The Populist’s Soapbox: Not Milton or Shakespeare, But Working on It

I’ll be the first to admit that the body of literature written by Latter-day Saints hasn’t yet reached the classic prophecy of Orson F. Whitney that we’d have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”

On the other hand, we’ve come a long, long way in the past few decades. I’d say that even in the last five years, the quality of LDS literature had grown by leaps and bounds. Sure, there’s still plenty of cheese on the shelves in all its varieties of cheddar and its cousins. You’ll still find less-than stellar writing, luck-luster editing, and otherwise low-quality books.

BUT (and that’s a big, enormous, but), a lot of good books are getting published, and they aren’t just from obscure, independent, “literary” publishers. Great genre novels—from mystery to romance to historical and more—are hitting shelves regularly. Each year the odds drop of picking up an LDS-authored book and finding it to be a totally lame conversion story that’s so poorly written it makes you want to gouge your eyeballs out.

I’m sure the reasons behind the increase in quality are numerous, but I attribute much of it to a couple of things.

The first is the annual LDStorymakers conference, which will, this spring, be in its seventh year. The conference has grown from being a tiny little event with a few dozen people to one with hundreds of attendees, hosting national agents and editors, and holding a two-day hands-on critique workshop “boot camp.” It focuses on really teaching writers to write and sell their work.

I believe the conference (which, incidentally, recently opened registration for next year) has had a powerful domino effect on the market. More and more aspiring LDS writers are learning and honing their craft. The result: competition is getting tougher. Ergo, publishers can be choosier in the manuscripts they accept. Each year, breaking into the market gets harder for new writers.

The final result: what ends up on the shelf is of higher quality than what used to be there.

I like to think that the second impetus behind the increase in quality is the Whitney Awards program, named after the very Orson F. Whitney from the quote we’ve heard so many times. As an apostle, he had the vision of our people creating literature that would “reach the heavens.” Read his entire speech sometime; it’s downright inspiring and makes me, at least, want to sit at the keyboard and write all day.

LDS novelist Robison Wells is the founder and president of the Whitney Awards. He believes that such a program would accomplish a couple of important things: first, it would encourage writers to raise their own bar, striving for excellence so they, too, could win such an award.

Second, an award such as the Whitney would bring attention to good LDS literature. Readers who have never known about good LDS books might hear about them now. Quite possibly, even the naysayers—those who are stuck in the mindset that all LDS fiction is drivel, that we haven’t progressed beyond lame conversions, didactic preaching, and pioneer stories—would see that wow, we’ve really improved, and then give the market another chance.

When I find someone who rolls their eyes at the “fluffy” LDS market, I often ask what they like to read in the national one—and then suggest a comparable author in the LDS market, someone I already know is a great writer. I love seeing their faces later when they come back to me, stunned as they admit they, um, liked the book. It wasn’t cheesy. It was . . . good. (And then they blush as they ask in hushed tones if I have any other recommendations, as if they’re embarrassed that they liked an LDS novel and hope their friends don’t find out that they’ve tarnished themselves.)

The Whitney Awards are now in their third year, and from what I’ve seen, they are starting to accomplish both goals: encourage writers to up their game, and increase the visibility of good books written by LDS writers. People who never would have given LDS fiction the time of day in the past are reading past finalists and winners and discovering that wow, there really are a lot of good books out there—ones they never would have heard of without the Whitneys. I know a woman who said, after seeing the list of finalists, that she didn’t know there were that many books published by LDS writers, let alone that there could be a pool much greater than that to pick finalists from. Word needs to get out.

A brief primer on how the Whitneys work: The program is reader-driven. A book must receive five reader nominations to be an official nominee. All official nominees are given to judges in each of six genre categories (Romance, Mystery/Suspense, Youth Fiction, Speculative, Historical, and General). Each genre category has five judges who read and vote on the nominees, narrowing them down to five finalists in each genre.

This year’s genre finalists will be announced February 5. At that point, an academy of industry insiders—made up of writers, editors, publishers, critics, bookstore owners, and more (literally hundreds of people)—have about two months to read the finalists. They cast their ballots for the genre categories, plus ones for Best Novel of the Year and Best Novel by a New Author. The results will be announced at the Whitney Awards Gala held after the annual LDStorymakers conference in April.

National writers like Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson are put up against Deseret Book and Zarahemla writers, who get the same shot as self-published writers like Sarah M. Eden and Tanya Parker Mills (both finalists from 2008). The Whitney Awards aren’t just for LDS market writers; they’re for all LDS writers. They’re to recognize the best, wherever they may be. Part of the reason, again, is to encourage everyone to write well. And another is to point out that—guess what?—many writers in the LDS market are already writing on par with their national counterparts. A lot of people just don’t know that, because the last LDS novel they read was either ten years ago or written by someone who didn’t know what they were doing.

I bring up the Whitneys now because the final deadline to nominate a novel for 2009 is fast approaching. Nominations will be taken through December 31. The writer must be LDS but doesn’t need to be writing for the LDS market; the book just needs to have been published in 2009. If you qualify to be in the voting academy, apply to join it from the Whitney Awards website (see the rules for whether you do), and, assuming you’ve read the finalists, you’ll be able to cast your vote by April 3 with the rest of the Academy.

Don’t assume that your favorite books of 2009 have been nominated. Be sure get the job done just to be on the safe side. On the other hand, if you haven’t read any great LDS authors this year and don’t know who to nominate, take a look at the past finalists and winners from 2007 and 2008. I’m betting you’ll find something great to read.

The AML’s own Angela Hallstrom took a well-deserved Whitney for her Bound on Earth, and many other finalists from 2008 were downright excellent. (I still wish The Reckoning could have won something. I adored that book.)

I’ve personally been writing and publishing in this market for close to a decade now, and at times, the stigma of what it has been and what people assumes it still is gets old. When I participated in a blog tour for my most recent release last spring, over and over again I kept hearing from bloggers that they were a bit nervous to read my book simply because it had the label of “LDS Fiction.”

Not that they’d ever read any, but they’d “heard it was bad.”

Then they actually read my book and found out that hey, it had an interesting story and characters. It was well-written. It wasn’t cheesy (I got that one several times). Best of all, they liked it. (I even made several of them cry. Score!) But while I got great feedback over and over again, the frustration remained: they went into the book with trepidation, assuming it would be bad just because it was an LDS novel, something they wouldn’t have read unless they’d been asked to. Reading it changed their minds about the market, and now they’re giving other LDS writers a chance. That’s great.

But elsewhere, the stigma lives on.

At the same time, yes, I know there really is junk on the shelves (and I could walk through Deseret Book with you, pointing out exactly what NOT to read). But there’s also a lot of great stuff. A lot more than you might expect.

Then again, the national market isn’t much different. Not everything on the shelves in Barnes and Noble is great. But it’s not all garbage, either. There’s a pretty good mix of junk and diamonds.

Huh. Just like this market.

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21 Responses to The Populist’s Soapbox: Not Milton or Shakespeare, But Working on It

  1. Lara says:

    Seriously, Annette. You have been a huge factor in my reading of LDS fiction again. I read some a long time ago, hated it and didn’t read any again. Now, I’ve picked up a few here and there and have never been disappointed.

  2. Well done, as always, Annette! I look forward to 1/17/2010.

  3. Great blog, Annette. There is SO much out there in the LDS market now. Thanks for encouraging people to give it a try–and not assume that because it’s LDS fiction, it must be cheesy.

  4. Do you see any chance that a general audience will re-open for LDS writers? Writers like Vardis Fisher, Maureen Whipple, Virginia Soresen and Samuel Taylor had a national following in the ’30s and ’40s. What happened?

  5. Great post Annette. I am looking forward to the finalists list and also to 2011′s Whitneys when I can be eligible. The turnaround of the LDS market like Alma the younger is something to be celebrated.

  6. Kimberly Job says:

    I recently read and older LDS fiction novel and was astounded at the difference in quality compared to what is being published today. I’ve always loved LDS fiction, but it just keeps getting better and better.

  7. L.T. Elliot says:

    I suppose because I’ve been reading it for so long, I’ve never had a bias against LDS Fiction. Sure, I’ve had my share of cheese and plots as limp as warm celery but for the most part, I’ve found LDS Fiction to be uplifting and entertaining. And of course, there’s a particular writer that’s never disappointed me. ;)

  8. Emily M. says:

    I enjoyed reading all the Whitney finalists last year–especially the ones Annette mentioned. And I’m a little scared to bring this up, but here it is: even among the Whitney finalists, the best of things written last year, there were books that contained some of what I consider to be problematic aspects of LDS writing.

    I realize LDS fiction is getting better and better–witness the way that so many authors have been able to take local success and transition into a national market (James Dashner with The Maze Runner, J. Scott Savage just got an agent, and Ally Condie just signed a seven-figure deal. You go girl! I love it when local people make good). But I confess that, while I enjoyed reading the majority of the Whitney finalists, there were several that made me cringe mightily. These were the best of that year, and the quality was uneven.

    The problem as I see it, Annette, is that, while the good stuff is out there, it’s not consistent. I have often read on LDS writing blogs that the writers want people to give the books a chance. But it’s still a gamble.

    Furthermore, it’s hard to get honest reviews of LDS fiction. This is because the community is small, and everyone wants to be friends. And that’s a good thing. I love the way established writers reach out to newbies and help them fulfill their dreams. But this small community makes it hard to get straight talk. When I have mentioned books I enjoyed on Segullah, or on my own seldom-updated blog, I have felt this tension, between honesty and being kind.

    It’s tricky to navigate. I think that publishing a book needs to be different than singing in Sacrament Meeting, though. I would never ever criticize someone who sang a solo (um, as long as it was appropriate. But that’s a whole nother can of worms.) if they were not technically a good singer. The Spirit is what matters in that setting. I would NEVER criticize a Sacrament meeting singer in a way that they could hear about it. A particularly painful performance might possibly get a mention to my husband alone. That would be all. Nothing public.

    But writing is different. It has to be. In writing, I have certain expectations of published material, and when they are not met, it seriously detracts. There needs to be a way to critique without feeling like you’re bashing someone’s Sacrament Meeting solo.

    Having said that, I am really looking forward to reading the Whitney finalists next year. I’ve paid more attention this year to what LDS authors are publishing, and I am excited to read this year’s finalists and pick my favorites. And I have a list of books I’m planning to nominate once Christmas craziness has passed.

    I’m really looking forward to reading your AML posts, Annette. :-)

  9. Annette says:

    Course Correction, I think that a general audience for LDS fiction can be possible. I’ve heard national editors say that they’d be very open to an LDS-themed story if it were well-written. The trick is that first off, so few stories are being sent their way, and second, the few that are tend to be trying to preach Mormonism instead of having it as an integral part of the story. (Either that, or it’s thrown in because the characters are LDS instead of them needing to be, so the writer should have taken the religion out altogether–it was irrelevant to the plot.)

    Emily, I agree whole heartedly. First, that not all the finalists are necessarily excellent, but that list is a good place to start, especially for someone who has no clue where to begin.

    As a judge last year in two categories, I read some nominees that I felt were much better than others, but when the final voting happens, every judge has their own way of looking at a work and deciding what equals quality. I know how I personally weighed plot versus character versus actual writing on a sentence level and so forth, but I’m sure others looked at those elements differently.

    There’s one title in particular that I felt should have been a finalist and one that should NOT have been a finalist in a category I judged–but I was outvoted. I heard similar stories with other categories. It’s so subjective.

    Likewise, as you said, this really is a very small sandbox. If I love someone’s book, I’ll tell them and be very open to others about it. If I didn’t (or hated it), I simply won’t let them (or anyone) know I’ve read it. That’s unfortunate, but since I’m not a reviewer, I don’t dare broadcast my blunt opinions far and wide.

    I don’t know what the answers are, but at least the quality is going up, and I hope readers do give the market more of a chance. The unevenness is frustrating to me–how books even from the same house will vary so widely in quality. I don’t understand it.

  10. I tried posting this comment by phone, but it didn’t work, so I found my way back to my computer.

    Great post, Annette, and thanks so much for the mention. You make a lot of valid points (and so does Emily). I, myself, had looked down my nose at so-called "LDS Fiction" in the past, but this past Whitney Awards was a revelation and I’m so grateful now that I was able to take part. Not only has the writing gotten better, it has improved across several of the genres. Genre writing is no longer quite as formulaic as it once was.

    While there are still weaknesses, as pointed out by Emily, we have to realize this is a long-term process. Those pioneers who blazed the trails may not have always laid down smooth paths (and some still don’t), but those rough paths were (and are) necessary to show the way. Fortunately, an awards program like the Whitneys provides a forum in which criticism and judgment can be meted out without humiliation. I am positive the best will continue to rise to the top and that, each year, there will be more and more of the best.

    I look forward with greater anticipation to this next set of finalists.

  11. Well… You motivated me to send an email about getting added as a Whitney Academy member. :-)

    Any set of awards is going to have that subjective factor, and there will probably never be even a majority agreement on which book "should" have won in any given category. Hopefully, though, the award winners and nominees will represent a nice selection of some of the best that’s out there.

  12. Thanks for shedding light on the Whitney Awards and LDS fiction.

    As a librarian in the stacks for nearly ten years, I could say the same about the books I’ve seen on the shelves at several public libraries: some good, some excellent and some stuff I was shocked was even published, much less acquired by tax payers dollars!!

  13. Josi says:

    Great article, Annette. I couldn’t agree with you more on the changes that have taken place over the last ten years. It seems to me that writers–even established ones with a following–are having to dig deeper and work harder to keep up with the new market. I love that. One of my biggest pet peeves, in any market, is when an author is so comfortable that they don’t put as much into their craft, knowing they will sell through regardless. I think the rising competition is keeping some of those long-time writers in the LDS market on their toes–and it’s good for all us (them included)

    I am still frustrated when I pick up a poorly written book; being familiar with so many up and coming writers who ofttimes exceed published quality makes it frustrating to see what can still make it through a publishers production line. But I am confident that each year will improve, good writers will get the credit they deserve, and poor writers will find themselves without an audience as that audience becomes more discerning. We have to understand that most LDS readers are not weighing out merits of literary measure, rather they simply want a good story. Reading about LDS characters or knowing the content will be inoffensive might be enough to draw them to the genre to begin with, but as the writing improves I believe they begin seeing the difference. In time they will become more critical readers and will be less likely to financially support a sub-par product. In the process, the cream will continue to rise–for the most part–and we will all reap the benefit. It truly is a circular process.

    It will be a long road, but each journey starts with a single step, right?

  14. I have been impressed the last few years with how much LDS fiction I’ve enjoyed. There are still some authors who I have been burned by, but overall, the market just gets stronger as it taps into some great talent.

  15. Kim says:

    Annette,

    I loved this article. You have made me even more excited for the LDStorymakers Conference coming in April. I am already registered, including Boot Camp. It will be my first year attending, and I have great expectations. I like how you accredited the improvement of LDS fiction to that conference. It gives me hope that I will succeed one day, and be published. The pressure is on, to raise my standard of writing, and achieve the level that is now being published. Thanks for the motivation.

  16. Annette Lyon says:

    Tanya, I love your point about how the Whitneys can mete out criticism in a non-humiliating way. I think that’s one of Wells’s goals–to show what WORKS and applaud that instead of pointing fingers and tearing down. I have a feeling that focusing there might raise the overall quality faster than pure literary criticism.

  17. M. Gray says:

    Thank you for writing this post. It is exactly what I needed to hear. I completely agree with the existing stigma and love how the Whitney’s are helping to heal it.

  18. Annette Lyon says:

    Payday/cash advance, I’m assuming you’re the same person and are trying to egg me on.

    The reality is that even though there will be differences of opinion, I think I’ll be relatively happy with the list of finalists. In past years, there’s been couple of books I disagree with, but for the most part, I’m overall pretty happy with the list. Last year, I thought my categories’ judges got it pretty right. This year, I’m not too worried about the categories I’m judging. Sure, we have differences of opinion, but I still think that the best will win out.

    Not sure what else you’re hoping I’ll say.

  19. Annette:

    I think those were spam posts. Is there a way that you as the one posting can go in and delete them?

    I’ve noticed similar spam comments in response to other posts as well. For example, the last three on Margaret Young’s post, "Mormon Art Doesn’t Mean Mormon Art," seem to be clearly spam.

  20. Moriah Jovan says:

    Annette, those comments are spam bots. Does this blog have a spam filter of some sort to chuff these out?

  21. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Annette, as the original poster you can delete spam posts.

    I’ve been trying to catch them and delete them as they are posted, but I’m not online all the time.

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