Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, January 10, 2011

Great (or Not So Great) Expectations

Several years ago at a big Utah writing event, I was sitting beside an author who had published several novels nationally. As I mentioned that, along with my Farworld novels, I had published several novels with LDS publishers, she looked surprised. “But those writers aren’t very good are they?” she asked, referring to authors writing for LDS publishers.

Now I’m not going to post about whether LDS fiction is good or not. That topic has been hammered to death a million times over. And the truth is that whether LDS fiction is good and getting better all the time, or cliché-filled drivel where everyone does the right thing and joins the Church, is purely in the eyes of the beholder. What I do want to discuss is how big of a role expectations play in how we judge what we read.

Let’s take Ally Condie for example. She published multiple novels before her breakout YA, Matched. Those novels were published by Deseret Book, an LDS publisher. That would place her—in the eyes of many readers—in the “not very good” category. And yet her book that came out this fall with a national publisher has received rave reviews by many of the very same people who look down on novels from LDS publishers.

Admittedly, Matched is very different from her other novels. The story is different, the voice is different. But what isn’t different is the author. An aberration? How about James Dashner, whose first six novels were published by Cedar Fort and Shadow Mountain, an imprint of DB? Or our very own Rob Wells who published with Covenant before selling a national three book deal? Janette Rallison? Also published with LDS publisher under the pen name of Sierra St. James. Instead of an aberration, it sounds more like a trend to me.

An argument could be made that as these authors became better writers they transitioned to the national market. An argument could also be made that bigger publishers have higher paid editors with more time to work on each project. So perhaps the quality is better. And to some extent both of those statements are true. Any author who values their craft usually improves their writing over time. But this is true of both national and regional (which is what most LDS publishers are) authors. Rob’s second book was absolutely better than his first book. James’ 13th Reality was written better than his Jimmy Fincher series. They didn’t magically leap tall buildings when they signed with a national publisher.

As far as editors, in general, editors from bigger publishers do more thorough edits. They don’t have nearly as many projects to work on at the same time as LDS editors who are seriously overburdened, even by today’s tightened publishing standards. But I can say for a fact that I would gladly have any of my national projects edited by Kirk Shaw or Lisa Mangum, who edit me at Covenant and Deseret Book. And I specifically asked Lisa, who read Ally’s book before it was even submitted nationally, if it had been significantly changed by the national editor who worked on it. Her answer was no.

So if these are the same writers, and if the edits are more detailed, but not enough to make a huge difference, what explains the different ways their stories are viewed? My theory is expectations. To a large extent, you read what you expect to read. If you expect to read a story filled with clichés and poorly developed plots, your mindset going into that book makes you jump on the flaws and miss many of the great parts.

In a recent e-mail exchange with another author, the author recalled how back in high school she was working on a student poetry anthology. To teach the students a lesson, the teacher allowed several lesser known poems by famous authors to be slipped into the submissions. Did the students recognize the greatness of what they were reading? Or did they let their preconceived notions influence them? Considering that I’m using this as an example, you can probably guess. They ripped the masters just like they did their fellow students. Because they expected to read crap, they got crap.

Clearly there are exceptions to this rule. I’ve read submissions to an unpublished author contest that blew me away. And I’ve read books by some of my favorite authors that I hated. Ever have a friend tell you’ll love a book, only to find yourself bored to tears? High expectations don’t guarantee we will love something and low expectations don’t guarantee failure. But you can’t deny that they seriously color your view.

I think the same applies to Julie’s recent post about DB banning The Maze Runner. As Mormons, we tend to look at books by our own differently. Would so many members of the church really have made such a fuss about Twilight if it hadn’t been written by a fellow Mormon? “She’s LDS and she put a boy and a girl in bed together.” While at the same time, non-Mormons were complaining the make out scenes were too tame because “the author is Mormon.”

I am 100 percent fine with Deseret Book putting Maze Runner on Special Order status. I suspect that if Demon Spawn is published they will probably do the same thing with that. It doesn’t have any fake swear words or even real swearwords used as expletives. But it is a story about humans who have been damned to Hell and the Demons who guard them. By its very nature there are some pretty dark parts. Human heads on spikes, games played with humans as live grails. There is violence. And although they are used in the context of place, damn, hell, and damned are sprinkled liberally throughout. Is it gratuitous violence? I don’t think so. But it will probably not be placed on DB shelves, and like I said, I am totally okay with that.

But here’s the kicker. I know of many, many books carried right now on DB shelves that have either worse language than Maze Runner, more sex than Twilight, or are darker than Demon Spawn. Why haven’t readers complained about those? I believe it is for the exact same reason that many readers look down on LDS fiction. Expectations. They don’t expect non-LDS authors to have the same morals (although many of them do) so they overlook a swear word or a racy scene. They don’t expect a novel by an author who is Mormon to have a cuss in it. So when it does, they are shocked and complain to store employees.

I said at the top of this post that I’m not trying to convince the unbelievers that many, many LDS authors are every bit as good or better than national authors. James Dashner, Ally Condie and the rest are great authors. And they were before Entertainment Weekly started mentioning their names. There are some LDS authors who I think are still perfecting their craft. There are some publishers who could spend more time on editing what they publish. But I know for a fact of more authors than I could count on both hands who are every bit as good as the authors that publish nationally.

And I am absolutely not trying to convince anyone to change their standards on what they think is and isn’t appropriate in the books they read. But next time you are offended by something you read in a book by an LDS author, go back and think about the last few books you read by national authors. Were they less offensive? Or we were wearing a different shade of lenses to view them through.

What I am suggesting is that some people might want to reevaluate their measuring sticks.

Let me finish by clarifying that I am not suggesting LDS authors shouldn’t have high standards. With what we know about who were are and why we are here, we absolutely have a lot to live up to. And with national exposure comes even greater opportunities to let our lights so shine. Mt greatest dream is to succeed nationally and to use that success to place even more focus on the LDS novels I will continue to write. I like to imagine what Stephanie Meyer could do if she wrote an awesome LDS series. How many lives could she influence?

But there’s another part of me that worries that many people would judge her unworthy to write to or give firesides to the LDS market. I worry that if Demon Spawn sells, people might wonder if someone who writes about demons and Hell, should be writing church history time traveling novels for Deseret Book. I can’t speak for any other authors, but I can tell you that I will never write anything that I would be ashamed to have a General Authority read. Would they like all of my books? Probably not. You know how poorly edited those LDS novels are. (Just kidding!) I am doing my best to create exciting, uplifting, well-crafted novels. And I think most of my peers are doing the exact same thing.

I am thrilled to death that Whitney nominees this year cover everything from serial killers to corny LDS romances. I am proud to be affiliated with the kind of writers who have the talent to break into the national market, whether they ever choose to or not. And the next time that someone asks me if LDS authors are any good, I’ll tell them, “That all depends on what you are looking for.”


At 1/10/2011 1:44 PM, Blogger Melanie Jacobson said...


At 1/10/2011 1:45 PM, Blogger Sarah M Eden said...

*gives Jeff a standing ovation*

At 1/10/2011 1:46 PM, Blogger Melanie Jacobson said...

Oh, and I hope when my book (a romantic comedy) comes out in March, we can shift from describing it as "corny" to "fluffy." To be very honest, if it improves anyone's mind, I've utterly failed.

At 1/10/2011 1:52 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Thanks so much! And Melanie, I LOVE corny. Maybe I am weird, but some of my favorite books when I was a kid (The Three Investigators, and Hardy Boys for example) were totally corny. And I still love corny today. Kerry Blair's mysteries are my perfect example of wonderful corn. Loved every minute of them!

At 1/10/2011 2:53 PM, Blogger Krista said...

GREAT post! I struggled with this with my (now defunct) book club. They didn't want to read LDS fiction because of its "reputation" as not very good (at the time few knew I was writing), so I would sprinkle LDS selections in with best sellers and classics, and books recommended by other clubs. I was fine with that. I wasn't after an "exclusively LDS" book club. I wanted variety.
But then, of course, they would cry out in astonishment that there were swear words, violence, and immoral situations in those books.
So, I ended up reading THREE selections the MONTH BEFORE our meetings to weed out the "good" books from the "bad", and then sweat over who was going to be offended next. I'd like to say that being the bishop's wife never came into it, but it did. I would again suggest an LDS option, and it wasn't chosen.
I was not hosting a book club to be stressed. I quietly faded the book club out and now read for my own pleasure.
But it all stemmed from the club's inability to see the promise of good LDS writing and mixing it in with the national titles.

Wow, I didn't mean to write so much.
Thanks, Jeff.

At 1/10/2011 3:31 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Since the Whitney nominees are posted on the site this year, I've been reading a bunch of them over the holidays--probably about 6 or 7 so far. Many of them about as LDS as you can get without directly quoting scripture. I've been very impressed with most of them. Go LDS writers!

I definitely depends on what you are looking for :-)

At 1/10/2011 3:53 PM, Blogger Steve Westover said...

Managing expectations is always a challenge. We can be disappointed if we expect too much but we don't give things a chance if we expect too little.

At work and church I've been struggling lately with expectations that are unreasonable, both high and low. This post reinforces to me that the expectations game can be a challenge in every facet of our lives.

At 1/10/2011 5:58 PM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

I think we're slowly changing those expectations. So many people who have read my firt novel told me, "I never read LDS fiction but I liked your book." I tell them, "You should read more LDS fiction!" So many LDS people don't know what they're missing because they are ignoring our books based on 10-year-old expectations and assumptions.

At 1/10/2011 7:04 PM, Anonymous Lisa Mangum said...

Interesting post, Jeff, as always. :)

I just wanted to clarify one thing. You mentioned that I said that there weren't any really significant changes made to Matched between when I read the original manuscript and the finished book, but as any author will tell you, a good editor can help make a book great--and that can include making some changes during the process.

Matched became a different book as it grew from unfinished manuscript to published edition, but the heart of the story is the same. Ally's beautiful writing style is the same. Her voice as an author is the same. The characters, the world, the themes--all of that stayed the same. Did details (large and small) change? Yes. But that's what happens during editing.

I haven't met Ally's editor, but as someone in the business, believe me when I say that she did an outstanding job with the book.

(And, also for the record, Jeff, your books are a delight to edit. I can't wait to get my hands on Fourth Nephite book 2. *grin*)

At 1/10/2011 7:34 PM, Blogger Shanda said...

Excellent post, Jeff. It echoes how we at LDS Women's Book Review feel about how quickly people judge LDS fiction, which is usually by those 10-year-old expectations and assumptions mentioned by Michael Knudsen.

Does some of that same cliched stuff still exist, yes, but there is a market for it, or it wouldn't be on the shelves. There is plenty of cliche on national market bookshelves as well. I love the points you make, especially the example of including lesser known poems in the high school class.

By automatically dismissing LDS fiction as inferior in favor of nationally published books, does that person feel as if they are elevated somehow- more cultured, educated, etc., than those who enjoy LDS fiction. I hope not, because it certainly isn't true.

Is it ironic that the google word verification I am being asked to enter for this comment is "lessen?" Lol. :)

Shanda :)

At 1/10/2011 8:04 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

So, so true.

At 1/11/2011 11:18 AM, Blogger Janette Rallison said...

Bravo! I have said the same thing over and over again. So much about books is perceived value.

I think that it is interesting that Ally's Matched, James's Maze Runner, and one of my best sellers, All's Fair in Love, War, and High School were turned down by DB before they went on to sell huge amounts in the national market. (Ditto for Richard Paul Evan's Christmas Box)

But do any of us think that those books would have sold nearly as well if DB had published them? Of course not, because their perceived value would have been less.

Frustrating but true.

Your demon book sounds awesome! (In a gruesome sort of way.)


At 1/11/2011 2:13 PM, Blogger Tamara Hart Heiner said...

very good. expectations taint everything.


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