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.