In recent years, LDS fiction has increased in both quantity and quality, said Robby Nichols, vice president of marketing for Covenant Communications. "Ten or 15 years ago, you saw very few LDS novels. It is now a strong segment of the market."
Consider, for example, that in 2003, just over half of all the new books Covenant published were works of fiction. Even more telling, perhaps, are the numbers of new authors being added to the shelves. "Interestingly, we introduced two new fiction writers in 2002, 10 new fiction writers in 2003, and we already have eight new fiction writers in the first four months of 2004," said Nichols. "The opportunity for a new fiction author to get published is greater now than ever before."
And not only are there more writers, he said, but "writers are getting better. The bar is much, much higher as to quality."
At Deseret Book, another major player in the fiction market, the story is much the same. "I was here in 1979 when Deseret Book published its first-ever fiction title," said editor Emily Watts, "It was considered a major breakthrough." That book was by Dean Hughes.
A few months later, she said, Jack Weyland's "Charly" came along, "and that was so popular. It kicked a few doors open."
She's not sure that the percentages of fiction books published by Deseret Book have changed all that much in recent years, "but we're publishing so many more books, so we are publishing a lot more fiction."
Other, smaller publishers, such as Signature Books and Cedar Fort, are also contributing to the influx of fiction.
Why the change? Many authors and publishers point to the publication of Gerald Lund's "Work and the Glory" series as a pivotal point. The first volume of the series, which parallels the history of the church, was published in 1990, and followed by eight subsequent volumes. "That was a life-changing fictional event," said Watts.
Even so, it took a while. "About the third volume, it really kicked in and took off."
Then along came a Dean Hughes' series set during World War II, and suddenly historical fiction was really hot.
In addition to those series, Chris Heimerdinger has garnered a huge following for his books, telling of modern visitors transported back to Book of Mormon times.
David Woolley has received acclaim for his books set in the Old Testament/Book of Mormon period.
Orson Scott Card, who has had notable success in the national market as a science-fiction writer, has been lauded for his "Women of Genesis" series, which focuses on biblical women. "Those books are just as popular with the Jewish community," noted Watts.
More recently, there has been a move away from historical series. "People are getting past the point where they want to buy a big, thick hardback," said Watts. "We are doing more in paperback."
And collections, rather than series, seem to be the up-and-coming thing. "I love Agatha Christie books," said Watts. "You can pick up any one without having to read them in order. We've started a couple of those kinds of collections."
The "Spider Latham" series by Liz Adair, following the adventures of a deputy sheriff in Nevada, is one.
The "Fairhaven Chronicles," now in its second book, is another. Written by Sharon Downing Jarvis, the books have been compared to the popular "Mitford" stories of a small-town rector by Jan Karon. "We wanted a Mormon 'Mitford' series," said Watts, "so we went to one of our favorite authors. The books are set in the fictional town of Fairhaven, Ala. And her writing melts in your mouth."
Betsy Bannon Green, who lives in Birmingham, Ala., is another author bringing a Southern voice to the mix. She has a collection set in the fictional town of Haggarty, Ga. "They always have a crime that needs to be solved and a romance. They are not sequels, although you get a fuller story if you read them all," she said.
Green is typical of many of the new authors in other ways. "Living in Alabama, I didn't know LDS fiction existed until I went to my grandmother's funeral in Utah five years ago and walked into the Deseret Book in the ZCMI Center."
She had been toying with the idea of writing. "I loved mainstream fiction, but some of it was getting so bad." Her first book, however, was rejected by publishers. "I decided I'd try once more, and if that didn't work, I'd make all my characters Southern Baptists and try for the general market."
Her books sell about 10,000 copies, which is a respectable number in the market, she said. And she thinks they are popular "because I'm just telling a story. I'm not trying to be uplifting. I'm not trying to do missionary work."
To Richard Cracroft, a retired professor of English at Brigham Young University and an avid reader, that seems to be one of the most positive trends in popular Mormon fiction.
Much of the early LDS fiction "always carried a muted or philosophical message. At the heart of them all was a conversion, a pattern of change from being inactive, fallen, a non-member. But I've always argued that we need books dealing with Latter-day Saintness, with how a Latter-day Saint lives life when he's full of Latter-day Saintness without saying, but showing how someone who deeply believes conducts his life. That's the way most of us live, without dramatic ups and downs."
Cracroft and some of his BYU colleagues still make a distinction between Mormon literature and popular fiction. But he does see a move in popular fiction to "the next cut up."
He also understands why much fiction was, and some still is, "heavy laden with 'Truth,' with a capital 'T.' Many LDS people need to justify in their minds an interest in fiction, need a spiritual reason. Many tend to dismiss fiction unless there is ultimately a reward for difficulties, a resolution and a promise. They need to see fiction as a way of teaching the gospel."
Woolley, too, knows that some LDS people have a hard time with fiction. "Fiction is really the art of telling lies. And to mix fiction with LDS doctrine is like mixing oil and water. Most members don't want their sacred history mixed with myth, for fear that it will all become myth."
But that's why Gerald Lund's books were such a breakthrough, said Woolley. "He showed how it is possible to take the facts and piece around them all kinds of possibilities."
Woolley taught himself how to write books after he went looking for fiction set in Book of Mormon times and couldn't find it. He is currently working on his fourth book. He had just finished his doctorate at BYU in organizational behavior and professional leadership when he decided to write his first book. "That was a stupid thing to think that I could just go write a book." But years and a few computer crashes and a job as a soccer coach later, he's found success.
Anita Stansfield, another popular LDS author who has published 26 books, also understands the hassles of getting started. Her first book was rejected five times before being published in 1994. But she started with a firm goal. "Up to that time, LDS fiction was idealistic. I thought there was a big hole in the market. I really set out to deal with real-life issues." Her books have dealt with domestic violence, rape, cancer, adoption, immorality and other such problems, and have had "incredibly positive response."
Stansfield's latest book, however, was rejected by Covenant because it dealt with an out-of-wedlock baby. The rejection "came with no previous warning and took me by surprise," she said. The book is actually set in the Revolutionary War period and is not specifically LDS, although, she said, it begins a saga that will eventually hook up with the church.
"I've done four other historical works with no LDS content, and they had no problems with those." She and her publisher have since come to an agreement that it will not publish her non-LDS books, but it still has first-right-of-refusal on her LDS works. In the meantime, Stansfield formed her own company to publish "The Captain of Her Heart."
Those twists and turns may continue in a young genre that is still sorting itself out, but Watts also sees encouraging signs that "we've gone beyond the tale with a moral at the end."
For example, last fall Deseret Book published "The Brothers," the first in a series by Chris Stewart, an ex-Air Force pilot who has had success in the national market with techno-thrillers.
"We asked him to do a series focusing on the 'last days,' " said Watts. "And he came back with the idea of setting the first volume in the pre-mortal world. Hmmmmmm. That gives you an idea of how far we've come from where LDS fiction was 20 years ago. We're more willing to explore possibilities."
But, she said, "our books are always going to have a strong doctrinal base." That's one reason for the success of the genre, she said. "It's getting to where you hardly dare pick up some of the things on the national market.
"The lines are getting more clearly drawn between the world and the church or, at least, people who want to do right. I think all categories of LDS fiction are going to grow."
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