Two causally connected, but tangentially related thoughts on the collision of creation and community for one LDS writer.
Committing to the Niche
It seems to me that there are two key ways that authors connect with audiences—by writing a type of story that a well-defined market segment wants to read, and by being an inherently interesting person (or writing in a particularly interesting voice).
There’s not much you can do about the second one. It seems like an intrinsic characteristic that you can exploit, but that you can’t really develop. Sure, you can work the quality of your prose and refine your techniques of expression, but having an inherently interesting viewpoint in the first place seems more like a gift than a practice.
But the first one—writing stories for an audience that’s already looking for such stories—is something that authors can practice and develop.
Which opens up a very contentious conversation about pandering and honesty and cynicism and manipulation. This is something I as a writer have struggled with a lot over the years. I had it pounded in early that escapist writing is bad and interpretive writing is good. So as I sit to write, I feel a bit squeamish about committing fully to the tropes of genre (I am, at heart, a writer of imaginative tales). I end up being a little embarrassed when I read over-the-top stories, because they’re so…escapist.
And yet those are the stories that sell lots (and lots) of copies. Those are stories that delight their readers. We can argue all day long about their literary bona fides; only stories that are read have the potential to impact audiences. One of the key ways readers know to trust an untested tale is if it meets them on their own terms of subject or detail.
In other words, genre matters and authors who commit to an audience have a better chance of reaching them. If that means going slightly over the top to meet that audience on its own terms, that’s okay.
So obvious, yet I have struggled mightily to embrace it. I write science fiction…and I write slice of life…and I write light horror…and I write fantasy…and I write absurdism…and I even write literary fiction. I like it all and I write it all, but I live in an odd no-man’s land in the gaps between each of those well-defined marketing categories.
Sometimes you just have to cast caution to the winds and embrace something to help readers find you.
Mormons as Market Segment
“Mormon” is not a meaningful genre of its own. Yes, we have the revolving door stories (how I found/lost my testimony) and the historical dramas. Yes, we have the cultural critiques and the faith-promoting tales. But most of the clearly Mormon stories that have been published found audiences because they were something else—historical, docudrama, sf, romance.
In other words, Mormons (generally) don’t see themselves as a target community or market segment, and so there is no well-defined set of tropes for writers to engage. (I’m not convinced the morality tales that well-known LDS publishers have embraced constitutes an expansive genre, yet.)
But that seems to be changing. Whatever you may think of independent publishing (we’ve heard quite a bit of criticism of it in recent months), that’s where writers and publishers take chances on titles that don’t have a well-defined market niche. Even if you view Indie publishing as the farm league for the big leagues of New York, that freedom to challenge traditional boundaries and categories can prove the market for a type of story—and enable a potential market to coalesce around a new self-definition. Then New York can bless the newly defined market niche with its imprimatur.
Every author has to work out the details of their own career with fear and trembling, but as we seek our avenues for expression it seems useful to remember the reader. If Indie publishers are taking market share, it’s because readers are seeking satisfying stories outside the traditional (and sometimes limited or hidebound) avenues.
The glory of the capitalist system is that markets change and clever entrepreneurs constantly challenge the establishment, just before becoming the establishment. The same is true of literary movements. While it is possible to create a new market segment from within the traditional definitions, it can also be done by wildcatting and taking a chance outside the familiar confines.
I won’t pretend to like all the stories told in Monsters & Mormons or James Goldberg’s flash fiction contests, but I like the willingness to toss a grenade into the pot of static expectation and demand that we take our own look at what constitutes Mormon story.
To me it’s all just us, whether offered through traditional or independent channels. And that’s a good thing for the vibrancy and future of Mormon stories.