Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review: National Market 2008, Part Ia

Wm writes: Every year since 2000, Andrew Hall has put together a Year in Review for all of the major genres of Mormon letters. It is an amazingly detailed work that is both fun to read and important both as a bibliography and as a gauge of the state of Mormon literature. AMV is pleased to bring you Andrew’s Year in Review for 2008, beginning with a look at Mormon authors being published in the national market.

Andrew Hall’s Mormon Literature Year in Review — Part 1a: National market books

The publishing story of 2008 was a Mormon author, Stephenie Meyer.  Meyer was one of three Mormon authors who reached the top of the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list, the first Mormon authors to reach that position since 1995. In fact, there were more Mormon-authored novels on the best seller lists in 2008 than ever before.  None of these best sellers contained openly Mormon characters or concepts, however. Vampires, romance, heart-warming tales of Christmas, and speculative fiction was what brought the Mormon authors to the top.

The world in 2008 was Stephenie Meyer’s. She is the biggest publishing phenomenon since J. K. Rowling.  Little, Brown released her adult science fiction novel The Host in May, and it went to the top of the Times’ Hardcover list.  By the end of the year it was still at #5 on that list. August saw the release of the fourth and final volume of her Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. The series has dominated the Times’ Children’s Series list for the last two years (the Times created the Children’s bestseller list in 2000 to clear all of the Harry Potter books off of the main hardcover and paperback lists, and the Children’s Series list in 2004 to consolidate each series into a single entry).  At the end of the year the USA Today list, which is a single list for all fiction, hardcover and paperback, had the four Twilight books occupying 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th places, with The Host down at 22nd. Without a doubt Meyer was the best selling fiction author of 2008.  Bookscan estimates her total at almost 15 million units sold in 2008.  Also, the movie version of the first volume in the Twilight series was released in the fall, and was a box office success.

Before considering the literary merits of the books, consider their economic impact.  The country is going into a difficult economic time, and the book industry is among those bearing the brunt. News of layoffs in the industry are widespread, and the venerable Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, perhaps the most prestigious literary publisher, shocked the industry by announcing in November that it would temporarily not acquire any new books.  The Hachette Book Group, the owner of Meyer’s publisher Little, Brown, on the other hand, has announced no layoffs, and instead gave one week bonuses to every employee in the company, in addition to the regular bonuses for which staff members are eligible (NY Times, Nov. 25).  Meyer was not the only successful author at Little, Brown in 2008, but she certainly was the leader.

The Host told the tell of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type alien invaders who have taken control of earth, and the battle between a woman and the alien soul who tries to take control of her mind. It had a darker, edgier feel than the Twilight books, and while no one called it a literary masterpiece, many reviewers noted a move forward in Meyer’s literary skills, even though the change in tone and style probably made the book less appealing to teenage girls. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “tantalizing SF thriller . . . [which] shines with romantic intrigue.” The official review wrote, “Those wary of sci-fi or teen angst will be pleasantly surprised by this mature and imaginative thriller, propelled by equal parts action and emotion . . . It’s unabashedly romantic, and the characters (human and alien) genuinely endearing.”

Meyer’s books have usually received at least tepidly good critical response, but that collapsed with the publication of Breaking Dawn. Critical readers have emphasized how the protagonists achieved nearly everything they wanted in the end, with little sacrifice. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Everyone gets everything they want, even if their desires necessitate an about-face in characterization or the messy introduction of some back story. Nobody has to renounce anything or suffer more than temporarily.”  A reviewer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “The problem here is the story, or the lack of it. For the most part, rather than serving as a climatic fourth chapter to the best-selling series, this book is a long, dragged-out epilogue filled with an author’s indulgences for her characters.” A reviewer at the Globe wrote, “There are moments of reading pleasure, as Bella discovers and revels in her new powers, and Jacob’s transformation heralds an important (and unintentionally creepy) plot point – but their metamorphoses irrevocably sever real from ideal, and sap the story of what little tension it possessed. Human foibles vanish and the characters are relieved, even ecstatic to see them go. There’s no sense of loss, of any sacrifice made, so the ecstasy feels fevered-but-flat, just like everything else. And by the time the big showdown comes . . . it doesn’t seem to matter.”

The second Mormon author to reach the top of the New York Times Hardcover Fiction was an author of-guess what-vampire romance (and other paranormal) fiction. Christine Feehan does not make her Church membership an issue in her publicity, unlike Meyer.  Her stories contain much more graphically sexual material than the generally tame Meyer.  Dark Curse is the 16th in a series of novels about sexy Romanian vampires.  It was her first novel to reach the top of the Hardcover list. She also published two paperback-only novels in 2008, Predatory Game and Turbulent Sea, both the sixth volumes in series about people with paranormal abilities. Both reached #2 on the New York Times Mass-market Paperback list.

The third Mormon author to achieve NYT best selling status was the conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, with his debut novel, The Christmas Sweater. Beck claims the tear-jerking story is based on his own childhood experience with his emotionally fragile mother. Of all the Mormon-authored works on the best seller lists, this is by far the most religious, with an emphasis on the importance of Christ’s atonement in the healing of wounded souls. Beck has gone on a nationwide tour selling out theatres performing a dramatic retelling of the story. Publishers Weekly commented, “For all his focus on traditional family virtues like respect, love and forgiveness, Beck’s lightweight parable cruises on predictability, repetition and sentimentality.”  Beck has two co-authors (not mentioned on the front cover), one of which, Jason F. Wright, is also a Mormon author, and will be discussed below.

As the three top-selling Mormon authors represent two genres-vampire romance and tear-jerker/heart-warmer-it should not be surprising that there are several other Mormon authors working in theoe same fields. Other Mormon authors finding success in romance and women’s paperbacks are Lynn Kurland, Brenda Novak, and Amanda Ashley (aka Madeline Baker).  All three are known for romance books in which the erotic content is relatively tame and even chaste.

Kurland specializes in fantasy settings, including time travel, magic, and ancient Britian.  Her novel With Every Breath reached #13 on the NYT Mass-market Paperback list.  Library Journal wrote of another 2008 Kurland novel, The Mage’s Daughter, “Powerful magic, ancient spells, old enmities, and dangerous secrets underpin the intricate plot of this engrossing, lyrically descriptive tale that contrasts hideous evil with tender, heart-wrenching love, tempers it with gentle humor, and serves it up with an adventurous flair . . . It is the depth of [the protagonists] love-the romantic scenes are magical-that is the highlight of this exceptionally well-done novel.”

Brenda Novak has been a published romance author since 1999.  In 2008 she produced a trilogy of thrillers, two of which reached the NYT Mass-Market Paperback list (#20 and #25). Each of the three novels focuses on different members of an organization which helps survivors of crime and teaches them self-defence. Of course the group members get the opportunity to use their new skills.

The romance author Madeline Baker publishes vampire romances under the name Amanda Ashley. She is known for her devout Christian heroines and couples who stay chaste until marriage.

As for tear-jerker/heart-warmer, there is Richard Paul Evans, the founder of the modern incarnation of the genre, and Jason F. Wright. Before 2008, Evans was the last Mormon to reach the top of the NYT Hardcover Fiction list, with his debut novel The Christmas Box. Since then he has written a series of successful tales. This year he returned to the lucrative setting of Christmas, with his novel Grace. It tells the story of a poor Salt Lake City family in the early 1960s, and the abused girl they encounter. Publishers Weekly observed, “Evans portrays Grace’s heartbreaking predicament with sensitivity and also touches on how the political situation affected the era’s youth (“The possibility of a nuclear holocaust was just something we always carried around in the back of our minds, like an overdue library book”). Evans knows how to pull on the heartstrings, and the conclusion to this one will have readers reaching for a hankie.”  The novel reached #35 on the NYT Hardcover Fiction list.

Jason F. Wright came to national attention with his 2007 novel The Wednesday Letters, published by Shadow Mountain, Deseret Book’s imprint for national market books. It reached #6 on the NYT Hardcover list in 2007, and the paperback version reached #16 on the Trade Paperback list in 2008. Glenn Beck has had Wright on his program several times, and Wright was a co-author of Beck’s The Christmas Sweater. Wright’s new novel, Recovering Charles, told the story of a man looking for his estranged father in post-Katrina New Orleans.  Several critical readers have said that it is Wright’s best written book, but that he still relies more on emotional heart-tugging than on plot.

British mystery author Anne Perry has produced a string of reliably well-written and engaging works over the last twenty years. Buckingham Palace Gardens, the latest in her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, reached #15 on the NYT Hardcover list.  A Times reviewer wrote, “Unlike so many detective series gliding on cruise control, this mature work provides a fine introduction to Perry’s alluring world of Victorian crime and intrigue. Ever the master of her milieu, she delivers sumptuous descriptions of life among the gentry when England still basked in its imperial glory. . . . To make her point that the most insignificant life matters, even in the most class-bound society, Perry employs an irresistibly appealing “Upstairs, Downstairs” perspective.”  The book was named one of the Times’ Notable Crime Fiction of 2008.  Perry also released her 6th Christmas novel, A Christmas Grace, which featured Charlotte Pitt. It reached #31 on the NYT Hardcover list.

Speculative fiction author Orson Scott Card has been another staple on the best-selling lists for decades. In 2008 he released Ender in Exile, another chapter in his flagship Ender series. Publishers Weekly wrote, “This philosophical novel covers familiar events, but puts new emphasis on their ethical ramifications . . . [Ender’s] agonized musings aren’t always sophisticated but possess a certain gravitas. Fans will find this offering illuminating, and it’s also accessible to thoughtful readers new to the series.”  I enjoyed the book, but was ultimately put off by Ender’s nearly divine ability to solve any situation. Ender’s experiences with tragedy were part of what made Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead great novels. Here there is no tragedy, because 15-year old Ender solves every problem before it gets out of hand. The novel reached #16 on the NYT Hardcover list.

Tor, Card’s publisher, also produced a collection of Card’s shorter fiction, entitled Keeper of Dreams. It covers stories published since his last major collection, 1990’s Maps in a Mirror.  In a starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, “Card offers short, revealing commentaries on these 22 compelling short stories, novelettes, and novellas . . . [The stories] provide significant examples of his perennial themes: morality, salvation, and redemption.” Several of the stories were written specifically for a Mormon audience.  Card also produced Stonefather, a novella intended to whet appetites for a new fantasy series, and Zanna’s Gift, a short Christmas novel.

There seems to be a strong tradition among Mormon speculative fiction authors to include difficult moral issues in their work. It started with Card, and has continued through David Farland to Brandon Sanderson. In 2008 Sanderson released the third in his well regarded Mistborn series. It reached #21 on the NYT Hardcover list. Publishers Weekly wrote, “a dramatic and surprising climax . . . Sanderson’s saga of consequences offers complex characters and a compelling plot, asking hard questions about loyalty, faith and responsibility.” I think Sanderson is a fantastic author, I hope to catch up with the Mistborn series soon.

Sanderson also produced the second volume of his fantasy series for young readers, Alcatraz vrs. The Scriviner’s Bones. A blogger named Fyrefly wrote, “Too funny! . . . It manages to maintain the high levels of energy and snarky humor that characterized the first book. Of course, a little bit of the first-novel charm of having a new world to explore and new characters to meet has worn off by this point, but what this instalment lacks in shiny new-book-itude, it makes up for with creative new plot twists, and with an increase in the maturity of the underlying message. Alcatraz has been thrust into the role of leader, and watching him struggle with it, at the same time he’s coping with his own history, family, and powers, is interesting to watch.”

David Farland (AKA Dave Wolverton) wrote The Wyrmling Horde, the seventh in the Runelords series. Publishers Weekly wrote, “Oscillating between lurid depictions of blood-soaked vistas and heroic tales of noble adolescent saviors, Farland attempts to leaven the violence with enchanting parallel-world landscapes and charming minor characters, but the atmosphere overall is unrelentingly gloomy. Nonetheless, this series promises to continue as long as stalwart-stomached readers can keep turning its grisly pages.”

Note: This ends the first part of the national market wrap up — I’ll post the second part tomorrow and then we will move on the Mormon market, and poetry and short fiction.

10 thoughts on “Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review: National Market 2008, Part Ia”

  1. I always find Andrew’s summaries depressing, as they remind me of all that I haven’t read…

    Good work Andrew.

  2. You’re going to do one on drama like you have in the past, right Andrew? Between New Play Project, Eric Samuelsen, Tim Slover, “Houseboat Honeymoon” and “Roofsliding” at BYU, The Covey Center, and myself, there were a number of new plays this year.

  3. Brenda Novak, and Amanda Ashley (aka Madeline Baker). All [two] are known for romance books in which the erotic content is relatively tame and even chaste.

    Methinks you haven’t read these writers, because I can assure you…it ain’t chaste.

  4. You’re right, I haven’t read most of these novels, so I have to rely on the reviews I see. I have not read any of the romance novels in particular. I got the sense from the reviews that Novak and Ashley’s sex scenes were tamer than the genre norm. But “chaste” certainly was overdoing it.

  5. .

    Um, I’m not clear on the distinctions here. Are we talking about graphic terminology or success in causing arousal or something else entirely?

  6. I personally am referring to graphic depiction.

    I don’t know where the reviews (from which Andrew drew his conclusions) are drawing the distinctions, but at this point in romance genre development (where Baker/Ashley, Novak, and Feehan are deeply ensconced), “genre norm” covers everything from inspirational romance with barely a kiss to erotic romance. In other words, there is no genre norm. And I personally believe that most women who write sex don’t do it TO arouse; they write it to explore the characters’ journey to love and/or confirmation/consummation of that love. Arousal (if it happens) is a side effect.

    (I look at it like a variation on a theme of men using love to get sex and women using sex to get love.)

    That said:

    I’m not sure a line can be drawn between graphic depiction and intent to arouse because each reader brings his/her own, ah, “baggage” to the work and for me, Random Reader, my response is dependent on A) what’s going on in my life (e.g., stress/money/screeching children/the sound of a cat yakking on the carpet) and B) what’s going on in my hormone fluctuations.

    What might trip my trigger one day will make me yawn the next or on a different day, I might skip over it entirely. For instance, I read an erotic romance whose philosophical content was so intriguing, the erotic content irritated me to no end because it got in the way of the far more intriguing concepts. I also know that if I’d read that two weeks later, it’s likely I’d have had a different response entirely.

    With regard to something like Twilight, wherein there was no graphic terminology/depiction, but the arousal factor was high–I think that was brilliant and, in fact, I’m taking my cue from Meyer as to the touchless/kissless seduction. (Jury’s still out as to whether she MEANT to do that, a la Pee Wee Herman.)

    In this specific instance and context, I’m talking about graphic depiction without regard to arousal (or not).

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