Monday, March 24, 2008

Mormon Literature: Carving Out a Middle Niche?

Here's a draft of a guest blog I'm working on for another site. I like to post things like this here first to my small personal readership, so I can get challenges and feedback that will help me refine the piece.

I'm a big fan of the idea of Mormon literature but not so much of the reality of it—yet. The way I see it, Deseret Book dominates the culture too much on both the practical and philosophical levels, and most of the other Mormon publishers stay within Deseret's safe, sanitized, preachy, low-brow orbit. Except, of course, for Signature Books, which is way over on the other side of the spectrum, publishing occasional Mormon literature—as little as one book per year—that is generally too literary and/or too faith-challenging for the average Mormon reader.

Personally, I'm interested in the middle ground of Mormon literature, which doesn't really exist yet, at least as far as a thriving market niche. I'm talking about stories with considerable Mormon content and sensibility but with more nuance, reality, and earthiness than you get in Deseret-style stories with their gospel certainties, overly sanitized content, and proselytizing agendas. While I don't love the high-falutin' term "literary," I'm talking about writing approaches that are more sophisticated than the low-brow, formulaic romances and thrillers common in the Mormon market, stuff more along the lines of mainstream literary writers in the national market like Margaret Atwood and Alice McDermott. I'm also talking about stuff that isn't so head-in-the-sand about doubt and sex and salty language and other authentic human stuff.

I haven't read Angela Hallstrom's new book Bound on Earth yet, but I've been impressed by the reviews and buzz and it's on my top-tier reading shelf (along with about twenty other books). From what I can tell so far, Hallstrom's publisher Parables is doing just what needs to be done to try to establish this niche I'm talking about. I'm trying too with Zarahemla Books, which has put out six books so far in the mode of what I describe as "provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories." So far we've circulated about 2,500 total copies of these six titles, so it's a start. New digital publishing technology makes it doable to publish very small runs, so you can break even selling in the low hundreds of a title. I have to admit, one limitation Zarahemla has is that we're male oriented in a field that is driven by females, but many females have enjoyed our books too. (I'm trying to get Angela to become an editor-at-large for Zarahemla, but she seems to be more interested in writing more of her own stuff...)

Piddling around with Mormon niche markets is okay, as far as it goes (which isn't far). But for me, the real holy grail of Mormon literature would be for a Mormon author to break through nationally with authentic Mormon content. We need a Mormon Saul Bellow, John Updike, etc. If and when that ever happens, I think that's what will crack open the Mormon culture for some real literary treatment. I haven't seen anyone come anywhere near to pulling this off yet, though.

You know, I have to admit that although I'm passionate about Mormon literature and even devote lots of personal time and energy to publishing some, as a reader I really only have time to read 5–10 book-length works of fiction per year in my spare time for pleasure. Deep down, I know that I'm much more likely to get a satisfying ride by choosing one of the national authors rather than anything written by a Mormon author or put out by a Mormon press, even my own press. So I read only 1-2 Mormon novels per year—not counting those I publish myself through Zarahemla—and I'm nearly always disappointed by them. I imagine that most other Mormon readers are like me, feeling the press of so many choices and not feeling confident enough in Mormon-oriented material to spend precious time on that. Again, I think the only way to break through this perception is to have a Mormon make a splash in the big leagues—I'm talking a Pulitzer-caliber achievement that really unpacks the Mormon experience, mindset, world view, inner life, etc.

Perhaps small Mormon presses like Parables and Zarahemla will gradually carve out a more significant audience, especially if we can ever get Deseret and/or Seagull to carry our adventurous offerings. But with current cultural conditions, I doubt we'll ever sell more than 1,000 copies of a book and usually more like 50 to 200 copies. However, perhaps we will help nurture an author who will then go on to make the big national breakthrough and crack this whole Mormon thing wide open. Not to be too pessimistic, but in my experience this kind of writing I'm talking about nearly always turns out to be too worldly for the Mormons and too Mormon for the world, so it will be a miracle if someone can figure out a way to hit the national target with a Mormon torpedo or the Mormon target with a national-literary-quality torpedo.

3 comments:

Dead Poet said...

What about Orson Scott Card and his books like Saints and the series on women from the Bible? What's your take on his writing?

Christopher Bigelow said...

I've read some Card books, including Folk of the Fringe, Ender's Game, Saints, Lost Boys, and Seventh Son. Overall I think he's quite good, although I'm not as satisfied by him as I am by the national mainstream literary writers, and I don't think he's really cracked open the Mormon culture for national audiences yet, although perhaps he's come closer than anyone else yet.

MoJo said...

Brother Bigelow said:

I'm talking about writing approaches that are more sophisticated than the low-brow, formulaic romances and thrillers common in the Mormon market, stuff more along the lines of mainstream literary writers in the national market like Margaret Atwood and Alice McDermott. I'm also talking about stuff that isn't so head-in-the-sand about doubt and sex and salty language and other authentic human stuff.

I was looking for this too. Didn't find it, so I wrote it. It's probably a little saltier than anyone actually expects and I'm not so arrogant as to think it's "literary," but...

The Proviso might hit the spot neither Deseret nor Signature can.