Bound on Earth and Other Gateway Drugs

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?

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26 Responses to Bound on Earth and Other Gateway Drugs

  1. Th. says:

    .

    I think lending books is pretty good. People don’t have to read a gift, but there’s pressure to read and return a lent book.

    Of course, lending books sans invitation takes brass. . . .

  2. Katya says:

    Pass-along cards with titles, authors and ISBNs. (I’m not entirely joking.)

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Ditto on the lending books idea, slow though it is.

    You have to choose your gateway drug well and adapt to the specific person you’re targeting. I’ve had some success with Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven, but obviously, that’s more likely to appeal to some readers than others.

    Actually, come to think of it, some of the people I’ve targeted don’t exactly meet Jessie’s criterion. That is to say, these are people who may well read DB titles, but who also would be game for something more literary/realistic, if they were properly exposed to it.

  4. Jessie says:

    I was speaking primarily about those who avoid DB-published titles, but I think that those who already do might be open to the right types of books. My main experience is with those who do not read them and assume all LDS writers write like those published by DB and similar publishers. One of the frustrating things to me is that there is a large audience of readers who have plenty of tolerance for nuance, hard questions, literary conventions, and who at the same time are religious and are concerned about the level of sex and profanity in a lot of contemporary fiction. DB seems to assume that ‘clean’ fiction means ‘easy’ or ‘intellectually sloppy’. Just because I want a book that is free from edgy content doesn’t mean I’m stupid. Hence the obsession for ‘classics’ among many LDS readers.

  5. Wm Morris says:

    I attempted to make a start with a list of LDS book group club recommendations, but what really is needed is an annotated, more comprehensive version with content ratings.

  6. Wm Morris says:

    Also: I don’t know how you could measure this other than with a huge survey that would be expensive, but it would be interesting to see if the general fiction category of the Whitney Awards has any effect.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      It depends on what you mean by “any effect.” I think I’m safe in assuming that my own readership for No Going Back was substantially larger just from people who read it in order to be able to vote in the general fiction category that year.

      • Jessie says:

        During the last few years I have discovered a number of good books from hearing about them through the Whitney awards. I’ve also started reading genres that I would not have read otherwise, like romance, through the buzz generated by awards.

  7. Marny says:

    Where do most book groups look for their fiction? If it is Amazon, would a tag that says “literary” or “literary fiction” be helpful?

    • Lee Allred says:

      Yes, Marny. It would be _most_ helpful tagging it as both Literary and LDS (and/or Mormon) fiction.

      As much as I’d like to see otherwise, realistically, epublsihing (ebook and POD hardcopy) are really the only economically viable model for an upswell in LDS literary books. I’ve become convinced there’s no feasible brick and mortar retail and traditional publishing/distribution solution.

      This being the case, what is vitally needed is to request/convince Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Publishing), B&N’s Nook, Smashwords, Appile’s iStore, Kobo, Diesel, etc. to create Mormon Fiction, a Mormon Genre Fiction, and aMormon Literary Fiction category tagd so that LDS authors uploading their ebooks for sale in those venues can categorize their books so that LDS fiction readers can find them. KDP, Nook,, and Smashwords would be the top priorities.

      This is something I’d strongly suggest AML (in joint concert with the other Mormon book organizations, even better) to lend their weight to approaching KDP/Nook/Smashwords and asking these categories be created.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        Unfortunately, they go by BISAC codes: http://www.bisg.org/what-we-do-0-136-bisac-subject-headings-list-major-subjects.php

        These are the people to badger for such a category.

        • Jessie says:

          As far as book groups go, most that I know of actually check out sets from the library. Many libraries now create sets of books that can be checked out as a group for an extended period of time. I just got put on the book group committee at work, and I have been lobbying for Bound on Earth as a book club book because I think it would make a great book for discussion. We do have a high number of LDS people in our community, but I think it could be enjoyed by those who are not LDS as well. We usually choose about 6-10 new book club titles each year, and these come from patron suggestions and from librarians. Generally we choose books that are fairly clean, lend themselves to a good discussion, and that have been popular in the year or so before we turn them into book club sets.

          I hate to confess this on a blog with many writers/publishers, but I hardly ever buy books. Most of my friends my age don’t either. Yes, I know that’s they the print industry is dying (I don’t have an e-reader or smart phone either), but buying books just isn’t in my budget and I work at a well-stocked library. What I’m trying to get at in this post is that many readers are not even aware of their options when it comes to reading LDS fiction, whether they buy it or borrow it. When I do buy books I often buy LDS titles as a way to support authors and because I want to have those books available for lending to friends.

          • Katya says:

            “I just got put on the book group committee at work, and I have been lobbying for Bound on Earth as a book club book because I think it would make a great book for discussion.”

            I’m glad to hear this, because I’ve thought for a long time that Bound on Earth would be a wonderful book club selection for libraries which serve communities with a significant LDS presence, but I’m not a patron or employee of any of those libraries, so I’m not in a position to make suggestions. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Bound on Earth (and other titles) circulating at library book clubs from Rexburg to Gilbert?

        • I only saw one category for fiction on their list, and that was “fiction.” Surely Amazon uses more categories for fiction than that?

  8. C. M. Malm says:

    I heard a quote the other day (Fran Lebowitz about Jane Austen, curiously enough) that absolutely hit the nail on the head for me: “A book should not be a mirror. A book should be a door.” That simple statement says, in a nutshell, nearly everything about why I read the books I do…and why I don’t read “Mormon books.”

    As guilty as I often feel about it in this forum, books that hold up a mirror to Mormon life (which seems to be the vast majority of “Mormon books” I’ve ever encountered) hold no more interest for me than books that hold up a mirror to contemporary American life (i.e., zero). Even in childhood, I wanted books that were doors. And not doors into my own backyard. I wanted Narnia doors, Monsters Inc. doors, TARDIS doors (although this was long before I had heard of any of those).

    I enjoy reading books of that kind by Mormon authors. I come here largely to hear what other Mormon writers have to say about writing. But I’m not going to pick up the Mormon equivalent of The Notebook just because the characters are Mormons. Am I traitor because of that?

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I don’t think that a reader who dislikes a particular genre should be expected to read it (or like it) just because the writer is Mormon. In fact, it’s likely to be counterproductive if they do.

      Different genres, as I see it, appeal to different fundamental reasons for reading. Some of those reasons will resonate for some readers, others for other readers. This is one reason, by the way, that I tend to disagree with criticism that puts genres into competition with each other — as if the reading of romances somehow diminishes the market for literary fiction (for example). In my experience, they’re competing for different audiences.

      Personally, I’m interested in the question of how being Mormon affects what a writer does. This makes me more inclined to want to read something by a Mormon writer, even if it’s a genre I don’t care much for. In some ways, however, that’s an artificial reason, divorced from regular reasons for reading. When I do read a work for that reason, I can’t be sure that my reading isn’t in some ways a strained one — because I’m not part of the natural audience for the work.

  9. Wm says:

    Nope. But you are missing out: sometimes Mormon fiction is a door, and in most cases the good stuff isn’t even a mirror.

    • C. M. Malm says:

      Can you give some examples, Wm?

      • Wm says:

        Probably not if you’re interested in Mormon faithful realism.

        But I’d say that, at least for me, Salvador by Margaret Young and The Millstone Necklace by S.P. Bailey (not published yet, but will be this year) are both doors into different worlds (Central and South America respectively) that told me something about those worlds, worlds that are both familiar and yet alien, but also told me something about Mormonism.

        And then there’s Monsters & Mormons, of course.

        But even if we’re simply talking about contemporary Mormon literary fiction (or faithful realism as Eugene England dubbed it), both No Going Back and Bound on Earth gave me the experience of opening up doors to Mormon characters and situations that weren’t just mirroring my own, but allowed me to experience aspects of the Mormon experience that were foreign to me.

        Your mileage may vary, but especially with all the narrow defining of modern Mormons that happens in the media and popular culture, I think it’s healthy for active LDS to remind themselves in a literary way (in addition to a devotional way and a service way) of who we really are as a people.

  10. Jessie says:

    I agree with Wm and Jonathan–there are different reasons for reading different books, and different things will appeal to different readers and different times (how’s that for a sentence?). But, I think that any book can be a door if done right; there are many different ways to be a Mormon and many types of Mormons, and I’ve rarely read a book that felt like reading about myself. Most of the good stuff I’ve read has been a door into another world, even if I initially thought that other world didn’t exist because I thought it looked like my own.

    I also, however, agree with Jonathan. I like the fact that Mormon writers ask questions about being Mormon–like a historical novel about what happens to a man who happens to be a devout Mormon and an officer in the German army during WW2 or what is it like to be a gay Mormon teenager. Mormon books are valuable because they explore these types of questions. However, I have also experienced the problem of reading something simply because it is a “Mormon novel” and that does affect my reading. I’ve even caught myself thinking or saying “for an LDS book, this is pretty good”. I think the label of LDS fiction is helpful in some ways, but in other ways it can create expectations that affect the reading experience negatively.

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