Saturday, November 13, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe, Part Two

Some critics think that having “all the answers” through revelation to modern prophets robs us of available conflict and prevents us from acknowledging anything ugly in the world. That’s an oversimplification, but if LDS authors are thus painted into a corner because of accepting certain doctrines, then the question is how an LDS insider/writer can get out of the corner and find in the Mormon milieu the conflict essential to page-turner fiction.

A critic who read my unpublished contemporary novels about marriage suggested I remove all the LDS references and sell them in the larger national Christian market. In pondering that advice in light of what I believe my purpose as a writer to be, I realized that my compulsion to write for the LDS audience is driven by my knowledge of being LDS and my desire to comment on issues I know my own people struggle with. I do not worship at the feet of the New York Times best seller list, or even the Norton Anthology of Literature. I think of the circle of priesthood holders participating in blessings or ordinations, or a prayer circle in the temple, and find in them a symbolic safety net of mutual support. That same kind of power is available in the stirring prose of well-conceived stories.

Some LDS writers and critics may disdain my view as too narrow, aiming too low when there’s that big wide national market out there, and if we can just conquer that, we persecuted Mormons can prove we’re just as good as anybody else. But that begs the question. Did we not arrive here with gifts and powers to be exercised for the benefit of each other? We who have the Mormon experience need to speak out on uniquely LDS topics; the secular world can’t do justice to our story. No one understands the expansion of the American West the way pioneer descendents do if they know their own family history. Readers will be moved by a great story, no matter who has written it, but they won’t stand for being manipulated, and LDS readers won’t stand for their doctrines or their history being distorted by someone who doesn’t know our world from the inside.

Conflict is the basis for story, and because contention is evil, Mormon Times columnist Jerry Johnston doesn’t think we will ever produce a writer who can write a nitty-gritty book; we’re too isolated from pure evil to wrestle with it the way secular literature does. However, choices aren’t always clearly between good and evil; the more difficult choices may be between two good things. With human beings, the natural man is the ever-present universal conflict. Some of us come from shakier starting points than others, and many forces try to pull writers away and make us lose focus, or keep us from finding our purpose, or lure us to abandon our personal and literary standards. Those daily challenges to live the gospel more fully ARE large issues, for ourselves and for our characters, and are just as valid as any lofty Shakespearean theme.

Is it possible to be a believing, striving Latter-day Saint and still be acquainted with the level of evil that truly explores the heights and depths of the human soul? As with non-LDS writers, most of us will probably never be tempted to commit murder or betray our country or engage in great evil, even though we may create characters who do. Considering the damage it could do to their spirits, most Latter-day Saint writers aren’t willing to test that side of the spectrum of experience simply to explore a writing topic. It requires meticulous personal attention to meet all the requirements of our Christianity as writers and as individuals. That matters. Like our readers, we aim for perfection while dealing with the realities of the world that intrude on our goal-oriented focus of trying to live up to high standards. We are blessed, but as Brigham Young said, many of us don’t live up to our privileges. Therein lies the essence of scintillating fiction.

In every issue of The Ensign we find examples of conflicts Latter-day Saints confront daily, hourly. To me, the never-ending struggle of good but flawed Latter-day Saints is compelling because it’s also my experience. As a reader, I personally have a hard time willingly suspending disbelief for a vampire story, but show me real but flawed Latter-day Saints trying to live the gospel and that’s where I find my touchstone. No matter what genre we choose to write in, we can connect the unique voices of LDS authors and “teach one another” from a number of platforms.

Story still connects with us, and though we live in the Age of Instant Everything, storytelling is usually an unhurried activity. As author Robert Coover said, “The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn’t imagine ourselves through a day without it… We need myths to get by. We need story; otherwise the tremendous randomness of experience overwhelms us. Story is what penetrates.” Vicariously, through fiction they can relate to, readers can grapple with the daily challenges of outsmarting the natural man. And yet readers today are not like readers of even ten years ago. Editors now tell us tag lines except “said” and “asked” are passé, adverbs are literary suicide, and long descriptive paragraphs even brilliantly written will lose the average reader. In Dickens’ day, when there were no electronic devices to depend on for entertainment, people read to each other in the evening, enjoying the language, the adventure, and the descriptions of Little Dorrit or David Copperfield. Readers today are sometimes too impatient to meander through a story and savor the richness of its nuances or the subtleties of storytelling.

Perhaps our LDS paradigm can begin with the way LDS artist John Hafen said it: “The highest possible development of talent is a duty we owe our creator.” We have this talent because the Creator thought it was necessary at this time for us to use it for someone’s benefit, to create through literature a circle of support. Some LDS writers don’t care about the LDS market and others don’t care about the national market. Regardless of the pendulum swing, we’re heading toward different heights more open to that necessary new paradigm, not so confined by the conventions of the past. We each have permission to define that new paradigm for ourselves.

Monday: Part Three


jww said...

First, I pooh-pooh any critic who says that having all the answers through prophets and revelation robs us of available conflict. Do you live in a box?!

(Not YOU-you; "impersonal" you)

I suppose it is conceivable to write a character who is evil without being evil yourself (or without having seen it firsthand), but I personally think it's harder for an LDS person to get a good grasp of that having never experienced it--as you say, an "outsider" writing the pioneer history would be different than those descendants whose story it IS. At the same time, though, the oozing evil of Voldemort was somehow written by someone who did not herself divide her soul (I'm assuming) into seven horcruxes. So it can be done. I just think the average LDS person doesn't enjoy lowering his/herself into some evil place. Maybe an author isn't required to have experienced the evil, so much as just be able to imagine it. I suppose it depends on if you write from experience or imagination.

My view of writing is that you are not writing to an audience. You write to write. You write to tell the story. Alfred Stieglitz said, "Don't ask what a painting means. If the artist could say what he wants to say in words, he wouldn't have painted." I take that statement to mean that art is what it is. It exists for itself. A short story or a novel is what it is. You don't write to an audience. You write for the sake of writing, and the audience finds you.

Pam Williams said...

That last paragraph is EXACTLY what my writing teacher in college told me!!! I've always believed that. I have a creepy predatory teenage boy in my novel, and I was SO glad when that subplot eliminated him. I've written Book of Mormon villains, but that kid was about as evil. Part of the problem with evil is that it often masquerades as innocence; maybe I should call that an opportunity to explore the character. Love the Stieglitz quote! I'm putting that in my quote list.

Sarah Dunster said...

One of my feelings about LDS fiction is, we need to be more willing to depict every possible conflict our characters could go through. Including some that could raise a red flag or two with a Mormon audience. It doesn't mean we need to get explicit or hugely violent. In fact, sometimes the very best writing can convey a message or conflict with a few pungent sentences that don't go into a whole lot of descriptive detail, thus pulling a reader away from the tension.

I feel like, as LDS writers, we need to be willing to write about anything and everything that significantly impacts LDS people. We owe that to ourselves as artists, and to our audience... quite often I gain understanding of situations and people, through reading, that I never would in real life because of my own fears and limitations.

Great article.

Pam Williams said...

Well said, Sarah. Too often we go around in a bubble thankful that it wasn't OUR kid who got into drugs or decided he was gay. I think that's where we get the reputation for being smug. Read part three tomorrow to see where I'm going with this idea.