A review of Rachel McClellan’s “Escape to Eden,” and why we should advocate for LDS Commercial fiction

My last post was about LDS literary fiction. I discussed the fact that it’s difficult to place, and difficult to find an audience for; partly because literary fiction tends to have a much more limited audience in general than commercial fiction and partly because those who would consume LDS literary fiction (other than those of us already knee deep in the world of LDS arts) don’t seem to have easy access to it, or knowledge of it.

Today I want to turn this topic on its head, review a commercial LDS novel, and talk about why LDS commercial fiction is an important element of our culture.

Rachel McClellan, the author of Escape to Eden (CFI: Sweetwater Press, released at the end of this month), is another success story from the extraordinary local writing critique group I’ve had the privilege to belong to. We’re based out of Idaho Falls, and only 30 percent of us, maybe, are Mormon. We’ve had a lot of successes. My friend Wally’s had two books published by a national publisher. McClellan has successfully released several self-published novels in addition to Escape to Eden, and also partnered with LDS publishers. ANd there’s me. I’ve done okay, too. And there have other successes in poetry, creative nonfiction, children’s literature.

McClellan writes YA paranormal and dystopian fiction. This is a very popular genre right now. It’s what everyone in the publishing world is looking for… YA or “New Adult” “Urban Fantasy.” I have read those phrases on agency websites and on agent “wishlists” over and over again as I’ve been lately submitting my own work.

McClellan is one of the most enthusiastically imaginative writers I know. She loves developing unique takes on old tales, turning “what ifs” into mind-bending stories. The enthusiasm pervades her work; you can’t help but be turned on by it.

The few critiques I have for Escape to Eden: I feel like the action scenes slow down quite a bit. Characters think and interact and fall in love too much when they’re supposed to be fighting and living in that “lizard brain” place of adrenaline. The other issue for me, is tags: naming the characters too much in dialog. This is something a lot of writers struggle with. Rowling did it in her earlier novels as well. I think it’s a “new writer,” thing that eventually fades as we learn to trust the flow of our dialog and our audience to follow along.

The compelling piece of this story for me, is the main character’s younger brother. He displays clear autistic tendencies, and this plays well to the main theme of the story, where the world we’re introduced to is all about genetic perfection–manipulating genes so that people are born “perfect,” and bred and manipulated to have superhuman qualities that build an “ideal” society. Unfortunately, there are unexpected side-effects–the human lifespan is shortened severely to a maximum of perhaps 3 decades. This has a cascading effect on society, of course. Twelve-year-olds are officially declared “adults.” People search for “original” DNA to prolong their lifespans, and they continue to mess with their DNA in other ways. Monsters are created, from the bulging-frontal-lobed “techheads” to the rotting, sewer-dwelling Junks.

Max is the antithesis of this–he is not only an “original,” a person born with un-manipulated DNA, but he is born with what the society would view as a clear defect. There is something special about the way McClelland develops his character, and his relationship with his sister, the main character, Sage. Their relationship drove the plot, for me, through the entire book, and made it something more special than your usual YA dystopian story. The LDS elements in it are obvious, too–the idea of “originals,” leads one to think about things like “original sin,” which leads directly to the theme of “Eden.” In this story, Eden represents a haven, a place for those of original genetics to start over and heal the society sickened by genetic experimentation.

If you’re looking for an entertaining read, this is one to try.

I’m going to mention something else. There are a few LDS authors who are engaging, right now, in Amazon’s KindleScout contest. It is fueled by votes and community support. As members of the LDS arts community, we should engage in supporting our fellow authors. I believe than that when one LDS author succeeds, it brings the general audience closer to all of us. Here’s the link to vote:

Steven D. Nielson’s Two Runs of Stone

Braden Bell’s Orison (writing as Brandon Gray)

Elana Johnson’s Echoes of Silence

Michael D. Young’s Wandawful

Julie Wright’s Death Thieves

These are all commercial novels. You’ll notice that they’re all YA fantasy.

A lot has been said already about why the LDS culture is a hotbed for Sci-Fi and Fantasy writing. I’ll go further and say, novel writing in general. I think that stories have been a part of our existence from the beginning as a church. Think of Joseph Smith. What was his job, primarily, as the first prophet of our church? Translating and distributing the stories of a people that seemed, at the time, fantastical… improbable. And these were truth.

I think there was a lot more fiction written, going as far back as the founding of our religion, than has seen the light of day. My own ancestor, for instance. Flora Lydia Shipp Curtis. She was a soprano in the first Mormon Tabernacle Choir, she was an accomplished pianist, she was a music teacher…

and she was a novelist. Family History relates that she wrote several novels. She had a box full of manuscripts. And finally, one day she finished one that she felt she ought to do something with, and so she sought counsel from “a priesthood leader of some prominence,” who took one look at her sheaf of carefully inked papers and told her to “burn it.” Because fiction was not worth her time; she had so many more valuable things she could be pursuing.

My ancestress was obedient. I wish I had her stories. I have to think there were others like her out there… scribbling down narratives, thinking of other worlds and other people and how their own struggles and sacrifices and the gospel could play in various situations, and how a story could sometimes be a tool to help others understand this fertile, unconventional gospel and culture that had sprouted up from the sterile prairie.

We’ve always been storytellers, is what I’m saying. And we’ve always been entertainers. Brigham Young was a fierce advocate for dramatic societies and even acted in plays. We danced and played music to entertain ourselves and make the sacrifice of prairie travel more digestible. If you’ve had any exposure to Mormon Culture and the Mormon Community, it would be hard for you to not notice that, as a people, Mormons are highly artistic, highly musical.

Highly creative.

Stories are an ancient entertainment; even before there was written language, there were stories. Stories told just to make people laugh, stories told to arouse or provoke or frighten or sometimes, to enlighten. When we say “commercial fiction,” we’re talking about one of the things that, in fact, makes us human. For survival, our hierarchy, as humans, starts at that same basic level of all creation: food, shelter, the building blocks for survival, but in order to be truly happy, a person needs more. They need intimacy, they need a sense of belonging, they need a sense of purpose. These battles for survival aren’t quite as gritty as the battle against starvation, the battle to help the next generation of young survive. They’re more theoretical–in the mind. And I think that’s where stories come into play as a tool for survival.

When we think of literary fiction, we think of writing that is superb, perspectives that are startling and different, stories that leave you with questions and perhaps make you uncomfortable, and challenge your mental capacity, and broaden your viewpoint. At least, I do.

That doesn’t mean that commercial fiction doesn’t do this as well. What is the definition of commercial fiction? I’d argue that it is stories written to entertain, to provide comfort. Stories that are written to be popular because they make people happy to read, or they elicit the sort of sensory response that a particular group of people have grown attached to–Stephen King and his thrillers, for example. They are a tool people use to comfort themselves. They are comfort food.  And we all indulge when we’re hurting. When I’ve got the flu, I want a light, fluffy book, or an entertaining book, or a thrilling book.

Commercial fiction can be superbly well-written. I’ve read books that are inescapably commercial (an example, any of Elizabeth Peters/Barbara MIchaels/Barbara Mertz’ Historical mystery thrillers or paranormal thrillers) and are smoothly written, have fabulous character development and lovely phrasing and word choice. I’ve read acclaimed literary novels (My most recent example: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate) where the character development felt contrived at times, the word choices awkward, and the plot rocky at first.

It’s likely that there are comparatively more poorly-written commercial novels out there, but that’s because there’s just a lot more commercial fiction out there. Books that sell well, that have a built-in audience, get published a lot more often than literary novels. A work of literary fiction has to be pretty spectacular to make it past all the different checkpoints before a book is published, for a publisher to take a chance on it.

We in the LDS arts community should be advocates of all types of fiction. Those who learn to love stories with an LDS theme or narrative are going to be more likely to pick up more books like that. After reading Carla Kelly’s latest romance/historical novel for instance (and by the way, Carla Kelly is a great example of a consummate writer/historian who specializes in commercial fiction. She is also an example of a sometimes-marginalized LDS writer; e.g. was kicked out of BYU bookstore signings because she writes, sometimes, for Harlequin), a reader might be more willing to turn to other novels that incorporate LDS history.

One thing that gets me frustrated about this dichotomy–the LDS literary world (AML, AMV, Signature Press) vs. the commercial world (Storymakers and the “big 3,”) is that we really aren’t much different. I’m sorry. I don’t see a *huge* difference in writing quality. And I see a lot of books pooh-poohed by the LDS arts world, that really should be counted as straddling the genres. Yorgason’s Bishop series, for instance. Or Jack Weyland. Yeah, groan if you want to, but (despite the outstanding commercial success of a few of his books) he’s actually a pretty good writer. And the themes he presents in his books aren’t much different from themes presented in say, BYUCK, and Hallstrom’s Bound On Earth.

One thing that the LDS commercial fiction world does much better than the literary and arts world does?

Advocate, support, and form active communities. Let’s face it. How much attention do the AML awards get, compared to the Whinteys? How many people attend the StoryMakers’ conference, and how many sign up for the AML conference? Haven’t we been struggling to even have them, lately?

I think this is a function of something I might call, “anti-commercialism,” that I think is kind of inherent in the LDS arts world. We don’t join in or asked to be included on LDS Fiction blog, even though we could rightfully belong there. We don’t host giveaways and provide incentives to review our books. We don’t (as far as I know) do group author-signings. We don’t do blog tours.

Why not? That’s my question. If we want to get our work into peoples’ hands (and there’s no shame in that) why don’t we make ourselves a part of this vibrant, supportive community, which contains writers just as talented and just as capable as any of us are? We have chosen different focuses, but we are not incompatable. Maybe we should join Storymakers and post publicly about Monsters and Mormons with a call for entries?  Why not go over there and provide information about MoLit contests such as 4-centuries and Mormon & Myth? Why don’t we ask some of the big name commercial authors such as Carla Kelly or Sara Miller Eden or Rachel Ann Nunes or Tristi Pinkston, to do a guest blog over here on AMV from time to time?

Commercial fiction has its place. Commercial novels are works of culture. And any of you who have enjoyed things like Firefly or Star Trek or Buffy or Agents of Shield or Supernatural or any Agatha Christie remakes or really, any TV series, have absolutely no credence to disagree.

Stories can expand our perspectives, create new ideas and bend the mind to think of possibilities beyond what we’d normally comprehend. They’re also there to make us laugh, to comfort us, to make us feel happy and pleasant and comforted, or (on the other side) frightened, thrilled and horrified. All stories have merit. All authors are worthy of advocacy.

There’s this one guy in my critique group (the same fabulous one that spawned myself and Ms. McClellan above) who wrote a novel based on a role playing video game he wanted to make. It was really, really hard to read, because he didn’t have a lot of experience with writing yet. I marked up his pages until they bled red. Why? Because he loved his story. So his story deserved to be told, and told in such a way that an audience could share his passion for it. And as he drafted and redrafted, it became something readable, something enjoyable.

As authors and readers, we need to be able to see the potential in the stories around us, and the potential in each other. We need to be that community of support, because that’s how we keep going… keep writing…crafting stories that become better and better. Community has always been the strength of Mormon Culture. We lift each other up until we have something valuable to more than just us. Where the Perpetual Education Fund, for example, has touched the lives of members in poorer countries, those members have made huge impact on the communities they live in.

LDS writers will make an impact in the world when we play to these strengths of community, loyalty, and support. As we continue to give each other honest feedback. As we continue to advocate for one another.

 

 

10 thoughts on “A review of Rachel McClellan’s “Escape to Eden,” and why we should advocate for LDS Commercial fiction”

  1. Thank you Sarah. You bring up some excellent, excellent points. You are also a wonderful example of someone who straddles both worlds, who speaks both languages, and I think more of us need to be like you. Although, I will admit that I don’t feel quite smart enough to be in the more literary world (even though I have a PhD in theatre). Your point about advocating and supporting each other is so well taken. I need to think how I can do better with that.

    Last of all, my biggest take-away from this piece is something you mention only incidentally. It’s the story about your ancestress (cool word by the way!). I am currently a local priesthood leader. I will be pondering her story and considering carefully all I say.

  2. .

    Community advocates are necessary in all fields and you’re right that the so-called literary world could do better working with or at least like the commercial world. I suspect part of the problem is that we have a clearer sense of how we define success.

  3. Great post.

    As far as the contests, the only excuse I have for not promoting them more widely in the writing community is that I’m typically short on time and I don’t know the landscape well enough. This year, we should recruit a promotional committee to help us get the word about the Lit Blitz out where more writers are.

    As far as personal promotion and blog tours, I can only take the call to improvement.

  4. Interesting article. Incidentally, I just deleted a lengthy comment. Maybe you’ll have to ask me to do a guest column sometime. I have a lot to say.

  5. One possible reason the literary side of this divide could be slow to join with the commercial side might be an outdated view of book marketing. Self-published writers learn pretty quickly that marketing is part of their job. As I understanding it, writers picked up by publishers are slowly realizing that publishers are doing less for them.

    I would love to be part of an effort to make us more visible to each other. We’re a micro-niche market anyway; dividing into literary vs. commercial camps ensures that few of us will ever reach the readers that might love our books.

    Another good goal would be banding together to petition Amazon for an LDS fiction category. As far as I’m aware, this category doesn’t exist and it needs to.

  6. Carla: I’ll email you shortly.

    “We don’t join in or asked to be included on LDS Fiction blog”

    I asked. Dark Watch got lost in the shuffle, but it’s now finally up.

    “We don’t (as far as I know) do group author-signings.”

    I would totally organize that type of thing if I lived in the West. I wasn’t as active with blog tours, etc. with Dark Watch because short story collections typically aren’t of interest. Plus there’s that time thing James mentioned. Plus the collection is not really aimed at a broad Mormon audience.

    All that being said: I agree with your larger points, and I’m glad you posted this review. The reality is that there just aren’t that many people who are interested in the intersections of Mormon fiction the way you and I are and those of us who are have a lot of other things we need to devote energies to. I’m not sure how to push back against those realities, although I do continue to think that while reviews and blog posts and events are important, the very best thing is to produce work that has the potential to reach a larger audience.

  7. I might, after this baby has been born.& aged a bit, try to carve out a few hours a weeks to work on advocating for out community/finding ways to help both bridge these divides & strategize as to how we, the smaller community, can market better on our own as well.

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