I don’t like to use this column to talk about myself, but it is technically the “Speculative Fiction and Mormons” column, and the big story in that arena these days is one I find myself in the center of. I am speaking, of course, of the Whitney Awards.
The Whitney Awards are an annual program (started, in the interest of journalistic disclosure, by my brother, Rob Wells) celebrating the best in fiction written by Mormons; the awards currently focus entirely on novels, as divided into seven genre categories plus two overall awards for Best First Novel and Best Novel of the Year. The name comes from Orson F. Whitney, who famously proclaimed that Mormons must be not only a faithful but an artistic people, and that the spirit of the Lord would inspire us to create works of art capable of standing among the great masterpieces of history. His sound bite quote, “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” is the Whitney Award motto, and the full text of the speech it was taken from inspires me every time I hear it.
Two of the Whitney categories are for speculative fiction: adult and young adult. I was nominated for speculative fiction this year, for my novel MR. MONSTER, but I held no illusions that I’d actually win—I was up against Rachel Ann Nunes, James Dashner, Orson Scott Card, and Brandon Sanderson. Any one of those names could clear the bases in any regular year, but this was the year of Brandon’s THE WAY OF KINGS, a stunning epic fantasy that’s really redefining, across the genre, what it means to be both epic and fantasy. Even in a category that included Orson Scott Card, Brandon had that one in the bag, and when he won I rejoiced and silently patted myself on the back for not bothering to come up with an acceptance speech.
Then it turned out I needed an acceptance speech anyway, because Brandon and I tied. Not for Speculative Fiction, though. We tied for Best Novel of the Year.
First, as to the tie: the Whitney Awards uses a very elaborate voting system, in which a vast panel of industry professionals—writers, editors, publishers, etc.—compare every book in the category to every other book in the category, thus ensuring as thorough a vote as possible; you can’t just pop in to vote for your favorite, you have to read every book in the category, certify that you’ve done so, and then compare them all directly to each other. In most of the categories that ends up being 30-something questions comparing five books, but in the Novel of the Year category it was, I believe they said, well over 200 questions. They run these enormous answer databases through a tabulation program that spits out a winner, and if there should happen to be a tie they have a backup program designed to look even deeper, and if there’s still a tie they carry it out to three decimal places before saying yes, this is officially a tie. I asked later, and they told me they’d taken it out to seven decimal places, searching for any differences they could possibly find, but it was an absolutely perfect tie all the way down. So we both got an award, we both babbled like surprised idiots at the microphone, and we had our pictures taken together about a million times. Brandon and I have been writing together, traveling together, podcasting together, and more for almost 13 years now, so this was a fun night. Thanks to the Whitney committee, and thanks to the voters.
Now, on to my real point, which is this: how on Earth did a speculative fiction novel win Best of the Year in Mormon fiction? And if there had to be a tie, how on Earth were they BOTH speculative fiction? The Whitneys have always been a very egalitarian award, with no particular bias for or against the Mormon market, the national market, or even the self-published market. Sometimes the historical category goes to scriptural stories, sometimes to war stories, and sometimes to something else; before they split the YA category into ‘general’ and ‘speculative,’ representatives of both flavors were just as likely to win. Even the cult of personality, so dangerously possible in the LDS monoculture, has never seemed to sway people too far in any one direction. The award’s only been running for four years, which is an admittedly small sample, but my point stands: any book, regardless of where it comes from or where it seems to go, is treated equally by the voters. The exception, if I may be so bold, has always been the Best Novel of the Year, which always seemed to go to something not just good but Good—something not only talented enough to show what Mormon literature could be, but wholesome and uplifting enough to show what what Mormon literature should be.
And here we have Brandon and I; THE WAY OF KINGS and MR. MONSTER. Obviously I think Brandon’s book is excellent, and I’m self-confident enough to know that my book is pretty good—that’s not the issue. I’m not saying the books don’t deserve it. I’m just delighted, and yes, kind of surprised, that the Mormon literature community has chosen to represent itself this year with speculative fiction—and not just any speculative fiction, but a challenging fantasy novel about lost gods, and a gut-wrenching horror novel about a sociopathic child. These are not, shall we say, the most obviously Mormon novels on the shelf. And yet it is a testament to the Whitney voters that they looked past the book cover descriptions, actually read the novels, and saw the kernels of human truth that lay inside them. I’ll spare you the fawning literary analysis of my own work, because like I said at the beginning, I’m not here to talk about myself. I’m here to talk about Orson F. Whitney’s search for quality in art, for the spark of greatness that can turn a string of words and phrases into something that can inspire, challenge, and magnify the reader. The Whitney voters have planted a flag, and a very firm one, declaring that this spark of greatness sits outside of genre: a book about serial killers can contains as much quality and truth and redemption as a book about pioneers. Quality is more important than subject matter. Talent is independent of genre.
We live in a world, it pains me to say, that has yet to accept this idea. The average reader not only doesn’t like speculative fiction, they actively despise it; fantasy and science fiction and all their subgenres are viewed as childish, escapist drivel for people who never Grew Up and don’t read Real Books. Even BYU, a bastion of learning and a patron of the arts, goes out of its way to step on its own specualtive fiction programs such as the LTUE symposium and the award-winning student magazine The Leading Edge. They don’t count, because they’re speculative; they aren’t as worthy as the other schools of artwork because their genre makes them inherently foolish. And yet in the middle of all that, at the heart of Mormon literature, the Whitney Awards have championed the fools. They’ve seen the art for what it is. Where others look on the outward appearance, they’ve looked on the heart. It’s embarrassing, in a way, that giving an adult, non-speculative award to a speculative winner can be seen as so progressive, and yet there you have it. Power to the people.
Thank you, Whitney voters, for this award. May many others follow in your footsteps.