Part One: The Prospective Audience
Let me begin with the man Josh Allen bought a used car from, who “missed the literary discussions and the focus on critical thinking he received as part of his education [and] expressed longing for a venue which could fill that void.” Let me add the tax accountant in my ward who curls up with a good book while his wife watches sports, as well as your book-hungry LDS grandma, if you have the good fortune to have such a woman in your life. And while I’m at it, let me throw in the young woman who you saw slipping a library book out of her scripture case one sacrament meeting and the nerdy institute students who insist on using complete sentences and punctuation when they text.
Add to these the late adolescent Latter-day Saint in India trying to negotiate an identity as a member of a “cult” church within an already controversial Christian minority, the Molly Mormon girl in urban California who’d taken tons of flack for her “conservative” identity even before Prop 8, or the European member who, due to a mistranslation in the Harrison Ford movie Witness, constantly finds himself explaining he is not Amish.
You and I and Josh Allen have surely all caught ourselves thinking that there’s more of a place for quality Mormon literature in all these people’s lives than is currently being filled. Surely the Mormon who loves to talk about the gospel and loves to talk about literature would also love to talk about Mormon literature. And perhaps the right literature could help many Latter-day Saints feel more comfortable and confident in their embattled identities.
It seems mathematically self-evident that out of fourteen million Latter-day Saints, there must be at least fourteen thousand who might make up a sort of Mormon book club audience—people who want to read things they can discuss, debate, relate to and reject as they please, who would search for new depths of works that deal with religiously committed life as they know it, that speak in (and offer new possibilities for) their Mormon language.
So where are these fourteen thousand or more? And how do we convert their vague longings into concrete investment of their time and attention into Mormon letters?
Part Two: Why the Audience is Hiding in Its Shell
My guess is this: these people are hiding. Why are they hiding? Because they don’t feel safe to come out and talk. What makes them feel unsafe? The rock and the hard place.
The rock is the constant threat of attack to the core of one’s Mormon identity. Readers are scared that if they stick their necks out of their shells to read, writers will attack them for being orthodox Mormons. Or else they’ll attack the things that make orthodox Mormon life beautiful. A sense of the sacred. Honor for and loyalty to certain authority figures. Belief in the spiritual. Values of family, sexual morality, and certain rhythms of life.
From an academic standpoint, of course, writers who want to ridicule Mormon life (or simply critique it based on the values of the liberal secular culture they feel most comfortable in) are one color in the rainbow of possible Mormon voices. But to the everyday Mormon reader, early encounters with these voices may well register anywhere from mildly emotionally disturbing to deeply discouraging to existentially threatening.
For reasons of emotional self-preservation, I think many everyday Mormon readers would prefer to avoid encounters with voices that attack them—voices that rhetorically position themselves as anti-church. If the choice is between getting their values attacked and avoiding Mormon Lit, I think most potential audience members will stick to what’s safe and avoid Mormon Lit.
I am not the first, of course, to talk about the rock. It’s essentially the left in Eugene England’s “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left!” Since it also sounds a lot like a broader culture that is often perceived as hostile, audiences have all the more reason to hide from it.
The hard place in Mormon Lit is basically Eugene England’s right. Let me be clear: I think that Deseret Book puts out a lot of important work that is beneficial to the Mormon community. Even if we limit our discussion to the cheesiest possible works of fiction, as a Bollywood film fan I will quickly point out that what seems cheesy and emotionally manipulative to one person may be deeply moving to another. But I still think overtly religious work coming from semi-official and official sources often ends up being a hard place for prospective Mormon Lit book club people like the guy who sold Josh Allen his car, because it’s potentially awkward to pan or take issue with work that’s semi-official and obviously looking for a devotional reaction without sounding cruel and unrighteous.
I mean, can you imagine having a book club meeting about the church movie The Testaments with new members of your ward? If you’re aware of all the clear cues a creative work has given you about how to feel, what’s left to say? And would you really want to question whether the be-righteous-and-you’ll-get-your-monkey-back message is reliable in the real world when, for all you know, that particular symbolic, sentimental image may have been a spiritual experience for someone else in the room? There may be some viewers who wonder whether their own lack of connection with the film’s Jesus is evidence of some sort of spiritual problem, who worry that making fun of the church movie is in some way belittling their own faith.
The trouble with work that’s too sentimental and/or too official is that it doesn’t leave enough space for people who read a lot to think or talk comfortably. Again, I think emotional preservation instincts come into play. I, for one, don’t like how I feel when I’m confronted with too many super-European depictions of Jesus–it makes me feel all sorts of conflicted things I’d rather not deal with–so I don’t seek them out in my spare time. Maybe someone else doesn’t want to feel condescending about an earnestly told pioneer story, so they altogether avoid The Work and the Glory.
And so it is that our prospective literary Mormon readers again retreat into their shells.
And why should they come out? Inside the shell, Inception is playing—and there’s no shortage of room to talk and talk with people about that.
Part Three: The Coax
If I am right, a prospective audience for engaging, book-club type Mormon literature exists—and is hiding from both painful attacks (or even perceived attacks) on Mormon values and voluntary off-the-church-clock encounters with uncomfortably sentimental religious works. If I am right, the prospective audience has lived with both threats long enough to be fairly cynical and defensive.
How do you sell Mormon Lit to people who are already at least twice-burned, four times shy?
1. Make them feel safe.
You don’t have to actually attack the church to make them retreat into hiding, it will be enough to sound like you’re getting close. You don’t have to actually be all-out sentimental to produce an allergic reaction—it will be enough if your execution is so-so. To coax the audience out, you’ll have to go out of your way to reassure them that you honor their Mormon values. At the same time, you’ll also need to reassure them that they can discuss and debate your work without spitting on your testimony. And of course, they’ll need to believe that the Mormon Lit you offer will give them something interesting to think and talk about.
2. Give them a good ROI (Return on Investment).
Let’s say you’re producing a full-length LDS play. If people free up the evening, arrange for a babysitter, and put down $20 for tickets, and then hate the show, they’ll be extremely difficult to lure back for the next production. That’s why I would not recommend full-length plays as the most effective gateway to broader engagement with Mormon letters.
If you’re going to coax someone into Mormon letters, find a way to start at a low investment and risk level that quickly produces a relatively high payoff. I mean, you wouldn’t start someone on literary fiction in general with The Brothers Karamazov. You’d start them with something more like Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” If they get into it, you give them more and work your way up to higher-investment forms. If they don’t dig it, one story probably hasn’t turned them off to literature for life and you can try a Billy Collins poem or something instead.
3. Make it easy to share.
Sadly, I don’t personally know fourteen thousand people who are already feeling a vague longing for what they don’t yet realize is actually engaging Mormon literature. Neither, I’m assuming, does everyone who will read this blog post combined. So if we want to build that size of an audience, we’re going to need Mormon Lit to be mobile enough to get passed quickly from person to person and ward to ward.
Again, full-length theatre is tough. So is recommending Irreantum stories to relatives in Asia.
Part Four: My “Go and Do” Plan
I would love few things better than to help grow an audience for engaging Mormon literature. So what do I, to borrow from Scott Hales and Nephi, go and do?
I do not think my best strategy is to preach AML and Irreantum. I think AML is an important organization and Irreantum is an important publication. But they are primarily academic, a mission that is not compatible with the coaxing process I describe above.
Consider the most recent issue of Irreantum. The written content is, I think, fairly emotionally safe from the rock and hard place for the prospective audience, but the Galen Smith artwork was clearly not created or selected with a rhetorical positioning of “safe” in mind. I don’t want to talk down Galen Smith as an artist—I admire her craft. I just can’t imagine myself giving a magazine with those representations of Eve (for example, holding a sword and a severed head—of Adam? of the angel?—and wading in a pool of blood) to my grandma or passing it around elders’ quorum.
Can Irreantum stay academic and focus on the reasonable sensibilities of average bookish Latter-day Saints? I don’t think so. Can a journal that can’t commit to offering readers greater safety build a large circulation among average bookish Latter-day Saints? I don’t think it can—especially when the cost of getting a subscription in money and wait time is fairly high for a gateway and the ease of successfully recommending content, especially outside Utah where the journal is in a library or two, is fairly low.
What I do think we need instead is a new Mormon literary venue, and I fully intend to launch one within the next year. To give a brief overview, the new venue would:
1) Be online, in a form loosely based on the website Daily Science Fiction. Six days a week we would publish a short Mormon work (probably 1,000-6,000 words)—poetry, fiction, essay, the occasional short review, etc. We’d also sometimes serialize longer works in once-a-week shorter installments. (Note: before launch, I’d like to have 300 quality pieces ready to go so that we have plenty of breathing space between new submissions and the publishing schedule.) Update 18 Nov: the 1,000-6,000 word length in this post is probably too high. Under 1,000 words is probably a better primary focus, with an occasional piece over 1,000 but well under 6,000. The idea is quick exposure: people should read longer works, but it’s probably better for Mormon lit if they’re subscribing to lit mags or buying eBook anthologies in the process, thereby supporting good editors, which is part of what we need.
2) Not be limited to first-time publications. We would include, with acknowledgment of the prior venue, work from past issues of other literary journals by living writers with the occasional voice from the long-dead. Why not?
3) Focus heavily on rhetorical positioning that assumes a religiously-committed LDS readership that may have certain learned defensiveness regarding rocks and hard places. In other words, we would assume readers have reasons not to trust us and work to win their trust.
4) Attempt to facilitate the development of reader-reader social relationships, hopefully including locally-based physical ones where critical masses of readers emerge. (In the long term, I’d love to have at least part-week service in languages other than English, featuring work from native speakers of that language and a limited number or works in translation.)
5) Try to direct people into other Mormon Lit resources just as soon as they’ve had enough return on their small investments to be ready to take a deeper look.
I really think this idea could work. I believe it’s possible to bring together the brother who sculpts zombie wedding cake toppers for a living and the one who has a special love for pioneer-era sourdough starter into a literary conversation, to give the used car salesman and the tax account the conversations they miss from their English majors in a distinctly Mormon context.
I think the success of a venue that published 300-something short works per year to a wide LDS audience would be great for writers, too. We talk a lot now about what we might give to members of the church, but we don’t get nearly enough chances to practice.
I apologize for the length of this blog post, but I wanted to get this all out in one place.
Now: what do you think?
Is my analysis of the prospective audience sound?
Do you think this sort of venue would work?
I would love to hear your comments before I do the detailed planning and serious staff recruiting. Please leave them here—and feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org (well—that’s spelled backwards to ward off spam. You’d need to reverse it first.)