Writing with Charity

Before you start reading this post, I have to apologize for its length. I’m new to the blogging world, and I’m pretty sure I’ve committed a breach of blogging etiquette. I got started, though, and couldn’t stop, and I still don’t feel like I’ve made myself entirely clear. But I had to shut up at some point, or you’d just scroll down to the end and say “to heck with it” and click on the link to the Mormon Mommy Wars blog. So I ask your forgiveness in advance.

Last month, I wrote my first post for Segullah under the heading “The Best Books: Exploring LDS Lit.” In our discussion, we touched on some of the good news surrounding LDS literature: there are a few new publishers catering to LDS readers with literary tastes; the general consensus is that the bar has been raised on the novels offered by bigger LDS publishers like Deseret Book and Covenant; and there are lots of folks who care deeply and passionately about Mormon literature in general. We also discussed some of the bad: LDS literary fiction often struggles to find an audience; many readers don’t trust fiction written for the Mormon market and avoid it altogether; and some of the best LDS novels don’t have much marketing muscle behind them and lack certain distribution channels, so they silently disappear.

During our discussion, we challenged each other to read an LDS author we hadn’t read before. I decided I would read a novel produced by one of the bigger LDS publishers, since the bulk of my LDS fiction reading over the past decade or so has come from smaller publishers, like Signature. I admit that I’ve been avoiding the mainstream stuff because, well, I’d been disappointed by the quality of the writing in the past and wasn’t sure if I could trust it again. But I was inspired by many of you who assured me that quality LDS lit is being published by the big boys, and took the leap.

Before I get started on my response, let me say that I realize the one book I read isn’t necessarily representative of mainstream LDS lit as a whole. It’s just one book. But I am going to use it as a starting point for a discussion about the genre in general.

Just like last month’s post, I have good news and bad news to report. The good news is this: the writing in the book I chose wasn’t bad at all. (I’ve decided not to name the book I read, out of respect for the author and for reasons that will become clearer as I go on. Yeah, I’m a little bit chicken. But I also don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when it’s not this one book that I want to discuss, but overall trends in LDS lit.) The prose was clear and clean and easy to read. It wasn’t necessarily stunning our beautiful—but it obeyed the rules. I wasn’t yanked out of the story by annoying fiction writing mistakes. If this sounds like faint praise, it’s really not. The quality of the writing on the prose level, in this book at least, was quite a bit better than the stuff I’d read in the early nineties, and if that’s representative of the general trend in LDS publishing, then hooray.

But here’s the bad: the story itself, and especially the author’s treatment of its characters, reinforced a lot of the negative stereotypes about LDS lit. Yes, the good Mormon characters made mistakes (even Mormons have to make mistakes in fiction because, as we all know, only conflict is interesting) but those mistakes seemed stumbled into. Almost accidental. It’s got to be possible, though, for our LDS characters to make real mistakes—behave badly and know they’re behaving badly, but still indulge—and then suffer for it. If our “good” LDS characters are simply beset by random tragedy or nailed with a singular lightning bolt of temptation coming from nowhere, well, we can feel pity for them, sure. But we can’t suffer with them. We can’t walk with them in the darkness and then (hopefully) back into the light, because, in the end, these aren’t stories about protagonists who are out in the world acting, creating their own drama. These are characters that are acted upon, and passive characters are never as compelling as active ones. Mainly because they aren’t as real.

But my biggest issue with the book was the characterization of the antagonist—the bad guy (or in this case, the bad girl). Before I launch into my rant, though, I want to be clear that I think the problem of demonizing the “other” in LDS fiction occurs in the edgier, Signature-type fiction in the same way that it occurs in the faith-promoting, Deseret Book style work. The “other” (the “demon” of the story) in the edgier stuff is stereotypically a leader or authority that abuses his power. In the faith-promoting genre, it’s often a morally loose non-Mormon. Who smokes. Personally, I have very little patience with fiction writers who paint their bad guys as unremittingly bad. Bad-to-the-bone. Without nuance, without subtlety. Yes, yes, we need antagonists in fiction, we need villains, we need somebody to walk out on the stage so we can boo and hiss and root against him. But in the best fiction, everybody’s flawed—even the good guys—and everybody’s got a spark of humanity, too. Even the baddies.

In the most recent edition of The Best American Short Stories (2007), the author Richard Russo tells us a little bit about his own writing process. (If you haven’t read Russo, he’s wonderful, and my favorite thing about him is the charity with which he draws his characters, even those who are deeply flawed). He says this:

“The study of literature had had what I believed to be a salutary effect on my own character, making me less self-conscious and vain, more empathic and imaginative, maybe even kinder. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to wonder if maybe this is what reading all those great books is really for — to engender and promote charity. Sure, literature entertains and instructs, but to what end, if not compassion?”

Isn’t that a wonderful quote? And I’m sure many of us who love to read are saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” Reading can make you kinder, more aware, less judgmental. As the cliché tells us, reading is a way to see the world and go new places and meet new people from the comfort of our living room couch. But in the novel I read this month, as well as in some of the LDS lit I’ve read in the past, I felt like I hadn’t traveled far at all. Depths had not been plumbed. Souls had not been exposed. The “good” LDS characters operated on the same surface level that we see at church every week, where most people seem suspiciously perfect, and any problems or traumas that occur are most certainly not the individual’s fault (for a good member of the church wouldn’t do anything wrong on purpose!) but simply a function of bad luck, or a Godly need for the refiner’s fire.

I can see why real people in real wards wouldn’t be too interested in having their depths plumbed by every Nosy Nellie down the street. So as much as I delight in the random sister who pipes up in Relief Society and admits that she hasn’t read her scriptures in a year and a half, or that her kids make her want to jump out a fourth story window, I can’t hold a grudge against a person who wants to keep her personal struggles and challenges to herself. But I can hold a grudge against a fiction writer, because where else but in fiction can we see people as they really are? Truly exposed? And if our fiction is in collusion with our culture’s need to portray Mormons as nearly perfect—seemingly untroubled by real temptation or doubt or sin—then those of us who are troubled every once in a while end up feeling lonely indeed. And in the end, the fiction suffers for it, too, because that whiff of the unbelievable clings to every page.

But even worse, I feel, is the demonizing of the other. Many readers of mainstream LDS lit live in communities with a sizable Mormon population. It’s very easy for people in these communities to live so fully within their ward boundaries that the “other” is rarely considered—and if it is, it’s often considered with suspicion. But this isn’t because these church members are shallow or lacking in charity—at least most of the time it’s not. I believe it’s simply because these people haven’t traveled much, literally or figuratively. Maybe this isn’t fair, but I feel that when Mormon authors have the opportunity to write and get published, we have a special obligation not to demonize the other. When we use simple stereotypes (e.g., the first time the bad guy steps into a scene, he’s holding a cigarette), we reinforce unfortunate tendencies among some church members to hold themselves apart from, and even above, the non-members in their midst. And I think the reason this irritates me so is because I believe literature should explode expectations—it should broaden and magnify our understanding of humanity. “The Best Books” make us better people, but we aren’t made better by glossing over our own faults and magnifying the faults of those who aren’t like us.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t have non-Mormon characters in our books who are flawed, even evil. But when the Mormon’s flaws are so minor (and the Mormon’s essential goodness is treated as a given) and the non-Mormon’s flaws are so unremitting and unreflected upon by the character (and the non-Mormon’s essential lack of goodness is treated as a given), then I worry about the message such fiction is sending, both to the Mormons who read it and the non-Mormons who might stumble upon it. To be fair, the book I read this month didn’t paint all non-Mormon characters negatively, and not all of the Mormon characters were perfect. But the main antagonist was a non-Mormon with so little humanity that she failed to think twice about her horribly bad decisions. While the Mormon characters were beset with guilt for every twinge of bad feeling, this character went merrily on her way, spending most of the novel wreaking havoc and ruining lives with out conflict or hesitation. (She did have a brief moment near the end of the book where change was attempted, but by this point her character was so unbelievable to me that I didn’t buy it, and didn’t care.) I suppose this characterization could be forgiven if the antagonist wasn’t a point of view character, but was instead seen through the eyes of a judgmental 1st person or 3rd person limited narrator, but in this third person omniscient novel, we popped into this character’s head and very little but unremarked-upon bad intent rattled around inside it.

Ultimately, to me, this novel didn’t work because the characters weren’t treated with the complexity they deserve, and when people call LDS fiction “trite” or “sappy” or “unrealistic,” I think this is what they mean. And it is possible that I’m being a bit too harsh. I think about the novels I’ve enjoyed recently, and some of them, like A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaleed Hosseini, contain antagonists who are pretty darn close to being bad-to-the-bone, and I wasn’t too bothered by it. But in much the same way that a cheating husband can’t afford to go innocent lunch meetings with pretty female co-workers, when it comes to LDS fiction, I feel like the wronged wife. Lapses that might be overlooked in mainstream novels are magnified in Mormon ones, simply because I’m hoping not to see them, and when I do, I’m disappointed.

I think we all want a Mormon literature that manages to portray the complexity of the human condition with honesty and charity. It’s a tough thing to pull off. Too often, the edgy Mormon lit comes off as gloomy and disaffected, and the faith promoting stuff feels shallow and clichéd. But Mormonism offers us so much material. There are so many angles and issues and themes to explore, and I believe they can be explored in ways that are honest and real, but that ultimately add to the goodness in the world by teaching us about our common humanity. To what end do we read, or write, if not compassion? I realize that many books are written just to spin a story. To entertain. But I also believe the books that really matter—the books that so many of our talented LDS writers are capable of producing—must do more.

So now I’m finally done. Or at least I finally stopped typing. Did any of you read a new author this month? If so, feel free to ramble on as I did and tell us about your experience. Or feel free to call me on anything I just said—agree, disagree, let me have it, say amen. If anything, it will let me know that somebody got to the end of this eternally long post!

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

14 thoughts on “Writing with Charity

  1. We had a discussion on this very topic a few nights ago over dinner with friends. When will LDS lit “grow up”? Is it just a generational thing? Can LDS lit pull those of us who gave it up as soon as we outgrew Jack Weyland?

    I know that I don’t even give LDS fiction a chance anymore. I’m not completely closed off, but it would take an exceptional work for me to even try LDS fiction. I am a devout Orson Scott Card reader, so I’m not against LDS themes or authorship, but overtly LDS fiction has always seemed so one dimensional.

    Let me know if anyone finds something extraordinary and I will try LDS fiction again.

  2. Well said. I don’t feel inclined to pick up any Deseret/Covenant fiction anytime soon–I get enough Pollyanna at church, don’t need it in my spare time too.

    I’m rereading the Backslider right now and enjoying it quite a bit. It certainly shows the human, doubting, lustful side of the main character, but I’m not sure it achieves an ideal balance in terms of depicting someone who’s truly converted and fully understands Mormonism. But I’m still enjoying it!

  3. I made it to the end! Heehee. No, seriously, I loved what you had to say. I have one more thing to add: the last Mormon lit I read felt the need to convert the nonmmembers who were good. So you had good Mormons, evil non-Mormon villains, and then any non-member with a spark of goodness began to investigate the Church by the end of the book. Puh-leeze! Can’t we let there be some good non-LDS people in the world who just want to stay in their own religion?

    I think the LDS audience wants bad things to be healed in some way. But true healing, going through the pain to the resolution, is much harder to write. It’s easier, as you say, to gloss over the surface. I have to say, too, though, that the negative downer stuff is also, IMO, easier to write than non-sappy healing. It’s easier to have some flawed character stay flawed than it is to redeem him.

  4. I have a question. If the writing really is that bad (and obviously, technically, or at least stylistically, some of it is bad), why does it continue to sell? I look at that fact and can’t believe that all readers really do want the complexity you describe. Or am I missing something? Doesn’t the writing reflect as much about the audience and the reader as it does about the writers?

    I just can’t help but think that some people want LDS fiction to sort of replace what is harder and harder to find — clean, mindless, predictable, non-challenging, chill-and-veg fare. If people really are looking for entertainment, I think I’d rather have them go to this kind of thing than to the video store or a trashy novel, even if the LDS literature isn’t up to snuff in a technical or stylistic way.

    I don’t read much of it; I don’t read much fiction at all, to be honest. But the few times when I have read LDS fiction (true fiction, not historical…that’s different to me), I have specifically chosen to read it because I knew it would be safe and I wanted to veg, not because I expected anything fantastic from it.

    That said, I think it would be great to have deeper LDS fiction, too. I just am not convinced that there isn’t a place for the kind of thing you have described, especially in today’s world of polluted entertainment.

  5. .

    Sure there’s a place for it in the marketplace–in fact, it’s the portion of the marketplace that is being best served. But there’s no reason complexity needs to be anathema to feeling good. If that were the case, we would all die depressed.

    I love this idea of writing with charity–speaking of Mr Card, one thing he likes to remind us is that everyone is hero of his own story. No one sees themselves as the villain outside mustache-twirling melodrama.

    The result of understanding this, of course, is that each character’s motivations and decisions are rooted in their own humanity and sense of right.

    I just read Wuthering Heights–hardly newly published LDS lit, but apropos–and Heathcliff is as near to irredeemable as we are apt to come across. But his desires to destroy the Earnshaw and Linton families is not based in evil, no matter what the people around him may think: it is based in his love for Catherine. His twisted, screwed up, “evil” but strong and real and life-driving love for her.

    I’m at risk of waxing too long myself, so I’m going to quote Emily’s sister Charlotte here, then say no more:

    Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is. But this I know; the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master–something that at times strangely wills and works for itself. He hay lay down rules and devise principles, and to rules and principles it will perhaps for years lie in subjection; and then, haply without any warning of revolt, there comes a time when it will no longer consent to ‘harrow the vallies, or be bound with a band in the furrow’–when it ‘laughs at the multitude of the city, and regards not the crying of the driver’–when, refusing absolutely to make ropes out of sea-sand any longer, it sets to work on statue-hewing, and you have a Pluto or a Jove, a Tisiphone or a Psyche, a Mermaid or a Madonna, as Fate and Inspiration direct. By the work grim or glorious, dread or divine, you have little choice left but quiescent adoption. As for you–the nominal artist–your share in it has been to work passively under dictates you neither delivered nor could question–that would not be uttered at your prayer, not supressed nor changed at your caprice. If the result be attractive, the World will praise you, who little deserve praise; if it be repulsive, the same World will blame you, who almost as little deserve blame.

    Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor: gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited the head, savage, swart, sinister; a form moulded with at least one element of grandeur–power. He wrought with a rude chisel, and from no model but the vision of his meditations. With time and labour, the crag took human shape; and there it stands colossal, dark, and frowning, half statue, half rock: in the former sense, terrible and goblin-like; in the latter, almost beautiful, clothes it; and heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows faithfully close to the giant’s foot.

  6. Azucar, I agree with you that an excellent term to describe what I hope to see happen in LDS lit is for it to “grow up.” I know, though, that there are a lot of LDS writers and artists who have been waiting for that day for decades. We do have some marvelous fiction writers with LDS backgrounds who write for the national market (Darrell Spencer, Brady Udall, the oft-cited OSC), as well as our writers of adolescent lit (Shannon Hale, Ann Cannon, Louise Plummer, Stephenie Meyer), but we still have a lot of growing up to do when it comes to Mormons writing about Mormons, for Mormons.

    And for those of you who read this blog who are writing mainstream LDS novels, I’m not speaking about anyone personally, since I haven’t read any mainstream LDS lit–save for the book in this post–for a decade. I do believe that there are many talented people writing for Deseret Book and Covenant and Cedar Fort. What I’m talking about is the culture of the mainstream market itself. The expectations of the publishers, the expectations of the readers.

    There will always be a large market for comfort fiction, as Michelle described above. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Why do people go to Applebee’s? Because they know what to expect: funny tchotchkes on the wall, mozzarella sticks, Fiesta Lime Chicken, free refills. But I don’t think that anyone would claim that Applebee’s is fine cuisine. So the argument that lots of people enjoy comfort food shouldn’t argue against the need in the world for really fine food, well made. But what if, in SLC, we only had Applebee’s? Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s and, if we were really feeling bold, The Outback Steakhouse? People would say: When is SLC going to grow up and get some real restaurants?? Same thing with Mormon lit.

    People like Chris Bigelow (who posted above) are trying to provide such literature with publishing companies like Zarahemla, and so is Beth Bentley with Parables, and Signature publishes one or two works of quality fiction every year. But these publishers have a hard time getting distribution–and when most folks go to Seagull or DB for LDS fiction and don’t see those offerings on the shelves, the effect is similar to a crazy zoning law in SLC that makes people have to drive to Davis County to go to a different kind of restaurant. Now, I realize that some of the books by these publishers might be considered inappropriate in some way, and therefore won’t be carried by DB. I understand that business decision. But not all of them are inappropriate, and if the bigger publishers are leery of taking a chance and publishing literary fiction, then it would be nice if some of it could at least be sold in their stores.

    But I go on (again). Th, I love your quote. I’m going to copy and paste it so I have it for myself.

  7. One more thing. Here are some really talented LDS writers many of you’ve probably never heard of, but I know them through my work as fiction editor of Irreantum magazine, or reading their stories in Dialogue, or personally:

    -Jack Harrell (he has a book of short stories coming out with Signature early next year, by the way)
    -Darren Cozzens
    -Arianne Cope
    -Mark Brown
    -Scott Bronson
    -Eugene Woodbury
    -Katherine Woodbury
    -Paul Rawlins
    -Scott Hatch
    -Sharlee Glen (go Segullah!)
    -Darlene Young (go Segullah!)
    -Kathryn Soper (go Segullah, and she writes creative nonfiction, but I’m including her anyway!!)
    -Chris Bigelow
    -Beth Bentley
    -Doug Thayer
    -Coke Newell
    -Todd Robert Petersen
    -William Morris
    -Kristin Carson
    -Laura McCune-Poplin
    -Lisa Downing

    I know I forgot people. Sorry!! I have to go finish making cheese balls to take to my visiting teachees. And of course, there are scores of other writers who I don’t know, but they’re out there scribbling away, writing amazing stuff. But there are so many promising LDS writers who are absolutely capable of writing thought-provoking, honest, nuanced, challenging, heart-wrenching, faith-affirming, artistically satisfying stuff . . . FOR a Mormon audience. And we Mormons are also capable of wanting it. Maybe the audience isn’t as large as those who love comfort fiction (have you ever seen an Applebee’s on a Friday night?), but it’s there nonetheless.

  8. That was very sweet to include me, Angela.

    But I’d say include S.P. Bailey instead of me. He’s actually been published in several places.

    But your larger point is an important one, I think. There’s a whole host of very good authors out there producing that broadly appropriate, middle road work that I find very compelling. Sadly, there aren’t as many venues for their work as there should be.

  9. William,
    You’re right about Shawn Bailey. Glad you remedied that! (But I do think you deserve a spot, too . . .). Eric Samuelsen, who’s primarily a playwright, has also written some really good fiction, and I just read a story by Julie Nichols in Dialogue that I really liked. I took a creative writing class from Julie at BYU waaaaay back in the early 90s and was so glad to see more of her work. And Stephen Carter’s a great writer, but does mostly creative nonfiction. See, but the longer I go, the more I risk leaving people out, so I’d better stop. Needless to say, the list of top notch writers is long.

    And thanks for the link. I still love that essay.

  10. I am an LDS writer living outside Utah, who has yet to publish much within the LDS community, but I run two bookclubs for LDS women. One is our ward’s Enrichment book group and the other is a book group made up of LDS women, but not an official Church group. It is always interesting to me to hear what types of books the two different groups request. The Enrichment book group really, really enjoyed “The Peacegiver”–which is supposed to be fiction, but reads more like a collection of essays. (It reminded me a lot of books like “Jonathon Livingston Seagull” or “The Greatest Salesman in the World”.) In the other book group, made up of people who consider themselves serious readers, we actually shy away from LDS fiction for many of the reasons you have stated. However, one piece of LDS fiction we enjoyed was Larry Barkdull’s “Cold Train Coming”. The consensus seemed to be that we appreciated Barkdull’s willingness to just let the Mormonism be. We knew the characters were LDS, but it wasn’t the point of the story. We were a little disappointed by the way the father’s depression in the story was glossed over, but we appreciated that it was in there and that they mother seemed genuinely temepted to be unfaithful but chose not to be. The book may have been lacking a bit in “style” but was not bad overall. I didn’t feel like I had wasted my time reading it.

Comments are closed.