Interview with Chris Bigelow about Zarahemla Books

9.12.06 | | 50 comments

Chris Bigelow has been talking about his new venture Zarahemla Books on his personal blog, Yesterday I Woke Up Sucking a Lemon …, so AMV decided to subject him to a Q&A. Bigelow is, among other things, a former editor of Irreantum, the co-author of Mormonism for Dummies, and one of the main minds behind The Sugar Beet.

Why did you decide to start Zarahemla Books?

Facing my midlife career crisis, it was either do this or get cable TV.

Seriously, the idea took off when I was trying to figure out a way to efficiently promote the four books I have coming out this fall. I decided that if I was going to spend time and money to send out a brochure, I might as well set up a retail business and resell some good newer titles written by others too. Then I started thinking about some excellent unpublished manuscripts that I knew were floating around out there, and I decided to publish three books myself using on-demand digital means.

So Zarahemla Books is both a publisher and a retailer—not unlike Deseret Book—and I’ll be doing a little wholesale distribution too. My areas of focus are fiction, humor, and memoir, and my main goal is to put out Mormon-oriented stuff that’s provocative while also thoroughly entertaining. I’ll probably avoid the term “literary” in my marketing, because for many readers that’s like saying “fat-free” or “low-sodium” when you’re trying to market pleasurable food.

Does the Mormon market really need another small publisher?

I believe there’s a Mormon readership lurking between Deseret Book and Signature Books that hasn’t yet been galvanized. By “Deseret,” I mean all the Deseret clones such as Covenant, Cedar Fort, Granite, and others that aim to please the most culturally conservative Mormon readers and won’t take many risks. That market is already thoroughly saturated.

Signature puts out beautiful books, but I think their fiction, memoir, and humor tend to take a backseat to their heavier-duty historical and theological stuff. Signature seems to appeal mainly to readers interested in intellectualism and skepticism. That’s another great market but not the one I’m primarily after.

My chosen bowl of porridge is to publish entertaining books that reflect a recognizably faithful Mormon perspective but depict flawed characters caught in real messes, dilemmas that come from within as well as outside the characters. I’m not interested in celebrating sin, but I like stories that responsibly, organically include earthy, realistic details, including sexuality and a sprinkling of authentic language. I like stories that explore our unresolved issues and cultural foibles without an agenda to undermine faith. I hope I can find enough readers like me to make Zarahemla Books work.

What titles have you announced and/or acquired, and why did you choose them?

I would like to publish three titles each spring and three each fall. To start out this fall, my three titles include the following:

Brother Brigham, a novel by D. Michael Martindale: This is one of the wildest rides I’ve ever enjoyed in a novel, Mormon or otherwise. It’s about a guy whose imaginary childhood friend suddenly reappears in his adult life with some alarming news—and this friend is Brigham Young. Martindale’s approach reminds me of Stephen King. The story is gutsy and outrageous, yet also chillingly plausible. It breaks new ground in Mormon entertainment.

Long After Dark, stories and a novella by Todd Robert Petersen: This highly satisfying collection includes some award-winning stories and some excellent new material. Richard Cracroft blurbs, “Petersen’s stories imply a faithful universe even if his characters are mired in mortality. I think it is a wonderful book! It’s a triumph for Mormon literature: Mormonism with neither sneer nor message.”

Kindred Spirits, a novel by Christopher Kimball Bigelow: This is my own story about an expatriate Utah Mormon who carves out a new life for herself in Boston, including converting and marrying a local native. However, he brings baggage into the marriage that exacerbates some of her own baggage, and a puzzling Wiccan character further complicates the dynamics.

So how is it all going to work? What does Zarahemla Books offer its authors? What are your goals for it?

Even with on-demand digital printing, it takes a fair bit of money to launch something like this. I’ve diverted $8,000 of royalties from my personal writing projects into this venture. I would like to recoup this investment eventually, but I will be satisfied if Zarahemla sustains itself without necessarily repaying my whole investment. In my heart of hearts, nothing would please me more than to make Zarahemla my main activity in life, but I’ve already promised my wife that I won’t spend any more of our own money on it. So beyond my initial investment, the rest is up to the readers.

I’m paying reasonable royalties to authors but no advances yet. I’m stronger on line editing than conceptual editing, so I acquire manuscripts that are already fully developed. I outsource cover design and some proofreading. I think authors will appreciate how I promote their books in my catalog and on my Web site at ZarahemlaBooks.com (launching in October). I’m willing to invest in sending out books to reviewers and bookstores and to consider other promotions.

If Zarahemla catches on, I plan to find some qualified helpers to act as agents and editors and help me procure and prepare titles, probably on a percentage basis similar to author royalties.

You’ve chosen a very Mormon name for the venture—what’s the rationale and hope behind the branding?

I like words that start with Z, and I like Book of Mormon words. I chose Zarahemla because it can play a double-agent role. It’s instantly recognizable to any Mormon insider, but it’s just an exotic-sounding name to any outsider, so I could use the name to broach non-Mormon readerships too, if I see a way to do that at some point. I like the connotations of Zarahemla, the way it conjures up a home base in the jungle for likeminded people who aren’t afraid to venture out on some challenging expeditions.

I’m aiming to make Zarahemla Books a key destination within Mormonism for some unprecedented adventurous entertainment that’s off the Deseret grid but not apostate. By the way, I’m planning to retail some DVDs and perhaps music too, if I ever hear anything I like. For instance, I’m keeping close tabs on whether Deseret and Seagull carry Dutcher’s “States of Grace” DVD, and if they don’t I’ll help push it in my catalog and website.

We’ll be counting on fans to help spread the word about Zarahemla. If you or anyone you know would like to receive our catalogs and announcements, please send your snail-mail and e-mail addresses to catalog@zarahemlabooks.com, and we’ll add you to our lists.

Are you accepting submissions?

Yes, I’m currently looking for three books for my spring list. I will consider one-page query letters describing completed manuscripts, sent to editor@zarahemlabooks.com. (I try to run a paperless shop, and I’m not interested in working with authors who don’t do good, timely e-mail.) Please limit queries to adult fiction, memoir, and humor. I would like to do some edgy Mormon horror, mystery, and fantasy—read Martindale’s Brother Brigham this November, and you’ll see what I mean.

If you can envision Deseret publishing it, don’t bother with me, since so many publishers are already addressing that niche. If you can envision Signature publishing it, I might be interested if it’s not too academic, literary, or skeptical.

What other projects do you personally have going on at the moment?

Our best-of-the-Sugar-Beet collection of satirical Mormon news, titled The Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer, comes out soon and was recently well reviewed in Publishers Weekly.

A British publisher is releasing a beautiful illustrated timeline of Mormon scripture and history from Adam to the present. I wrote the text, and Jana Riess edited it. Deseret Book and Costco will carry it, and I think people will enjoy the colorful, chunky format, which can be browsed as a book or folded out as an impressive cardstock timeline several yards long.

Kent Larsen’s Mormon Arts & Letters imprint is releasing Conversations with Mormon Authors this fall, a fascinating collection of interviews with Richard Dutcher, Eugene England, Brian Evenson, Dean Hughes, Robert Kirby, Neil LaBute, Rachel Ann Nunes, Carol Lynn Pearson, Anne Perry, Levi Peterson, Eric Samuelsen, Darrell Spencer, Anita Stansfield, Douglas Thayer, Brady Udall, Terry Tempest Williams, and a dozen more.

Mormonism For Dummies is still going strong. At a recent gathering of religious news reporters, the LDS Church’s Public Affairs Department handed out dozens of free copies, so evidently the Church likes it. On the other end of the spectrum, the producers of HBO’s “Big Love” have made the book required reading for episode directors. Lots of fun!

Thanks, Chris!

50 comments: “Interview with Chris Bigelow about Zarahemla Books

  1. Eric Russell

    Sounds like a good plan, I definitely think there’s an audience there. The problem, it seems to me, is reaching that audience. Do you worry about Z books not getting into Deseret and Seagull retail stores? Even with your own retail store(s), I think it would be really hard to turn a profit without them.

    In any case, it’s good to hear that Martindale’s Brother Brigham has found a home, it’s seems we’ve been hearing about that for some time now.

  2. Christopher Bigelow

    My own retail stores? I wish! I will be selling books via mail order through a website and catalog, and I will try to wholesale the books to all 200 or LDS bookstores, feeling happy if I can place books in 40-50. I got Irreantum into 20 or 30, so I think it’s doable. I don’t expect Deseret or Seagull to carry them, but I’ll certainly try. Missionaries need to give everyone a chance to accept the message, no?

    Turning a profit? I wish. I’ll be happy to cover my overhead let alone recoup any investment or actually profit. However, as when one buys a lottery ticket, I do hold the slightest hope that the right books might connect with the right audience at the right time and actually make this a viable enterprise.

  3. Mahonri Stewart

    Chris,
    Have you thought about Scott Bronson’s “Whipping Boy?” I haven’t read it myself, but I hear it’s very good.

  4. William Morris

    Heh.

    I fear that by now the hype that has attended “Whipping Boy” has set up such high expectations for it that any readers who have heard of it will be disappointed.

    It is a very good novella, though.

    ::feeds the hype::

  5. Bryce R. Jolley

    Good luck with this Chris. Sounds like a great idea to me. I’ll be awaiting the website.

  6. Marilyn Brown

    Shock and awe! Just how motley? Congratulations. Will you be publishing your books also? I am thrilled. I trust your judgment. You will go far. (Skate carefully on the thin ice of some accessing audiences and you will keep afloat—hopefully even financially!) Keep us posted! I would certainly try to help!

  7. Coke Newell

    It would take a “Dummy” not to see this is a great idea! It’s getting harder and harder to find anything at DB that is worth reading. You go, Boy!

  8. Carolyn Howard-Johnson

    Dear Chris:

    How sad it is we can’t use the word “literary” when we mean “literary.” Still, is is nice to have a publisher who is savvy enough about marketing to know that using the “l” word would be a mistake and who will also accept “literay.” (-:

    Would that THIS IS THE PLACE and HARKENING were available for submission. It would be nice to have a publisher who would partner in the promotion process. Having said that, it was my struggles with promotion that led to THE FRUGAL BOOK PROMOTER: HOW TO DO WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WON’T. I guess when you turn a bad situation inside out, you are likely to find silver. (-:

    Best,
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Author of USA Book News Best Professional Book and the Book Publicists of Southern California’s Irwin Award winner THE FRUGAL BOOK PROMOTER: HOW TO DO WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WON’T

  9. henry miles

    Chris:

    Black is a bad color for some of us. I cannot read the part of your message with a black background.

    hank

  10. Jeff Schrade

    I’m definately interested. Looking forward to it all… and perhaps someday offering up a manuscript of my own. Now I’ll just have to figure what tale to tell… :-)

  11. larry rigby

    Chris, enjoyed the interview and meeting you at Sunstone. I have also started a publishing company (Faustus Publishing) and the first product is my debut novel The Jäger Artist which has been out three months and is in its second printing. While I am a Mormon author the chief character resides in Iowa and is not a Mormon. Most of the setting plays out in Berlin, Germany. Originally I wrote the character as a conflicted Mormon, but late in the process decided that I should expand the audience beyond Mormons, because as a relatively prudish group they shun serious human conflicts, especially if they deal with sex, adultery, etc. Thus, I concluded, the market for such literature would be small and the distribution very, very difficult. Faustus is therefore focusing on a more generic market. We are also reviewing manuscripts but not necessarily of Mormon content. We prefer a masked Mormon character that non-Mormons can identify with.

    Let me know what you think of The Jäger Artist, available at Kings English, Sam Wellers, B&N Sugarhouse, Ken Sanders, and Borders Murray. I look forward to reading you book and Brother Brigham.

    Best,
    LDR

    P.S. perhaps we should pool resources and merge our ventures.

  12. Preston McConkie

    “Mormonism with neither sneer nor message,” and “stories that explore our unresolved issues and cultural foibles without an agenda to undermine faith.” That’s what really caught my attention here. Books of that stripe I would like to read — and, knowing there may be a marketer for them, I’d like to write them.

    I have never been interested in Signature because of the agenda to undermine, but I’ve given up on LDS fiction because it either isn’t entertaining or insists on gouging people’s faith out of a misplaced understanding of what it takes to be “artistic.” After exploring the goal of writing for the LDS novel market I settled on being an LDS newspaper reporter. I got to write for a living and got to feel my product was useful.

    My optimism was revived by Napoleon Dynamite, which brought Mountain West LDS culture into the popular culture somewhat the way Mark Twain created a unique American literature readable to Europeans. Jared Hess made it funny and interesting without apologizing for anything or having to do a lot of backstory explanations.

    Mr. Bigelow, you seem to have grasped the LDS reader’s readiness for a new type of literature: books for people who are happy with their faith and culture and don’t feel the need to defend them and promote them, but maybe just to enjoy them.

    In years past even the most intramural LDS books, even doctrinal works, were written like missionary tracts, as if the presumed audience could only be presumed to have accepted mainstream Christianity and needed the restoration justified to them. Yet these books were almost never read by anyone but the already converted.

    I say, let’s have some fun and quit thinking we have to look so good to the non-members that we can never admit our troubles — but at the same time not try to curry cheap favor by indulging in Signature-style self flagellation and cynicism.

  13. S. P. Bailey

    Preston: you seem to paint with too broad of a brush regarding Signature, particularly when it comes to fiction. Such blanket judgments are part of the problem with the market for Mormon literature. Chris’s venture is a great idea, and I hope it is wildly successful. Likewise, I hope Signature continues to publish good Mormon fiction. I can’t see why both won’t happen…

  14. Preston McConkie

    Mr. Bailey,

    I may be wrong, but based on Signature’s own description of the manuscripts it wants, it doesn’t fit my vision of what a committed Latter-day Saint needs if he seriously believes in the reality of the restoration. I know Chris hasn’t cast any barbs their way, and I have good friends who like some of Signature’s stuff, but really the only value I find in Signature is their scholarlly stuff, where they’re publishing the results of research.

  15. Mahonri Stewart

    Although I agree with you to a degree, Shawn, that Signature ought not to be cariacutured (I’ve enjoyed some of their historical books and really enjoyed P.G.K.’s Pictograph Murders– although I haven’t finished it yet, since I misplaced my copy), I must say though that Preston’s sketch is loosely accurate as has been this discussion’s sketch of Deseret Book or Seagull. Each publisher has a market they are catering to, and although they both can cross over into other markets and ought not be too narrowly defined, they both seem comfortable with the general reputation they have accumulated.
    But I, too, hope that both Zarahemla, Signature and, yes, DB and Covenant, etc. all have tremendous success in building, expanding and unstereotyping all segments of the LDS Market. I wouldn’t mind being published by any of the aforesaid companies.
    –Mahonri

  16. Mahonri Stewart

    Chris,
    One segment of LDS literature as literature (in contrast to performance) that I think has been under represented in print is LDS plays. The only real venue which I have seen publish Mormon plays is Sunstone. I had thought about submitting before, but I run into the problem which has been mentioned (and which your publication seems to be trying to avoid)– the stereotype that runs with being published with a company like Sunstone. I personally don’t want to be branded, thus I have hesitated.
    Do you think your company would ever publish LDS plays? Perhaps as a collections (Perhaps a “Best of LDS Theater” series where you collect works from people like Eric Samuelsen, Tim Slover, Scott Bronson, etc. And maybe even young bucks like me?) Do you think there’s a market for printed LDS plays?
    –Mahonri

  17. S. P. Bailey

    (Regarding No. 22): Can you direct me to “Signature’s own description of the manuscripts it wants” to which you are referring?

    I just went to the Signature website. I located the following statements:

    “We publish fiction and non-fiction, religious and non-religious books that relate to the Mormon Corridor, as mentioned above. This includes southern Alberta, eastern Washington, Idaho, western Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, southwestern Colorado, Arizona, southern California, and Chihuahua. Our books fall into a few primary categories including biography, literary fiction, memoirs, mysteries, nineteenth-century diaries, short stories, and social topics such as race, gender, and the impact of science on society. As evident from our lineup, we occasionally publish art and photography, humor, science fiction, travel, true crime, and a limited number of children’s books and poetry. We do not publish cook books, family history, inspirational literature, romance, or self-help works.”

    I also found this:

    “Our acquisitions editor is always looking for new talent by reading the historical and literary journals and attending professional meetings. If you are involved in such pursuits, you may have met him; but if not, and if you have a manuscript you think would be right for Signature Books and if you have an established publication history (articles in journals, short stories in anthologies, and so on), please send a one-page letter outlining your thesis or plot accompanied by a vita…”

    Nothing there that precludes belief in the restoration as far as I can tell.

  18. Patricia Karamesines

    I have no inside information for Signature’s raison d’etre, but just for the record, when I submitted my novel to Signature and went through the editing process with them, never at any point did anybody say, “Yes, my dear, your work fits our agenda for undermining faith,” or “If you want to publish with us you need to ratchet up the doubt factor.”

    There was this funny thing (as in funny ha-ha) where before I submitted the novel to Signature I put more Mormon content into it thinking that was what would catch their eye. The editor took a lot of it back out on the grounds it “cliched” the church.

    I remember their acquisitions guy (Tom K.) speaking at an AML Conference about five years back and announcing Signature was looking for “the next Emerson.” One might speculate about whether or not the next Emerson is looking for Signature, but it’s a worthy goal on Signature’s part all the same.

  19. Patricia Karamesines

    Oh, and also JFTR, I was _listening_ for someone at Signature to say, “My dear, your work fits our agenda for undermining faith” or for someone to even suggest I ought to ratchet up the doubt. If anybody had, I would have said, “I’m sorry, I’ve made a mistake. I’m withdrawing my novel.”

  20. Kim Madsen

    Having been fortunate enough to read BROTHER BRIGHAM, WHIPPING BOY and KINDRED SPIRITS in manuscript form, may I say how excited I am to hear of your efforts, Chris, in forming Zarahemla and giving these works a chance to be born into the world. I stand ready to spread the word about this website and other distribution channels to all my reading friends. Can’t wait to hear/read the words ON SALE NOW!

  21. Chris

    Why the hell am I receiving unsolicted SPAM pointing me to this blog post??? I request that you stop spamming people immediately. I have never been to this site and have no idea how you acquired my e-mail address. I’ve reported your account (zarahemlabooks@gmail.com) to Gmail’s abuse department. Assholes.

  22. William Morris Post author

    For the record, Chris. Neither I nor anyone else at AMV e-mailed you.

    I’m letting your comment stand for the moment because if there are other people out there who received that same e-mail as you, I want them to be understand that the e-mail did not originate with A Motley Vision. We don’t represent Zarahemla Books, although I, personally, am sympathetic to the project.

    I will raise your concerns with Chris Bigelow and, if he wants it, give him a crash course in best practices in electronic pr/marketing — which is what I do professionally.

  23. Christopher Bigelow

    I’m glad there’s some interest in Zarahemla!

    I would probably be willing to try a “Best-Loved Plays of the LDS People” volume at some point, if there’s a qualified editor who could compile the right content. Sounds like a great idea, actually.

    I want to make clear that I’m a fan of Signature and appreciate what they do. I hope my statements didn’t come across as blanket statements, just generally trying to position how what I want to try to do is different from Signature, which you have to admit does have a lot of baggage, almost as much as Sunstone (whether it’s deserved or not).

    If I ever e-mail an announcement to anyone who doesn’t want it, by all means reply with a request for removal, and I’ll certainly do that. I may have had a few eBay or other contacts unrelated to literature slip into my contact list, for which I apologize. I don’t know why that guy blamed Motley Vision…

  24. Jen Wahlquist

    Congratulations, Chris, on a courageous new undertaking that sounds interesting and timely. From reading your blog, it would seem your approach should lead to success eventually — but maybe more quickly than any of us would dream possible (if your market analysis is correct).

    Good luck and best wishes,
    –Jen Wahlquist

  25. Mahonri Stewart

    I’m not sure that I’m a “qualified” editor, but I sure would love to help in anyway I could to get a “Best Loved Plays” project going. I certainly know a good many of the LDS Playwrights or know how to get a hold of them and am familiar with their work, so I could certainly compile what *I* consider the best LDS work. Interested?

  26. Mahonri Stewart

    Oh, and when something like Eric Samuelsen’s *Family* or *Gadianton* has been published by Sunstone or Scott Bronson’s *Stones* has been published by Irreantum or Tim Slover’s *Hancock County* is theatrically distributed by Encore!, are they still able to publish elsewhere? I don’t know what those particular groups copyright rules are, if they have any.

  27. S. P. Bailey

    Mahonri:
    The rights may differ in each situation. But it is likely that the journals hold a non-exclusive right to re-publication, shared with each author. In short, the authors likely have the right to authorize republication in the type of anthology you propose.

    Oh, and did I mention that I would definitely buy said anthology?

  28. Preston McConkie

    Mr. Bailey, it sounds like the stuff you quoted was exactly what I read. To you it may sound innocuous, but to me when you combine invitations to write “literary” fiction about race and gender issues but say you’re not interested in “inspirational literature,” this equals a call to write faith-challenging stuff that doesn’t inspire, but leaves people questioning.

    I’m just wrapping up my second reading of War and Peace, hard on the heels of my first reading of The Brothers Karamazov. Those are great books that delve into deep questions, and though they challenged a lot of people’s thinking, they were written by profound seekers after truth who had something to offer in place of their ridicule of superstition and bigotry. They were not trendy intellectuals; they were not even trend-setters, since most of the people who enjoy them (particularly Dostoyevsky) can only imitate the dark side of his writing. And TBK is an exceptionally inspiring book.

    My experience with Signature’s books is that their scholarly works offer up some good information, but their tone and theme are the standard academic fare of wailing over LDS policies on homosexuality, banging the drum of gender conflict and in general acting as critics. And while Ms. Karamesines was never told to “ratchet up the doubt factor,” as she put it, that’s very much different than having a book seriously considered that contains a serious “testimony factor.”

    It’s completely fair for Signature to have its own niche and goals. This isn’t a denunciation. It’s an explanation of why I and plenty of other Mormons probably won’t be choosing our light or serious entertainment from its catalog. I’m aware of the character of its scholarly publications, and from the summaries told me of a couple of its novels (by a friend of mine who raves over them) I suspect I would find them grating.

    I would, however, very much like to get hold of a copy of Signature’s book on Sidney Rigdon. When it publishes research that isn’t available elsewhere I can put up with authors who are impressed with their intellectual bravery and assume their audience is equally impressed. I might even be taken in a bit and congratulate myself on my laudable commitment to learning.

  29. S. P. Bailey

    “[W]hen you combine invitations to write “literary” fiction about race and gender issues but say you’re not interested in “inspirational literature,” this equals a call to write faith-challenging stuff that doesn’t inspire, but leaves people questioning.”

    Again, with all due respect, I think you are all too willing to issue blanket condemnations based one of many possible readings of these statements. (Yet, I have to hand it to you, at least you abandoned your unfair “Signature = deny the restoration” claim.)

    For example, surely there is a meaningful distinction between “literary” and “inspirational” fiction that has nothing to do with the orthodoxy of the author or audience. When the term “inspirational” is applied to fiction, I do not think of being inspired. On the contrary, I brace myself for work that is maudlin, trite, didactic, and so forth.

  30. Preston McConkie

    Your point is well taken; I don’t read mainstream LDS fiction because of its poor literary quality. I also don’t read “literary” LDS fiction because it considers itself brave and trailblazing, when it’s really no different from the works of other religiously raised academics anxious to prove how much they’ve grown. All this exploring of “deeper issues” by people who obsessed with stock issues makes me want to yawn.

    Although you might make the case that there is an important difference between “inspirational literature” and inspiring books, I think the lack of inspiring work is the problem with all LDS fiction. Literary stuff is usually too bogged down with self-importance to inspire me and seems written for the applause of a small circle of like-minded people, while the mainstream stuff is largely amateur and sappy.

    The trouble with both sides, if I may be permitted to paint with a broad brush, is that they write from ideology, not from inspiration. On the academic side they usually write with more skill, and their colleagues clap when they’ve been titilated, had their values affirmed, and hopefully poked a stick in the eye of the sticks-in-the-mud (what would THEY think if they read this?). On the Deseret Book side, the readers clap when they feel entertained and have their values affirmed, perhaps supposing the novel to be a great missionary tool.

    For 12 years I haven’t come across an LDS novel of any stripe that interested me until I read the sample chapter from Brother Brigham. I hope this means the LDS community is coming of age, in the sense that it doesn’t feel every book has to be either an affirming or challenging experience, and that every author doesn’t feel the need to either writing missionary tracts to the converted or jabbing a stick in someone’s eye.

  31. Preston McConkie

    Rather than saying “the problem with all LDS fiction” I would say instead, the problem with fiction from both of the major camps.

  32. S. P. Bailey

    The broad binary categories that keep surfacing in this conversation fail to account for many good books published in recent years and available now. Everything out there is not pretentious hooey or gooey sweet garbage. Not even close.

    And if we are going to diagnose problems, why not start with those that can be laid not at the feet of authors, but at the feet of the audience and the larger culture: (1) too many Mormons are far too quick to pass judgment on authors\’ orthodoxy and/or worthiness; (2) too few Mormons read and appreciate the efforts of aspiring Mormon authors; and (3) the idea of great works has become the enemy of good works.

    To put it differently, the prevailing attitude of much of the potential audience for Mormon literature seems to hover somewhere in between three poles: (1) holier than thou rejection of anything not squeaky clean, (2) obstinant aversion to the unfamiliar, challenging, virtuosic (i.e., art), and (3) I will buy the first great Mormon novel; until then, I am not interested. (And how will I know it is great? It will have to garner approval in the wider market first.)

    I am afraid that this complex of attitudes is essentially toxic to the emergence of good art.

  33. Preston McConkie

    S.P., I have no doubt you’re right that there have been some much better books lately. As I said, it’s been quite a few years since I read any LDS fiction because I read everything I could get my hands on for a couple of years and found it was all disappointing. So I quit.

    The notion of not buying a book until a great Mormon novel comes out is new to me; I’d settle for a good one, and am insterested in several I have heard of recently. I suspect many have been waiting to read LDS fiction for the same reason. The most popular LDS books when I was young were the execrable Storm Testmant series, and they could put you off LDS literature for a lifetime.

    I can’t agree with you in leveling so much blame at the audience for the failure of LDS literature to have a wider readership. That’s a very easy refuge for people who overestimate the greatness of certain books, and it is that attitude of amused contempt for the overall LDS culture that I find bothersome in the Signature mentality. My contact with that mentality has impresed me as being elitist. I’m sure there are non-elitist authors whose works have been published in that camp, but your own remarks only reinforce my point of view in that respect.

    As alluded to earlier, I find certain writers great because they simultaneously challenge superstitions and false assumptions, but also include profound observations and philosophy, as much as possible filling the voids they create.

    The world has no shortage of authors who write what they consider “challenging” works, but we are very short on profound authors. Poking fun at people’spresumptions or depicting things they may find offensive is the easiest thing in the world, but most authors can’t balance their careless challenges with the philosophical or analytical greatness of a Tolstoy or Dostoeyevsky. Hence their work doesn’t sell well, so to prop up their fragile egoes the authors denounce the peasants for their failure to appreciate the author’s self-declared greatness.

    If you want to write to a broad audience, you must write to meet broad tastes. This means either cranking out familiar boilerplate, or doing something so original and so excellent that you break new ground. Much virtuosic writing is actually boilerplate, but written for a smaller audience. Both the popular and the academic markets contain a few works of true genius; the rest is imitation that falls under Sturgeon’s Law (95 percent of everything is crap).

    I am a news writer because I not only want to write, I also want to make a living writing. I dream of writing great stuff, and I try to always write useful stuff. I am blessed that every week I get to test my abilities on an audience and learn if I’ve been an effective communicator. When a story doesn’t get its point across, I blame myself, not the audience.

    I am dependent on my readers, and if I want to reach them I have to accommodate myself to their communication style. It’s my own challenge to write in a way that reaches the pedestrian reader while still offering insights helpful to a more discerning reader.

    If you want to be appreciated by a broad audience, accommodate the needs of the audience. Carping about their failure to accommodate self-perceived greatness is the Signature of an elitist (pun intended).

  34. Preston McConkie

    Finally, if you want to broaden the vision of your audience, you have to carry them along. It simply isn’t logical to expect people without the author’s background to slurp up their esoteric culture. You have to bring your thoughts into the reader’s culture.

    You have to reward the readers, give them a reason at their current level for reading the book. Most readers don’t read in order to have a profound anthropological experience. With elitist authors so concerned about thrusting their great thoughts before others, they of all people should not blame others for considering their own way of thinking worhty of respect.

  35. S. P. Bailey

    Mr. McConkie:
    I am glad that you read great books, are a journalist, and apsire to greatness as a writer. I am also glad that you recently found AMV. I certainly hope that you stick around.

    However, I must protest that you have given my prior comment an exceedingly unfair reading. I do not know what you mean by \”amused contempt for the overall LDS culture.\” (Do you have a substantive response to any of the issues I raise? Simply slapping big labels on those with whom you disagree is a bad habit.)

    Anyway, I assure you that I entertain no such contempt. On the contrary, I am optimistic (extremely, perhaps irrationally, so) about present Mormon cultural production and its future prospects. Your accusation seems particularly ironic because I was objecting to your prior sweeping (and pessimistic) condemnation of all Mormon cultural production as too Deseret Book (read: low quality) or too Signature (read: elitist) for you.

    Yet given your admission that \”it’s been quite a few years since I read any LDS fiction,\” I doubt both the factual basis of your claims and your standing to make them. (Even so, I do not think that your stance is uncommon. I frequently hear people tell me how bad Mormon literature is. When pressed, some of these people acknowledge that they have not actually read a novel by a Mormon author–or even a thoughtful review of a novel by a Mormon author. They just have a gut feeling that X is too smarmy and Y is too risky. Not a particularly thoughtful way of assessing one\’s own culture.)

    My point in my prior comment (and indeed in all of my comments on this thread) is simply this: uninformed judgments and sweeping condemnations are not productive. (Thus, the emphasis on reserving judgment, actually reading, and appreciating good works instead of dwelling on any work\’s lack of perceived greatness.) I will add in this comment a corollary insight: arguments about uninformed judgments and sweeping condemnations are boring. (Respectfully withdraws.)

  36. Preston McConkie

    S.P.,

    Your comment on my lack of exposure to LDS literature is uninformed. I have not read any LDS books from back to back for some time, but I’ve read portions, a lot of reviews, had recommendations and testimonials made to me, and not been completely out of touch.

    I stated that my most in-depth opinions on LDS fiction are out of date, a statement that you take advantage of to accuse me of making uninformed and sweeping accusations. This despite the fact that I’ve said I perceive a positive change in the air, based on my knowledge of Zarahemla Books and a sample reading from Brother Brigham, and statements made on this page.

    Let me explain how I first got introduced to Signature Books. In 1996 a gay retired U of U professor living in the beautiful Salt Lake avenues tried to recruit me to be his personal assistant and lover. Carefully working toward the issue, he engaged me in a lengthy and deep conversation, and kept urging a book on me put out by Signature on the subject of sexual identity. I can’t remember the title, but he kept urging me to read that book and anything else by Signature because he thought I would find its works enlightening.

    When I expressed no interest in exploring my gender identity he found me unfit to be a personal assistant, and it was only in retrospect that my naivete dissolved and I realized what I’d actually been getting auditioned for.

    Now, you and others may latch on this detail and say to yourselves that I started out with a strong bias against Signature, and you would be correct, but I don’t think that bias was without basis. My exposure to Signature materials has caused me to do moderate my original impression, but not dismiss it.

    It was my strong interest in academics and my desire to work with a distinguished professor that brought me my first and rather unflattering contact with Signature, and while there may be plenty of great stuff put out by that publisher, no one can contradict the fact that its controllers are friendly to movements that are abhorrent to the orthodox.

    Regarding my lack of recent investment in fictional LDS books, the fact that I’m following these postings indicates my continuing interest. But that interest grew less active after several years of hopefully following the latest deliveries at various books stores, in spurts between the Army and a mission (I read with initial delight the first volumes put out by Hatrack River) until I read The Angel of Armageddon.

    The fact that Robert Marcum was still getting radio ads in 2003 for his latest literary excretions was a benchmark I believed boded ill for the overall state of things. Since then I have only paid attention to anecdotes and benchmarks, waiting to see something that would indicate a product worth investigating. Unfortunately, the only out-of-breath testimonials I heard were on behalf of bohemian works I knew I would find distasteful.

    I’m surprised that you criticize me for my condemnation of LDS literature, when I am clearly showing my delight that it appears to be improving; while you sweepingly descry the lack of sophistication in the LDS audience, and contemptuously dismiss my criticisms of your perceived contemptuousness.

    My replies to your criticisms of the audience are not substantive, in the sense that I don’t dissect and deal with them seriously. I dismiss them as irrelevant, but I also explained why.

    You dismissed my comments as uninformed and boring, ignoring the explanations that show they were neither thoughtless nor uninformed.

    Part of my point, as already alluded to, is that it’s the job of the author to reach the audience, and if he wants to reach what he thinks is a less sophisticated audience, he needs to work hard, employ great talent and skill, and find inspiration. If he doesn’t think the audience is worthy of his genius, he exposes either smallness of genius or smallness of soul.

    For those who want to win the applause of people who already agree with them they should be satisfied writing for a publisher that serves a small group of like-minded readers. For those who want to reach a broader audience but also want to affect some people’s points of view, you have first to satisfy the demands of the market, at least in the sense of writing someting that a lot of people might enjoy. Deseret Book publishes novels that bomb despite the supposedly proletarian readership they are targeted to, and no book is going to be wildly successful without being enthusiastically chatted up by the first readers.

    I appreciate your sentiment of hope that I’ll remain active with AMV. I will continue so long as I find new and helpful things to learn here and people who will not shy away from engaging in challenging discussion.

    If my positions are wrong you can debunk them, but instead you prefer to withdraw and cast an insult over your shoulder. I hope you will reconsider the manner of your exit.

  37. Mahonri Stewart

    Come now, boys, play nice. :] Let’s not strain eyes at gnats, please, it sounds as if you’re just trying to one up each other now.
    Preston, I agree with you that Signature supports causes that are not in step with Mormon orthodoxy, and thus as a GENERAL, sweeping cariacature can be seen to be opposing the Church. I’m not very sympathetic with many of their positions. This seems to be the case with a lot of intellectual Mormon groups right now. Overlooking this past Sunstone Symposium’s schedule was an eye opener as there were a plethora (not just one, a PLETHORA) of workshops on homosexuality. And then picking up one of their issues recently at the library, at least a fourth of the issue was dedicated to homosexuality (not to mention, they’ve had a good number of other articles, letters, etc. pushing this issue in other volumes). It seems to be the pet issue of many of these organizations. As for me, the topic is getting rather tiring (not too tiring, I suppose, for I am planning on writing a play in the next couple of years addressing the “orthodox” viewpoint on the subject).
    But to support Shawn’s points, I suggest “Pictograph Murders” (I found my copy! I found my copy!) as an addition to your reading list. I am thoroughly enjoying it and has an intelligent, engaging, “faithful” storyteller in our very own Patricia.

  38. Preston McConkie

    Mahonri,

    Thanks for the intrigueing message, I will definitely follow your recommendation and obtain a copy of “Pictograph Murders.” And I hope to be able to read or see your play when it is written and, hopefully, produced. Of course, living in southern Arizona, seeing it may prove difficult.

    I hope our very own Patricia is not too annoyed with me right now about my possibly hair-splitting posts I’ve placed under her recent essay.

    It is a great treat to be able to interact with people who take literature and fiction seriously. I hope to be able to interact meaningfully in this forum without being an unwelcome personality. And while enjoying myself, I have to beware of suffering the fate of one of my best and oldest friends who belongs to the Association of Mormon Letters. He appears to enjoy that group’s company and esteem so mcuh that he is unsatisfied with intellectual intercourse with those who interpret life more simply.

    I hope to make your personal acquaintance, Mr. Stewart, it seems we might have much to talk about. And Mr. (Shawn?) Bailey, please accept my goodwill; I hope to see and perhaps respond to more of your posts as more topics accrue here.

  39. Mahonri

    Always looking for new friends, Preston. Considered my acquiantence made.

  40. Patricia Karamesines

    Preston said,

    “I hope our very own Patricia is not too annoyed with me right now about my possibly hair-splitting posts I’ve placed under her recent essay.”

    “Our very own Patricia.” Cute!

    I haven’t been annoyed into silence, just Internetless, as explained on the Birds of Summer thread. Couldn’t have happened at a more frustrating time. I was anxious to see where these conversations might go.

    For anyone who might be interested: I submitted my book to Signature because I had this idea (probably false) that they would allow me to keep in some of the book’s artsier parts, parts I feared publishers like Desert Books or Covenant might find irrelevant or even distracting and so edit out. Since one of my biggest motivations for writing is trying to write language of good report, and since I considered those passages to be some of the best reports I could make, I didn’t want to fight with an editor about them. I was fairly sure Signature wouldn’t put up a fuss about that sort of artsy writing, and they didn’t. I do wonder now if I stereotyped Deseret Book or Covenant and thus limited my choices unnecessarily.

    Mahonri, always the gentleman. I hope we get a chance to meet finally, maybe even at the AML conf coming up in November. In fact, I’m hoping to meet up with all AMVers. T’would be nice if William could come.

  41. William Morris

    I appreciate the nudge, Patricia, but it is quite likely that I won’t be able to make it to Utah for some time.

    ———
    I found the whole conversation about Signature very interesting. I do have something that will help. This is a list from the Mormon Literature Database of Signature-published books: http://mormonlit.lib.byu.edu/lit_publisher.php?p_id=29

    I can’t speak for every work on there, but out of the novels:

    Heresies of Nature, The Conversion of Jeff Williams, The Marketing of Sister B, Vernal Promises and Falling Toward Heaven are all well-written, broadly appropriate (to borrow a term from Irreantum) works.

    I have concerns about Signature on several levels, but they have published *some* works that should be read and cherished regardless of their source. I think the sad thing is that these novelists had to go to Signature to get their works published. Thus why I hope Zarahemla Books succeeds.

    But seriously, although there may be some reasons why Doug Thayer published The Conversion of Jeff Williams with Signature; however, it’s criminal that Deseret Book didn’t swoop in and pick it up. Or at least try to. I mean — come on! It’s Doug Thayer.

    I also think that Vernal Promises deserves more talking up. Here’s a link to my review.

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