In an earlier post here at the AML Blog (and again during a panel discussion at last weekend’s AML Conference) Chris Bigelow admitted that even though Seagull Book had requested ordering information on the anthology I edited, Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction, he felt it was important to warn the buyer that this book’s content is PG-13. First of all, I’m not surprised that Chris hasn’t heard back from the buyer (although I am very, very encouraged that the buyer even contacted Chris at all). But–perhaps surprisingly?–I don’t fault Chris one bit for issuing the warning that may have affected this anthology’s ability to hit the shelves in a Seagull store. I mean, I’ve dreamt of one of my titles being available at Deseret Book or Seagull. I’ve lamented the fact that smallish publishers like Zarahemla and Parables will never score significant sales unless one of their books breaks through and shows up in these stores. So why wouldn’t I want the anthology I edited to be that book?
Well . . . because I know that the average Seagull shopper probably wouldn’t like it, or would at least find its contents incongruous with the type of work they’d come to expect at a Seagull store. And that if problems or complaints arose, it might do financial damage to Zarahemla Books if the anthologies were returned. It might (who knows?) even do damage to my own reputation or ability to have a book sold in these stores at some point in the future. I probably wouldn’t have felt the same way had Bound on Earth been able to break into DB or Seagull–there is more challenging or disturbing material in Dispensation than in Bound on Earth, in my opinion–but even BoE could have raised some hackles. After all, even though the novel received a positive review in The Deseret News and the reviewer felt that the book was ultimately uplifting, he did warn potential readers about some mild sexual references that some might find gratuitous or jarring, especially if these readers were expecting a “typical LDS-market novel.” I found this slightly disconcerting, since I thought the sexual references in my novel were pretty dang mild. There had to be some sexual references, though, because the novel–a novel for adult readers–was primarily about marriage, and sex is a big part of marriage. But apparently the perception is that any references to sex might be read as “gratuitous” to some Mormon readers. I don’t disagree that this is probably true.
The problem some LDS readers might have with Dispensation is less about sex (there’s not much of it) and more about the depiction of evil. Of course, I’ve always been a big fan of the following statement by Brigham Young:
“‘Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?’ says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.”
-Journal of Discourses 2:34
It’s true that some of the short stories in this anthology could be described as disturbing. Not all, but some. They take on the subject of evil and its consequences. Doug Thayer’s amazing and harrowing story, “Wolves,” is about a young Mormon man who gets attacked and violated by a gang in a 1940s hobo camp; in Phyllis Barber’s excellent “Bread for Gunnar,” a woman watches while her neighbor allows himself to burn to death. Other stories aren’t this violent, but they are complicated: there’s a Native American girl, unhappy and misunderstood living among her new Mormon family in the Indian Placement Program; a bishop’s wife who walks out on her husband (but for only a day), her mind full of curse words, a few occasionally escaping out of her mouth; a seminary teacher accused of all manner of sinfulness, but who bears his afflictions with the faithfulness of Job.
These are not stories that all Mormon readers will enjoy or appreciate. But I also believe that these are stories that many Mormon readers could enjoy or appreciate, if these stories are approached with an open mind and a willingness to set aside certain expectations about what Mormon literature must be. And I was very careful in my selections. Although there is some language in the anthology, it’s rare and of the PG-13 variety. There is very little sex and the depictions of violence are realistic without being gratuitous. I wanted this anthology to be one that could be taught in a BYU class, for example, without too many student complaints about inappropriate content. I wanted this anthology to be one that a believing Mormon could read without feeling that the writers had an anti-Mormon agenda. I wanted this anthology to represent the complexities and contradictions inherent in our human condition without wallowing in darkness or, conversely, relying on easy answers or empty platitudes. I wanted this anthology to be both Mormon and Literature. And I do think it’s both. But I don’t think it would fit on the shelves at Seagull Book.
One final observation. I just finished reading James Dashner’s YA novel The Maze Runner. It’s an exciting, well-plotted, gripping read. Both my 13 year old son and I tore through it in just a couple of days. But it’s also a very violent book in many ways. Young men are possessed, tortured, killed. The characters engage in bloody and realistically depicted battles. There’s even a great deal of “swearing”–or at least The Maze Runner‘s version of swearing. The boys have been inside the maze for a while and have created their own curse words: “slinthead” and “shuck-face” are two of my favorites. They also say “bugger” and “bloody” a lot, so apparently British swear words didn’t undergo the same metamorphosis that the American ones did. Actually, I thought Dashner came up with a pretty ingenious way of dealing with the fact that a bunch of teenaged boys trapped in the center of a maze would be swearing up a storm, and that such language would be inappropriate in a YA novel. Written by a Mormon guy. Still, reading Dashner’s book made me despair a little. Why will Mormon readers accept this in a fantasy novel for teens, but such things would be considered inappropriate in a realistic novel for adults? It’s true that The Maze Runner wasn’t published by an LDS publisher . . . but it is carried in Deseret Book. I’m sure one reason this novel will be seen as acceptable by most Mormon readers is because The Maze Runner is speculative fiction, while Dispensation’s stories are mostly realistic. Such acceptance might also be because The Maze Runner‘s characters aren’t overtly Mormon, but Dispensation‘s characters are. (I’ve often wondered what Twilight‘s reception might have been by both Mormon and non-Mormon readers if Bella Swan had been a Mormon.)
But I’d still love to hear your opinions. What do you think offends Mormon readers, and why?