Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What Makes a Great Story...Or the Marginalization of Mormon Writers by The New York Times

I want to start out by confessing that I don’t read literary fiction.  I know right there that I have lost all credibility with Mark Oppenheimer, the author of this New York Times article that I’m going to discuss shortly, but I’m okay with that.  I, however, have read many books and plays that are brilliant, important, and profound.  Most of these have been classics, so I'm not sure what literary critics think are important contemporary stories.  But I think we all know what makes a story truly great.

I came across this New York Times article recently which discusses the failure of Mormon writers to produce any works of literary value and speculates if the LDS culture “militates against highbrow writing.”

I’m not going to discuss the article’s subtle jabs at the LDS culture or its sweeping generalizations of a very large group of people (Just because one man’s parents told him to only write about happy things in his journals doesn’t mean that all or even most Mormons follow that or have that same mentality.  Or that bookish young Mormons will gravitate towards Mormon authors instead of just reading books that interest them).  Okay, I might touch on those issues slightly, but what I want to mainly focus on is what makes a story great.
The article makes this statement as a reason Mormon writers don’t write more important, critically acclaimed literary novels.
“But there is a specifically Mormon logic to the trend, too.  Realist literature for adults often includes aspects of adult life like sex and drinking, and the convention is to describe them without judgment, without moralizing.  By writing for children and young adults—or in genres popular with young people—one can avoid such topics. Mormon authors can thus have their morals and their books sales, too.”
Now this is where I have the biggest problem with this article.  If I am understanding this correctly, highbrow, important literature tends to be realist literature for adults with a specific (causal or nonjudgmental) view on sex and drinking.
First of all, once again a sweeping generalization that Mormon writers won’t or can’t write this type of book.  They can write about sex and drinking without preaching if they want to, and they won’t get excommunicated for it either.

Second of all, isn’t this saying that important, highbrow literature needs to fit a specific world view?  I know nihilistic and realist aren't the same thing, but it seems to me that those lines can blur. If a story seems positive or hopeful in any way does that automatically make it idealistic?  If someone has a nihilistic world view, then isn’t it possible that any non-nihilistic point of view may seem romanticized to him?
And furthermore, why is a realist literature inherently superior?  Some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were comedies, such as Twelfth Night and Midsummer’s Night Dream, and they weren’t any less profound than Othello or Hamlet even though they displayed more idealistic and romanticized views.

Finally, sex and drinking are not essential to every adult themed plot, and if an author chooses to include them, any attitude towards them that the author chooses to use is valid.

We all have our own world view, and they are all deeply flawed in some way. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but what I see from this article is that Oppenheimer’s perceived Mormon world view (ignoring the fact that Mormon’s are individual people and that each of their own individual world views) isn’t valid. That Mormons are naïve, idealistic, and out of touch with reality. That their world view can’t be used to write important literature.

In other words, it seems to me that Oppenheimer is saying that only people who think like him have important things to say.
The greatest thing about literature to me is that it opens up the world to us.  That it can show us others' perspectives.  That it can help us understand each other.  I think that is the value of a really great story; that it makes you think and see something in a different way.   

Every world view is valid.  You don’t have to accept it or even like it, but it does have worth and the ability to show you something new if you let it. 

The problem is that those great, profound stories are just so rare.  They are the work of true geniuses who are able to craft a powerful story with pure, unflinching honesty.
I’m not sure if a Mormon writer has achieved this yet, but I haven’t read every book written by Mormons.  Even if no one has, that doesn’t mean we are hampered by our culture, just that true geniuses are rare.




  1. I didn't bother reading this Mark but this attack bothers me. First of all, I think all authors make judgments in their writing especially if they are addressing social issues. It reminded me back in my days in grad school for social work. Living in Utah, there were often attacks about Mormon culture. I remember one time a student stated that Mormonism cultivated shame which lead to secretive sexual deviances. There is no proof out there that the Mormon religion has a higher percentage then other groups. The Mormon culture is not so perfect that the society problems of substance abuse, eating disorders, affairs, struggles with sexual orientation, and other society problems don't touch it. In fact after school, I worked with court ordered domestic violence and substance abuse client. My boss expended her business to Provo (Mormon Capital of the world) she told me that she never In 10 to 15 years with this population, worked with substance abuse at this level, which a good percentage was Mormon and abused prescription drugs and the level of denial was extremely high which probably largely contributed to religious influences.

    If there isn't any good storytelling out there about Mormons then there is a lot that hasn't been explored yet. After all I am Mormon but I have the same human experiences as everyone else. I don't read many Mormon authors, but have seen some of the movies created by Mormons. I do think in what I have seen that maybe there is a fear of going deeper with the stories. Sometimes it seems only at the tip of the iceberg.

    1. Thanks for touching on a lot of the issues I have with some perceived views of Mormons. That Mormons live in some sort of idealistic bubble that either is not affected by the darker aspects of the world or hides with their heads in the sand to deny them.

      Maybe this comes from the fact that most Mormons do try to put forth an idealized view of themselves, but in my experience, practically everyone does this. It is in no way unique to LDS culture.

      Mormons live in this world just like everyone else, and they deal with the same problems that everyone else deals with. I wish our culture was untouched by the darker aspects of life, but it's not. And I don't understand how any intelligent person could think otherwise.

  2. Yeah, that article made me mad. I didn't like the assumption that my entire religion can't be real writers. I didn't like the assumption that popular or genre books aren't important as Milton (whose poetry about Angels and Demons now would fall under a paranormal genre heading), or Shakespeare (who was the definition of a popular writer,) who the highbrow of his time looked down on.

    Which is sad, because he brings up a really interesting and truthful point, which is lost in the genre bashing. It's the whole vampire swooping in thing from [Title of Show]. I know as a Mormon, I have to fight that little voice in my head that asks what would the bishop, or my mom, or my great aunt think about the swears, or the kisses. It's about the fact that I wrote a 120,000 word book with seven swear words in it, and those swear words are the ONLY thing I've got feedback on from my friends and family. It's about that voice in my head that has made me change the "right word" into the "word my mom would like" far too many times.
    But I don't think that's an only Mormon issue. Which is why I wish he wrote the article better.

    1. Sheena, thanks for bringing up the genre bashing. That bugged me too, and I meant to talk about it. I really don't understand why the literary world can't acknowledge that genre stories are and have been important stories since the dawn of storytelling.

      I agree that there is some fear of what people I know might think if they read my stories. I try really hard to not let that hold me back, but it is a problem. I am much happier to let strangers read my stuff than family and friends. But that is in no way unique to LDS culture. It is a common discussion on writers forums. Everyone has little, sweet, old grandmas.

    2. Or some sort of equivalent to a sweet, old grandma. As I, actually, no longer have any grandmas.

  3. I've been thinking about this for a few days now, because parts of his article describe me as a reader pretty well. When I read most modern literary fiction, or even chick lit, there is a disconnect between the world the author perceives as reality and my reality, and I often have a very difficult time bridging that gap. I have the same difficulty with a lot of Christian fiction, including Mormon fiction. On the other hand, I don't have that kind of a hard time bridging that gap with historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy.

    Frankly, I was more offended by the marginalization of science fiction and fantasy than I was at the marginalization of Mormons, though perhaps I shouldn't have been. I'll take Eugenides, Howl, Kaladin and Harry, and they can keep their highbrow literature. I think I win.

    1. Oh! And Ender and Peeta too. I get to keep them.

    2. Drat. I went and left out the whole point. But I can't seem to put it into words, so pretend like I did, and that it was amazing, and had to do with stereotypes and pigeon-holes and everything you were just thinking anyway. Thanks.

    3. I was annoyed by the marginalization of science fiction and fantasy too, as well as YA. I've read some really great stories in these genres, but I've seen a lot of genre bashing by these high brow literary types, so that was nothing new. I do think it reinforces the narrow-mindedness of Oppenheimer and those like him. How they believe that important stories have to fit in a very specific box.

  4. I have so many feelings about this article (and I'm not even Mormon!) that I can't quite get them organized. The first and silliest reaction is this: I read books with a lot of sex and I read some highbrow books and they are not the same books. At all. The highbrow books usually deal more with pain than with sex or drugs or anything else that might offend prudish sensibilities. They deal directly with the human condition, often but not always without a fast-paced plot, and their prose hits you in the gut. That's what makes a book "literary" in my opinion and there is absolutely nothing that I have ever learned about the LDS church that would preclude that kind of writing. I just can't make the connection.

    I also don't know why the article took such a negative slant when, if you are going to make generalizations (never a good idea), it would have made just as much sense to ask why so many Mormon authors are such compelling storytellers. But I don't see anyone writing articles comparing Episcopalian and Jewish authors or lamenting a lack of literary Baptists (I have no idea how many Baptists win literary prizes because why would I care?) so really the whole thing just seemed prejudiced from the start.

    We all have a fear of judgment when we write, and there is plenty I don't want my mom to read. And I've seen the women on this blog write about real human emotions enough times to know that they are more than capable of being as honest and true as any other writer out there. Write what you love to write and never apologize for it.

    1. Sarah, thanks for weighing in on this because I do feel a little inadequate since I don't read literary books. I got a very strange view of what literary fiction was from this article. Thanks for your definition of literary fiction. That makes more sense to me.

      I agree that it was strange to single out Mormon writers. I care so little about the religious beliefs of authors. I have no idea what religion J. K. Rowlings follows, or Suzanne Collins or Diana Wynne Jones or Robert Jordan or any other non-Mormon writer.

      But I do know that Orson Scott Card is Mormon and Stephenie Meyer and Shannon Hale and Ally Condie and Brodi Ashton and Kiersten White. This isn't from me specifically searching for LDS writers or actively seeking out their religious practices. I'm just looking for books to read, and I've found their books, and every single time, I've just stumbled across mentions of their religion. This is really strange and almost scary to me because no other religion is singled out in this way. I'm not sure why people seem to care about whether a writer is Mormon or not. I can't tell you how many times Stephenie Meyer's religion is stated in articles on her, and I can't find one reference to J. K. Rowlings religious leanings in any of the articles I've read about her.

      It is weird.


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