I can sense the eye rolls now. Anita Stansfield is not considered a great literary writer. She’s scoffed at for writing cheesy romance novels. She’s an example, for some people, of all that is wrong with LDS fiction–melodramatic, preachy, bad writing. I’d go far as to say these accusations are not all baseless. I’ve read around 28 of her 72+ published titles. So, basically, all of her early work. It would be entirely believable that her weaknesses have improved over the course of 40 novels. So, take these opinions in that context.
Notwithstanding, Anita’s reputation for writing the type of literature that critics love to hate, I think she is one of the most interesting writers of LDS fiction and her body of work deserves serious study.
She doesn’t write cliche romance novels. She writes controversial ones.
The romance genre is full of so many cliches, tropes, and formulaic plots that it takes work as a writer to avoid them. I think this is honestly where Anita’s brilliance shines. Her work is full of unconventional and rule-breaking romances. As a person who tried to write an unconventional romance once, let me tell you–it is hard. It’s hard to ignore those voices in your head that whisper that no one is going to believe this, that people will call your story freakish, that you are not doing things the ‘right way.’ Yet, Anita churned these out one after the other like clockwork. The woman either has no concept of fear or has the courage of David walking out to slay Goliath.
Consider this list:
Mormon stay at home mother has an emotional affair with college sweetheart whom she rejected because he wouldn’t convert to Mormonism.
Woman falls in love with man who kidnaps her
Deals with multiple facets of rape and sexual abuse
Man cheats on his wife and they stay together after they work it out
Pornography and suicide
Adoption and abortion
Fiance paralyzed in accident
Breast cancer and mastectomy
Hero marries sister-in-law after first wife dies from cancer
Several of these topics land on “market will not even consider this” list. You tell me that you can’t write about a topic because of the market and I’d say to you–bet you a hundred bucks Anita could pull it off. Anita is a ballsy risk-taker.
She has a complicated relationship with her audience
Anita has pushed the boundaries of the conservative portion of this market farther than any other author I’ve observed. She had a public falling out with her publisher over the sexual content of her books when she started publishing general audience historical fiction. Her historical characters were moral people but did not have LDS standards, obviously. I find it ironic that this was the straw the broke the proverbial camel’s back because her most provocative piece was an LDS novel titled A Promise of Forever, which has on screen but generally not explicit bedroom scenes between a husband and wife whose marriage has been affected by her breast cancer. The story cannot stand independent of these scenes and so it can technically be categorized as an erotic romance title. You’d think that would be the book that caused the uproar and the backlash.
Most authors won’t take this treatment. It breaks their creative spirit and destroys their careers. There’s a lot of people that would turn their back on the market. Heck, there are people who’d give up on the entire industry. I’ve watched writers walk away or give up writing altogether for far less. Anita walked away and self-published for a while and then came back. We could write a mountain of negative or pessimistic things about how this reflects the narrow-mindedness of the market. I’m way more interested in this woman that still has the guts to write despite the fact that she was publicly shamed by her publisher and got hate mail. I’d argue that Anita is an LDS author worth studying because her career intersects with the LDS audience and the market in dynamic and interesting ways.
Longevity and Output
Anita’s first book was published in 1994 and so she’s been publishing in the LDS market for 24 years and has 72+ titles to her name. While arguing that her career is interesting to study as a whole, it should be conceded that not all of her novels are worth your time. Some years Stansfield released four titles into the market, a feat for any author in any market. She is prolific but there are novels in her body of work that read like pure filler. They are boring, cliche, and don’t do anything for her career and nothing remarkable for the market in general. If you read too many of her novels you can begin to feel like you’ve been conned into reading a self-help book recommended by your aunt on the sly. At their weakest, her characters become puppets for life advice instead of authentic and genuine actors in their own plots.
But is this failing really that awful? Really, if you’re going to argue that trying to convey psychological concepts in a narrative form is automatically preachy or bad writing then you need to give up on a lot of interesting and informative literature. This is one of the main goals of creative nonfiction and swaths of pictures books. Using the tools of narrative to convey important and complex information that would be indigestible otherwise is a valid form of authorship. We should stop shaming each other for it. I’d argue that Anita’s work is worth serious study to explore the ways that this style of storytelling is successful and the conditions within which it fails.
Many writers don’t stick in the market long enough to accomplish half of what Stansfield has during her lifetime. Stansfield is one of the most resilient, courageous, and persistent storytellers that we have and that alone makes her worthy of serious consideration.