Friday, September 28, 2007

LDS Authors in the National Market

As an LDS author, I've been very intrigued by the rise of national, although LDS, authors such as Stephenie Meyer and Shannon Hale. At the literacy fireside last night, my fellow authors and I answered a question that dealt with our take on the Meyer books. I find it very interesting that the books came up -- no other book series was specifically questioned. Why is that? Because they were written by a Mormon. That's what puts them on the radar.

Stephenie Meyer has done something phenomenal. She went out there, got her agent, got her publisher, is selling books like crazy, and is being talked about left and right. From a business standpoint, she has done everything right. There are few people in this country who don't know who she is. She also just happens to be a graduate of BYU.

When you look at her books and compare them to the national standard, they are very clean. The things being published for our consumption today run the gammut from slightly questionable to downright raunchy to outright erotica. Meyer's books would land on the innocent side of the equation.

When you look at her books from an LDS perspective, they are steamy. We would never allow our daughters to snuggle up in bed with their boyfriends. We certainly would never allow them to cavort with werewolves.

There are, however, a few points I would like to make.

The first is that while Meyer is Mormon, she didn't write these books specifically for the Mormon audience. She targeted the national market. She gave the national market something relatively clean to read. In addition, she's not writing about Mormon characters. A Mormon character will, of course, have stricter values. A non-Mormon character might not have been taught the same values. Perhaps they've been taught to wait until they're in love, rather than waiting until they're married. We can't judge a non-Mormon character by the same yardstick we would a Mormon character, any more than we would expect a non-Catholic to behave like a Catholic or a non-Protestant to behave like a Protestant.

Secondly, this is a fantasy. Be honest, now -- how many of us have daughters who are dating vampires? We can't say, "Well, my daughter would never be allowed to act like Bella," because no one can. Her situation is entirely made up and I find it a little bit funny that people keep saying, "If my daughter ..." Believe me, if my daughter was dating a vampire, a lot of things would be different. But this is fiction of the most imaginative kind. Trust me -- it's all pretend. You'll never have to face this in your own life.

Now, we do know that Mormons are reading these books like crazy. I'm going to give you my absolute honest opinion here -- and you all know that I don't prevaricate. Are these books too steamy?

I actually found Bella's advances toward Edward to be a little immature and embarrasing. He tells her no over and over again, and when she keeps pushing the issue, it becomes almost annoying. I didn't find those scenes to be particularly "steamy," I found them to be pushy.

Would I want my eleven-year-old daughter reading them? No. While they've been labeled as young adult, I would say these are books for an adult population. Just because the main character is a teen does not mean that the book is good for all teens. Take, for example, "To Kill a Mockingbird." The main character is a six-year-old girl, and yet I would never have a six-year-old read it. The age of the character does not always equate the age of the reader.

I've heard many parents say, and I completely agree, that the Meyer books present the perfect discussion platform for parents and their teen readers. You can talk to your daughters about why Bella's behavior is not appropriate and the consequences of her actions. You can discuss with them why they should be careful to avoid too much physical contact. Point of fact -- there are a great many bad young adult books out there, books that encourage mast*rbation, or*l s*x, abortion, and on and on. Our teenagers are picking up these books in their school libraries. They are reading them on their own time, and we don't know what is being introduced to their brains. We need open platforms to discuss what they are reading so we can help them make wise decisions.

This may sound like I'm 100% advocating these books for everyone. This brings me to the next point of discussion.

Every person has their own setpoint when it comes to reading. There are certain things that will offend me and won't offend you, and vice versa. I have seen LDS bloggers recommend books that I've picked up only to be shocked. You need to decide for yourself whether these books are appropriate for you. Again, I submit that they are cleaner than most everything else you'll find on the national market. I also remind you that they aren't written about LDS characters, and that has to be taken into consideration whenever you're reading a book by an LDS author.

I do know whereof I speak. In my first novel, my main character fathers a child out of wedlock. He was not LDS at the time and he was acting according to his teaching, which was that he should wait until he fell in love before he became intimate, and he did. Because of the limited light he had been given, he believed that he had behaved in a moral fashion. When he did join the church later in the book and came to understand the gravity of his sin, he went through a full repentance process and was baptized and then endowed. You cannot hold a person accountable for committing a sin they don't know they are committing.

I'd like to move this discussion on to "Austenland," by Shannon Hale. This book had a few steamy moments in it as well. For me, they were a little steamier even than the Meyer books. However, many of the same principles apply -- it was written for the national market, and Hale gave the national market something cleaner than it's used to seeing. The characters were not LDS and were not raised with LDS standards, and so we can't expect them to behave in an LDS fashion.

Many have argued that these authors have betrayed their beliefs by writing these books. I'd like to ask, how can we judge what these authors believe? We know that they are LDS, and so we know what the tenants of their religion are. But how can we say that they aren't living up to their beliefs when we can't ascertain their own unique way of looking at their religion? Each of us has our own special way of relating to God and of looking at the gospel. I can't say whether or not you're living up to your beliefs any more than you can say I'm not living up to mine. I can't judge your relationship with God and I wouldn't care to. I'm certainly not going to try to determine whether or not these ladies are still "good enough" to be Mormons. That's completely wrong and it's not my job. I would sure hate for someone to follow me around for the day and then proclaim my level of spirituality based on how I spread my peanut butter when they can't see what's going on inside me. That's invasive, insensitive, and holier-than-thou.

Another question to be posed. Let's say you've decided you'd like to go on a mission to the jungles of Africa. Can you do an effective job from your living room, or would it be best for you to go out into the jungles and find the people you're trying to reach? I'd like to plant the thought that perhaps Hale and Myers, by writing for the national market, are doing some missionary work in that market to introduce people to cleaner fiction. They couldn't do that sitting on their couches -- they had to go out there and find the people who needed reaching. That meant making a foray into the national market, playing with the big boys and showing them a whole new game.

If these books had been written by any other author, we'd be judging them based on the books themselves. If someone named, say, Jenny Smith, had written Twilight, Jenny Smith from Oshkosh who was perhaps Episcopalian or Baptist, we wouldn't even be sitting here having this discussion. But because Meyer is Mormon, suddenly she's under all this scrutiny. People are questioning her morals. They're wondering if she's a good Mormon or a bad Mormon. They're saying that she's trying to teach our youth questionable behavior. Isn't it just possible that she wanted to tell a story? Isn't it possible that all this hoo-hah has been created by us rather than by her?

**I'd like to draw your attention to the comment trail for this post. There are some great comments being made.**


Heather B. Moore said...

Beautifully said, Tristi! I read much more "steamy" as a teenager. Meyers and Hale are both excellent story tellers and the genres they write in? FANTASY. It's funny that people are judging fictional characters--they aren't even real. I wrote a book that has characters who are evil men who try to kill their family members--attempting the unforgiveable. This has no reflection on my own moral character. You'll be surprised that the horrible characters in my books are in fact Laman and Lemuel of 1st and 2nd Nephi. I really didn't find Hale's book, Austenland, steamy at all. She has a couple of m.o. sessions--the description is at a bare minimum. But the character is 30 years old.

Tristi Pinkston said...

I think I found Austenland more steamy because I'd rather live in an Austen novel than make out with a werewolf. :)

Josi said...

I haven't read Ausitinland yet, it's on my ever growing list. Great post, Tristi. As you know I really liked Twilight and let my 13 year old read them. But I won't let my 11 year old--however when the 4th book comes out I might. I'm all about judging a book and it's content, but I get frustrated when we judge an author based on what we think they 'should' have written. excellent points.

Marta O. Smith said...

I haven't read any of Stephanie Meyers books yet, but now I want to. I have an almost-14-year-old daughter who is always looking for something good to read. She is probably going to get around to these books as soon as they hit the school library and I want to know what she will be reading. But considering our school library (they don't even have anything by Janette Rallison!) it will be a while.

And I agree, Tristi. You can't judge an authors morals by their characters' morals. If that were true, each book could have only a hero or a villain, not both.

Jen said...

I haven't read any of the books you mentioned, but I might now pick them up.

Seriously, I think if a book is good, it should appeal to the general population, even if it is about Mormon characters. A lot of LDS fiction out there is not very well written and it's only major selling point is that its LDS fiction. And I suspect a lot of the readers don't even know the difference because LDS fiction is *all* they read. I usually don't even pick up a book directed at the LDS market unless people whom I know respect good literature have recommended it, because I have put down so many LDS books over the years that were boring, predictable, or just outright so poorly written I didn't want to read them.

Some of the best (best defined as a book that helps me grow in some way) contemporary literature I've read has not been squeaky clean. One of my favorite books is White Oleander, which is completely filthy by my moral standards. It's full of sex, abuse, raunchy language. BUT, its not erotica by any standard, and the sex is not presented to be even romantic. Its the story of a foster child, and the book really makes you see through her eyes. Yes there are parts that are unrealistic, as well as parts that are graphic, but it also doesn't gloss over the reality of what a lot of foster kids DO go through and how they end up the way they are.

Reading the book didn't leave me with sex scenes in my mind, or the profanity that was prevalent, it left me with an understanding of how people end up the way they are, and can still be good people at heart, so I am a better person for reading it. I'm less judgmental, and more compassionate. And, since my DH used to be a foster parent for severely disturbed kids, it helped me understand some of what he saw in his work.

I would never want a teenager to read it, based on the premise that it is about a teenager. And there are plenty of people who I'm sure would be brutally offended by the content of the book. It's something like if you are reading it for personal growth & to develop empathy, its an eye opening and thought provoking work of fiction. If you are reading it for entertainment, its probably not appropriate or entertaining. I can say that while I found it very helpful to read in my becoming a better person, there are people who would take one glance at it and be utterly disgusted.

I think also that we all have different spiritual sensibilities. My grandpa used to encourage my mother to draw nude figure studies whens she was a teenager, because he could see the good in it, it was fostering her artistic ability in his mind, and it wasn't a sexual or pornographic thing. Other people would be spiritually wounded by it simply because they are coming from a different frame of reference, or because they are unable to view the body in any other way than sexual. It doesn't mean either standpoint is wrong, and it certainly didn't harm my mother, it helped her develop her artistic ability, and her ability to draw clothed figures well.

If the spirit is telling you that something is going to injure your spirituality, take the warning. However while something like P*nthouse letters would injure anyone's spirit, something like White Oleander or nude figure studies may be more subjective. It could be helpful for one, and not for another.

Also if I recall, the Osmond's had some criticism for not serving missions, and there was a statement that they were doing a service to the church by simply being examples & bringing awareness to the church.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Jen, I agree with you about LDS fiction -- and that's the reason for this:

We're hoping to raise the bar on LDS fiction and create an industry based on quality. If you've read any really good books by an LDS author as of late, be sure to nominate them so we can get them the attention they deserve.

Annette Lyon said...

Tristi, you said it very well--insightful comments all around.

Jen, If you want a few recommended LDS-market titles, give me a buzz--I'm obnoxiously picky, and even I've found a lot of books I really like that have been published recently. You just have to know where to look!

Jeff Savage said...


Great blog. Not disagreeing with your take on the Meyers' or Hale's books, but the truth of the matter is that as Mormons in the public eye, we are going to be judged. It doesn't matter whether we are an author, a CEO, an artist, a salesperson, or a parent, when people find out we are Mormon they look at us in a different light.

This can have a positive affect--as you mentioned with your comment about missionary work. But it can also have a negative impact.

I'm not judging one way or the other--in fact I'm happy for Meyers and Hale, and more than a little jealous. I'm just saying that it is not unexpected that people will view their books in light of the fact that the authors are Mormon. The light on the hill shines a long way.

Tristi Pinkston said...

It's okay, Jeff, I don't feel disagreed with. :) In fact, I agree with you. We are scrutinized and that's a fact.

East of Eden said...

I guess to those who claim Meyers and Hales "betrayed" their Mormon values by introducing "more steamy elements" and not strictly abiding by church teachings, I would say, you don't have to read them. From what I've heard, both authors are very clean and worth reading.

Truthfully, I find most literature aimed toward the LDS audience, very shallow and trite and lacking depth that most "non-Mormon" authors tend to have.Some one also nemtioned that most of LDS fiction is not well written and only sells because it's LDS--I agree with that! Now, I've never read your books, so know that I'm not putting you in that judgement.

But honestly, if I had to choose to go into Barnes and Noble to shop or Deseret Book, I'd choose B&N 99% of the time.

Jaime Theler said...

Amen, sister! Very well put, Tristi. And I love the comments by everyone else.

Julie Wright said...

Loved the post and agree with you and Jeff. I like both Hale and Meyer, but understand the subjective nature of the public opinion.

Michelle said...

In my book series that I am writing I have scenes that deal with premarital sex and the consequences. I deal with trust repentance betrayal forgiveness and obediance. These arent LDS characters, but I feel the scenes are inmportant. It allows me to give an overview of our beliefs in a realistic setting and I feel strongly it may plant a seed in someone out there. The scenes were literally pouring through me. As if I was just the medium, I have never written more in a day eveer than those few days... it was amazing.

We need to be held accountable for our own personal salvation and not worry about others. If you dont like it dont read it.

I personally dont like Bellas attitude towards marriage. Even if Meyers brings up a common theme among our youth that have grown up in broken homes. It just bugs me. But I like the books and will read #4.


An Ordinary Mom said...

VERY interesting post, but even more interesting points were brought out in the comments section.

Maw Books said...

I could not believe it when I found out that this series has so much controversy in the LDS community! Shocked! I completely agree with you! I thought this series was amazingly clean!! I had no problems with any of it. If it were any other author, she would have had several steamy sex scenes. The whole thing reminds me of the whole is Harry Potter bad. But I'm not going to go into that.

Anyways, I enjoyed these books. Would highly recommend them to anybody!

Amanda said...

Okay, I'm apparently almost a year late with this comment, but I just wanted to say Tristi that I appreciate your comments about judgement and trying to pin everyone's individuality down. People DO experience religion in different ways, even within the same faith. I also think Jen's comments are amazing.

I've never read Shannon Hale or Stephanie Meyer, nor will I probably do so (at least with the latter - the mere mention of vampires makes me nauseous), but it has nothing ot do with their faith. I don't judge anyone's writing based on who they are. Think about Hemingway - he was an alcoholic jerk who neglected his family, but he was a brilliant writer and his books are amazing.

Sharon said...

"Just because the main character is a teen does not mean that the book is good for all teens. Take, for example, "To Kill a Mockingbird." The main character is a six-year-old girl, and yet I would never have a six-year-old read it. The age of the character does not always equate the age of the reader."

This is a wonderful analogy! However, the Twilight books are marketed as YA fiction, while To Kill a Mocking Bird is marketed as Classic Literature, which generally would indicate the inclusion of "adult themes" to most purchasers.

Breaking Dawn is overwhelmingly graphic in its portrayal of a particularly traumatic childbirth experience. As a non-Mormon, I am interested to know what is your LDS-informed response to the violence? So far in reading Mormon blog responses to the Twilight Saga, the most common source of negative reactions in LDS readers seems to be the books' inclusion of sexual tension and scenes where the characters are exposed to sexual temptation. I am interested to see whether the violence is, or is not, an issue for LDS readers.

You wrote that the Twilight books "aren't written about LDS characters, and that has to be taken into consideration whenever you're reading a book by an LDS author." As a non-Mormon, it seemed to me that this series was actually an allegorical representation of some (obviously not all) LDS doctrines and that some characters did, in the veiled form of metaphor, represent LDS adherents. (Please forgive me if "adherent" is an inappropriate word, I am not sure exactly what the terminology would be within your religion.) For example, it seems to me that the promise held out to Bella of her love for Edward lasting forever is reminiscent of the LDS doctrine of "Forever Families". This allegory may well be unintended. Meyer has said her religious views do not affect her writing, but obviously every author's background affects their writing to some extent or every story would be the same. I am interested to see if you (as a LDS author yourself) see this or other allegorical connections. It seems to me that the understanding of this series as an allegory, but an allegory written explicitly for non-LDS readers (and so, perhaps, pre-evangelistic), makes sense of the situation you have observed when you wrote, "perhaps Hale and Myers, by writing for the national market, are doing some missionary work in that market to introduce people to cleaner fiction."

I know this post is two years old but I am genuinely interested in your answer, so I hope you will reply either in this comment thread - I have subscribed to follow-up comments - or via my blog, Equip Academy. Please do.

Sharon (Perth, Australia)

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