Guest post by E.M. Tippetts
Late last year I decided to take the plunge and become an indie author as E.M. Tippetts – the name I use to write LDS chick lit. There were a lot of reasons behind my decision to go this route rather than find an LDS press – for example, I make more money this way and have more creative control – but for the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on the strongest. I feel that there shouldn’t be demarcation between LDS fiction and the rest of the market. Readers can empathize with women who lived in Regency England and teenage girls who dream about becoming vampires, so they can empathize with Latter-day Saints too. However, I do not feel they can empathize with much of the fiction produced exclusively for the LDS market. If we want our readers to empathize with our characters, we need to empathize with our readers.
Let me give a little of my own life history. I’m an adult convert to the Church, though I grew up in a town that had a very large and active LDS population, so I’ve never been a stranger to the Gospel. My two best friends in high school were LDS, though they have both since gone inactive. I am the only Saint in my family (but not the only saint, if you get my meaning. My family are some of the most virtuous people I know and admire.) All my life I’ve wanted to be a science fiction writer and have been working on this actively for the past eleven years, ever since I graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop. In my late twenties, I decided to see if I could learn a little more about publishing by going for a smaller market, and the LDS market seemed like a good one to try. I took on the name E.M. Tippetts, which is my married name, and my first novel sold to the second place I submitted it.
I went about this experiment somewhat backwards. After I sold that novel, I started to read other work in the market and found myself in alien territory, stranger than some of the societies my science fiction colleagues create. It isn’t that we, as Saints, are weird. We aren’t any more so than anyone else, really. It’s that I found very little empathy with the non-Saint worldview and consequently, simplistic and meaningless moralizing. I’m not going to name the names of whom I read. It doesn’t matter. None of us produces perfect art.
And what I’m about to say is in no way intended to be provocative or to stir the pot. I’m an active member, a former Seminary teacher, and currently a Relief Society President. However, I think there is a meaningful difference between art and propaganda. Specifically, propaganda presents an intentionally one-sided view of an issue to get a simple point across. I’ve got nothing against propaganda per se, but I don’t want to write it in my novels. My characters find the world confusing, because it is confusing. It may sound strange for a fiction writer to say this, but we’ve got to tell people the truth. People don’t read novels to be told what to do. They read novels to experience more life than they can fit into their own days, months, and years. Additional experiences they’ll never have because they made different choices.
Let me give a concrete example. In my latest chick lit, my main character is chaste. Her housemate is not. The housemate moves in with her boyfriend, gets pregnant out of wedlock, and by the end of the book has a child and an engagement ring. This is a subplot that I feel I’d be under pressure to cut if I were working in the LDS market, but I also think it’s essential to the story. The reason that subplot is in there is because it tempts my main character to abandon her chastity in the hopes of securing a lasting connection with the boyfriend she adores. I won’t bother to tell you what she chooses or how that story ends, what I want to focus on is that this sort of thing happens every day. The world is not a simple place where every sin calls down a rain of fire and brimstone. In fact, one of the reasons we came to this fallen world was to see if we could make good choices even when the consequences hurt us.
If I were writing propaganda, everyone who made a poor choice in my books would suffer for it. People would be either bad or good, never a mix. The person who tricks my main character cruelly would have no redeeming qualities. This kind of characterization is appropriate for a short advertisement, but I feel it does our readers a disservice to put it in our art.
More to the point, no one outside of our worldview will have any patience for it. Who would sit and read a book about a chaste main character if every character who didn’t practice chastity came to some horrible end while the protagonist waltzed easily through life, unfettered by these cares because she made the right decision and therefore her life is perfect? This novel I wrote with the chaste main character has spent three weeks, so far, on the Amazon top 100 children’s books (it’s YA). I say so far because it’s on the climb again up the rankings, so perhaps it’ll return to the list. Because I, as the writer, can show that I understand why people disregard chastity, such people are much more likely to sit and listen to the stories I have to tell, and if they’ll listen to my stories, they’re more likely to understand our point of view. To give another concrete example, I recently gave one of my chick lits to a reviewer who prefers hard core erotica and writes profanity-laced reviews. His reaction to my story of an LDS woman finding her way to the man of her dreams in a story with nothing more than exactly two kissing scenes? He gave it a glowing review and asked me to send him my other books.
Furthermore, if we as artists feel we need to simplify the morality of our stories, I think this says very poor things about us. Do I need to be convinced that I made the right choice, joining this Church? Do I need to tell myself stories about how people like me will succeed and people unlike me will be miserable? I do not. Do I believe I’ll have a better life because of my choice to embrace the Gospel? Well, “yes” is the propaganda answer. The simple one, and it’s not a lie. I do believe I’ll have a better life, but to be more thorough it’d be fairer to say that I believe I’ll have a better life given what I want from life. People who want the same things that I do will respond to our television commercials, to the missionaries on their doorstep.
As an artist I want to talk to people who may want different things, who may even laugh at our ways and customs. I’m not arrogant enough to believe I’ll convert them, but I feel it is my job as an artist to engage them. They may not pound on the door of the nearest meetinghouse and demand the discussions, but maybe, just maybe, the next time they meet the missionaries, they won’t sneer quite so much. Perhaps I can help them see us not as simple minded people clutching at dogma, but rather fellow humans, striving like the rest of humanity to live a life of meaning.
Let me be clear, I don’t mean to disdain LDS publishing at all. I have a deep respect for how much our Church promotes the arts and inspires its members to cultivate their creative talents. It’s fantastic that there exist so many publishers who seek to give members a voice, to publish their books and help them build careers. I merely invite LDS authors to reach out beyond the self imposed walls of the market, and not just because it’ll make them more money. Art is most meaningful when it inspires a considered dialogue, and as artists and Saints, I think we have an invaluable perspective to share with the world.