Scouting The Competition

Why do so many Mormons write genre (speculative) fiction?
on May 10, 2011 · No comments

I just returned from a long work trip, so writing time is in short supply as I catch up on all the stuff that piled up while I was gone. Rather than submit a story or a piece of original commentary this week, I’d like to direct you to an interesting discussion I stumbled across at Schlock Mercenary, a webcomic written and illustrated by the talented Howard Tayler.

Schlock Mercenary is a space opera, a Star Trek-ish story of the adventures and mis-adventures of a band of spacefaring soldiers of fortune. You can read my review at *this link.* It’s been nominated for a Hugo Award the past couple of years, and Tayler is a popular guest at SF&F conventions worldwide.

He also happens to be a Mormon, an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and though there’s no obvious Mormon content in Schlock Mercenary, Tayler’s perfectly comfortable acknowledging and talking about his faith community. The other day, he addressed a question he gets with some regularity: Why do so many Mormons write genre (speculative) fiction?

Here’s part of his response:

This may be the wrong question. It’s probably better to ask “why does it seem like Mormons are better represented among genre-fiction writers than are other denominational demographics?” That question is one that a good statistician can start digging up data on, and it’s possible that the data will yield facts like “Mormons are NOT better represented, but they’re more visibly denominational.”

But that’s not where most people like to go with this question. Most people like to hypothesize that something in the nature of Latter-Day Saint beliefs, something intrinsic to Mormon doctrine makes an authorial career in one of the escapist genres appealing. Some folks suggest that after having wrapped their brains around the acceptance of modern-day prophets and golden books of scripture, Mormons are somehow better at writing Science Fiction and Fantasy than the average person.

It is not difficult to find this hypothesis offensive. Occasionally non-Mormons present it in a condescending manner, as if to say “you’re already a little crazy, you might as well make a career out of it.” More than a few Mormons present it rather self-righteously, as if to proclaim that anyone adhering to a set of teachings purporting to enable exaltation in the eternities must needs be really good at world-building here in mortality.

Please, please, please read the whole thing at *this link,* and also the background article he cites at *this link* before engaging in discussion, and please stick to the high road…I’m not after a critique of Mormon doctrine here, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this issue of whether there is a Mormon advantage in writing spec-fic, and if so, what’s its source, and is there anything we could learn and apply from Mormon writers? Just like in sports, when you scout the competition, you come away not only with a better idea of their weaknesses, you usually pick up a few plays you’d like to try yourself.

Anyhow, I think it’s an interesting issue to examine, given the prevailing level of angst in our community about writing and publishing Christian fiction, and the perceived lack of understanding/support/enthusiasm for spec-fic on our side of the fence.

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.
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  1. Morgan Busse says:

    Just throwing the first thought that comes to mind out there, but I think maybe one reason we see more mormon speculative writers represented out there is because there are not as many mormons who are anti-fantasy or science fiction. Whereas in Christendom, you have a lot of Christians that view these genres with suspicion or worse.

    For example, I grew up in a home where what I read, watched, etc… was heavily regulated. I was not allowed to read fantasy, dungeon and dragons, no rock music, etc… As an adult, I have in some ways walked away from my upbringing. Instead of banishing all things fantasy, I have learned to read, watch, and listen with discernment. I read (and write!) fantasy now. I like rock music (I just watch those sneaky lyrics). And I play fantasy games.

    My son is now at the age that he is wanting to read certain books (cough* Harry Potter cough*) and instead of saying no, I look over the books and even read some of them with him. I play video games with him. We talk about why I don’t let him play Call of Duty when his other friends are playing that (its true! and scary!). I’ve let him read the first 3 Harry Potter books and he loves them. But because of how dark book 4 and beyond become, he has to wait to finish the series when he is older.

    Instead of saying no to everything, I want to teach my son discernment, to compare what he is reading, playing, or listening to to the Bible, and how to make good choices. Why? Because I won’t always be there to steer him. He needs to learn to do that himself.

    Anyway, all that to say the Christian community sometimes makes issues that are truly gray into a black and white issue. Its easier to make rules and follow them than to walk through life with discernment.

    Hopping off my soapbox now 🙂

  2. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this issue of whether there is a Mormon advantage in writing spec-fic

    One reason: it’s in their religion’s history: space fantasy, with God living on another planet and having Mrs. Gods, and hierarchies of worlds, etc. — great stuff, but all fiction.

    That’s the first reason that comes to mind, but I’ll likely have more later. 🙂

  3. Sherwood Smith says:

    I wouldn’t say that there is an advantage to being LDS in writing spec fic, unless that advantage is the mutual support system that genre writers get if they attend BYU. There is a long-running convention in February in Provo (I attended in 1998) called “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” that I suspect might be at the center of this inspiration–that and a charismatic professor or two.

    Also (though LDS vary exactly like any other group, with their more liberal members and their members who are very conservative and do not favor speculative reading) I found a greater emphasis on education among the ones I know. The “Mormon” culture emphasizes family time, as well as lots of activities at church, and things that keep kids busy outside of TV. Writers usually develop out of kids who read a lot.

  4. Galadriel says:

    I’ve only read one of those authors–Card–but I’ve heard a lot about Meyers too. I guess I don’t really have a perspective on why that might be the case.

  5. Bob says:

    I watched Thor this past weekend, and because of the storyline, wondered if a Mormon scripted it. I, however, found no evidence to my hunch.

  6. Mormon mythology, though not nearly as plausible as Thor‘s version of the Norse myths that inspired its story (ahem!) nevertheless contains echoes of the Christian truths that somehow manage to embed themselves even in pagan myths. So I guess I’m not surprised that there could seem to be a parallel if one looked closely.

  7. Fred Warren says:

    I tend to believe the enablers of their success are more cultural than anything else. Morgan and Sherwood identified some important factors–emphasis on education and family engagement with the arts, including storytelling, institutional support from their leadership, and a university that serves as a focus for innovation in the arts and literature.

    Stephen’s comments highlight a more general concept that’s addressed in the articles–Mormons think “cosmologically,” and are comfortable with speculating about the universe on a large scale. I don’t think its necessary to adopt heretical doctrine to accomplish this, but Mormon writers seem to have less fear of crossing the lines of their own tradition’s orthodoxy.

    Finally, I think their affinity for hard work and persistence in the face of opposition serves them well in genre writing. When they encountered opposition in their own community at first, they didn’t waste energy banging on closed doors but instead circumvented the roadblocks by creating their own publishing outlets that succeeded by establishing a reputation for quality writing and packaging. And they’re not afraid to go straight to the mainstream markets.

  8. […] have me thinking about the subject again. One came via Fred Warren’s Spec Faith article “Scouting The Competition.” In that post Fred discusses what Mormon writers are doing that has vaulted many of them into the […]

  9. Fred Warren says:

    And here’s another article by a Mormon columnist, Rosalynde Welch, asking some of the same questions:

    A couple of interesting points: Mormon authors gravitate to accessible forms like genre fiction and strive to distinguish themselves not by imprinting a Mormon stamp on the genre, but by achieving excellence within the established norms of the genre. They don’t write “Mormon fiction,” per se, they strive to write *really good genre fiction*, which attracts Mormon readers because they value quality in comfortable, familiar activities that everybody can relate to. They don’t need a Mormon allegory spoon-fed to them–they’ll make those interpretations on their own, later. Edgy, artsy, literary fiction doesn’t communicate as well to them because it’s more about individual vision than a spirit of community.

  10. The religious mormons I know are all waiting to be gods of their own planets and already know what kinds of worlds they will set up. It’s a bit like an ongoing exercise with them. 

What do you think?