Searching for a Markus Zusak of Our Own

Today over at Motley Vision, William posted an excerpt from an Ensign article about LDS literature published in 1981 by Richard Cracroft. This sentence in particular caught my eye:

Many of the sweetest messages of life are subtle, and the important messages of truth which LDS fiction will be charged to carry can be aimed at readers schooled in reading well-crafted fiction, at readers who rejoice in the elevating message as subtly suggested through skillful character development, dialogue, setting, symbolism, metaphor, and language.

In this sentence, Cracroft summarizes something that has been percolating at the back of mind during the last little while as I have been reading so many Whitney finalists and other books published by LDS authors. He also, for me, points out why so many of my friends that read widely do not want to read LDS fiction. These are readers who rejoice in skillfully crafted characters, writing, and subtle messages, and unfortunately those are not yet found in the majority of fiction being published by and marketed to LDS writers and readers.

I think that, overall, both the quantity and the quality of popular LDS fiction have risen substantially in the three decades since Cracroft wrote his article. There are many more books on the market today, and most of those published by mainstream publishers have a higher level of quality editing, more subtle characterization, and a wider range of settings and plots than those published 15 or 20 years ago. The mainstream LDS fiction market seems to be moving past simple didacticism, stock villains and heroes, sloppy editing, and a pioneer-stock, Utah-centric focus. And yet, most of the books I’ve read lately have all been rather bland. Those last three things Cracroft points out—symbolism, metaphor, and language—are all rather lacking in most of the popular LDS literature being published today. During the last few months I’ve read 6 different books that, while enjoyable, blend together in my mind because none was written in a distinct voice. Instead, they are all narrated in a straight-forward, third-person fashion that spends too much time telling rather than showing. Shifting point of view between characters seems to stand in for time spent developing characters, and authors seem to be concerned about their readers missing out on any details so they provide all of the backstory themselves through dialogue or extended narration.

To provide an example of what I’m talking about, I want to quote from the beginning of a nationally-published book I read a few months ago called Code Name: Verity. It tells the story of two British women who become friends while serving together in WWII. The first half of the novel is told from Julie’s point of view; after a while, it becomes apparent that her somewhat unhinged narrative is being scribbled under duress in a Gestapo jail. The second half of the novel is narrated by Maddie, who is both Julie’s friend and the pilot who smuggled her in to Occupied France. The novel opens with this paragraph:

“I am a coward. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers—and even though I am a girl, they let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, I know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.”

Two days ago I finished reading Espionage, a Whitney finalist in the Historical Fiction category that tells a very similar story about an American intelligence officer in Occupied France. On the second page is this data-dumping paragraph, similar to much of the narration in the book:

“Peter’s mission, Operation Switchblade, was his first for the US Office of Strategic Services, and it was extremely important. As he rowed, Peter reviewed the information he had learned during his briefing. Three days ago, a German spy stole one of the code books the American military used to communicate with sources in German-occupied territory. It was always bad news to have a code book stolen, but the military normally reissued code books so frequently that it wasn’t a significant loss. This particular code book, however, was used to communicate with deep-cover agents in Belgium, Denmark, and Northern Germany. Peter was told that some of the agents were so entrenched in the German military hierarchy that issuing a new code book to them was deemed a risk of unacceptable proportions. The code book’s loss was devastating to the Allied cause. If the book stayed in Nazi hands, they could set traps to capture and kill valuable sources of information.”

Given the choice between these two story-telling styles, I’m always going to pick the first one. As someone who reads widely, I cannot help but compare the unique narrative voice, the use of symbolism and figurative language, and the more subtle exposition of plot and setting found in most of the nationally-published books I read with the more bland, straightforward narration of the books I read being published for the LDS-market. Although I can name many LDS writers, I’m not sure I could describe the style that most of them use for writing because most do not have a unique voice or style.

I know that at least part of the problem lies in me and my expectations as a reader. I value narrative innovation and literary style; part of my pleasure in reading comes from savoring the writer’s language choices and plot construction. I know this is not the case for all readers. Some prefer a book that is more straightforward and unadorned, that allows them to concentrate on the plot. Unfortunately, I feel that by choosing to mostly publish books of similar style, length, and vocabulary level, mainstream LDS publishers are missing out on many potential readers. For me, and many fellow readers that I know, the addition of LDS characters isn’t a selling point. We are not just looking for Miltons and Shakespeares; we are also looking for writers with unique voices like Markus Zusak, Ann Patchett, Marilynne Robinson, Geraldine Brooks, or Leif Enger. We still haven’t found them yet.

 

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25 Responses to Searching for a Markus Zusak of Our Own

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Jessie,

    I appreciate the examples in particular. They really brought home the striking difference.

    Do you find this blandness in LDS authors as a whole, or is what you’re talking about mostly specific to those published in and for the LDS market?

  2. Jessie says:

    I have mostly noticed it in titles published in and for the LDS market. I worry that it is becoming the standard writing style for such publishers and that this, even more than content, might be creating more polarization between popular LDS lit and writers that are less main-stream. Is an aversion to narrative experimentation going to become a new benchmark for acceptable LDS literature? I hope not.

    • I don’t think it’s “an aversion to narrative experimentation” that’s the problem here. It’s just a skipped basic step in the writing process.

      Beginning writers often think that coming up with a novel consists of coming up with exciting things that can happen to people. More experienced writers know that the strength of the novel is its ability to give you a sense of how POV characters perceive and react to those exciting things.

      I tell my students this is the author vs. character dilemma. As an author, you need certain things to happen. But you need to take time to give them to us through the characters’ eyes.

      In the first passage, the character and author are working together. The author needs to get the bad deal with von Linden out, but allows the character to get there through a range of attitudes and associations. It’s hard work, because basically the author has to switch brains to get from plot to passage, but it pays off.

      In the second passage, the author streamrolls right over the poor passive character. We don’t get a single detail of attitude or perception we can be sure belongs to Peter rather than to the men who briefed him. The passage does give evidence that the author is quite capable of invention: the explanation for why they can’t just switch code book is very thoughtful. Based on that inventiveness, my guess is that this writer could go back and invent attitudes and reactions for Peter–it’s just that no one has taught her/him yet that modern novel writing requires separate plot and attitude layers of invention.

      I guess I’m saying that we don’t have to do anything experimental or super-advanced to catch up. We just need to teach novel writers that coming up with characters’ attitudes and perceptions is at least as important as coming up with the plot itself.

      • Wm says:

        It can be a little easier to do that by using first person POV (like the author of the first passage does), but I agree that characterization is important.

        • Jessie says:

          Yes, I think you are both right. For me the second book, and many books I’ve read by LDS publishers, seems to have stopped short of where it could go. I’ve read a few that are in first-person POV and noticed a similar problem. I often feel removed from the characters, like I don’t really ‘know’ them or that their motives are not very obvious to me.

        • Actually, I think 3rd person POV is a little easier for layering in attitudes. In 1st person, your character has to admit what he/she feels. In 3rd person, there’s not that added filter. 1st person is also typically retroactive, so it’s hard to separate attitudes-at-the-time from attitudes-looking-back. 3rd person doesn’t have that filter either.

        • Wm says:

          I think, though, that in first person authors tend to tap more easily in to what those attitudes are. But I could be wrong — it just seems like I encounter the issue more often in works from third person POV and first.

        • Ah. I see.

          1st person puts us at several filters’ distance from raw attitudes, but does clearly demand attitudes.

          3rd person allows for more direct access to a character’s unfiltered perceptions and attitudes, but does make it easier for a writer to forgot that perceptions and attitudes are a key strength of the prose fiction form.

  3. Mark Penny says:

    I’m with you all the way on the exposition issue.

    One caveat would be that the youth market probably requires more exposition through explanation than the educated adult market prefers.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      That may be true down at the middle grades level, but not, I think, in YA books (i.e., those for high school aged readers). I’ve been trying to submerse myself in YA recently, and it’s all about getting inside the minds of the characters. I don’t think the second example would be considered good prose for YA — at least, in the national market.

  4. Wm says:

    This is an excellent observation, Jessie. And it’s not a genre vs. literary thing, either. There are plenty of genre authors who have strong, vivid writing styles (and literary fiction authors who have bland ones).

    • Jessie says:

      Yes, exactly. Though the authors I listed at the end generally write literary fiction, I’ve read plenty of well-written genre fiction. For example, Carla Kelly writes romance and is now publishing with Covenant she has a strong, engaging style.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I don’t read a lot of mainstream LDS fiction, but do sample it now and then. I do read a fair amount of the LDS literary fiction that gets put out there. I don’t think, however, that this is as simple as James’ suggestion that we simply need to teach novel writers to do better. We do. Of course we do. But writers have to do the hard work of developing and sometimes that takes a lifetime of effort. Unfortunately, at least in the LDS lit fic world, we often don’t get a supply of stories that completely hits the mark Cracroft aspires for us. So the question sometimes becomes, Do we publish something that isn’t of national quality so we publish something? or Do we not publish and hope for something better to come along for the next issue?

    • I agree that you publish the best of what you’ve got.

      My point, though, is that making the second passage significantly better shouldn’t take a lifetime of effort. The writer is clearly thoughtful and inventive and just needs a push to take the second step of character perception rather than resting on plot invention. I’ve seen students make huge leaps in this area within a few weeks.

      If we can be specific about the problem, we can get improvement more quickly.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        Agreed.

        • Jessie says:

          Yep, agreed. I don’t know if editors are just not taking the time to push for more rewrites, or if they don’t have that kind of time, or even the training/desire to push for it.

        • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

          That’s another (and old) discussion. Is our problem underacheiving writers or underacheiving editors? Or both? How much effort should an editor put in?

        • Wm says:

          Likely both.

          I know that my experience both with editing stories for Monsters & Mormons and with having my work edited for Mormon journal publication suggests that good editors can help authors make a story that 10-25% better that pushes into quality territory.

      • Mark Penny says:

        Just this evening I was praising a student for writing “My grandson asked me to draw our family tree. I didn’t write my brother’s name” instead of “I was really angry at my brother for going off on his near-light-speed 5-year trip six decades ago.” A big part of the reader experience is engagement and a big part of that is inference. I call it suggest, delay, confirm. Give good clues to the important elements, let the reader work them out, then confirm the guesses. In my student’s case, the plan is for the octogenarian stay-at-home brother to be less than enthusiastic when the spacefaring brother disembarks.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    And for the record and in the interest of full-disclosure, I should confess that I stopped reading Jessi’s first excerpt example when I got to “My God, I tried.” Taking the name of the Lord in vain . . . tsk tsk tsk :)

    • Jessie says:

      Yeah, I wasn’t sure if I should leave that in there but I hoped that this blog could handle it :) I know that many people would prefer to read the second example simply because there are no words like that, or the ‘stupid Nazi bastards’ phrase in the next paragraph. I think it could still be powerful without language like that–vivid, deep writing that is realistic doesn’t have to include profanity or taking the name of the Lord in vain.

  7. Gamila says:

    I have totally had the same thought process as this. In fact, I think it relates back to the previous post on this blog about historical narratives. My thought was that we have a lot of very solidly written historical narratives. Novels that march along the timeline of history and dramatize them rather well. Hales said he wanted the history author’s portrayed to be more complex and problematic, but I really think there would be dramatic improvement if we had more historical fiction that was more character based rather than narrative based. I really wish our historical fiction would focus more on getting into the historical mindset and voice of characters rather than merely moving them from one event to another.

  8. Emily Milner says:

    Yes. I have thought this many times. It’s great to get away from the forced conversion narratives, from the representation of Mormonism as no-drinking, no-premarital sex, but to elevate our books to the next level we need some layers. I would love to read a sentence and have it mean more than one thing: one thing to the character in the story, another to the story as a whole, and another to me as a reader. I have read quite a bit of LDS popular fiction in which the potential for layering is there, is abundant, in fact, but not tapped into. This is frustrating.

    At the same time, I don’t necessarily think that nationally published genre lit is always subtly layered either. I was reading a popular national chick lit romance recently and realized that Melonie Jacobson’s books had similar issues as the national romance but are also every bit as good.

    I wonder if part of it is just needing to keep to a deadline. You can only make a book so good in a limited amount of time. If you don’t take the time, or have the time, to really let a book sit and percolate, it’s hard to draw out those layers. You can still tell a pretty good story, but you lose the resonance a little more time might bring.

    This is another reason I was so bugged about _Dispirited_ not making the Whitney finals. It was layered.

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