Community Voices: The Amateur Nature of Mormon Letters

This was originally published as a guest post.

There’s a certain sense of validation, in our commercial culture, that comes with being paid for one’s work. This is at least as true in literature as elsewhere. Anyone (or so the thinking goes) can write a novel. The real test is whether you can get someone (not yourself) to pay money to publish it.

I sometimes get the sense that this applies not only to art but also to those who create it. Being a “professional” writer — i.e., someone who supports yourself financially through your writing — carries with it a kind of moral and artistic authority, and perhaps rightly so. A professional career in writing provides evidence of sustained quality, plus opportunities (and a powerful incentive) to improve over time.

Not to mention the fact that professionalism provides a partial solution to the often-discussed problem of Mormon ambivalence toward the arts. Otherwise pointless endeavors gain value, in the LDS scheme of things, if one can make a living from them. Art that brings in little or no money, on the other hand, is suspect at best, simply because it takes time away from supporting oneself and one’s family.

Despite all this, the simple fact — as the discussion stemming from Chris Bigelow’s recent post here reminded us yet again — is that most of us in Mormon letters are not making a living, or anything close to it, from the work we do in this field. I daresay a great many of us aren’t making any money at all, once expenses are deducted. That’s at least as true of those of us reading, critiquing, and publishing Mormon literature as those creating it.

This has important implications both for Mormon literature and for the community of Mormon letters. For one thing, it means that a lot of what gets done, from novels to reviews to databases and awards, is going to be done on an amateur basis, purely for the love of it. Quality will be uneven, and long-term consistency will often be lacking.

Back in December, I commented in response to James Goldberg’s post, “Hanukah Thoughts on Mormon Letters”:

“I sometimes think we have to take it in shifts — your turn to pour your heart into a play few people will see this year, my turn to write a novel with small distribution, Chris’’s turn to keep a publishing house going, Darlene’s turn to launch a blog. Each of us puts in a shift or two, and then all too often must turn to other things — like earning a livelihood or working in an area where we’ll get feedback from more people in response to our work. But the lights keep glowing nonetheless.”

On the other hand, being amateur brings some distinct advantages. There’s enormous unpaid energy and enthusiasm out there. We ought to be able to grab some of that action. Not to mention the fact that developing alternative models and a strong sense of non-profit-based community may stand us in good stead if/when the much-ballyhooed collapse of traditional publishing takes place.

I’ll close with some thoughts about ways to positively conduct ourselves and some of the pitfalls to avoid as an amateur community. Feel free to chime in — agreeing, disagreeing, amplifying, what have you.

- Recognizing that much of the best work being done is and will continue to be amateur, we need to consciously embrace involvement by those representing a range of professional qualifications and experience. This means listening respectfully to amateurs and professionals alike. Back in the day on AML-List, I remember some condescension toward those who lacked professional qualifications — but also some gratuitous bashing of English professors. Neither accomplishes much good.

- While applauding people’s efforts, we also need to critique those efforts not only on the basis of intention but also on the basis of performance. We need to respect each other’s offerings, but also challenge each other to do the best we’re capable of.

- We need to make people of widely varying literary tastes feel at home in our community.

- We need to be willing to blur some traditional lines. I see it as a positive sign, for example, that this year’s Whitney Awards were willing to consider at least one self-published novel as one of their finalists (Dave Farland’s In the Company of Angels; there may have been others I don’t know about).

- We need to find ways of harnessing volunteer efforts and collaborating effectively over both time and distance. Over at A Motley Vision, we’ve discussed how volunteer efforts might be able to help with maintaining the Mormon Literature Database. I don’t know if those discussions went anywhere, but it’s the kind of thing that should be happening. (Speaking of which: Gideon, I’d welcome a post sometime here about the MLDB and how people can/should contribute to it.)

- We need to all dedicate ourselves to addressing what I see as the number one problem in Mormon literature, which is simply getting the word out to potential readers. Deseret Book/Covenant has its own marketing network, but that only addresses a small part of the audience and a small part of what’s being published. Besides which, it seems to me that “leaving it up to the professionals” is an inherently flawed strategy. Who knows how much longer the network of LDS bookstores will even exist? Let’s get a jump on the problem by pretending they don’t — which is already true for those of us DB chooses not to carry — and see what we can do to help put Mormon readers together with books and conversations they might like. It’s already happening, as the growing number of LDS book blogs attests; but there’s plenty more to be done.

Thoughts?

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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4 Responses to Community Voices: The Amateur Nature of Mormon Letters

  1. Th. says:

    .

    [quote]Not to mention the fact that developing alternative models and a strong sense of non-profit-based community may stand us in good stead if/when the much-ballyhooed collapse of traditional publishing takes place.[/quote]

    [quote]Let’s get a jump on the problem by pretending they don’t — which is already true for those of us DB chooses not to carry — and see what we can do to help put Mormon readers together with books and conversations they might like. It’s already happening, as the growing number of LDS book blogs attests; but there’s plenty more to be done.[/quote]

    This is the place to start, I think. Distribution. With better distribution, what is already out there can flow outwards, inspiring more and better in the future.

  2. jendoop says:

    I like your view of the revolving door inherent in amateur work. Sometimes only those who ‘sacrifice their lives’ for art are given respect – the whole starving artist theory. It might be more accurate to say that our obvious public contribution varies – we’re all working at creating in one form or another.

    As a novice amateur (I’m that inexperienced) I appreciate your support.

  3. Scott says:

    I definitely agree with you last suggestion. I think one of the best things we can do as advocates of LDS fiction is to ADVOCATE it. If someone asks for a book recommendation, suggest one of the great novels coming out of, say, Zarahemla Books.

    Also, as a current graduate student, I try to write at least one journal article a quarter on some work in Mormon literature–with the hope of getting it published some time down the road–because I think we also need a steady stream of criticism to support our literary output. Interestingly, the more I talk to people about Mormon literature, the more I’m surprised at how interested people are in it…mostly because they don’t know it exists.

  4. Margaret says:

    Amen to everything you said, Jonathan. Thank you!

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