7/24/08

Hornet's Nest #4: Is 'LDS Fiction' a genre label?

Is LDS fiction a genre label? If not, should it be? If so, what is the genre description?
We, as humans, seem to like to categorize things. Categorizing simplifies things, it brings order and understanding, and it helps us navigate our world. Categories also save us a lot of time when trying to share our life experiences with others.

For example, if I ask you out
to dinner, would you rather I say we're going for Italian food, or spend the next 30 minutes describing each dish on the menu? When I say Italian, you have a general idea of what to expect—pasta and spices. You would be shocked to find wantons or sushi on your plate.

So, categories can be a good thing.

In literature, we use the word "genre" to designate story categories. According to dictionary.com, a genre is "a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like: the genre of epic poetry."

Again, if you ask me what I like to read, would you rather I say fantasy, or describe the plot line of the last five books I've read?

Literary genres are a categorizing tool. They let bookstores and libraries know where to shelve the book. Genres are also a marketing tool. A genre label helps to very quickly target those readers who will most likely enjoy and/or purchase the book.

As a writer, it's important to know what genre your book falls in and to follow the expectations of the readers who enjoy that genre. For example, if you're writing a western, you don't want to spend a lot of time exploring the deep emotions of your protagonist. If you're writing a romance, emotions are the meat of your story.

That's not to say that you can't bend the genre rules a bit. Bending the rules gives readers something fresh and fun and new. Bending the rules can also create a new genre or sub-genre—chick lit, for example, is a relatively new sub-genre of women's fiction.


However, if you stray too far from the genre rules or if you mislabel your genre, you're going to have a more difficult time selling your book, both to a publisher and in the bookstores. You'll also find disgruntled and disappointed readers popping up all over the Internet. (ahem.)

So now that we understand what genre is and what it does, is "LDS fiction" a genre label? Does it bring with it its own rules and reader expectations? Based on the uproar over books like Angel Falling Softly, who market themselves as LDS fiction, I'm thinking LDS fiction has, indeed, become a literary genre.

Based on my experience in the industry, the majority of LDS readers who pick up a book marketed as LDS fiction, have the following expectations:
  • that one or more of the characters in the story will be LDS

  • that the content will deal with the LDS experience of life in some way

  • that there will be minimal violence, physical intimacy, and/or profanity

  • that if there is violence, intimacy, or profanity in the story, it will be necessary to the story and not gratuitous, and that it will not be descriptive and detailed

  • that although there may be trials along the way, good will be blessed and bad will be punished

  • that the basic tenets and beliefs of LDS doctrine will be affirmed and upheld

There have been successful books labeled as LDS Fiction that do not meet all of these expectations. As I said before, bending the rules can sometimes be a good thing. But it's a fine line and what one reader calls bending the rules, another reader calls stomping the rules to smithereens.

Perhaps what Angel Falling Softly and other books that have created an uproar or have been pulled from shelves in the past are telling us is that the LDS Fiction genre has grown to the point that we need a way to label and categorize the varied expectations of the LDS reader.

I don't know that sub-genre will work. What would we label them? Clean LDS? Edgy LDS? Perhaps a rating system like what is used in the movies? Or perhaps, word of mouth is good enough.

What do you think?

45 comments:

Annette Lyon said...

That was my thinking as well--that we need new classifications. "LDS Fiction" isn't enough anymore, for the very reasons you were saying.

AFS is a book by an LDS writer, published by an LDS press, dealing with LDS subject matter. So in a sense, it's hard to argue that it isn't LDS fiction--yet it would totally offend people who pick it up thinking it belongs in the same category as Jack Weyland's latest. (Or anyone who reads LDS fiction because it follows the rules you listed.)

Additional genre categories seem like the only solution, but how to implement them?

William Morris said...

Chris Bigelow self-describes Zarahemla Books as "edgy but not apostate." Now both of those adjectives are little hornets nests unto themselves.

But I would note one thing about all of the books he has published so far fall in to what the Assoc. for Mormon Letters has termed "broadly appropriate". To quote from the editorial I just linked to:

"The second kind of Mormon literature is the 'broadly appropriate.' This kind tries to be true to a mainstream vision of the gospel while acknowledging the complex mix of good and evil that exists in the world. This may be the category with the most potential to break Mormon literature out of niche status. Traditionally at least, the sort of slow-selling but long-lived books that wind up being studied in college courses are in this mode. Douglas Thayer's Under the Cottonwoods is an example of fiction for LDS readers in this category. An example of fiction for readers at large is the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card.

"The mascot for this kind of writing would be a border collie or some other intelligent, agile working breed. These books are willing to depict sex or violence or bad language if there's literary justification, though frequently less than in comparable works by non-LDS writers. By contrast, they're more willing than most non-LDS writing to confront the sacred head-on. The broadly appropriate shows evil as attractive in order to make its attraction comprehensible. Characters think all manner of thoughts and fret precious little about their failings because they're not aware of most of them. Its readers identify with characters less strongly but study them more intently. Often the point of a book is to learn compassion by coming to grips with the complexity of a character's situation. Often the emphasis is on agency--focusing on a sin or flaw in order to follow it through to its logical conclusion."

Now obviously some Mormon readers might not want to read that type of fiction -- which is why I included a content warning in my A Motley Vision post on Angel Falling Softly.

Betsy said...

One of my issues with Christian Fiction becoming an infomercial for Christianity and I don't want LDS Fiction becoming an infomercial for LDS standards. I feel like faith should be organic. It should not be let me interrupt this story to tell you why you need Jesus or why you need missionaries. My Bishop told me about individuals who have never read the scriptures but have read the Work and the Glory series that is scary. For this reader a gratitous sex scene is as offensive as a gratitous faith scene. Those that write faith-based fiction the day a reader prefers your work to the scriptures is the day I think a writer has failed. NO matter how many books have been sold. How popular the author is. That is why I think being a faith based author is harder than a highwire artist. Yes as a reader I am responsible for my choices. Those choices are colored by the influences in my life including the author's voice.

MoJo said...

You know, I've been ambushed in books before and I didn't like it then, don't like it now.

So I support A) a publisher's rating system and/or B) a warning at the beginning of the book. I'm sure the LDS writer/publisher community is small enough that publishers could actually get together and decide on some rating system amongst them using DB as the baseline. Just an idea.

My readers should get a good clue what they're in for by the first sentence in the book, but I plan to issue a warning anyway. As for AFS, I would have thought the back blurb would have been enough warning; there was no ambush awaiting the unsuspecting reader. And I agree with Chris who said the sex was tame and, IMO, the scene between husband and wife was very lovingly depicted without being sappy or forced.

Eugene said...

As the author of the novel in question here, I would like to point out a few narrative elements that I do not consider "subtle," but seemed to have escaped the attention of some. Perhaps I should have underlined them.

I'll confine myself to the moral conclusions of the narrative, specifically that "although there may be trials along the way, good will be blessed and bad punished," and "the basic tenets and beliefs of LDS doctrine affirmed and upheld."

Readers may be offended by who is blessed and who is punished and what tenets and beliefs are affirmed. But I consider such questions of story structure and focus tangential to this particular discussion.

However, I do detect one other element of "Mormon fiction" that seems to be a deal-breaker: that the narrator must always be an objectively reliable source of the "truth." My narrators are always reliable about what they believe to be the truth.

1) There are two explicit references to Saul and the Witch of Endor. Rachel makes one herself, so she is aware of the thin ice she is treading on. Like Saul, Rachel is one big rationalizing machine. So is Milada.

2) Milada believes herself damned because she committed horrific crimes in her past, not because she is a vampire (her guilt argues for the existence of her soul). I use vampirism to illustrate the problem of a sinner "tak[ing] also of the tree of life, and eat[ing] and liv[ing] forever."

Note the references to "good vampires" in The Silver Kiss and Angel.

3) I didn't want to Milada to degrade into what Erica Friedman calls the "Evil Psycho Lesbian" character, but this is a facet of her personality she wars with (hence her conflicted reaction to Laura). She manages it by drawing lines for herself that she will not cross.

Frankly, she's come a long way in four centuries. And along the way, she has made some terrible yet noble sacrifices on behalf of her sisters. She is not unworthy of grace.

4) Kamilla stands as a stark contrast to her sister. Kamilla lives by a firm moral code. She is a genuinely good person. She despairs at Milada's obsession with their sire. In this case, a vampire's soul is the product of nurture (and personal discipline), not nature.

5) Jennifer's condition in the end is no less manageable than, say, type I diabetes. Her soul is not in jeopardy. Again, see Kamilla's example. Note who ends up as her guardian. (Hint: not the two people who rejected the possibilities of God's grace.)

6) My mom liked it.

Now, to be sure, King Lear shouldn't have been such a chump. It'd be nice if he could have patched things up with his daughters. And nice if Hamlet could have gotten some counseling to get over his "issues" and married Ophelia. But me thinks the plays wouldn't have turned out the same.

Anonymous said...

An author has every right to choose what he/she will write and why. Readers also have the right to choose what they will read and why.

I think the basic issue here is that when something is advertised as LDS fiction it should uphold certain standards. Yes, the book should support gospel principles, not try to tear them down or twist them merely to fit a story structure.

The point is, if an author doesn't want to write within the framework of the LDS market, then write for a different market, but don't try to trick readers because in the end, it will backfire.

MoJo said...

Anonymous, I think perhaps we should define terms "certain standards" and "trick the reader."

The "certain standards" one has already been discussed as being completely subjective, unless all publishers are going by the DB standard, which, as far as I know, isn't written down anywhere (please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).

But I want to talk about the accusation of "tricking the reader."

This is part of the blurb on the back of the book:

Milada is homo lamia. A vampire. Fallen. And possibly the only person in the world who can save her daughter. As Rachel uncovers Milada's secrets, she becomes convinced that, as Milton writes, "all this good of evil shall produce."

Pushing every moral boundary in order to protect their families, these two women will ultimately pay a price higher than either of them could have imagined.


I'm unsure which part of that wasn't crystal clear about the story's intent. Vampire lore and its inextricable link to sex is fairly ubiquitous and I feel it should have been incumbent upon the reader to pick up the cues that were in the blurb.

Th. said...

.

No one was trying to trick anyone else. The problem is a simple disagreement as to what certain standards are the certain standards. The fact is, there will never be consensus on this issue. Anyone who wants a store or a publisher to make all their decisions regarding propriety is bound to be disappointed someday. It's time that everyone with agency use it, rather than surrendering it to someone in a cubicle or on a website or behind a counter, trusting them to make our decisions for us.

Mr Woodbury has made a good-faith effort to let everyone know ahead of time what "problems" his book might contain, and he has every right to call his book LDS Fiction. The term isn't trademarked and in most (if not all) senses, it fully qualifies.

Annette Lyon said...

I have to disasgree, MoJo.

The blurb is clear about the subject of vampires, yes.

But in today's post-Twilight world, vampires don't necessarily imply sex anymore. The blurb wasn't clear on that, and since the book is marketed as an LDS title (something Twilight isn't, and it has no sex), readers could easily be ambushed by another vampire book by another LDS writer that approaches the topic in a vastly different and more provocative way.

MoJo said...

Annette, with all due respect, I found Twilight to be an erotic book. The sexual subtext was clear. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Not only was it erotic, it was deceptive and insidious in its sexual content. One brief survey across the bloggernacle shows me I am far from alone in that opinion.

If the new standard of vampirism and its associated lore is Twilight, then I would submit that it's a standard based on very little exposure to popular fiction.

Annette Lyon said...

One more from me, and then I'll be quiet. Th, It's frustrating to hear the "agency" argument in this case.

Some LDS readers might be surrendering their agency, but in my experience, most use their agency just fine.

HOWEVER, they can't make an informed decision if they don't have all the cards on the table. If they think they've used their agency to choose one thing but then discover it's something else, of course they'll feel betrayed and annoyed.

That's the crux of this whole debate--how to label books so readers know right away what they're holding and so they can make the choice that's right for them, whatever that may be.

If someone chooses to stick with Covenant and DB titles because they've been burned elsewhere and can't know with certainty what they'll be getting from other sources, I can't blame them for that--and it's not abandoning their agency. Rather, it's USING it, just not in the way you might.

Brittany said...

*wipes brow* I just read all of the Hornet's Nest posts and comments. The only thing I have to say is...

I'm glad I write non-fiction. :p

RobisonWells said...

Not to be contrarian, but...

I think this discussion is interesting from an academic standpoint and almost entirely futile from a practical one.

Two quotes that are basic mantras in the world of marketing:

First, "perception is reality". It doesn't matter what the facts are; it only matters how people--customers--perceive the facts.

Second, (and I'm substituting the word "genre" for "brand"): "A genre ONLY exists in the minds of your customers."

It doesn't matter how I define LDS Fiction, or how LDS Publisher defines it, or how AML defines it, or how the Whitneys define it. The fact of the matter is that the general public--our customers--will continue to define LDS fiction however the heck they want to. As much as we might want to change it, it is not something that is easily or quickly done. In fact, I would say that almost nothing we can do will significantly alter the public perception of LDS fiction--it will merely evolve organically over time. Having us (or publishers, or writers) invent new classifications and sub-genres won't make a lick of difference.

To put it simply, there is no solution other than time. There's no governing board with a massive advertising budget that can actively shift the public's perception of LDS fiction. Instead, LDS writers need to accept that if they write books with LDS content and sell them to LDS people, they will inevitably run into customers who judge "LDS fiction" by its conservative, historical context--at least for the foreseeable future.

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? It doesn't matter; it just is.

Of course, this doesn't mean that books that don't perfectly fit this widely-held, conservative definition of LDS fiction should give up. It just means that they have their work cut out for them. A good example is, of course, Zarahemla Books, which trumpets it's mission loudly. They're running a mini education campaign for potential readers, saying that they're something different. But, and I think Chris Bigelow would agree with me, they're fighting a murderous uphill battle. Zarahemla can put their motto ("provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming") on all their advertisements and backliners, and it won't shatter the public's perception of LDS fiction--and, quite likely, those books that fit snugly into the public's definition will sell far better than those that don't.

Again, I'm not saying this is a good thing, I'm just saying that it is what it is. We can define genres and sub-genres till we're blue in the face, but it won't affect the the perceptions of the vast majority of people who walk into an LDS bookstore.

RobisonWells said...

(Also, contrarian is a noun, and I used it as an adjective. What a maroon.)

CatherineWO said...

I have to agree with robinsonwells, that this problem is not going to be solved by writers or publishers, but will evolve over time.
I don't believe that Eugene Woodbury or Chris at Zarahemla are trying to trick anyone. On the contrary, they are very open about the content of their books. I'm a little mystified as to what more they could do to make it clearer to the potential reader.
I agree that mainstream LDS fiction is currently selling better, but that doesn't mean there isn't an audience for this new type of edgier (for lack of a better term) novel. I believe there is a market for the latter. The readers are out there, but they have yet to be connected with the books. The problem is one of marketing. Perhaps as they find their market niche they will also find their genre.

Christopher Bigelow said...

I don't remember setting out to market ANGEL FALLING SOFTLY as "LDS fiction," particularly or exclusively. There's no tag on the book to that effect. Yes, I submitted the book through some insider LDS channels to which I happen to be privy, but we're also sharing it through some national channels.

If I just wanted to publish the same kind of LDS stories as half a dozen other companies are already doing quite well, I wouldn't have started Zarahemla Books. What would be the point of that? I'd rather get a job as an editor at one of the established companies.

At the same time, I would never have started Zarahemla without digital printing, which allows small quantities and low overhead. This is because I knew in advance of the closed-mindedness of the mainstream Mormon readership, at which I have hoped to chip away somewhat. I'm pleased that Zarahemla has fully paid for itself, but I have no illusions that it will rise above the level of a hobby-business.

Frankly, I'm surprised at the outrage expressed about Woodbury's book, much of it echo-chambered by people who haven't even read it for themselves. Personally, I don't think much of it is fair or reasonable or even respectable, but of course everyone's entitled to their opinion, like Robison said...

Th. said...

.

I think I need to clarify my agency comment.

Agency well used is based on education. If you don't know something, you can't act intelligently on it.

And speaking of vampries, vampires have always been about sex. This isn't a secret. The sex/vampire combo was invented by Anne Rice or that Hamilton woman. Read Dracula (or don't: it's a terrible book). It's less 'erotic' than Twilight but still has a definite sexual undertone.

Vampires are the sensual monster. That is what they prey on. The closest we've got to a sexless vampire is Bunnicula (love those books).

And, as Mr. Wells said, no one can control public perception of the LDS-Fiction label. But this also means we shouldn't feel beholden to following its undefinable and constantly changing criteria. How could we?

We do the best we can. In the end, we all govern ourselves.

Rebecca Talley said...

I must be out of the loop because I have never equated vampires with sex. So I would not have made that jump for this book.

I think that genres do have parameters and certain boundaries. Westerns have different requirements than romances or science fiction.

I write for children. I have to respect and honor the guidelines for that market. Picture books are very different from middle grade novels both in form and in acceptable themes. PBs depend on illustrations and usually have little text (about 1000 words). Perhaps an author could convince a publisher to publish a 10,000 word picture book, but it wouldn't sell well because that doesn't fit within the parameters of a picture book. Purchasers don't expect, or even want, a 10,000 word picture book.

We're talking about what the majority of the LDS book buying public expects when buying an LDS fiction book. No one is casting judgment on the author or the publisher, only voicing concern that this particular book doesn't seem to fit within this specific genre. And, an LDS author doesn't necessarily write LDS fiction.

As far as making a decision about a book without reading it, that's why we have reviewers. Reviewers have different tastes and sensibilities, but their job is to review books and our job is to evaluate their reviews and then make a choice as to whether or not we want to read the books.

MoJo said...

The sex/vampire combo was invented by Anne Rice or that Hamilton woman.

Actually, it was only re-popularized by Anne Rice and Chelsea Yarbro. Laurell K. Hamilton's a latecomer and a piker to boot.

The vampire myth goes back centuries (before Bram Stoker), but Stoker used it to express the suppressed female sexuality of Victorian England using elements of the succubus/incubus myth--making it acceptable for a woman to enjoy sex and, at the same time, escape any blame. It's the rape fantasy with a twist.

Otherwise, Th. is right. The sole purpose of the vampire myth as we know it, as Stoker gave it to us, is to explore "blameless" sexual expression.

Twilight is not exempt from this. The fact that there's no sex in the book means it's just better at worming its way into a young girl's mind because it's so insidious. The fact that so many LDS girls and women can't see that is from lack of exposure to the evils of the world, leaving them vulnerable to its implicit message. It's a wolf in sheep's clothing.

That said, regardless of my technical and deconstructionist issues with it, I liked it.

MoJo said...

We're talking about what the majority of the LDS book buying public expects when buying an LDS fiction book.

What's at issue here is, as Chris said, it was not marketed as an LDS book.

As for reviewers, the online LDS lit community is small enough; I'm sure the online LDS readership is even smaller. I doubt reviews have much reach.

I know that Annette has proposed breaking "LDS fiction" into sub-genres and I think that's a possibility.

I personally would prefer warnings, but that's something the author should decide for him or herself or for the publisher to decide.

IMO, LDS authors who write "secular" work shouldn't be classified as "LDS authors" on the basis of current expectations set by DB and Covenant. They are authors who are LDS, yes, but the perception is what it is.

I certainly have no intentions of marketing my book through LDS channels or tagging it LDS. I do intend to include a warning for those readers drawn to it on an LDS basis. I know what expectations the label "LDS fiction" carries and I respect that.

A. Morgan said...

Ack. Just thinking about how they are going to do make a sub-genre GIVES me a headache. (I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one to think that.) Honestly that is the dilemma of writing LDS Fiction. If you write with the LDS audience in mind, sorry to say, you have to ethically think really what is appropriate or not for your audience. That isn't censorship, that's considering your audience and writing for it. If you can't stay in those lines, then write for a different audience. If you plan to be published with an LDS Publisher, I think it is up to the publisher to keep those standards. Making the categories more complex is too much of a headache and busy publishers have better things to do.

Honestly this is the reason why I don't plan to write purely for an LDS market. I'll write and I'll have standards to blanket my writing as a whole. Me personally I don't plan to "pollute my pen," but what I regard as my standards, may bother some people out there. I can't make everyone happy, but I've got to follow my voice too.

I had a conversation about a year ago with a sister in my ward who didn't like the Twilight series and she explained why. I'm a fan, I saw her point of view, and I agreed with it, but yet I still love the series. I know I'm a sell out. She won't be planning to have her daughters read it because of her opinion. And you know, I'm okay with that. I plan to have a conversation about them with my kids. I mean what better way to strike up a conversation on LDS ideals than reading a book and discussing it?? And having the whole why or why not? Isn't that a great way to see gospel topics in action? Anyhow, that's just me... that's just my opinion.

Th. said...

.

Correction: I meant:

"The sex/vampire combo was NOT invented by Anne Rice or that Hamilton woman."

Anonymous said...

If Zarahamla's aim is to "Chip" away at the readership which chooses non-edgy, non-profane, non-immoral, uplifting, inspiring, fiction and to covert them to more worldly fare, I hope they go out of business very quickly. We have enough chippers chipping away from without. We don't need anymore chipping away from within.

Ly

Anonymous said...

I am free to hope they go out of buisness, am I not? And I'm going to help kick start the process by not purchasing anything they publish. Wahoooooooo.

Anonymous said...

The I am free to not purchase comment is a great one. No more Zarahamla books from me too.

Ly

William Morris said...

Actually, Angel Falling Softly is neither profane nor immoral. It might be considered a bit edgy. It is certainly uplifting and inspiring. Woodbury has put the vampire tropes and Mormonism into collision. It is a fantasy novel. Just like Orson Scott Card's Folk of the Fringe, the Alvin Maker series, and the Homecoming series -- all of which are based in LDS history and doctrine but are not meant to replicate Mormon doctrine exactly, but rather to explore interest aspects of the doctrine and history through fiction. The difference here is that Woodbury sets his novel in a world where Mormons pretty much act and believe like Mormons do.

But here's the thing: vampires don't actually exist. Angel Falling Softly posits that they do (as does Twilight) and then asks what might happen in a world where Morminism and vampirism both exist. It is purely speculative fiction.

And the result is not meant to create doubt or to castigate the LDS Church or to lure readers into the ways of the world (nor do I think it has that result). In fact, I would argue that Angel Falling Softly is much less alluring to evil than the Twilight series. In Woodbury's novel, there are serious consequences to the presence of vampires. And, the vampire's sexuality as a trope is completely exposed, I think. None of this alluring, teasing stuff that you get. He's laying bare, that hey, vampires have been used throughout literature and film as expressions of sexuality (and especially of a way to express women's sexuality in a way that they don't have to take responsibility for). Guess, what readers of Rice and Hamilton and Meyer and viewers of Buffy and Angel? You've been fooling yourself, playing with fire. Vampires aren't cool or sexy or interesting. They are dangerous predators. And yet Woodbury also adds the twist that some of them are just people with a medical condition who find ways to redeem themselves. Others -- not so much.

It also doesn't undermine the plan of salvation. If anything it is a heartrending, nuanced, fascinating exploration of agency and sin and repentance. It's also very much about love and taking chances and finding ways in this messy world to make things work.

It is not graphic by the world's standards. Nor is it more graphic than most works one would read in an intro to literature class. I recognize that it does contain three scenes or so that could make some Mormon readers uncomfortable -- that are pretty PG-13. In fact, I posted a content warning on A Motley Vision about the book.

I understand that not all readers will have the same experience. Reactions have ranged from applause to outrage to a shrugging of the shoulders.

But this whole chipping away from within idea is ridiculous. There are writers who want to do that. I'm not going to recommend that you go out and read Brian Evenson, for example. Or Neil LaBute.

Woodbury does not fall in the same category at all. He's much closer to Orson Scott Card. In fact, pretty much the same in terms of what he's doing and the level of graphicness (actually much less graphic than some of OSC's work). There are some Mormons who also think OSC is chipping away. But his track record, and the types of writers he has inspired, and his commitment to the LDS Church is pretty much unassailable.

Yes, Angel Falling Softly is a different kind of LDS fiction than what Covenant publishes. It is not apostate. And I challenge anyone to prove to me that this is a work that actually undermines faith.

And it is way better and way more redeeming and inspiring than The Matrix, which apparently most Mormons -- even those who don't normally go to Rated R movies -- have seen.

MoJo said...

Well said, William.

I challenge anyone to prove to me that this is a work that actually undermines faith.

I too would like for anyone making these claims to trace the logical pathway from AFS to whatever threat it poses and define the threat--in precisely defined terms.

I also think one should save one's outrage for books one has actually read.

William Morris said...

Now that I got all of that out of the way -- an addendum.

First: I think Angel Falling Softly is a fine novel and a rewarding, moral exploration for some aspects of Mormonism and the Mormon experience. But it is not a perfect novel. It is not the best Mormon novel published so far. And I think that Woodbury could have toned down some of the content (but perhaps not all) and it still would have been just as effective. That said, it's one of the best titles Zarahemla Books has published so far.

Second: It appears to me that some of the controversy over this title has come about because Chris Bigelow provided review copies to some lit bloggers who are more Covenant/DB-oriented. I consider Chris a friend. But I don't always agree with his PR/marketing approaches for Zarahemla Books.

Third: I think that part of the issue here is that the category that Angel Falling Softly falls into is so underdeveloped. There just haven't been that many "broadly appropriate" novels published (see my post further up for what I mean by that term). Signature has published a few of them, but they have also published works -- even creative works -- that cross the line even for those of us who prefer the "broadly appropriate" approach. I'm not a supporter of Signature (except for the stuff they've published by Doug Thayer and Patricia Karmesines and maybe a couple of other titles). This is relatively new territory for all of us and so it's easy to see why some readers have certain expectations of what LDS fiction is/should be.

Fourth: Angel Falling Softly pushes things about as far as I personally am comfortable with. Other Zarahemla Books titles don't push things quite this far. For all but the most sensitive readers, I think Hooligan, On the Road to Heaven and Hunting Gideon are very much worth reading. Brother Brigham and Kindred Spirits might be a bit too edgy for some. Long After Dark is fantastic -- the best of the lot. I would recommend it for those who are interested in literary fiction and have no problem with literary fiction that isn't super graphic.

Fifth: I think this really points out the need for some titles that are literary (but not pretentious) and orthodox (but not didactic). Perhaps such titles would fail to please anyone. But I'd be interested in hearing about works that don't push things in terms of graphic-ness, but acknowledge that Mormons are not always perfect. That explore the Mormon experience with all it's warts and foibles and disagreements over doctrine and practice but still holds that the LDS Church is true (Note that I have not detected anything in any of the Zarahemla Books titles that suggest that the LDS Church isn't true or that badmouths the Brethren or that pushes too far with discussion of the temple, etc.). That's exactly the kind of stuff that I want to read and write. And for the most part, that's the school of writing that Chris Bigelow supports and is interested in (certainly it's the type of work he published while editor of Irreantum).

Sixth: I'm going to personally continue to try and track down (I have pretty much a zero dollar entertainment budget and the libraries Minnesota don't tend to stock LDS fiction titles) more Covenant and DB fiction titles and read them. Just as it's not fair for those who haven't read Z-Books' output to make sweeping pronouncements about its publisher and authors; it's also not fair for those of us who don't read Covenant and DB fiction to make the judgments one sometimes hear about their titles (that they are didactic or not well-written/edited etc.).

Anonymous said...

So William Morris. Which is potentially more damaging:

A wolf in lambs clothing. Or a wolf seperated from the flock. It may not be apostate, but it does chip away. You simply can't ignore that fact. No matter how much you'd like to explore, or push the envelope. And I'm not suggestin you shun this sort of thing, but rather, make the choice to walk away.

Ly

David G. Woolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David G. Woolley said...

What is most troubling to me in discussions like this is that, though not intended I'm sure, there is a sense that a life spent following the Master is somehow not sufficient. That seeking to be informed but yet retain the saving virtues of a child is at some level (or many levels) deficient. Lacking. Without depth. Of regrettable upbringing. Uncultured. Uneducated. Unacceptable. Simple minded. Blind.

At what point do we shed our innocence, but still retain our virtue? When are we finally initiated enough in the things of this world? Informed enough? Experienced enough? Ten edgy novel? Twenty? A hundred? When do we rally the courage to walk away? Or do we simply become past feeling and never leave it on the adult book shelf?

When is enough enough?

Is there something so lacking in a life spent in discipleship that we are drawn with so much curiosity to explore beneath every evil unturned stone?

A. Morgan said...

This is the reason why we go to church, read our scriptures, pray, attend the temple, and other various activities to keep the spirt in our lives and prompting us to keep a balance of what is good for us and not so good for us. (We live in a world inundated with evil things, and are hit with them DAILY. We gird ourselves with protection every day to get through it all.) That is the determining factor in whether we go too far or not. It is all by keeping ourselves tuned into the Spirit and following those promptings. If your prompting says "don't read that," great! Follow it and be happy, but instead of telling everyone how evil this or that is when is it mild by far to world like standards, keep it where it should be. "That was something that I felt wasn't right for me." "Those things are something that I want to avoid because it makes me feel this, and I don't like that." "That book tested my comfort levels and I don't like feeling that way." For other people they have a different perspective, may not feel those same feelings, and it might speak to them in a way that is more spirit provoking. Or it may not effect them at all? I'm just saying, that it is possible. I'm just saying that you just never know the reasons people choose to allow certain things in their lives verses other things. Going on strike and shooting this and that down... it isn't going to make them go away. And hoping for a publishing company to go out of business is just seems wrong to me.

We should be grateful that we have the LDS Publishing companies that we do. If you are unsatisfied with the way things are being run, either call them and complain and ask them to raise their standards, stop buying their books, or start your own publishing company. Or even better support the ones that you do see keep standards that you like and take it further, call them and tell them thank you and why! Give a pat on the back to those who are meeting your expectations.

This is just how it is... just like some music can be uplifting for some and not for others. I can go to church and feel one kind of spirit and listen to a non church song at home and feel a stronger spirit at times. What does it mean. Nothing. It means you are touched when it happens. And your life is enriched when it happens. The likelihood of it happening in the right places is higher but not guaranteed. The real point is to keep the spiritual ears open and follow what you are directed to do.

Stephen said...

I'm amazed by the comments.

Milada is homo lamia. A vampire. Fallen. led me to think that she was undead. She isn't, which creates a complete twist on the novel and ...

All I can say is that the teaser is more than enough warning, I guess, unless you are expecting more of Twilight (which I've been avoiding reading).

It really is not a modern vampire novel, instead it is about family and redemption and faith.

The controversy really isn't about sex, violence or blood, it is about reader expectations and how to channel them so that readers get the experience they are looking for (and will pay more money to accomplish again).

I'm hoping this experience creates, perhaps, a thought that LDS fiction can be something other than romance novels for the LDS market.

Anonymous said...

"I'm hoping this experience creates, perhaps, a thought that LDS fiction can be something other than romance novels for the LDS market."

Oh, heavens, Stephen--you're woefully unaware of what's in the current market if that's what you think. Sure, romance novels are big--just like they are in the national market--but there's a TON more than that already.

I'm tired of people spouting opinions about a market they haven't read more than 200 pages of in the last five years.

Heather B. Moore said...

I'm one of those readers who wouldn't be too offended if I picked up an "LDS fiction" title and found that it was too edgy according to LDS standards.

A rating system might work, but even then, it would be full of holes. I just read a review on the new movie, The Dark Knight. The reviewer thought it should have had an R rating, instead of PG-13. So I suppose with any rating system, you'll still have disappointed people if you set them up with preconceived notions.

Christopher Bigelow said...

William Morris wrote: "It appears to me that some of the controversy over this title has come about because Chris Bigelow provided review copies to some lit bloggers who are more Covenant/DB-oriented."

Hmm, yes. I don't regret doing it; I still hope to win a few over. Frankly, I sent out lots of e-mail invitations to reviewers of all kinds, and the Covenant-style bloggers answered back the most. I had a lot of them on my list in the first place because I simply e-mailed the same people who Jeff Savage announced participated in his own blog tour; I publish books in my spare time, so I naturally look for publicity shortcuts. Also I thought that Zarahemla winning the top Whitney last would buy some good will, but instead I think that's contributed to the current backlash.

I was naive enought to think that AFS might actually bridge the readership gap, with Meyer's Twilight series having already warmed up the vampire topic for Mormons and with a careful edit to tone down the graphic stuff. I still hope the novel might productively stretch some readers who haven't yet ventured beyond Covenant-style LDS fiction--not that there's much of it to venture into yet.

Also, I'll disclose that the blogger who started this whole thing with her rather extreme review and her query to LDS Publisher actually contacted me first with a warning, and I said go ahead and do whatever you see fit, so I feel no ill will toward her although I don't relate at all, either. And I'll also admit that this has been really fun for me personally, folks, so thanks for the ride! I mean, how else could I have ever gotten Orson Scott Card to abuse me via e-mail all weekend?

As far as Zarahemla going out of business, sorry but there's really no business to shut down. My overhead is so low that I can publish a book anytime I feel like it, and right now there's enough money in the Zarahemla account to publish six more books even if not a single copy of any Z. title ever sells again. What I run out of faster than money is time, to tell you the truth...

Tristi Pinkston said...

I'm willing to remain in the camp that this is a matter of genre, but I must say, I'm concerned by the comment that the Mormon readership is closed-minded. I'm also concerned by the comments that we must not have read the book if we think ill of it. I'll go on record here as one of the reviewers who received a copy of the book and I returned it. The company I write for doesn't support reviews written on books that contain certain types of content, from any publisher. It wouldn't matter if I'd gotten AFS from Zarahelma or from a national publisher -- the content alone was enough to keep me from being able to publish it. While I didn't read it cover to cover (wanting to keep it in good condition to resell) I flipped through and located a sex scene and then the kiss between the women. Putting the whole LDS issue aside for a moment, the scenes, in and of themselves, were too graphic for me to review on the site. I did not make my decision based on an arbitrary, "Oh! Let's get on the bandwagon!" knee-jerk refusal to review. I looked at the information I was given (the book) held it up against the standards I've been given (the site) and made a logical determination that they were not a good fit.

Just for the record, I inquired of the blogger Chris mentions above, who is a good friend of mine, and she says she is not the one who inquired of LDS Publisher. It's entirely possible that the inquiry came from someone who had read her article and formed their inquiry after reading it, but there were two different sources. And no, it wasn't me. :)

Eugene said...

I'm still bummed that nobody wants to debate theology, other than some vague ad hominems about me being mean to Job. I totally do not understand where that is coming from. Please, people: specifics. I do compare God to Robert De Niro, but nobody's objected to that (feel free to now).

As my sister puts is, "I thought religious people always thought about this stuff." Apparently not.

Instead, the same old arguments that were old thirty years ago at BYU, with a contingent reliably objecting that certain movies being shown at International Cinema--or magazines sold at the bookstore, or books found on the shelves in the library--were "inappropriate." Even Neil Diamond's hair.

Anonymous said...

Eugene:

Argh! There you go again dissing people who decided to walk away from the adult section of the book store. Tune out the static. Put off some of the heaviness and take on a different yoke.

I doubt you intend it, but comments like these make a segment of the reading public, if not a majoiryt, want to puke. I'm not talking about the gal who hated Neil Diamond's hair on moral grounds. I'm talking about fellow saints, brothers and sisters, your neighbors, your friends, the people without whom you can not be saved. All those naive people who, without your notice, just may have been to your nuanced shores, swam in your intellectual waters, drank from the fountain of your diverse, stimulating, descriptive, real-life-simulating fare, and decided it wasn't for them.

Enough.

Ly

A. Morgan said...

I have to say honestly, after following all the comments and reading a bit of other info online, I'm just picking up the darn book, reading it, and deciding for myself what I'm gonna think about it.

Thanks for piquing my interest.

I'll write about what I think about it on my own blog... when I get around to it.

Eugene said...

Congratulations, Ly, for illustrating exactly what I'm talking about. I've got no problem with people who decide to "walk away." But some people are not content to "walk away." They must pitch a fit, often based on second-hand knowledge and gross invective.

Tristi Pinkston writes, "I was given (the book), held it up against the standards I've been given (the site), and made a logical determination that they were not a good fit." That's fair. You'll hear no argument from me on that score.

I've got no use for literary snobbery at either end of the spectrum. People who like their fiction "clean"? Who like to write it and publish it? I have no desire to see those choices denied them, or to see them fail. May they live long and prosper.

And "the adult section of the bookstore"? You mean the entire fiction section except for children's lit? I'm talking about the BYU Bookstore. Moral consistency is not the name of the game here. Rather, this becomes the sport of religious tribalism.

In other words, seeking common cause though shared enemies. "Without whom I cannot be saved?" They don't seem to believe they can be saved with me. Well, if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve. So I agree: enough.

Anonymous said...

I illustrated exactly what you're talking about? That's simply not true and you know it.

Ly

Eugene said...

Oh, I think it is. In this thread alone, I've been accused (along with my publisher) of "tricking" people, of tempting innocents to "explore beneath every evil unturned stone," of being a "wolf" of one species or another (your words, Ly), of "chipping away from within" (your words, Ly). You (Ly) hope we "go out of business very quickly" unless our objectives align with your perceptions of them. But are so gracious as to allow that we may not in fact be "apostate." Gee, thanks. Such an outpouring of charity. And we need only prove the negative. I'm getting all misty-eyed.

Kent Larsen said...

What bothers me the most about the comments to this post is the assumption that the LDS market as it stands actually represents what most readers want.

As it stands, the LDS market may reach perhaps 25% of active LDS Church members. It is geographically councentrated in the Intermountain West, and even outside of that area, is often fueled by those who grew up there.

Why shouldn't an up-and-coming LDS publisher try to find something different, that might reach some of those NOT being served by the current LDS market.

Robinson Wells makes a good point that the term LDS Fiction does depend on how it is percieved by those in the market. BUT, let's be honest about a few things:

1. Not all those that happen to pass through an LDS bookstore actually understand or buy into this definition. It is an assumption made by some (perhaps most) of those that currently buy books from LDS bookstores.

[Or am I wrong and someone has a survey of LDS book buyers that show that basically everyone buys into this definition?]

2. [And I can't say this strongly enough] The LDS market ISN'T everything. Many, if not most, active LDS Church members don't buy from LDS bookstores at all. To at least some of these potential buyers, the perception of LDS Fiction is quite negative -- books that aren't good enough for the national market.

3. For many both inside and outside the LDS market, the term "LDS Fiction" sounds like it must be fiction written by LDS Church members, or fiction written for LDS Church members. The understanding that everyone believes is common inside the LDS market, may not be common when you look at the entire group of potential purchasers.

I don't know about you, but I think we need to expand the LDS market to reach a much larger portion of the potential purchasers. So instead of worrying about whether one work might offend a small portion of those currently buying books in LDS bookstores, let's figure out how we can get those who think that LDS fiction isn't worth their time to rejoin the market.

Let's change perceptions, not follow them.

Th. said...

.

Man. I'm sorry I came back and read the comments I had missed. I had always thought Ly was a nice person, but I guess I'll have to scrap that. Heaven help me if she ever decides I'm a bad person.

I think the takeaway lesson for me at the end of this long string is not to abandon charity in the pursuit of a goal, no matter how righteous I interpret that goal to be.