The way I see it, In the world of LDS arts, we are a small family, and we have to take on multiple roles. Artist, critic, reviewer, publicity-generator, awareness-raiser… sometimes it can feel a little self-indulgent, or even dangerous, taking on these multiple roles.
Those who review books (influencing sales and ratings) often are those who choose which books are finalists in the Whitneys or AMV awards, for instance. And we all know each other. We’re all friends. It can be tricky. For instance, I have not yet had the courage to review Love Letters of the Angel of Death, even though I loved the book and feel it is an important work on the frontier of LDS literary fiction, simply because it was a finalist with my own novel in contest for an LDS arts award.
But, you see, we all need to do it. Review, create art, be friends, advocate for each other, etc. This often means putting on hats very carefully.
So here’s me, very self-consciously putting on my critiquer’s hat. I’m not speaking from a place of wisdom and skill as a novelist. Patricia Karamsesines is a consummate writer, far more developed than I am. My own novels are fluff in comparison. It’s true–they’re fluff. Though I do aspire to sell the sort of writing Patricia has had published, I’m a bit more mercenary, willing to collect an audience through the means of writing more commercial kinds of fiction for a while. So my skills and development as a writer have been directed toward things like plotting, keeping a pulse on the market and trying to come up with a story that might sell while still (sometimes clumsily) spoon-feeding unusual ideas and philosophy and things important to me. My focus has been not so much what I have wanted to focus on: , making an important theme a central message and refining flow and word choice, and continually making my writing more spare and beautiful… all the things that just make you have to stop and breathe for a moment when you read a poem (or novel) of Karamesines’.
I’m sure that The Pictograph Murders has been reviewed in the LDS arts community. Released 12 years ago, and a favorite with many of those I associate with, probably another review here might be seen as redundant or unnecessary. But I feel that there are very relevant themes to be brought out here… themes that apply to our current struggle as writers of LDS fiction, trying to find an audience, trying to be published. I’m going to just start with a straight-up review, then devolve (as usual) into the rest.
The Pictograph Murders is difficult to categorize, if that is important to you (and in the LDS and general Market, this seems to be increasingly vital if you are trying to sell books to an editor or publisher). The closest I can come up with is, it’s a hybrid of supernatural thriller and nature writing, very definitely and firmly in the category of what people call “literary fiction,” which to me, means writing that is done very well, writing that challenges genre.
In other words, writing that is hard to sell, and therefore, hard to place. Back to that in a moment.
Karamesines’ story is in my top three, if I listed all the LDS novels I’ve read and ranged them from most beautifully-written/most evocative and life-changing. The other two would be Angela Hallstrom’s book Bound on Earth and Jenn Quist’s previously-mentioned book, Love Letters of the Angel of Death.
Pictograph Murders was poetry with a hook, plot, and compelling character development. As with her poetry and creative non-fiction and nature writing, Karamesines takes nature writing beyond esoteric beauty of language and musing on her natural surroundings. She renders it, somehow, accessible and exciting and funny and frustrated and somehow, perfect in the human imperfection of herself as observer. In this way, she reminds me of my favorite nature writer, David Quammen. It is a consummate skill, bringing nature writing and poetry to the level where everybody who reads it (not just those who are into science and animals and nature and poetry), understands it and finds delight in the experience. It’s a skill that I believe is born in the mind and not easily acquired–a capacity to see the connection between humans and their surroundings, and to find humor and humanity in the natural world. It’s a rare mind that sees those connections as clearly as Karamesines and Quammen. It requires xenophilia, I think, and an openness of perception, a readiness to absorb any experience with humans, animals, or nature, and leave them uncategorized and un-judged… just perceived. I’m getting off-track, sorry.
Patricia’s voice is compelling, intelligent, warm, and honed to linguistic perfection. Like staring down into a beautifully clear desert pool the reading experience was un-muddied by poor word choice or extraneous descriptors. She chooses words that are just the right amount powerful and accessible, and so the reader will have an utterly immersive, powerful experience.
In addition, this is a story with a compelling plot, engaging and real characters, and dialog that flows naturally and often contains the sort of sly humor and wordplay (highbrow and low-brow, not just the sort of wordplay Karamesines herself would use, but true to all the characters), that is deft and satisfying. She creates a world and a situation that I want to immerse myself in because it is so different from anything I have experienced, and yet real… I feel, after reading this book, that I really have a feeling for what it would be like to spend time at an archeology dig in southern Utah.
The mystical elements of her story raised my eyebrow at first, but I soon found them perfect for the story. When the POV changes and we start reading about Coyote and his inner world it is a little jarring, but we soon sense the application to the story, and it drives the plot, while being wonderfully mysterious and fantastical. The sense of danger builds well through those passages, so that when we actually meet Coyote, we are well-primed to react to him just as the author intended. As a fantasy writer, I can tell you that this is very difficult to do–incorporate mysticism and fantasy into an utterly down-to-earth story with down-to-earth characters.
I loved the inclusion of Native American lore and mythology. It was not too heavy-handed, but left me with a feeling of having learned a lot about it.
The fact that this was a thriller, that Karamesines, a poet and nature writer, would choose this genre to write, makes me very happy for some reason. That she would choose a genre given usually to a lot of commercialism and make it her own, make it literary, is just miraculous to me. This is, I think, what we need in books right now. We need literary fiction to cross over into genres enjoyed by the general public. We need consumate writers who are willing to write the things that people are willing to read.
I’ll state the one or two things I did see that seemed a little rough. One is the characters–there were a lot of them, and I lost track of names. I feel like a few of them were under-developed for the story and the way they figured in later. I had to think hard and be like, “Oh, that’s right. He’s the cook’s assistant.” And I got the two women on the dig (other than the main character) mixed up sometimes.
The other is the dialog (with all its wordplay) did get a bit cutesy here and there. A little bit contrived in its linguistic cleverness. I still enjoyed it, but it did take me out of the story a bit.
Overall, I think this book should be one of those on Oprah’s book list, so that a much, much wider audience can read and appreciate. Because this book deserves that audience. You do not read very many stories like this in your lifetime–tightly written, consistent, literary while accessible to readers, funny, poetic, and frightening.
Which brings me to what I want to talk about. What does a writer of LDS literary fiction do these days?
In order to publish with one of the big 3 (Deseret, Covenant, Cedar Fort), you pretty much need to write a formulaic novel–the big sellers are historical fiction, historical romance, contemporary romance. There’s been a bit of YA fantasy and cozy mystery as well, but mostly the previously stated categories are what seem to sell in LDS bookstores. What if you’d like to write something that isn’t exactly a romance and isn’t exactly contemporary fiction? If it falls *enough* into a category, a publisher will take it and market it as such, and you’ll find an audience. Like my book, Mile 21. (The cover makes this explicit.) You’ll see, though, in reviews of my book, that while a lot of readers liked Mile 21, some who picked up my book hoping for a romance were a bit disgruntled.
Some writers have just gone ahead and done it–written the stuff the audience wants. I could too, if I wanted. I’m fairly certain, also, that Karamesines, Quist, and Hallstrom, with their command of language and character development and their scholarly tendencies, could write fabulous, bestselling historical romances as well, if they were willing to do that.
But we don’t want to. We want to write the stories that compel us. Which (not to dis romance or feel-good historical fiction–these are actually enjoyable for me to read) aren’t marketable to the general LDS market.
So where do we go? There are a couple, very selective independent publishers who specialize in LDS fiction that breaks the mold. This is where we got Bound on Earth and The Pictograph Murders from. But there, we have the problem of audience. The reach of these publishers is limited; mostly the people reading these books are us, the LDS arts community. Possibly the Whitney Committee, if one of them is nominated for an award, which can generate a good amount of reviews and press, but ultimately, if your LDS fiction isn’t on an LDS bookstore’s bookshelf, your readership is limited.
I suppose some writers might not be bothered by this. But I AM.
When I read a book like The Pictograph Murders, I feel kind of mad. I feel like the LDS population *should* all read this book. They would love it, if they would just pick it up. If they thought of LDS fiction as beyond romances and pioneer stories.
If LDS people who love reading literary fiction were to venture into an LDS bookstore and find several shelves filled with LDS literary fiction, they might be more likely to make trips to the bookstore and to think of LDS fiction in a less derisive light (I have several friends who say they don’t read LDS fiction because it is all romance or pioneer stories… tame, unchallenging… smug, even.)
If LDS people who love reading romances and pioneer stories could go into an LDS bookstore and find several shelves filled with LDS literary fiction, they might become immersed in questions, new viewpoints, redeeming ideas… they might find that they love books about archeological digs and the different facets of death and family relationships that mirror, very closely, pain and tragedy they experience in their own life, and give them comfort and new perspective.
I feel like the market is narrowing right now, as publishers struggle… there is not much room for what publishers aren’t *sure* they can sell. So where do we go, those of us who want to write a squirrely, non-conformist, genre-octopus of an LDS novel?
My husband has said a few times that he think things are ripe in the general market for a Mormon perspective. I’m not so sure. We’re not looked on yet, by the general public, as anything more than sort of quirky, I think. Sell a memoir as a Muslim–you’ll find an eager audience if your story is compelling enough. As a Mormon? At best you’ll find someone who might take a chance on your book as a quirky, offbeat take on American culture, lightly influenced by your odd, somewhat narrow, slightly delusional Mormon roots.
As LDS literary novelists, our primary audience right now is other LDS literary novelists, and the small collection of followers we might have gleaned on our own. Unfortunately.
Maybe I’m being really pessimistic. Sorry about that. And if I’ve offended people (I probably have,) just chalk this up to the musings of a frustrated writer/reader. And correct me if you think I’m wrong. I’d love to be wrong.
My point is, Patricia’s book needs to be read by more people than it has been read by, and that there need to be more books like hers, but I don’t see a lot of people with the chops to do so being willing to give it a try, given the current state of the LDS market.
Maybe my husband is right. Maybe the right direction is to take Mormon stories to a general market, and I need to overcome my pessimism and have faith that a general audience would find value in a Mormon perspective (that doesn’t have to do with presidential candidates or expository rhetoric on the subject of polygamy and other hot-button topics.)
In any case, I’m keeping this book on my shelf, and I’m buying a hard copy of Love Letters and Bound on Earth. I’m going to read some Doug Thayer. It will be my own personal collection of a genre that I treasure and hope will grow in numbers and authors.