Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What's Wrong With LDS Fiction?

The following blog is Tristi's opinion only and is not intended to represent the feelings or attitude of any other LDS author.

With all the drama that has taken place recently between Deseret Book and Seagull, many have asked “What’s wrong with the LDS market?” So many articles and blogs have already been written on the subject, and so much better than I could write them, that I’m going to leave that topic in the hands of those who know more than myself. I’m going to talk about what’s wrong with LDS fiction.

I have repeatedly heard the comment that “LDS fiction just isn’t as good as national fiction.” Many readers won’t touch LDS fiction and think it’s fluffy and poorly written. Can I tell you a secret? To a certain extent, I agree.

Let me explain myself. LDS authors walk a very curious line. On the one hand, they want to write positive, uplifting stories. On the other, they are constrained by the social mores of the culture and often, can’t tell the story properly for fear it will offend someone. LDS authors want to share the gospel through their books. On the one hand, they are told they are preachy. On the other, they are told that they need to inject more of the gospel into their books. LDS authors want to break the mold that has been created for them, and yet time and time again, they are shoved back into that mold by a) readers’ complaints b) cautious publishers and editors c) what will sell in the market.

What ends up happening is that the author finds themselves backed into a corner. They have certain standards that already naturally exist in their writing, and then they find other standards imposed on them by the publisher or editor, who says, “Tell more about the gospel by page 5.” It doesn’t naturally belong in the story at that point, but the author complies and inserts it, and then they get branded as preachy. Something has got to give.

An additional problem exists when you look at the actual mechanics of the writing itself. Looking at a broad spectrum and not picking on any one author in particular, I notice a trend toward the overuse of certain words: “grimace,” “quip,” “sighed.” The list goes on. For some reason, this trend exists on a smaller scale in the national market, but seems rampant in the LDS. We get stuck on three or four favorite words and use them repeatedly throughout the book. I’ve done it too; don’t throw eggs at me.

And there are certain things that are expected of LDS fiction. Oddly enough, they are demanded by 50% of the reading population and hated by the other 50%.

1. All of the characters have to be LDS, or have to convert to being LDS. If you end the book without a conversion, the reader is upset, but you can’t go into too much detail about the conversion without being labeled as preachy. And if two people fall in love, and one is LDS and the other not, you know full well that a conversion will have to take place before they can end up together.

2. A miracle or at least an answer to prayer should take place at some point in the book.

3. One or more characters should bear their testimony in the course of the book, and another character should be deeply touched by it.

4. Characters should be guided by inspiration, but not too much of it. Again, you get branded as preachy if there’s too much of it, and it’s not considered to truly be an LDS book without it.

So what are we going to do to solve these problems? Here are some suggestions for your consideration. Make of them what you will.

1. LDS authors should take the time to really study their craft. Read the grammar and editing books, attend classes, read quality literature and study the mechanics so they can incorporate those principles into their own books. Be brave and try new plot twists. Explore the unknown.

2. LDS authors should edit themselves more carefully, and pass their manuscripts through many people before submitting it. They should take their writing more seriously and not as a hobby.

3. LDS editors need to go through the manuscripts with a fine-tooth comb, being tough when necessary, and make the manuscript as clean as possible. In the national market, 2-5 typos in a book are normal, but in the LDS market, it’s not uncommon to see upwards of 30 and sometimes as many as 50. (Yes, I have been counting) This is the responsibility not only of the author and the editor, but the typesetter as well.

In addition, there needs to be more leeway in plot. Allow us to break the mold.

4. LDS readers need to understand that we as authors are doing our best to write uplifting literature for our culture. Sometimes that means we won’t put the gospel in until page 6 or 10. Sometimes we’ll leave it in the background because the plot insists on it. Sometimes it will be in the foreground because that’s what the characters need. Understand that we are doing our best to walk the line.

5. We need to be given more freedom. Once upon a time, the most controversial LDS books focused on the theme – “Which returned missionary should I marry?” Now we’re able to write about grittier issues, the things that really face us in the world today. The market has opened up quite a bit, but we are still faced with criticism. “Thank you for telling the story, but did you have to be so graphic?” Graphic? No, not by a long shot. We’re telling the truth and while we’re phrasing it as circumspectly as we can, we have to be given the freedom to tell it well. It’s not our intent to gross anyone out or cuss and swear; we just want to be able to tell the story. (I say “we” meaning LDS authors, but I do realize I don’t represent the feelings of all LDS authors out there; I’m speaking for myself in particular.)

I love this market. I’ve never envisioned myself ever leaving it. I love writing about the Church and people in it, and I’d be content to stay in this genre the rest of my life. But there are a few things that have got to give.

I welcome your comments, but please don’t send me a long list of authors who are the exception to the things I’ve listed. I know there are exceptions, and I applaud them. Now the trick is, making them the norm and not the exception.


Framed said...

I read a lot of LDS books and agree with what you say. Most will not become "classics". My favorites are those where the main characters happen to be LDS and so the story revolves around their lives and, therefore, the church is a large part of the story. The stories are not preachy, but they can be very moving and uplifting. But even with preaching, typos, prolific use of adjectives and adverbs, predictable conversions etc. etc., I will almost always enjoy an LDS fiction. And that is my main reason to read.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Thanks for your comments, Framed. I too enjoy stories that include the church naturally without being preachy. Ah, that fine line we walk . . .

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