Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pre-emptively setting the record straight

So...when I wrote my query letter and then submitted it for critique at Absolute Write, I expected a few people to object to the general content of my book. Vladimir Nabokov once said that there were three taboos in American publishing: incest, interracial marriage, and "the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106."

Happily, interracial marriage is no longer the taboo it was in the 1950s. Incest will always remain a taboo -- or at least I predict it will remain taboo in my lifetime. Who knows what the future might hold. As for the third publishing taboo, obviously Nabokov was being hyperbolic when he described that scenario. A book about a happy, useful person who never has any troubles and dies in his sleep is boring, and boring will always be verboten in publishing. But the point he was trying to make was sound, and unlike interracial marriage, a book which portrays atheism as a solution to a problem, or at least as something that's okay, something that doesn't need to be fixed, is still going to have a tough time getting off the ground.

That doesn't mean I think my book is doomed. It merely needs to meet the right agent and editor, and I then I think it has quite a good shot of selling well. But finding the right people to work with this book may be difficult, and my experience with my query letter on AW points out why.

There is still a lot of unpleasant stigma surrounding atheists in much of America, particularly atheists who choose to "speak out" in some way, whether they host podcasts or radio shows, run popular blogs, or write novels. The assumption is, just because we're opening our yaps and admitting in the public sphere that we don't believe in gods, that we must have a big fat axe to grind, a towering skyscraper of a soapbox to stand on, and that there is an agenda behind our creative pursuits.

On Absolute Write, two different posters expressed this idea to me in terms of varying clarity.

One made a lot of very bold, very offensive assumptions about the plot of my novel, its characters, and my motives in writing it, even predicting a rather trite and dull climactic scene, all based on the fact that I am an atheist and I have written a novel that deals with atheism. I certainly hope I am a better writer than to end my novel with the "Gotcha, stupid believers!" John Galt-esque monologue this person assumed I had written.

The other person pointedly asked whether it was Rexburg (my novel's setting) I hated, or Mormons. I did not bother to tell him that I don't hate anything. I did not bother to point out that we were talking about a work of fiction, peopled with fake characters, not stand-ins for my own feelings and experiences. Again, I hope I am a more skilled writer than to just barf my own (rather uninteresting) opinions and experiences onto the page. Asking whether I hate the antagonistic force in my own novel is like asking J. K. Rowling whether she hates Voldemort. A novel needs a conflict, and therefore, a novel needs an antagonist. In the case of my novel, the antagonist is a particular culture: not just one specific religion, but the zeitgeist of an entire isolated town in which the majority of its citizens belong to that specific religion. It's at once a more complex and a far more simplistic issue than "Do you hate Rexburg/Mormons?" (For the record, let me unequivocally state that I hate neither Rexburg nor Mormons.)

Still others in the thread pointed out, and they are correct, that the reactions of these few Negative Nancies would give me a good idea of what to expect as I query this book (and, if it sells someday, as I promote it.) And they are right. Most people who read my query expressed their interest in reading the book itself. But a few clearly were turned off by my perceived axe on the grinding stone. Okay. Happy atheism may be going the way of interracial marriage, but it is still a taboo, at least in part. I'm okay with fielding some baseless assumptions about my motives or even about my writing skill, based merely on the fact that I'm an atheist.

So I am writing this blog post now to make a place to point future curious parties. If one is wondering about my motives in writing Baptism for the Dead, here are some questions answered.

First, this is not an autobiographical novel. I was born in Rexburg and raised Mormon, but my transition from religious belief to atheism was quite pleasant, not traumatic, as it is for the narrator of my book. I like Rexburg, and I have never perceived the town to be sinister, as my narrator does. I may find Rexburg to be a touch cloying, and I do think its roads are bizarrely wide, but it's a nice town in a gorgeous setting, and my memories of living there were quite pleasant. I found that its sweet, Norman Rockwell qualities made it the perfect foil for my protagonist, and that's why I used it. All descriptions of Rexburg as a disturbing or distasteful place are my narrator's opinions, not mine. (A good writer, I believe, should be able to write convincingly from more perspectives than just her own.)

The narrator is not a stand-in for me. She resembles me only in as much as any character resembles her creator -- that is, it's an inescapable fact of writing fiction that authors put little bits and pieces of themselves into all their characters. But Narrator was not intentionally based on me. (If any character can be said to resemble me in thought or belief or action, it's X, though he was not based on me, either.)

This is not an anti-Mormon book. I don't have anything against the Mormon church that I don't also have against every other religion I've ever encountered. The book was not written with the intent to defame the Latter-Day Saint Church, nor was it written in order to cause hurt or offense to any people of any religion, especially Mormons. I merely wanted to tell a story about a person struggling to finally decide to leave a religious community. That is a very real struggle that many people face every day, and it is packed with emotional drama. The story would have been essentially the same no matter which religion I'd selected for my protagonist to leave. I chose Mormonism because I am most familiar with it, and therefore could write about it in a convincing way. Any specific devices I used in this book (references to sacred Mormon rites and articles, Scripture, etc.) were used for the sake of drama, to underline the influence Mormonism has on the Narrator, and to make it clear, without coming out and ham-handedly saying so, that no matter how her beliefs develop, she will never be entirely free of the culture that shaped her.

Yes, there will be people out there who will find any story dealing with leaving a religion to be hurtful or offensive to that religion. I can't control their feelings. I'm not going to worry about that. I told the story I wanted to tell with integrity and truth -- the central character's truth -- and that's what's important to me.

I did not write this book with the purpose of sticking a fork in religion's eye. I wrote this book because I am interested in the plights of people who feel "stuck" in religious communities. Human stories interest me. That's why I write literary fiction. That's why I read literary fiction. I know so many people who have tried to conform themselves to expectations which just didn't fit their true selves, and I know they suffered for it. That was the kind of story I wanted to tell, not "Neener, neener, religion is stupid." Again, I aim to be a more subtle and skilled writer than that.

That's all I have to say on the subject for now, other than to state that I'm really glad this book is done after two years of work, I'm glad queries are going out, and I'm happy to turn my attention to a new project at last (which hopefully will not take me nearly as long to write.)

Cheers, people.


  1. As a Mormon I, for one, cannot wait to read it. Count me as one of your awesome Mormon friends with an open mind and ties to Rexburg as well ;)

  2. Some people's reaction to a threat is to attack - regardless of how ignorant, offensive or plain stupid their arguments are. I suppose it's easier than asking themselves why they perceive atheism as such an enormous threat. Good luck with your book and I hope people working in the publishing industry are professional enough not to let personal prejudices prevent them from recognising a great story.

  3. I think that this is a brave book to have written. I'm an atheist too and I can't believe how difficult it is for some of my American friends.

    I can't wait to read your book.

  4. I also write about familiar settings, but nothing is autobiographical.. That commenter is obv hyper sensitive... xoxo write on, O Writer, write on.. and by the way- never explain yourself! You have the right to write what you want.- from a non-athiest, non Mormon, non Rexburgian.. lol

  5. Unfortunately, just the word "atheist" itself now puts a bad taste in some people's mouths, many of whom don't even know the true meaning of the word. It's at the point with me where I'll sometimes hesitate to use it to describe myself these days, just to avoid the pillow fight.

    P.S. Because I dig your blog, I've named you as a recipient of the Liebster Award! Check out my entry on the award for more info. :)

    The Great and Mysterious Liebster Award

  6. Whaaat! I think this is the second Liebster I've won. Woo!