Replacing Irreantum: Readership

Wm concludes his discussion of the issues related to replacing the defunct Mo-lit journal Irreantum by looking at the readership for Mormon fiction.

This post brings to an end my analysis of the barriers involved in replacing Irreantum, the now defunct literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters.

Other installments: Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions |Financial Models | Starting Up | Readership


This series began by me thinking through the issues related to replacing a small, now defunct Mormon-themed literary journal (Irreantum). Looking at all the challenges (and choices) involved, it’s easy to see why very few are willing to take them on. But if there’s a reason to do it, then it’s for this — the readership. That’s true of any publication, but I think it’s especially true for the Mormon readership. In my experience, although the readership may be small, the actual readers are delighted to find something on the page that they can relate to. It’s important, rewarding work, and if a replacement could come about that expanded the readership that Irreantum had developed, that would be a great gift to the Mormon people.

And yet, I don’t want to downplay the concerns. Mormon publications have a mixed track record. There are no unqualified successes and the trail has been hard sledding the past few years for outlets that focus on fiction (Dialogue and Sunstone seem to be doing okay, but neither focuses primarily on creative work). Literature has long been in last place in terms of attention from the Mormon Studies crowd. And what readership there is seems to me to be fragmented along several axes in relation to content appropriateness; genre-literary; types of narrative art (fiction, essay, poetry, film, theater); socio-cultural experiences (Mormon corridor – diaspora); cultural aspirations (deseret school – missionary school); etc.

Beyond that — and this is something that continues to puzzle me — there doesn’t seem to be a hunger for Mormon culture among the broader body of saints. Or if there is, it’s not one that many are willing to go out of their way to satisfy. You’d think that, especially with all the misrepresentations of Mormons in American culture (the trope recycling), this wouldn’t be the case. And perhaps it’s more that the populist juice in narrative art rests with film and gaming. But whatever the case, the evidences of pent up demand for Mormon fiction are lacking.

Compounding the problem is that there’s a lack of a steady, direct pipeline of readers. BYU’s Mormon fiction classes were the lifeblood that fed the Association for Mormon Letters for many years. Those still exist, but the mechanisms to draw in those who participate in those classes are weaker than ever, especially since so is BYU’s support of Mormon-themed fiction. Perhaps there is no readership and Irreantum ran out of steam at the right time.

But even if the readership is small, it’s lovely and deserves more than it currently receives. And if a cultural mania for reading Mormon fiction were to start, it sure would be nice to have an active body of work for new converts to dive into.

I don’t know yet how I want to respond to the death of Irreantum. But even though my plan two years ago had been to severely curtail my involvement in Mormon letters, I find myself unable to fully let go.

I have no definite plans although I’m full of ideas (that’s always been the problem). But this is me publicly saying that if someone out there is fomenting something, I want in on the conversation, and I may be able to help out. And if no one is doing anything, well, I’ll let you know what I figure out. It probably won’t be a replacement for Irreantum. But it’ll be something. Something for the readers.  

20 thoughts on “Replacing Irreantum: Readership”

  1. Perhaps there is no readership and Irreantum ran out of steam at the right time.

    Or perhaps the readership just expanded beyond Irreantum‘s (and AML’s) limited reach and is spread thinner over more (cyber)space…

  2. Perhaps. And I prefer more reach. There is a downside to that, though. And the bottom line is that if nothing replaces Irreantum (in some form or another), there will be less Mormon-themed fiction published next year.

  3. .

    I’m glad I didn’t launch my idea a couple years ago. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    Besides the fact that I’m still spread a little thin to just take this on.

  4. The future of Irreantum is now in the hands of AML President Margaret Young and the AML board. They may yet decide to continue it. There are many factors to consider–finding quality volunteer help, dropping subscription rates, and reduced funding (at one point we had help from a Utah Humanities Council grant). One of the most difficult aspects is not the editing, but keeping track of subscriptions, managing a bank account, notifying folks when their subscriptions expire, etc.

    Should Irreantum continue, or should it die so that something new can emerge in the this world that has changed so much since its inception? I do not know.

  5. Thanks for the update, Jack. It’s tough out there for lit mags. Some of the management stuff can be automated with the right software (or combination of software), but, as I noted in this series, it’s all the managing editing and admin stuff that soaks up time and is the volunteer work that is hardest to find because it’s labor intensive and not as fun as the editorial stuff.

    And thanks for putting time into Irreantum these past few years.

  6. I’ll bite. I was an initial subscriber to Irreantum and enjoyed the first couple of issues–reading it from cover to cover. But then things… changed. A new editor came on board with a different vision for the magazine and it looked like Irreantum was set to drift into the already well-served niche occupied by Dialogue and Sunstone–faithless stories by artists looking to be edgy or relevant or controversial. I let my subscription lapse. I got curious, once (and this must be four, five, maybe six years ago) and picked up another issue just to see how things were going. It had not a single story from a basis of faith or beauty or redemption. It looked to me that it wasn’t so much art for Mormons as it was art about Mormons–and mostly about how Mormons were stupid, tribal failures unable to live the tenets they actually professed.

    Is there a readership for Irreantum? Apparently not enough of one. Is there a readership for a magazine of LDS literature with a focus on faith rather than the struggles of the artist? I’ve always thought there was, but have yet to see anyone try to prove or disprove it. Irreantum started down that road but abandoned it rather early. There definitely isn’t a market for more along the lines of Sunstone or Dialogue. Those niches are already mined out. If you want something new, you’re going to have to differentiate from those.

    There’s long been a disconnect between our artists and the broader membership in the church. That is, to some extent, built into being an artist. Creativity demands exploration and that demands pushing at boundaries. But good art also needs those boundaries as much as it needs to push at them. Too often, our artistic community takes the egotistical, high-handed stance that the plebes (aka audience) should just take what they deliver and be happy. So our artists are busy producing art that “challenges” regular church members (aka readers). Which is why Dialogue and Sunstone manage to continue (however “strongly”): Dialogue as art for other artists (hence the name, really); Sunstone as art for the disaffected and/or adventurous (and yes, I’m stereotyping based on decades-old experience–I doubt they’ve changed much).

    What I’m saying is that there’s nothing for the regular membership. Which is unfortunate because the regular membership is a way, way larger audience than either of the others. If you could find an editor willing to tell artists to get over themselves long enough to write fiction that even tried to come from a standpoint that the gospel might actually be true… Or one who will reach out to those producing longer works from a faithful standpoint and see if they wouldn’t give a shorter form a shot”¦ I dunno what’d happen. All I know is that it’s never been tried…

    Wait, that isn’t actually true. The Ensign used to have the occasional decent piece of faithful fiction. And The Relief Society Magazine had a ton of it. Neither died as the result of audience indifference to short fiction.

    So yeah. Management, volunteers, editors and accountants are all a problem so I have no idea if an alternative could work. I suspect there’s an audience, but I’m unable to prove it. I only have this: I have a bishop and a cousin once-removed who both subscribe to every publication even rumored to be supportive of their faith. They aren’t the only ones. They currently can’t get enough of it. They’re looking for lunchtime and leisure reading. They won’t mind the occasional challenge, but they will mind, and resent, every challenge to their faith. You want something that can succeed in the marketplace? Try going where there’s an underserved audience eager for something new.

  7. Thanks, Jacob. Excellent points. Maybe what we need is a bunch of different approaches and see what shakes out. Or maybe editorial broadening combined with content warnings would help.

    I don’t know, but I’m glad for the reminder that there is a potential audience out there. It’s an audience that I would like to see better served.

  8. Thanks, Wm, for this series.

    Jacob has given a good reminder that a successful Mormon literary journal would almost certainly need to differentiate itself from the cultural stances of Sunstone and Dialogue. I have argued in the past that it also has to differentiate itself clearly from Deseret Book. My target audience for Mormon writing are the twice-burned readers who feel alienated by the competing aesthetics I call “cheese” and “whine.”

    As you mentioned, I haven’t provided the consistency and reliability a major project would need over the past year. I’m hoping that’s because of Leif’s health and our swing from underemployment in the summer to heavy over-employment this semester rather than the longer-term demands on parenting.

    I am planning to contribute more in the coming year. I talked to Nick Stephens yesterday about coordinating on a Lit Blitz this spring that will include a robust visual art contest as well as a literary one–maybe bringing together visual and verbal artists will help carve out that audience/community Mormon Lit needs. I’m also planning to sit down in January with Nicole and figure out what we can set aside as an annual Mormon Lit account now that we’re making more money. There may not be a major benefactor for Mormon Lit right now, but if we could cobble together a few serious average middle-class “pillar” contributors, we could almost certainly handle the modest budgets you’re talking about.

    I don’t know what comes next, but I do feel strongly that we need a space for Mormon Literary culture to develop and be discovered. I plan to be a part of that effort and I hope those of us who are committed to that general vision can find a way to coordinate effectively moving forward.

  9. I second everything said by Jacob, but with a caveat. Mormon readers want challenging stories, but in the name and not critical of the faith. Deseret Book publishes lots of thin stories with not much substance. Neither them or Dialogue/Sunstone speak to the vast number of Mormons looking for something to read. Write a story (fewer about gays that has been overdone) where a member struggles with sin and imperfection that has moments of doubt, but comes out of the faith stronger and more mature. Its difficult to do for sure. That doesn’t make it impossible. I can easily see semi-autobiographical fiction forming the basis of a Mormon literary tradition. That would stem from the autobiography that is already a recognized Mormon literary strength.

    “Beyond that — and this is something that continues to puzzle me — there doesn’t seem to be a hunger for Mormon culture among the broader body of saints. Or if there is, it’s not one that many are willing to go out of their way to satisfy. You’d think that, especially with all the misrepresentations of Mormons in American culture (the trope recycling), this wouldn’t be the case. And perhaps it’s more that the populist juice in narrative art rests with film and gaming. But whatever the case, the evidences of pent up demand for Mormon fiction are lacking.”

    I find this paragraph to be unsubstantiated, although we all have our own experiences. What you seem to see as a lack of hunger for a Mormon culture is a desperate cry to be considered part of the larger culture. The irony is that in trying to be part of the larger culture there is a loss of the faith that makes Mormonism unique. What develops in literature is the same cynicism, godlessness, and decadence that mainstream literature pushes. Faithful Mormons are left in the cold to read the thin output of Deseret Book if they read any Mormon fiction at all.

    This very conversation of having a literature is itself based on the idea that everyone else has one so why can’t we Mormons? Its tempting to state that true Mormon culture is anti-fiction, but that can be said about any religion these days considering the publishing climate. Part of the problem, as Jacob Proffit pointed out, is there exists a large audience begging for good Mormon literature to read and nothing to wet the appetite. They can pick cotton candy or broken glass, but not a real meal. Find the middle ground and whatever you produce should be successful.

    For the record, I think that a printed magazine is the wrong direction. Ditch paper and go all digital subscription with the option of printing on demand.

  10. “What you seem to see as a lack of hunger for a Mormon culture is a desperate cry to be considered part of the larger culture. The irony is that in trying to be part of the larger culture there is a loss of the faith that makes Mormonism unique. ”

    I agree. And Jacob may be correct that the right projects haven’t come along to really test this notion. But like I said: so far, other than God’s Army and possibly “The Book of Jer3miah “, there hasn’t really been a break out Mormon culture hit that deals directly with the Mormon experience.
    For example, and part of this may have been timing as well as me dropping the ball on publicity, but Monsters & Mormons (and okay it does have a few stories that are more in the Dialogue/Sunstone end of the spectrum), sold less than 300 copies. I wasn’t expecting more than that because 100-400 is the norm for ZB’s titles, but I would like to see a book of (non-DB) Mormon fiction sell, say, 5,000.

    But I’m happy for this feedback. It suggests that we need to keep experimenting — and perhaps especially in trying to find a sweet spot for Mormon lit (one that, incidentally, I think Everyday Mormon Writer has done the best at hitting).

  11. Tyler, Eric (I think) and I were discussing this general issue on Twitter week or so ago. I for one would love to write and edit for an all-genre Molit magazine, which I think should be all digital.

    One mandate should be encouraging and raising the bar on our faith- and culture-based fiction.

  12. It might be worthwhile to assemble a list of titles/experiences that have shown some evidence of combining a “serious” treatment of Mormon themes with more general popularity among Mormons.

    It’s somewhat dated, but the success of Tom Rogers’s play Huebener on the BYU campus around 1980 is another data point that I think can be added. As he describes this, it became something of a phenomenon, with family home evening groups attending, YM presidents taking their young men to performances, etc. I forget how many thousands saw the performances, but it was a substantial number.

    Of the Zarahemla titles, Doug Thayer’s Hooligan has been by far the most successful (about 2,000, as of the last time I looked). Part of that may be due to networking by the author, but that wouldn’t account for its vastly greater sales compared to The Tree House. But (a) it’s shorter, (b) it’s a memoir, and (c) the subject matter is less challenging.

    I think all of us who have been reading in Mormon literature for a while have our own favorite examples of books and stories we think *should* have broad appeal among Mormons, but have failed to gain that kind of following. In that respect, I find Tom’s experience with Huebener suggestive. Possible factors in its relative success, I would submit, include the following:
    – Introduction in a setting with large access to Mormon audiences
    – Implied stamp of approval/orthodoxy from a trusted source in Mormon culture (performed on a BYU stage, by a BYU professor)
    – Tie in with a high-interest, noncontroversial, non-Mormon “headline” issue (opposition to the Nazis: a contest with clear good guys and bad guys, although Tom explores more ambiguous conflicts within the play itself)
    – Based on a real-life experience of heroism by a Mormon
    – Development of a “buzz”
    – Involves watching/listening rather than reading
    – Potential as a social activity (unlike, say, a book)
    – More limited competition within its sphere (i.e., competing with other potential date/FHE activities, as opposed to competing with all possible solitary recreational activities as would be the case with a book)

    My own experience and observation suggests that what we have is a steep initial barrier with respect to broad appeal for anything perceived as “serious” Mormon literature, with elements ranging from the kinds of concerns Jacob mentioned related to stance/appropriateness, to doubts about quality, desire to avoid “depressing” content (whether faithful or not), uncertainty about the nature of the experience, greater anticipated level of effort, cost, etc. It takes a big push to get over that set of barriers: e.g., “buzz,” or knowing the author personally. Unfortunately, the first is largely a chicken-and-egg kind of thing (how do you get “buzz” if you need “buzz” in order to generate broad willingness to read?), while the second is inherently limited.

  13. On a different note: I suspect part of the problem is that one person’s faithful literature is another person’s doubting/skeptical literature. For example, for me, both Thayer’s The Tree House and Newell’s On the Road to Heaven qualify as faithful. But I don’t know if Jacob and Jettboy would see them that way. It might be interesting to have a round-table discussion of a few specific works, including people like Jacob and, say, my old stake president (someone I pass books to on a regular basis) whom any broad-based Mormon literature would want to appeal to, with a goal of trying to explore (or at least clarify) that question.

  14. Wow. I kind of expected to get jumped on for that post. Nice surprise.

    I agree that the definition of “faithful” is problematic . . . among artists. I don’t think it’s that problematic amongst the rank and file membership, though. At least, most rank and file members I know have a pretty simple metric for “faithful”: does application of faith bring positive change? If grieving, does it comfort? If doubting, does it enlighten? If concerned, does it guide? Too many artists see statements like that and push it to the strawman extreme. “Oh, yeah, faith is a magic wand that you wave about to solve every problem.” etc. That isn’t it at all. Members know that life can suck and stories about life sucking have their place. But we also know that the Holy Ghost brings comfort (no matter how dark our current circumstances) and that joy is the ultimate destination of every faithful member. And they want that reflected in their stories, even the ones about life sucking. i.e. it should suck less once God gets involved.

    I think Jettboy makes a good point about thin literature (though I’m not familiar with short fiction by DB). I worry, though, about the burden we place on ourselves and others to be “thick”. I think we might be trying too hard to create “art”. The best art also entertains. I think the pursuit of entertaining is as valid/useful a path towards art as the pursuit of art outright is. After all, the greatest artist in English Literature was primarily trying to entertain. I don’t know why that shouldn’t be as useful a path to art now as it was then. I worry, I guess, that artists can be too quick to separate themselves from their less-artistic brethren and that comes across in their stories.

  15. I’m learned something today. Margaret Young is no longer the AML president. Glenn Gordon now is. I misspoke on that earlier.

  16. While it may get talked about more among artists, it’s my experience that once you get down to discussing specific works of art (including literature), there’s a wide variance among regular LDS readers in what they consider faithful and/or faith-promoting.

    A lot depends on how you define the terms. E.g., what constitutes positive change? Most important, though, is the visceral reaction people have to the work of art: does it make *them* feel affirmed in their faith? And that can vary widely from person to person–in my experience.

    Thinking about individual cases, I’m also wondering if there isn’t a broad category of literature to which the distinction of focusing on faith v. focusing on doubt is simply irrelevant, because the work doesn’t revolve around questions of belief. Much of Shakespeare, for example, arguably falls into that category. How do we judge works such as those? Or when we talk about “Mormon literature,” are we inherently talking about literature that *must* be about faith and/or doubt?

  17. Everyone has good points (Jacob, loved your comment; spot on) and I think they’re all valid variables. There are SO MANY (variables)!

    But the first thing people need to know is that the work exists. And that’s a problem NOBODY has solved yet.

  18. The only way I can think of is to build something that builds such strong word-of-mouth that it spreads via social network.

    Note that I don’t know how to build that something.

  19. Nice post and lots of good points in the comments. By my lights, Jacob’s description of the poetry and fiction in Dialogue and Sunstone is overbroad, uncharitable, and/or simply inaccurate. Then again, maybe I should just let that go since he seems to also admit he hasn’t read a vast majority of what he is criticizing. That kind of guilt-by-association critique undoubtedly makes some people think “why bother?” That and the almost infinite opportunities to offend peoples’ delicate sensitivities about the representation of Mormonism.

    Yes, I’m skeptical about the viability of a printed/subscription-dependent Mormon-themed literary journal. Does anyone have evidence there is a market/audience for this stuff larger than 50 or so people? How many people subscribe to Irreantum? How many people on average buy even the best Mormon-themed lit fiction or poetry collections? I’m skeptical, but not totally resigned to despair. I think the answer is something online, less formal, less costly from an administrative standpoint, more community based, and more fun for the contributors. Some kind of literary fiction blog/zine that I am too busy to found and run, but to which I would definitely contribute.

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