By now the recent New York Times article decrying the current state of Mormon Literature is old news. I’m not interested here in responding to the major argument that Mormon writers are, in general, inhibited by a cheerful outlook on life and a reluctance to address “adult” topics. Writers who are much smarter than I am have already addressed the article’s misconceptions about Mormon writers. (See, for instance George Handley’s list of cultural tendencies that may prevent LDS writers from reaching for literary greatness—and the great list of LDS fiction in the comments; or Scott Hales’ defense of existing Mormon literature.)
I am interested, however, in talking about what many of these responses suggest about readers.
When the NYT article first appeared, my Facebook feed lit up with threads all along the spectrum: those who passionately defended genre literature (including Larry Correia’s in-your-face response) and others who agreed the article was flawed, but conceded a concern with LDS readers who in general were not interested in reading “real” literature. One friend wrote, “Literature needs to help people figure out how to live their lives better. It offers warnings and opportunities for empathy. I worry when stories are only used for escape and entertainment.”
I can understand this worry. As an English teacher, I recognize that it’s the business of teachers to introduce students to “literature”—to books and themes and ideas that they might not voluntarily pick up themselves. But as a reader, I’m equally passionate about the fact that readers have a right to choose for themselves what they want to read.
I also know that what constitutes “literature” is highly debatable, and that it changes from generation to generation. My uncle Michael Collings, a former professor at Pepperdine, pointed out that our obsession with producing “Miltons and Shakespeares” “leaves out of the equation the fact that neither were best-selling authors in their own times; that neither wrote what was then considered ‘mainstream’ literature; that neither went out of his way to proclaim a specific literary allegiance to anything resembling the NYT and the literary establishment; and that both had to be re-interpreted in major ways decades–even centuries–later before they were exalted to literary sainthood.”
As members of the church, we are encouraged to seek after things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praise-worthy.” I firmly believe this. But I also believe that what might be uplifting to one person may not be so to others (witness some of the music in Relief Society that brings some members to tears but sets my teeth on edge)—and that we do not have the right to stipulate what others should find moving, or to look down on them because their tastes are not as “highbrow” as our own. Literary snobbery is still a form of pride, no matter how tastefully it is dressed.
I think the act of reading—in any genre—pushes us outside of ourselves, asks us to see the world from a perspective unlike our own. Of course, some books may challenge us to do this more than others, but I think the challenges are as individual as the reader. In a recent defense of libraries, Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful and passionate defense of all reading.
There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
I think the same could be said of adult readers—we find the stories we need, and we bring ourselves to the stories. I don’t think we can make simple distinctions between genre literature and high literature, particularly not when we’re talking about what such books do for readers. Some of my most profound meditations on faith and individual relationships with the divine have come from reading genre books, like Lois Bujold’s Chalion series, or Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow. But I also loved Leif Enger’s Peace like a River.
Gaiman continues his defense of reading for pleasure:
I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if ‘escapist’ fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
I believe there are a few genuinely bad books—books with content so dark or obscene that it hurts us to read them. But most of the time, what we call “bad” is a reflection of taste. My mother to this day hates Lord of the Flies, read during her school years—but that was the book that introduced me to the joys (yes, joys!) of literary analysis.
So here, at the end, is my manifesto about reading. It’s pretty simple, but it’s what I believe.
2. Read because you love reading.
3. Read what you love to read.
4. Challenge yourself sometimes—read something outside your typical genre. You might surprise yourself.
5. Respect that others may need different things from books than you do.
6. Read more.
Ultimately, what I want to say is this: People read for a lot of different reasons, and I think that if we’re going to take writing and reading seriously, we need to respect that.
Did you read the original NYT article? What did you think? What do you love to read—and why?