Whitney General Fiction Finalists 2011

This year I decided I was going to try to read as many of the Whitney finalists as I can before the deadline for voting (April 23). I’m taking it in chunks-by-category, with the thought that this way, each category I complete is one more I get to vote for. Besides, this way I can post composite review/commentary posts like this one, where I talk briefly (or less briefly) about each book in turn, then make some general comments across the category. So here’s my first installment: general fiction.

First, a warning: I don’t know how to talk meaningfully about books without describing the basic challenge that is being addressed by the main characters, and in many cases without talking about how those conflicts are resolved. In other words, there are some spoilers here. Sorry about that; it’s just the way I write about literature.

And finally: These are only my own thoughts, as a private and opinionated reader. I don’t represent anyone except myself. That said, I’d be glad to see other people chime in with their opinions — whether in agreement with mine or not. I should also probably state that some of these books were provided in PDF format by the publishers, for review by Whitney Academy members, a courtesy of which I deeply approve, considering that here in Wisconsin there are many titles I can’t reasonably get through my local library system.

Before I Say Goodbye by Rachel Ann Nunes

Why has single mother Rikki Crockett brought her daughter Kyle (13) and son James (7) back to Spanish Fork, where she grew up and had intended never to return? One reason — the main reason, we come to realize — is that this is where Dante lives, the boy she grew up with (saving each other from a neglectful home life) and was engaged to, before he left to go on a mission instead. She doesn’t have any intention of luring Dante (now a bishop, as she discovers when she shows up to church for the first time in years) away from his wife and family. Rather, she hopes he and his family will be willing to take care of her children when she dies from an untreatable brain tumor.

(Sorry about that. This is the biggie — the one I couldn’t talk about without revealing plot details.)

Rikki doesn’t regret the life she’s lived and the choices she’s made. What she does regret is that she won’t be there for her children.

All of this, of course, is far from clear at the outset (though we as readers suspect far more than the other characters). Chapters from the point of  view of Rikki, Kyle, Dante, Dante’s wife Becca, and their oldest son Travis show us pieces of their lives as the two families intersect.

Characterization is the great strength of this story. All of the characters are realistic, human, likeable, eminently fallible but trying to rise above their flaws. Particularly skilful is the depiction of Becca, unsure whether she should feel threatened by Rikki, nervous about exposing her children to the distinctly non-LDS values Rikki’s family represents, but determined to reach out in friendship despite that. And Rikki. And Dante. And — well, you get the idea. These are characters that have firmly lodged themselves in my mind and memory.

There are many, many plot threads in this story, all about flawed people helping other people. We see here pieces of a Mormon ward at its best and most realistic. The sisters of the ward, in particular, come through for Rikki and her family in ways she finds hard to understand, even before they realize the true challenge she’s facing.

The helping doesn’t all go one way. Rikki becomes the one who listens to Becca’s faded dreams for doing things beyond taking care of the household — and bullies her into acting on them, and then tells Dante he needs to do better at supporting her (privilege of a childhood best friend). Rikkie also provides Travis, going through some teenage acting out, some realistic advice — and prompts him to ask Dante about his own growing up, helping them to forge a stronger connection.

This is a story that could easily have been sappy and sentimental, and probably some readers will still find it such; but for me, the story earns the emotions. If there’s one quibble I have with the book, it’s that some of the conflicts are too simply resolved, or at least too easily put on the road to resolution. I’m thinking here in particular of Travis’s rebellion, which we have hints may have gone beyond what we see in the novel — but which he seems to get past remarkably quickly. I also predict that Becca’s attempts to carve out more time for herself (and Dante’s attempts to support her in doing so) will inevitably suffer setbacks. There’s a whole book there waiting to be written (if Nunes chooses to write it) about all of the what-happens-next. Probably, though, it’s better just to leave all that in the imagination of us as readers.

This is a very strong book. It would take some beating to edge out this book in this category, and for my money, none of the other finalists — good as they are in various ways — is up to the task. The others were at times entertaining, enjoyable, thought-provoking; this was the only one I found moving.

Gifted by Karey White

What happens when a couple adopts a child who simply makes everything around her better? Who never gets sick or hurt? Who makes rooms brighter, stops arguments simply by being there, makes the other children in her class (as well as herself) learn faster? And what challenges might her parents face?

This book is an enjoyable read, charming at times and likely to appeal to a lot of mothers who have felt that special experience of having a first child transform one’s world — but also somewhat one-dimensional. As an sf&f fan, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the central premise and how it was developed. The style is somewhat flat. While I like the characters, this book isn’t at the same level as Before I Say Goodbye in terms of depth of characterization, thematic elements, and insight about on the world. There are also a few loose ends (whatever happened to Dusty? what was up with Miss Drake?).

On an allegorical level, I think perhaps this is supposed to be a kind of imaginative retelling of the story of Jesus in mortality (a child who feels no pain, but chooses to do so so she can be like everyone else, and then gives her life for her friend), but honestly I like the book better when I don’t think of it that way.

The Evolution of Thomas Hall by Kieth Merrill

A rich and famous fantasy artist. Political power plays on the board of a hospital. Shady ousters of museum directors. Ecoterrorists. A deadly car wreck, and a heroic rescue of a drowning girl. If those sound like ingredients for a TV mini-series or prime-time soap opera like Dallas, well, that’s kind of the way The Evolution of Thomas Hall struck me. Which isn’t meant as a criticism, but rather as my best attempt at describing the genre of this particular novel. Maybe it’s simply mainstream popular novel.

First the good news: This novel tells an exciting story, and the basic conflict — an artist without much of a belief system aside from his relationship to his own art (which itself is in tension with his attraction to the material benefits of commercial success), being pulled in different directions by projects that call on him to make a commitment either for or against religion — has strong intrinsic interest for an LDS audience (including me as a reader). Merrill’s sense of pacing and juggling of multiple plot threads is also generally strong, though there were times toward the end where I felt he dropped the ball in giving each thread its due. Despite that, I had difficulty prodding myself to keep reading the book, mostly I think because at first I so thoroughly disliked the main character and the succession of stupid decisions he makes. Many readers, I suspect, will describe this as a book they can’t put down, but that definitely wasn’t true of me.

And now for the bad news: The style is often choppy and heavy-handed. The book’s biggest weakness, however, lies in its characterization. The Evolution of Thomas Hall features big bold characters that fill up the space but possess little realism or depth. They act as the plot requires them to act, but often I don’t get a clear sense of why. That’s true on both the positive and negative ends of the scale. On the one hand, Merrill’s Silas Hawker, director of the museum who directs Thomas Hall to help create a shrine to Charles Darwin, is not so much a scientist as a caricature of one. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Christina, the 10-year-old injured in the car crash, often seems less a little girl and more a mouthpiece for the ideal of simple faith. The single exception is Hall himself, whose background we get to know in more depth over time as he changes in our eyes from the superficial and materialistic figure he seems to be at first to someone both more sympathetic and more genuinely interesting and complex.

Unfortunately, centrally embedded in the novel is a mission to convince readers that evolutionary science is fundamentally flawed — and that those who propound it will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, which is to persuade people not to believe in God. This is a belief that’s fairly popular among Mormons, though not so much among Mormons who have actually studied evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, any value there might have been to Merrill’s invitation to reconsider a purely naturalistic approach to the universe and human life is undercut by his combative and simplistic approach to the subject and by his depiction of evolutionary scientists as stock villains possessing neither reason, nor intellectual honesty, nor fairness, nor even human decency. They are, simply, wrong.

Which in my opinion seriously undercuts the many positive things about this book, making it something I’d be reluctant to put in the Mormon or non-Mormon readers — because unfortunately I see its potential for harm as being fairly substantial, whether you agree or disagree with the views it promotes. There’s a judgmentalism that keeps coming to the surface, whether in its characterization of environmental activitists as “opposed to everything human” (p. 116) or the following description of a social worker:

The woman from Child Protective Services wore men’s clothes. Her name was Angela Russell, but she was the antithesis of angelic, the kind of person one would hope not to find in a program to help children. The woman acted more like the witch who wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel than the fairy godmother who wanted to help Cinderella live happily ever after. Bureaucrats! Maddening! Angela! Such irony in the world, Cass thought every time she had to endure the horrible woman. (p. 411)

To start with, I have to ask: Why include that detail about wearing men’s clothes? If this were a truly well-rounded character, then that might simply be a detail. Here, though, with characters drawn in broad strokes as they are, it becomes — whether or not intended as such by the writer — a kind of shorthand for the character’s villainy.

Worse than that is the fact that the evil social worker is simply too easy. It’s a cliche. Can’t we have overworked social workers, and not simply assume that people who disagree with us must therefore be evil? Even if they’re environmentalists, or atheists, or government workers?

Basically, what I’m saying is that in several ways, this book encourages its readers to become worse people: less tolerant, less informed, more willing to believe their own prejudices. This story deserves better.

The Walk: Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans

This is a book I shouldn’t have liked: pop philosophy masquerading as a story, second in a series where I hadn’t read the first, by an immensely popular author whose previous work I’ve never bothered to read despite being given several of his earlier books as gifts. And yet I did. Part of it was the voice, which I found immediately engaging. Part was the easy-to-follow style. Part was the characters, whom I found both likeable and real, if lacking the depth of characterization of a Thayer or even a Nunes.

The premise of the story is fairly simple. Alan Christofferson’s life has gone to pieces. His beloved wife McHale breaks her neck in a horse-riding accident, and four weeks later she dies. While he’s caring for her, his partner steals his clients and all but one of his employees from their ad business. He loses his home and his cars. Left bereft, without any focus in his life, he decides to walk to Key West — as far from his home in Seattle as he can find on his map of the U.S. Then he gets stabbed in a mugging outside Spokane. We join him as he’s waking up in the hospital. This book takes us through the 5 months of his recovery in the home of Angel, a woman he helped with car trouble just before his stabbing, and then along the next part of his journey, up to the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota.

The Walk: Miles to Go highlights simple themes without much complexity, such as the healing that comes from reaching out to strangers. However, these themes are told simply and straightforwardly enough that it doesn’t feel sentimental or contrived. For me, he pulls it off.

I also give full credit to Evans for knowing precisely how many and which kind of details to include to make a story real without slowing it down at all. It’s not the kind of lush descriptive detail that you get in traditional realistic/literary fiction, but some nicely true-to-life details — like someone stealing a Christmas tree from the hood of your car while you’re getting ready to take it inside, or your houseguest (and friend) of 5 months calling you “Mr. Abandonment” and “Mr. Exit” on the day you finally leave, as a way of trying to make light of the mutual pain of separation. Evans also seems to have a sure instinct for which details from the back-story to introduce and when, so as to keep the reader informed but not overwhelmed. I wish I knew how he does that. Overall, I think The Walk: Miles to Go earns its place on this list, though it doesn’t deserve to win.

The Wedding Letters by Jason F. Wright

Unabashedly a feel-good book about family relationships and friendships, The Wedding Letters — sequel to The Wednesday Letters, a “New York Times bestseller” — starts with art student Noah Cooper swerving to miss a squirrel and instead hitting a girl named Rachel on a mountain bike. The rest of the book centers around the developing romance between them, including obstacles raised by things she learns unexpectedly about her family’s past. The other main plot thread is the fate of the bed and breakfast that has been in Noah’s family for generations, but which has fallen on hard times in the current economic slowdown.

That makes it sound like this book is a romance. But it’s not. In fact, we don’t see much of the initial development of Noah and Rachel’s relationship. Instead, the lens zooms in about the time they decide to get married.

I’ve described this above as a feel-good good. That doesn’t mean it whitewashes over the problems of real life. One of the characters makes a mistake that ends his marriage. Rachel’s mother is decidedly a flake. People don’t talk to each other as much as they should. All of the main characters, though, are good people — people you like and care about. There’s no gritty realism here, but there are the kinds of nice little added details that make reading more interesting and pull you further into the author’s world. There’s no grand epiphany at the end, but a satisfying (if somewhat predictable) resolution to the major plot threads.

The concept of a set of “wedding letters” — letters of advice written to a couple getting married — is a clever one.  At first I thought it was primarily a marketing ploy, something to generate a “buzz” beyond the story itself. What raised it beyond that were the letters themselves, interspersed throughout the text, which helped to give a window into different people and their varying life experiences. This element works for me.

For most of the book, the fact that this was a sequel to a book I hadn’t read didn’t really get in the way. Toward the end, however, I started to get lost as characters I hadn’t seen much of previously started playing important roles. A “cheat sheet” at the front listing characters first encountered in the previous book and who they were related to/friends with/etc. would have helped.

A final observation. Reading this story, I noticed cases where the point of view wandered within a scene, telling the emotional or mental state of first one character and then another: e.g., “Rachel would have said something if she could speak at all,” followed a page later by “When Rain was sure Rachel was done…” (pp. 50-51). It occurs to me that this is something I’ve seen in other stories and manuscripts I’ve read or reviewed recently, more than I remember in the past. Is this something I’ve grown more sensitive about? Something writers and/or editors have gotten lazier about? Or an area where the esthetic has simply shifted? I don’t know. Part of me is inclined to think of this as a flaw — something that draws our attention as readers from the characters to the narrator, preventing us from getting as deeply into the characters’ inner lives. But is that really the case? It’s my impression that prior to the 20th century, writers and editors weren’t so persnickety about such things. Anyone have any insights on this?

General Comments and Observations

  • Publishers: Of these five books, only The Walk: Miles to Go was published by a non-LDS Publisher, though two (The Evolution of Thomas Hall and The Wedding Letters) were published by Deseret Book’s national Shadow Mountain imprint. Before I Say Goodbye was published under the Deseret Book imprint, and Gifted was published by Bonneville Books, which I believe is an imprint of Cedar Fort.
  • Category: These category is pretty much a grab-bag, with the only thing these titles have in common genre-wise being that they don’t fit neatly into any of of the other genre categories (though there’s at least an argument that Gifted really should have been part of the speculative fiction category). However, all are definitely written with a popular audience in mind.
  • Shutout of literary fiction? I can’t comment directly on the question (raised over at the AML blog) of whether The Scholar of Moab and Death of a Disco Dancer were unjustly passed over in this year’s list of Whitney finalists, since I haven’t read either book. However, from reading the books that were finalists, I can say that a really strong piece of non-offensive literary fiction should have been able to make it onto the finalist list — if the panel of judges was truly open to literary fiction.
  • Religion: While all five finalists featured elements of religious life (e.g., characters praying), I’m a little dismayed that only Before I Say Goodbye engaged explicitly with Mormon culture or ideas. This isn’t a criticism of any of the others, but rather a concern that in what are supposedly the best non-genre novels by LDS authors, we apparently mostly aren’t choosing to directly address Mormon experience. It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again: if we don’t tell our own stories, the world won’t be lacking in people to tell our stories for us, in ways we most likely won’t care for.
  • Family: Looking at the central conflicts of these books, most of them arise out of family situations: deaths in a family, weddings in a family, family secrets, challenges in childrearing, troubled parent-child relationships. The only clear exception is The Evolution of Thomas Hall, though it too features several of the elements mentioned above. (The Walk: Miles to Go may also be an exception, though the basic situation arises out of grief largely related to death of a spouse.) Interestingly, all five books feature plot strands related to adoption and/or rearing of other people’s children. This tells me that one thing LDS authors do well is see people in the contexts of families and recognize that many of the most challenging dramas of life take place in that arena. Family life in these novels is not an idyll, but very much worth the effort required to make it work.
  • General assessment: This is a decent set of books, and most of them would make good gifts for the reading but not too adventurous Mormon on your shopping list. With the exception of Before I Say Goodbye, however, none of them truly stood out qualitywise. Can’t we do better than this?

66 thoughts on “Whitney General Fiction Finalists 2011”

  1. I certainly hope we can do better than this. Very nice assessment, Jonathan. You both charitable and incisive as a reader.

    I’ve been on the Whitney Committee for the past two years, so I probably shouldn’t comment specifically in public on the merits (or lack thereof) of any of the finalists (or the nominees). I can tell you that The Scholar of Moab wasn’t nominated. The reading public makes the nominations, not the Committee or the judges.

  2. Before I Say Goodbye is the only book in this category that I’ve read so far. I actually didn’t like it very much and felt like the characterization was a weak point. Jumping around to so many different points of view made it hard to really get into any one character’s head in any depth at all and I felt like they were all somewhat shallow.

    I don’t know if it’s just that I am a Mormon woman living in Utah, but I really didn’t like the characterization of Rikki or Becca. I felt like they were both stereotypes and the book did nothing to challenge those stereotypes at all. When Becca freaked out because her daughter put on too much eye makeup, I really rolled my eyes. Really? The worst that can happen in your life is your daughter using too much eyeliner? She was so worried about Rikki and her daughter and their ‘influence’, but there was no specifying what that ‘influence’ was. What were they worried was going to happen? I felt like a lot of the book was very vague like that–a lot of telling and not much showing. Rikki and Dante both talk about having ‘bad childhoods’ and there wasn’t much specifically said about what that means. There were one or two mentions of things, but I really wanted some kind of flashback or something more detailed. I think part of that goes back to the multiple view points problem that I mentioned–too much of this book felt like it was just skimming along the surface of people and not really digging into them or challenging the characters at all.

  3. “I can tell you that The Scholar of Moab wasn’t nominated.”

    I’ve said this before, but the small Mormon presses really need to be more strategic about their publishing schedules and also make sure that nominations happen. I realize that the people behind them are working under difficult conditions, but marketing considerations should better figure into the process.

    I can’t see, though, The Scholar of Moab being named a finalist if The Death of a Disco Dancer wasn’t.

  4. FoxyJ: Good to have your thoughts. Different perceptions is, of course, the other side of any assessment like this: what strikes one reader as powerful and effective might not strike another reader the same way. It will be interesting to find out if you like another of the books on the list better than I did (assuming you read them).

    Wm: I agree totally about the whole strategic marketing thing, though in the case of the Whitneys, I think it’s less a matter of publishing schedules than simple awareness.

    Personal admission here: When I heard about the Whitneys, it was just a few days before nominations closed. I went on the website, read the rules carefully, and realized that all it took was 5 people nominating the book who had not been financially connected to its publication in order for it to make it to the judges for consideration. (Don’t know if that’s still the case now.) So I emailed a few people who I knew had read and liked No Going Back, telling them about the Whitney nominations and how to go about making one if they were so interested. I’m sure that without that push from me, it wouldn’t have made the list for the judges to consider.

    Reminder: the Whitneys are a 3-part process: reader nominations, selections of 5 finalists per category from the nominations by a committee, and then selection of a winner through a process of voting by members of the Whitney Academy, which includes LDS authors published in the last 5 years, bookstore owners (I believe), and selected critics from specific institutions. Possibly editors too.

    Being on the committees for selection of finalists (out of all the nominated works in a category) must be a truly grueling ordeal, and one I don’t think I could ever take on. Potential disagreements about what ought or ought not to have made the finalist lists should not obscure the debt of gratitude we owe these people for their yeoman service.

  5. Loved the breakdown and am looking forward to the next catigory you finished. I have read all five of these books and I agree with you on many points covered here, you also helped me figure out why one book felt choppy to me–I hadn’t pondered on it enough and when I read your account I had that “Aha, that’s why” moment–which is always very nice. AND, it’s totally acceptable for authors or publishers to drum up nominations so that the books can be considered. We only want to make sure that the nominators have actually read the book and aren’t nominating to ‘help out a friend.’ Thanks for being a part of the process, Jonathan. I really enjoyed your thoughts.

  6. I was on the selection committee for finalists in one category and it certainly was a grueling ordeal. There is some good stuff out there, and some really poorly written stuff too. It really does just take 5 nominations and I agree that all publishers need to be more aware of publishing, marketing, and promoting Whitney awards. I also hesitate to criticize the awards too much simply because it is a group effort and everyone is doing the best they can.

  7. I served as a voting member of the Whitney Academy for one (and only one) year. That too was a grueling ordeal, and there were less categories then. And it wasn’t ordeal because of the titles, but because it was a lot to read and because I wanted to make sure that I was fair in my voting. I can extrapolate from that experience to suggest that, yeah, being on the selection committee is even more pressure. Many thanks to those who do it.

    I’d also say that every awards process has its critics about those works that were left and those that were included. Rather than see that as telling about the quality of the works involved in absolute terms, I view it as more indicative of the tastes of those doing the judging or voting.

  8. I’m curious: No one yet has tackled my general query about POV (last paragraph under my discussion of The Wedding Letters). I’m interested in people’s thoughts on this issue, whether or not they’ve read the book in question. How absolute is the importance of staying in one POV (unless and until a clear switch is made)?

  9. However, from reading the books that were finalists, I can say that a really strong piece of non-offensive literary fiction should have been able to make it onto the finalist list — if the panel of judges was truly open to literary fiction.

    I’m intrigued by the fact that you specified “non-offensive” literary fiction. Do you have any specific past works in mind that you think didn’t make it through due to their offensive content (e.g., The Lonely Polygamist) or are you just assuming that the Whitney judges wouldn’t think highly of books with offensive content?

  10. “I’ve said this before, but the small Mormon presses really need to be more strategic about their publishing schedules and also make sure that nominations happen.”

    Just of curiousity, as I don’t have a dog in the fight, what would be an optimal book release date for the Whitneys then? The initial nomination process is calendar year (Jan 1 to Dec 31).

    Would the end part of the year be best so it’s fresh on the readers mind (but compete with the Holiday release avalanche)? Perhaps mid-year to give it time to garner more nominations?

  11. Katya: No you didn’t. 😉

    Lee: I would suggest August through October. Or April/May if the novel in question could be a good summer read. This is without doing any actual testing and without any data, mind you. But just based on looking at the awareness trajectory of the various ZB, Parables, etc. releases over the past 10 years, that’s my suggestion.

  12. And to answer Jonathan:

    My perception is that that the use of third person omniscient is not the convention for modern fiction and when I’ve heard of it used, it’s always used as an example of things that new writers should avoid. But that’s only for literary fiction and speculative fiction. I can’t speak to other genres.

  13. Katya,

    Mostly the latter. Looking at the composition of the Whitney committees and my sense of their sense of what their mission is, I think they’d be reluctant to put something out there that would offend the bulk of Mormon readers, either because of graphic content or because of its stance toward mainstream LDS beliefs. I think many of them would also personally be less likely to enjoy books of that sort.

    All of which is legitimate, in my opinion. A primary mission of the Whitneys, as I see it, is to celebrate books that are well-written examples of the kind of fiction that mainstream readers Mormons might enjoy. I would hope, however, that literary fiction wouldn’t be excluded just because it’s literary. Inevitably, a lot of that will be up to the collective tastes of the specific judges for a particular genre in a particular year.

  14. I’m not sure that what I’m seeing is third person omniscient, so much as it’s third person limited omniscient that warps into and out of the viewpoint of different characters at will, without any clear transitions. Which may simply be another way of describing third person omniscient…

  15. Ah, you’re right.

    Limited refers to whether or not the narrator is privy to information that the POV characters don’t have. I always get that confused.

    But even so, generally, it’s expected that you not switch POV characters within a section (and definitely not within a paragraph), although doing so within a chapter is fine if the transition is clear and cleanly done.

    Although again, that taboo may not exist in the forms of fiction that I don’t read.

  16. Looking at the composition of the Whitney committees and my sense of their sense of what their mission is, I think they’d be reluctant to put something out there that would offend the bulk of Mormon readers, either because of graphic content or because of its stance toward mainstream LDS beliefs.

    There’s nothing in the eligibility requirements that says the nominated books have to meet a certain set of content standards, though. So if the Whitney judges are filtering for content, they either have to be making that decision behind the scenes (as a group) or individually deciding that a book with potentially offensive content is inferior to a book without, and so won’t move on to the next round of balloting.

    Wm – Thanks.

  17. Katya,

    I’m sure it’s the latter: individual judgments that owe as much to personal preferences as to any sense of what the Whitneys are for. Everyone who’s been involved in the process insists that they don’t set content standards or criteria for the committees to use, and I’m sure that’s true.

    This goes both ways: no content standard imposed, but also no standard of saying that books should be judged solely on artistic merit. Which is as it should be, in my opinion. Flawed as individual judgment may be as a basis for making these judgments, I’m much more comfortable with that than I would be with any spelled-out criteria or mission statement.

  18. I agree.

    That doesn’t mean that we can’t discuss where we think the Whitney Awards or the AML Awards or any other awards or top 10 list or whatever is overlooking works. But I think anyone doing so should frame that in the context of personal judgment and taste.

  19. Wm says: yeah, sorry — I’m not letting all of this through. Go ahead and make the accusations, MoJo. But not here.

    Well, since I DO have a dog in this fight, I will say that the Whitney folks ARE filtering for content [REDACTED]

    Secondly, I can name at least three people in the MoLit community who have told me they won’t read it. So. Either the Whitneys need to come up with a statement on content (instead of relying on what someone *assumes* to be its mission) or it needs to find judges who can get past it.

    Now, I know that this is highly un-politic to say, but somebody has to. I’m not some shrinking violet nice female Mormon author trying to play nice. If the Whitneys are set upon non-offensive content, then it will render itself the handmaiden of Deseret Book in no time. The snubbing of Zarahemla’s titles and The Lonely Polygamist is, to me, proof enough that Whitney does not care about Miltons and Shakespeares.


  20. This is the radical middle, MoJo. There’s a difference — one is that we try to speak to both sides of the divide and certain ways of speaking hamper our ability to do so. Now, I don’t mind alienating people when we need to. But I’d prefer to do it in the right way.

    I’d be happy to explore alternate ways of presenting your argument, but I really don’t have the time today to get into it. If you’re interested, email me, and I’ll think about how to approach it.

  21. Also: I don’t think it’s a question of the integrity of the Whitneys — they are what they are. They signal what they are. It’s overall a good thing, but there are limitations to what they accomplish and what they can claim. The same is true of the AML awards. The same is true of the work done here at AMV.

  22. Oh, no hard feelings about the redaction. I expected it because you have certain standards, and I get that.

    As for what I actually said, I’m going to blog it because I don’t think such a thing should stand unaddressed. I’ve held off because, in Romancelandia (from which I hail), this would be considered Author Behaving Badly. But you know what? I don’t care anymore.

  23. Moriah,

    I’m not entirely clear on what you’re saying. Without naming names, are you saying that you have been told that some of the judges on a committee *won’t* read nominees that received 5 nominations if the content bothers them?

    If so, that raises an important question. What is the standard for members of a committee? I know that for those of us who vote in the final round, the standard is that you have to read all the finalists in a category in order to vote. I’ve interpreted that as meaning that you have to read each finalist from beginning to end. Is that not the case? Or is it the case for the last stage, but not for the committees who pick the finalists?

    If, on the other hand, this is about people who read the entire book and *then* vote their preference (including dislike of graphic sex), then it becomes a question of the composition of the committees.

    Is it possible to clarify this point at least — what the nature is of your complaint — without getting into murky territory, moderator-wise?

  24. Jonathan, I did name the name and posted a link. Wm redacted it.

    I have good reason to believe that a prominent Whitney judge lied about having read my book. Comparison of this person’s review on Goodreads versus the reviews of any other active LDS reader will reveal that this person could not have read beyond the prologue.

  25. So that brings me to this: If there is a segment of Whitney judges who simply refuses to read a work because of content, then the Whitney needs to tighten its requirements. A nominated book should not be NOT read because a reader is uncomfortable with it and THEN certify that they read it.

  26. I don’t think it’s a question of the integrity of the Whitneys — they are what they are. They signal what they are.

    You mean they signal it upfront, or they signal it by what they do and don’t choose to honor?

  27. A couple of things. First, Jonathan, good job with these reviews. I’m working my way through these titles as well and haven’t yet found a book I like, but I’ve only read 2 1/2 of the 5 nominated books. But so far, I agree heartily with your statement at the end of the review: Can’t we do better than this? A couple of the books had some real flaws in execution, in my opinion, and I am totally stumped as to why Death of a Disco Dancer was not a finalist.

    I know this isn’t supposed to be a referendum on the Whitneys, but I do know that DoaDD received enough nominations to be considered, and I think that’s important to note. If a book receives enough nominations to be considered, then it should be incumbent upon each member of the committee to read the book, no matter if it was published near the end of the year and had received any “buzz” or not. DoaDD was a much better book than at least two of the nominees, plain and simple. And, yes, it includes a few 12-year-old-boy potty words, but if books are being disqualified on that basis? I can’t possibly imagine that to be the case, but maybe it is. I don’t know. Anyway, I do think there’s a more distinct leaning toward inspirational fiction rather than contemporary fiction for adults in the current finalist lineup. I wonder how On the Road to Heaven would have fared if it had been published this go round?

    I’m hopeful that the two novels I didn’t really enjoy end up being my number four and number five of the pack of nominated novels so far, and that I can find something to get a little more excited about. But, certainly, general fiction as a category doesn’t have near the quality work that some of the other categories do.

  28. Angela,

    I’d love to know your thoughts on the 2 1/2 you’ve read so far — if you’re willing to share them. Even if you disagree with me!

  29. Katya:

    Everything — from the LDStorymakers affiliation to the branding to the finalists to the event itself.

  30. .

    I think many committee members are probably assuming that the best books will also meet their personal cleanliness standards. I personally am suspicious of that correlation, but people act on assumptions every day. I do agree with tow things, however:

    If the bulk of judges are making prejudgments on things like Presence of Sex, then it should be encoded into the rules.

    If it’s encoded into the rules, the Whitneys will become a system of self-congratulation for LDStorymakers and become gradually deligitimized.

    I don’t want that to happen. I want the Whitneys to succeed. And reading a review like Jonathan’s of Merrill’s book fills me with fear that, at least in this category, things are falling apart.

    Maybe they need separate categories with euphemistic names that actually mean “clean” and “12-year-old-says-nuts.”

    Wm: If Moriah writer her blogpost, can we let that link stand? I think it would be valuable.

    Lastly, limited 3rdperson has been standard in all genres for decades now, but I think we’re coming out of the strict strictness we saw ten years ago where any violation was considered a mortal sin which made an author worthy of shunning.

  31. You encode something, you create limits and you grant the impetus to shrink things further. I’d rather it be left unsaid and let the composition of the judges decide things. Awards programs can change dramatically over time in what they value and how they approach things.

    The tie to LDStorymakers has been there since the beginning. Legitimacy is a) in the eye of the beholder and b) should be granted from those beholders based on how the awards actually shake out year-to-year.

    It’s already been stated that several of us think that The Death of a Disco Dancer was deserving to be a finalist in the General Fiction category. I’m not sure that more needs to be said than that — other than to deepen and strengthen why some of us feel that way.

  32. Everything — from the LDStorymakers affiliation to the branding to the finalists to the event itself.

    But what about the case of someone like Moriah? She thought her book was eligible for consideration, but it looks as though it may have been eliminated because of objectionable content. If she didn’t realize a book like hers could be eliminated for such reasons, isn’t that a failure of signaling?

  33. I assume that the makeup of any given year’s judging panel will determine what is and is not acceptable/appropriate/clean-enough content.

    Th, I’m still sitting on my blog post. I haven’t grown any less angry (and as time passes, I just get angrier), but I’m trying to compose something semi-rational and coherent. Also, I’m certainly not going to post it when my Twitter milieu is off having a real life.

  34. Jonathan, once I finish reading all the books then I might (or might not) decide to get more specific about what I think. Although I’m happy to say good things about books I really like — I’m even happy to say good things about books that I think are okay and just focus on the things I like about them — I decided a few years back that the MoLit community is so small that it’s not in my best interest to call out specific books or writers if I dont’ like their work. Some people might disagree with this decision, but I just don’t feel comfortable going there publicly.

    And Wm, I wasn’t trying to just beat the drum for DoaDD. I was making the point that if a book receives enough nominations to be considered, then it should be considered on its merits regardless of when in the calendar year the book is published. And since it is a book I’ve read, when I compare it to some of the other finalists I do end up scratching my head. But I’ll be sure to steer clear of mentioning it again.

  35. I decided a few years back that the MoLit community is so small that it’s not in my best interest to call out specific books or writers if I dont’ like their work. Some people might disagree with this decision, but I just don’t feel comfortable going there publicly.

    I totally get this. I’ve gone round and round with it myself, but…

    It’s because we ARE so small that I think maybe we ought to step out and say it because…who else will? Certainly not outsiders who a) don’t know our language or culture and b) wouldn’t read those books anyway.

    As we’ve seen, Carla Kelly stepped out of her fanbase’s comfort zone and got creamed for it. (That’s just one example, but representative, from what I’ve read across romancelandia.)

    One book I’ve read is what’s brought me to this, and even now I won’t link to it because it makes me so uncomfortable. The author is a nice person (aren’t we all–except me) and I DON’T like hurting her feelings, but great googly moogly! it was a right mess. Published by a major LDS publisher. And she’s giving writing advice.

    So if we don’t…who will? Will the bad writing in LDS lit perpetuate because we don’t want to call books out?

    I don’t know the answer. I’m still conflicted.

  36. I decided a few years back that the MoLit community is so small that it’s not in my best interest to call out specific books or writers if I don’t like their work. Some people might disagree with this decision, but I just don’t feel comfortable going there publicly.

    . . . So if we don’t”¦who will? Will the bad writing in LDS lit perpetuate because we don’t want to call books out?

    I think we need both the “cheerleaders” who rally positive attention to the community and the “critics” who are willing to call people out when they could do better (but still in the spirit of helping the community).

    Whether or not you want to be in one camp or the other will depend on your relationship to the community (some aren’t in a position to publicly criticize) and on your personality, I suppose. I respect anyone’s decision to pick (or lean towards) one camp or the other and so long as there are at least some people willing to fill each function, we should be fine.

  37. “If she didn’t realize a book like hers could be eliminated for such reasons, isn’t that a failure of signaling?”

    I’m pretty sure that MoJo knew that this would be a test/edge case and treated it as such, but I may be misremembering.

  38. Angela:

    I’d actually forgotten that you had mentioned the novel — I was referring to others of us. So that was definitely not directed at you.

    “Whether or not you want to be in one camp or the other…”

    I try to be both, but I’m not sure I’m doing a very good job of it.

  39. “Who else will do it?” Yes. As a closed community, we are unfortunately all too likely just to say positive things about each other and hope someone else will say the tough things.

    Which isn’t to say that I blame Angela for her stance. She occupies a particular position (as all of us do). Life is too short, and you have to choose which things are worth trying to do. If issuing negative critiques undermines other, more important (to her) things she’s trying to do, I totally respect that. Especially since issuing negative critiques (and confronting, or even contemplating, the negative reactions to them) is so draining.

  40. I’m pretty sure that MoJo knew that this would be a test/edge case and treated it as such, but I may be misremembering.

    Yes. In fact, I wouldn’t have tried for it at all if my Cheerleader in Chief hadn’t encouraged me to do it because HE had enough faith in it (and its veracity as an “authentic” Mormon novel) to think that it would be treated fairly.

    Similarly, if it were only that my book didn’t make the cut, no big. A little disappointment and drowning it in a bag of Skittles, and then onward. The next book in the series isn’t gonna write itself, yanno?

    But it’s that false review that was posted on Goodreads on August 12, 2011, that has had me in a tizzy ever since, wondering what to do about it.

    If the person had left 1 star, then YAY! I get an average that doesn’t look like all my friends and family were deliberately trying to boost my ratings.

    If the person hadn’t been a Whitney judge too, then I could chalk it up to somebody not liking its content and trying to discredit it to save the church some embarrassment. I grok that.

    But it was a Whitney judge who went to a bit of trouble to post something about the book that is not true.

  41. .

    FTR, I agree that a natural and good part of awards is how their unstated preferences change over time. In part I think this is good because it tells us something when, say, Gigi wins best picture and Vertigo doesn’t even get nominated.

    And isn’t the real purpose of awards to get us talking about the books?

  42. I try to be both, but I’m not sure I’m doing a very good job of it.

    I really appreciate the work that you do on all fronts (and I don’t actually think the two camps are as mutually exclusive as I made them sound).

  43. Thanks. I keep trying to focus on just one area (both as a critic and a fiction writer) but there’s something in my personality that just won’t let me.

  44. I thought the judges (the five who pick the five finalists) were supposed to be anonymous. It seems sensible, but it does also make it hard to figure out what their motivations are for choosing certain books over others. I’m also curious about the judging process works and how five people ranking their five top picks works out to determine the finalists.

  45. .

    Incidentally, I think it’s worth pointing out that sometimes people just wont like stuff that most of us do like. And yes, of course that makes them wrong, but it’s a sujective game, ultimately, yes?

    By means of example, the woman Moriah’s complaining about?

    She also gave one star to Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby, On Walden Pond, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, both The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, Lonesome Dove, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Memoirs of a Geisha, Charlie and the Choclate Factory, the Outsiders, The Chocolate War, Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret?, The Wizard of Oz and, wait for it, The Velveteen Rabbit. The Velveteen Rabbit!

    In terms of Mormon lit, she one-starred Ender’s Game, Folk of the Fringe, Saints, and the Women of Genesis Books. She’s one-starred the Fablehaven and Alcatraz books. The John Cleaver books. The Wednesday Letters. Charley and Sam both. Gravity vs. the Girl. On the Road to Heaven. Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon. Goodbye, I Love You.. The Christmas Box, The Actor and the Housewife and Daron Fraley’s The Thorn.

    So if she’s a hater, she’s an equal opportunity hater. There are books here I hate too (though I would give neither Walden nor Oz a one measly star).

    I guess my point is there’s no accounting for taste. And I guess those without taste, if they’re actually reading (unconfirmed) deserve to be heard as well.

    That said, thank goodness those of us with much more exquisite tastes are such loudmouths.

  46. As far as deciding to speak critically about fellow writers’ books, I’ve always seen myself as more of a writer and editor rather than a critic. And Jonathan is right: being a critic can also be quite emotionally draining, especially when the people you’re critiquing are part of your community, and I’m not sure that’s how I want to spend my energy. That said, I do have opinions, and I am willing to speak generally about issues I see in Mormon lit that trouble me; I suppose I simply draw the line at naming names and titles. A group post is going up at Segullah soon that details some of our impressions so far and I’m not pulling any punches re: my disappointment. I also plan to write another post for Segullah once I finish reading that explores the differences between inspirational and contemporary realistic fiction for adults and how we might not be doing ourselves any favors as a community by privileging the inspirational over the literary.

  47. Perhaps inspirational fiction needs to be pulled out as its own separate category in the Whitneys. Certain The Walk: Miles to Go would qualify, and probably Gifted. Maybe even The Evolution of Thomas Hall and Before I Say Goodbye, though at that point you run into problems drawing lines between genres. I’m not too familiar with how “inspirational” is typically defined as a genre category. Anyone out there who can help with this, including how it might apply to these 5 titles?

  48. The Whitney judges are supposed to remain anonymous. This was a real problem this year.

    There is a panel of five judges for each category. The panels of judges are separate and distinct from the organizing committee.

    The members of the organizing committee vote when the rest of the academy votes–once the finalists have been chosen by the judges at the end of January.

  49. I just realized what most overlooked book for the 2011 Whitney Awards is:

    Crossed by Ally Condie in the Youth Fiction–Speculative category.

    And I’m ashamed to admit that I may have forgotten to nominate it. I’m pretty sure I submitted Variant and I Don’t Want to Kill You and possibly even The Alloy of Law (I would have done The Death of a Disco Dance, but I wasn’t able to read it until 2012 [another reason for ZB to release its novels earlier in the year]), but I don’t think I nominated Crossed. Sorry, Ally. I’d have a very hard time choosing whether to give it or Variant my vote (were I voting this year — and had it been a finalist), but Crossed might have a slight edge there because of its limpid, poetic prose.

  50. I’m working my way through this same category, and I’m relieved that I’m not the only one who felt these ways about Evolution of Thomas Hall. It was disturbing to me to go and read the amazon reviews and wonder if I was the only one.

    On the other hand, it is such a different kind of book compared to the others in this category that it naturally stands out. And after being repeatedly hit over the head by Merril’s pungent descriptions, I’m having a hard time feeling anything with the others. I wish Death of a Disco Dancer was on the list simply because then I might have access to a copy of it 🙂 I have a feeling it wouldn’t be in my local library.

  51. This may not work for you, Sarah, but just in case anybody else out there is intrigued by The Death of a Disco Dancer, the ebook version is only $1.99: Kindle | Nook

  52. While I am a newcomer to the comments, I’ve been a member for several years. And, yes, I oar in this water. Two books of mine ““one non-fiction, the other general adult fiction –were released in late 2011 and days into 2012 ( a third is scheduled for release late this year). Neither have been reviewed by AML yet, so I can’t grump about that. Yet .

    However, the novel deals explicitly with the tricky, if not personally suicidal task of creating literature that would be acceptable to Mormon adults, concluding that it is a fool’s errand, more or less. An excerpt in the AML exchange about books that may or may not have been shut out of this year’s Whitney competition, gets to the heart of the matter:
    “Shutout of literary fiction? I can’t comment directly on the question (raised over at the AML blog) of whether The Scholar of Moab and Death of a Disco Dancer were unjustly passed over in this year’s list of Whitney finalists, since I haven’t read either book. However, from reading the books that were finalists, I can say that a really strong piece of non-offensive literary fiction should have been able to make it onto the finalist list — if the panel of judges was truly open to literary fiction.”

    To repeat the startling words: “”¦a really strong piece of non-offensive literary fiction should have been able to make it onto the finalist list.”

    Really? Say what? Why must strong literature also measure up to someone’s arbitrary “non offensive” standard? Almost by definition, good literature is bound to offend someone.
    A serious rethink is needed.

    As my publisher may be planning to enter my novels ““ both are bound to offend many — for The Whitney, I’ll drop him a note with this bit of advice: “fuhgewdabowdit!”

    RB Scott

  53. Replying to RB Scott: You have to know your audience — which you apparently don’t, since you confound the Whitneys with the AML awards, which are entirely different.

    AML awards are made by the AML board based on recommendations from selected judges, and tend to be more literary. The Whitneys were explicitly designated as a more populist venue, and go through a 3-part process of nomination by readers, selection as finalists by a panel of writers, and voting for the awards by a broad community base.

    The finalist selection juries for the Whitneys tend to be heavily populated by mainstream/popular writers who tend to reflect the concerns of Mormon readers as a whole. As such, they’re going to (for example) feel quite leery about R-rated material.

    AML awards don’t result from the same process and don’t have the same goal. In general, I’d say they’re more open to edgy material, but with less interest in genre or popular fiction. By all means, have your publisher submit copies if desired. (Note that one doesn’t submit copies for the Whitney Awards.)

    In any event, however, my comment wasn’t about whether or not the Whitneys should or shouldn’t shut out offensive fiction. Rather, it was about whether or not the Whitneys do or don’t shut out literary fiction — even if they don’t have other issues, such as offensiveness.

  54. Wm., Crossed was nominated, but did not make the finals.

    There were 10 nationally published nominees in YA Speculative (42 nominees altogether in that category). It was an insanely competitive category this year, and will most likely continue to be.

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