Review of Byuck… and other thoughts.

8.12.13 | | 28 comments

So, I finished Eric Jepson’s novel, BYUCK. I found it hilarious, heartwarming, and refreshing. The description of BYU (and Happy Valley) culture from the perspective of someone who wasn’t bred and born in it, who could therefore look at it from an outsider’s perspective, delighted and amused me. As I read the story, I remembered my own bemused feelings entering happy-valley culture for the first time. And I breathed a deep sigh of relief that I do not live in Provo anymore.

It also brought memories of a story I wrote about six or seven years ago that was very similar (not in writing quality, but in subject matter, characters, setup.) Nobody has read it except for my family and the editorial board at Covenant, who eventually tabled and then rejected it, saying the audience was too narrow for them to spend money to publish it. I’m grateful for that now, because it wasn’t very well written and I needed the time to learn how to write properly before critics got at it.

But I found myself wondering, after I finished BYUCK, and as I looked back on the experience with Covenant: where is the place for that sort of writing; for the works of LDS writers writing about our LDS culture? And where is that sort of writing going, now that things are changing so drastically in the industry? Could this sort of writing appeal to a general, not just LDS audience, and how would we accomplish that?

There are some stories that are more narrowly focused on an LDS audience (and I’d argue BYUCK is an example of that; inside jokes only Mormons would get, mormon dialect, etc). There are some one could argue might appeal to a broader audience–Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene, Steven Peck’s Scholar of Moab.  But would they?

I’m wondering, too. What if something amazing, and literary, and focused entirely within the LDS experience (aka the Great Mormon Novel) would be considered even generally marketable by anyone. What if someone did write something along the lines of Potok’s works. Would anyone read it (and of course, *we* would. But would anyone beyond the world of LDS lit advocacy read it?)

I was thinking about how in general, people who consume LDS fiction are looking for an uplifting story that will make them feel better about their life and the challenges of being LDS in a world that’s not too kind to us. That’s often why I read it. I want an inspiring story about pioneers, or an uplifting romance (guilty) or something that makes me laugh at and love the absurdities of my culture and my life (like BYUCK, or Joni Hilton’s work).

And when we look at the audience for literary fiction, there are other issues. Is Mormonism really taken seriously enough, considered fascinating enough, to be a worthy subject of study? In general I feel like religion is out of vogue in the literary world. Maybe that’s pessimistic of me.

My question is, where is our audience? Do we have to channel things in a commercial direction, create the sorts of plots LDS readers will enjoy, in order to feed them some more complex and even controversial stuff? And if we’re trying to write to a general audience, what do we have to do to make it consumable to that audience? What have others done?  What are some success and failure stories?

28 comments: “Review of Byuck… and other thoughts.

  1. Jonathan Langford

    Good questions. I particularly like your phrase, “the world of LDS lit advocacy” (though I wish it didn’t so accurately describe the existing need).

    I remember how surprised I was when I realized that the so-called “Mormon market” for fiction readers (e.g., as it manifests itself in purchases from mainstream LDS publishers and LDS bookstores) doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in fiction about the Mormon experience (aside from historical fiction), but rather in fiction that adheres to “LDS standards.” Edgy or not, I have to wonder how many Mormon purchase fiction with an eye to understanding or celebrating or thinking about what it means to be Mormon, even from a humorous perspective.

  2. James Goldberg

    I think most Deseret Book purchases are gifts. So there’s an extra filter there: it’s not just what a shopper likes, but what she’s reasonably confident someone else might like (or at least won’t hate) that probably drives purchase decisions.

  3. Sarah Dunster Post author

    That’s true. I’m not thinking just Deseret Book and Seagull, though. There’s a move to self-publish, and a couple LDS authors have done really well that way recently. So in a way, we’re taking the discussion to a different level… what will people actually buy? Where do we market? Now that our audience might potentially be whichever audience we can collect… where do we go to find our audience?

  4. Wm Morris

    I don’t know. As I understand it, most Mormon novels that aren’t genre fiction that is sold by DB/Seagull sell 200-300 copies. Major hits sell 800-1,000.

    As far as I can tell, most English-speaking Mormons don’t turn to Mormon-themed fiction to help them understand themselves in relation to the challenges they face. And I’m not entirely sure why that is.

  5. Sarah Dunster Post author

    I’m not sure if that is the case, Wm? I know it’s definitely not the case for me. I read Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, Brother Brigham’s Gold, Jack Weyland’s books, Joni Hiltons books, repeatedly as an adolescent and teenager. They made me feel happy to be LDS. I think a lot of my friends felt this way as well. Maybe I’m a little weird. Or, maybe this is a phenomenon more common outside “Happy Valley,” out in the “mission field.” I have noticed a lot less of it/less enthusiasm in the thick of Mormon Culture. Maybe because we’re surrounded by it here.

  6. Jessie

    I have friends that read a lot of contemporary literary fiction and YA fiction and friends that read a lot of DB & Covenant published fiction–and there isn’t a lot of overlap between the two. The people I know who don’t read Mormon fiction tend to believe that all Mormon lit is poorly written, sappy, and does not reflect real life–it does not measure up to the writing standards of their usual fare and they see no reason to read it. (I’ve had moderate success introducing some readers to things like No Going Back and Bound on Earth). The readers I know who mostly focus on stuff from Church-affiliated publishers are looking more for feel over content–they want to feel comforted, affirmed, and not-threatened. They want books that might be slightly educational even if they are fiction and that won’t threaten their values–they really don’t care if the characters are Mormon or not. Many of these people read stuff published by Christian publishers as well because it has the same tone and the same goals. I’ve rarely gotten a sense from either group of readers that they want to read stuff about themselves–at least about themselves as Mormons. More thoughts:

    http://blog.mormonletters.org/?p=3902
    http://blog.mormonletters.org/?p=5954

  7. Jonathan Langford

    It’s a good question. And I think it’s one we’re still all pondering. I’m going to respond at length, with some of my own experiences and observations…

    It seems to me that the “us” you’re talking about is fiction about the Mormon experience that deals with it in a faithful but realistic way. Which is not necessarily identical to Eugene England’s “faithful realism,” though I think that’s a good starting point.

    I think you’re right that the primary audience for that kind of work is LDS, though I’ve had a surprising degree of success in introducing my own novel (No Going Back) to non-LDS readers. Surprising to me, I mean. Beyond not “getting” the details of Mormonism (and there are a lot of them to get), I mostly expected that the basic dilemma of the novel probably wouldn’t interest readers who didn’t share the main character’s religious faith. But I was wrong. Readers without any LDS knowledge said they could follow it well enough, and readers with no religious belief at all were still interested in the story. If anything, I think they found the novel’s glimpse into a different subculture of American life interesting for its own sake. Rather like mainstream Americans’ reactions to Potok, as I think about it.

    So I think there are hopes for crossover interest, if the story is one that would interest readers for other reasons. My sample size is small, and I still doubt I could have gotten the novel published by a non-Mormon publisher. I didn’t actually try, and maybe that was a mistake on my part. I do have my doubts, though, that the mainstream American publishing market will want to publish as many stories about Mormon experience as we want to write. So while I hold out hopes for non-LDS readership, I don’t see that as the main publication stream for most stories about the Mormon experience.

    I had little institutional success in getting my book promoted through the “orthodox” venues of LDS publishing. Despite advocacy from Richard Cracroft, for example, he was told that he could not mention the book positively in BYU Magazine. The BYU Bookstore was told by higher administration that they couldn’t put the book on the shelves, although several employees (including the bookstore manager I believe) had read the book and thought it was good. On the other hand, No Going Back was a Whitney finalist, which was probably the best single thing that happened in terms of getting exposure–not necessarily because of the book’s reputation, but simply because it got the book read by people who (in several cases) responded positively, but also said they would never have read it otherwise. Other books about less controversial topics should have less of a problem in this area, but still, it’s a factor to consider–along with data such as Sarah’s experience with Covenant.

    I had a lot of success introducing my book to readers in what I thought of as my key target audience, which was faithful, believing, adult (particularly middle-aged) LDS readers with no particular investment in the topic of my novel (homosexuality) but who were willing to read edgier stuff than what you get in LDS bookstores (comparable to fairly tame fare in contemporary realistic YA fiction). That is to say, a lot of them liked the book when they read it. Some *really* liked it. But most would not have chosen to read it without that personal connection to me, or to someone else who personally recommended the book to them. Part of that is the topic — but a lot of it is that most of these people (members of my ward and such) simply don’t look for fiction about the Mormon experience.

    This is an important part. There is, I think, a large potential audience for fiction of this kind (at least a dozen of my own ward members, for example) — but most of them aren’t plugged into the Mormon literary landscape. A lot of them have the same assumptions about Mormon fiction that Jessie mentioned. I don’t know any way to reach them en masse. The other thing is, I don’t know how much they *want* fiction about the Mormon experience, even if they react positively to good examples of it. Certainly few of them are actively seeking it out. And personal connection (not necessarily to the author, but at least to one enthusiastic reader) is about the only thing that will get them to try a book of Mormon fiction, even if they hear about it — unless they have a personal investment in the subject matter.

    What this says to me is that there is a large potential market, but that we need to develop it through word of mouth and active evangelizing. While we should do whatever we can to gain exposure through traditional Mormon publishing venues (e.g., LDS bookstores), this is a strategy that is likely to be limited in its success — because our most likely positive readers mostly don’t shop there for books about Mormon experience, and because the group of readers who do shop there primarily for fiction includes many timid readers whom the publishers and booksellers don’t want to offend. They’re not there because they want Mormon fiction; instead, they’re there because they want “clean” fiction.

    It may be that individual books of higher literary quality and seriousness could get published through those venues. In fact, I know it’s happened. (Think Margaret Young and Darius Gray.) Hopefully it will keep happening. But even when that happens, the books aren’t being read by a very large group of people. So trying to cater to that audience doesn’t seem like an overall winning strategy to me, in terms of getting wider acceptance of more realistic/serious Mormon fiction.

    Which is one reason why I disagree with Scott Hales when he says that Mormon writers should be writing more serious realistic fiction instead of less overtly Mormon genres such as sf&f. At the moment, there isn’t a market that can make writing about the Mormon experience pay for itself. The drive to write Mormon fiction, rather than the drive to read Mormon fiction, is what is currently driving serious Mormon literary production. What we have is essentially self-subsidized publishing (whether you self-publish or not), in terms of return on hours invested. So you have people like Dave Wolverton/Farland who has made enough money off his sf&f that he can *afford* to write a book like In the Company of Angels, even though it won’t earn what one of his regular book titles would.

    The interesting thing is, high-quality Mormon fiction *is* being produced. Even though no one’s making a living at it. That’s good. (Not the not-making-a-living part, but the good-stuff-is-being-written-anyway part.) I think such stories serve an important purpose, even if the audience is small. And it’s my hope that every BYUCK, every Death of a Disco Dancer, every Bound on Earth, every The Tree House, every Standing on the Promises, every In the Company of Angels, and — yes — every No Going Back, helps to build the audience just that little bit, as well as providing a larger pool of high-quality titles for readers to discover once they stumble into the world of Mormon letters.

  8. Jonathan Langford

    FYI, if you want numbers — No Going Back has sold between 500 and 600 copies to date. Which I think is in the top half of titles from Zarahemla Books sales-wise. And I did a *lot* of personal marketing (e.g., soliciting reviews in blogs, contacting newspapers I thought might review the book, etc.), though we didn’t have any advertising budget to speak of (aside from review copies, mostly electronic). So your 1400 sales for The Lightning Tree is actually pretty good. Which is kind of appalling. 1400 copies should be below-basement sales in our market, not a respectable showing.

  9. Wm Morris

    1,400 is a *very* respectable showing in small press circles. There are books that nominated for national awards that sell that much.

    (But I agree with everything else, Jonathan).

  10. Jonathan Langford

    I guess what I’m saying is that Mormon lit shouldn’t be “small press circles…” But clearly that’s where we are now.

  11. Sarah Dunster Post author

    I agree, Jonathan. I kind of feel like, if we’re serious about writing serious LDS literature, we have to figure out how to apply it to a wider audience than LDS people. And if a work of LDS fiction became a bestseller, well then, perhaps LDS people would suddenly become a little more interested in LDS fiction.

    … so maybe we need to talk about how to make LDS fiction accessible to a general audience. What are the things that have failed/succeeded? Since there aren’t many examples, what do you guys *think* we need to do to make our writing accessible to a general audience?

    Jonathan, I need to read your book.

    1400 copies is just a number to me still. I’m not sure what I’m looking for as a measure of comfort, or success, or encouragement or whatever. Mostly, right now, I’m trying to figure out the best place to go for my audience. The book I’m working on now is another Historical novel. I would really, really love to have an audience of non-LDS (as well as LDS people) for it.

  12. Wm Morris

    I recently read Merchants of Culture, which is an in-depth sociological study of the modern publishing industry. The reality is that publishers don’t know why books become hits. As the author John B. Thompson describes it: “at the heart of trade publishing there exists what we could call a web of collective belief” (194, original italics)

    In order for a Mormon-themed book to get a big push by one of the national publishers, agents and editors would need to self-reinforce hype about it. For a variety of reasons, that’s seems unlikely to happen.

    The other, even more rare option, would be a grass-roots (likely self-published, but possibly small-press published) hit.

  13. Jonathan Langford

    I agree that probably more Mormons will read a book about Mormons that gets big in the national scene than ever would from any amount of publicity within the strictly Mormon market. Though I doubt it would have crossover effect to Mormon literature as a whole. Still, any positive impact is a positive impact. Or something along those lines.

    I admit to some puzzlement as to why talented LDS authors of literary fiction such as Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) and Ka Hancock (Dancing on Broken Glass) don’t seem interested in writing about Mormon experience. Maybe they know something about the national market that I don’t? Or maybe those just aren’t the stories that interest them. I don’t really know much of anything about either of them, except that I assume they’re Mormon because they were on the Whitney ballot. I’d love to see interviews with them that asked how Mormonism either does or doesn’t impact their writing…

    Obviously, I’d love it if you read No Going Back, and would love to hear your opinions (positive or negative). The good news (if you’re into electronic books) is that it’s available for only about $2.00 a copy. And I’ve put Lightning Tree on my (far too long) list of books to read…

  14. Sarah Dunster Post author

    Hm. I think we’re pigeonholing ourselves.

    I don’t mean bestsellers. I mean, how can we make a story that originates from an LDS perspective consumable by a general audience? We can’t think of this in all-or-nothing terms. For instance, what if a character had an LDS grandparent who sometimes took her to church and it became a plot point, but we didn’t delve at all into doctrine, and since she is kind of inactive anyway it’s just something that adds color to her family? What if we had someone with a weird mormon friend? What if there are characters that go to church on sunday and it’s part of the story in passing? Starting there. How much more can we do and still render ourselves consumable? I haven’t read Hooligans or many of Thayer’s things yet… how heavyhanded is he on including doctrine/assumed mormon culture or “truths” etc?

    … what if Ramona Quimby had been a mormon? It mentioned attending sunday school in one of the books.

    What if the main character in Bean Trees hadn’t just grown up in an oppressive community as the daughter of a single parent, but had grown up in an oppressive Mormon community, and some of her angst was against the pain that caused in her life?

    … that’s the kind of line of thinking I’ve been pondering. I don’t see why just mentioning or including “Mormonism” in a storyline suddely renders it unconsumable by a general audience. And I’m not talking trying to get a bestseller here, I’m talking just getting published by, say, a small press that caters to a general audience. Though of course a bestseller would be nice :)

  15. Jonathan Langford

    Sarah: I agree totally. I’ve heard people say that if you’re going to make a character Mormon, then his or her Mormonness should be an important part of the story. But I don’t think I agree. Why not have the character simply happen to be Mormon?

    What I would say is that if you’re going to have a character who’s Mormon, make him or her Mormon. Don’t simply call the character “Mormon” but present him/her as a generic conservative Protestant (as, for example, I think Kushner does in Angels in America).

    All of which is kind of a side point to what you’re saying. I was reacting to your sentence, “And if a work of LDS fiction became a bestseller, well then, perhaps LDS people would suddenly become a little more interested in LDS fiction.” I agree that in many cases, stories can be written in a way that appeals to non-Mormon readers, though I also think that probably isn’t possible in every case. I would say that Thayer’s The Tree House is actually a good example of a book that could be read with interest by non-Mormons, despite the heavily Mormon content — assuming they like Thayer’s style, which is very much to some people’s tastes but not as much to others’.

  16. Th.

    .

    I disagree that Mormons disqualify a book from public appeal unless they’re generically boring. I never intended Byuck to be a “Mormon” book though it’s publication history’s sorta turned it that direction. We’re just not bold enough with our own stories, methinks.

  17. Sarah Dunster Post author

    I agree with you Theric. That last sentence.

    … I feel like whenever we talk about the audience for LDS lit, the tone is overall depressing and oppressive and some wild assertions are made as to who likes to read LDS lit. … I think in general, it’s hard to get a general publisher to accept your manuscript and wan to publish it. But if you’ve written something great, something that readers will like, something that fits into the market’s current mood, etc, it shouldn’t matter if a character or two is Mormon, even if those characters delve just a bit into their theology. Methinks.

  18. Wm Morris

    Agreed. And: don’t worry too much about trying to cater to the tastes or knowledge level of general readers.

  19. Sarah Dunster Post author

    …but Wm, don’t you think you kind of have to keep a wary eye on that as well? Even the most literary of writers (eg Samuel Beckett) (can’t stand him btw) had conventions he knew his particular audience would approve/disapprove of. I think it’s the silliest thing for a writer to declare their writing free of audience-based influence.

  20. Sarah Dunster Post author

    (of course, what beckett did was to purposefully violate each and every single one of those conventions… but still, that’s an influence).

  21. Jonathan Langford

    I think it can be a trap to try to cater to tastes of some general class of readers, as opposed to the readers who you think might like *your* book. Don’t know if that’s what Wm is getting at, but I think it’s generally worth keeping in mind.

  22. Sarah Dunster

    …I do agree with thay, barring one or two exveptions. E.G, we have to tread a line sometimes…is it important enough to include, when you know it will distance your audience from your story? If it is, full speed ahead. If it isn’t, then reconsidering is wise. And considering these things (I think) is iimportant.

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