3/30/09

LDS Fiction: Does Good Writing Matter? by Emily Milner

Emily Milner writes, edits, and blogs for Segullah:Writings by Latter-day Saint Women. You can also find her at her personal blog, Hearing Voices. She spends most of her time lately reading Whitney finalists and nursing her broken leg.


Does good writing matter? I’ve read a couple of interesting perspectives about this, from Shannon Hale and an anonymous poster at LDSpublisher. Shannon Hale holds that the quality of a book is far less important than whether it speaks to a reader. She gives the example of young readers, who might find a lesser-quality book engaging, a kind of gateway book, that could help them appreciate other works later on. Anonymous explains that books speak to different people different ways at different times; one story might engage someone at one point in their life, but bore them at another.

I think there is validity in both of these points of view. My kids love the Magic Tree House books, and they do not boast superb writing. But for my son, these were the books that helped him transition into chapter books. Hooray! There are many books I loved as a teenager, that spoke to my angsty soul, which I don’t care for now. And vice versa–I don’t think my teenage self would enjoy the all books I like now. My tastes have changed.

However, while the reader’s response does matter, I also believe that good writing matters in and of itself. There are at least two reasons for this, both of which should be crucial to Mormons. 1-Good writing is honest; bad writing is dishonest, and 2-Good writing allows the reader his/her own agency; bad writing takes away the reader’s agency.*

Arthur Henry King (1910-2000)
, scholar and BYU professor, explains that the best, the greatest writing, is absolutely honest. In fact, it was the stark honesty of Joseph Smith’s personal writing that led directly to Arthur Henry King’s conversion:

When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.

…Joseph Smith begins his story in his matter-of-fact way, setting out carefully the reason that he is writing this history and the facts about his birth and family. Then he moves from the matter-of-fact to the ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at the time—the behavior of the New York clergy in trying to draw people into their congregations. He tells about reading the Epistle of James. He doesn’t try to express his feelings. He gives a description of his feelings, instead, which is a very different thing. Look at verse 12:

“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” [JS—H 1:12]

I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it as it is, who is bending all his faculties to express the truth, not thinking about anything else—and above all, though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself.

According to King, the best writers in history have worked to tell truth. Great honesty=great writing. I think the issue of honesty is an important factor in evaluating current LDS writing. For example: in an LDS novel I finished recently, the female protagonist is in peril, in a challenging, life-threatening situation, which she accepts with very little complaint.

But it felt like a lie to me. She didn’t demonstrate the normal range of emotion. I think the author wanted to set her up to be a good person. That’s nice. But this protagonist was just too good. She didn’t feel real. She didn’t feel honest. I felt deceived as a reader–was I really supposed to believe that she was as amazing as all that? I wasn’t given enough depth, enough layers, to feel like it was true.

Also in this book, there were several opportunities for the male and female protagonist to get very upset at each other. And they never did. I assume this was because they were supposed to be falling in love. Okay. But don’t you get extremely upset at the people you love sometimes? Isn’t that kind of conflict worth digging into and exploring? In this book, it was never explored in depth. I believe in love more if the romance includes real obstacles, thoroughly explored and then overcome. Again, it felt dishonest.

Character arcs are a crucial part of being an honest writer. If the main characters do not grow or change, the novel is dishonest. Why? Because events as important as the ones worth writing about in the novel would surely change the characters, and cause them to grow and develop. A novel in which the only change in the character’s status is from single to in love, or from in peril to out of peril, is not an honest book.

On to agency. Arthur Henry King explains that an important aspect of Joseph Smith’s writing was that he did not care at all what the reader thought of it. Joseph’s story was true, and he was going to tell it exactly as it happened, without being sensational or trying to convince the reader of anything. Joseph Smith respected his readers’ agency, to believe or not. He did not use writing to manipulate the reader.

A great practical application of this principle of respecting reader agency is the old-but-true standby, “show don’t tell.” Sometimes you do need to tell; it moves the action along. But whenever I’m told too much about a character, instead of shown what they are like, I’m being being forced to believe who they are, instead of allowed to discover them for myself. Whereas, if the author works in character traits through a nice showing scene, my agency as a reader is respected. The more the author tells about a character instead of shows, the less he allows me agency.

I love the way the Whitney website phrases the objective of the Whitney Awards:

Elder Orson F. Whitney, an early apostle in the LDS church, prophesied “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” Since we have that as our goal, we feel that we should also honor those authors who excel and continually raise the bar.

I feel that many of the finalists have raised the bar, and I am grateful for that. I also think that an ongoing conversation about what constitutes good writing in LDS fiction is important. In my opinion, what we as a people should be seeking is honest writing, writing that respects readers’ agency. Asking for writing that follows these ideals isn’t being mean. It isn’t being overly critical or too picky. Instead, it’s seeking to apply fundamental principles of the LDS faith in our literature.

*These ideas concerning honesty, agency, and Arthur Henry King are from writer and writing teacher extraordinaire Tessa Meyer Santiago.

14 comments:

smart mama said...

Emily- excellent thoughts- I was actually thinking about this on the way home from church yesterday. I was trying to envision LDS characters in many pieces of great literature and I wondered how they would be decribed, written about, the style of the writing. I think that good writing should be our aim. In my youth I would have accepted flatter characters becasue I was relatively flat, now I wouldn't relate. I often think about this as it also relates to other disciplines of church art- music, visual arts etc. Nice thoughts to ponder.

lachish said...

I am very impressed by this post. You have given me many things to think about, particularly about my own writing. Thank you for the insight about Joseph Smith's written history. I had never read that quote before, and it makes total sense to me.

Annette Lyon said...

I'd never thought of good writing in those terms before, but you nailed it. Books I dislike tend to be dishonest in the way you described.

Great post.

Justine said...

I recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. I read it as a teenager with mild interest, but reading it again blew me away. The book spoke to me in deeply differing ways. As a youth, it was a tale of Boo Radley and the intrigues of childhood, but as an adult, it morphed into layers of stories and complex issues woven together in beautiful prose.

For me, great literature has that ability - to change and grow in meaning as the reader grows. To have value to me as a youth but to be able to grow with me into adulthood.

There is very little literature my children don't *love*. But as they grow and become more multi-faceded themselves, they begin to discern that dis-ingenuous writing which you speak of. It doesn't ring true with the reality they - or we - are experiencing.

Anna Arnett said...

Great food for thought.

In a college class, we discussed a novel by Henry James. The professor and most of the class classified the heroine as a grasping mercenary willing to sacrifice her betrothed to gain the wealth of a dying heiress. I, on the other hand, saw her as a compassionate woman, encouraging her betrothed to comfort this heiress friend, even if it meant losing him forever, which it did because after the marriage the dying didn't die. (I took this class some 30 or 40 years ago, so don't expect my memory to be exact.)

I do remember my professor's reply. He smiled, and I thought his eyes showed delight. "That's the beauty of great writing. Each reader can interpret it individually."

I hadn't thought of James' writing as 'honest' but I did feel the power of his prose.

Chas Hathaway said...

Great post. It got me really thinking.

So how can I tell if my writing is truly honest? I haven't done a lot of fiction, but I suppose it's the same with memoir and other forms of nonfiction. How do I keep my characters or subjects real and authentic? Is there a limit to how real we should make them?

- Chas
http://chas.willowrise.com/

Tanya Parker Mills said...

I was intrigued by Emily's post and wasn't too surprised to find, after searching out an example of her own writing on Segullah, that she is an honest writer. That kind of honesty is, indeed, the foundation of great writing.

As LDS writers, we have to decide if we are going to strive for the kind of honesty that will raise us to the level Orson F. Whitney envisioned. Shakespeare certainly didn't shy away from some of the uglier elements in life. Why? Because it would have been dishonest. Life is not all comfort and peace. We know that from the scriptures. The difficulty lies in how to confront evil in our literature without pandering to it.

Michelle said...

Emily has written on this subject before on her personal blog and I've been very inspired by her insistence on excellent writing. Yes, let's tell an interesting story-- but let's do it beautifully. I'm in the process of writing a novel and I find it exhausting, heart-wrenching work, but Emily has encouraged me to revise and revise until I reach at least some level of mastery.

And Em, I had to laugh that you used Shannon Hale's words as an example. Since we both know that Shannon Hale is an AWESOME writer who also has mastered plot and pacing.

Emily M. said...

Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments (and LDS Publisher for allowing me to post here).

smartmama-interesting insight--I think I accepted flatter characters when I was younger too, for that very reason: I didn't understand myself very well, so it was easier for me to enjoy characters who didn't either. But as I grow, I don't enjoy them so much.

lachish, thanks for your kind words. I highly recommend the entire Arthur Henry King article--it gave me great insight into Joseph Smith's brilliance as an honest writer.

Annette, thanks :-).

Justine, I reread it myself just a couple of months ago, and I had the same experience! I was amazed by its layers and depth. The young protagonist appealed to my teenage self, but all the nuance resonates with me today.

Anna, I need to go read some Henry James (there are so many books I should have read by haven't, and those are on the list).

Chas, those are great questions. I don't have perfect answers. Here are a couple of ideas, though: 1-If it hurts when you pick at it, dig deeper. If it's a personal essay, and you are writing about something painful, but you don't dig deeply enough, then it doesn't feel quite right. In fiction, you could reword this as "if it hurts when the character picks at it, dig deeper." 2-Get a good writing group and ask for feedback on this issue specifically. 3-The question of how real to be... ah, that I don't know. I confess here that my experience as a published writer is in personal essays and poetry, not fiction. In my essays, I'm pretty real, and I have said things about myself that were difficult to write. But they needed to be there.

Maybe someone with more experience in fiction could speak to that.

Tanya-Thanks for your kind words. I am a beginning writer--my attention span and young kids mean that shorter works are my genre right now. One day I hope to write a longer novel like your excellent The Reckoning.

You make a great point: how do we confront evil without pandering to it? I don't know. I think that including unnecessary explicit sex, violence, and language is just as dishonest as not mentioning the events at all. It's sensational and manipulative. Yet these elements are a part of life. It's a delicate balance.

Michelle, you are so kind. And you are also a fabulous writer (and disciplined!). And yeah, there's a lot of irony in quoting Shannon Hale, since she's got the honesty-agency-reality balance I'm referring to down pat. I respect her very much; she's amazing. Again, I do think there's value to the reader-response "if a book has a reader, it's a good book." I just don't want to lose sight of the inherent value of a well-written text.

lachish, thanks for your kind words. I highly recommend the entire Arthur Henry King article--it gave me great insight into Joseph Smith's brilliance as an honest writer.

Annette, thanks :-).

Justine, I reread it myself just a couple of months ago, and I had the same experience! I was amazed by its layers and depth. The young protagonist appealed to my teenage self, but all the nuance resonates with me today.

Anna, I need to go read some Henry James (there are so many books I should have read by haven't, and those are on the list).

Emily M. said...

*blushes* I was copying and pasting and therefore my last comment repeats itself at the end--so sorry.

Melanie J said...

Very thought provoking. I feel it's difficult enough to master plot and pacing in genre fiction. The idea of rising to this level of honesty in writing versus just deftly handling the conventions is both exhuasting...and exhilarating.

Anonymous said...

The wonderful thing about Emily's post is that she used the very example which separates LDS fiction from spiritual or inspirational fiction. The restoration.

Since we're talking honestly here, what, really, is LDS fiction? This topic has been hashed over before, but really what is it? Anything written by a member of the LDS faith seems awfully broad.

Is it enough to have the imprimatur of an LDS publishing company on the spine to qualify as a work of LDS fiction?

How about as long as there's some LDS characters, or an LDS setting, or an identifiable LDS cultural artifact in the story? Does that uniquely qualify a novel as LDS?

It seems that the definition of LDS fiction has been defined by the business of book selling rather than by what it really is. Most LDS fiction works are really spiritual fiction or inspirational fiction with LDS characters or culture. But since the larger Christian market or the national market doesn't gobble up Mormon characters, we've created this interesting LDS regional market that publishes inspirational and spiritual fiction under the guise of LDS fiction—an inpsiring or spiritual journey-of-a-read you can trust.

But is that enough to separate LDS fiction from all the other inspirational and spiritual novels out there that you can also trust?

Probably not.

Any novel that uses restoration themes or has a plot line or a character whose reason for existence hinges on the restoration brands the work LDS. The restoration makes us unique. It should also make our fiction unique. You can write inspirational or spiritual fiction for the regional LDS market, but can we call it LDS fiction?

Honestly?

Becky said...

Thanks for this post, especially the quotes by King. I think my own skills as a writer will improve as a result of reading this post.

Emily M. said...

Melanie--that's how I feel about it too, exhausted and also energized. When I read a book that does this well, I'm so excited about it, especially if it's in a genre that doesn't always produce round characters.

Anonymous, you raise a good point, and I don't know that there is a clear answer to "what is LDS fiction?" LDS Publisher has tackled it before when she discussed Angel Falling Softly...

I think the Whitney definition actually works pretty well. The Whitneys pit national-market books written by LDS authors against regional-market books by LDS authors, and they call it all LDS fiction. The reason I think it works is this: Mormons are very clannish about their writers. A nationally published LDS author could get a strong LDS following, and become part of the local, regional artistic conversation as well.

I realize the issue is more complicated than that, as not all nationally published authors are going to engage directly the questions of the Restoration. You have raised some excellent questions, though.

Becky--thanks! :-)