Last month I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon that was being held in conjunction with a literary symposium. The luncheon was offered as a chance to get to meet a visiting author, so even though I did not know the people I was sharing a table with, I did know that they were serious bibliophiles because they had paid a fair amount of money for soup, salad, and a brief chat with a literary superstar (lunch was quite delicious and even our brief chat was absolutely delightful). Naturally the conversation turned to books, and at some point I saw one of my tablemates wrinkle her nose and exclaim “Oh no, I never read Mormon books.” Someone else concurred, laughing, “yeah, we have two rules for our book group: no one can get offended and no Mormon books.” I’ve seen the wrinkled nose and heard those sentiments before and I’m usually quick to jump into the conversation in order to offer suggestions and disabuse people of their prejudices. I know a large number of people (primarily women) who are serious readers, and yet who would not touch a book by a Mormon author with a ten-foot pole. Why is this?
First of all, I think that part of the problem is simply a matter of definition. What do they mean when they say they don’t read “Mormon books”? Upon further questioning, I’ve generally found that the person saying this has a specific type of book in mind. I could name names, but I think most who read this blog know who I am talking about; the most well-known LDS authors out there do not get much love from the literary fiction crowd. I don’t think we’re ever going to change that. A lot of LDS fiction these days is genre fiction, particularly mystery and romance. If you’re not already a genre reader, you’re not likely to want to read LDS genre fiction either. And yes, addressing the elephant in the room, a lot of LDS fiction out there is poorly written. When my friends say they don’t read “Mormon books”, they usually mean that they don’t read poorly written mysteries or romances that feature stock characters, purple prose, and implausibly happy endings. Several of the people at my table mentioned that they had read and loved The Lonely Polygamist, but they did not consider it to be a “Mormon book”. I’m not entirely ready to lump it in with LDS fiction either (that’s a subject for another post). One woman at my table also mentioned that she had read Bound on Earth and was hungry for more books like it. I gave her a few suggestions of similar things to try, like Heresies of Nature, No Going Back, or The Tree House.
Besides the fact that literary LDS novels are few and far between, there is the problem of awareness. Where are my friends supposed to find out about literary LDS fiction? If they ever go to Deseret Book to shop for books (which they rarely do), they are not going to find it on the shelves or advertised in the catalog. They aren’t going to find it reviewed in the New York Times or other national publications. They tend to read the sorts of nationally known, literary novels that gain critical acclaim and are then passed on through word of mouth: The Help, Peace Like a River, State of Wonder, The Book Thief, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and so on. Unfortunately, exposure and awareness of a book gain momentum only through exposure and awareness, and for every major phenomenon like The Help there are hundreds of other books that get left neglected. With a much smaller group of books and publishers to work with, LDS fiction is already at a disadvantage when it comes to selling itself.
So to sum up, we have a large number of LDS people who like to read serious fiction and yet do not know that literary LDS fiction exists or where to find it. The final question is: what happens when those who don’t usually read these books find them? Can Bound on Earth stand up to The Poisonwood Bible? I think it can, but I have not found very many people who read both types of books. One of my personal missions in life is to bring together these two camps, people who read LDS fiction and people who read literary fiction, in order to see what happens. Anyone have any ideas about how to make this happen?