What Trips Up Mormon Lit?

The recent post on the quality of LDS fiction over on LDSPublisher mentioned a problem that we see too often in LDS books. Jeff Savage wrote:

I recently read a self-published book that was quite highly acclaimed. I liked the story, but I constantly found myself pulled out by typos, grammatical error, abrupt POV changes, and other issues that most authors, and many readers, would consider bad writing.

He went on to explain that this tripped him up, although he managed to finish the book. [This is really peripheral to the point of his post, a very good one that echoes discussions we have had here, including my own post on Standards in LDS Literature.]

This reminded me of one of the problems I had with LDS romance fiction. I had volunteered to review books for the AML list and was assigned a novel by Rachel Nunes. Since I served my mission in Portugal, where Rachel Nunes also served, I felt a certain affinity for her and hoped that I would be pleased with the book.

But when I read the novel (or at least most of it), I discovered a passage that troubled me deeply. I never did write a review, and I haven’t read any of Rachel’s other works, in part due to that passage.

To be fair, LDS romance isn’t likely to attract me anyway (I’m male — and I suppose males have to be a small percentage of romance readers). But this passage also explains one thing that trips me up when I read LDS fiction — the kind of thing that makes me put down a book in the middle and not pick it up again.

To understand my difficulty with this passage in particular, I need to explain a little of my background. In the mid 1990s I went to work for a small children’s book publisher here in New York City as its operations manager. As such, I handled everything from order processing and accounting to personnel. One of our employees at the time was ill and never came to work. It was a while before I met him and learned that he was dying of AIDS. Several months after I started working there, he came into the office and basically asked to be fired.

It turns out that firing him was the best way to improve his condition — he got better medical care and better benefits that way than he would have from a small company like ours. His partner (he was gay, as you have probably guessed) also would be less burdened in this way. [Welcome to the sometimes bizarre world of benefits and personnel issues.]

He died less than a year later. In the process, I learned a bit more about AIDS and gained a little different perspective on the disease. I’ve also learned a lot about the technical biology of AIDS and its history from my wife, who is a molecular biolgist actively studying the public health issues of AIDS’ biggest ally in causing death, Tuberculosis. I’m no expert, but what I’ve learned has given me a lot of compassion for those struggling with this insidious disease.

So what does this have to do with Rachel Nunes’ book? The book I read featured a man dying of AIDS, and the passage in question contained statements that are known and were known at the time to be factually wrong about AIDS. As I remember the statements, they are the kind of statements that would offend many who have AIDS. They included statements that implied the AIDS epidemic was caused by homosexuals and that they were to blame for it.

Now, I don’t want to dump too heavily on Rachel. I think her publisher is to blame in part, as is the lack of knowledge in Utah culture of the facts about AIDS. The point is not that this passage is wrong. The point is that it tripped me up, that I couldn’t finish the book because of it.

So, I have a lack of tolerance for factual inaccuracies in a text, at least when it hits a subject with which I have personal experience. [I actually rejected a manuscript because of this — its portrayal of the publishing industry simply bothered me so much that I couldn’t do the book.] It doesn’t matter if the book is fiction or not. If it is central to the plot, and I’m not expected to suspend my disbelief (like in fantasy), incorrect facts can throw me off and keep me from reading further.

I suppose there are probably other things that would trip me up too. But I don’t want to make this about me. So, please tell me what trips you up when you read a book?

Perhaps a thread like this will help publishers avoid these problem areas (for example, realize that even fiction can need some fact checking!) and produce higher quality books.

19 thoughts on “What Trips Up Mormon Lit?”

  1. Good article. Quickly, you might want to change your title. It “trip’s” me up. NO APOSTROPHE!!! =)

  2. Thanks for this, Kent. This goes back to the veracity in fiction thing that you and I discussed with the author of the “microfiction” blog.

    I think you do well to point out that the publisher is at fault, in part. That said, I don’t know that publishers are going to devote more resources to fact checking than they already do — even magazines and newspapers have cut back on the resources for fact-checking.

    I also think that we need to make a distinction between things that trip us up because we disagree with the text (for example, political/religious attitudes). And stuff that really could be corrected with research/fact-checking.

    Of course, whatever one’s political/religious beliefs, it’s a good idea to get a sense of the prevailing thinking about whatever topics you are writing about.

  3. This probably isn’t what you’re looking for because it’s stylistic instead of a content issue, but I cannot read a book written in the present tense. Example:

    “What more is there?” I say. I want to brush the hair from her face but restrain myself.
    “Nothing,” she answers. She picks up the car keys and walks out.

    It’s so self-conscious and calls attention to words that ought to be “invisible.” “Said” is an invisible word – you don’t pay any attention to it unless the author spotlights it by using “say” instead. Books should be written using the past tense.

  4. Firstly, I couldn’t disagree with you more, Melinda, but I suppose that is part of the point (certainly, it is the point of the post Kent linked to). Of course, my world is largely screenplays, which are written in the present tense. In addition to that, I come from a strong tradition of oral storytelling, which also tends to be at its best in the present tense. That’s my opinion, but consider the jokes you know. They probably begin along the lines of “A man walks into a bar,” rather than “A man walked into a bar.” While the present tense may be used in a self-conscious manner, it can also provide an urgency, an immediacy, and — if you’ll forgive me — a presence that is… different from the past tense. Granted, it’s unconventional enough that I think it’s probably an acquired taste, but I don’t think one can empirically say that books should be written in the past tense. Example:

    “It’s awful quiet,” she says. Her eyes dart past the tall, rolling grasses; past the gulley trees speaking in stubborn creaks and the whisper of waving pine needles; past the canyons where distant wind and water violently collide. She walks faster, as if the crunch of dirt beneath her feet consoles her. She hears none of it, of course. Hers are city ears, and it’s not sound they crave. It’s noise.

    As to that which trips me up, I find spelling and grammar mistakes to be untenable. Words are a writer’s tools, and while a good editor certainly helps, I believe that it is, in fact, the writer who is responsible for his/her craft. In the screenplay business, those kinds of mistakes are suicide, for the simple reason that they indicate a writer who either a) is ignorant, b) is too lazy to care, or c) believes it doesn’t matter (i.e., his or her work is too good to have to deal with such “conformity”)… none of which I find to be particularly endearing qualities in a writer. Take the time to do it right. Go back through with a fine-tooth comb. Have friends go back through with their own fine-tooth combs. If you can’t afford the editor, you can afford the time.

  5. I hate it when authors use the same descriptions over and over. There was one LDS romance novel I read where the word “haughtily” appeared on every other page. I began to wonder if it was the on the author’s word-of-the-day calendar.

    Also, as a writer and reader, the thing that trips me up the most is figuring out which set of beliefs I can assume the reader agrees with. I know, we’re all LDS, but there is a spectrum of belief within our religion. This is true for LDS culture as well. It bothers me when a writer misrepresents my relgion/culture because they assume that I feel the same way they do. Usually this manifests itself in the way most problems are solved in a simple/unrealistic manner. Finding a way to define those assumptions and be open to the different beliefs is a real challenge for me sometimes.

  6. I’m in agreement with you, Kent. 🙂

    I was enamored with Mormon Lit as a teenager. I couldn’t get enough of many of the popular LDS authors, including romance authors, until I became a little more aware of the world around me.

    Not to sound like an out-of-Utah-snob, but I find the LDS authors who bother me the most are the Utah-ites, born and bred there, never lived anywhere else except for the two years on the “mish.” They assume so much about cultures that are not primarily LDS, even those within the US. At least that’s been something I’ve noticed. It really, really bothers me that so much Mormon Lit is actually “Provo/Orem/SLC” lit. If you’re really lucky, you might get some Idaho and Arizona thrown in…maybe….

  7. Sally,
    Over on LDSPublisher I made a similar comment on the Jeff Savage comment thread and several authors pointed out books to me that are not set in the Provo/Orem/SLC area. Now, whether or not those books still pander to the Utah market I don’t know. But it might be worth checking some of them. I’m going to give it a try!

  8. William:

    You’re right. Veracity is the issue, not just of how true something feels in the text, but how true it feels in the world. At some point, the reader is no longer willing to suspend disbelief and keep reading, even though the material is plausible within the frame of the book.

    As for the publisher’s culpability in these situations, I’d lean toward culpability. I do understand that publishers have limited budgets, and can’t hire fact checkers for every work. However, I expect publshers to have a certain level of general knowledge. I expect them to be well-informed on the issues that face society today. And I expect them to have an idea of the limits of their knowledge — enough to find someone well acquainted with a subject who will read a passage or two for free to check the veracity of the text. IMO, that can be done for next to nothing. In the story I used, that clearly wasn’t done — and it seems evident that the editor of that book didn’t have the level of knowledge I expect. So, I can’t let them off the hook.

    You are right that there does need to be a distinction between disagreeing with the text and facts. I’m certain that the text I read was factually wrong. But to others less knowledgeable, it may seem, even today, a matter of opinion. The line between the two can be tricky, because no one can know everything.

    To be honest, I believe that we Mormons often face this problem. Much of what has been written about Mormons is factually incorrect, and was when it was written, simply because of the many misconceptions that exist and are spread about Mormons. I saw a comic the other day that expresses how I sometimes feel (see Duty Calls at the rather geeky web comic xkcd). Its hard to resist the urge to fix something that is wrong.

    I suspect that part of the answer for publishers and authors is to be cautious whenever you don’t have a thorough knowledge of the subject. And that is doubly true with issues that are politically or socially controversial, like AIDS is still. In these cases its not just a matter of sensing the prevailing thinking, its also a matter of figuring how what is known and what is opinion.

  9. ET, you are not alone when it comes to grammar. I’ve joked with the editors at some of the publishing houses I worked at that there is a kind of grammar police that comes from readers who find mistakes and write the publisher about them.

    Typos and the like are, of course, inevitable. I actually wish more of my customers would let me know of errors in my books. I cringe ever time I find one. [And I found one just today — and an error in the table of contents too! ouch!]

  10. Laura H. Craner:
    Beliefs can be tricky. They are one of the reasons that LDS publishing can be such a minefield. Every publisher in the market (save one or two) seems to be deathly afraid of publishing a book that will be called “anti-Mormon” or perceived of as anything but “True-Blue Mormon.”

    Fortunately, I think there is a point of diminishing returns in trying to figure this out. There is always a spectrum of belief out there, but it is usually the largest and most talked-about and taught beliefs that have the potential to get you into trouble. More obscure beliefs generally don’t get you into trouble, especially not if you are writing fiction and can claim that it is the belief of your character, and not you the writer. (But this only works on more obscure beliefs. Get a Mormon character with beliefs that aren’t orthodox and you’re back in the controversy.

    Also, if its a minor issue or more obscure doctrine, don’t stress too much. Remember that controversy sells books!!

  11. Sally and Laura H. Craner:
    I’m afraid the problem is more extensive than your comments here imply. The Rachel Nunes book I spoke of was actually set largely overseas — not in Utah, and the man dying of AIDS was in France.

    And, I’m afraid I’ve met plenty of “Molly Mormons” here in New York City — although they often don’t stay more than a few years.

    I know that isn’t terribly helpful, but I’m afraid that just because the book is set outside Utah or the Intermountain West doesn’t mean that it won’t still have a lot of the Utah culture embedded in them.

  12. One thing about fact-checking in fiction: When you’re the author, you have a pretty good idea of which details are based on things you know well and which details you made up out of thin air. So you know which subjects and experiences you need double-checked, and it’s not that hard to find test readers whose personal experiences fill in the gaps in your own knowledge.

    Along the same lines of non-Mormons writing things that are false about Mormons, a lot of LDS authors don’t bother to try for realism when portraying Mormon apostates. I talked about this in my post Subtle (but important) details…. I’m not just picking on Mormons here: regardless of one’s ideology, there’s a great temptation to set up straw men for your hero to defeat. But the less realistic your conflict is, the less chance your story has of resonating with anyone who doesn’t already strongly agree with you and share your same prejudices. That’s not a problem if you’re shooting for insular literature, but I don’t think you are.

    As a hobby I often test read unpublished manuscripts and give feedback, so if anyone here is writing a story that includes Mormon apostate characters (whether Christian, atheist, or other), I’ll be happy to check it for you. Just email me chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com. And don’t worry, I won’t just say “You need to make the exmo characters more virtuous and turn the Mormons into the bad guys.” 😉 I’ll give specific feedback on the details.

    Similarly, if anyone here is interested in test-reading my new novel, you’re welcome to do it. It has both Mormon and exmo characters in it, and it features a thriving Mormon ward in a foreign country as well as a character who converts to Mormonism during the course of the story. It’s a comedy, though, so it doesn’t include any serious discussion of theology or doctrine.

  13. Fixed!

    Also: I mistakenly read your last sentence as “Mormon and emo characters…” at first. Now there’s an idea for a story: the lead singer of My Chemical Romance falls in love with a sister missionary from Rexburg. 😉

  14. Similarly to most of you, it’s the blatant ignorance of a subject that gets to me. Granted, authors can’t be experts in everything, and I am willing to grant them a little bit of fudging since it’s typically not the nuclear physicists who write the best fiction about nuclear physicists. But when the false area of expertise is key to the plot, or even to the “feel” of the story, I think the author owes us a little research.

    This is why I couldn’t bring myself to finish The DaVinci Code. The first “flashback” scene that’s intended to convince us that our character really is an Art History professor accomplishes exactly the opposite. His misunderstanding not only of scholastic jargon in the field and the actual name of the field (“symbology” is not an academic discipline) but the basic feel of a college course in the subject totally discredited any attempt he was making to look like an expert. And that’s pretty key in a book where your main focus is to overturn major world religions based on art history. You should at least find out what art historians call themselves.

    C.L. Hanson makes a most relevant point – the issue here is the creation of straw men, and can be seen in inferior fiction of all sorts.

  15. Anneke, I don’t quite agree. I don’t think that the issue here is just the creation of straw men. Its more than that.

    You are right that straw men are good examples of what I’m talking about. And they are a particularly bad problem in some fiction.

    But, I think that many of the blatant errors in fiction that trip us up are part of the setting of the story, and aren’t things that the author has set up to be knocked down later.

    The issue here is, IMO, verisimilitude — how much like reality the story is. These blatant errors interrupt our willingness to accept the story as “true.”

    But regardless, you are right that The DaVinci Code falls into this problem, as do many other works.

  16. Again, it’s pretty clear these are general concerns when writing good fiction and not just Mormon problems. By amusing coincidence, my atheist book club unanimously disliked their latest book choice because of some of the exact problems cited here, especially failure at fact-checking. See this review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s