Wednesday, November 10, 2010

LDS Fiction: A View From the Fringe

PART ONE - WHERE DID WE COME FROM?
Jennie Hansen’s recent Meridian Magazine assessment of the state of LDS fiction shed positive light on what faithful Latter-day Saint writers are producing these days, but it didn’t go far enough. Likewise, Jerry Johnston’s Mormon Times column last year about LDS fiction, questioning whether there will ever be a great Mormon novel, was too dismissive. Improvements in this species of literature are evident with every crop of books released. In fact, LDS writers, and especially Mormon-oriented fiction, have grown in significant ways since 25 or 30 years ago when I gave up trying to find something meaty in it that fed my soul.

Recently I’ve tackled it again. My personal project for 2010 was an unscientific survey of chiefly adult-oriented LDS fiction and I learned that the high quality work coming out now is the majority of LDS output. I think it portends many great Mormon novels, which could be written by Latter-day Saints for the LDS audience, or by Latter-day Saints for a general audience. We aren’t there yet, but our writers are well equipped and we’re on our way. Readers who didn’t like it 25 years ago, or even ten years ago, are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t give it another chance.

I’ve often pondered with curiosity the scriptural edict to “teach one another out of the best books.” Church leaders attending the school of the prophets in Kirtland received that injunction, but like most scriptures, it has multiple applications. Teaching one another out of the “best books” implies, first, that good books are out there, and second, that we can be the authors of high quality material whether fiction or nonfiction, generating from whatever we have learned “by study and also by faith.” There’s power in teaching one another through fiction because our common belief system facilitates communication. We’ve all had the experience of sharing an incident from our lives and having a listener say, “Aha, I see what you mean.” That should be what we experience when we read LDS fiction; it’s one way writers can connect with readers on a personal level to bear one another’s burdens. If “write what you know” is the standard, the field is wide open for writers with knowledge of non-fiction topics, as well as those with astute observations about the daily effort of living the gospel and insights into the complexities of human nature.

“Teach one another” means it’s okay for LDS fiction to be instructive, as any literature can be. Nobody wants to be preached at but it’s a given that a novel has a theme, a personal take-away for the reader, and that take-away can be offered in an absorbing, entertaining, appealing way without crossing the line into tedious didacticism. Many years ago I heard about a ward roadshow depicting the story of Romeo and Juliet pretty effectively in twenty minutes, followed by a person coming out to address the audience: “This would never have happened if they had been married in the temple.” Now THAT’S didactic and quite oblivious of Shakespeare’s intended take-aways. Our up and coming LDS writers are too smart to fall into that trap. Wouldn’t we rather a good Latter-day Saint teach our children’s Sunday School class than someone off the street who doesn’t know the doctrine or have the Spirit? It’s the same principle with LDS fiction writers. Our purpose as writers shouldn’t be to preach; it should be to represent who we are, and how and why.

Some people don’t mind a steady diet of literary snack cakes, but eventually most readers want substance. Latter-day Saints are much more sophisticated now, on the whole more highly educated than the general population, and educated people want a commensurate literature. An old maxim that told us we should write to the eighth grade mentality is no longer true, unless we’re actually writing for eighth graders. As a writer, I believe in that educated audience and I respect their intelligence. When I couldn’t find meaty LDS-oriented literature 25 years ago, I decided to write the kinds of books I wanted to read, to give other readers rich vicarious experience through compelling stories. An influential college professor once said to me, “If what you write is good enough, your work will find an audience.” This is probably the opposite of what editors would advise me now, but following that recommendation I have spent more time on perfecting my craft and less time on marketing the product.

Motivations differ, but our LDS worldview makes us who we are and puts us at a different starting place from other authors. We are a peculiar people intellectually because our cosmology of pre- and post-mortal existence is so non-traditional. We know the rules of Christianity through the Book of Mormon, and the guidelines for this dispensation through the handbook that is the Doctrine and Covenants. As with secular writers, it’s inevitable that who we are will underpin our writing, even though not all of our characters will believe as we do. Our LDS concept of the necessity for opposition in all things overarches our work, and the axiom that wickedness never was happiness undergirds it. Alma the Younger experienced a taste of hell before he repented and knew the sweetness of heaven, and it all happened in three days. That’s drama. All of this leads me to think that we should develop out of our uniqueness a new paradigm in literature that sets us apart.

Saturday - Part Two: Why Are We Here?

3 comments:

jww said...

I don't read LDS fiction at all, so I'm not an authority here, but I'm glad that you are finding good pieces that you like. I personally just finished "Pride and Prejudice" today, and I don't believe I've ever read it before. I liked it a lot.

Jonathan Langford said...

Pam,

Interesting thoughts. Unfortunately, I think it's difficult to write meaty fiction that doesn't at the same time involve the potential of offending people. The major LDS publishers, in my view, have more or less committed themselves to a standard of not offending people. What is perhaps most damaging about this is that I think some people have begun to believe that this is an appropriate standard for all fiction. Oh, well.

Note that I'm not saying the major LDS publishers haven't published some good stuff. It's more that I'm saying their goal of trying to avoid offending people creates problems, both for them and for the field of LDS writing as a whole.

Pam Williams said...

Great observation, Jonathan. I never thought of it in those terms, but trying not to offend people is ultimately offensive in itself because it doesn't allow us to soar to some possible heights. As a writer, if I try never to offend people, what I've written is pablum.