In place of a review, I want to talk about LDS fiction—where it is today and where it is going in the future. To do that I need to go back almost twenty years to the beginning of modern LDS Fiction. I know there were a few LDS novels before then, but they had narrow circulations, were designed for a “one-size-fits-all” audience, were often sugary sweet, and were not well written nor necessarily doctrinally accurate.
In the early nineteen nineties the three big publishers, Bookcraft, Deseret Book, and Covenant began dabbling with fiction. It didn’t take long for Cedar Fort, Granite, and many smaller publishers to begin testing the waters too. After years of believing there wasn’t a profitable market for LDS fiction, they were astounded by the success of Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites by Chris Heimerdinger and the Work and the Glory by Gerald Lund. Respected childrens’ author Dean Hughes penned a World War II series for adults called Children of the Promise that captured the hearts of an unbelievably large audience. Women authors, Susan Evans McCloud, Anita Stansfield, Rachel Nunes, and I(Jennie Hansen) discovered a huge untapped market for novels particularly pertinent to women just as Jack Weyland had done a little earlier for the high school/college crowd.
This successful foray into LDS fiction opened the floodgate for hundreds of other LDS writers. A large majority seemed to think only Church history, conversion, romance, or war-based historicals were acceptable. The result was a lot of sloppy, syrupy romances, miracle conversions, and weak story lines, giving LDS fiction a bad reputation, then something good began to happen. The new writers got better and those who couldn’t keep up began to be weeded out, thus forcing those first successful LDS writers to get better and work harder or be weeded out too. Sub genres began to develop. As readers began to look for higher quality, writers began to deliver it.
The market today is vastly different from the market of twenty-five years ago. We’ve seen a huge shift in content matter and structure. No longer are we reading stories that focus on the heroine’s tough choice between two wonderful returned missionaries. Now we’re reading stories about abuse, depression, adultery, addiction—things that we often read about on the national market, and must experience as part of our mortal probation, but we’re seeing them through the lens of the gospel. We don’t have to slog through dark stories and come away feeling hopeless—instead, we can see how the characters come to a closer relationship with the Savior as they turn to Him in their trials.—Tristi Pinkston, author, editor
Today LDS authors are contributing to both literary works and to every genre. Many LDS authors are taking the lead in Young Adult fantasy novels. Mystery/Suspense novels in the LDS market can certainly hold their own with the same general market genre. Romance novels are becoming more social issue themed stories and writers are tackling the tough issues such as drugs, pornography, abuse, and race. Where the early LDS novels were blatantly preachy and there was a long list of taboo topics, today any topic is fair game as long as it is treated in accordance with LDS standards and beliefs. There is even an attempt by some writers to create “edgy” questioning novels, paranormals, and even horror. No longer do publishers of LDS novels insist on direct reference to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most LDS publishers, however, do insist on an overall moral framework, no explicit sex, low key violence only, and no profanity.
We are making a focused effort to raise the bar overall. We are hoping we can be instrumental in an effort to make sure that LDS fiction is better written with richer, more multifaceted characters and more compelling and thought-provoking plots. We are trying desperately to avoid slumping back to the era when LDS fiction was simplistic and filled with fluff. We’d like to see fiction that is comparable in quality of New York Times bestsellers—without the violence and sexual content often found in those books. We want to be known for producing very good books that provide a satisfying read. —Kathryn Jenkins, Managing Editor
There are many LDS novels that are “just for fun.” These books are the ones someone grabs when they just want to kick back and relax for a few hours. I don’t see the demand for this sort of book going away, but I do see even “beach books” being better written, becoming more satisfying, and staying abreast of current trends in entertainment while maintaining a higher standard than is found in general market novels.
As the quality and content of LDS fiction grew, LDS writers began to form support groups, some were merely critique groups and some went beyond that to help and encourage each other, to provide solid training and writing tips, and to establish friendships with others who shared their passion for quality fiction within the framework of LDS standards. Some such as LDStorymakers have grown to resemble a guild that holds conferences and sponsors a major award program. Others are limited to online forums.
There are still a number of problems with LDS fiction. Little attention is paid to quality copy editing at some publishing houses and because there is an increasing demand for LDS fiction and more companies competing in the field, there are still too many poorly written novels accepted for publication. There are also novels coming from smaller publishers and self-edited books that lack professional editing. Some are also doctrinally questionable and do not always adhere to LDS standards.
I do think that there are some who attempt to push the envelope and it threatens the integrity of what good LDS fiction stands for. —Jeri Gilchrist, author
Two factors have given rise to speculation concerning the future of LDS fiction. One is the explosive impact of electronics on the world of the printed word. The other is the reality of today’s economic climate.
Even though today’s technology makes desk top publishing easier, cheaper, and faster than going the traditional route through a publisher, it is producing a poorer quality product that can only hurt the overall market. Some writers and publishers seem to be trimming costs by trusting electronic editing instead of using a qualified copy editor with the result of ridiculous errors that interrupt the flow of the story. We’re seeing not only there and their used interchangeably, but we have characters eating deserts, detectives perusing villains, amorphous lovers, and the road less travailed.
With the economy forcing many people to tighten their budgets, some book stores are having difficulty staying in business. With fewer people buying books, small press publishers are finding themselves squeezed out of the market place and even the larger publishers may not take on as many new authors, use cheaper quality paper, and resort to other cost cutting measures. If the bleak economic picture remains, few publishers will be able to stay in business, writers will have to settle for smaller royalties, and consumers will find fewer choices on the shelves of bookstores. The LDS market is not immune to these pressures, though I expect books will continue to be a strong item for LDS Christmas and special event shoppers even if the overall economy remains slow.
Currently all genres are represented to some extent by LDS authors and there is a tendency toward mimicking the general market with an increasing trend toward dreary tales, shock, or paranormal. With a tighter market, fewer people will be willing to spend their money on oddly innovative books. Interest in escape fiction such as speculative, comedy, romance, and mystery/suspense will remain high. Oddly enough, even though there’s always an interest in history, it doesn’t always fare as well as escapism during hard times. LDS readers will continue to look for up-lifting, hope-filled reading material. In the future expect to see:
More variety of authors, writing styles, and subgenres, more books that have good morals but don’t focus exclusively (or at all) on LDS characters, while still having plenty of authors write LDS-focused fiction. In other words, there’s room for both in this market. I think we’ll have more “literary” and high brow fiction hit the bookshelves in the years to come. More and more LDS and morality-minded people will turn to LDS and Christian authors to provide excellence in fiction without the permissive content welcomed in some national books and publishers. —Kirk Shaw, Senior Editor
What about electronic formats? There are some who predict the demise of bookstores and printed books with the increasing availability of books on Kindles, iPads, and similar devices. There are several reason I don’t buy into this theory just yet. The best electronic reader is still irritating to the eyes. There’s a huge selection now of books available on electronic format, but they tend to be old, old classics or poorly written and edited self-published books whose authors couldn’t find a real publisher. I expect this situation will improve in time, but I suspect there are enough die-hards like myself who love the look, smell, convenience, and feel of “real” books too much to be seduced by electronic books. I also think LDS bookstores will be around for many years. You can read an in depth look at this topic by Jeff Savage here. http://sixldswriters.blogspot.com/2010_08_01_archive.html
To me one of the greatest benefits of LDS fiction is that it provides quality entertainment within the framework of LDS culture and values. It portrays LDS people and values in a positive light and is both uplifting and educational. There will be some writers and readers who will buy into the philosophy that it’s only literature if it’s negative and undercuts what others perceive as right and good, but I believe LDS fiction will ultimately separate honesty from negativity. LDS fiction will endure, it will become better, and in the future it will become an even stronger force for good.