Thursday, June 11, 2009

In response

I have not had a lot to say lately that wasn't surface only. I was beginning to think that I was going to spend the summer writing in depth for class only. And this is my 600th post, so I wanted it to be something with a bit of teeth in it. I hope I have found that with this.

Deseret News has an online e-zine called Mormon Times. I get the daily e-mail telling me what is in that day's edition. Sometimes I click over and read and sometimes I don't. Wednesday I didn't. But David Woolley did and then blogged about one of the articles by Jerry Johnston entitled "Great novels need doubt as vantage".

I read David's post first, last night when I had just come home from school and was tired from all the ethic codes and laws we have to learn for next week's midterm. So I read, left a short comment and went to bed. This morning I printed out both Jerry's article and David's blog- complete with all 4 comments (there are more now) and took them with me to Brandi's soccer practice so I could formulate a coherent reply. 2 hours and almost 5 pages later, I was still writing and decided that I was either going to leave a super long comment or I needed to write my own response post. I decided on the response post.

Response to Jerry Johnston- "Great Novels Need Doubt as Vantage" and David G. Woolley- "The Great Mormon Novel"

Jerry's article is about his belief that the writing of the Great Mormon Novel will never happen. David, on the other hand, believes that such a novel is possible. Makayla, one of David's commentors wants it to be possible, but is not sure it can be done. I have opinions about it all.

The Surrender

According to Jerry Johnston, to be a Mormon "means a complete surrender of one's ego, ideas and ambitions." David tells us that the Great Mormon Novel "...will portray the shedding of one's ego and ambitions. And it will find its voice, not in the surrendering of one's ideas, but by celebrating the divine creativity that flows from discovering that the will of God is an infinitely more holy road..." . As I read Jerry's article, this is the place I first decided I did not agree with him. I do not have a problem with a character in a novel, or the writer of the novel being willing to surrender ego and ambition, I am not sure that the shedding of one's ideas is something we are required to do.

Without individual thought and ideas, do we not become as automans, blindly putting one foot in front of the other on the path, plodding along without further light, knowledge and understanding? without knowledge and understanding one cannot "discover the will of God" and we are stuck, yet again, with a secular dead-end first step story.

The surrendering of one's ideas should take the form of the character allowing God to refine ideas until individual ideas form from the fact that we are of one mind and one heart and all ideas have the goal of furthering the kingdom of God. Those are the ideas that will flow with "divine creativity."

The Half-way Back Story

Jerry tells us that Wallace Stegner believes the Great Mormon Novel will be written, but that it will be written by an author that has left the fold and made a fray into the returning. Has come half-way back. Is still on the outside, but beginning to look in on a familiar scene.

David says not so, but that the novel will be about the one that has continued as a disciple and has learned to accept "God's will as his own". He also believes that"it will give us hope that men are that they might have joy. Divine. Eternal. Joy."


It is in the living of life that one experiences the depths of doubt, despair, faith, sin, forgiveness, darkness and light. Even the "active, bishop-like,tithe-paying, Relief Society President-like, moral, obedient, humble, temple-going, ecclesiastic supporting soul" who lives a "life of discipleship" trying to "adopt God's will as his own" will have moments of real doubt and despair as their spirit stretches and grows and learns and experiences mortality.

And if the doubt and despair do not belong to the disciple- it will be provided via someone close to the disciple, someone whom the disciple has been sent to help and guide. Someone the disciple loves beyond him/herself. and that someone's doubt and despair will wrench the heart of the disciple as if in two. And the faith it takes for the disciple to continue will grow. The understanding deepen. And when the despair is shed, the happiness is just as sweet for the disciple as it is for the doubter.

By this same token, one can understand forgiveness without desending into the depths of darkness and evil. There is no one that has not needed to both forgive and be forgiven. The difference is in degrees.

Again, I would propose that the understanding of true evil is possible without having descended there. It is possible for the hand of true evil to reach out and affect lives, even those who never leave the fold. The depth of one's soul that must be plumbed in order to learn to forgive in the face of that blatant evil is dizzying. And when the evil emminates from a loved one it is even more so. Should that loved one ever decide to rejoin the fold and shed the evil and have a change of countenance and heart- the joy felt by the disciple is just as exquisite as that of the returned.

David tells us, in the comment section,

For a novel to be a great Mormon Novel the idea of enduring to the end, or the divinity of men, or the divine potential of becoming more like Christ has got to be part of the novel. It isn't just a novel about "what would Jesus do." Its a novel about actually becomming like Jesus.

Its the doctrines of the restoration that must drive the great Mormon Novel. Not just the hand of a Mormon author telling any story well.


I believe that it is possible for the Great Mormon Novel to be written and heralded by the "LDS faithful and the literary world", and I believe it can be written by one who has not left and returned. It is not necessary for an author to have had personal experience with their subject matter in order to understand it and write about it in a way that lets the reader feel, know and understand as well. When I read the scene in David's Promised Land series where Sariah gives birth*, I remembered exactly how it felt and I felt Sariah's pain and rejoiced in the new life she brought forth. Now I am pretty sure that David has never experienced those pains and the exquisite anguish, but yet he was able to get it right in a way that allowed the reader to feel it and experience it with Sariah. Just as the Great Mormon Novel will allow the reader to know the joys and triumphs in the redemption and following of Christ.

*Forgive me, David, I cannot remember which book it was and if I stop to look it up, I will get lost in the book and not get this written today and perhaps tomorrow as well.


I have taken out a section of this post and edited it in response to feedback.

add to kirtsy


Makayla said...

"I say Makayla is young and unschooled in what life has in store for those living in this terrestrial plane of existence."

Well, you've got the young part right. What you have no clue about, however, is what my 23 years hold. I think it would be best for you not to judge.

And in the future, if you choose to post about me, I would appreciate it if you would direct your readers to what I actually said, instead of paraphrasing. For their benefit, this was my comment in full (with one grammatical correction to the original):

"Hm. This is something I think about quite often. I have come up with no good solutions to what I see as a host of problems.

My thoughts are only half formed here, so take my comment with a grain of salt and a little compassion.

It seems to me that the problems of current Mormon fiction, as I see it, fall into one of two categories.

The books are either too vulgar (I could list names, but I won't... let's just say their books don't get sold at Deseret Book), or they're too happy. Not that happiness is bad, and in fact, some of the best books there are are wonderfully, beautifully happy in some ways (Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop," etc.)

But the thing is, I'm not sure that one can adequately fulfill the goals you lay out in your response (which are incredibly optimistic, and heartening) without really delving into the problem of evil. It's sort of the whole matter of the necessity of opposition in all things. If you're going to discuss real faith, you have to deal with the matter of real doubt and despair. If you want to discuss real forgiveness, you've got to find a way to also equally discuss real sin. The light and goodness you speak of seems impossible to adequately represent through fiction unless you are also able to really address the darkness and evil that must be overcome to have it. The price has to be paid, you know?

And at this Mormon moment, I'm not sure it can be done. Partly because I'm not convinced that anyone (who's going to have time to write a book, that is) adequately understands evil in that way. And, truth be told, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing.

At any rate, while I am not fully convinced by your response (though I did find it uplifting and hopeful, which I appreciate), you have provided another view which I will continue to think about.

It also seems that you read Jerry's articles regularly, as do I. :)

Mormon Times is good stuff, 'eh? :)

P.S. By real evil, I don't mean the evil stock characters (Rasputin, Jafar, and wicked stepmothers), but real evil characters -- something along the line of Chigurh, in No Country for Old Men (which delves into the personality of an evil soul in a way I haven't encountered in any other book I've read).

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this, as you have time."

I like David Woolley, and I respect his intelligence, the evident rigor of his research, and his committment to good things. I do not agree with every single thing he says, but I do appreciate his willingness to respect my opinions and respond with kindness.

You can see his response at:

Cami said...

Ouch. Just curious....what made you single out that particular comment? I would have thought you would be more upset about the guy who wrote that the Great Mormon Novel had already been written. Just curious. Cami

Sandra said...

Cami, when I wrote this, Makayla was the only commenter.

Makayla- fair enough. I'll reread what I wrote in light of your comment and either make changes or write an ETR postscript.

When I wrote, I took pen in hand and just wrote my heart's feelings. Perhaps I should have let it sit before hitting publish. I will go back over it looking through your eyes as best I can.

Makayla said...

Your original paraphrasing of my position on the matter was almost accurate. The difference being that I do not think someone has to have actually experienced something to know how to write about it, but rather that they must find a way to address those issues with complete honesty, and no sugar-coating. I think in some important respects, David is right. But I think the problem with many Mormon authors is that they either don't have the skill and talent to do so, or else they fail to do so because, for whatever reason, they feel uncomfortable doing so.

So, generally speaking, I was not bothered by your post until the bit about my age and experience, at which point I was a bit flustered, and, as a friend pointed out, may have responded a bit hastily.

Thank you for removing that part. I'm sure my mother will be pleased as well. :)

Cami said...

Yes. :) Thank you Sandra.

Sandra said...

I did not mean to offend or judge. It was just my take on the comment.

I do agree with you about the current state of Mormon novels- either too vulgar or too happy and not enough reality.

David G. Woolley said...

It is impossible for any author to experience a fraction of the emotions, action, drama, or to have experienced the wealth of life-leassons their characters bring to a novel. Impossible.

They can only draw on what they see, what they read, what they hear from others, what they read, and their own invention. That is, again, why fiction writing is a lie. It is imagination putting on reality. It is invention inspired by possibilities. It is not real. Not even my historically accurate, highly researched, authentic, scripturally based lies.

Which, if you think about it, makes Jerry Johnston's premise preposterous. Of course we can write the great Mormon novel. And of course it doesn't need to be written by an author who has left the church and come half way back. There's no need to experience sin in order to write about it. There's no need to be evil in order to portray it. 99 percent of all fiction is just that. Fiction. Make believe. Imagination. With whispers of reality, and paralells in real life, and morals, and deep thoughts, and moralizing, and values sharing, and doctrine, and faith, hope and charity. But it will always be make believe AND entirely within the realm of anyone to write, about anything, in any time period, in the voice of any character, in any setting, WITHOUT ACTUALLY HAVING TO HAVE EXPERIENCED ANT OF IT IN THE REAL WORLD. Not fig of it. Not an ounce of it.

The great Mormon Novel, if you do your reserach, hone your craft, interview some people, could, possibly be written by a non-Mormon. But he wouldn't be a non-mormon for long if he really wrote the Great Mormon novel--the novel that mormons and non-mormons would both read and then say, "Sure enough, that's what Mormons are all about."

tawnya said...

Sorry I'm a little late to the party, but I haven't had time to read everything until now. I'll post my comments as I read.

About the original article: Why on earth would anyone WANT to write "the great Mormon novel"? Why is that even something to aspire to? But that aside...I think the original article is so full of crap, it doesn't even know it. You don't have to live it to write it and to assume that "card carrying members" can't like actual literature (as opposed to LDS literature which is a whole nuther thing...) is a little demeaning.

On Dave's response: Why does he assume that stories are broken and need mending? Why is a story that shows real life and heartache a bad thing? Also, the novel he describes sounds hopelessly boring.

On the comments: Mormon fiction has gotten vulgar? I clearly stopped reading Mormon fiction too soon...

And I whole HEARTEDLY agreed with, sorry, Maykala? when she said that to know the joy and hope, you have to discuss the sorrow and sin. If Dave wants a book like he described, it can't be 100% happy and light and truth. Just the like the gospel. Who says that seeing the truth through wars and despair isn't uplifting and praise-worthy?

It also distresses me that, once again, Mormons are anxious to separate themselves - great "zion" libraies vs. great american libraries. It's like people refuse to believe that anything written by non-LDS writers can be good, praise-worthy and worth the time. What happened to just being good NOVELISTS and forgetting about the labels?

General comments: It seems that Dave is talking out of all sides of his mouth and hoping he will be able to confuse people into thinking he knows all. And, I'll admit that even though I don't know him (never read anything by him save this one blog post), through his comments here, I don't like him. I fully realize it might just be that I'm tempted to argue with whatever his position is because I find him so judgemental, egotistical and chauvinistic. Luckily his views are usually so polar opposite of mine that it has yet to be an issue.

I will say that I have a hard time understanding why this is even an issue. Shouldn't we (as writers) strive to write for everyone? Why paint ourselves into such a niche that is so full of rubbish (like the LDS market)? Why is there an LDS market to begin with? But, you know how I feel about that.

Another thing. I didn't see your original comment about age, but I am surprised at what it might have been, reading the comments, considering the amount of things I was able to experience by the age of 25 or your own kids, for that matter. Age has nothing to do with experience or wisdom. I've met a lot of naive old people (most of whom read Mormon fiction! Ha! I kid...kind of.) and a lot of people who have experience and wisdom beyond their years.

I really should stop reading things like this. All it does is anger me and make me strive harder to distance myself from this genre in my writing. A few more articles like this and maybe I'LL be throwing in the vulgarity out of spite!

David G. Woolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David G. Woolley said...

Hey Tawnya:

A broken story is one where evil is glorified. Where the moral is immoral. Where bad triumps over good.

It doesn't mean there won't be a portrayal of evil, its broken when evil is mainstreamed. When good is called evil and evil is called good.

That's a broken, incomplete story.

Sorry if the definition urkes you a bit, but its drawn from some of the writings of great literary analysts. I'm just the messenger. Don't shoot me.

David G. Woolley said...

And one more point Tawnya:

If you want to develop a strong voice for your charactrs, and if you want your narration to snap, crackle and pop, and if you want your fiction to be believed, you can't use tentative language. Your pros must not only be precise, they must be confident, believeable, unabashedly bold. Even when your portraying caution or timidity, the pros themselves must be clear and clean and crisp. It is one thing to say the woman might possibly be introverted in her writing and quite another to write that she left the page blank in the belief htat her silence spoke a thousand words.

Don't blame the author for clarity of voice. Attacking the writer of pros as arrogant is like blaming the construction worker for building a house.