Okay, I can't keep quiet any longer. I tried. I really did. But, I read some snarky comments about LDS (Mormon) fiction recently that got me going. For the purposes of this blog, I am defining "LDS fiction" as books written by LDS authors for LDS readers, published mostly by Covenant, Deseret Book, Cedar Fort, and Walnut Springs. These books might deal specifically with LDS themes, or they might simply be books from various genres that are consistent with LDS standards. I'm not really talking about the work of LDS authors who write primarily for the national market.
Whenever I hear someone dismiss LDS fiction as trite, or poorly written, I wonder if the speaker has actually read much lately. In recent years, there have been LDS books exploring a number of serious subjects, from a gospel or LDS cultural perspective. Many of these books are written by seasoned authors who have great skill. I wonder if the people who make this assertion have checked out the website for the Whitney awards, or the new releases page of LDS Storymakers.
But let's leave that aside for a moment. Have you ever complained about the content in a book or movie? Have you ever said, "Why do they have to put that stuff in and ruin an otherwise good movie/book?"
If you have, then read on, because I have a way you can directly contribute to the creation of a positive alternative.
But first, let me bore you with some history. Pick a great artist in any field--Handel. Mozart. Shakespeare. Michelangelo.
None of these artists just emerged. Let's take music as an example. Western music began with Greek guys strumming on lyres. Over the centuries, they invented musical modes, observed mathematical rules about music, discovered scales, and so on.
Eventually, some monks started chanting sacred texts. First they improvised, then they figured out a notation system. Then someone added two parts--then three and four. French troubadours adapted the form for secular texts and a guy named Mauchet started to compose motets and Masses and love songs.
In the Renaissance, Dufay, des Prez, and Palestrina all pushed the art to new levels. Along came composers in the Baroque era. Pachelbel's Canon in D, Handel's Messiah, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Bach's amazing, intricate masterpieces. These artists gave us sublimely beautiful music that nearly everyone recognizes today.
But this great music did not spring out, fully-created. It evolved over hundreds of years. It happened because some unknown monk somewhere got an idea. It happened because of trial-and-error and continued effort. It happened because people either improved existing forms, or rebelled against them and did something else.
The great music we love today would not have happened without what went before it. I've listened to Medieval polyphony. Unless you have a taste for it, it's not going to be something most people like. But it was the necessary step to get to music we do like. None of the later stuff would have come either. Bach, Beethoven, the Beatles, Billy Joel, and Beyonce all came about only because of what happened earlier.
The development of art takes time. It also takes a few other things.
First, it takes lots of mistakes. This is true for individuals as well as entire disciplines. Every mistake is critical because it teaches us how not to do something, and that is something artists have to learn. Understanding what doesn't work is critical to learning what does work. So, someone has to make mistakes. Maybe even big ones. But mistakes actually improve the quality of the overall form because others learn from those mistakes. Each artist builds on the successes and failures of those who came before, and those who are around them.
The second point flows from the second. You need a critical mass of people working in an art to really have that art form grow. You need people to make the mistakes, to experiment, to inspire or provoke each other, and so on. The more people working in a field, the more the cream is going to rise to the top. While there are some exceptions, if you look at periods of great artistic achievement, you will notice that there was usually a group of people involved, feeding off of each other. Very rarely did great art happen in isolation. That's not an accident.
So, to sum up: art does not happen in isolation. Art, and individual artists, need to time to grow, the chance to make mistakes, and a critical mass of people experimenting and learning.
We understand the spiritual principle of "line upon line." We understand that we cannot run faster than we have strength. Physically and spiritually, first we crawl, then we walk, then we run.
Why should it not be the same with the growth of individual artists, and entire art forms as well?
And all of this takes time. I think there are some very good books out there, and more are coming. Have we hit "masterpiece" level yet? Not in my opinion, but I've read some things that are very good. There are currently a lot of people writing, working and learning and growing.
Still, for the sake of argument, I will concede that I have read work by LDS authors that is pretty weak. To be fair, I've written some stuff that was pretty weak (Note: this is partially due to the economics of small-press publishing and the expense of editing, but that's another topic).
It would be nice if the only people who ever wrote were good at it, if the first book of every author was amazing (or the second). But that's not reality. In order for us to have our geniuses emerge, there will be some stuff that's not nearly as good. You can't get the former without the latter. Moreover, even those geniuses might have some misses.
If you compare, for example, Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare's earliest works to The Tempest, his last, you will see a major difference. The only reason anyone does Titus anymore is because it's by Shakespeare. It's not a great play.
As authors improve with each book, the quality of LDS fiction also improves. It takes time. In historical terms, Mormon literature is not very old.
If, while that improvement is happening, you don't like the product, that is fine. Writers need to succeed on the merits of their work. Another thing that benefits art is honest critique. But in my mind, criticism, even rigorous criticism, is different than dismissive sneering.
But if you have ever grimaced at the content of a contemporary book or movie, if you have ever wished for a positive alternative to what New York and Hollywood churn out, then here's a thought: that stuff won't change. The producers are making lots of money and have millions of satisfied customers. The only way to change the culture is to provide alternatives. Culture doesn't change because we want it to, and it cannot change unless there are alternatives.
It's easy to dismiss the work of LDS writers as being banal and trite. But in doing that, we might miss something really good. But even if some of it is on the cliche side, I think it's worth remembering that there will be some inevitable misses as LDS writers wrestle to create work that is of high quality and consistent with Gospel standards. Lots of misses. But each of those misses might be an important step in the development of both that writer, as well as the entire art form.
There have been some misses and there will be more. But there have also been some wins, and there will surely will be many more as more and more authors write. In the meantime, I suggest that the best thing any of us can do is try to support people who are out in the trenches trying to make a difference. If you read a book and like it, tell people. Rate it on Amazon/Goodreads. Talk about it on your social media. If you don't like it, fine. But can we at least be a little patient and not sneer?
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