Mormon narrative art: interesting — not serious

I’ve been following with equal parts hope and concern, the conversations on Dawning of a Brighter Day (see here and here) that are attempting to revive the Association for Mormon Letters. I have written a guest blog that should be appearing in that space soon that lays out my thoughts on the foundational stuff for the AML — mission and board structure/purpose.

I have many other thoughts as well, but the primary one that I want to address is the tension between literary fiction writers/readers/critics and genre writers/readers/critics. There are other important tensions that impact the AML, but this is a foundational one. And one that has the potential to foul things up considerably. It has already cropped in the comments to Theric’s post and was a contributor (although not the driving factor) to the creation of LDStorymakers and also to the Whitney Awards.

I use the terms literary and genre in the previous paragraph. I don’t like those terms. And neither do some of the people who get labeled with them. They have their uses, but they can be quite limiting. And some of the best works of Mormon narrative art completely break down when trying to categorize using that division.

One way to get around the use of “literary” is to deploy the related term “serious literature”. Serious just isn’t a very useful descriptor. And it’s insulting. As in: if someone using that term doesn’t include certain works in it then that by extension means that those works aren’t “serious.”

All creative work is serious (even, often especially, if it is humorous).

So what I propose is that as we think about what narrative art should get attention from the new AML, we use the word interesting. Not actually use it as a term, a label. But rather that that’s a* key metric for what works get attention.

The nice thing about interesting is that it doesn’t exclude genres and audiences. There are many ways that a work can be interesting in a way that fits with the AML. For example: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is not very interesting in terms of sentence level prose or overt Mormon content or use of poetic imagery or plot structure or narrative voice (all qualities that many people would file under the umbrella “literary” or “serious”). And yet it has received attention from LDS literary critics because it is interesting in terms of thematics, plot, reception among readers, including LDS readers, and reception among national reviewers/critics.

Stories can be interesting in many different ways and interesting in different ways to different audiences. But, at least in my experience, not every story is interesting enough to write about, talk about, receive consideration for awards, etc. So using interesting as a metric doesn’t mean that every single work get the same amount of attention. It simply means that the works that the AML engage with need to have aspects that stand out, that are worthy of taking notice and considering further. And that’s regardless of how “literary” or “serious” they may or may not be.

*There’s another key metric. But that is covered in my guest post for the AML.

Guest Post: D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints: An Irreantum Review

Before Irreantum folded, I’d recruited a few people to write book reviews for what I thought would be the last issue. Among the reviewers was Emily Harris Adams, winner of the 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz. Emily was given the assignment to review D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints, a Mormon steampunk novel that was originally serialized and published through Amazon. After Irreantum‘s no-more-ness became manifest, Emily contacted me and asked what to do with her complimentary (i.e. FREE!) review copy. I told her to keep it and forget about the review. Not wanting the book to go to waste, though, she wrote the review anyway and sent it to me to post on A Motley Vision.

So, in memory of Irreantum, I post Emily’s review…with hope that the journal will find a new beginning sometime soon.

****

After reading City of the Saints, I couldn’t quite figure out a succinct way to describe the overarching, grand picture of what I had just mentally ingested. Not until I ran into Dave Butler himself.  When he asked me what I thought of his book, I said,

“It’s history cake, isn’t it?”

And it is. There’s an unabashed reveling in the historical yumminess.

This book isn’t history candy. If you are looking for something enjoyable but without density, a fun read that happens to take place in a historical setting, turn your handcart around because this is not the right place. This story is rich and indulgent but still substantive. In other words: cake.

Continue reading “Guest Post: D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints: An Irreantum Review”

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

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. Continue reading “Replacing Irreantum: Readership”

Replacing Irreantum: Starting Up

Wm looks at some items relating to the starting up phase of starting a successor to Irreantum.

This is a continuation of 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

STARTING UP

There’s such a wide range of factors involved in starting up a successor to Irreantum that I almost didn’t do this section, but there are a few items to think about in relation to starting up a Mormon literary magazine/journal that I decided I had something to say about.

Irreantum Assets: I’m not sure what all these would be, but at the very least there’s the Irreantum name itself and associated domain name [irreantum.org, which was never utilized for much]. But there may also be electronic files for previous content and those archives (and I don’t how extensive they are–it’d be awesome if there are electronic files that go all the way back to the beginning) could be leveraged for some value. Of course, anyone who wanted to put together a successor to Irreantum would need to put together a proposal for the board of the Association for Mormon Letters. I don’t know enough about the situation to say whether or not building on the bones of Irreantum is a good idea, but it may be worth exploring.

Minimal Start Up Costs: A domain name and a year of web hosting will cost about $100. Depending on the web development skills of the start up team, you may need to add on a premium WordPress (or other free CMS) theme as well as premium. Prices can vary, but a good premium theme can be as low as $40. That’s the minimum. Let’s say you want to produce 4 issues (I think 6-12 would be better) and pay for cover art (which is a good idea). In my opinion, $100 a cover is the minimum you should pay. And then let’s say you publish 6 pieces per issue and pay a token average payment of $20 per work. That’s $400 for a year’s worth of covers and $480 for content. Or say you were willing to pay 3 cents a word and averaged about 4,000 words per story/essay. That would make for 24k words per issue and 96k words total for the year at a total cost of $2,880. That’s all without paying for layout or editing or any additional services or advertising. But let’s say you operate under the exact submissions model as Irreantum and run a contest. For first, second and third place, Irreantum provided $300, $200 and $100. Assuming you’d do both fiction and essay, that’s $1,200 a year.

Crowdsourcing: One way to cover the start up costs would be to crowdsource them using something like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. The beauty of crowdsourcing is that you are essentially pre-selling subscriptions. The genre community has found some success in funding anthologies and/or a year’s worth of issues of a magazine. Such a campaign could also test whether there is a readership for the magazine. The thing is, though, that Mormon fiction projects don’t have a great track record of being funded via a crowdsourcing campaign. Another barrier is that because crowdsourced campaigns rely on a variety of deliverables to gain traction, often a print product is involved and print versions can quickly eat up funding. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why crowdsourcing is attractive to those looking to kickstart magazines or (more often) anthologies. Let’s say a magazine was able to offer a good range of virtual incentives (no print version) from $5 to $30 and average $15. If you could attract 150 funders (which, make no mistake is a lot in the world of Mormon fiction — it’s certainly no given, but it’s doable), then you’d have $2250 to work with. That’s enough to pay for some covers and token payments to contributors as well as for basic webhosting. On the other hand, what happens if the Kickstarter fails? That can suck the air out of a project. An audience for a fiction publication especially can take a long time to build as potential readers (as well as potential contributors) wait and see if they like the editorial direction of the publication (or just see if the thing is going to make a go of it).

Recruiting Volunteers: based on my experience, here’s how to effectively recruit volunteers.

  1. Have a system in place to manage the work being done. Note that email + attachments is not a good system. Also have a style manual and production manual.
  2. Create a defined list of positions along with the job duties and expected time it will take to do the job well.
  3. Make sure a few of the positions can accommodate a fair number of volunteers just in case they appear (for lit pubs, that’s often slush readers and copyeditors). These are folks who can grow into other positions (either through experience or the ability to commit more time to the cause).
  4. Provide training.
  5. Have people in charge who are responsive and friendly.

Social Media: use it. It’s a must in this day and age. You don’t have to be prolific, but you should be consistent in posting, interact with your followers and have a point of view/unique voice. I’d say that Twitter and Facebook are the place to start, but I’d also play with Pinterest and Google+.

That’s all I have to say in terms of starting up a successor to Irreantum. Any othe analysis would be in response to specific efforts. What did I miss?

And with that, we have one more to go in the series: Readership.

Replacing Irreantum: Financial Models

Wm looks at financial models and especially revenue generation for any potential successor to the Mormon lit mag Irreantum.

This is a continuation of 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

FINANCIAL MODELS

Any replacement to Irreantum is going to have to have a viable financial model. By viable, I mean one that allows for the continued production of the publication. There a variety of ways that continuity can happen. Technically I’m mainly going to talk about generating revenue so this post should perhaps be named revenue models, but how much and what types of revenue generation is required for a lit mag/journal to continue to put out issues is driven by the financial model of the team behind it. In brief: the financial model can either be for-profit or not-for-profit. The legal structures (assuming that this is a U.S.-based publication) can be anything from a sole proprietorship to an LLC, LLP or S corporation to a cooperative (informal or legal), 501(c)(3) nonprofit, or private foundation. While the underlying legal structure matters, it doesn’t change the essential financial imperative of any publication: covering the costs of producing each issue. Here then are what I see as the range of revenue models for a lit mag/journal. Note that these can be combined and configured in many different ways.

Benefactor: The advantage of having a benefactor fund the successor to Irreantum is obvious: there’s immediate start up money and (often) money to fund on-going operations. The major disadvantage is that one is almost impossible to find. But let’s say that one could be found. There are very few benefactors who are willing to be completely hands off. Even if they are hands off at first, eventually they want some say in where there money is going (as well they should). In addition, they also usually expect that the organization raise as much money as possible in other ways, which means you still have to undertake some or all of the below. As far as I know (and I don’t know much), there are no major benefactors (note the term major; there have been some minor ones: see the next section) out there who would be willing to fund a Mormon lit mag/journal. Continue reading “Replacing Irreantum: Financial Models”

Replacing Irreantum: Generating Submissions

Wm discusses how to generate submissions to a lit mag, specifically: exposure, prestige, editing, contributor copies, cash prizes, token payment, pro payment and revenue share.

This is a continuation of 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

GENERATING SUBMISSIONS

You would think that with so few outlets for Mormon short fiction that submissions wouldn’t be a problem for any successor to Irreantum. My understanding is that that’s not necessarily the case. Very few Mormons fiction writers write Mormon fiction that shows the craft and maturity and potential appeal to readership that one would want in a lit mag that publishes more than four or five stories a year. A key reason for that, of course, is that there is little incentive to do so.

Any potential successor to Irreantum is going to have figure out how to increase both the number of submissions and the overall quality of them. That’s may be difficult, but I don’t see why one would even bother to launch a Mormon lit mag if you’re not going to aim to increase the number of stories written, submitted and published. If all the field needs are 8 or so short stories a year and a dozen to two dozen poems then that’s already covered between Dialogue, Sunstone and BYU Studies. So what can/do lit mags offer submitters?

Continue reading “Replacing Irreantum: Generating Submissions”

Replacing Irreantum: Staffing/Production

Wm discusses staffing and production for any potential successor to Irreantum.

This is a continuation of 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

STAFFING/PRODUCTION

A literary magazine/journal is nothing without an audience, but it can’t even try to establish an audience without staffing to create the thing. That’s an obvious statement, but in the world of Mormon letters it represents a major challenge to any ongoing attempt to publish fiction. Very few fiction magazines can support a full-time staff. Many rely on institutional affiliation or at the very least on key staff who have faculty positions at institutions that will give them the time and even credit towards promotion/pay increases for their work on the journal. As far as I know there is no institution that would be willing to provide that. I don’t know that that’s the best idea anyway because of the issues I raise in the previous post. Academic or foundation support comes with a certain set of expectations that are often inimical to the more populist scope that a successor to Irreantum probably should attempt. Irreantum struggled with staffing, especially succession planning. In fact it’s amazing that it lasted as long as it did, and I personally am grateful for all of the hours that its various editors and other staff put into it. Continue reading “Replacing Irreantum: Staffing/Production”