This Month in Mormon Literature, May 2016

This month features new recommendations of works long (The Whitney Awards) and short (The Mormon Lit Blitz). A new opera, The Lost Children of Hamelin, by Jamie Erekson, premiers at BYU.  And lots of new books. We also mourn the death of author Zachary T. Hill. Please send any corrections or news to mormonlit AT gmail DOT com.

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News and blog posts

The Whitney Awards were presented on May 7th at the Whitney Award Gala, Provo Marriott Hotel, Provo, Utah. The winners were:

Middle Grade: Jennifer A. Nielsen for A NIGHT DIVIDED

General Young Adult: Martine Leavitt for CALVIN

Speculative Young Adult: Brandon Sanderson for FIREFIGHT

General Fiction: Tara C. Allred for THE OTHER SIDE OF QUIET

Historical: A.L. Sowards for THE RULES IN ROME

Mystery/Suspense: Traci Hunter Abramson for FAILSAFE

Romance: Josi S. Kilpack for LORD FENTON’S FOLLY

Speculative Fiction: Dan Wells for THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND

Best Novel by a New Author: Valynne E. Maetani for INK AND ASHES

Best Youth Novel: Jennifer A. Nielsen for A NIGHT DIVIDED

Best Novel: Josi S. Kilpack for LORD FENTON’S FOLLY

Outstanding Achievement Award: Tracy and Laura Hickman

Lifetime Achievement Award: Marsha Ward

The Mormon Lit Blitz is going on. “We have twelve stellar pieces this year–short stories, essays, and poems. Some will inspire you. Some will challenge you and your notions of Mormon literature. Some will give you insights even as they make you laugh.” Here is the long list of 20 finalists. Continue Reading →

Heather B. Moore’s Ruby’s Secret

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I’ve long wanted to read Moore’s Book of Mormon-themed fiction, but she’s written them faster than I could get around to reading them, which I find paralyzing (I’m a terrible consumer of series). Which is a great thing about reading for the Whitneys because it gets me to consume books before the zeitgeist sweeps past. This year I only had time to read one category and perhaps I should have chosen Historical rather than General because Moore is nominated for tackling perhaps my favorite story in scripture—Esther. And I would have preferred my first read of her work to be what she is most revered for.

Which isn’t to say her contemporary work doesn’t have an audience (I understand it’s rather large, in fact) just that I hear less praise for it.

Ruby’s Secret is part of the Newport Ladies Book Club series written in alternating volumes with three other writers, each starring a different member of the book club (the final volume will feature all the characters and be cowritten by the entire stable).

Let’s start our discussion of Ruby’s Secret with the intertextuality that comes from the series’s characters orbiting a sequence of books. The books they read in these pages are The HelpThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe War of Art, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which make for a nice variety of reading for the ladies. The success of these various volumes in tying into the events of Ruby’s Secret varies (The Help and Henrietta Lacks seem to have very little life outside the book-club meetings while The War of Art becomes practically a spiritual guide for our protagonist), but I appreciated the effort to add layers to what is, overall, rather simple storytelling. Continue Reading →

Time for Whitney Nominations!

So, you’ve complained about previous years’ Whitney Awards? The book you liked didn’t even make it to finalist status? Well, now is the time to help correct that! ’Tis the season — anytime between now and Dec. 31 of this year — to place novels by LDS authors published in 2013 in nomination for a Whitney Award, simply by filling out a short message here.

But wait, you ask. What are the Whitney Awards? And why should I care?

Continue Reading →

Whitney Finalists 2012: Final Thoughts

Three months ago I wrote a post with some of my initial thoughts on the 2012 Whitney Award finalists. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to read 25 books in three months and I wondered whether or not reading them all at once was a good idea. I have the same dilemma every year: read fiction by LDS authors all year in the hopes of catching at least some potential Whitney finalists (and to have the chance to nominate some books as well), or focus on a mix of LDS-related fiction, national-market fiction, and nonfiction like I usually do. Unfortunately there are just too many books in the world to ever be able to read everything I would like to, but reading choices and priorities are a topic for a different post. This year I read most of the finalists for the adult categories (I skipped both youth categories this year) within the short space of a few months, and while I think that this runs the risk of problems like burnout or a lack of perspective from reading so many similar books, I think I will stick to this strategy again next year. Well, actually next year’s plans for Whitney reading are still nebulous since I am starting a graduate degree in the fall. This may be my last Whitney-related post for a while. Enough blathering—on with the discussion! Continue Reading →

Searching for a Markus Zusak of Our Own

Today over at Motley Vision, William posted an excerpt from an Ensign article about LDS literature published in 1981 by Richard Cracroft. This sentence in particular caught my eye:

Many of the sweetest messages of life are subtle, and the important messages of truth which LDS fiction will be charged to carry can be aimed at readers schooled in reading well-crafted fiction, at readers who rejoice in the elevating message as subtly suggested through skillful character development, dialogue, setting, symbolism, metaphor, and language.

In this sentence, Cracroft summarizes something that has been percolating at the back of mind during the last little while as I have been reading so many Whitney finalists and other books published by LDS authors. He also, for me, points out why so many of my friends that read widely do not want to read LDS fiction. These are readers who rejoice in skillfully crafted characters, writing, and subtle messages, and unfortunately those are not yet found in the majority of fiction being published by and marketed to LDS writers and readers.

I think that, overall, both the quantity and the quality of popular LDS fiction have risen substantially in the three decades since Cracroft wrote his article. There are many more books on the market today, and most of those published by mainstream publishers have a higher level of quality editing, more subtle characterization, and a wider range of settings and plots than those published 15 or 20 years ago. The mainstream LDS fiction market seems to be moving past simple didacticism, stock villains and heroes, sloppy editing, and a pioneer-stock, Utah-centric focus. And yet, most of the books I’ve read lately have all been rather bland. Those last three things Cracroft points out—symbolism, metaphor, and language—are all rather lacking in most of the popular LDS literature being published today. During the last few months I’ve read 6 different books that, while enjoyable, blend together in my mind because none was written in a distinct voice. Instead, they are all narrated in a straight-forward, third-person fashion that spends too much time telling rather than showing. Shifting point of view between characters seems to stand in for time spent developing characters, and authors seem to be concerned about their readers missing out on any details so they provide all of the backstory themselves through dialogue or extended narration.

To provide an example of what I’m talking about, I want to quote from the beginning of a nationally-published book I read a few months ago called Code Name: Verity. It tells the story of two British women who become friends while serving together in WWII. The first half of the novel is told from Julie’s point of view; after a while, it becomes apparent that her somewhat unhinged narrative is being scribbled under duress in a Gestapo jail. The second half of the novel is narrated by Maddie, who is both Julie’s friend and the pilot who smuggled her in to Occupied France. The novel opens with this paragraph:

“I am a coward. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers—and even though I am a girl, they let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, I know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.”

Two days ago I finished reading Espionage, a Whitney finalist in the Historical Fiction category that tells a very similar story about an American intelligence officer in Occupied France. On the second page is this data-dumping paragraph, similar to much of the narration in the book:

“Peter’s mission, Operation Switchblade, was his first for the US Office of Strategic Services, and it was extremely important. As he rowed, Peter reviewed the information he had learned during his briefing. Three days ago, a German spy stole one of the code books the American military used to communicate with sources in German-occupied territory. It was always bad news to have a code book stolen, but the military normally reissued code books so frequently that it wasn’t a significant loss. This particular code book, however, was used to communicate with deep-cover agents in Belgium, Denmark, and Northern Germany. Peter was told that some of the agents were so entrenched in the German military hierarchy that issuing a new code book to them was deemed a risk of unacceptable proportions. The code book’s loss was devastating to the Allied cause. If the book stayed in Nazi hands, they could set traps to capture and kill valuable sources of information.”

Given the choice between these two story-telling styles, I’m always going to pick the first one. As someone who reads widely, I cannot help but compare the unique narrative voice, the use of symbolism and figurative language, and the more subtle exposition of plot and setting found in most of the nationally-published books I read with the more bland, straightforward narration of the books I read being published for the LDS-market. Although I can name many LDS writers, I’m not sure I could describe the style that most of them use for writing because most do not have a unique voice or style.

I know that at least part of the problem lies in me and my expectations as a reader. I value narrative innovation and literary style; part of my pleasure in reading comes from savoring the writer’s language choices and plot construction. I know this is not the case for all readers. Some prefer a book that is more straightforward and unadorned, that allows them to concentrate on the plot. Unfortunately, I feel that by choosing to mostly publish books of similar style, length, and vocabulary level, mainstream LDS publishers are missing out on many potential readers. For me, and many fellow readers that I know, the addition of LDS characters isn’t a selling point. We are not just looking for Miltons and Shakespeares; we are also looking for writers with unique voices like Markus Zusak, Ann Patchett, Marilynne Robinson, Geraldine Brooks, or Leif Enger. We still haven’t found them yet.

 

Whitney Finalists 2012: Initial Thoughts

In case you haven’t heard, the finalists for the 2012 Whitney Awards were announced last Friday. Over at Segullah, Emily has already posted some of her thoughts about the finalists, so I thought I’d post a few of my initial thoughts and impressions here. Hopefully I’ll follow this up with another post or two as I read finalists, and probably write a post reflecting on the contest after the winners are announced. I’ve been aware of the Whitneys for a few years and have read quite a few of the finalists and winners from earlier years, but I only started actively reading and voting last year. It seems like every year I don’t get around to reading much LDS fiction until the Whitneys are announced. I tend to do the same thing with the Academy Awards; it often takes me a year or two to get through the nominees and winners after the awards ceremony. After spending the first three months of last year binging on LDS literature I wondered if I should revise my strategy and read more throughout the year, but with nearly 400 books by LDS author being published each year it just doesn’t seem possible to anticipate what the finalists will be. I also found that it was easier to compare finalists with each other when all of them had been read recently rather than trying to compare a freshly-read book with my recollections from six months ago. Continue Reading →

Mormon Authors writing Non-Mormon Inspirational Fiction

Over at Motley Vision, Jonathan Langford reviewed his reading of Whitney finalists. In his review of the General Fiction category , he noted that few of the finalists engaged with religious issues, and only one book was explicitly Mormon at all. I wanted to expand on some of Jonathan’s questions about a few of the finalists and explore the idea of taking Mormon fiction to national publishers and national audiences. The finalists this year that most explicitly dealt with Mormon doctrine and culture were actually found in the genre categories (Mystery and Romance), and were published by LDS publishers and primarily marketed to LDS audiences. I think that some of those books are taking steps to explore LDS issues in new ways, but that is not the subject of this post (I had also wanted to look at some of the general youth finalists and religion, but I ran out of room in this post). Continue Reading →

This Week in Mormon Literature, Feb. 10, 2012

The Whitey Awards finalists were named, the LDS Film Festival was held, LTUE is going on now, several plays are ongoing, three new Jane Austen-based novels, and the passing of Paul Swenson. All these Mormon lit news, books, and reviews, it’s killing me. Look how long this is! If you must, please send any suggestions or announcements to mormonlit AT gmail DOT com.

News and blog posts

Journalist, editor, and poet Paul Swenson passed away on February 2, 2012, at the age of 76. He was a journalist at the Deseret News, editor of Utah Holiday magazine in the 1970s and 1980s, and wrote for The Event, the Salt Lake Observer, and the Salt Lake Tribune. He wrote poetry, and Signature Books published his 2003 poetry collection Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake. He was the younger brother of May Swenson, one of the leading American poets of the 20th century. Continue Reading →

A Curse by Any Other Name

I admit it. I am a cusser. Cleaning up my language has been on my New Year’s resolutions list for the last two decades but has seen little in the way of improvement. My husband doesn’t swear. Never. He makes me look bad, but I’m glad one part of the parental force can be a good example in my household.

It’s interesting how a curse can define a society. Continue Reading →

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