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.