Monday, November 15, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe, Part Three

As an LDS writer, I sometimes ponder the 1888 statement by Elder Orson F. Whitney: We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose tops will touch the heaven, though its foundation may now be low on the earth.

Is this not a mandate? And yet I’m reminded of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Perhaps not fully appreciating the sacredness of their gifts or their potential to participate in celebrating the joy of redemption, some LDS writers are content to pluck blackberries. I am not. There’s probably a trashy novel in almost all of us; that’s the literary natural man we struggle with that constitutes an abuse of talent. Overcoming the temptation to write that kind of book is to acknowledge the heavenly source of our talent and accept the responsibility to use it respectfully. It’s impossible to separate the giver from the gift, and those who try to do so misunderstand the purpose of their gift. Clearly, expectations are high – to paraphrase the scripture, where much talent is given, much excellent output is expected. That gives us permission to become great.

There will never be another Milton or Shakespeare but their works are the paradigm of the finest literature at Elder Whitney’s time. Had Milton and Shakespeare known the Plan of Salvation their works might have been even more sublime. They were born at their times in their places for the same reason we were born in our time in our places – to fulfill a part of an eternal plan. Had he lived in the 20th Century, would Elder Whitney have mentioned Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner? Would he have referred to Nephi Anderson as the standard for LDS writers? Perhaps having "Miltons and Shakespeares of our own" means they will have a different definition than the world might give them. I believe Elder Whitney’s observation means our LDS potential Miltons and Shakespeares should shift the paradigm and establish their own rubrics, though it’s understood that high standards of language, usage and storytelling will always apply.

An author who sees his LDS roots through a noncommittal haze of sardonic cynicism is not spiritually equipped to write a great Mormon novel; he’s a cultural Mormon, what my father used to call a Latter-day Ain’t. Perhaps the question of developing great Mormon novelists depends on our desire to live the gospel. What could be riskier than the decision to be a true Christian every day, in every way? Perhaps my own ambition to share my stories, and my deep caring, i.e. OCD compulsion, about doing it well skews my accuracy in assessing the present LDS literary landscape. Acknowledging that one person’s sappy novel is another person’s revered guide for life, LDS writers still need to keep writing and being honest and meeting high standards of excellence so that the best manifestations of their talents will shine. We can’t be so busy trying to earn the world’s approval that we are embarrassed by who and what we are. No matter what we do, some people on the outside looking in will always dismiss us as na├»ve.

To limit ourselves to the safe cotton candy topics and to ignore or refuse to write in a realistic way about very real problems in our world implies that those problems either can’t be acknowledged or don’t exist. That’s a collusion of silence that helps no one. In this there is a crushing irony. Novels dealing with sticky topics for which there may be no answers in this life can help people experiencing those things to know how to handle them – think of that circle of support – and yet books dealing with those topics will be rejected by the three major LDS publishers, Deseret Book, Covenant Communications and Cedar Fort, Inc. Even kissing between married characters can’t be in a sexual context. Marriages and families are falling apart all around us but we can’t deal with that in literature because publishing such stories and selling them through Deseret Book stores would imply Church sanction, or - worse - might offend someone. I understand that a filter is necessary when it’s the Church’s bookstore, and of course, the practical issue of sales enters in. Still, I believe realism in fiction can be handled respectfully, without gratuitous detail, but writers of realistic fiction don’t have an alternative outlet to connect them with readers. Perhaps developing Miltons and Shakespeares of our own – superior LDS writers – depends on finding and meeting the demands of an audience of superior LDS readers.

This means that some LDS writers will never fit currently established writer molds. These are committed temple Mormons whose superior prose, eternal themes, fascinating plots and captivating characters will never land on a shelf in a Deseret Book store because the subject matter of the “latter times” they’ve chosen to write about isn’t what Elder Whitney imagined. Sometimes people have to go to some dark places to learn life’s hard lessons before they can rise up to spiritual heights to rejoice in the atonement. Writers don’t go there to praise the darkness; we visit temporarily to show the contrast and to celebrate the triumph over it; its portrayal is a necessary part of the story.

I didn’t grow up with vulgar language in my environment, nor did I marry into it, so reading it in books was a shock at first, but now it’s easier to ignore. I still look for books with minimal offensive words. Ironically, even J. Golden Kimball’s notorious damns and hells aren’t as naughty as they used to be. I understand that rough, coarse language is more the norm than the exception in our world, but I won’t write offensively realistic language; however, I do think some parents don’t know that’s how their children might talk to each other when adults aren’t around. But it isn’t always the swearing that offends. Some bright LDS teens who vetted my book told me that the scene of teenage girls at a slumber party discussing birth control was tame and didn’t sound the way girls really talk. This is an adult book, not YA, and it’s the ideas rather than the language of minor characters that might offend in this scene which is central to the subplot; it also includes some girls who are horrified at the careless attitude of others in the discussion – the point being that having opposition in all things means having choices.

Writers of realistic LDS fiction have a particularly difficult time locating potential publishers, and even if they do find a publisher, distribution of books with realistic subject matter is a monstrous impediment since the only LDS bookstore chain, Deseret Book, will not carry them. In fact, books published by the few small publishing houses willing to take on realistic topics are often skillfully written and edited, often receive high praise from critics and recognition for excellence. As an 18-year-old writer friend of mine observed, not everybody is into perpetual sweetness and light because that doesn’t reflect real life. LDS books with realistic subject matter will often not be reviewed by the major media, further widening the gap between authors and their potential readers. This kind of disconnect in the LDS market needs to be addressed. Perhaps, the way things are going in the publishing world, there’s an electronic solution to the problem for some genius to discover.

Years ago, someone who read an early short story of mine asked if I aimed to be the next Carol Lynn Pearson. As much as I admire that icon some saw as a leader in LDS literature at the time, I respect even more – and she would, too – the potential of each writer to make a unique contribution. My reply: “No, I thought I’d take a shot at being the first Pam Williams.” I know I’m a good writer; I've won contests, for whatever proof that may be. I pray my way through every phase of the writing process; that isn’t to say that I should be published because I’ve been inspired. It just means that I had some moments in the process that told me to keep going despite the rejections.

Serious readers who didn’t find past LDS fiction satisfying, and therefore don’t read what’s being offered now, still want to read something meaty that doesn’t have crude language in every other sentence. They should give current LDS fiction another chance. In passing my manuscripts around, many readers respond that they don’t normally like LDS fiction, but did enjoy my books, wondered why they aren’t published, and asked if I had any other manuscripts to read. However, because of the realistic nature of the stories I wrote, I’m having a hard time finding a publisher, and yet I know somewhere out there is an audience for my books, people who need additional insight and encouragement to keep trying, those who want to be taught out of a good book written by a source they can trust.

But where is the publisher who is the essential broker? And where is the bookstore that won’t pre-determine our LDS reading choices?


jww said...

I love the poem by Eliz B B. Beautiful!!

I think the idea that the most glorious works of art and creativity have been preserved for the latter days (which I believe Pres. Kimball also said) is the answer to all the questions you pose. A book or other piece that addresses how we live in this telestial place, that delves into "real life" situations, that really "confronts" the issues, can be something that touches people, helps people, etc. But the telestial elements of it keep it from being a truly celestial work, no matter how well-done. It's mainly a statement about living in the world but not of it. It can be inspiring and motivating (talking about how to cope, maybe) but still may be missing all the elements needed to make it a truly celestial piece. That's due to subject matter. On the other hand, something that is a glorious, celestial work of art (prose, sculpture, what-have-you), will be something that lifts and inspires and draws one heavenward. Its subject, therefore, HAS to be godly. But I think we're talking about two totally different things--a piece about this telestially-tainted life, or a piece about celestial life or celestial aspects of this life. I really don't see how one piece can be both things.

And, true, Church publishers must, I imagine, need to be very strict and careful so that whatever passes their desk is "approved" material. I'm sure it's a tightrope.

Janet Kay Jensen said...

well done! With the AML audience in mind, I think this could be revised a bit and submitted to them. There's a word for your writing, Pam: eloquent. Another one: articulate.

Jonathan Langford said...

Good thoughts.

One of the things I've become more aware of in peddling No Going Back to people over the last year is that most people (certainly most Mormon readers, but I suspect we aren't that different from the national market in this respect) come to reading for a break from the difficulties of real life. There's nothing wrong with that -- and fiction written for that purpose can also be worthwhile. But it does mean that if you try to tackle more challenging topics and/or write in a more realistic vein about the realities of life in mortality, your audience will be limited. A lot of people automatically shy away from something that looks like a "downer" topic.

And I have to admit: a lot of times I do that as well. If nothing else, such books take more energy. I loved reading Doug Thayer's The Tree House, but it took a lot out of me emotionally.

There's an inevitable element of subjectivity in individual reactions to fiction (something William Morris wrote very interestingly about this week over at A Motley Vision). The story that one person finds inspiring, another person may find insipid -- or even negative in its effects.

This may sound like (and can easily turn into) an attempt at self-justification: "I know that story wasn't good for you, but I can read it without taking any harm from it." But I'm convinced there's some truth to it, in some cases. We talk about stories as if they contain good and evil in themselves, but it seems to me that the story a person reads is a collaboration between the reader and the writer. Since each of us as readers brings something different to the table, the story I read may literally not be the same story you read, even if both involve the same words on the page.

I had a practical experience of this my first year at college (BYU). I had a roommate -- a very sweet kid from Arizona -- who told me about this book he had to read for an English class in high school and what a bad feeling it gave him while he was reading it. The story? 1984, by George Orwell. Yet I have to accept that for him, that dark feeling he described really was there -- and that it therefore was probably a good idea for him to stop reading the book (as he did). In any event, I have to accept that he's the one who had the right to know whether for him, the decision to keep reading was right or not.

And I have to be willing to be open to similar promptings on my part, and be willing to stop reading or viewing stories that other people may value but that I discern are not spiritually good for me.

Anyway. Sorry for going on at such length, but you got me going...

Jonathan Langford said...

Argh! Just wrote a comment, but it was too long, and I lost it. I need to learn to save comments elsewhere before I try to post them...

Part of what I was saying is that I've learned most LDS readers (and I'm sure we aren't different in this respect from the national market) read primarily as a pleasant temporary escape from the real world, not as a way of engaging with it. There can be value in that kind of fiction too. But it can be frustrating for those of us who write more realistic fiction, or fiction dealing with specific challenges. "Downer" fiction is likely to have a limited audience.

I have to respect that -- and each reader's sense of his/her limits. The thing I find frustrating is the sense I sometimes get that some readers feel this is the *only* purpose for literature and that the more challenging stuff shouldn't exist, at least not within Mormon literature.

The rest of what I wrote had to do with different readers having different reactions to the same story, including a story about how my first roommate at BYU denounced George Orwell's 1984 as an evil book. But I should stop now so I don't overrun again...

Anonymous said...

I think that if Shakespeare had known the plan of salvation, he wouldn't have used (or created) the language that he sometimes did. He would have been constrained on a few levels. Confusing gender roles, as he did so often in his comedies, would have been taboo.

I think the poignant aspect of examining literature is viewing it from the outside in. The perspective of knowing of the plan of salvation makes the injunction of Hamlet's father, for example, all the more real. "Remember me."

Shakespeare had a captive audience. He had a language to toy with. He had classic literature from which he could copy without fear of legal ramifications.

The honest truth would be that safe cotton candy sells. There is an audience for safe cotton candy. They're used to it. To introduce them to, say, a healthy meal, would be a shock to the system.

The point, I think, is to NOT be Milton or Shakespeare, even Hemingway or Fitzgerald. The point is to reach the tops to heaven, with a foundation on the earth. The aftertaste must be heavenly and not leave the audience missing their cotton candy.

I think that with today's media, an audience can definitely be reached in more ways then through a traditional book.

Tristi Pinkston said...


I have greatly enjoyed reading this three-part essay. I absolutely could not have said it better myself. So I won't try and will send people here to read yours. :)