The reader in Mormon literature

June 10, 2007 | 24 comments
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What I dislike most about discussing Mormon literature is the all but inevitable moment when someone disparages the low artistic taste and congenital stinginess of Mormon readers. So let me set out the foundation for any discussion of Mormon literature and its readers:

Readers owe authors nothing. Not a single copper-plated cent. Not a second of their time. Nothing.

Readers will only pay for books they want to read. It is unfortunate but true that a good book can fail in a hundred different ways, from poor cover design to inept marketing to sheer bad luck, but the best publisher in the world can’t make people buy a book they don’t want to read. If many Mormon readers won’t buy books that contain sex or vulgarity, it doesn’t mean that they’re letting their moral standards come between them and great literature. It means they’re not buying books they don’t like. That’s the way markets work.

The Mormon literature market is small, less than 1% the size of the overall national market.

So you want to write challenging literary Mormon fiction? Great! You can circulate it in manuscript among your friends. I’m not being facetious; manuscript circulation served mankind well for a couple millennia. National Book Award nominees regularly sell a few thousand copies or less. So an equivalent book in the Mormon market might sell a few dozen copies, or in other words, not enough to be published by a mainstream LDS publisher. Mormon authors of literary fiction have other options, of course. They can choose to appeal to a broader audience, or to write for the national market, or they can post their book as a free PDF on their website. Personally, I prefer the second option, but I’m happy with any of these, as long as the authors don’t whine about it.

In the implicit contract between author and reader, the reader writes all the clauses, adjudicates all disputes, and executes all judgments.

This sounds grossly unfair, but the people with the gold–the customers–make the rules. People read books, or misread them, however they want to, and authors can do nothing to stop them. Readers set all the terms of the contract, and if authors violate those terms (even though the authors can’t possibly know about them), readers will throw the book against the wall. While Mormon readers won’t buy books they don’t like, they are more likely to consider or even buy books outside their normal taste range if they are from Mormon authors. But there is nothing to stop a Mormon reader from reading and judging the book as a work of Mormon literature, even if the author had no intention of writing such a work. The reader first approached the book as the work of a co-religionist, which entails a whole host of assumptions and expectations. So when Mormon authors decide they aren’t really all that into the Mormon thing any longer, they might be saying, “Baby, we had a good thing while it lasted,” but the Mormon reader may be hearing, “I was just faking it the whole time to get what I wanted out of you.” And there’s nothing an author can do to prevent it.

My experience tells me that Mormons are at least as educated and literate as any other subsection of American society. Like any other audience, they’re looking for books that serve their needs and meet their expectations. And like other audiences, they have little patience for being told that the readers failed the book, and not the other way around.

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24 Responses to The reader in Mormon literature

  1. Tatiana on June 10, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    Completely true, every word! I think all artists get angry at their audiences, though, sometimes. It’s not just an LDS thing.

  2. Julie M. Smith on June 10, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    I don’t disagree with anything you wrote here. However, I wonder if you might still permit us to carp about LDS publishers. They are the gatekeepers–and a very small number of gatekeepers at that. One wonders if they made different decisions about manuscripts and marketing what the world might look like. For example, instead of “If you liked Jan Karon, you’ll love this LDS version of it,” what about, “Challenge your mind this summer with a book that will change the way you think about what it means to have a testimony in the 21st century.”

  3. Jim on June 10, 2007 at 8:08 pm

    Does this apply to Mormon films, too?

  4. annegb on June 10, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you, Jonathan for saying that. It’s exactly how I feel. Exactly. I feel the same way about other artistic ventures, as well.

    Although I also agree with Julie, I think part of the problem is the editing the life out of what people write in the name of religion.

    I spoke to Margie a couple of days ago and she told me you’re in Europe. How’s it going:? :)

  5. Jonathan Green on June 11, 2007 at 2:50 am

    Julie, I think it’s entirely possible that LDS publishers are making mistakes about what will sell in the LDS market, kind of like the 27 publishers that told themselves that kids just don’t want to read about British boarding school life or magic anymore. Having one publisher with a dominant marketing and distribution position probably doesn’t help matters at all. (Since we moved last summer and brought almost no books with us, we’ve had to buy book shelves, and then stock them with books. We’ve bought a good number of books with Mormon authors, but not a one from DB. Like you, “LDS version of X” holds very little interest for us.) But until someone actually sells a book about changing the way we think about testimony in the 21st century in significant numbers, there’s no convincing case for DB to change.

    Jim, it may well be so, but I really don’t know enough about film production and distribution and viewing to say so.

    Annegb, yes, and I quite enjoyed their visit.

  6. Tatiana on June 11, 2007 at 4:59 am

    Oh I agree that publishers should be giving us stuff that’s better than we want. I think libraries should have a fair number of good books and not just the books people want to check out. But it’s clear that that’s risky. There’s no safety in trying to discover what will be the next big thing, and there are lots of failures. So I can’t blame publishers for sticking to what they already know works. It’s sad that there is so little room for art or genius in that subset, but that’s sort of one of the main conflicts of life. You do what you have to do to survive, and then dedicate whatever surplus you generate to things that matter more.

  7. Nate O. on June 11, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Jonathan: I think it is clear from this that your a cruel philistine that just doesn’t undestand art. Would you have told Dickens that he had to write stuff that would sell just so that he could make money?!? What about Shakespeare?!?

    Wait, never mind…

  8. Eugene V. Debs on June 11, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Jonathan–

    I’m not disagreeing with your major contention, but two observations:

    When you say manuscript circulation served mankind well for a couple of millenia, you are ignoring the oral tradition, you are implying that people wrote long fiction that resembled novels 2,000 years ago, and you are implying that folks like Catullus and John Donne are somehow representative of the people. We only care about the coterie writings of members of the elite, so telling some poor scribbler who lives in suburban Mormonville and has a day job that they, too, can participate in this ancient tradition–even if they use .pdf–is a little problematic.

    When you talk about Mormon readers appropriating texts that happened to be written by Mormon authors as Mormon literature, you posit a sort of Mormon master status: Because I am Mormon, I always already read literature as a Mormon. I don’t deny that this would apply to some people, but as totalizing metanarrative? I think your model of readers should be at least as complex as your model of author, which does not seem to be positing Mormonism as master status.

  9. Adam Greenwood on June 11, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    Totalizing metanarrative. Totalizing metanarrative.

    I hereby use my status as a Mormon Master Reader to spurn you. Spurn.

  10. Rosalynde Welch on June 11, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Jonathan, you’re using the market to mediate the relationship between author and readership, and that’s probably the most useful way to look at it. But on a moral level, do you think Mormon readers have a duty—beyond consumer preference, for which, as you point out, there is no moral duty—to buy and read good literature, based on the 13th article of faith? (The rub, of course, comes in figuring out what is “good.”)

    Also, I wonder whether you think critics of Mormon literature are similarly unaccountable to the authors?

  11. Jonathan Green on June 11, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    Eugene, it is true, I am ignoring the oral tradition, because I don’t see how it’s relevant.
    I’m also not implying anything about long fiction, but now that you mention it, I wouldn’t mind if I had. The Aeneid is close enough for me.
    About Catullus and John Donne: Huh?
    But really, manuscript circulation, or the nearest thing to it, is probably a necessary (but not sufficient) part of writing for publication. A good critique group and manuscript exchanges are essential for a lot of literary projects, and they can be quite accessible for poor scribblers with day jobs. If you write the great Mormon novel that a couple dozen friends love but no publisher will touch, well, at least you’ve done better that the poor schmoe whose magnum opus sat unread on some monastery bookshelf for a thousand years.

    Regarding your second point, I agree, there is a lot of diversity among Mormon readers, and certainly not all Mormons are going to read every book with an eye on doctrinal purity. On the other hand, Mormon tastes in literature appear to be similar and prevalent in sufficient number to markedly skew the Mormon literature market towards their tastes. Perhaps, as Julie suggested, we’re dealing with a situation of market failure, where there is pent-up demand for literature that is not being written (or published, or distributed, or marketed sufficiently, or whatever). But until someone writes a smash hit that proves otherwise, all the evidence points to Mormon readers not being overly enthusiastic for works about Mormon characters and settings beyond what is typical of DB.

  12. Nate Oman on June 11, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Adam: I actually have a goal to use the phrase “totalizing metanarrative” at least twice this week, along with “hegmonic discourse” and “liminal subalterity.” As in, “I see in your use of the term ‘totalizing metanarrative’ the liminal subalterity of the conservative intellectual engaged in the subversion of the hegmnic discourse of lit-crit vocabulary.” This is almost as much fun as writing sentences I do not understand using terms like “intransitiive marginal preferences” and “assumpsit indebetatus.” I love jargon!

  13. Frank McIntyre on June 11, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    I was in Jiffy Lube the other day, and while they were changing the oil they accidentally totalized my metanarrative. I was so completely subaltered that I had to get a hegemonic discourse on the way home. But it was dry and way too liminal.

    What a horrible day.

    I think I’ll move to Australia.

  14. Adam Greenwood on June 11, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    Nate O.,

    I objected to Eugene V. Debs use of “totalizing metanarrative” because he used it as Text and not as text. Your usage, on the other hand, had the interpenetrative and contextualized authent-icity to both sublime and subliminalize the sign/not-sign. I mean this in the heuristic sense, of course. Or hermeneutical. I can’t remember which is which.

  15. Adam Greenwood on June 11, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    Don’t, Frank M. Australia is the Other.

  16. greenfrog on June 11, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Jonathan G:

    Interesting (and sensible, I think) application of market-based economics to creation and peddling of texts.

    A follow-up question: does this model apply more broadly? IOW, do Mormons (incipient or otherwise) owe anything to Mormon, Moroni or Joseph Smith, whomever one designates as author of the Book of Mormon?

  17. Rosalynde Welch on June 11, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Adam, et al, the joke is tired, and don’t be mean. Or start mocking legal and economic jargon, too.

  18. Kaimi Wenger on June 11, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Rosalynde,

    I just got a bill from San Diego Gas & Electric, and it was off-the-charts high. I suppose that’s what I get for listening to Frank — he keeps telling me that I need to maximize my utility . . .

  19. Jonathan Green on June 11, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Rosalynde and Greenfrog, you’re both asking interesting but hard questions about the ethics of reading that require some thought. It may take a while before I have anything intelligent to say about it.

    Also, “always already” is one of my favorites. The equivalent phrase in German is perfectly pedestrian, while in English it’s a metaphorical provocation, so I was impressed that Eugene worked it in.

  20. Adam Greenwood on June 11, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Rosalynde,

    I don’t know any economic jargon, and lawyers don’t use jargon at all. We do use “terms of art,” but that’s totally different.

    I do know a little statistics jargon, though, enough to know that when you said ‘don’t be mean,’ you really meant ‘don’t be average.’

  21. Emily M. on June 11, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    So interesting. Is it really true? Do readers owe writers nothing? From a market standpoint, I guess that’s true. I’ve been reading some Mormon literary stuff lately, because I’m not that familiar with “literary” LDS writers, and I don’t like it It’s depressing. I can analyze it and see why it’s well-written or how it reflects some aspect of LDS culture, but it doesn’t represent the joy of my faith, or even my culture, very well.

    But this particular book I find depressing is a classic of LDS literary fiction. The author is one of the Pioneers of LDS lit. He is Important. So I’m slogging through it, not because I owe him anything, but because I want to understand this Important Work, although I personally dislike it.

    You’re talking about market forces and obligations for current/aspiring writers. What about “classic” LDS writers? Do readers have obligations to read these Mormon classics, so they understand how we have represented ourselves in the past? Is there a kind of Mormon cultural literacy we’re missing out on if we don’t read them, the way we’re missing out on cultural literacy when we don’t read [insert "classic" author here]?

    Jonathan, I think you were in my Latin 201 class a while back.

  22. Nate Oman on June 12, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    RW: My new goal is to use the term “laesio enormis” at least two times today. I also plan on using the term “Edgeworth’s Box” and “indifference curve” as well. As in “The quid pro quo of giving up the mockery of lit crit jargon in return for mocking law and econ jargon may constitute a laesio enormis, but only if we assume that the indifference curves of the parties, when plotted in an Edgeworth’s Box, do not meet at a single point, further assuming, of course, that laesio enormis should be treated as an economic rather than a juridical concept. Also, I think it goes without saying that economist and lawyers hate babies. Hate them!”

    There. I tried. It’s just not as funny. FWIW, the number of lawyer jokes in the world massively exceeds the number of literary theory jokes…

  23. Jonathan Green on June 12, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Emily: Spring, 2004? The Gallic Wars, with Cecelia…something, but now Peek? Good times.

    Anyway, I think what you’re describing is something like scholarly reading, where a different set of costs and rewards–and ethics–apply. I respect taking a close look at a difficult work, just to see what all the excitement is all about. But apart from that, I’m having a hard time coming up with reasons to read canonical works of Mormon literature that one does not personally enjoy. I don’t see that this literature has had the slightest effect on Mormon culture. Jack Weyland? Absolutely. Important but Depressing Novel? Not so much.

  24. Emily M. on June 13, 2007 at 1:01 am

    Jonathan, I think it was more like 1994. Yes, Gallic Wars. That was a fun class.

    I guess that’s where I’m at, then: reading Important Books to see what all the excitement is about.

    I don’t like depressing books, but at least the writing tends to be good. Reading sloppy writing is a slog for me, too. I keep wanting to take a red pen and cross out adverbs and write anti-cheesiness notes in the margins. So I’m using the power of my market forces to boycott both cheesy, sentimental writing and depressing new writing, while reading Depressing Classics to figure them out. :-)

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