Mormon LitCrit: Story, Story, or Story?

A search for value in fiction, essay, and journalism

It’s been a very strange trip for me over the last fifteen years or so, and I find myself suddenly lost in both a superabundance of interest and a declining patience with the many and varied forms of literature that have engaged me in my life.

Before I go any further, I apologize if I have left out a particular form, genre, or flavor in my glib encapsulation. I’m working under a (still largely unformed) model that suggests story as the intentional construction of words in a search for fact (journalism), understanding (essay), or meaning (fiction). As such, I find the specific form (poem, screenplay, lyric, story, ad copy, speech, etc. etc. etc.) far less interesting than the effective accomplishment of these three primary intents.

Again, I understand that those intents are often expressed to varying degrees in each form and flavor. Of course fiction can be an exceptional vehicle for fact, just as the most compelling history gives us not only fact, but understanding (and often more than a sniff of both contextual and global meaning as well).

I suppose this focus on intents exposes the lack of art in my soul. I admire and appreciate vivid imagery, lyric form, and bold imagination, but ultimately it’s the ideas the story encourages me to think about and remember that I most value, with admirable construction coming in further down the value chain. While I understand that viewpoint and voice are inextricably connected, for me the voice draws my attention while the viewpoint feeds me. The best work does both, but sparkling ideas overcome exceptional craft for me.

I first came to the AML as a fiction writer, as someone who could (and often did) produce upwards of 15,000 words of draft story in a week. At the same time, I was employed as a technical writer who could (and often** did) produce upwards of 30,000 words of publication-ready documentation in a week. At the time I read 3-4 books a week and consumed a half-dozen magazines in addition to technical articles or product specs.

I wish I had that kind of productivity now. I haven’t completed a novel in months (I’m 550 pages into a 750 page novel by Dan Simmons, but haven’t read from it in at least two months). I should read Brady Udall’s book, but I just haven’t found the goad. During the dark hours of the night when I used to read, I now play a couple of games of Sudoku, then fall asleep within a few minutes. I still read technical material, and write*** lengthy technical essays and magazine articles; just not fiction.

It’s not that I’ve lost interest in story. Far from it, I now watch more than two hours of political commentary per day, and five hours of political humor, around 6 hours of anime, and as any as a half-dozen movies in a week. I love told stories. I just find long-form fiction reading and writing increasingly uninteresting.

Which puts me in a strange position, because I still love and believe in fiction. I still believe fiction is the most efficient way to explore some of the most important ideas that interest me.

Which seems odd to me. How does one lose the handle on fiction, but still retain interest*** in story? What is it about narrative that draws the attenion, engages the mind, and holds the interest?

For me it comes down to meaning. I want to know the facts of a thing so I can come to understandng of a situation, and ultimately gain some useful sense of meaning from it. Whether that meaning comes from fiction, essay, article, journal, or conversation is less relevant than that it help me make sense of the world and my fellow man. The progression requires a story in some form–at least for me.

I don’t have any meaningul observations to make at this point. But this idea has been troubling me or a while, so I thought I’d write it down as a story and see if any meaning came from the exercise. Thank you for the indulgence, and perhaps for you help in coming up with meaning for the experience.

**In a completely unrelated fact, this is the last word in this post where I was able to successfully type the “f” key on my main keyboard–a nifty backlit gamer’s keyboard from Razer. Every other “f” in this post was typed on a secondary keyboard that [Wolf King Warrior gamers*** keypad] that happens to have that key on it, that happens to be attached to my computer right now.

***Just lost first the “m” key, then the “t” key, and finally the right arrow key, too. I hope those keys return after reboot (like they did when I lost the ~ key last week) or I’ll have to get rid of my really cool keyboard. :(   It does make for a fascinating composition experience, though…

As a sample, here’s a sentence written without the t, m, and f characters. Funky, isn’t it?

As a saple, here’s a senence wrien wihou he , , and  characers. unky, isn’ i?

And correcting without the use of the right arrow key is a real pain. FWIW.

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16 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Story, Story, or Story?

  1. Th. says:

    .

    I have a laptop sitting under my bed right now that is untouched and has been for months because some keys do nothing and other’s always hit double and it is too too much.

    I like the three-pronged model and think it has potential as a critical tool. But right now I’m still dizzy with uncertainty as to when you eat and sleep.

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    Everything came back on reboot.

    My thing with watching is that I multitask. I watch politics while reading email or doing other computing tasks. I tend to condense blog reading into one or two blog runs once or twice a week.

    That’s what’s so odd to me. I spend no less time, I just spend more of it watching and listening rather than reading. I still write, but it’s all expository or analytical. I still tell stories, but as ways of illustrating or metaphorizing other ideas–never for the specific joy of telling the story itself.

    I have a laptop that simply cannot type the letters a or s. I added a wireless keyboard to it and now use it to watch internet content on the TV in my bedroom. I haven’t actually touched the keyboard in well over a year.

    Technology is fun, and it misbehaves in some of the most interesting ways.

  3. Wm Morris says:

    I’ve related this story before, I think, but I finished by master’s degree while working full time and so opted to take an oral exam rather than write a thesis. This meant reading 30 works of world literature in English or English translation (with a wide variety of forms and cultures and time periods represented) and then 5 works in my specific language on a particular theme (chosen by me). So all I read for almost 8 months were "classics." This came on the heels of 8 years of taking undergraduate and graduate courses, the majority of which mainly involved reading 19th and 20th century novels.

    Preparing for my oral exam was fantastic. I really enjoyed it and loved much of what I read. But by the end of the whole process I was so burned out that for next six months I read nothing but science fiction and fantasy novels (plus blogs and newspapers, but I’m talking long form, here). It was quite the binge and since I (like now) had a long commute by public transportation, I was tearing through 2-3 novels a week (hey, it was a lot of epic fantasy, too, otherwise it would have been 3-4). I don’t have a record of my reading during that time, but I probably read 40-60 genre novels in a row.

    It was great fun. Previously, I had only had time to read 5-6 genre novels a year. But the binge came at a cost. When I then went to read a piece of literary fiction and then a piece of literary criticism, I had a very difficult time. These were the type of works that I had been reading 3-4 of a week for years, and I was finding myself ignoring them because they were too hard to read. Me, who had sailed through critical theory classes while many of my classmates had struggled. Who had actually read everything and sometimes extra on every syllabus for every class. Now the writing wasn’t easy enough and the plot didn’t move fast enough.

    It was a humbling and somewhat horrifying discovery. It turns out that you have to work at it. And by work at it, I mean not just the reading, but the finding value.

    And I think you could flip my experience and still find it to be true (I don’t think it was just because I went from literary to genre) — I think some English professors become anti-genre snobs because they immerse themselves so fully in literary fiction that they forget the joys of genre fiction. It’s a different kind of work, but it’s still work, imo. At least the good genre stuff is. Or, for example, I’ve hear some people complain about the work that goes in to reading epic fantasy, the profusion of detail and characters and overall worldbuilding requires a fair amount of work.

    The same is true of the fiction/nonfiction split or (and this is one I’m not good at balancing) prose/poetry. In our last fast and testimony meeting a brother in our ward mentioned in passing that he didn’t read fiction because he only liked to read stuff that was true (and then somewhat ironically deconstructed the notion that nonfiction could present truth because he discovered that the more he read about the founding fathers the more points of view there are about them — it was his way of expressing appreciation for the scriptures). I would posit that his avoidance is not just a matter of taste — it’s also an avoidance of the kind of emotional and intellectual work that fiction puts him through.

    All this is to say a couple of things:

    1. We all go through phases in our reading and writing. I think that’s fine. But…

    2. It’s good to question ourselves a bit in relation to our media consumption (see: http://www.motleyvision.org/2005/soapbox-mormons-and-media-consumption/ ) and seek for balance and to both feed our comfort zone and challenge ourselves a bit. This is why I enjoy using GoodReads so much. It helps me balance my long-form reading. I still read a heavy dose of speculative fiction and need to work a bit harder at bringing in other books, but GoodReads has helped me notice when I need to change things up a bit and even more importantly it helps me store works so that when I do say, oh, I really should read a work of nonfiction now, I can immediately go to my GoodReads bookshelves and see what my local library system has that I want to read: http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/216811

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    So when I was reading Udall’s latest, my husband comes in and says something stinky about how I’m spending my time. One of those "reading again?" things we hear. And I thought, [i]Ug. Doesn’t he know I don’t want to be reading this?[/i] I truly didn’t. Now why is that?

    Well, reading is work to me–as in, job preparation. So when he sees me "kicking back" with a book at 11 pm, I’m still at work. yeah, I know. Rough job. But it is. I’m not capable of reading w/o analyzing what works, what isn’t working so well, and how it all works together. That’s sad. I miss the thrill of Nancy Drew, of reading for discovery.

  5. Ed Snow says:

    I think of reading phases as cross training. I jump from fiction to history/theology in 6-12 month phases.

    I’m 400 pages into Udall now and I can’t focus on anything else I’m reading till I finish it. The whole time I’m reading it, in spite of how wonderful it is, I keep saying to myself, "Man, novels are long!", as if I have finally understood this for the first time in my life. I’m not sure what the future holds for story/narrative, but my guess is Letting Loose the Hounds will now finally make some money for Norton after The Lonely Polygamist has found a wide audience.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Yeah, well, [i]The Lonely Polygamist [/i]is too long, Ed. And it does set the reader up w. certain expectations that Udall meanders away from w. his other POV characters. Not all novels feel too long. But hang in there. There is a big redemptive moment coming.

  7. Mark Brown says:

    Right you are, Ed. I didn’t want to spring the 26 bucks for Udall’s new book in hardback so I contented myself with Letting Loose the Hounds for half that price.

  8. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Interesting. I switch from fiction to nonfiction as a kind of rest–and because there’s something I want to learn about through nonfiction instead of fiction. I also switch categories (after so many fantasy novels, I read a mystery, and then science fiction, and then mainstream, and then nonfiction, and then back to fantasy for a bit, and so on–what catches my fancy, and what is coming due at the library that I probably can’t renew) because I like the change (as in "any change is a rest").

    I discovered years ago, when I was suffering a bout of mycoplasmal pneumonia (I still don’t know if it is the same thing they call "walking pneumonia"–I certainly didn’t feel much like walking–but it wasn’t bacterial pneumonia nor was it viral pneumonia), that I didn’t have enough energy to read fiction. I still needed to read (cereal boxes, anyone?) but I only had enough energy to read nonfiction. And I thought that was kind of interesting to learn about myself.

    Anyway, reading a lot of different things–and I’m open to new "different" things–helps me feel that my brain is getting different kinds of exercise. The "reading protocols" for the different kinds of reads are also different, and that’s part of the exercise.

  9. Wm Morris says:

    Very well said, Kathleen. I like the change is rest concept.

    I had a bad cold all last week and ended up being very frustrated that I had no energy for writing or reading fiction or long-form nonfiction. I ended up surfing the net, watching a lot of Hulu and listening to podcasts.

  10. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Change as rest… But in the last few months I’ve tried romance, mystery, sci fi, fantasy, short fiction, humorous memoir, and literary novels. I’m still burned out and not finding that old joy in reading.

    Wait, an idea is forming… By George, perhaps I’ll try rereading the scriptures! With them I won’t have to think about writerly issues at all. [i]<relaxed heavy sigh>[/i] Finally, a good idea. I haven’t had one in a while. :)

  11. Wm Morris says:

    You know, unless it’s simply not well-crafted on some level, I don’t seem to have an issue with getting in to the flow of the story. I don’t know if that just means I’m a bad critic, but I get totally sucked in to the flow of narrative and it’s only after I have read the work that I think about writerly issues.

  12. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Interesting Wm. When I read a narrative, I try to keep aware of how the text moves me and consider, in that moment, what the writer did that got me there. I figure readers are swept into the narrative, so I learned to combine the reader-who-gets-swept side of me with the writer-who-wants-to-sweep side of me. Its like there are two versions of me running at the same time: the one that takes in the story and the one that analyzes the interplay between my reaction to it and the craft. I used to reread powerful novels to discover technique, but for me, I find its a more effective learning experience, not to mention more time efficient, to run both reader and writer versions of me at the same time. Generally I enjoy this, but you can probably see how it makes reading feel like work.

  13. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    The more I have learned about writing, the harder it is for me to get swept away by a book. I’m too aware of the writerly stuff, I guess.

    It used to be that I could say "I just couldn’t put it down!" about a get-swept-away book, but now the best thing I can say about a book is that I was anxious to get back to it (which isn’t bad, of course).

    I can get caught up in a story enough that I don’t notice the writerly problems so much, but the story has to be really powerful.

    By the way, I am differentiating between what I call "storytelling" and "wordsmithing" and I believe a truly great book should be an excellent example of both. However, I have found, for me, at least, that excellent storytelling will cover a multitude of wordsmithing sins, but the reverse is absolutely not true. As wonderful as the wordsmithing may be, I have to have some other reason than enjoyment to keep reading a poorly told story.

  14. Andrew H. says:

    It seems to me the main problem is that you are just watching too much stuff on screens (tv/movies). How about turning the dang thing off for a few weeks, and see how things change?

  15. Th. says:

    .

    KDW:

    "
    By the way, I am differentiating between what I call "storytelling" and "wordsmithing" and I believe a truly great book should be an excellent example of both. However, I have found, for me, at least, that excellent storytelling will cover a multitude of wordsmithing sins, but the reverse is absolutely not true. As wonderful as the wordsmithing may be, I have to have some other reason than enjoyment to keep reading a poorly told story.
    "

    Very well said. Couldn’t agree more.

  16. Scott Parkin says:

    Andrew–

    I’m not sure how anything will change if I turn the screen off for a few weeks (at home; I work at a software company, so turning it off there is impossible). Reading itself is not something that I have any problem with. In an average day I still read 30-300 pages of text, but I find that the written novel isn’t holding my interest as much as it used to, and writing fiction has become very, very difficult. Maybe it’s because I’ve now read all the basic stories and everything else is just rehash. Maybe writing fiction has become a challenge for the same reason. I just don’t know.

    But it’s not writing in general. Since publishing my last short story I’ve published more than 100 essays, articles, and interviews. I can’t not write, but it’s turning out to be less difficult to not write fiction than I would have expected.

    As Ed and others have commented, sometimes we go through phases. As Kathleen suggested, sometimes the normal change we undergo as experiential beings simply alters our basic ability to appreciate things that used to bring us joy.

    Maybe the visual media have made me lazy because I can rely on other peoples’ visualizations, except that I approach each form differently and expect different things from them. A play, cartoon, short story, poem, article, essay, novel, and painting are not functionally interchangeable for me; each offers a different challenge and a different reward.

    In film, for example, I expect thinner concept density than I get from a novel, but I also expect a richer interpretation from the actors themselves; part of the joy is being able to compare my own interpretation of the core story with the director’s and actors’ all in the same sitting. When I watch general animation I’m looking for solid story, creative visuals, and quick pace with a relatively simple story complicated by physical obstacles more than conceptual ones; when I watch anime I expect a richer artistic presentation, more metaphorical/allusive content, and more challenging thematic questioning.

    Which led to an interesting moment yesterday when I watched the live-action adaptation of (book one of) The Last Airbender soon after watching the (original) American anime rendition. With the normal exceptions of vision expected when different people interpret the same story, I thought both renderings worked fine.

    What surprised me was how much more attention I ended up paying to (relative) inconsequentials, such as casting. It’s been commented that the film is racist (the three [and a half] antagonists are all East Indian)–something my daughter mentioned to me after the film, but which I had noted myself while watching. Interestingly, that problem doesn’t exist with the anime, where race is generally indistinct or generically Asian.

    What’s interesting to me is that the way I approach film raised secondary issues for me that the same (essential) story didn’t raise for me as anime. Race *did* become more prominent, perhaps because actual people appeared on the screen–triggering a different set of interpretive considerations (I don’t recall seeing Black people in either the film or anime, for example).

    But the connecting tissue is story. When I watch political commentary, I do so to accomplish a different set of goals than when I watch a movie or read a novel. I still expect coherent narrative, but the relevance changes. Depriving me of political commentary will not cause me to love novels more, and I suspect depriving me of film and anime will only lessen my interest in fiction even further as I drift over into journalism and politics as the discipline of solving real problems.

    (I’m also running for public office right now, which at least partially explains my fascination with the national political dialog, though I became actively engaged in politics close to a decade ago.)

    I’m not actually lamenting that shift so much as being mildly surprised by it. I still love fiction, but I find myself more engaged (right now) by its theory than its practice. I still enjoy reading fiction (just downloaded my first e-book; a collection of H.P. Lovecraft works), I just do much less of it than I used to, and find myself less drawn to excessive reading than I used to.

    I think humans crave narrative, but I think the balance between story, story, and story can and does shift at different times, under different circumstances, and with different immediate challenges. I used to believe that a reduction in one meant an irretrievable loss in richness in one’s life (as a fiction bigot, I tended to see it as the most true of the narrative forms), but I’m not sure I believe that now. We crave fact, context, and meaning, but I think our tools for acquiring those can and does change radically.

    The only tragedy is when we stop seeking narrative at all, or when our search for narrative is only to affirm and not to inform. But that’s an entirely different can of worms.

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