Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene

When Magdalene was nominated to be considered by the Whitney committee for the 2011 awards, Jennie Hansen, a well-known LDS reviewer and writer, posted a review on Goodreads that caused quite a stir in our little LDS writing community. Her review was short and to the point. She wrote:

“Disjointed, sloppy writing. Lacks real knowledge of Mormons and leadership in the Church. Too much vulgarity for vulgarities sake makes this story crude and amateurish.”  If you are interested, you may read and/or comment on this review here.

To a degree, I sympathize with Hansen. I assume that what happened was this: she opened the book, read a few pages, and then realized it was beyond her threshold for sexuality and language. She did not feel comfortable continuing with the read. What she should have done at that point was to say so and pass it on to somebody else on the Whitney committee who was more comfortable with sexuality and language in a story, so that the story (which was legitimately nominated by five readers, as per award-contest rules) could be reviewed fairly and weighed with the other nominees. If the Whitney Committee would like to exclude certain entries based on content, I believe that they should state this in their rules, and inform the author of the nominated work that this was the reason for exclusion.

I came to know about this story because I was given a similar, sort of strangely preachy, review by Hansen for my first novel, Lightning Tree. In addition, she got names wrong and events in my story mixed up. As a very new author I really was not sure what to make of it. I can handle criticism. In fact, I know that my first book had problems. But it was rather frustrating, to feel like my critic hadn’t bothered to read my story carefully. And the implication in her review that, because my characters’ level of faith and dependence upon the Lord wasn’t up to her own particular standards, it wasn’t a well-written book, seemed rather strange and yes, unprofessional. For her full review of my novel Lightning Tree you can click here.

This experience lead me to purchase and read Jovan’s book. I want to give it a review that people in the LDS arts world can trust to be accurate, from the perspective of someone who not only enjoys reading and reviewing LDS literature, but has read the entire work carefully, with a mind to look past personal preferences and preachiness.

SO, I’ll start off in my customary manner. Here are the difficulties I had with Magdalene:

It got a bit frenetic, fast-paced and jam-packed with events and references to previous events and people off-script at times. I followed most of the story pretty well, but there were moments that felt jarringly too-full-of-stuff and it took me out of the narrative.

I found the blend of blatant erotic romance and LDS-themed fiction confusing, amusing, disturbing and refreshing. I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to anyone under eighteen years of age, to anyone who is addicted to romance novels, or to those who are easily wounded by sexual slang.

That leads me to my biggest problem with this story. I am not usually a consumer of erotic romance, and so I don’t know how writers usually achieve the portrayal of detailed sexual encounters. But I found myself, in reading these scenes (yes, I read them entirely, I did not skip pages) wondering how such detail in sexuality could be achieved without use of words that are either clinical or slang. I can see why using the real words for body parts wouldn’t work at all, because we’d go from love story to obstetrician’s office. But the slang is just as bad–we go from love story to locker room. Is there any solution for this? I don’t know. So I don’t know that I can blame the author for it.

Magdalene is a story with entertaining, larger-than-life characters. The plot is riveting and, in the end, quite satisfying. Normally I struggle with this sort of cinematic storytelling. The Evolution of Thomas Hall, nominee for the 2011 General Fiction award in the Whitneys, for instance, left me sort of disappointed and, “eh?” in the end. It seemed sort of like big talk and, in the end, not much story. Magdalene, however, earned its dramatic telling. It was colorful and sweeping and wonderfully twisty and surprising until the very end. The writer kept all her promises. As a reader, I greatly appreciate it.

Hansen accused Jovan of sloppy, disjointed writing and poor research. As a very conscientious researcher myself, I had a distinct sense, in reading Magdalene, of the volume of time and effort the author put into getting details straight on many topics: business, finance, the steel industry, degenerative illnesses and, certainly, policies of the LDS church. Ms. Jovan makes no apology for the LDS-apologist elements in her story. In fact, another review stated this:

“I was hesitant to read the story because most Mormon-involved books involve a lot of apologetics. This one does, though it’s cleverly incorporated and doesn’t get heavy handed until about 70% of the way through.”

Because I took the trouble to read the entire work, I also noticed the accuracy and advocacy apparent in these details that were so carefully correct on a range of LDS topics, from priesthood leadership and responsibilities to church disciplinary counsels, to LDS temple garments, and much more.

Unlike Hansen, I have always loved stories that delve into the imperfect testimonies of real, LDS people; the doubts and fears and the struggle with conflict. I love the different shades of testimony Jovan paints in her various characters. I love her portrayal of how trauma has effects on testimony. And I will admit this”¦ this article, posted recently on Jovan’s blog, about wrong assumptions in our culture of sexuality and sexual knowledge, applies to me. Because of various events and circumstances in my life, I really struggle with this. I’m only writing about it here because I feel obliged to come forward as a case-in-point, and what that other LDS author she referred to in her blog post wrote about “we all know how it’s done” hurts me. It is a message that has hurt me in the past as I’ve tried, hard, to seek out answers and have been told I just need to figure things out on my own and be patient. And it continues to hurt me. What Moriah Jovan wrote in her story (explicit though it was, and in spite of what I felt about locker rooms) actually sort of helped me. It portrayed a healthy relationship, with sexuality as a source of joy, not shame, and one of the more detailed, explicit scenes actually kind of helped me through a sort of breakthrough. I’m not going to start reading explicit romance on a regular basis, but I truly believe my choice to pick up this book at this time in my life was inspired.

I was fascinated by the unfolding romantic relationship between the main characters. Mostly, I was fascinated by how the author chose to tell it. Before they were married, Jovan kept it fairly clean, though still honest; there were some frank descriptions of things that would never be found inside something sitting on Deseret Book’s shelves, but they were all things you really would notice in even the chastest of LDS courtships. The real erotica only started after the marriage. I felt like that was the author’s way of respecting LDS convenants.

It is impossible to miss the fondness this author has for Mormons, Mormonism, and even the Mormon gospel. Her characters are forever explaining to each other aspects of the gospel–describing how it’s affected their lives, the pain and joy it has brought. Without exception, the failures in the story are never because of God or gospel, but because of people and their imperfections.

I loved one scene in particular. After being unfairly excommunicated, a man walks into his library and, in a fit of rage and disappointment and helplessness, he smashes all the glass cases of his entire library of LDS literature. He tries to light all the books on fire, but they don’t burn. I feel like this story’s biggest message is this: we are all broken vessels. As sincere servants of God, we are filled with power–something truly perfect, something hugely important–but we, ourselves, often break and then cannot contain in true measure the thing we’ve been given.

In the end, I am not sure how I feel about the blend of erotica and LDS fiction. It confuses me a lot, to be honest. But that might be because (as I stated earlier) this is an issue I have in my own life. I wouldn’t recommend Magdalene to unmarried LDS persons, but for those who have passed through the rite-of-passage that allows sexuality to be an aspect of their relationships, I would probably say that, like anything else of a sexual nature between couples, it’s not for me, or for anyone, to judge what others do (or read) to strengthen their marriage and examine and work through and improve their own experiences.

One thing I can state categorically however. Regardless of your preferences as to genre and content, it is impossible to miss the quality of Jovan’s writing. She is clever, coherent, furiously fast-paced and exciting. She uses just the right amount of detail, writes characters that are somehow both incredibly improbable and extremely relatable, and overall hooks a reader and keeps her driven through to the very end.

27 thoughts on “Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene”

  1. Excellent review, Sarah. MoJo is doing exciting, ground-breaking things in her writing, and I believe her work deserves greater *ahem* exposure. 😉

    (I’ll forbear telling the story of how Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander got me through a horrible post-baby marital slump. Suffice it to say that I believe erotica has value.)

    Tangential: Having served a two-year term on the Whitney committee, I can tell you that unfortunately, your suggestion that Jennie pass on a book with which she’s uncomfortable was and is not a viable suggestion for Whitney judges because of the way the judging system is set up.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the legitimacy of the Whitney Awards rises and falls with the quality of the judges. There are five judges for each category, all of whom are supposed to remain anonymous, by the way. Those five judges are to read all the books officially nominated and then rank them. The top five go to the final round, in which the judging opens up to the “Academy.” That is a narrow, narrow gate, and a single judge can keep a book from moving on to the finals. I speak from experience as a twice-nominated author.

    I don’t see a way around the potential problem, though. I think the system is as fair as it can be. Judging is a thankless task, and I know the Committee is grateful when people agree to do it. The current president worked very hard to get both breadth and depth in every judging panel this year.

  2. Thanks, Sarah. I admire that you were willing to give MoJo’s work a chance. And then go public with an honest, heartfelt review.

    As to the Whitney judging: I think it’s inevitable that with such a small community of voices — and a community that overlaps in various areas but is not by any means uniform — that issues like the one you describe will come up. But I also think that it’s better to discuss them in a productive way than not bring anything up.

    By the way, even though this appears on AMV, I’d hate for this to be seen as an AML vs. LDStorymakers thing. I’ve actually criticized the AML more than LDStorymakers, and since Moriah writes romance (but not in a traditional way) and Sarah writes historical fiction and contemporary fiction (but also not exactly in the Covenant mold), they both have more in common with LDStorymakers and the Whitney Awards than not.

    Full disclosure: I’m a Whitney Awards judge this year.

  3. ^awesome, Wm!!! And I do not have anything against the Whitneys. Just people who post innaccurate, damning reviews because they feel some kind of moral superiority. Ok, got a bit knuckly in the comments, sorry. just, true.

  4. I’ve always thought of AMV as Switzerland.

    (And, having Swiss citizenship, I view Switzerland to be the closest thing we’ve got to the Celestial Kingdom, with the French-speaking part = the Highest Glory.)

    I do hope someday we will have no manner of -ites in the MoLit world. AMV helps build those kind of bridges, I like to think.

    🙂

  5. Oh Sarah, what a great review. Several comments. With regard to Jennie Hansen, I had to be appreciative that she even reviewed The Reluctant Blogger when there are so many books that don’t get the exposure she can provide. But the one thing in that review that I personally disagreed with her vehemently over was when she stated my main character really didn’t experience any growth over the course of the book. She also felt that my teenage girl was just a bratty little tyrant who should get over herself and a completely unlikable character. It stung for a couple of days, but I ended up chalking it up to personal preference in what each of us reads.

    With regard to Magdelene, as a reader who is loathe to venture into the romance genre, I absolutely loved this book. Like you, it contained subject matter I don’t generally read, but it didn’t repel me. As far as her writing, I think Moriah is incredibly gifted. I think the dinner scene where the two families meet for the first time is one of the most powerful bits of writing I’ve ever read. I also think there is way more honesty contained in that scene with regard to women’s role in society, both historically and today, than most LDS people would be comfortable to admit. There is a power women contain in their sexuality that LDS girls (and boys) are told is evil from a young age. Yet I believe if it were properly incorporated in marriage, equality in the relationship might be more easily achieved. I know that probably sounds disjointed, but the topic deserves a minimum of one full blog post as opposed to just a mention in a comment. Sorry.

    Anyway, I loved this review and appreciated it all the more because you were willing to open yourself up in the process as well. Thank you. Nevertheless, I think we all should be ready to accept that Moriah Joven will probably never win a Whitney in her lifetime. And that is more a commentary on the awards than the writer.

  6. yeah, I feel so conflicted about Hansen & her reviews. On the one hand, she is blunt. Saus what she thinks. And amongst the Storymakers crowd, that is rather rare.

    She does seem to be an advocate for new authors and new stories. And that is also rare and extremely helpful to those of us who haven’t quite broken into the market.

    But yeah, preachiness. And overall that is a symptom of a bigger problem in our community…. The review incident with Love Letters last year is another example.

  7. Great review. Magdalene is sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read (along with a host of other books, alas…)

    Technical note: the link to “this article , posted recently on Jovan’s blog” doesn’t go anywhere. Can you repost a link?

  8. Wow, I loved this review and the honesty I feel behind it. And as the husband of Moriah Jovan, I can tell you that she does strive for correctness in the details. Some of the conversations you may read in her works (and they ARE Marvelous) are based on real life conversation. Of course, being on the inside I am privy to portions of her that you as a reader won’t ever see. I am constantly amazed (and sometimes amused) when I get glimpses of my wife and her experiences in her characters. Loved the interpretation of the library scene.

    Thank you for the review.

  9. I think it’s important for reviewers to focus on the book they are reading and what it does or doesn’t do well, not the book they would have written if they were that particular author. If characters don’t do what you think they should do, does it mean that is a bad book? Expectations are a tricky thing to manage when it comes to book reviews.

    I’ve also been a Whitney judge and also had the experience of seeing some of the things I loved best not make it to the finals–I don’t know who my fellow judges were, but obviously we disagreed. I think that’s OK and I think more friction and disagreement should be present in the Mormon Lit world (as long as we can keep it from becoming personal–let’s focus on books and their merits please). Mormons are not all the same, we don’t have the same life experiences, and we value different things in books. There’s nothing wrong with that; I don’t have plans to read Magdalene anytime soon (not in a good place in my life for erotic fiction), but I’ve heard enough good things about it from sources I trust to assume that it’s a worthy book. I know too many people who specifically don’t read Mormon lit because they can’t find anything that seems to reflect their taste in reading and I think that’s a shame.

  10. I wouldn’t recommend Magdalene to unmarried LDS persons, but for those who have passed through the rite-of-passage that allows sexuality to be an aspect of their relationships . . .

    Overall, I really liked this review, but I have to say that as a single (never-married) Mormon, this particular line felt like a slap in the face. I take no issue with offering a content advisory for this book and I take no issue with unmarried Mormons who don’t want to read erotic romance, but perhaps you could have phrased this in a way that doesn’t remind me, yet again, that I don’t deserve a place at the adult table.

  11. .

    One great thing about Magdalene is that it breaks open all the expectations we have about what belongs in which categories. That wouldn’t really matter if it weren’t a good book, but it is. So there you go.

    Sometimes I regret working through some back channels to get an alternate reviewer to read Byuck for a particular media outlet. Maybe a harsh review would have done it a service…..

  12. Thank you for your review, Sarah! I’m a fan of Moriah and have been looking forward to reading MAGDALENE for a while.

    That said, as a single woman, I’m compelled to agree with Katya. Of course you are free to recommend the book to whomever you choose.

    However, if single people did not allow sexuality to be an aspect of their relationships… Well, we wouldn’t have any married people.

  13. My reccomend would be different from others’ reccomends. Remember I am a YW prez whose girls may follow through links I post. Sorry 🙂 keeping it as I posted it.

  14. I agree about sexuality being a part of courtship. But if it were my daughters or my YW, I would say maybe wait until you are at that point in your life. Again, I know not all agree with this 🙂 however. This is *my* review, and my reccomend is informed by my particular standards. That part of Jennie Hansen, I agree with. She can definitely reccomend to an audience based on her own morality constructs. What she did wrong, was she allowed thise constructs to skant her review as to writing and story quality. That, I object to.

  15. OK. I think you’re missing my point, so let me try again.

    The issue is not that you’re making a recommendation based on your own opinions and judgment. (That’s your prerogative.)

    The issue is not that you’ve made a factual observation about the differences between single people and married people within Mormon culture. (I absolutely agree that sexuality is a rite of passage, particularly since in Mormon culture it’s coupled with the rite of passage of marriage.)

    The issue is that, in this review, you went out of your way to make sure that a group of people who are already marginalized and infantilized within Mormon culture were made aware that they’re not invited to this party, either, and that they understand quite clearly why they’re not worthy of being invited.

    Let me give you an analogous example. Suppose that your Relief Society was having a lesson on eternal marriage, suppose that you had a friend in your ward who was married to a non-member, and suppose that you said to this friend “I don’t think you should come to the Relief Society lesson on eternal marriage because, after all, your marriage isn’t eternal.” Can you see how this would be hurtful? It might be your honest opinion that she shouldn’t come to the lesson (it could very well be a bad experience for her), and it’s quite true that she doesn’t have an eternal marriage (by a strict definition), but going out of your way to tell her not to come simply reinforces the (painful) divide between her and the women in the ward who do have temple marriages.

    Along the same lines, suppose that your ward had a big Mother’s Day program coming up, suppose that you had a friend who had had multiple miscarriages (but no children), and suppose that you said to her “I don’t think you should come to Sacrament Meeting on Mother’s Day because, after all, you don’t have any children.” Again, an honest opinion (and I do know many women who skip Mother’s Day programs for various reasons) combined with a factual statement, but it would still be an incredibly insensitive thing to say.

    I suppose I’m taking it as a given that you’re aware of married privilege within the Mormon community. (I see it as self-evident, but part of the definition of privilege is that those who have it are often unaware of it.)

    And it was honestly just the line about “those who have passed through the rite-of-passage that allows sexuality to be an aspect of their relationships” that felt like an unnecessarily cruel twist of the knife. (Yes, thank you for reminding me that, through no fault of my own, I am considered “stuck” in my eternal progression while 22-year-olds who have been married for a matter of weeks gleefully pass me by.) And you might say that I’m being overly sensitive, but I would point out that I’m not the only one who responded to that line in the same way, which would suggest that your wording was genuinely (if unintentionally) hurtful to a certain demographic. (That’s not even getting into the fact that it’s incredibly insulting to be compared to a Young Woman when I’ve been out of that program for half my life, or compared to your daughter, when I’m actually older than you. Again with the infantilization of single people.)

    I have more I could say but I wanted to keep this comment (relatively) short. We’ve had positive interactions in the past, so I hope that this interaction can also end on a more positive note of understanding.

  16. Katya,

    I understand your concern. We’re probably just going to have to be OK disagreeing. And I don’t in any way mean to imply things about your life or your choices, just, this is where I am right now. As I stated in the review, the whole concept and experience of sexuality is a difficult one for me. Right now, this is where I”m at–that’s how I wrote it, that’s how I feel comfortable recommending it, and it’s likely that I’m being limiting, on myself as well, in this issue. I definitely did not mean to make you feel less or non-adult in saying it that way; this is purely a reflection on how I feel about it in my own life. I hope you’re ok with my lack of adultness, because I’ll freely admit, in this way, I am not really grown-up yet.

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