Guest post by Christopher Loke, executive editor of Jolly Fish Press
When I was first approached to join Jolly Fish Press (JFP) as executive editor, my first question was, why Utah. After all, all of the houses I’ve been involved in are headquartered in the east coast, mainly New York and Boston. Don’t ask me why, but the common consensus is that if your house is in New York, you must be big. So, naturally, I was curious as to why JFP would want to set up shop in a state not particularly known for its publishing industry. But after a good observation, and being LDS myself, it is apparent why Utah is a good choice–this state is brimming with great and talented writers. In fact, the LDS culture focuses heavily on reading and producing good and wholesome literature, the LDS fiction genre being one of the most prominent genres among LDS readers.
With increasing prominence and popularity within the LDS community, the LDS fiction genre has since become a forerunner among the popular reads in Utah. With the support of major LDS publishers such as Deseret Books and Cedar Fort Publishing, authors of LDS fiction now have a place to publish their books. As such, the population of LDS authors continues to grow to an extent that we even have our own LDS writers conferences and literary awards.
But even with bestselling LDS authors such as Orson Scott Card, Richard Paul Evans, Stephenie Meyers, and Brandon Sanderson, to name a few, moving into mainstream literary genres, the majority of LDS writers are still yet to do the same. Based on my many years of experience in the industry, in order for an LDS writer to successfully write for a more popular audience, he will have to write a narrative that is devoid of his LDS persona. And yes, that means your personal moral and religion cannot be more superior than your character’s. As such, your personal religious practices must never dominate the narrative of your book. This, of course, does not apply to non-fiction, for non-fiction is simply what it is–a narrative based on truth. And the truth must never be falsified or distorted for the sake of profitability and popularity, the subject of which warrants a discussion of its own at another time.
So, how do we as LDS authors build that long-term career that we’ve so much coveted and longed for without compromising our ideals and standards? The answer is honesty, not so much to ourselves, but to our characters and a narrative that drives the story forward. We must be brave enough to break from that mold that stereotypes us as authors whose narratives are detached from important issues and the reality of our settings and characters. We need to write responsibly and not be afraid to give our characters real situations to deal with, so that our narrative may have a worthy purpose with which to move forward toward a resolution. And we must not be too timid to flaw our protagonists and forego ideals and utopia.
Now, bear in mind, there is a difference between LDS fiction and fiction written by LDS authors. The former is a genre that comes with a specific market and audience, while the latter is fictional works by authors of the LDS faith. That said, I do not attempt to redefine a genre, but instead, I want to point our focus to the general and current trends LDS authors are setting in their writings.
Most LDS authors tend to write with a cautious sense of self-censorship, making sure that their narrative maintains a certain standard as dictated by the tenets of the Church. The idiosyncrasies and dialogues of their characters reflect a safer world that attempts to mimic the real world but fails to really confront real social issues at hand. As a result, over 70 percent of fiction written by LDS authors belong in the fantasy, science fiction, or paranormal genres. But even so, strong narratives can be powerful regardless of genre–the subjects they tackle, plus outstanding writing define their quality. Having said that, our complacency may be one reason why most of our writings don’t matter much in mainstream literature. In order for us to penetrate mainstream American literature, we must first write about subjects that matter for an audience that is hungry for a narrative that does not undermine their intelligence, but instead, fuel it with themes and elements that propose a greater resolution for a problem worth discussing.
Suzanne Collins wrote Hunger Games, a series of dystopian YA novels that not only satisfies her readers’ crave for adventure in a world very different from their own, they also provide an unapologetic narrative exposing the extreme administration of a totalitarian government. Dan Wells’s John Cleaver series center on the demon-slaying episodes of a teenager, but their narrative talks of the difficult choices we make in life and the ultimate meaning of sacrifice. And of course, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which rejuvenated children’s love of reading and books, proving that children’s narratives can be as powerful as any other genres when it comes to delivering the age-old themes of good versus evil, the true meaning of friendship, and the journey of a flawed character to find a purpose for himself when all hope seems lost. These are but a few of the narratives in literature that are powerful and all encompassing in subject matter and language. And as we can see, setting, while important, is not as important as the narrative itself, the force and language that moves the plot and sends a clear message to the reader.
To be successful writers, we must write with a sense of responsibility . . . to our readers and the characters and world we create. Let our stories educate and inform. Let them speak of things most people fear to talk about. Let them entertain. But most importantly, give them a voice that resonates the core of being human. Let your narrative drive the story, not you.
This, my friends, is how we break from that LDS fiction writing mold, taking our first step toward a world where literature means so much more than just beautiful words–it can change our lives. So remember, as we have fun writing our stories, never forget the greater call we have as authors and creators of worlds and ideologies. Write that story that matters.