One day, early in my career at a children’s book publisher here in New York, I told my boss how bad the books of another, well-known and well-established, children’s book publisher were in my view. To my surprise, he disagreed, and told me that this publisher and these books had played, and continued to play, an important role in the industry. He was right. I now know that every part of the book publishing industry needs bad books!
Why? Let me give you an example. The Garbage Pail Kids series was (and is) hated by many parents for its bathroom-style humor and formulaic stories. But the series is actually loved by elementary school teachers and librarians—because kids actually read them. Teachers push them to students, especially boys, who don’t read, or whose reading skills are not up to grade level. For many children, books like these serve as conduits to better literature. They not only learn reading skills with these books, but also learn to love reading. And as they mature and their skills no longer find these books a challenge, most students “graduate” to more sophisticated literature. Reading, it seems, breeds more reading. And even reading “junk” leads to reading more, and often better material.
Why is this true? Because when someone enjoys reading, they search for more to read, and with experience, they refine their tastes and what materials they like to read. While this might imply that popular literature is best, there is an element of truth there. Regardless of whether or not popular literature is great literature, great literature is often popular.
I actually believe that the same thing happens elsewhere in literature. Some works serve as doorways into a genre. It isn’t a question of bringing readers to better literature, just to different literature, the literature that interests those readers most. Like or hate The DaVinci Code, you have to admit that it has brought readers to historical books about Christianity, just like John Grisham’s works brought readers to legal thrillers.
While I know that these paths exist, I’m not sure at all what happens in Mormon literature. There is a fairly substantial divide between what we might call serious Mormon literature and popular Mormon literature. Does this divide get bridged at all? Does Dean Hughes’ Children of the Promise series get readers for Doug Thayer’s stories? Do readers of Rachel Ann Nunes go on to read Virginia Sorensen?
The sense I get from many educated readers is that they were turned off from reading any Mormon literature because what they found in LDS bookstores they considered to be of poor quality. And those that love the popular literature, are not, from what I can tell, moving on to serious or more challenging literature.
Nor do I see paths that draw new readers to popular literature. Sure friends recommend books to friends, and give books as gifts. But what kinds of books were these new readers reading before they picked up their first piece of Mormon literature, serious or not?
Given the relative lack of children’s and youth Mormon literature, it seems unlikely that children or youth are growing up reading enough Mormon literature that they naturally look for it when they are adults.
There are possible tracks from outside of Mormon literature. New readers might find serious Mormon literature after reading other serious literature. I’ve heard many times that LDS fans of romance literature often get sick of overly-explicit scenes and come looking for something “cleaner.”
But while there are a few obvious paths, I believe this might just be a weakness in Mormon literature — a lack of literature paths and the ‘bad’ works that draw readers to the good ones.
I hope I’m wrong. Please tell me where I am.