Mormon Literature: Carving Out a Middle Niche?

Chris Bigelow is the author of five books on Mormonism, and he runs a small Mormon press called Zarahemla Books. He cofounded and edited the Mormon literary magazine Irreantum and the satirical Mormon newspaper The Sugar Beet. He is a permablogger at Mormon Matters and also has a personal blog. AND he’s the first person of the male gender to guest post on Blog Segullah. Welcome Chris. We won’t bite. Much.

I’m a big fan of the idea of Mormon literature but not so much of the reality of it—yet. The way I see it, Deseret Book dominates the culture too much on both the practical and philosophical levels, and most of the other Mormon publishers stay within Deseret’s safe, sanitized, preachy, low-brow orbit. Except, of course, for Signature Books, which is way over on the other side of the spectrum, publishing occasional Mormon literature—as little as one book per year—that is generally too literary and/or too faith-challenging for the average Mormon reader.

Personally, I’m interested in the middle ground of Mormon literature, which doesn’t really exist yet, at least as far as a thriving market niche.

I’m talking about stories with considerable Mormon content and sensibility but with more nuance, reality, and earthiness than you get in Deseret-style stories with their gospel certainties, overly sanitized content, and proselytizing agendas. While I don’t love the high-falutin’ term “literary,” I’m talking about writing approaches that are more sophisticated than the low-brow, formulaic romances and thrillers common in the Mormon market, stuff more along the lines of mainstream literary writers in the national market like Margaret Atwood and Alice McDermott. I’m also talking about stuff that isn’t so head-in-the-sand about doubt and sex and salty language and other authentic human stuff.

I haven’t read Angela Hallstrom’s new book Bound on Earth yet, but I’ve been impressed by the reviews and buzz and it’s on my top-tier reading shelf (along with about twenty other books). From what I can tell so far, Hallstrom’s publisher Parables is doing just what needs to be done to try to establish this niche I’m talking about. I’m trying too with Zarahemla Books, which has put out six books so far in the mode of what I describe as “provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories.” So far we’ve circulated about 2,500 total copies of these six titles, so it’s a start. New digital publishing technology makes it doable to publish very small runs, so you can break even selling in the low hundreds of a title. I have to admit, one limitation Zarahemla has is that we’re male oriented in a field that is driven by females, but many females have enjoyed our books too. (I’m trying to get Angela to become an editor-at-large for Zarahemla, but she seems to be more interested in writing more of her own stuff…)

Piddling around with Mormon niche markets is okay, as far as it goes (which isn’t far). But for me, the real holy grail of Mormon literature would be for a Mormon author to break through nationally with authentic Mormon content. We need a Mormon Saul Bellow, John Updike, etc. If and when that ever happens, I think that’s what will crack open the Mormon culture for some real literary treatment. I haven’t seen anyone come anywhere near to pulling this off yet, though.

You know, I have to admit that although I’m passionate about Mormon literature and even devote lots of personal time and energy to publishing some, as a reader I really only have time to read 5”“10 book-length works of fiction per year in my spare time for pleasure. Deep down, I know that I’m much more likely to get a satisfying ride by choosing one of the national authors rather than anything written by a Mormon author or put out by a Mormon press, even my own press. So I read only 1-2 Mormon novels per year—not counting those I publish myself through Zarahemla—and I’m nearly always disappointed by them. I imagine that most other Mormon readers are like me, feeling the press of so many choices and not feeling confident enough in Mormon-oriented material to spend precious time on that. Again, I think the only way to break through this perception is to have a Mormon make a splash in the big leagues—I’m talking a Pulitzer-caliber achievement that really unpacks the Mormon experience, mindset, world view, inner life, etc.

Perhaps small Mormon presses like Parables and Zarahemla will gradually carve out a more significant audience, especially if we can ever get Deseret and/or Seagull to carry our adventurous offerings. But with current cultural conditions, I doubt we’ll ever sell more than 1,000 copies of a book and usually more like 50 to 200 copies. However, perhaps we will help nurture an author who will then go on to make the big national breakthrough and crack this whole Mormon thing wide open. Not to be too pessimistic, but in my experience this kind of writing I’m talking about nearly always turns out to be too worldly for the Mormons and too Mormon for the world, so it will be a miracle if someone can figure out a way to hit the national target with a Mormon torpedo or the Mormon target with a national-literary-quality torpedo.

27 thoughts on “Mormon Literature: Carving Out a Middle Niche?

  1. I like your use of the word nurture, Chris. I don’t think we can will this category into being, but there’s no doubt that a hit can really change things — Harry Potter for children’s literature, Twilight for Mormon women (esp. young women) — creating an interest that wasn’t there before and one that can be sustained. See, for example, how well the Deseret Book Harry Potter copycats* seem to be doing.

    And because a hit can changes things, I think it’s important to maintain an awareness of the category. It’s a big reason why I started A Motley Vision. It’s something that recently started magazines like Segullah and Irreantum contribute to. And it’s definitely a category that becomes more alive with every Zarahemla and Parables title that gets published.

    I don’t know about a Bellow or an Updike. But I’m a bit puzzled that we haven’t produce a Mormon Anne Tyler yet. Margaret Young seemed to be heading that way but then got wrapped up in other (very, very important) work.

    *Not to demean titles by Brandon Mull, Brand Sanderson, Obert Skye, etc. but there’s no doubt that the market for those titles exist and DB was willing to take a chance on publishing them because of Harry Potter.

  2. I totally agree with everything you’ve said. I had quite the time trying to publish an LDS fiction novel I wrote because it is exactly what you describe is lacking in Mormon literature– I couldn’t find an LDS publisher brave enough to take it on. But I think you’d approve. I ended up self-publishing inexpensively, and it’s available at amazon and all the online bookstores. It’s called Sunshine, and it has received very good reviews. I’d love to hear your opinion if you get a chance to read it!

  3. I think the general LDS reader is not interested enough in angst and suffering to read something they worry might threaten their relationship with God, and yet it is all that angst and suffering that makes for good reading and great writing. Thus we end up with a lot of LDS romances and science fiction — both safe harbors for exploration.

    I don’t think this phenomenon is because LDS people are all just a bunch of “sheep” being herded around without our own brains, but maybe because there really is safety is staying far inside the line.

    I’m not really interested in negotiating my faith within an antagonistic atmosphere, but I am certainly interested in understanding the struggles of those searching for faith. I think that very struggle is part of the reason we started Segullah.

  4. I think we just need to write things true, you know? Without an agenda. Without a, “I’m so spiritual, look at me,” OR a, “I’m so edgy and provocative, look at me” undertone ruining the honesty that makes good writing work.

    And William, I’ve said this before, but I think that if DB were to develop a “book club book” niche and market it like gangbusters, it could really take off with a certifiable hit. And *IF* the writing was top notch, and *IF* the books were able to exist in this middle niche Chris speaks of. But, man, we have so many LDS book clubs reading fiction that aren’t being marketed to.

  5. Angela:

    DB already has a book club book niche. And it has totally taken off. It’s called Time Out for Women. And it rarely features fiction.

    But yes, I agree. I’m aware of several LDS book groups that read (almost always non-LDS-related) fiction.

  6. Oh, I know that William. I should have been more specific in saying that the “book club book” would be fiction. Book club fiction. Because the Time Out For Women thing IS great, but it’s more self-helpy, and there are tons of LDS book clubs that focus primarily on fiction that aren’t being marketed to. That was the segment I was talking about.

  7. And to further clarify: I didn’t mean that Time Out For Women is “great” in that I know much of anything about it personally. I don’t. But I know that it’s been “great” for Deseret Book and great for the authors of nonfiction who are featured.

  8. I read three novels a week, sometimes more. I don’t read to be improved, I read to be entertained, so it’s Trollope and Science Fiction and pretentious chick lit. I think it’s cool that Chris came right out and said a reader can more reliably get good quality written entertainment in the general market. And, I’ll add, there are no mormon books at my local library in California, so typically mormon lit is something I have to pay for to get.

    But I do keep buying it. Recently purchased and consumed: Vernal Promises, Bound on Earth, The MTC Set Apart. In the last couple days, I reread Path of Dreams, and read selected paragraphs outloud to my manga-loving Beehive daughter so we could talk about whether it was a manga-style romance. I think I have a feeling something like nostalgia for mormon novels–it’s fun to see mormon stuff in books, but it still usually feels like decorations. It hasn’t been the case that a mormon novel blew my head off or really amazingly spoke to me for years.

    I am still thinking about Vernal Promises from time to time, as I’m going about some chore, wondering whether its view of the atonement is fully described, or described by an unreliable narrator, or whether I buy it. I’ve also been thinking, out of that book, about it being easier to live the gospel if you’re not living in an economically precarious way. And also about the entitlement of women, in a book written by a man.

    The MTC novel did get to me though, now that I think about it. I finally got that the MTC was a really hard place to be, a difficult experience to endure, which various guys have told me over the years but I never really believed any of them. The inescapable companions not of your choosing, the memorization schedules became more than just ideas to me while reading. This weekend my husband and I met up with an old mission companion of his, and he told a story about how 20-odd years ago, he tricked a nurse into taking his cast off possibly early, so he could ship out of country and avoid being stuck in the MTC an extra month for medical reasons. And I was right there with him, cheering him for doing this stupid thing, for having read that MTC book.

  9. There can be problems in staying “far inside the line.” And not because I think people should actively challenge their faith or search for angst or hardship to wallow in. There is a vast difference between staying in the line and staying too far inside the line.

    For example, excluding fiction. I think most of us realize the value of fiction, its ability to expand our sense of humanity, of empathy, of imagination. I think the fear that keeps people from reading fiction is often more damaging than the fiction itself; fear leads to hasty judgement, close-mindedness, and lack of imagination and I think it damages our ability to reason and discern.

    AND I think fear dampens faith.

  10. A big hearty “Amen!” to Maralise’s comment.

    Oh, and how about some pretentious Mormon chick lit? Where can I get my hands on some of that?

  11. Dalene–I’m going through the Parables stuff now. I think you might find something from them that resembles that description. (Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s ‘In a Dry Land’ maybe?).

    Chris–any pretentious chick lit from Zarahemla? Could you tell us about your audience and writers? Could you describe the kind of person your press might appeal to? And lastly, has the gender of your writers/readers affected the way you market your books?

  12. I thought that I had made this comment already, but I guess not:

    Angela:

    I know you know about Time Out for Women. Deadpan doesn’t convey very well over the Internet.

    ——–
    Johnna:

    I’m happy to hear about Vernal Promises and the MTC — those are two titles that I thought were quite good but somehow never got a lot of traction. Of course, the same could be said about quite a few of the middle road stuff that Chris is talking about.

  13. Pretentious! Johnna.

    So for regular chick lit, is it the trivial font that gives it away? And for pretentious chick lit, is it the thoughtful looking photo of the almost-smiling-but-not-quite author on the back? (Hey, it took me a while to get that look down, you know.) :-)

  14. I was going to mention The Marketing of Sister B, Johnna, but I was afraid to because I wasn’t sure if it was pretentious chick lit or not.

    And is it that in pretentious chick lit the women wearing the Manolo Blahniks are reading Proust instead of Cosmo?

  15. I find your remarks fascinating. I have been rather disappointed in Mormon fiction to date, and am waiting for the Mormon Harry Potter to be published. My question would be: if someone has the talent to write the break through novel, would they bother or care about the LDS market?
    I am an LDS writer trying to break into the “Mormon market” for non-fiction, but have found it very hard going. My problem is that I live in Italy and so have few marketing possibilities in Utah. Any ideas?

  16. Answering Maralise’s questions:

    Any pretentious chick lit from Zarahemla?

    No, and I’m still kicking myself for not getting Angela’s BOUND ON EARTH.

    Could you tell us about your audience and writers?

    I have seen Zarahemla’s audience as overlapping with that of the Association for Mormon Letters, Sunstone and Dialogue, people who enjoyed The Sugar Beet Mormon satire site I was involved in (15,000+ unique monthly visitors), and anybody open to word of mouth and newspaper reviews about something fairly new and different. My writers have all been people I have known or who have been referred to me by someone trusted–I haven’t yet published something that just came to me blind.

    Could you describe the kind of person your press might
    appeal to?

    Readers who really want to get under the skin of Mormonism more through literary explorations of it, whether realistic or speculative. People who want to see some of the most interesting, provocative aspects of worldly literature adapted to Mormon stories. Bottom line is that I guess my press appeals mostly to me, and I hope others are like-minded enough to enjoy it too.

    And lastly, has the gender of your writers/readers
    affected the way you market your books?

    Probably not. But as a male, I’m biased toward stories that males might prefer, so that in effect becomes my marketing plan. My very favorite authors are all men, bu=ut I love Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood and can handle about one Anne Tyler book every 5-10 years or so, so I’d like to think I could learn to make choices better suited to women, who buy most fiction. Or better yet, I’d like to interest a female editor in helping me acquire and market something that’s likely to be a bigger hit with women than men.

    Thanks for the great conversation so far!

  17. Yes, Kindred Spirits definitely qualifies as pretentious chick lit, by which I mean chick lit in the literary mode. Which is how I should have described Bound on Earth, rather than making fans of that book wish I’d shut my mouth.

    Kindred Spirits would make a great book club book, imo, because there’s so much to talk about. I know when I finished it, I was dying to have a fellow reader to yell at about it. There was a minor element in the book I had a really strong opinion about–and I can’t talk about it without giving it away, so I need about 10,000 people to read Kindred Spirits so I can run across the other 0.03% who react the way I do.

  18. No worries, Johnna. I got what you meant with the description.

    And I’ve read Kindred Spirits–email me with your “element” and we can chat. And maybe we can even cc Chris in on it. What do you think, Chris??

  19. lol Chris! I want to reread Kindred Spirits too, but sooner than you do. I need to remember who I loaned my copy of the book to and get it back.

  20. Chris, the books I have written & have planned to write will most likely fall into this middle-ground that you are talking about? I want to comment on wholesome romance because of comments you made. I’m a very realistic person, I prefer plots that aern’t ideal because life is rarely ideal! So when it comes to romance you want to support lds standards. But things happen – mistakes, issues, and I believe that you can include these kind of things in an appropriate way while still being uplifting, supportive of lds beliefs and testimony-building! If you send wholesome romance to a non-LDS publisher, they’ll want to add the junk in, which of course I don’t want. So I really believe in what you are doing and am glad to find that others are frustrated that there is no middle-publisher. I appreciate the time and money you are putting into this. Regarding your comment that you are male & at least right now are possibly catering more to a male market, I have to say that yes, at least 1/2 of your market is women and teenage girls and want to put a plug in there for wholesome romance because that is what I’m writing (unique plots, some action, humor etc.) I’d love to send in my manuscript(s) but the editor website didn’t come up for me. Thanks!

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