It’s All Us

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.

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8 Responses to It’s All Us

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Good thoughts. I think it’s possible for people not to realize that they have an inherently interesting point of view, and then have it pointed out to them. I agree, though, that it seems to be difficult if not impossible to develop it is you don’t have it.

    I think you’re spot-on in saying that Mormons don’t typically think of themselves as a niche market or target market — or rather, I don’t think they look to fiction as a way of exploring explicitly Mormon experience. (There is, I think, a self-aware niche that sees Mormons as targets for “clean” books, but that’s not the same thing.)

    I’d like to think this is changing with the explosion of indie publishing titles. Alternatively, it may be that there are a bunch of writers who want to write Mormon stories, but still not very many readers who want to read them. A depressing thought…

    I was struck by Joe Vasicek’s recent comment (in response to Emily Tippet’s post on the costs of publishing) that “I’ve come across a lot of readers who prefer self-published books.” I don’t know what readers he’s referring to, but I have to believe that he’s encountered those folks. Which makes me wonder: What is it they want that they aren’t getting from traditionally published books? Is it a sense of more intimate connection with the author/community? Which I think relates to the point you were making, though I’m not exactly sure how…

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I think it’s like Indie film or music—those whose works don’t fit easily into a standardized category are often overlooked by a large and well-defined apparatus designed to slot known story types into known marketing categories. The Indie fan tends to like that which is a little different, a little odd, and they pursue the off-market (like off-Broadway) titles precisely because they want to see more of the artist in addition to the art.

      Which is in no way a criticism of major publishers. To my mind, Indie and Traditional publishing are complementary systems, not functional opposites. If your tastes tend toward the odd or non-standard, you will tend to look outside the Big Name Publishers.

      I can’t really argue that many self-published (and Indie published) titles do not reach the level of finish of traditionally pubbed titles. With a smaller (and arguably less educated) jury selecting titles for Indie publication, individual foibles and tastes (or lack of same) tend to be exposed. One is often left scratching one’s head and wondering who let that out into the world (then again, I feel that way about a great many traditionally pubbed titles, as well).

      Many would argue, though, that Indie titles show more personality if less polish; that they take greater risks (or demonstrate lesser control) in pursuit of the author’s/editor’s aesthetic. There’s an active vibrancy (and sometimes abrasiveness) in them that appeals on its own merits, despite identifiable blemishes.

      Which doesn’t really answer to (what I think is) an unanswerable question. I think a lot of people are drawn to Indie stuff precisely because it has not been quite so heavily processed, correlated, smoothed, and buffered. There’s more chance-taking, and with that comes the predictable face-plants.

      And I do think there’s a difference between self-published and Indie published, though often it’s only a matter of commitment to a business model.

      Sometimes Indie is for the lesser skilled among us, but even those of us who are still looking for a marketable niche belong to the greater us. In my view.

      • Joe Vasicek says:

        I’d agree with that. The love for all things indie seems to be carrying over to books and readers, which is a part of that. It’s also people who want a good story and the indie stuff sounds more interesting, probably because it’s taking more chances.

        Personally, I don’t make a distinction between “self-published” and “indie.” It seemed like a big deal when I first started self-publishing, but now, it really doesn’t matter to me. The story is everything.

    • Joe Vasicek says:

      I’ve gotten maybe a dozen favorable reviews that mention explicitly that my books are self-published, and most of them aren’t just saying “this is pretty good for a self-published book.” The impression I’ve gotten is that there are many readers who are tired by the old story formulas so often exploited by traditional books and are looking for books that take chances and go places that other books don’t. Since traditional publishers tend to be more conservative in this respect, staying closer to the time-tested formulas and leaving the “wildcatting” to others, these particular readers have turned to self-published books–many of them quite happily.

  2. Wm says:

    I like the spaces in-between. And every time I try to ignore them, they start clamoring loudly for attention.

  3. Is “Indie” just for self-published stuff? Are YOU going to be the one, Scott, who compiles the list of books (self-published or otherwise) that seem to “grab” and take hold? I am reading a nationally published book called “Anonymity” and it’s loose and rambling and “liberal.” I don’t really identify with it, or enjoy it. But I just finished reading Covenant’s “In the Shadow of an Angel” by Lynne Larson, about four generations of women and their attachment to the angel Maroni, and I loved it. It had a powerful message about posterity. Market or not, there is definitely still a NEED for Mormon literature that moves us! Thank you for ANALYZING it.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Indie is commonly applied as a euphemism for self-published, though to my mind indie-publishing encompasses significantly more than that. By and large, Indie publishers do stuff they like and hope for a hit (as opposed to more established companies who groom titles for a well-known marketing niche). They’re driven by passion for the title more than the paycheck.

      Of course all self-published titles are that way, but there is an increasing micro-niche of small publishers devoting their energies to other peoples’ work, while also (commonly) promoting their own. I’m one of them. I’ve read a number of manuscripts that I think are quite good, but have failed to hook a traditional publisher. So I intend to publish them out of my own passion for the stories. Does that make it vanity press? I suppose so, but I would argue that it’s my vanity, not the authors’ vanity, and that make a significant difference.

      As a personal matter, I’m in a fairly massive transition/reconfiguration mode on non-traditional publishing outlets (off-Broadway, as it were). I’m an old-school guy who has believed for many years that the stamp of approval from the publisher—aka, a qualified evaluator or jury—is more than just eg0-boo. The approval is a promise (to the reader) of at least minimal quality by a pro who knows the difference between ready, raw, unrealized, or utterly lacking talent.

      Which is why I think there remains special value in indie publishers who offer other peoples’ stuff.

      Self-publishing has been the fuel for all publishing since the beginning, with juried selection as a marketing gimmick designed to suggest quality. Problem is that the process has become so selective (aka, restrictive) that a great many delightful titles are never seeing the light of day. If those authors choose to self-publish or work with tiny indie publishers (who are also fans), the market will weigh in on whether that was a good idea or not.

      So…

      Yes, I will end up putting together some recommended reading lists because I’m a busybody engaging in avoidance behavior. Problem is that I come with a very distinct set of biases that limit the usefulness of the task. Mine is just one opinion among many.

      Which is why I write the odd and occasional reviews, and why I sometimes comment here (and elsewhere) when something grabs me in particularly engaging way (like my fandom for both Steven Peck and James Goldberg). Not everyone’s cup of tea, but they sure entertain me for reasons that I’m reasonably good at articulating.

      Everyone needs to take the time to say so when they find a title they like. Whether in the reader review sections of Amazon or Goodreads, or more structured forums like this one. There must be good report and praise if we want others to seek after these things. Which means we need to offer, not just consume. All of us, not just a select few gatekeepers—either as publishers or reviewers. In the end, the market will decide regardless of the mechanism of publication.

      In my opinion.

  4. scott bronson says:

    Have I got a book for you! (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)

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