By Jennie Hansen
Today I am issuing a broad invitation to Meridian readers to talk back to me about LDS fiction.
It has been roughly fifteen years since LDS fiction became widely recognized. Prior to that time there were few novels directed toward LDS readers, and the few that existed were neither particularly well-written nor widely read. “Preachy,” “dull,” “doctrinally questionable” are a few of the charges levied against those early novels. There were even those who questioned whether members of the Church should read anything other than the scriptures.
Since the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the arts have been a big part of the culture of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church leaders have always recognized members’ need for clean entertainment. Our history is filled with art, music, drama, dance, poetry, and literature, but not much fiction until recently. Oddly, LDS fiction was for many years looked upon as the ugly stepchild of the arts subscribed to by members of the Church.
In the past, leaders admonished members to be wary of wasting their time on books that didn’t meet Church standards, and some people read more into this warning than was intended. Unfortunately, these people chose to interpret this as a statement condemning fiction.
A friend’s father went so far as to burn all of his Louis L’Amore novels, his wife’s classic’s collection, and even his daughter’s Little House books because his stake president urged members to clean their houses of trashy paperback novels. (A cover, paperback or hardback, has nothing to do with content).
We hear the same advice given today concerning movies and television, and just as those media are not all bad, neither is fiction. The cautions given are to remind us that we need to be discriminating in our viewing and reading, not that we should burn books or haul our televisions to the trash dump. Our prophet and other leaders recognize that there is good fiction and bad and that the scriptural advice to learn from the best books doesn’t exclude fiction.
For many years, I chose not to read LDS fiction because it seemed to me that it was written for sub-average twelve-year-olds. Authors and publishers were trying to lump fiction into a “one-size-fits-all” mold, and I didn’t care for it. Now I find I prefer LDS fiction over most general market fiction, but a great deal has changed since my early exposure to it.
I like the variety available now, with almost every genre represented. I like targeted novels, written not only about different subject matter and different time periods, but for differing reading levels. I like being able to read exciting, suspenseful books that don’t resort to sex, gore, or profanity to heighten the book’s tension in the name of so-called realism. I like reading stories about how people who share my faith and ideals deal with the challenges in their lives.
I like well-researched backgrounds, both historical and international, that teach me new things and demonstrate that the Church is truly a world-wide Church. I like stories that show personal and/or spiritual growth. Most of all, I enjoy the higher caliber of writing that is appearing in the better LDS novels today.
Each month I endeavor to introduce Meridian readers to some of the best. I also enjoy the experimentation with novels that are not specifically LDS, but are clean and share LDS moral standards. Few so-called literary novels do well in the LDS market, but I’m pleased to see more literary elements appearing in genre novels. Perhaps the day will come when the market will expand enough to make literary novels profitable.
There are still areas that need improvement in LDS fiction. Many of the books I see need better copy editing, and some of the smaller presses aren’t as doctrinally careful as they could be. Stereotypical characters haven’t entirely disappeared, though this area has vastly improved.
There’s a creeping self-published look and feel to the books, especially those by new authors, coming from some presses. There are critics who claim LDS novels tend to be too much the same. They question whether it’s a single author who writes the same book over and over, only changing the characters’ names and locations or the tendency for a particular sub-genre to be overdone.
We saw a spate of historicals following the success of The Work and the Glory, a rush of romances following Stansfield’s successful First Love, Second Chance, and now everyone seems to be writing mystery/suspense or fictionalized versions of scripturally based stories. I’d like to see a trend toward a continuation of a wide variety of sub-genres.
Now I’m asking readers to tell me what you like or dislike about LDS fiction and how you think it can be improved. Use specific examples where you can. A second question I’d like answered by readers is: What do you want to see in a review? There’s a place to submit comments and answers to these questions to the right of this column beneath the short blurb about me. Please place my name (Jennie Hansen) or the article’s title in the subject line. I’ll let you know in a future article the opinions expressed.