A few weeks ago, A Motley Vision provided a quote from an 1897 publication by Junius Wells in which he discusses the idea of books as ‘companions’ and urges his readers to reconsider the type of company they keep when they read. Wells makes a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and privileges scriptural and factual based writing over ‘lighter fare’, noting that ‘the staff of intellectual life is fact.’ While it is easy to dismiss the words of Wells as old-fashioned and to assume that we have advanced culturally beyond our fear of fiction, I have sometimes run into a subset of Mormon readers who still fear fiction. They prefer to read nonfiction, preferably the devotional type written by a proven authority figure and published by an official press, but they may occasionally indulge in some inspirational fiction or perhaps some historical fiction that retells familiar events in a way that allows them to learn something and still ring ‘true’.
Though I have long been a reader of historical fiction and I appreciate the added benefit of learning some facts, I mostly read it for the aesthetic experience. Consider these rave reviews from Amazon for a book that I dismissed as poorly-written tripe: “His descriptions of everything seem spot-on, as if he walked every inch of the past where his book is set… He certainly made me believe he’d been to all those places” and “[the author] does an excellent job with interweaving historical fact with believable, appropriate fiction. In fact, I was never sure where one left off and the other began. But the dates and details present throughout the book assured me that the topic was thoroughly researched and documented.” The meandering plot, poor grammar, and incoherently detailed descriptions made this book a difficult read for me, but for several readers this was a 5-star book because it rang true to their understanding of history.
Perhaps I have been spoiled by reading too much post-modern literary criticism. I can remember the mind-expanding moment in a graduate level class when we read and discussed “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” by Hayden White, in which he posits that literature and history are not as separate as most people would like to think and that historians use literary technique in constructing their narrative accounts of history. The facts of history do not change, but our interpretation of their significance depends on their emplotment. I have often wondered how readers like those mentioned in my previous paragraph would feel about the idea that what they take to be Truth may just be one version of narrative truth. I think Mormon readers have a particularly difficult time with fiction because of our ideas about truth, revelation, and writing. If we assume that the Book of Mormon is the true narrative of everything that happened to the Nephites, narrated directly by God to Mormon, and then translated directly by God through Joseph Smith, we assume that there is one way to tell the story of history and that history does indeed equal Truth.
But, as Grant Hardy points out in his book Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, one can still believe in the Book of Mormon as the word of God while also recognizing that it was written by authors that used literary devices to construct a narrative that served their particular purposes. In one chapter, he describes Mormon’s competing agendas in creating his history: a desire to be historically accurate and true to his sources, creation of an aesthetically pleasing narrative, and a responsibility for teaching moral and spiritual truths (pg. 102). In teaching about the Book of Mormon, I think the emphasis has often landed on Mormon’s historical accuracy and spiritual teaching, without as much acknowledgement of the fact that he is constructing a literary narrative. I can see how this can lead to confusion about what the purpose of literature is, and whether it still be valuable even if it is not historically accurate.
These are difficult questions and perhaps a short blog post cannot fully do them justice. What really precipitated this post and this line of thinking is something that has been bothering me lately: footnotes in historical fiction. I’ve noticed a trend during the last few years for historical fiction published by LDS publishers to include notes, either at the end of each chapter or at the end of the book, explaining the historical facts or clarifying the context for events that the characters experience. I will be blunt and say that I hate these kinds of things. I find it a little insulting for the author to assume that I don’t know who Chairman Mao was or what “dim sum” means. Even if I didn’t know those things, I find it irritating to have my reading experience interrupted by reminders about what the ‘truth’ of the narrative is; if I cannot understand the significance of something from context, I can do some research about it on my own. In doing a bit of investigating, I discovered that Gerald Lund includes notes at the end of certain chapters in The Work and the Glory, perhaps in an effort to help readers more fully distinguish between real people and the fictional Steed family. Personally, I don’t think that distinguishing between fictional characters and historic characters is such a big deal. If my testimony is strengthened by reading about something that happened to the Steeds, does that make it illegitimate? What is the danger of confusing fact and fiction? Is it threating to realize that history is just as much a literary construct as fiction is? What think ye?