Prodigal Artists

January 19, 2005 | 66 comments
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First, let me say thank you to my hosts. I feel like a celebrity.

A couple of weeks ago, the Deseret News ran a column in its Religion & Ethics session about Mormons participating in the arts. The author, Jerry Johnston, put forward the theory that good Mormons will fail at convincingly portraying bad people.

To their everlasting credit, when most LDS playwrights and novelists try to create a debauched, disgusting character, they fail miserably. They get it all wrong. It doesn’t ring true. But it does show what’s right with them as people. Their mothers and teachers have ruined them for the world. They’ve been compromised. At some point God put his seal on their hearts and — try as they might — they can’t break it. The world laughs at their attempts to blend in. They are doomed to be good.

As pointed out in a letter to the editor, that implies something negative about LDS artists who are successful at portraying evil.

So, is it bad to be good at showing bad?

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66 Responses to Prodigal Artists

  1. danithew on January 19, 2005 at 10:20 am

    I’m fairly positive that at some point Joseph Smith made a comment about fiction having a purpose for exploring human evil without breaking commandments or committing evil acts. But I can’t find the quote anywhere. Does anyone know the quote I’m talking about?

  2. Rosalynde Welch on January 19, 2005 at 10:39 am

    Inasmuch as Mr. Johnston is arguing that individuals and communities should not be ridiculed for good-faith efforts to produce worthwhile art appropriate for community standards, I applaud him. Christian charity requires that we not make a mock of our brothers’ and sisters’ best efforts. But inasmuch as his argument suggests that those artists who succeed in creating authentic, affecting portrayals of bad behavior are necessarily bad themselves, Mr. Johnston makes a leap that shatters any possibility of Christian charity. With exceptions made for judgements of those forms of human expression that damage and degrade the producers and viewers (such as pornography), to judge the personal moral character of an artist on the basis of a work of imagination shows a profound misunderstanding both of the process of imaginative creation itself and of the unequivocal Christian commandment to “judge not” the moral worth of our brothers and sisters. Furthermore, Mr. Johnston egregiously conflates authentic portrayals of bad behavior with worldly acclaim. It is my experience, on the contrary, that worldly acclaim most often accrues to those works that dilute or glorify the consequences of bad behavior (see almost any top-grossing PG-13 movie, for example)–that is, the world acclaims precisely those *inauthentic* and *insufficiently imagined* explorations of good and bad.

    I have no interest in rehabilitating Shakespeare, for example, as the gentle Christian prophet of modernity. But to assume that because he created Iago, William Shakespeare must have been a murdering, jealous fiend is absurd.

  3. SFW on January 19, 2005 at 10:42 am

    Orson Card presented a great lecture on this subject. You can find the text at http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-talk.html (sorry, I don’t know how to insert the link). As Card pointed out, “The depiction of evil in fiction is not the perpetration of evil.” I also especially enjoyed this paragraph:

    All this puts the LDS writer in the anomalous position of being a lover of goodness and a student of evil. Because my fiction has to have the ring of truth, I must learn to write evil convincingly. I have never murdered, but I must understand the motives that can bring a man to kill. I have never committed adultery, but I must understand the motives that bring a man to break a commitment sealed not only by vows but also by years of shared experience. The terrifying thing is that I can find all those human motivations to evil simply by looking into myself. The only solace is that I can also look into myself to find all the desires that prompt people to do good.

  4. SFW on January 19, 2005 at 10:47 am

    Looks like the comment engine correctly identified the hyperlink.

  5. Kristine on January 19, 2005 at 10:48 am

    I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to think of a polite way to say that Johnston’s argument is dumb. Can’t. It’s dumb! Being a fully-developed human being involves comprehending human nature, including the capacity for evil. It’s a very shallow sort of innocence that can’t imagine evil and reject it–it may be innocence, but it’s not goodness.

  6. Kaimi on January 19, 2005 at 10:49 am

    This is always a fun topic. (I advanced my similar thoughts — much more poorly than others’ statements, of course — a while back, in a thread called “The Iago Problem,” at http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=349 .)

    Of course, it may be tautological to say that “when most LDS playwrights and novelists try to create a debauched, disgusting character, they fail miserably” — if someone succeeds too well in that endeavor, she may be deemed “not an LDS writer.”

  7. Steve Evans on January 19, 2005 at 10:52 am

    I also think the argument is just dumb. Plenty of mormons have done a good job at portraying evil (Neil cites Brian Evenson, and he’s great, but there are others too).

  8. Kaimi on January 19, 2005 at 10:53 am

    By the way, it’s kind of ironic that this thread immediately precedes the thread on Neil LaBute, who (some would say) has succeeded too well in creating disgusting characters.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on January 19, 2005 at 10:55 am

    And of course it’s similarly absurd to assume that any moving, authentic portrayal of goodness arose from a righteous person.

  10. Kaimi on January 19, 2005 at 10:59 am

    Rosalynde,

    Correct, of course. Perhaps the single literary work most cited by general authorities, in conference, and so forth, is Les Miserables. The depiction of Jean Valjean and of the priest are repeatedly invoked.

    And yet, of course, Victor Hugo’s sexual appetite was legendary — he basically tried to sleep with every attractive woman he met, married or single, and usually succeeded.

  11. Steve Evans on January 19, 2005 at 11:04 am

    But of course cheri, he was French!

  12. Kaimi on January 19, 2005 at 11:07 am

    Steve,

    My impression (which could be wrong) is that both VH’s libido and his success rate were considered to be exceedingly far above the norm, even for a Frenchman.

  13. danithew on January 19, 2005 at 11:13 am

    There’s one book by Orson Scott Card that I felt was trying very hard to deal with the topic of evil in a variety of incarnations. It is called “Lost Boys.” In this book you find an LDS man and his family dealing with the evil boss, the evil co-worker, the evil schoolteacher, the evil lady at church and the evil serial killer who lives a block away. There might be some more too but those are the ones I can remember.

  14. Kaimi on January 19, 2005 at 11:16 am

    I’ve heard church members inveigh against Card, in particular, for his somewhat sympathetic (dare I say erotic?) depictions of homosexual characters, and of homosexual love. Not that he’s going into pornographic detail or anything, but he makes longing, attraction, and the character’s appreciation of the beauty of the same gender pretty clear.

  15. Sean Harrison on January 19, 2005 at 11:17 am

    Johnston got it completely backwards, creating good fiction that depicts evil, or for that matter failure or despair or death is far easier than creating good fiction that depicts joy or happiness or fulfillment.

    Doing the latter well is truly difficult. In fact, I have yet to see it done my an LDS artist.

  16. efrum on January 19, 2005 at 11:37 am

    Kaimi, are you suggesting that Card’s attempt to accurately portray the p.o.v. of a homosexual is somehow an act of immorality on Card’s part? Or are you simply saying that you know others who hold such a belief?

  17. Kaimi on January 19, 2005 at 11:40 am

    Efrum,

    It’s not my position, but one I’ve heard raised by church members in criticizing Card. I think the general idea is that it is wrongful to write in a way that gives any credence to homosexuality. (The position could be more nuanced — i.e., that Card’s portrayal could incite homosexual thoughts in readers, thus creating sin. I’m not sure, really, since it’s not my own position).

  18. Ivan Wolfe on January 19, 2005 at 11:43 am

    Orson Scott Card can’t win.

    In his fiction, he treats homosexuals fairly and sympathetically, and conservatives get upset with him.

    In his non-fiction (mostly political essays at http://www.ornery.org ) he routinely attacks homosexuals and tears their arguments to shreds (fairly or not, I won’t say) and so liberals hate him.

    OSC can’t win.

  19. Jack on January 19, 2005 at 12:01 pm

    Continuing with the example of the “Prodigal Son”; I think this little parable is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) expositions of sin and redemption and, of course, the evil of envy. However, the portrayal of evil is never exalted as a “good” in and of itself. It is not merely the ugly or the repulsive or the digusting that resonates with our higher sensibilities, but rather, the tension that we sense between the ways of evil and that which leads to redemption. We sense the “irony” of evil. And, IMO, there is plenty of room for this kind of exposition in LDS art, the kind of exposition that heightens the irony. However, I think we need to be careful not to evoke evil in our efforts to portray it, or its’ consequences.

  20. a random John on January 19, 2005 at 12:09 pm

    I agree with Ivan, OSC can’t win.

    As a side note, this seems to be the best place to complain that comments are disabled on the Neil LaBute interview. This is a blog, not a magazine. You guys are free to run it as you wish, but I fail to see how allowing comments would detract from the article.

  21. Mathew on January 19, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    Danithew,

    Is this what you are looking for?

    “Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity-thou must commune with God.” (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 137).

  22. Steve Evans on January 19, 2005 at 12:28 pm

    “This is a blog, not a magazine.”

    It’s in a transitional phase, obviously.

  23. danithew on January 19, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    Mathew,

    I’m wondering if I’m remembering wrong or not. I was pretty sure there was a quote where Joseph Smith extolled the ability of fiction to help explore wrong decisions or even evil. But maybe that’s just wrong. I thought the quote might be in that OSC article that was linked too but I’ve read through it a few times and no such luck.

    One problem is that when I use terms such as “Joseph Smith”, “fiction”, “evil”, etc. for google searches I just get anti-Mormon web-sites. :(

  24. a random John on January 19, 2005 at 12:34 pm

    danithew,

    Try the “-polygamy” trick in your search.

  25. Ben S. on January 19, 2005 at 12:53 pm

    Continuing on the OSC thread-jack, there was an online interview a couple years ago…

    What has the reaction in the Mormon church been to your work, overall?

    There are Mormons who love my work and absolutely get what I’m doing. There are Mormons who think I’m the devil. Oddly enough,
    “It is impossible to write fiction of any kind that does not make powerful moral statements. But in science fiction, you can transform the ‘reality’ of the story so as to clarify the issues, allowing the moral dilemma to be brought into sharper relief.”
    the latter category is equally divided between leftwing Mormons who think I’m the devil because I’m so rigidly orthodox, and rightwing Mormons who think I’m the devil because I’m so obviously heretical. As long as the hatred is evenly balanced on both sides, I’m probably OK.
    [/interview]

    From http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/sep99/card.htm

  26. Ben S. on January 19, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    Sorry, strike the middle of that quote. MY copy/paste picked up part of the side column too. It should read-

    There are Mormons who love my work and absolutely get what I’m doing. There are Mormons who think I’m the devil. Oddly enough, the latter category is equally divided between leftwing Mormons who think I’m the devil because I’m so rigidly orthodox, and rightwing Mormons who think I’m the devil because I’m so obviously heretical. As long as the hatred is evenly balanced on both sides, I’m probably OK.
    [/interview]

  27. danithew on January 19, 2005 at 12:57 pm

    Matthew,

    Thank you for providing that quote. It wasn’t the one I was thinking of but does provide material with considering. Interesting that Joseph Smith said we would have to “contemplate the darkest abyss” in order to attain salvation.

    I have mixed feelings about the need to understand evil. To some extent I just want to leave it alone. On the other hand, sometimes you have to grow and part of that is understanding why evil happens or at least creating a perspective of life and the world that acknowledges what evil personalities do.

    At one point in my life I became consumed with the question of why some people act so violently against others. Part of the reason I felt this way was because someone shared some terrible personal experiences with me and I suddenly had a deep need to create a new context by which I could see the world.

    To help answer that question I ended up reading a book by a sociologist/criminologist named Lonnie Athens. The book he wrote was titled “The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals.” Athens had personally interviewed criminals in prison — only criminals who were guilty of the most violent crimes (assault, battery, rape, murder, etc.). He interviewed them about what they were thinking and feeling previous, during and following their crimes. He interviewed them about their childhoods, life experiences, etc. His book contains some of the darkest things I’ve ever read about real-life people but it helped to answer the questions I had. This book however is not something I’d keep on the shelf at home. I believe at BYU they had this book locked up somewhere. I don’t blame them.

  28. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    What Sean said in comment No. 15 — although I think there have been some great attempts.
    ——

    Judging from Jerry Johnston’s previous colulmns, I’d say that his problem is that he hasn’t read broadly enough in the world of Mormon fiction.

  29. Ryan Bell on January 19, 2005 at 1:28 pm

    I agree that the typical LDS artist does really poorly at creating believable evil. It’s what makes me so very bored with the whole genre, if Mormon fiction can be called a genre.

    But I don’t think it’s because the writers lack the necessary skills, experiences, or perceptiveness. I think they lack the courage. It is a very, very rare work in the Mormon milieu that dares to tell a story that might stray just a tad from its original didactic task. No, every single sentence must cry out “do what is right! do what is right!”, leaving no time for developing the moral conflicts on which good fiction turns. Just watch any of a hundred Mormon movies or plays or read the less-sophisticated LDS books out there. You get the feeling that the author writes the bad people at a very great distance, hoping to place the shadow or symbol of ‘bad’ on the page without letting it look like he is invested in getting it right. Again, the writers seem to fear that some reader will think that the evil portrayed is being endorsed, and such a conclusion would dilute the message of condemning the evil. (the above comments about the controversial renderings in OSC’s work support this position quite well).

    In short, if you can’t wait until the end of your book to give the bad character his due, but must follow the introduction of the character with some sort of condemning disclaimer sentence, you lack the courage necessary to write good stories. And this is the problem I think hampers so much of LDS story telling. (I’ve been meaning to write a post on this whole problem for too long now, so this is the condensed version of my unwritten tirade, and I can now be at peace).

  30. gst on January 19, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    OSC’s depiction of homosexuality doesn’t disturb me, though I am a bit troubled that he might advocate harvesting limbs and organs from mutants to satisfy our alien overlords.

  31. Jack on January 19, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    Ryan,

    I don’t think it’s merely a lack of courage that has brought about such limpid portrayals of evil, but rather an over-developed sense of decorum.

  32. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 2:01 pm

    Jack and Ryan:

    Great points. I would only add that the market itself — in terms of the publishers and the consumers — are also at fault here. I don’t have much hope that things will change.

    But….

    It would be nice if more of what I’ll call the Mormon Studies crowd would support the better efforts of Mormon fiction. My suspicion — one that is shared by several AML members so I can’t take full credit for it — is that there is a large population of educated Mormons that read fiction but don’t read Mormon fiction because they view the field as being solely what Ryan describes.

  33. Anna on January 19, 2005 at 2:22 pm

    Let me say up front (just so no one will call my comments stupid along with Johnston’s!) that I think he’s wrong and that he constructs his argument rather badly. I also find what he implies about moral motivation to be highly objectionable.

    However, his column does remind me of some questions I’ve wondered about for awhile: How authentically can we portray (in fiction, drama, etc.) something we don’t understand? How well can we understand something we haven’t experienced? How far can imagination and empathy go in helping us understand what we haven’t experienced?

  34. Ryan Bell on January 19, 2005 at 2:28 pm

    Anna, I think it is the position of many people here that we, being fallen people with some wicked tendencies, can understand evil a lot better than we think, even if we haven’t partaken in the behavior we’re hoping to write about.

    Like OSC, I don’t find it that hard to look inside myself and construct a plausible set of emotions and motivations for doing all sorts of things I would never actually do. Not that I think this is a great exercise in every day life, but doing so would definitely elevate one’s art from speculative and trite to at least three-dimensional.

  35. Rosalynde Welch on January 19, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    Ryan, an eloquent exposition, and I largely agree. (Why am I slightly surprised to hear this coming from you? Clearly I don’t know you well enough!)

  36. Anna on January 19, 2005 at 2:57 pm

    Ryan, my questions were about understanding everything, not just understanding evil. Naturally I can look inside myself and find both good and evil impulses. But that’s only what I find inside *myself,* not what I understand about others. The only person I have any experience being is me. (Sorry, I’m not trying to sound trite or spout tautologies.) Can I ever really know what it feels like to be someone else, to think and feel as they do? Even when I try my hardest to imagine being in another’s shoes, my imaginings still emanate from myself. I just can’t get away from myself.

    The more I think about this, the more awe I feel for artists who can convincingly create multiple distinct, fully-formed characters.

  37. Jack on January 19, 2005 at 3:09 pm

    …but then on the other hand, how many of us truely comprehend the personally degenerative results associated with rape and murder? How many truely comprehend the weight of guilt associated with such gross crimes? I think Anna makes a good point in the sense that delving into such things will not necessarilty produce a valid take on “evil”. The one thing that we can do is magnify our own experience with the “irony” of evil. Or in other words, I think there is a better “story” to be found in that area of tension between evil and redemption. Certainly we may become informed in our views of evil as we search it out in order to learn how to portray it. But, evil itself is meaningless unless it is painted on a backdrop of redemptive potencialities. Even so, we may fail to convey the real tragedy of evil if it is flatly superimposed on such a backdrop. I think the real power of portraying evil is when we find our way between it and the backdrop thus focusing our attention on the loss of redemption. Thereby, we awaken that irony within ourselves and are able to comprehend the tragedy with out necessarily touching the “evil thing”.

  38. Adam Greenwood on January 19, 2005 at 3:15 pm

    Put me in as a fifth voice saying that the article is dumb, dumb, dumb. His premise is right, though, and therefore I have to disagree with Rosalynde, who takes exception to his premise that “those artists who succeed in creating authentic, affecting portrayals of bad behavior are necessarily bad themselves.”

    It’s hard for me to understand how an artist could portray evil well without having experienced it from the inside, without having committed it. Fortunately for all artists everywhere, not a one of us but has, including every Mormon that ever was.

    In some ways, even, Mormons should be at an advantage. The Gospel does a lot to help you see the evil in ordinary things that most untutored gentiles might just pass over. At least it seems to me that it does.

    I would love to see a Mormon artist who is able to get us to experience our little failures and small sins as evils. He or she would have to be consummate.

  39. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 3:19 pm

    Adam:

    Me too. I have some ideas about that, but I’m going to be coy about it here — you guys have already soaked up much of my best material :-)

  40. Bill on January 19, 2005 at 3:20 pm

    Like Chekhov

  41. Ryan Bell on January 19, 2005 at 3:32 pm

    Rosalynde– explain to me what you find surprising?

    Anna, forgive me for misinterpreting your question. As to your larger wonderings about the essence of creating characters, I admit I am as baffled as you are. A funny confession: I actually think of myself as a writer, though I have not written more than two full pages of fiction. But for some reason I think about writing things all the time, and consider the possibilities of this or that setting, conflict, or character. And while I feel I might be able to create someone with some interesting shadings, I am often amazed to see what great writers are able to come up with– characters who seem to live and breath. But then, I think many writers might say that their characters are often extensions of themselves, which supports your own thoughts about not being able to see outside yourself.

    William, I think it is exactly the market forces that the artist needs to have courage to flout. At the moment, the sad reality is that the DeseretBookCustomer doesn’t want to be confronted with real, hard tests of morality. But we can’t expect that market demand to change by itself. It will have to be challenged by brave, innovative artists who find ways to package challenging conflict in somehow attractive ways.

  42. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 3:48 pm

    Ryan:

    Too true. And this is why I drone on about the Mormon Studies crowd. The market won’t change by itself, but no matter how brave and innovative artists are, if there is no audience — and esp. no way to reach that audience — then the art itself will remain unpublished, unread, unseen.

    That said, I do think that the Mormon Publishers who have published good literary novels haven’t been very innovative in the ways they have marketed them (and that includes some Deseret Book titles).

  43. Adam Greenwood on January 19, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    Come, Mr. Morris. If you don’t want to broadcast your ideas, could I prevail on you to describe them to me via email? I have a particular interest that does not involve me competing with you in the narrow field of Mormon literature.

  44. Hootie on January 19, 2005 at 4:05 pm

    Continuing the OSC thread-jack, has anyone read “A Storytellr in Zion”? It’s a collection of essays on writing, including several tkaes on being a Mormon writer.

    I’d just like to bring up one thing he said that goes into the whole Mormon artist/Mormon reader problem (and I’m paraphrasing here, since my copy is lost somewhere in my house).

    Fiction is by definition a lie. But we look to it for truth, and find it. Why? Because we feel the power of the ideas, the truth of how people act and react to situations in the world. For a Mormon writer, that poses a problem, because we have the Truth, and have no need to explore for it further. And it poses a problem for the Mormon reader, because we read something that goes against the commandments, but it still has the ring of truth.

    What’s going on? How can a lie be true, and especially a lie that is also a sin? OSC believes it has to do with the beliefs of the author. If someone truly believes that adultery is not that big of a deal, then the adulterers he creates in his fiction will seem real, but guiltless. And if the author believes that adultery is wrong, then even if the characters get away with it scot-free, then there will still be an element of wrongness about it.

    Does this help the problem or just muddy the waters more?

  45. Ryan Bell on January 19, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    I’m with Adam, William. I’ve already wasted a long prospective post as a short, dumb comment here. Not fair for you to suddenly go quiet. . .

  46. Kaimi on January 19, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    RB,

    There’s nothing dumb about your comment, it’s quite good.

  47. Hootie on January 19, 2005 at 4:14 pm

    Pardon my typos. And I just followed the link in comment #3, and I think it is the essay I was thinking of…

  48. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 4:56 pm

    Sheesh. Peer pressure rears its ugly head.

    Okay — here is the short version:

    The conventional wisdom is that the novel is dead — even though it is the form that receives the most respect from the literary elite.

    I’ve put forth the theory that if Mormon artists (narrative artists) are going to produce great works of art, works that art artful *and* resonate with a larger audience, then it is going to be in a form that is marginal — specifically: epic or graphic novel.

    I’ve since reconsidered. I think that there’s room for a great Mormon novelist to rehabilitate the form as practiced in the 19th century. Mormon culture and mores, after all, are still stuck in modernism — with some creepings in of post-modernism — and in bourgeois attitudes.

    Many of the best Mormon novels are about outsiders to the culture — or to those who are on their way out. Fine. Such is true of many of the best novels in general.

    But because of the composition of Mormon cultural (confining it for the moment to North America — I’d love to see works about the Mormon experience in other countries and cultures as well) attitudes and practices, I think that there’s a real opportunity for a novel that engages in the kind of examination of relationships that you find in late 19th century realism. I’m thinking of Henry James and Tolstoy in particular.

    Or to be a little more specific:

    Because of the way Mormonism manifests itself. Because of the standards that we have. Because of the small tragedies that a strong doctrine and religious boundaries we have often lead to. Because of the homogeneity of our culture…

    It seems to me that our differences, our shades of Mormonism often have to be marked in very small ways — in dress, in speech, in attitudes, in interpretations. In my opinion, in the rights hands, this could lead to a great novels. And if the core beliefs of Mormonism are worked into the narrative in a meaningful, artful way so that the consequences are clear, then the small triumphs and tragedies that play out in our society could make for a fascinating work. And all of this, of course, against the backdrop of American society and the tensions that it creates for Mormons.

    And I’d love to see a variety of works that focus on several different stages.

    To wit:

    1. Youth (see my the last dance post for some of that)
    2. Mission
    3. College and courtship
    4. Young parents (and not parents — and the pressures that status brings) and professional life (see some of the posts on T&S — in particular those by Adam regarding Mormons and the professions).

    5. Middle age — having teenage children — and wealth, social climbing, church responsibilities, caring for older parents, etc.

    Granted these are all areas that are ripe for non-Mormon novelists, but I think that the way they are manifested in Mormonism is interesting, and in some cases even unique.

    I’ll stop now. But hopefully you all kind of see where I’m going with this. This is also not to say that there isn’t Mormon fiction that deals with this. Doug Thayer has some great stuff in particular that focuses on young Mormon men.

    However, much of the best Mormon fiction of the last 35 years is stuck in the post-WWII, stripped down, Raymond Carver-esque. I see the room for bringing back a little more ornate-ness, a little more psychology, a little more of Austen-like, a little more small gestures and complex sentence structure of Henry James.

    ———–
    Oh yeah, and just for fun —- there totally should be a biblio-mystery series centered around a sprightly widow who works at the Family History Center.

  49. Hootie on January 19, 2005 at 6:01 pm

    William,

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you saying that the idea of creating evil characters in Mormon literature is just a straw man argument? That the lack of believable evil is not what makes novels written for us and by us so weak?

  50. Steve Evans on January 19, 2005 at 6:11 pm

    Good ideas, Wm. I’d like to see an SLC-based mormon version of The House of Mirth.

  51. Adam Greenwood on January 19, 2005 at 6:25 pm

    I’d say that the lack of believable evil is still a problem. It’s just that the evil doesn’t have to be, say, adulterous cannibal murder. I would love to see someone show small events in everyday Mormon affairs and convincingly make them evil.

  52. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    Hootie:

    I don’t think that I have really addressed that idea directly. Is that what you gathered from my long post?

    But, yes, I guess you could say that. This goes back to Adam G.’s comment (No. 38) about the small failures and little sins. It seems to me that what is missing from Mormon literature is engagement with Mormon culture and society in a way that makes sense. As I mention most of the better Mormon novels hew too close to the post-WWII Modern American literary tradition.

    If you were to pin me down — I don’t see why Mormon artists of any type or faithfulness would be handicapped by a lack of acquaintence with evil. What did Hemingway, Woolf, Faulkner or Tolstory experience that a Mormon artist hasn’t? Different degrees, different evils perhaps. But the failure of Mormons to creative believable ‘bad’ characters is a failure of depth and not because of some inherent flaw.

    Steve:

    Exactly. How do I put this?

    If American novelists can continue (and continue) to explore the horrors of suburbia. An SLC-version of The House of Mirth needn’t be any more derivative than any other modern novel.

  53. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 6:41 pm

    Adam:

    See my comments about _The Whipping Boy_ in my Mormon Literature thread. In that novella the wife and husband are good, faithful Mormons that love each other. And yet what’s remarkable is that Bronson is able to detail how they hurt each other in small ways — just a varying of a phrase, or the timing of a comment, or a look. And he shows the consequences when such things build, but does it in a fairly restrained (i.e. not overly-melodramatic) way, and in a way that doesn’t end up being fully resolved — but still leaves you with hope.

    This is a good pattern for Mormon literature, imo. It’s very difficult to balance affirmation and ambiguity — to have both without being completely didactic or utterly ambiguous and non-judgemental — but when it is done correctly, it’s a beautiful thing. I think _Angel of the Danube_ does this to a certain extent — although the ending is just a little too pat for me — although it still works, and I’ve warmed up to it over time.

  54. Adam Greenwood on January 19, 2005 at 7:05 pm

    I’m all for grandiose nastiness too, of course. Still, I guess I’ll be reading the Whipping Boy if it comes out.

  55. Jack on January 19, 2005 at 9:18 pm

    William,

    Maybe I’m getting a little nit-picky here, but I don’t like the idea of seeing that the “core beliefs of Mormonism are worked into the narrative in a meaningful, artful way”. If we were to take the example of Jane Austen (and the like) to heart, then we’d have a genre built upon it’s own tradition rather than a sort of piggy-backing going on. (which really amounts to a compromise in my view) Perhaps I’m misreading you’re comment, but even so, I’m not sure that we’ll ever get at the core our beliefs in an artistic way unless we shamelessly allow our works to grow out of a gospel tradition.

  56. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 10:29 pm

    Jack:

    I see what your getting at, but genres always grow out of other traditions, borrowing and stealing and manipulating what’s come before.

    The problem as I see it that

    1. Too much Mormon art isn’t informed by western literary traditions in any meaningful way. The results aren’t aesthetically pleasing. What I’m talking about are the works that one finds in an LDS book store, that are descendents of the ‘home literature’ movement. Of course, it’s too bad that they are descendents who have forgotten their ancestors. At least Orson F. Whitney had the courage to steal some tricks from the English romantic poets.

    2. Many of the literary novels use Mormon materials, but don’t really seem to engage with Mormon doctrine and practices in a meaningful way. Mormonism is just another socal group. Sure, it’s one that the authors may have ties to. But the engagement is always on the surface (imo).

    I’d like to see someone with the craft and steeped-in-literature background of No. 2 attempt to go back to the original aims of No. 1.

    Grow out — yes. But I think there has to be some grafting going on as well — to vaguely toss around metaphor from scripture. This is the whole weirdness and wonderfulness of the promise of Mormon literature.

  57. danithew on January 19, 2005 at 11:45 pm

    I know that this thread is about convincing evil in Mormon literature … it just occurred to me that Dutcher’s film “Brigham City” deals with the topic of evil (a serial killer) in the context of a small LDS community.

  58. Jack on January 20, 2005 at 12:35 am

    Great points William.

    If I may clarify, I’m not talking about a literary tradition per se, but rather a social/religious/cultural tradition. In reading Jane Austen one never senses a disconnect between the content and the culture out of which it grows.

    I agree with both of your points. Indeed, I would like to see our writers become thoroughly soaked in the best that the world has to offer and then bring forth works that reflect their deepest sensibilities. I think this would result in powerful uncompromised works.

  59. Eric James Stone on January 20, 2005 at 1:09 am

    It’s been a fascinating discussion so far. Sorry I haven’t been much of a participant, but work was especially hectic today.

    Orson Scott Card’s Lost Boys has been mentioned previously in regard to the portrayal of evil, but I also think its very relevant to the discussion of the development of Mormon literature.

    Of course, many of Card’s novels are filled with Mormon themes and ideas (the Alvin Maker fantasy series is based on the life of Joseph Smith, the Homecoming series is based on the Book of Mormon), but Lost Boys is the one that comes closest to being what we generally think of as an LDS novel, because it deals with a modern-day LDS family.

    Lost Boys is only barely a fantasy novel (although sometimes classified as horror). The speculative fiction part of it is apparent only in a small part of the book. Most of the book is about a very real Mormon family dealing with real-life issues. Mormon beliefs are not just tacked on to give the characters a community identity — they are infused throughout the novel. It is a book that could not have been written by anyone who was not a believing Mormon, yet it is still accessible to people outside our faith.

    Of course, when it comes to LDS authors, Orson Scott Card is essentially in a class by himself. But I think any discussion of the development of LDS novels needs to include Lost Boys.

  60. RG on January 20, 2005 at 9:30 am

    There was an earlier comment about a desire to engage with the L.D.S. experience outside of North America (I think it was Anna). Most likely that would lead to folklore and folkart studies, comparative culture studies (cultural anthropology, non-Western art history, oral history, etc.). How prepared are L.D.S. literary types, who are steeped in the Western Tradition, but who have rather limited background in folklore (etc.) studies, prepared to access that non-North American L.D.S. world?

    I think that one of the reasons that non-North American L.D.S. studies could prove interesting is by seeing what genuine conflicts those Saints face and how their religious faith engages with those conflicts. I think that a couple of the reasons that the Church grows so rapidly in some third world lands is that life there is sometimes prettry horrendeous, and that the many people there are looking for something much better. (Contrast that growth with the relatively flat growth in such peaceful places as Denmark.)

    By way of comparison, life in America and places like much of Western Europe, looks pretty mellow. While it is possible to write great litterature in an outwardly mellow environment, the level of difficulties in a thirld world country can sometimes bring conflict between good and evil into sharper focus.

  61. Jack on January 20, 2005 at 10:36 am

    RG, while I believe that what you suggest is something that EVERY latter-day saint should do – artist or not, I’m not convinced that it’s the stuff from which great novels are made. I’ll try not to sound too stupid in what I’m about to say (since I have just about zero education in literature), but it seems to me that the greatest of novelists stuck with their immediate culture. They stuck with it because they knew how to get inside of it. My hope is that we will see good mormon art arising out of all cultures that have been touched by the gospel. However, I’m convinced that such works will be brought forth by those who are indigenous to those cultures.

  62. R.G. on January 20, 2005 at 2:16 pm

    Jack,
    I appreciate your comments about needing to know the culture in order to write about it. Several authors that have managed to bridge that gap come to mind. Pearl Buck, Kipling, Conrad all seem to me good examples.
    In order to tap into the broader L.D.S. world culture we might need to combine writing fiction with writing some other genres. There are the superb writings of Oscar Lewis on a family in Mexico City. His books are history/anthropology that read like a novel.

  63. Hootie on January 20, 2005 at 3:54 pm

    I’m just curious, but in all the talk of OSC, how come no one has mentioned his novel Saints? For those not familiar, it is a historical novel, similar in theme to the Gerald Lund novels, but very different in tone. OSC has called it his love song to his people, but it contains some very challenging ideas, things that are historically accurate but go against our pre-conceived notions about church history.

  64. Eric James Stone on January 20, 2005 at 5:40 pm

    I liked Saints a lot. However, unlike Lost Boys, Alvin Maker, and the Homecoming series, I don’t think it’s a novel that has much crossover appeal to non-Mormons. I could be wrong about that, though.

  65. danithew on January 20, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    I read Saints and liked it though the cover was designed to look like a romance novel. It seemed to me like a fairly serious effort to depict the Prophet and other early saints in a realistic yet faith-promoting context. I can’t remember anything challenging about it but it has been years since I read it.

  66. Hootie on January 20, 2005 at 6:28 pm

    The cover was unfortunate. But one of the challenging aspects was how very human he made Joseph Smith. Brother Smith wrestled in the streets of Nauvoo with his shirt off (which was a major breach of etiquette). He also misinterpreted some visions, and handled others badly–like getting Emma Smith to accept polygamy. And then there was the scene that happened after Joseph died, where Brigham is speaking to the saints. Instead of visions of Joseph appearing to the throng, there are supporters of Brigham moving through the crowd whispering, “Why, he sounds just like Joseph! See, he looks almost just like him!”

    It probably doesn’t have much cross-over appeal. But if we’re talking about writing great novels for Mormons, then it doesn’t have to. And if we’re talking about simply writing great literature, well, it really won’t matter who the intended audience is. I’m not a sixteenth century Londoner, but I can still appreciate and enjoy Shakespeare. Do I get as much from it as the intended audience? Probably not. But there’s plenty there to be had by all.

    If we create great literature (or film, or any art form) then it won’t matter that it’s by Mormons for Mormons. It will leak into the world anyway, even if we try to stop it. It may not become a roaring flood, but it will still effect people.