Eugene Woodbury

The End of an Era

For some time, I'd been missing the file for the first story I sold to The New Era. It had fallen between the digital cracks at some point in the numerous transitions from a single-sided CPM 5 1/4 floppies to DOS 5 1/4 double-sided, to DOS 3 1/2 diskettes, to Zip drive. So in June of 2001, I finally got around to writing the editor to see if they had a copy on file they could send me.

Several weeks later, I got an answer of sorts--a hefty 9x12 envelope that contained all of my unpublished stories (including the lost manuscript). It also contained a gracious note from Larry Hiller, the current managing editor. The letter further explained that they (the editorial staff) had "received word" from the publisher about forthcoming "significant changes" in the magazine's content, one of which being that Church magazines would "no longer carry fiction."

I hadn't submitted a story since 1996, but it was a disappointing turn of events (though a handful exceptions to this policy have occurred since). The first story I ever sold was to Cricket Magazine, and it was edited considerably without any feedback or consultation. But that's what I'd happily agreed to. They paid well and assigned me the copyright to boot (and, to be sure, I liked the way the story turned out).

The first story I submitted to The New Era, to compare, required six months of back-and-forth effort to get right. In fact, I sold them another story while that one was still pending. They politely rejected plenty of my stories (the subtext familiar to any writer saying: we likes, but no way, no how). What mattered was the criticism--articulating what they didn't like that was getting in the way of it getting published.

Back when the The New Era was soliciting fiction "over the transom," Richard Romney and Larry Hiller were two of the best editors I ever worked with. They didn't throw praise around casually. If a story deserved it, they'd give it a second or third chance. And when they sent back a story (without rejecting it out of hand), they cut to the chase: this doesn't work; this is too long; this won't get past Correlation, no matter how much you like it. Fix it or withdraw the story, it's up to you.

Granted, the quality of fiction in The New Era had proved inconsistent over the years (though I am inclined to blame the publisher's often incoherent writer's guidelines for that). And I stopped submitting altogether when some bureaucrat on high sent down word that all protagonists must be "ostensibly Mormon." I suppose that meant they were supposed to go around with an "M" tattooed on their foreheads, like Rimmer in Red Dwarf.

Two of those stories were later published by Cricket Magazine and the Focus on the Family publication, Clubhouse. (So there, I guess.) Ironically, as the church flees the genre in its official publications, other conservative Christian publishing houses are publishing more short fiction. Even odder, the church's own Deseret Book and its secular imprint, Shadow Mountain, continue to thrive, publishing fiction by Anne Perry, Orson Scott Card, and Chris Heimerdinger, among others.

The distrust of fiction in official church publications is reflective of attitudes found in fundamentalist religious sects towards non-representational art--"non-representational" in this case referring to anything that isn't completely concrete its reflection of the so-called "real" world. Consider the silly insistence that Job must be interpreted as a biographical account, or that Christ's parables were akin to the anecdotal reader contributions in The Reader's Digest.

It was likely the allure of the "real" that led (Mormon General Authority) Paul Dunn to concoct war stories that turned out to be more fiction than fact. Dunn's fall from grace was unfortunate, because he had such a natural grasp of story and narrative. If only he had begun his homilies, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon . . . . "

No doubt Dunn had instinctively understood what author and critic John Gardner knew: "Wherever possible," Gardner writes in On Moral Fiction, "art holds up models of decent behavior . . . characters in fiction, drama, and film whose basic goodness and struggle against confusion, error, and evil--in themselves and in others--give firm intellectual and emotional support to our own struggles."

The same can be said of Richard Romney, Larry Hiller, and the editorial staff at The New Era, who certainly provided me "firm intellectual and emotional support" during my early forays as a writer.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.