My 2016 Whitney Awards ballot and observations

cover of Ally Condie's Summerlost showing two young people riding their bicycles at sunsetCongratulations to the winners of the 2016 Whitney Awards, which were presented last weekend. This year my participation was limited to being a part of the voting academy for two categories: Middle Grade and Historical Romance. I chose the Middle Grade category because I had already read Summerlost and loved it and wanted to see how the competition stacked up against it. I decided  because I judged (meaning I was part of the panel that selects the finalists) the Historical category a few years ago and had enjoyed some of those novels that had. Plus I’ve read some historical romance and some historical fantasy with strong romance elements over the past few years and was interested in what the landscape looked like for Mormon authors.

Here is my ballot with the finalists ranked 1-5. Summerlost was my number one for Middle Grade and also won novel of the year for youth fiction so the rest of the academy, and I were in complete agreement on that one:

Middle Grade

Summerlost, by Ally Condie (actual winner; Novel of the Year: Youth)
The Wrong Side of Magic, by Janette Rallison
Ghostsitter, by Shelly Brown
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood, by Liesl Shurtliff
Mysteries of Cove: Gears of Revolution, by J. Scott Savage

For Historical Romance, I thought Sarah Eden’s novel was the best of the bunch, although my second place choice My Fair Gentlemen was the winner. This is probably the most in tune I’ve been with the rest of the voting academy in any of the years I’ve participated:

Historical Romance

The Sheriff of Savage Wells, by Sarah M. Eden
My Fair Gentleman, by Nancy Campbell Allen (actual winner)
Willowkeep, by Julie Daines
Lady Helen Finds Her Song, by Jennifer Moore
The Fall of Lord Drayson, by Rachael Anderson

Some Observations
  1. This year the Whitney Awards had academy voters both rank titles and give them a numerical ratings (1 through 7 with a score of 4 meaning “Average—meeting expectations for an award-winning novel.”). The rankings determined the category winners. The number ratings were used to calculate the overall winner for best debut, best adult novel and best youth novel. I think this is a fantastic way to go about, and I’ve been impressed at how the Whitney Awards (for all that I often disagree with the voting [but not this year!]) continues to improve its processes.
  2. Summerlost was far and away the best novel I read of both groups (and even better than the other finalists in categories that I didn’t vote in such as Speculative: Adult). This shouldn’t come as a surprise because I’ve written fondly about Ally Condie’s work before so I suppose I’m biased toward liking her work. But there’s a reason for that bias: she’s very good to excellent on all levels (plot, characterization, prose, worldbuilding).
  3. Each of the other middle grade novels had something very interesting about them and something that wasn’t quite there. I recognize that I’m not part of the target audience, but I don’t think that what I found deficient in them was a matter of taste. And, look, I don’t work in publishing and don’t understand the constraints and decisions made in producing viably commercial work. But I’ll say this: I believe that with better editing those authors could have produced books that went from just okay to very good or even excellent. Sure, one might say that could apply to any book, but I think in the case of these four books what needed to be fixed was possible and would have made them better even for their intended (much younger) audience.
  4. I was disappointed by the Historical Romance category. Again, this isn’t a primary genre that I read in. But I have read quite a bit of work that’s relevant to this category in my life (especially in the regency [and immediately adjacent] periods), including both historical romance and historical fantasy as well as novels written during those time periods (including all of Jane Austen’s novels) plus quite a bit of nonfiction, and I was quite looking forward to these novels. Some of the advice I gave to historical fiction writers back in 2015 also applies here. But I’d also add that when it comes to a romance plot, what keeps the heroine and the love interest apart and then how those obstacles are overcome needs to be solidly grounded and that there’s a real opportunity to create a tension between the two characters and between them and their social (and economic and cultural) environment that illuminates both their character and their historical circumstances, and when you do that, it’s can be quite the wonderful reading experience. Look, romance plots are really hard. Historical romance is even more difficult because you have to be good at both romance plots and characters and at the worldbuilding and plotting that historical fiction requires. I’m not saying I could do any better. But I have read much better examples, and it frustrates me that this year’s crop weren’t better.
  5. That being said, all of those novels had something going for them (especially the top three and especially Sarah Eden’s [which is a western rather than a regency]) so I have hopes that these authors will continue to push themselves. I really would like to see this category become a strength for the Whitney Awards because I think there’s value to Mormon readers in exploring romance in a way that doesn’t have some of the baggage that contemporary romance brings with it.
  6. This is my standard yet strongly-believed plea to include more Mormon characters and/or settings and/or thematics in the work you write whether it’s for the Mormon market or the national market. Even Summerlost is a bit of a missed opportunity in that way. It’s clearly set in a version of Cedar City’s Shakespeare Festival. I know that commercial fears come into play here. I also think that often those fears are overblown–even on a national level–and that the specificity that can be brought in when Mormon material is deployed can be a real strength. It is for other minority cultures. Why not ours?

BYU Studies review of the Matched Trilogy

My review of Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy is now available as a free download at the BYU Studies website. If you are not a subscriber, but would either like a print copy of the entire journal or a PDF download, check out the table of contents for the issue (52.4).

And here are the AMV posts that helped inform my approach to the review:

Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched

A nod to Mormon history in Ally Condie’s Reached

The Matched Trilogy: Teenagers and correlated media

AMV Mo-Lit Guide: Agency

The AMV Mo-Lit guide continues with an exploration of why agency is an important concept to Mormon literature and a list of key texts that explore the concept.

NOTE: this is an entry in the AMV Guide to Mormon Literature series. Click here for more details on the series.

In Mormon thought, agency (also called moral agency or free agency) is a crucial concept to solve two key issues:

A) why do bad things happen to good people if God is our loving, all-powerful Heavenly Father?

B) what is our purpose living in a fallen world?

The agency of mankind is a gift from God, but it also flows from the fact that Mormons believe that human beings existed as individual intelligences prior to receiving spirit bodies from our heavenly parents. The exercise of agency can lead to progression, that is the acquisition of the attributes of God, or to sin and pain (and without repentance, the stopping of progression e.g. damnation).

Although the Mormon concept of agency solves some issues of theodicy (why God allows bad things to happen to good people) it also raises others, especially how genetics, culture, material circumstances, history, the natural environment and coincidence affect an individual’s ability to freely act in the world. Another issue is the foreknowledge of God as well as his intervention in the world (miracles) and how those can constrain/impact the free exercise of agency.

For the Mormon artist, freedom from the basic dilemma of theodicy and original sin, the concept of agency presents a fruitful area for exploration of and experimentation with the various constraints and contradictions that remain.

KEY TEXTS:

1. The Worthing Chronicle by Orson Scott Card is about a civilization that doesn’t allow people to experience pain and what happens when that changes.

2. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which the author herself has explained is about choices, especially the way beings with great power (vampires) use (or abstain from using) their power to affect normal humans

3. The Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie is about a society where the government limits choices and also chooses (theoretically based on complex algorithms) major life decisions for its citizens, including marriage and occupation.

I welcome feedback on this entry. Anyone who provides it will be included in a list of co-conspirators which will be published in the final version of the guide. In particular, I’m interested in hearing a) what I get wrong or am missing from my brief discussion of why agency is an important concept to Mormon literature (keeping in mind, of course, that these entries are supposed to be brief) and b) what key texts I’m missing (note that I want these to be if not canonical at least fairly widely known texts that deal fairly explicitly with the concept). Overall comments about the format are also fine.

The Matched Trilogy: Teenagers and correlated media

Wm discusses Chapter 9 of Ally Condie’s Matched and what it says about art, propaganda and teenagers.

Note: this post contains spoilers for Matched, but not for the other two books in Ally Condie’s trilogy.

In my first reaction to Ally Condie’s Matched, the first book in the Matched trilogy, I noted that the worldbuilding she creates for cultural products in the Society plays on our current worries about media/information overload and obsession with listmaking and also reflects her experience as a Mormon who grew up in the era of correlated materials in the LDS Church. I want to discuss how this actually plays out in the novel and what it says about the teenage experience.

In Chapter 3 we learn about The 100. Cassia, the main character, explains that the Society had committees who picked out the best 100 songs, paintings, stories and poems. The did this because “culture was too cluttered” and no one can “appreciate anything fully when overwhelmed with too much” (29). Having 100 works of art across four major forms still leaves a lot of works to study in a school setting. But what does it mean for leisure time? Continue reading “The Matched Trilogy: Teenagers and correlated media”

A nod to Mormon history in Ally Condie’s Reached

I can’t tell you what it is because that would be a huge spoiler. But there’s a major one (and it’s one Condie writes about in the acknowledgements).

I still need to fully process the Matched trilogy (of which Reached is the final book). I’m fascinated by the fact, though, that although you could read it and love it without any knowledge of Mormonism at all, it contains within it major resonances with Mormon history, landscape, doctrine and practice.

Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched

Warning: this is less a review than a piece of literary criticism. There be small spoilers ahead.

It is probably not surprising that so many of the nationally-published, succesful YA novels by Mormon authors are about agency — Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killler, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Not only is it a key component of Mormon theology, but it’s also really what YA is all about. One comes of age when one can learn to (or be freed to or free oneself to) make choices (and accept the consequences). But as intensely as the three titles I mention deal with agency, none of them are about it thematically as much as Ally Condie’s Matched. From the title, which refers to the fact that reproductive unions in Condie’s dystopia are arranged/assigned, and the front cover (which features a young woman in a bubble); to the back cover, which includes blurbs with words like free will, choice, rebellion and controlled; to, well, all all those pages in between this is a book about agency.

Condie intensifies the issue of agency by doing what all dystopias do: create a claustrophic, circumscribed, controlled society. A key component to that is the restriction of approved materials for consumption by the populace — or in other words: correlation. I use that term, of course, in the LDS sense to mean a system of education via approved materials that are consistent across the organziation (or in this case — the Society).

Continue reading “Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched”

In the footsteps of Stephenie Meyer?

aaaaaCondie-Matched This past week’s Publishers Weekly has an article about the national market “debut” of LDS YA novelist Ally Condie, whose sixth novel, Matched, was released by Dutton on November 30th. Released is an understatement.

Continue reading “In the footsteps of Stephenie Meyer?”