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!