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.