The hidden meaning of the Deseret Book Christmas Catalog.
The Deseret Book Christmas catalog came in the mail a few days ago, glossy and gladsome and as plump as you please. Books, of course, are just part of the pastry: the catalog plies creches, CDs, DVDs, board games, calendars, accessories, small sculpture, home decor, framed prints, and themed travel packages together with the eponymous books. It wasn’t such a big thing, then, to spend a few minutes at the kitchen counter with the book section of the catalog and come up with the following (note: I tabulated only paper-and-ink books with authors listed immediately under the title; for books with multiple authors, I tabulated each author once, so the “totals” refer to total authors, not total volumes):
Total female authors: 59
Total male authors (excluding GAs): 90
Total GA authors: 14
Genre Female authors Male authors Christmas theme 13 16 Devotional 3 7 Teen devotional 0 5 Scripture (exegesis) 1 22 Scripture (creative) 1 0 Church history 5 4 General history 2 7 Motivational 5 6 Relationship 1 1 Parenting 0 2 General fiction 4 1 Historical fiction 2 10 Romance 2 0 Thriller 1 0 YA fiction 3 2 Children’s books 2 7 Gospel resource 6 0 Cooking and crafts 8 o
So what does this represent, aside from my own highly-honed capacity to avoid housework? I think it gives us a reasonably representative snapshot of popular American LDS culture along the Mormon corridor, which itself is just a fraction of our collective church culture, of course—but an influential fraction. The items in the catalog represent Deseret Book’s best estimate of what will sell this year, which may be as good a sketch of what kind of Mormon-themed books we’re consuming as anything else readily available. And perhaps we can assume without too much bombast that what we’re reading gives us a rough guide to what we Mormons think, what we expect and what we want on a number of issues. Like, for instance, gender.
Does the Deseret Book catalog tell us anything about the respective relationships of women and men to Mormon life? Two-fifths of the featured authors are women, and women produced works in all the principal categories. This suggests that women enjoy fair visibility in our cultural life, and that they participate in most aspects of popular literate culture. (A quick survey suggests that women are more prominent in recorded music, less prominent in film.) In general, female authorship follows women’s interests, and female authors seem to write principally for female consumers. Thus we see women strongly represented in genre fiction, cooking and crafts, practical resources for women’s callings, and Christmas theme. On the other hand, male authors write principally for a mixed-gender audience: a few of the motivational and historical offerings seemed groomed for a male readership, but a majority of the devotional and scriptural items were designed to appeal to women and men. (One enduring mystery is the male corner on historical fiction, the primary readers of which are, I suspect, women.)
The most striking finding, in my view, is the overwhelming preponderance of male-authored works of scriptural exegesis. The figure is slightly misleading, since several of these volumes were produced by multiple male authors, but the fact remains: Mormon men publish vastly more books about scripture than do Mormon women. I suspect that the disparity arises in part from the fact that the BYU Religion faculty works as a de facto stable of writers for DB (Richard Holzapfel alone is astonishingly prolific), and there are few women among that cohort. Still, my experience suggests that women are as interested as men in attending scripture classes, reading books about the scriptures, and understanding the scriptures—and I know from firsthand experience that there are many gifted women teachers in the church. So why aren’t they publishing more books? Is it a matter of credentials? Of confidence?
As a rule I’m not a strong proponent of parity simply for parity’s sake, and I don’t expect to be persuaded by accusations of pervasive institutional sexism leveled at a company headed by a woman. But whatever the origin of the imbalance, I think this is an arena in which we would all prosper from greater women’s participation. Although it has been my experience that women are interested in learning about and understanding the scriptures, I’ve also observed that many women feel unprepared to interpret the scriptures with confidence. Those women would benefit from seeing female models doing so in print. Furthermore, young men—and old men too, for that matter—would do well to learn doctrine from women, on occasion, and because the power of the market flows where the power of the priesthood does not, Deseret Book can do much more on this front than General Conference. There is authority in authorship, and, sisters, it’s there for the writing.