2/20/08

The Quality of LDS Fiction by Jeff Savage (Guest Blog)

Comments on a recent post complained about the quality of mainstream LDS novels. While one author in particular was mentioned, I would tend to believe that in general the feeling of the commenter was that the quality of novels by most mainstream Mormon authors was substandard, and not worthy of his/her book club. First of all, let me say that this is in no way a new or isolated sentiment. I just came back from a writers conference where another author said in all sincerity, “But Covenant authors aren’t very good are they?” My answer was pretty straightforward. “Some are. Some aren’t.”

In order for this discussion to have any validity, we must first differentiate between two very disparate measuring sticks. You and I may read the same book and while you may love it, I may despise it, or visa versa. Many readers think Levi Paterson is the greatest thing since ziplock bags. Yet Scott Card, speaking at the LTUE conference last weekend, specifically pointed out Patterson as a writer he had very little respect for. There is nothing wrong with this at all. But what we are discussing is “taste,” not good or bad writing.

The phrase, “There is no accounting for tastes” hits the nail on the head. We can measure sales numbers. We can measure awards. We can even measure satisfaction of readers through book ratings. But what we can’t measure is whose tastes are better. Is the taste of the woman who adores sushi better than the guy who buys a Big Mac on his way home from work? Well, in this case, yes it is. I just can’t prove it.

But that’s the thing with tastes. Mainstream Mormon novels typically can sell 5-10 thousand copies or more. People who hate these novels would say the people who buy these books have no or poor taste in books. But I suspect that if you had those same readers who are complaining offer the books they like to the 5-10 thousand people who buy LDS novels, they wouldn’t like them any better. That being the case, we must come to the conclusion that taste is so personal, it really has no place in the discussion, other than to agree that everyone likes what they like.

Quality of work, however, is another matter entirely. Here we can be a little more objective. I recently read a self-published book that was quite highly acclaimed. I liked the story, but I constantly found myself pulled out by typos, grammatical error, abrupt POV changes, and other issues that most authors, and many readers, would consider bad writing. While the author might say I was being nitpicky, I consider technical mistakes to be bad writing. Multiple POVs is a question of taste right up to the point where the reader has to backtrack to figure who is talking. Then it becomes bad writing. Clearly this book was not as well edited as it should have been.

So who is to blame for bad editing? The easy answer is the publisher. But here again, we have to take a look at the resources available to the author and or editor. Let’s say you attended the Sundance film festival. There you viewed a number of independent films. Would you complain that the films produced on a budget of often less than ten thousand dollars should have the same quality of music, sound editing, camera work, and special effects as the blockbusters? Or would you look for the quality of the script and recognize the story despite the somewhat cheaper quality of the sound?

For the most part, LDS publishers operate under the same constraints as any small regional publisher. They have a limited cover budget, limited editing staff (and time), and limited money to pay their authors. You can no more compare their work to the latest James Patterson novel than you could compare $50 million special effects to the guy creating an explosion on his home computer. That does not by any stretch of the imagination make the stories any less quality though. If that were the case, Sundance would not exist.

You could rightfully assume that the publishers who have the biggest budgets would have a bigger pool of authors to choose from. That should mean that the bigger the publisher, the better the quality of writing, correct? I mean, after all, Grisham isn’t going to suddenly move to a publisher who can only afford to pay him a $500 advance. But even that logic has flaws.

By this reasoning, JK Rowling should stink. Her first print run was 500 copies. This logic would say that Richard Dutcher is a much worse director than the guy whoever directed Blades of Glory. What we find is that there are many reasons why a good author may publish with a small press.

Another issue often brought up is the topics of mainstream LDS books. I hear comments like, “I’m sorry. I just can’t stomach another book where a perfect Molly Mormon girl converts a supposed bad boy, whose worst sin is that he sleeps in late. I want books with issues.” Let me just say for the record that people who make these kinds of comments have not browsed the fiction section of an LDS bookstore in the last ten or more years. I say that with 100% confidence, because LDS fiction deals with virtually any topic you can imagine.

Lastly, let’s look at the author and book that was specifically mentioned. Betsy Brannon Green writes cozies. She’s published tons of them, and in my opinion she does them very well. People solve mysteries in a small town. People have faith promoting experiences. Yes, people check to see if the other person is wearing garments. That’s what her books are. And the truth of the matter is that they are very typical of the small town Mormons she is portraying. They are what her readers expect and want when they buy her books. If you didn’t want this type of story, why in the world did you buy the book? Haven’t you ever heard of checking the synopsis?

It’s like a bunch of Stephen King fans (of which I am one) ripping an Agatha Christie novel because there aren’t enough walking dead. A cozy mystery is like putting together a puzzle. It is safe, fun, and a little challenging. It is not meant to be literary. Scott Card hit the nail on the head when he said that genre fiction features the story as the hero and literary fiction features the author as the hero. If Betsy Brannon Greene wrote like Alice Sebold, it would ruin her stories, not enhance them. Because now the reader would be concentrating on the words, not the story.

LDS fiction is what it is. Are there authors that have not mastered their craft? That use too many clich├ęs, infodump, include too much back story, and all the other things that pull readers out of the book? Of course there are. Just like there are with every other publisher in the world. Including the big boys. But to say that LDS fiction is inferior to what you read is ignorant, short sighted, and clearly shows that you have not read enough of the works out there to make an informed decision.

That’s why the Whiney Awards were instituted. So people could choose the genre they like and read what LDS readers, publisher, and booksellers, have deemed the best of the best. Nationally published books are nominated, books by big LDS publishers are nominated, and books by smaller and newer LDS publishers are included. And in this case, brand new LDS authors like Michele Holmes are competing head to head with megasellers like Stephenie Meyer. May the best book win.

Jeffrey S Savage is the author of four LDS novels including Cutting Edge, Into the Fire, and the Shandra Covington mysteries. He also has a national YA fantasy series coming out this year called Farworld, under the pen name of J Scott Savage. He blogs at sixldswriters.blogspot.com and jscottsavage.blogspot.com

40 comments:

Marcia Mickelson said...

Very well said, Jeff. Thanks.

William Morris said...

I agree with your overall point, Jeff. But I also have some serious reservations.

But...

I also recognize that I haven't read enough of the genre fiction published by the Mormon market to judge for myself.

Setting aside the Whitney Awards for a moment (because that's only 2007), is someone willing to name a title (or titles) that they think compare favorably to the best of the genre (any genre)?

---------------

I do disagree with one piece of your analysis.

"For the most part, LDS publishers operate under the same constraints as any small regional publisher. They have a limited cover budget, limited editing staff (and time), and limited money to pay their authors. You can no more compare their work to the latest James Patterson novel than you could compare $50 million special effects to the guy creating an explosion on his home computer. That does not by any stretch of the imagination make the stories any less quality though."

As far as I can tell, though, Mormon publishers aren't as good as other small regional publishers at putting out books that are decently copy edited and have good cover art and typesetting.

In my experience, independent films are much closer to their Hollywood counterparts (specifically in the quality of sound, music and editing -- special effects are a whole other category that don't really compare well to publishing) than many Mormon titles are to their national publishing counterparts.

Frankly, I think that part of that is because independent filmmakers on average tend to have a greater understanding of their craft than writers do.

J Scott Savage said...

William,

All very good points. I'll defer here to others who may want to point out what books they think meet your criteria. (Although, I'm sure I'll pipe up again later.)

As far as the films, I'll have to disagree. Yes, the films that make it to Sundance are closer to the quality of Hollywood films than the many many which do not. But having a good friend who does the music and sound editing for many of these films, I can tell you the technical quality is not anywhere near what a big budget picture can offer. The reason you don't notice it is that the art itself is so engrossing you lose yourself in the story.

Anonymous said...

William:

Is it fair to criticize LDS publishers and the works they produce as less professional than the products of other comparably smaller regional publishers if the critic has not read much LDS fiction? A statement like that produces an uncomfortable tension between inexperience with LDS novels and authoritative opinion.

Jeff:

I very much appreciate the statement: genre fiction features the story as the hero and literary fiction features the author as the hero. That may be why literary fiction is sometimes referred to as fiction for snobs. The statement isn't true, but if you view genre fiction as the art of invisibility where the author works tirelessly to disappear from view of the reader by developing a voice for her characters accentuated by vocabulary commensurate with the age, intelligence, whit and logic of her characters and then compare that to literary fiction—the art of persuasive presentation where the author’s age, logic, whit, intelligence, and sometimes flowery pros is the object of the work—you can understand the indictment.

David G. Woolley

Laura said...

I think Jeff Savage may have left out a point to consider. Since I live outside Utah I don't have the access to as many LDS genre books as those of you in Utah. However, we all lend each other books and I read what I can when I can get my hands on it. I think this causes a big problem for Mormon genre fiction because it make the audience even more limited and it easier for the authors to cater to that limited audience. Mormons living in the Salt Lake Area have a different view of Mormonism than people living elsewhere. How many recent titles are about people other than Utahns and are set somewhere outside BYU/Provo? (Let me know so I can get them from inter-library loan!)

I also think it's unfair of David G. Wooley to say that literary fiction authors don't work just as hard as genre fiction authors to create dynamic characters. Perhaps the artistry of those books trick you into thinking that the author and the characters can be conflated. But that simply isn't so.

Of course, when it comes to the main point of all this being more about taste than about art, I would have to agree. There are as many different reasons for reading as there are readers. Maybe the trick is finding a way to grow the market so all those different readers feel like they belong!

Clay said...

William -- I just finished reading an LDS suspense novel that I think would rival the comparable novels in the mainstream market. It's entitled Freefall by Traci Hunter Abramson. I read her last book, The Deep End, and enjoyed it, but I have to say that Abramson has risen to a new level in her writing with Freefall. The action starts from the first page and doesn't stop. The book is well-written, well-edited, and completely captivating.

Which brings me to Laura's comment. Try Abramson's books. None of them are set in Utah. Another book to consider that was excellent is Willard Boyd Gardner's novel, The Operative. If you like action or suspense-based novels, any of these would be worth reading.

I also have to say that I really think the quality of LDS fiction is getting better every year. Sure, there are still some authors that struggle to keep my attention, but I have discovered a growing number of authors that I really enjoy. I think if readers will give authors like Abramson, Gardner and Green a try, they'll find they are fans of LDS fiction without realizing that is what they are reading.

William Morris said...

David asks:

"Is it fair to criticize LDS publishers and the works they produce as less professional than the products of other comparably smaller regional publishers if the critic has not read much LDS fiction? A statement like that produces an uncomfortable tension between inexperience with LDS novels and authoritative opinion."

I'm not completely inexperienced in the field -- but I will freely admit that I'm not as well read in the Mormon genre fiction market as I'd like to be (the literary fiction market is different).

And yet...

I also read almost every single review of LDS fiction that has been published by Meridian Magazine, the AML List, Irreantum, BYU Magazine, the various blogs and quite a few of those published in Sunstone and Dialogue. Perhaps those reviewers aren't giving the market a fair shake. But very few genre titles come across as must reads.

Of course, to be clear, I think that many of the Mormon literary fiction titles have problems too.

Perhaps this (both genre and literary) is all simply a function of where we are at as a (relatively young) field. And I have the impression that the genre market (esp. Romance) has improved greatly over the past 2 decades.

I don't think, though, that any of us have made a good enough case for Mormon literature, either in our actual creative works or in our criticism. And I'd like to see that change.

And I'm willing and ready to read the best 10 Mormon genre books out there. Somebody please make a list. And if you could also include national titles that are generally considered to be the best in the field that I could compare these works to that'd be ideal. :-) [I'm only half joking].

And thanks, Clay, for stepping up to the plate and making some recommendations.

I'll also admit that my view may be skewed by acquaintance with small presses in the Bay Area which produce some real high quality, small audience work.

------
Jeff:

I still don't buy the film comparison. Film is a much more complex medium in terms of prodcution, so yeah, there's more that could benefit from higher production values. I understand what your getting at -- and I think it's true that the Mormon audience has been much more forgiving and supporting of Mormon film than fiction.

Still. Call me crazy, but I just think that basic copy editing errors interfere with the consumer experience (and are much more easily avoidable) more than non-Hollywood-budget film production values. You can make a dang fine film with what is relatively a miniscule film budget (100-200k). Of course, the potential profits for film outweigh those of books. It's more of a high risk, high reward medium.

-----
David writes:

"genre fiction features the story as the hero and literary fiction features the author as the hero."

This is a facile reduction, of course.

But to be clear -- I'm not a defender of a large swathe of modern literary fiction. I too (generally) hate fiction without a plot. Plot is good.

But I think this fetish that genre writers have with transparent writing (Orson Scott Card has it -- which is funny because his best work is that which has more of a non-transparent voice) can be just as much an expression of authorial ego as any literary fiction writer in love with his or her own darling little style.

Anonymous said...

For a list of LDS books that are generally recognized as good for their genre:

www.whitneyawards.com


All fiction is genre fiction. "Literary" is another genre, with its own rules and criteria for "good."

Anonymous said...

I’m sorry if I’ve caused offense–someone in the comment line asked for a specific example, and I gave one that I thought fit well. In retrospect I should have given examples without naming names, and for that I apologize. Any published LDS author has put more time and effort and sweat into writing than I have, and I have much to learn from that kind of discipline. At the same time, I’d like to explain where I’m coming from.

Does LDS writing compare favorably to national markets? For the sake of comparison in this instance, let’s take a mainstream cozy author, Tamar Myers, who also writes small-town cozies with a religious context. And for the record, I’ve read a good chunk of her books; I enjoy mainstream cozies.

Are Myers’ characters well-rounded? Not really. She does a big info dump at the beginning, setting up the Amish town and her main character, Magdalena Yoder. But there’s no growthor development; they just are what they are.

Is her writing good? She uses the verb “wailed” way too often, so much that it began to grate last time I read one of her books. But it’s not so bad that I can’t get through it. I want to know what happens, and I like the recipes and the quirky people.

What about her references to religion? How accurate are they?

I have no idea. She’s flippant about the Amish/Mennonite culture sometimes, usually respectful, but not necessarily reverent. And this, for me, is the key difference between Green and Myers, the thing that makes it hard for me to enjoy Green’s work: I’m not Amish. I’m Mormon. If I were Amish, maybe I’d dislike Myers’ portrayal of my religion.

Here’s the thing: I seriously dislike the way Mormonism is portrayed in Hearts in Hiding. As mentioned, I don’t like the juxtaposition of holy and horny as the main character ogles her love interest and notices his garment line. I don’t like the way that the non-LDS people suddenly become interested in the Church, as though they couldn’t be good people unless they did. It’s a tacked-on way to end things, not developed at all, and it cheapens both the relationships between the LDS and non-LDS characters, and the process of conversion as well.

Those are the two main examples that come to mind. But throughout the book, I felt frustrated by the portrayal of Mormonism. It grated. It was not an accurate or appealing representation of the culture and people I know and love.

Now, maybe the cozy genre isn’t suited to a nuanced portrayal of Mormonism. That’s fine. It is what it is, the fault more of the genre than the author. But this is why, when I reach for a cozy mystery written in a small religious town, I’ll go for Tamar Myers.

And, I think, this is why so many people dislike what they’ve read in LDS lit: what we read about Mormons does not match who we think we are. The taste issue, again. And it swings over the entire spectrum of LDS writing. For OSC, Levi Petersen’s portrayal of Mormons doesn’t match who he thinks we are. For me, Green’s Hearts in Hiding doesn’t reflect who I think we are.

There is plenty of writing that portrays something about me, yet doesn’t accurately reflect my life or my assumptions, that nevertheless does not bug me. I can read books about stay-at-home moms that don’t fit my situation without being bothered by them. But I want writing about Mormons to feel true, to resonate. That’s why I loved Fine Old High Priests, by Donald Smurthwaite: I read it, and in the way that Mormons were portrayed I saw myself and my family. That’s why I can enjoy fluffy non-LDS lit, which doesn’t paint my own culture in a semi-accurate way, whereas, to date, fluffy LDS lit makes me cringe.

Tristi Pinkston said...

If you're looking for a good literary read, try "I am Not Wolf" by Roger Terry. I loved it.

"Counting Stars" by Michele Holmes is as good as any national romance I've read.

William Morris said...

I'm quite aware of the Whitney Awards. But as I mention above, that's just 2007. :-)

"All fiction is genre fiction. 'Literary' is another genre, with its own rules and criteria for 'good.'"

Well, yeah.

And I'm quite willing to take all the various genres for what they are. In fact, unlike many former English majors (and like many, esp. in the Mormon world), I read more speculative fiction than literary fiction. In fact, except for maybe Romance (although I have read a few Romance novels), I think I'm well-enough acquainted with the genres to have at least some sort of semi-informed opinion about them. Which is exactly why I'd like some suggestions. Getting recommendations has served me very well with sci-fi and fantasy.

Finally, I'd note that some rules and criteria (discourse parameters is the term I'd use) are better than others. And some of the best works in any genre (including literary fiction) flout those rules and blur those parameters.

allyson condie said...

Laura, both my books are set outside of Utah (they are young adult LDS fiction). Yearbook is set in Seattle, and First Day takes place in Ithaca, New York, and in Brazil.

This is a very interesting discussion...

allyson condie said...

William:

I (might) have two books for your list.

However, are we defining LDS fiction as "fiction only published by LDS publishers"? That seems almost unfairly narrow and eliminates many of "our" best authors. Can we broaden the definition to include books with LDS characters whose faith is mentioned and influences their lives/decisions?

If so, I recommend two YA fiction books that can stand up VERY well to others of their genre. (I'm sure there are more but these are the ones that pop up in my mind.) Dean Hughes' book, Soldier Boys, was published in 2003, as was Chris Crowe's excellent Mississippi Trial, 1955.

Rebecca Talley said...

Great discussion. It's interesting to read different opinions on this subject. Thankfully, we don't all want to read/write the same thing nor do we all read/write for the same reasons. The more LDS authors can offer diversity, the better.

My YA LDS novel, Heaven Scent, is set in California and the main character is not LDS.

Anonymous said...

Laura:
The LDS-themed books I have published so far (middle grade/YA) are set in the southern U.S.: My Mom's a Mortician, Funeral Home Evenings, Early Morning Cemetery, The Final Farewell. The first two received awards from the Association for Mormon Letters.

Comments about editing:
I have found typos in my books. That bothers me. I've learned, though, that if you do your best to be prompt and meet deadlines, insist on reviewing the galleys AND only check those galleys for proofreader error rather than attempt to change chunks of texts, your editor will be happy to cooperate with you. I can't do anything about the galleys I didn't receive and the results that have gone to print, but I am pleased to have a publisher that is willing to work with me on this issue. If a typo does get in, at least this way I share in the responsibility.

Writing for the LDS market:
I don't write for the LDS market. I write for an audience of one -- the person who is reading my book. I think about that one reader and how I can craft a story in such a way that the words, scenes, and characters will draw him or her into it. I don't really feel a connection to the LDS market, perhaps because I'm so distant from it, but I feel a great connection to that reader I envision as I write.

I guess from a marketing perspective, I could be more successful in the market if I branded myself as an LDS author but, really, all I want to do is write a good story, entertain my readers and give them something to think about, no matter what faith they adhere to.

patricia wiles

Anonymous said...

Wow. This comment redefines voice for fiction writers and it is, in my view, way off base if not entirely naieve:

"But I think this fetish that genre writers have with transparent writing (Orson Scott Card has it -- which is funny because his best work is that which has more of a non-transparent voice) can be just as much an expression of authorial ego as any literary fiction writer in love with his or her own darling little style.

David G. Woolley

Anonymous said...

Wow. This comment redefines voice as a fettish rather than a tool or tehnical goal for the fiction writer and it is, in my view, way off base if not entirely naieve:

"But I think this fetish that genre writers have with transparent writing (Orson Scott Card has it -- which is funny because his best work is that which has more of a non-transparent voice) can be just as much an expression of authorial ego as any literary fiction writer in love with his or her own darling little style.

David G. Woolley

William Morris said...

Any tool can become a fetish. A slavish devotion to the tool. Something to agitate for, to gather devotees around.

And voice is not a static thing.

I think with OSC's work, it's most obvious in the trajectory of the Alvin Maker novels which begin with a stronger voice and end with a transparency that dulls.

I have no problem with transparent style, per se. But I'm not convinced that it's always the right choice. It can be just as much a tyranny of style as any other discursive preference.

J Scott Savage said...

Patrica,

No offense intended here, but when your book title plays on Family Home Evening and Seminary, don't you think you are kind of marketing yourslef as a Mormon writer? Seems like it might be a slight giveway.

William,

As an LDS author, I don't want to step on any toes, but since people haven't really given you an authoritative list. Let me drop a few names. First of all, be aware that LDS published fiction generally focuses on romance, historical fiction, mystery, and thriller.

I'm going to try to focus on writers who are not up for Whitneys, since that was part of your criteria.

The king of LDS historical fiction is Dean Hughes. Hands down. That guy can write. I would also recommend you check out books by Tristi Pinkston, Gordon Ryan, and David Woolley. NC Allen's Civil War series is also very, very good.

I'm less comfortable with romance because I just don't read alot of it. But I would recommend you read My Not So Fairytale Life by Julie Wright. Also try the original Arianna(sp?) series by Rachel Nunes.Also Rules of Engagment by Stephanie Fowers.

He is up for a Whitney, but I'll break my own rule here and tell you to try Bill Gardner for thrillers. He is an ex-SWAT member. I think his most recent book, The Operative, is his best. You might also try Sariah Wilson's first novel which has kind of a sci fi type edginess to it.

As far as mysteries, it really depends on what you like. Liz Adair used to do the Spyder Latham series and you can pick up her books quite cheaply. Kerry Blair is great if you like your mystery on the lighter side with a lot of laughs. Betsy Greene does msyteries set in a small southern town. She kind of reminds me of Agathy Christie stories set in a Grisham town.

A couple of other choices: Fine Old High Priests and anything by Jerry Borrowman, although his work isn't fiction.

William Morris said...

Thanks! This is great. I understand that working writers don't want to leave out colleagues/peers, but it's really useful to have some starting points.

So if anyone is upset at being left out...

Don't blame Jeff. It's all my fault for being such a pain. :-)

Laura said...

I'm with William--there are a lot of recommendations. I'm excited to get reading!

Anonymous said...

Again I must rigorously disagree William. The voice of genre fiction is not a philisophical approach to be discarded like some fad. Voice is the lens of the author's camera. Discard it and you might as well turn off the lights, send all the readers home and lock the door to the book reader's theatre. Voice is the hard-to-achieve, in the trenches, work-a-day technique that requires a lifetime of dedication to understand and hone to perfection. It is not a philosophy, an approach, or a style. It is the camera of the authorial cinematographer. Discard it and you might as well read a newspaper.

David G. Woolley

Kerry Blair said...

Jeff did a great job on the blog and the comments -- hw said what I think better then I could even think it -- but was a little off in his recommendations. (Mostly in that he put me on and left himself off the list.)

For general fiction, with the ones mention above consider "Into the Fire" by Jeffrey Savage, "Redemption Road" by Toni Sorenson Brown, "Road to Heaven" by Coke Newell, and anything at all by Douglas Thayer.

Historical fiction: David Woolley's "Promised Land" series, Gale Sears' trilogy, and WWII fiction by Dean Hughes.

If you're into high-suspense chick lit, Jeff writes that, too ("House of Secrets" & "Dead on Arrival" -- along with horror, thrillers, and the best fantasy you'll ever fall into. (I personally think the man is schizophrenic, but am too polite to mention it in public.)

Rachelle said...

This is quite the conversation!
I enjoyed Jeff's blog and I think he is a great author. I totally agree with the whole realm of "personal taste."
I've read scads of books and some of them I absolutely hated. Some of those were mainstream publishers and some of them were LDS. My point is if you want to go looking for bad books, don't just look in the LDS genre. There are plenty to choose from all over the world.
I pretty much know my own likes and dislikes by now and so if I read something by a certain author I don't like, I usually don't read another. There are plenty of great books in the LDS genre to be found, but that will be based on your own personal taste. There are certain authors I choose to read when I want to read some fluff, when my brain is on overload and I just want to be entertained. Others I read when I want to really think about things and consider ideas I've never thought of before.
I personally like Clair Poulsen's mysteries and Josi Kilpack writes some amazing stories on real life issues. I absolutely loved Dean Huges, Children of the Promise. But some other people may hate those books. That's okay.
And just for David G. Wooley's sake, I have to say that I really enjoyed Hearts in Hiding by Green. I knew what I was getting when I picked the book up and I wasn't out hunting for errors and cliches. I just wanted an enjoyable, easy read. I did read another title by her which I didn't like as much but again that's personal taste.
Oh and sorry but I just can't resist David, :) whoever said a man was an authority on romance?

Rachelle said...

Oops sorry David, that may not have been you after all. I kept seeing your name after several of the anonymous comments, but the one I referred to may have truly been anonymous.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't me Rachelle, but I admit, I am no authority on much of anything.

David Woolley

J Scott Savage said...

Rob Wells is an authority on romance. Of course he is also kind of a sissy. Unlike James Dashner who is a sissy but isn't an authority on romance. And David is an authority on many many things. Soccer and the Book of Mormon being two that pop to mind right away. Even if he does keep wanting to rewrite other people's prose.

(Ducking and runnning from all three of them.)

Rachelle said...

Ha, ha that is funny. I agree David is definitely an authority on the Book of Mormon. I've read I think the first 3 of his series and I love how he made Lehi's family come to life for me.
Oh and I'm pretty sure that you can select to put a name on your comment instead of being anonymous and then signing your name. Try it next time. It works on my blog for people commenting that don't have a google ID.

Anonymous said...

To my dearly esteemed experts:

If you only knew the truth. I have a google ID. I'm just too lazy to sign in. And you, Rachelle, are too much of an expert on single engine prop planes to waste your time trying to fix my laziness!

Rob, by the way, is an expert on retro pop culture phrases like: "I'm so not going to let you know the real Robison E. Wells."

I've analyzed Dashner. Read every word to come out of his convulted maze-of-a-mind. He shows signs of normal behavior in the opening scenes. But there are enough reasons for concern steeming from his psychotic come-from-out-of-nowhere finishes to reccomend therapy. Savage drove him to it.

Speaking of Savage. He's the one that got us all started on this thread. He strikes the match, throws it in the trash then calls 911. Kerry Blair has the dispatch tapes to prove it.

Blair, of course, is going to point out how Wells, Savage and Dashner are some sort of twisted blessing to the rest of us and she's going to try to do it in the words of Emily Dickinson. But not even a Dickinson expert like Kerry could come up with a poem twisted enough to adequately describe our psychotic little trio as a blessing we should count.

Me? I'm just happy that William doesn't know where I live.

David G. Woolley

Jennie said...

Interesting conversation. I've enjoyed reading both the blog and the comments. However, as someone who reads almost every LDS novel that comes along and who has read all but two of the Whitney finalists I would like to correct one misconception. Copy errors occur with far greater frequency in main stream fiction than in those published by Covenant or Deseret Book. The smaller LDS publishers are inconsistent; some of their books have few errors and some are a mess.

There are LDS novels that are excellent in almost every genre, but no matter how well a book is written, taste is the deciding factor on how well the book is received. The books with the most hype are not necessarily the best written or most remembered. I'll mention a few titles I believe can hold their own with national titles, though my tastes will probably not match exactly anyone elses taste. Even horror is well represented now by Gregg Luke's Do No Harm, a Robin Cook style medical suspense. I am mystified as to why Dean Hughes' Before the Dawn didn't become a Whitney finalist. It is one of the finest novels Hughes has ever written and covers a historical period, the depression, that hasn't generated a lot of quality fiction. Traitor by Grey and Until the Dawn by Sears are excellent historicals too. Mary & Joseph by Robert Marcum is one of the best novels I've read dealing with a scriptural event. Stephanie Black's The Believer, Draper's Hun ting Gideon, and Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days are the best I've seen in speculative fiction.

There are many LDS writers creating good mystery/suspense which range the whole gamut; cozy, detective, thriller, etc. Here I could list Green, Savage, Blair, Abramson, Downs, Gardner.

Romance is another genre that has so many sub genres, it's hard to recommend specific titles without knowing specific tastes.
Romance in LDS fiction is put down by many who have read little in this field. Yes, just like in main stream romance, some are sappy and trite, but some are excellent. Even the sappy ones fullfill a need for some readers whether it is LDS or genereal market. Love and romance are a vital part of the human experience and pretty important to eternal progression, so it's no surprise that it is such a popular theme in LDS fiction. Whether a person likes sob sister soap opera, campus nonsense, social issue drama, heroes of the past, second chances, rags to riches, girl next door, or against all odds, romance is a legitimate theme almost everyone can relate to and deserving of more respect than pseudo intellectuals tend to give it. I would reccommend trying At Journey's End by Annette Lyon, Delicious Conversation by Jennifer Stewart Griffith, The Bishop's Bride By Elizabeth W. Watkins, or anything by Michele Bell or Rachel Nunes.

This is a fun topic, but whether some people want to believe it or not, there are some real quality LDS fiction works being produced in today's market. Yes there are some poor ones too, but overall, I have to agree with Jeff, the selections are growing better and in most areas compete favorably with the general market. In my view, some excel.

William Morris said...

David:

You're right. I don't know where you live. I'd challenge you to a duel at dawn, but I'm afraid that my fencing sabre is currently have its hilt re-jeweled.

Jennie:

Thanks for you comment. You would definitely be in a better position to know than I am. And I am under the impression that the market has made leaps and bounds over the past decade.

And thanks for the recommendations.

Angela H. said...

Just this morning, I went to the library and picked up a copy of Gale Sears' book, _Upon the Mountains_. I noticed that it had been nominated for Whitney, and I am sincere in my desire to read more LDS fiction published by Covenant and DB. I'm looking forward to reading it and hope I like it. I plan to mention it in my monthly LDS lit post on Segullah in March.

I've never considered myself a genre snob. I've loved Stephen King since teenagerhood, and if historical fiction is done well, I really like it, too. My deal is this: I want artistry, I want complex characters, I want insight. This is what I like in a book, and I will take it wherever I can find it. And I realize that I haven't been looking much on the shelves of Deseret Book . . . and how can I expect to find it without looking? So now I'm looking.

You know what else I realized is stopping me? Book covers. I know from my own experience with my book's cover that covers are a tricky, tricky thing. A cover can communicate oodles of information that can either draw a reader in or
repel her. I must say that I am often (not always, but often) prejudiced against covers that look like romance novels, and much more interested in covers that look like literary fiction. So I don't even bother to pick up a book that has a more "genre" look to it--and if the writing inside is good, I wouldn't even know it.

But the people who design those covers for a living know what they're doing. I realize that most of the readers of genre fiction are drawn to those very covers because that's what THEY like. But over time, I've conditioned myself not to pick up books with a certain look. That's prejudice right there--I realize this--but as I've tried to examine my own reading habits, I think this is an important prejudice to consider.

It's a tough thing, this LDS writing community of ours. There can be a bit of an "us against them" mentality--the "us" being the AMLish writers, and the "them" being the Covenantish writers. (Yes, I just made up those adjectives. And no, please don't read anything into my designation of who is "us" and who is "them." And of course not everyone can be divvied up into either of these teams, or even wants to be. I'm just making a generalization here.)

I can see where the Covenant/DB writers would get pretty sick of the AML types dismissing their work without ever reading it. And I can also see how the AML writers get discouraged when they are constantly told that there is no market for their kind of work, making it incredibly hard to break in and get published.

What I do know is that both the number of talented writers and the desire for complexity within the LDS readership has increased over the years. There will always be a market for entertaining fiction, and I see absolutely nothing wrong with serving that market. Writers who consistently serve this market should be applauded for doing what they do well. But I also think that there is room in LDS fiction for all kinds of work, and if we can respect one another for working well within the genres we love, LDS art will be the better for it.

Now I feel like I should say "Amen." Or something. This has been a very interesting discussion to follow and think about--thanks for all your insights.

Sharlee said...

I'll say it, Angela.

Amen.

Well said.

Great discussion. Thanks, all.

Janet Jensen said...

I wrote a great post and it disappeared!

Thought-provoking comments above, all worth considering.

Anyway, I have read quite a few books in the LDS market lately and have been very pleased to see that over the years, more attention has been paid to quality editing, which is so critical to the final product.

So let's hear it for good editors!

Janet

ASPMS said...

Great post, Jeff.

It reminded me of a problem I had a few years ago when I got tripped up trying to read an LDS romance novel, so I wrote a post on it for Motley Vision -- see What Trip's Up Mormon Lit? http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=418

I also think there is one aspect of this that you may have missed. While I generally agree with your comment that:
"LDS publishers operate under the same constraints as any small regional publisher. ... You can no more compare their work to the latest James Patterson novel than you could compare $50 million special effects to the guy creating an explosion on his home computer."
I do have to observe that it is totally unrealistic to expect your audience to NOT compare your work to that of national publishers.
Like it or not, readers DO expect a lot from LDS publishers. Fair or not, they ARE comparing LDS works to those of the national market. To them the two markets aren't that separate.
It may not be fair, but that is what is expected.

Danyelle F. said...

Wow . . . and wow, again.

I've heard over and over from friends about how they don't read LDS fiction because it isn't as good as national market fiction. What I find funny is that I often hear it from other women my age (mid-twenties to early thirties) who have never read an LDS fiction novel, but are basing their opinions on what their mothers (or others of that generation) have told them from when they read so-and-so's book from back in the cheesy era.

I have quite a collection of LDS books on my book shelf. I also regularly shove them into any willing reader's hands I can. I absolutely love it when a reader comes back to me and says, "Wow, that was great. Do you have any more like that?"

Why, yes I do!

I totally agree with Jeff when he talked about taste. I love reading LDS fiction. There are certain authors I stand in line to get a copy of their book as soon as it comes out on the shelves. But that doesn't mean I'm always 100% impressed with their newest book. I connect with some books or characters more than others. I'm the same way with national market books. I totally devoured Evanovich's first ten Stephanie Plum books. After number ten, the plots started not being as interesting or at least not leaving me with the "I can't wait until the next book!" feeling. I'm sure there are others who would disagree.

Anyway, I enjoyed your guest blog, Jeff. And it's been an interesting discussion. Have a great day everyone!

Darlene said...

It seems to me that when a person says that she finds LDS genre fiction to be poorly written, people who are authors of it or passionate fans of it argue with her. They might say that she hasn't read enough of it, or that she is comparing it unfairly to other genres or to bigger (national) publishers.

So my question is this: is there an unbiased authority that fans and producers of LDS genre fiction would respect? If someone were to tell you that your darling is flawed, what are the qualifications of that someone who would make you believe it?

I just feel like the conversation shuts down so quickly along the lines of "You're being snobby/unfair" whenever anyone criticizes the quality of LDS genre writing. The biggest complaint is always, "Well, you haven't read enough of it." But I've heard of several would-be fans or critics (constructive critics, that is) who sample a few of the current offerings, find them to be substandard, and subsequently prefer not to read any more. I don't think we can blame them for that.

So my question is, which five or so books would you hold up as examples of the very best LDS genre fiction has to offer--best in terms of overall quality (quality of production including editing, cover art, typography; quality of prose including diction and flow; quality of overall structure; quality of characterization, etc.)? And what reader (who has no agenda but is an educated reader and thus able to observe and comment on the elements of fiction) would you trust to analyze these five books objectively and evaluate--both in comparison to "literary" LDS fiction and national genre fiction?

It occurs to me, after having written the above paragraph, that maybe the core of the problem is just that--the "educated" reader. Maybe what people who produce LDS genre fiction are trying to say is that if I am educated enough in fiction so that I am bothered when a character is shallow, for example, or a story arc seems flawed, I am probably not part of their audience.

Darlene said...

. . . and now I feel the need to duck. Please, I don't mean to criticize anyone or anything in particular. I just want to point out the problem we keep butting up against in even discussing the topic of quality. I don't think I should be considered a snob if I dare to bring up the idea that it's possible that critics might have a point. (They might NOT have a point. But how are we to know if we refuse to grant the possibility?)

J Scott Savage said...

Darlene,

There is no need to duck. And believe me, most authors would run to a crtic who could somehow give us the ultimate review. But even in national books, there is no "authority" on what is good or not.

That being said, check out Jeffrey Needles AML reviews. I think he is about as fair as they come.

Momnerd said...

The small town that I moved from a few months ago had this tiny library with a huge LDS fiction section. (Which I didn't really mind, since I am LDS.) But since I read a book every day or two, in general, I basically read every single book in that section during the five years I lived there. (Including all of your books.)
I definitely found quite a few typos, cheesy scenarios, and gag inducing cliches. I agree with your take, however. I have done some reviews for other small publishing companies and they have just as many typos, etc. as the small LDS publishers.
That doesn't keep me from wishing I could be hired on as an editor since I'm editing them anyway as I read them....
Any advice on how to snag that job? ;)