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 clichés, 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