Publishers Corner: Engaging the National Market from an LDS Perspective

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.

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15 Responses to Publishers Corner: Engaging the National Market from an LDS Perspective

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Very well put comments — and very similar reasons, in my opinion at least, to those I tried to express related to why I wrote my novel about a gay Mormon teenager as a “realistic” one, even though that one was aimed largely at a Mormon audience. (My best effort, I think, was a blog post titled On Writing a Realistic Novel:

    In addition to what you say about writing to nonmembers, I also think we run the risk of turning off many members of the Church if we only show the easy answers — including youth who find that the world isn’t as simple as we sometimes may suggest.

    I actually find that most members of the Church are good at acknowledging this in real life. But many of us insist otherwise in our fiction. Maybe it’s because we feel that fiction *should* hold up for us a picture of things that is better than real life — more the way things *ought* to be, so as to encourage us to live that way. And that kind of fiction has value, I think. But there’s got to be the other as well.

    • Very true, Jonathan, and I don’t think many people would call my work gritty and realistic through and through. I love a happy ending. I’ve had LDS people email me and admit that if they knew I was LDS before they picked up my book, they probably wouldn’t have read it. So you’re right, even our own can be alienated.

  2. “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.”

    Very well put.

  3. Emily M. says:

    I agree that we need to have a body of literature that respects our characters’ agency–I have similar thoughts written here. I have to say, though, that while I’ve read books with this problem (they are what sparked my own post) I think the best DB and Covenant books are avoiding it nicely. I just finished Josi Kilpack’s book Daisy, in which the main character is not LDS (score one for a worldview that’s sympathetic to those not of our faith, although in favor of faith in general and sympathetic to the Mormon she encounters). She makes a serious mistake in her parenting at the beginning of the book and has to suffer the consequences, and it’s handled without preachiness. I’d also highly recommend Melanie Jacobsen’s The List and Not My Type as non-preachy, accessible books which I think could handle a national market well.

    I think what I’m saying is that it’s very easy to take one or two (or three or four, I know) books and say “all popular LDS lit has this problem.” While the problem does exist, I think it’s not universal.

    And this doesn’t really address your main point; I just wanted to stick up for books I have read that respect character agency. There are more than just the ones I listed, and in my years of reading Whitney finalists I think there has been an overall improvement on this issue.

    • No, you’re right, the problem isn’t universal, but I think time has shown that books written for the LDS market with national market appeal do cross over and sell nationwide. Think Jason Wright and Obert Skye. So while the women’s fiction and romance novels may be improving, I’ve yet to see one of those cross over. I’m not saying I know definitive answers that would guarantee cross over, but I do think one of the obstacles is what I’ve highlighted, and I think we’ve got our own reputation to overcome. LDS women’s fiction is still perceived as inescapably niche market.

  4. Joe Vasicek says:

    This post makes me want to stand up and cheer. It seems to encapsulate the Savior’s injunction to be “in the world, but not of the world” as applied to literature. This is the kind of stuff I want to read, and the kind of stuff I want to write as well.

    • Thanks, Joe! I think LDS arts had tremendous potential. It’s sad to me that “Christian art” has descended to the tiny niche that it has. For centuries, the term “religious art” would have seemed redundant. Many if not most of the great artists of the last millennium did their work with an eye single to the glory of God and dedicated their paintings, symphonies, and sculptures to the Lord – many of them survived off commissions from churches. The fact that nowadays religious art has been relegated to little speciality stores is a travesty. Religion may be on the decline, but over 70% of the population profess a belief in God. There’s no reason religion should stand in the way of being able to entertain people with a good story.

  5. Wm says:

    “More to the point, no one outside of our worldview will have any patience for it.”

    This is a great way of stating it, Emily. It’s less the details and particulars or even vocabulary that non-LDS don’t have patience and more the worldview that can come across as foreign and impenetrable. I think that some readers want to understand that worldview. But there need to be some avenues in — and as you note, it can’t extend to every single character in the story.

  6. I’ve read this again and again, hoping to be able to write an intelligent, articulate answer, but I’m still reduced to merely saying, “Yes, exactly!”

  7. william m. darley says:

    Dear E.M. Tippetts, Your comments are intriguing. I have always felt that for an ethnic groups or society to progress, there has to be accommodation for people who push the window of what for the moment is acceptable and what is not to that social order. Among such is art. The role of art, it seems to me, by its very nature is to invent new ways to challenge the way a cultural groups perceives the world around them; often good art crosses the line, but that is the price society must pay for ensuring that the creative energy of the society is refreshed and kept alive, to counter balance the forces of social inertia that seek orthodoxy and uniformity. Societies that don’t make such an accommodation eventually stagnate not only in the way they think, but eventually in the quality of the way they live. For me, the contrast between the experimentation of the early LDS church under Joseph Smith and what was tolerated is striking as compared to what is not tolerated today. A range of characters reach back to his time were not only tolerated but embraced as much for their human foibles as for their faithfulness. Orin Porter Rockwell was illiterate and brutish, but utterly devoted to Brigham Young and defense of the saints. Elder B.H. Roberts, perhaps the Church’s greatest Historian on balance, was known to suffer from alcholoism even as he continued to serve; Elder Golden Kimball public struggle with a host pecadillos were legion; none of these brothers would today get a temple recommend. I think from your comments, you might agree with the above observations. But perhaps not. Nevertheless, by way of background, I am a retired career military officer, life-time member of the church, returned missionary, and dabbler in creative writing. That said, I would like to become much more than a dabbler. Most of what I have written that has been published — relatively little — was non-fiction commentary regarding subjects related to the military. However, like many people attracted to creative writing, I feel I have some interesting stories to tell as well as interesting concepts for stories, and that I can tell an interesting story. Frankly, am looking for advice as to where — as a beginner — I might try to submit a story or, as time permits, a novel or screen play. There are so many addressees on the web claiming expertise in this area. But many of them look like self-publication charlatans, not real outlets. Where would you suggest a person such as me would begin?

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      A lot depends on what type of story you want to tell, and to whom. If you want to tell stories that speak to the Mormon community, then you have a limited but diverse set of options, depending on the level of orthodoxy/inoffensiveness of the stories you want to tell — and a good place to start would be with looking at this Publishers Corner series. If you want to speak to a national audience, a lot depends on genre. You’d need to research the major publishers in your area, find out which ones are publishing books similar to the ones you want to write, and proceed from there.

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