I thought you might be interested in some of my comments.

    The Christian market is very different from the LDS market. In fact, most Christian publishers will not publish an LDS author’s work. There have been many who’ve tried to break in. But once the Christian publishers audience finds out they are publishing a Mormon author, that book’s sales will not be successful. I only know of one exception.

    There are also plenty of books out there that have Mormon characters in them (they aren’t always presented in a favorable light). It’s just not really a big selling point with the big 6 publishers. I’m reading one right now by Kristen Chandler–a YA national book.

    My opinion on The Lonely Polygamist is that it shouldn’t be held up as an aspiration for “Mormon fiction.” Whether the author is an active LDS member is beside the point. The novel is about a polygamist family, and yeah, it’s great to read about “the other side” but no LDS publisher will touch polygamy in fictional form. Period. So even if Brady Udall submitted this brilliant book to Deseret Book it would have been turned down because of the topic (let alone the content).

    Also, LDS authors, just like any other author, are trying to break into other markets. Constantly. And they are always pushing the envelop with their LDS publishers. LDS authors WANT to write books that don’t include VT visits. In fact, my publisher (Covenant) will be publishing my first non-LDS book this fall–women’s fiction. I’m thrilled. Covenant will also be publishing a horror novel by Jeff Savage. They publish regency romances by Sarah Eden, a sci-fi middle grade series by Julie Wright, and they published a non-LDS historical by Michele Holmes in 2011. Covenant is stepping outside the box a little. But they know their readership and their readership expects clean content.

    Deseret Book has done the same thing with their Shadow Mountain imprint. It allows them to put out books in which the reader knows what to expect with each imprint. It’s the nature of the business all across the board.

    Just like all the Harlequin lines. If the imprint says “spicy” something, readers know what they are getting. If it’s one of the “inspirational” lines, readers know what to expect.

    When people ask me why the “heck” I publish in the LDS market . . . I tell them that as long as I’m writing the historicals I am, I’ll stay there (although I’m up for diversifying). I see the LDS market & LDS publishing as a niche market. Just as the niche markets all across the nation. If you want to publish western fiction, you’ll find a publisher for that. And that publisher markets to a niche target market of western enthusiasts. It’s the same with LDS publishers. If a writer wants to write something centered on his/her religion, there is an outlet for it.

    I am very selective in what I read as far as LDS fiction goes, simply because there are only so many books I can read a year. But I’ve given most authors at least a chance, and I’ve found several that I’ll continue to read all of their books because I’ve truly enjoyed them.

    As far as one of the comments “LDS books are all the same,” that holds truth as long as we can also say, “all urban fantasy is the same” or “all YA high school dramas are the same”. Different characters, different setting, same angst (haha. can you tell what I’m reading now?) I read in so many genres that I rarely come across a book that’s totally unique. The main character just has different attributes, but usually follows a similar journey. Man against himself. Man against nature. Man against man. etc. etc.

  13. The biggest problem, I think, is that the Mormon audience is so limited. Good writers know that if they write mainly for an LDS audience, they won’t sell many books. So fiction writers who write mainly for LDS audiences tend to not be great writers.

    The only exception? LDS writers like Orson Scott Card who generally write books for more mainstream audiences, but occasionally write LDS-oriented books that, because of how big his name is, still sell quite a few copies. He had an entire series that was basically a sci-fi Book of Mormon, and his fantasy Seventh Son series (which I recommend) takes quite a bit from the Joseph Smith story.

  14. I’m not totally following your train of thought, Tim. Why does the fact that they write for a smaller audience mean that they don’t write great books?

    Authors who write for the LDS market have made a conscious choice to do so, knowing that their audience is smaller. That doesn’t mean they aren’t great writers – it means that they’ve chosen a different path than national writers.

  15. I agree that there is a general dearth of actually good writing in LDS fiction. It is almost akin to the LDS mommy blogs out there – where they are very upbeat and super moral, that there is no real tension to describe the story. It is hard to tell a story when the worst enemy really is not that dark or complex, or the good guy seems like the perfect Osmond child.

    Does DB even have Ender’s Game by OSC on its bookshelves? Or do they feel it is too dark and painful to place next to their bubblegum stories? (Can you tell that I am not a fan of Sheri Dew – and no, she is not a General Authority for everyone to think her writing is so wonderful – it ain’t).

    Sadly, there often is a dearth of good writing in LDS non-fiction published by DB. GA biographies are all well and good, but there’s a huge difference between the pablum of Joseph Smith’s history written by Joseph F. Smith, and the well researched and considered volume written by Richard Bushman.

    They are so careful to be careful, that new concepts that could move the gospel forward, are rarely promoted. No wonder most LDS scholars find other venues to publish.

  16. While jettboy has a very valid ponit of view, it is just that: a point of view. Bottom line, what we’re talking about is opinion. Not eveyone likes the same thing. And that’s okay. But just because someone doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean they are shallow, narrow-minded, or in need of expanding their horizons.

  17. All of us need to expand our horizons. All of us are shallow. And there’s a fine line between narrow-minded and particular. I have no problem with those that are particular, especially if they have engaged in omnivorous consumption in order to reach that particularity.

  18. I’m happy to see eloquent responses from other authors who didn’t stoop to jettboy’s level. Yet, I think someone needs to call jettboy out on a few of his points.

    Let me start with an example. I graduated from BYU with a degree in Communications—Broadcasting. At the same time I got my diploma, my Stake sponsored a “turn off your TV week”. I see this post along the same lines. I believe there is too much of an “all or nothing” mentality among people like jettboy.

    In general, I’d say Mormons want good, clean forms of entertainment. However, I agree that often these “clean” TV programs, books and music are looked down upon as being inferior because they don’t reflect society at large and therefore aren’t realistic.

    Quote: “For the most part its safe reading. There is nothing scandalous or sensationalistic in the writing. It’s clean, dependable, and predictable. Any serious 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.”

    These statements say more about jettboy’s preferences than readers in general—especially the part about any “serious” reader. I honestly wonder what books jettboy has read to make these wild overgeneralizations.

    Yes, I’ve read a number of books that I found were “clean, dependable, and predictable”. Some were by LDS authors, but most were not. I’ve also read a number of LDS books that I found very engaging—even though they were “clean”.

    Jettboy, I appreciate your opinion, but it’s just that—your opinion. Stating your views and generalities as facts show a close minded approach to the subject you are addressing. If you don’t like to read Mormon Fiction, then don’t. But next time you read a book that is filled with sex, bad language and graphic violence, ask yourself if it is worth it just so you can claim to be a “serious” reader.

  19. Clean is fine. Clean without craftsmanship and complexity is not. And sometimes clean is used as a convenient cover for a lack of both.

    Of course, sometimes edgy is used as a convenient cover for a lack of both.

  20. Goodness – who thought we’d get so many reads from published LDS authors? Did a signal flare go up somewhere that someone was discussing LDS fiction?

  21. Tristi,

    Most fiction writers want to make a living. That’s hard to do if your potential audience is limited to Mormons. Mediocre Mormon fiction writers know that they don’t have as much competition writing books for LDS audiences, given the dearth of quality fiction aimed at Mormons, so they write mediocre fiction aimed at Mormons and make a little bit of money. Good Mormon writers–good enough to compete against all writers and not just other Mormon writers–find more success (and are thus able to better provide for their families) writing to a more mainstream audience.

  22. Readers will always find what they want to consume as long as there are writers willing to provide it. Yes, the natural man leads us to the more basic instincts we have as we search for entertainment, and that can be “real”. But there is also an element of hope and wholesomeness that is “real” in our lives. As we consume our media we make decisions about what version of “real” we desire to enjoy. It seems that society is pushing towards the dark and depraved. I think LDS writers should view the clean, uplifting stories as a badge of honor.

    Not all LDS fiction is the same. Anyone who feels it is, isn’t very experienced with LDS fiction. As many have already noted, readers have the opportunities to choose, historical fiction, mysteries, YA paranormal, mid-grade fantasy etc. etc. all while enjoying the confidence that the stories will not sink into depths of vile “reality” that are crude and debasing. As readers, we can find what we want and I’m thankful for quality clean reading as provided by LDS writers.

    One last thought- A book does not necessarily need Mormon characters to be “Mormon” fiction. Themes and standards also make a book “Mormon”. There is a wealth of excellent LDS fiction available for consumers.

  23. Great column and lots of interesting comments as well. I think I’m somewhere in the middle ground, having published with DB, Covenant, Shadow Mountain (DB’s national imprint), and now Harper Collins. Here are a few things I’ve come across.

    First, LDS publishers by their very nature are small presses. As such, they have to make money on every title. National presses can offset a literary work that doesn’t sell as much with a blockbuster. But for the most part, LDS presses don’t tend to have blockbusters. And even though there are more LDS readers, that trend is getting worse not better. When I started out eleven years ago, an average book could be expected to sell 10,000 plus copies. Now 3,000 copies is considered successful. As a result, you see lots of mysteries, thrillers, romances, women’s fiction, doctrinal, and not much in the way of literary fiction. There are some exceptions, but they tend to be boutique presses that are not really for profit and can do what they want.

    Second, I hear all the time how LDS writing is not very good. In my opinion, quality of authors going from LDS publishers to national is not nearly as big of an issue as quantity/quality of editing. The entire budget for most LDS novels is what a national imprint spends on one editing pass. I love my editors at DB, Covenant, and Harper> They are absolutely national quality editors. But it is clear the LDS editors have much less time to read, review, and give feedback than their national counterparts. And I have far less time to make the requested changes.

    I don’t think this is an LDS specific thing as much as a small press thing. Because you only have so much money coming in on each title, you can only spend so much on production. Considering how many LDS authors have gone on to publish nationally, (I can think of a dozen just off the top of my head) I don’t think you can say that LDS authors are bad writers, but there is often (not always) a noticeable difference in the quality of the novels. When you buy a book from a small press, I think there is at least some level of understanding that you are giving up something and gaining something.

    So what do you gain? For one, the ability to buy a book written to a specific audience. Although my mystery series was written for any audience to read, my readers know it will be clean and something they wouldn’t be afraid to have their kids pick up. Some people don’t care about that, but I know lots of LDS readers who really appreciate being able to pick up a mystery or a romance or whatever that doesn’t contain graphic sex, violence, etc. And if that’s not your cup of tea, you don’t need to buy it.

    As an LDS author, I like the freedom of writing for the national market and the opportunity to sell much higher numbers. But I also really appreciate the ability to write specifically to my own people with messages only they would get. That’s a big reason why I didn’t give up my DB series when I signed with Harper. It’s great to be able to have Mormon characters in national books. But it’s also really nice to be able to have a young man or woman discover their own testimony in a way only Mormons can fully appreciate.

    The last thing I hear a lot is that LDS publishers only do certain kinds of books: conversion stories, primary teacher falls in love with FBI agent, etc. Part of that again is demand. If readers are buying stories about primary teachers and FBI agents, the publishers would be dumb not to deliver them. Anita Stansfield has been incredibly successful, even by national standards, writing a very specific kind of romance. Her readers would be disappointed if she didn’t deliver that. But there are tons of other stories that are out there: regency romances, international thrillers written by former CIA agents, stories about everything from rape to eating disorders, conversion to redemption, forgiveness, hate, you name it. Covenant is even publishing a horror novel for the first time next year.

    I’m definitely not trying to convince anyone to read something they don’t want to read. I tell authors that when they get one star reviews it almost always means the reader is not their target audience. So it may just be that you are not the target audience for most LDS authors. I guarantee many people on this list wouldn’t be the right readers for my Harper books either, unless they like sixth grade potty humor. But just be aware that national caliber authors do write for LDS publishers. And that what they write is what the people who buy LDS books are asking for.

    Hope that helps.

  24. I like reading things that aren’t “real.” I have plenty of reality in my life.

    If I wanted more reality, I’d go and live it, rather than read about it.

  25. This has been a very interesting discussion to follow–I agree with something in almost every comment, and within the post itself, but my opinion fits into none of them perfectly. As has been stated–opinions are going to cover the spectrum. I think for any of us to say someone else is shallow or non-serious because they only read LDS or because they don’t read LDS or because they only read non-fiction is over-the-top subjective (but then my opinion is subjective as well 🙂

    One point I would like to make is in regard to ‘Mormon’ Characters. Homo-Fictious (James Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel) is not the same as Homo-sapien. When writers give a ‘character’ a ‘characteristic’ it needs to matter. Don’t give someone a big nose if the big nose isn’t part of their ‘character’ and doesn’t play some part in the story (reader impression, self-conciousness, ethnicity, symbolism, etc.). If, therefore you’re going to give a BIG characteristic, like Mormonism which is a life-encompassing characteristic, it needs to have the value worthy of it being included. Every characterization an author chooses both expands and limits the character. The characteristic can be expansive because Mormons like to read about Mormons and many people are curious about Mormons and it’s unique, however it will be limited because the character now comes with a lot of expectations and there are some readers (in or out of the church) who will read with prejudice. If being Mormon is going to be necessary, it has to make an impact on the plot and the expansion it offers must be worth the limits it presents. If, therefore, being Mormon is necessary to the plot, then the plot will likely revolve around religious issues of one kind or another–if it doesn’t, was it necessary to make the character Mormon or do you have another reason (and no other reason matters other than plot)? And then it gets stickier. If you’re going to have a plot with Mormon issues–how are you going to work it? Conversion story? Faith Crisis? Culturally based? (all of which get blasted for being cliche) You have to have conflict in there, and you have to have reasonable reactions to those conflicts that result in character growth. You want a fresh story, but you chose a limiting characteristic. So, are you going to cross a ‘comfort’ line of mainstream Mormon audiences (remember, you already limited yourself by using Mormonism) as you present this conflict and the overcoming of it in order to keep it fresh or ‘real’ as is often requested? If you do cross that line, you will be further ‘limiting’ the work within the already limited spectrum you’ve chosen. Though it might ‘expand’ the story into other audiences, how will those other audiences know about this book and will your choices equate in sales or exposure? Will mainstream LDS bookstores, where LDS readers often shop, sell your book? If not, who will?

    When I hear people say they want more Mormons in good literature, I wonder why. Do they want to see Mormon conflicts played out in a national arena where the majority of the target audience doesn’t understand the nuances of the religion? Why? Do they want us to teach this audience about Mormonism? Why (and are they willing to forgive the preachiness if this is the purpose)? Do they just want a token Mormon to play a minority roll? Why?

    In my very-subjective opinion–the result of this post and the comments is that writers should learn their craft so that whatever story they tell is told as well as it can be. Because too many writers in the LDS market have not done this, but sold anyway because readers were willing to choose ‘safe’ content over good craft, a reputation of poor quality has been established across the board. It’s sad, but in a sense ‘we’ (and I use that term very loosely) are responsible for that. When we read a poorly written book and don’t tell the publisher, when we cut corners and publish sup-par work because we know we can, we become part of the problem–not the solution. I don’t know a single writer, myself included, who shouldn’t be improving their craft. IF all the writers out there would learn their craft and do their best work, this post would never have been written; Jettboy would have a hard time calling us shallow because we wouldn’t be. We would not be buying a reading books that were poorly written. But we have bought those books and too many of us have written those books too. I think this post should be one more motivating factor for LDS writers to use toward bettering their craft.

    As it is now, however, there have been good changes in the LDS market. That doesn’t mean we can ‘fix’ the bad impression people have gotten from poor work, which is only fair; the only reasonable thing to base expectations on are results. What we can do is keep improving, applaud those books that deserve applause, and work toward a better future through both individual and community-minded ways.

    I chose to write within the “limits” of Mormon stories and am very proud of (most of) my works. I chose those limits on purpose and they don’t chaff me. My current series is not based on an LDS character for one reason–my plot didn’t need it.

    Thanks for the post, Jettboy–I think this kind of discussion is a very good thing.

  26. I think Jeff Savage has some good points.

    I know some of the books published by LDS publishers are not just aimed at Mormons–Brandon Mull’s successful Fablehaven series, while not my personal favorite, was not written for a Mormon audience–and ended up being a bestseller. I can’t see how much success he would have gotten had he written for just a Mormon audience.

    Perhaps I should not have stated that authors who write for LDS audiences aren’t as good of writers–perhaps I should have instead said that books written for LDS audiences, especially by authors who don’t usually write for broader audiences, generally aren’t that good.

  27. Tim:

    How many non-Deseret Book/Covenant-published novels written for LDS audiences have you read? I’d stack up Todd Robert Petersen, Angela Hallstrom, Patricia Karamesines and Margaret Young against any non-LDS writer of general fiction. Their works are not going to be too every LDS reader’s taste to be sure, but there is quality out there, although not in as much abundance as I’d like, and part of that is definitely influenced by market economics — it’s a labor of love for us. But there’s enough to read for anyone who is serious about wanting to do some reading in the field.

  28. One of my favorite authors is Douglas Thayer. He writes Mormon-themed novels and short stories that I think have the potential to appeal to both mainstream LDS audiences and those looking for something with literary merit (and, of course, the intersection of the two).

    I liked his novel The Conversion of Jeff Williams a lot. I’ve recommended it to a few LDS people who like to read but don’t necessarily read LDS fiction, with only positive reactions.

    The Tree House is his strongest work, in my opinion, and my favorite Mormon novel of those I’ve read. I’d imagine that some LDS readers could find it a little more negative or ambiguous in places than they might be expecting, though this isn’t a criticism I have by any means. (And the book also includes, for example, a strongly positive portrayal of life as a missionary.)

  29. This has been a fascinating discussion, and I don’t think there’s much more I can add to it.

    However, as one of the organizers of the Mormon Lit Blitz, I should note that Jettboy doesn’t really give readers a good impression of what the Mormon Lit Blitz actually is. For one, it is not really a movement, but a literary contest that is still going on. I highly recommend reading the entries, which are being published one by one until the end of February. They can be found at http://www.mormonartist/blog/.

    I should also note that the works featured in the Mormon Lit Blitz are short and designed to appeal to the whole spectrum of LDS people, particularly the faithful, committed kind. I’m not sure if Jettboy has read any of these pieces, but I recommend that the rest of you check them out.

    Also, I think we should give the Mormon Lit Blitz some time before we start concluding that “not much seems to have changed” because of it. Keep in mind that it has only been going on for a little over a week now, which is not a whole lot of time for anything to change. The incident cited in the post has nothing to do with the Mormon Lit Blitz, although the gesture is wholly in line with the spirit of the Blitz.

    Personally, I’d like to challenge Jettboy to read the Mormon Lit Blitz finalists on the Mormon Artist blog and write a review of them. What do you say?

  30. Scott Hales, for some reason the link you provided leads to nowhere. I tried more than one browser and it ends up not able to find the site. Also, “I should note that Jettboy doesn’t really give readers a good impression of what the Mormon Lit Blitz actually is,” indicates there is an advertising problem. Assuming Mormons like me are your intended audience then there is a miscommunication. I thought at first it might be a contest, but everywhere I go people are talking about recently published books and novels. That brought me to the conclusion that the “spirit of the Blitz” was the Blitz.

    I would like to read and do some kind of review of them, if I can actually get to them first.

  31. My bad about the link. Thanks, Katya. I must have been typing too fast. That’s the link: http://www.mormonartist.net/blog/

    Also, I think it’s less an advertising problem and more of a good sign that a lot of good things are happening right now in Mormon literature. I understand the confusion, though. Incidentally, we sent the Millennial Star editors a “press release” about the contest, but we didn’t get a response back about it. It explained what the Blitz is, where it is happening, and why we are doing it. The full text of it can be found on these sites and a few others:


  32. Scott Hales, you might want to reconsider posting those sites as places to get information on Mormon Blitz. I’ll leave it to you to think about why they are not making a good impression. Just saying.

  33. Well, the first one might be fine and the second one neutral. Again, just saying. I guess my question is exactly what audience are you trying to have with this? What is the message?

  34. We sent the press release to almost every popular blog in the bloggernacle–including the Millennial Star. We’re trying to appeal to Mormon audiences. Even the women.

  35. Three things:

    1. The contest is being featured on the Mormon Artist magazine blog. Mormon Artist, during its run, was firmly in the camp of mainstream orthodox Mormons in approach and subject matter and so was its’ audience.

    2. M* did recevie the news release. From what I can tell, it looks like Scott and James tried to cast a wide as net as possible.

    3. If you look at the the works that have been published so far, there very much in the mainstream of Mormonism. And especially if you look at the comments on the Facebook page. It skews highly towards the Segullah/Mormon mommy blogger crowd.

  36. I’d also note that James specifically mentioned on the AML blog that they had rejected pieces that they thought were too “edgy” for what they were trying to do. And if you read theoriginal call for entries for the contest, you’ll note that that Scott and James specifically asked for:

    “‘For Mormons’ means for committed Latter-day Saints. Yes, that’s an extremely diverse audience (see the “I’m a Mormon” campaign–and your ward members), but it’s also an audience with distinctive shared values and history that don’t often get attention in creative work. We want you to write something that will appeal to us as people who believe in the sacred, who have ridiculous numbers of brothers and sisters we see every week, who worry about being good and faithful servants no matter what our day jobs are and wonder what it will be like to meet our grandparents’ grandparents in heaven. We don’t need your pieces to preach to us. We do need them to combine your creativity and religious commitment in a way that excites us and gives us something cool to talk about with our Mormon friends.”

  37. You know, popular Mormon Literature is a fairly new genre. As such, there is a considerable amount of experimentation that goes into forming and defining it. In fact, I still hear different definitions of what popular Mormon literature is. With experimentation comes failed attempts, near successes, and brilliance all rolled into one.

    We’ve seen the same thing with early popular novels. You get books like “The Monk” an overwritten blasphemous novel, the “Mysteries of Udolfo” which is more entertaining but still not quite perfect, and (in the same time period) you get Jane Austen.

    With popular Mormon Literature being so new, I’m sure you’ll find those failed attempts, or near success, but I’m also sure you’ll find brilliance. If you refuse to read any popular Mormon literature, you’ll spare yourself from reading the failed attempts, and near successes, but you’ll also miss out on the brilliance. I for one, look forward to watching the genre mature. Already I’ve found books, poems, personal essays, anthologies, documentaries, and magazines that are achieving wonderful things. Jett Boy, I’m sorry you are missing out.

  38. Geoff,

    I sent it off to the editor email address, but it’s possible that it missed it’s mark. It’s the nature of technology. I’ll send it again to both addresses. We’d appreciate the mention. The finalists are still being posted daily, and the contest goes until mid-March. We’d love the added publicity.


  39. Fascinating discussion! Lots to think about, but I just wanted to comment on one specific point:

    Heather Moore said, “My opinion on The Lonely Polygamist is that it shouldn’t be held up as an aspiration for ‘Mormon fiction.’ Whether the author is an active LDS member is beside the point. The novel is about a polygamist family, and yeah, it’s great to read about ‘the other side’ but no LDS publisher will touch polygamy in fictional form. Period. So even if Brady Udall submitted this brilliant book to Deseret Book it would have been turned down because of the topic (let alone the content).”

    I totally understand why some LDS readers would not be interested in reading The Lonely Polygamist. Many people would judge the language or sexual content to be too strong for their personal taste, and I don’t quibble with their decision to pass on the novel for that reason. However, I do take exception to Heather’s assertion that because the novel would never be published by Deseret Book that it doesn’t qualify as “Mormon fiction.” Deseret Book (and Covenant, which is owned by DB) are businesses with a specific customer base. Even more important, these publishing houses are owned by the Church itself, which means that they have a very particular mission. But DB certainly doesn’t cover all Mormon readers. Active, believing Latter-day Saints sometimes want literature that DB can’t (and, frankly, probably shouldn’t) publish. And many other readers who aren’t active, believing Latter-day Saints are interested in fiction by, for, or about Mormons as well, in the same way that I’m interested in literature about Jews or Native Americans or British boy wizards.

    Also, since when does content (or genre, since regardless of content questions, DB is not very interested in publishing literary fiction) trump all in matters of Mormon literature? I think of classic works of Jewish literature, like Chaim Potok’s _My Name is Asher Lev_. I am CERTAIN that if Hasidic Jews owned a publishing company specializing in fiction for their community, they wouldn’t have touched _My Name i Asher Lev_ with a ten foot pole. But would anyone ever dare to say that the novel isn’t Jewish literature? Heavens, no. Would a Muslim publisher have published _The Kite Runner_? Probably not. But that book is Muslim through and through.

    I’m not writing to defend The Lonely Polygamist per se (although it is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years). Udall himself is not interested in categories like “Mormon literature” and doesn’t define his novel as such. But as a reader, *I* reserve the right to define TLP as a Mormon novel, and think it belongs in the canon. I also think our community is better when our tent is a little wider, and that if we define Mormon Lit solely as the type of literature Deseret Book will sell, then I believe we’re hurting our community, our culture, and the opportunity we have to tell our own stories to the broader world.

  40. .

    If we believe—really believe—we are what we say we are, then we should be telling a wide variety of stories and trying to share them with broad audiences. Both within the faith and without.

  41. Although I agree with Angela’s big tent approach and taking a wider view when defining what Mormon fiction is, I also understand the desire that Jettboy and others have expressed for well-crafted fiction written by active, believing LDS that speaks to other active, believing LDS. That’s explicitly what the Mormon Lit Blitz was looking for. That’s what I’m most interested in writing and reading (I haven’t read The Lonely Polygamist yet. Or The Backslider. I may get to those either or both eventually, but they aren’t a major priority for me).

    In addition, I can understand why Jettboy would prefer for well-crafted fiction written by active, believing LDS that treats the Mormonism somewhat incidentally (or at least doesn’t foreground it). My primary interest is fictions that digs directly into the Mormon experience. But I too am interested in works where it’s just there.

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  43. Some of the best books I have ever read are written by LDS author’s. I will choose a book written by and LDS author over any other author any day… not just because I am LDS. I am really thankful there are so many to choose from these days and hope to read many more. I’m sorry you feel the way you do!

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