Agency, Influence, Accountability, and the Mormon Artist

Since last Friday’s mass-shooting at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, fingers have pointed in many directions. In a New York Times op-ed, for example, film critic Roger Ebert joins others in blaming the gun lobby and “paranoid fantasies about a federal takeover of personal liberties” for slack firearms regulations. Others, like Texas congressman Louis Gohmert see connections between the shooting and “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs.” This sort of thing is normal when senseless acts of violence happen on this kind of scale—especially when the motives of the perpetrator are not readily known.

Surprisingly, while many people are drawing connections between the choreography of the shooting and the familiar imagery of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, few people are blaming the films themselves. LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan suggests that this may be because most people realize that Nolan’s films, despite their violence and “dark and disturbing” tone, do not “[revel] in the carnage” the way films like Oliver Stone’s Savages do.1 Rather, they are “determined to make us feel just how punishing and personally painful brutality really is.”

Still, when a shooter calls himself “The Joker” and carries out a massacre with cinematic precision, it’s hard not to raise tough questions about an artist’s responsibility to and for his work. So far, Christopher Nolan and his violent vision of Gotham City have not become media scapegoats, but that might change if it turns out that a gross misreading of Nolan’s work led the perpetrator to menace. I doubt that will happen, though, since the American people generally forgive artists at the end of the day.

But does that forgiveness mean the artists’ hands are clean?

This is an important question for Mormon artists, I think, because it touches on the thorny matters of agency, influence, and accountability. Mormon culture, after all, puts a premium on “uplifting” and “inspiring” art because it not only influences others to use their agency righteously, but also leaves no margin for error, no opportunity for gross, tragic misreadings. Art that dares ambiguity, nuance, and layers of meaning is more suspect—not necessarily because what it has to say is edgy or heretical, but because what it has to say is open to interpretation.

The reasons for this viewpoint in Mormon culture are many. I like to think of it as an outgrowth of a belief that salvation is partly based on the relationships we form with the living and the dead. Technically, we are only accountable for how we use our individual agency, but there’s also the expectation that we use that agency to influence others positively along the way. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming accessories to the sins of those we either fail to influence or influence negatively (see Jacob 1:19, Mosiah 2:27, D&C 68:25, D&C 88:81-82, D&C 112:33, D&C 128:18, etc.).

For Mormon artists, such a belief can directly affect the contents of their art. For instance, a Mormon writer may rein in the transgressive violent or sexual content of her fiction for fear of appearing as if she were promoting or even glorifying it. As a phenomenon like CleanFlicks demonstrates, Mormon audiences are notorious for the way they dissociate content from context. No matter what virtuous end it may serve, if something sinful happens on stage, page, or screen, it immediately becomes excisable. Cut it out, the reasoning goes, if it has the potential to lead others astray.

The results of this are familiar: bloodless vampire stories, “clean” romance, non-violent action/adventure, minimally thrilling thrillers. With few exceptions, Mormon artists—including those who toy with the murky boundary between “appropriate” and “innapropriate”—tend to play on the safe side. Often, the part of us that scorns censorship and idealizes the free-wheeling artist figure decries this aspect of Mormon culture. As “sophisticated” readers, we resent our fellow Mormons for their inability to contextualize and interpret what is “clearly” a moral depiction of immorality. We ask, “Why can’t they see the fallacy—the danger!—of their simple dualistic thinking?”

Admittedly, I’m one of these “sophisticated” Mormon readers. When I read, say, the line in For the Strength of Youth that counsels young men and women to “not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way,” my impulse is to deconstruct and rationalize rather than follow it to the letter.2[2] At the same time, however, I agree with Flannery O’Connor when she says that the very thing that “leads the writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin” (148). The creation and reception of art are subjective experiences, the very nexus of art and agency, and it seems naïve to expect artists and their audience to always be of one mind.

Or does it? Because agency exists, artists cannot wholly dictate how an audience receives their work, but skilled artists often know their audience well enough to anticipate its reactions. Knowing this, then, do artists—especially Mormon artists—have a moral obligation to do what they can to ensure that their work is not misread? Or does the art justify the risk—even when the consequences turn out to be dire?

These are, again, tough questions for Mormon artists. No artist, after all, wants his or her work to be the site of tragedy—especially when it’s within his or her power to prevent it. Moral obligations, however, are not always about prevention, and sometimes moral messages need ambiguity, nuance, and layers of meaning to work their full effect. How, then, are Mormon artists supposed to proceed through this plain of agency, influence, and accountability? Should they play it safe or take the risk?

[1] I reference Savages herebecause Turan does. I’ve seen not it or The Dark Knight Rises (yet).

[2] “Wait! Wouldn’t that eliminate the scriptures? Don’t they have vulgarity, immorality, violence, and even pornography?”

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80 Responses to Agency, Influence, Accountability, and the Mormon Artist

  1. Please include in the finger pointing the fact that the LDS Church is being discussed online as the owners of “one of the most active and unregulated gun sale websites in America.” Turns out this is Deseret Media “that runs classified ads where people can buy and sell firearms, ‘no questions asked,’ without thorough background checks.”

    Of course, no one else has classified ad websites.

    • Scott Hales says:

      Interesting! If I had known this bit of information, I would have included it in my opening paragraph. It nicely reflects the way information is often stretched or spun to politicize tragedies.

  2. More directly in response to your topic, Scott, I’d like to ask why artists are given the talents to create art that they have been given. If it is to create whatever comes to them, to express whatever ideas and messages they choose, then that’s one thing.

    If, on the other hand, the gifts are given for the purpose of blessing others, of uplifting them, of letting our light shine so that God may be glorified, then that’s something different.

    It seems to me that sometimes artists can be a little selfish about their art.

    I also think that we can approach others’ attempts at being creative with a bit of selfishness (“what’s in it for me?” and if there doesn’t seem to be anything, then we discard or disregard such offerings). And those more experienced in creation and art can be even harder to please.

    Which makes me think of President Eyring’s father (if I remember correctly), the genius chemist, Henry Eyring, who approached even the most boring sacrament meeting talk as an opportunity to feel the Spirit and learn whatever it was the Lord wanted him to learn, regardless of how poor the offering was from the speaker.

    If the Spirit is part of the art, then both the artist and the audience will be edified. And if the Spirit is not a part of the art, then isn’t it all just vanity and selfishness anyway?

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      “It seems to me that sometimes artists can be a little selfish about their art.”

      With no compunction about it whatsoever.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I can’t answer why artists are given the talents that they are, although I suspect reasons vary. I’m sure there are some scriptures and quotes by General Authorities out there that give insight.

      I can suggest, though, that the spirit can be a part of the art experience as long as either the artist or the audience wish it to be. I don’t think, in other words, that an artist can compel an audience to feel the spirit, although I think the kind of link between artist, audience, and spirit is possible under the right conditions and with the right preparation and presentation.

      I’m not sure, however, that the spirit always has to be a part of the art experience–even when the experience is with “Mormon” art. But spiritual experiences are personal, individual things, so it is possible that all art has the potential to become associated with the spirit depending on the individual and his or her need for a spiritual experience.

      It might be worth asking what kinds of experiences Mormons have with art that are not spiritual or sacred?

      • Mark Penny says:

        I love God and appreciate the Church and all, but I’m leery of having my art co-opted for anyone else’s agenda. And I wretch a little when religious authorities start trying to put things like science in a religious context. I’m uncomfortable with the now traditional claim that radio and flight and all that were given by God to further the work.

        In a sense, as artists (or artisans) we’re freelance intermediaries, with the emphasis on free. As artists or artisans, we are not apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists or etc. As disciples we are not sheep. We cannot set ourselves up as lights unto the world. But we can reflect and refract the light that hits us. We can bounce it into corners it otherwise might not reach. We can question the reflections and refractions that come our way. We can speak for the sheep and paint for the shepherd.

        That’s a bit messy and screwball, but you know what I mean, right?

    • Mark Penny says:

      That’s a good one way to think about it, Kathleen.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    I can’t help but question the notion that “uplifting” literature is less prone to misreading, or even misreading with potentially tragic results. However, I will agree that people are less likely to hold such works accountable for those misreadings. Hence the need for cultural criticism, which can help open our eyes to the harm that supposedly innocuous narratives (like, say, Johnny Lingo) may do.

    All of which presupposes that narratives can do harm as well as good, and thus that there may well be some degree of accountability on the part of artists, though obviously less in cases where the connection is one that the artist couldn’t have been expected to anticipate. As you point out, though, it’s the job of good artists to anticipate; indeed, their success as artists depends on successfully anticipating audience responses. So the “I couldn’t have been expected to anticipate that” defense only applies in a few circumstances.

    With respect to the question of whether realism has a place in faithful fiction, I’m more or less on record with my own personal response to this (see my essay “On writing a realistic novel,” But different circumstances are different, particularly with respect to different audiences and purposes for writing. It is true that simple exposure can have an impact. But then, avoidance can have an impact too, and not always a positive one. Ultimately, I think it’s a question we as writers need to take seriously–and not rush too quickly to a conclusion that simply dismisses one side or the other. No matter how tempting it may be sometimes.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think you’re right in saying that “uplifting” literature is not immune from harmful misreadings. Would it be accurate to say, though, that it tries harder to make its intents clear. “Johnny Lingo” end, for example, with Johnny moralizing about why he paid so much for Mahana, thus indicating how the audience ought to feel and understand about his actions and their intended meaning.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        I suspect that those Mormons who object to the presence of, say, violence or profanity in a work of fiction, regardless of the purpose for its conclusion, would object whether or not a moral was explicitly stated.

        Conversely, I’ve seen author’s intent used as a defense for uplifting as well as more realistic literature. But does the stated moral for Johnny Lingo erase the author’s responsibility for promoting (deliberately or not) a message where girls take their value from what men think about them? For that matter, does stating the “intended” moral at the end of the movie make it any less likely that viewers will absorb the unintended (negative) message?

        In short, I think the ambiguity of interpretation is only one piece of the puzzle. And I also think that spelling out the moral does little or nothing to remove that ambiguity.

        • Mark Penny says:

          This issue is central to reading literature from previous times and other cultures. Everything is said and done in the context of the time and place, in either agreement or disagreement with the realities of the setting. If changing the conventions is not the aim, the work doesn’t fight them. This is another phenomenon we see in the scriptures. Occasionally, people like Paul, who strongly support the conventions, let that support leak through. Most of the time, the focus is on something else. The Johnny Lingo story focuses on the value of others’ faith in one’s potential in the context of a male-dominated society. I think we can gently decry male domination without losing out on the message that expressing confidence in someone can help them realize their potential or overcome their weaknesses.

  4. Yeah. Didn’t God know when He inspired the scriptures how many people would use the name of Jesus to commit atrocities? How reckless of Heavenly Father! I think He should’ve thought it through more carefully.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Where is the “like” button around here, anyway?

    • Scott Hales says:

      Here’s a scary thought: maybe He did.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        I very often wonder how God actually sees those things we consider atrocities. I mean, my kids’ lives are filled with “atrocities”: Friend X decided to go be friends with Girl Y, who doesn’t like Girl A. Boy A doesn’t get to visit some people’s houses because he’s un/intentionally destructive and gets his little feelings hurt. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, we’ve got age on our side to see that these aren’t a big deal and will a) blow over and b) teach them something.

        Being such an immense, powerful, knowledgeable, and neverending deity, I can’t help but wonder if he sees our atrocities in the same light as elementary school playground squabbles.

    • Mark Penny says:

      I bet he did know, but he also knew it was a trade-off. He’s a big boy. He understands these things about life.

  5. Tyler says:

    You say, Scott, that “the creation and reception of art are subjective experiences, the very nexus of art and agency, and it seems naïve to expect artists and their audiences to always be of one mind.” Then you posit the question: “Or does it?” While I sense you’re trying to problematize the issue-at-hand and to address the moral aspects of the creation and reception of art—that it has a very human cost and artists and audiences who neglect this cost may be missing out on opportunities to influence and be influenced by others—but to me your question and its implications seem naïve, even potentially damaging, in at least two ways:

    First, it assumes that it’s naïve for me to recognize that others think differently than I do and that their own thoughts and life experiences will inform how they receive a work of art. It also assumes that it’s naïve to recognize that, though I can use my art to inspire agency in others, I can’t and shouldn’t try to dictate how others receive my work because dictating that would a) limit my audience’s agency and b) potentially detract from the multiple ways my work might be experienced. All signs used for human communication are polysemous, so any attempt to limit how those signs are received would put an unbearable strain on both the artist’s potential for expression and the semantic field (i.e., the system of meaning) from which s/he is working. As I see it, those attempts to narrow how an artist creates a work of art and how an audience receives it are naïve.

    Second, the implication that flows from your question about the naïve it is consider that artist and audience should be of one mind—that artists should either “play it safe” by creating inspirational art (i.e., art that won’t be taken the wrong way) or “take the risk” by creating more nuanced work (i.e., work that can potentially be misread)—seems to be based on a false dichotomy. And the poles of this binary: art that inspires moral action and art that allows for shades of meaning and morality. However, neither concept necessarily excludes the other and there are combinations of the concepts on the continuum between them.

    I could, however, be completely misreading you…

    • Mark Penny says:

      My reading is that Scott feels there’s a problem to consider—and that it’s a problematic one. He’s not pronouncing a philosophy; he’s announcing a debate.

      • Tyler says:

        I’m not suggesting, Mark, that the problem of agency isn’t worth considering at length. I’m simply taking up the terms of the debate as outlined by Scott and suggesting that they’re more problematic and nuanced than his opening statement lets on.

        • Scott Hales says:

          What I see as naive is notion that we should expect artists and authors to be always on the same page or of one mind when it comes to understanding a work–that what the artist thinks he or she is conveying through art will be necessarily what is understood by the reader. I think artists who assume that this will always be the case set themselves up for disappointment because communication has a way of taking on a life of its own and meaning is never fixed, even–as Jonathan points out above–when great lengths are taken to convey intent. It’s not that I’m trying to narrow the experiences of the artist and his or her audience–I’m just suggesting that there’s a unpredictable factor in artistic communication.

          Also, while you’re right to point out that I’m setting up a binary here, I don’t think anything I say in the post precludes the possibility that there are works that blur the boundaries between and possibly outside the two artistic approaches I present. It was certainly not my intent to say that there are only two ways to create art. As Mark points out, I’m just trying to announce a debate and the safe/risky binary seems a useful way to do it. Part of what this discussion is for is the suggesting of other possibilities beyond my initial questions and suppositions.

        • D. Michael Martindale says:

          The fact that communication takes on a life of its own is precisely my point. That’s why an artist cannot be held responsible for how others take his work. An artist can’t go round fretting “Oh dear, what if some person somewhere takes this the wrong way?”

          That will result in some pretty compromised, impotent art. That, in fact, is what I consider the single biggest reason why most of LDS literature is mediocre.

        • Dennis Clark says:

          And I think it’s naive to assume that art is always produced with some intent in mind. Yeah yeah, we all talk about knowing the market and so forth, but often the “intent” is to start something going and see where it leads.

          Anthony Burgess, no mean artist, wrote each sentence over and over until he got it right, then went on to the next sentence (or so he said), helped by a musician’s sense of structure. Ernest Hemingway kept writing and rewriting scenes to get them right, then wrote something like 59 endings to A farewell to arms before he was satisfied.

          I think we should produce the art and let the critics talk about intent and effect — that’s their job. The artist offers, the audience receives — or rejects. Then the critic weighs in. And yes, I do know that a person can play more than one of these roles, again as Burgess demonstrates. It’s just that we should stop the blab and lay our offering on the slab.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          What Dennis said.

          All artists can do is what they do. All critics can do is what they can do. The essential nature of each discipline puts them at fundamental odds, but it’s part of the total structure of artistic development—artists create and critics analyze. The bidirectional feedback (applied pressures) leads to evolution of both disciplines.

          Sometimes art is pointless (and ineffective) and sometimes criticism is irrelevant (and ineffective). But the conversation is still useful, even when we feel victimized or dismissed.

        • Th. says:


          What we should not do is dismiss art we haven’t read. We can discuss the merits and morals of work we are engaged with, but we need to be careful about dismissing unread works as “mediocre”.

          Me for instance, I haven’t read a new Deseret- or Covenant-published work in years. So I have no idea what’s going on in the bulk of explicitly Mormon lit. I can’t talk about it honestly.

          I basically have three points.

          1. Let’s not knock what we don’t know.

          2. Let’s all read stuff we don’t read.

          3. Let’s name works when we’re having these discussions. Generalities are borderline worthless.

  6. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Here’s my answer to the tough questions: I’m going to keep writing what I write, with no change. My responsibility is to tell compelling stories honestly. The my handss are clean.

    My responsibility is not to monitor how everyone else in the world responds to my art and uses it as a cheap excuse to do what they have in their heart to do anyway.

    • Mark Penny says:

      To each his own, but there is a legal category called negligent homicide.

      • D. Michael Martindale says:

        Seriously? You’re saying if a writer writes something that some psychotic uses to rationalize some violent rampage he wants to go on, the writer is guilty of negligent homicide?

        • Mark Penny says:

          I’m saying that writing, like anything else, affects people and we need to consider the effects our writing might have, including the unintended ones.

          The reference to negligent homicide was intended to point out that accountability, in the eyes of society, does not hinge only on intent. The notion of unintended responsibility for a role in harm is not only recognized but, in some cases, codified.

          To borrow the recent Batman example, whatever Nolan’s intentions vis a vis the violence in his films or the savouriness of his characters, the films contribute to a culture which glorifies violence as entertainment and self-assertion by making it cool and by suggesting personas and methods for carrying it out. True, most of us don’t take much of what we see out of the context of the film or book, and the people who do are probably already inclined toward the acts they commit, but glorifying violence certainly doesn’t discourage it.

    • Scott Hales says:

      So how does your concept of audience influence your writing. I’m not the best creative writer, but I hear that most good writers take their ideal audience into consideration when they go to write.

      • I don’t know anyone whose ideal audience is the psychopath demographic. I’m fine with the discussion about a writer’s “responsibility” but not with discussions of a writer’s culpability for another person’s evil.

        • Scott Hales says:

          It’s not necessarily the direction I’d have the post take either. Personally, I don’t hold someone like Christopher Nolan responsible for what happened in the movie theater in Colorado, and I personally don’t think artists should be held accountable for psychopathic responses to their work unless, perhaps, their work deliberately sets out to do just such a thing. That’s a different story. (I mean, maybe there is someone out there whose ideal demographic is psychopaths.)

          Mostly, I’m interested in finding out what people think about the responsibilities of the artist to his or her work and responses–violent or otherwise–to it. Admittedly, the event that inspired the post is an extreme example. I also take Mark’s comment above about negligent homicide to be in jest.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          I also take Mark’s comment above about negligent homicide to be in jest.

          I don’t. That’s an unnecessary hyperbole that derails a discussion.

          Also, there is the matter that for every evil one MIGHT be rightfully accused of having initiated through one’s art, there’s probably a balancing good.

          For all that my work has been scorned by those who think it evil (yes, there have been some), Person A told me it changed her life, Person B told me he finally felt not alone in his priesthood, and Person C told me it saved her life. Persons A and C were not members of the church.

          Negligent homicide, my ass.

        • Scott Hales says:

          “That’s an unnecessary hyperbole that derails a discussion.”

          That “Like” button would come in handy about now.

        • Mark Penny says:

          We’re out of reply buttons.

          “To each his own” acknowledges, albeit wryly, Michael’s right to go ahead and do what he declares he intends to.

          The negligent homicide ANALOGY points out, in darkly humorous HYPERBOLE, that whatever we do in the spirit of following our muse may have unplanned consequences for which we may hold responsibility. We may, at times, be just as wrong to obey the Muse as we say soldiers have been to obey their commanders. It certainly appears that as a caste, we are just as prone to excuse ourselves by remarking that we were just doing our job.

        • Mark Penny says:

          As for derailing,

          1. people are certainly free to ignore anything I say,

          2. there is plenty of room on a web page to beat along the track the original poster prefers and

          3. I believe my reply was germane to a comment which was germane to the original post.

        • D. Michael Martindale says:

          Speak for yourself, Mark.

          Just because I say it’s both impossibloe and ridiculous for an artit to try and tailor his work to every possible misreading of it, doesn’t mean I thin that artist has no responsibility for his work. That’s why I endlessly insist that the writer must tell HONEST stories–stories that reflect truth as he understands it.

          You have a problem with telling the truth? You consider truth-telling to be an amoral act?

          Try as I might to resist judging this accusatory attitude in a negative light, I find it hard not to believe that the underlying motive for warning (scolding?) other artists to be responsible for their work is a mistrust of other people–an arrogance that says, “I know best what’s righteous to write, and if you don’t think the same as me, you must want to be immoral.”

          I suppose there are writers out there who have immoral motives, but to suggest that your fellow LDS writers, or even disaffected LDS writers, are among them is pretty offensive. Please point out which writers among your peers need this warning about taking responsibility for what they write. Come on, name names–who is not taking their writing and the message they send seriously You must have some people in mind to be so adamant about it?

          Moriah is right on in what she says. Each reader is impacted in a different way by the same literature–in ways that are unpredictable. What you find problematic, others can find inspiring. So why should your reaction be the only one that’s acceptable?

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Speaking as moderator here, I feel that we’ve gone a bit beyond polite disagreement about opinions.

          I think it has now become obvious that Mark Penny’s comment about negligent homicide worked for some readers in the way he intended, and did not work for others in the way he intended. Let’s now move beyond that point and return to the discussion at hand.

        • Mark Penny says:

          It’s a debate. I’m debating. I’m not accusing. I’m giving my opinion. You are entitled to disagree. And I’m not dictating, either. I don’t have the power to dictate, and I wouldn’t if I did.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        A lot of my training in graduate school was in various forms of rhetorical criticism, which posits audience as a driving force in literary production. Then I started hanging out on AML-List and interacting with artists about their work. And then I wound up doing more creative writing of my own.

        What I found was that audience was much less of a driving force than I had originally (naively) supposed. Yes, audience awareness is a frequent factor in writing and revision, especially with respect to what I might refer to as the “small details” of writing: what needs to be spelled out? what will make sense to my readers? what is the tradeoff of including this particular cuss word? But a lot of that seemed to take place either post-hoc (in consideration of stylistic choices of how to tell the story) or before the story even started (i.e., deciding which of several story ideas might be most worth the author’s time, in terms of connecting to a potential audience). The actual creation of the story seems to be a more internally driven process: a product of what speaks to the writer’s internal sense of story, in tension with the writer’s sense of realism given the story context and characters.

        In short, I’ve become more of a Romantic in my view of the writing process, though I still think that audience plays a part. In terms of story creation, however, I think it’s less a matter of audience and more a matter of community. We write the stories we write because we are who we are, which in turn is a product of the communities we are a part of. And our creative writing is in part an act of communication with those communities. In short, I think that much of what we term audience awareness is actually something both deeper and less explicit–and less a matter of conscious choice.

        How does that interact with the question under discussion? Not sure. However, I do think it’s interesting how often the stories we tell seem to reflect the messages we feel most strongly about in the context of our various communities–whether that message has to do with urging greater tolerance, looking at problematic issues of life and belief, or seeking temporary comforting refuge from a confusing world.

        • Wm says:

          Very well put.

          I would only add that even though it’s at one remove (and may not be based on accurate perceptions), writing communities have a varying sense of audience which then informs how they talk about and critique each other’s writing.

          This fact has been highlighted to me as I read discussions among the self-published/indie and traditionally published and genre and literary communities.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I agree that your comment, Jonathan, is well put.

          I also think it suggests to me that my interest in what a text does as well as what it says reflects my background as a literary critic rather than a creative writer. A lot of my critical work deals with the cultural work of texts, which I think informs a lot of what I say in this post. In other words, I’m really interested in the cultural life of a text after it is released into the world, whereas I image the average creative writer is more interested, say, in getting the text to the point of release.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          I agree that the question of what a text does after it’s released into the world is an important (and interesting) one.

          If I’m correct, a big part of what you’re asking is what responsibility the author bears for the impact a work has, even (or perhaps especially) when that wasn’t what the author intended.

        • Scott Hales says:

          Yes. That’s correct. I tend to lump what texts do and what others do with the texts together. Or, I see them as closely related phenomena.

        • D. Michael Martindale says:

          How can the answer be anything but, “None.” Hopw can anyone be responsible for unpredictable results chosen by other people?

          The responsibility of the artist is to be honest and truthful in his work. For heaven’s sake, isn’t that a big enough burden to bear? Must we take on the sins of the world that we have no control over? We are not Christ, you know!

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        My ideal audience is me. Period.

        Yay if someone else wants to come along on the ride I built.

      • Dennis Clark says:

        I don’t think so. I think most writers are as deluded about their “ideal audience” as about their intent. The art that finds its audience is the art that its audience finds. If we want great art, we have to write without any thought for the audience, and let the audience find it without any thought for our intent.

        Levi Petersen’s Backslider found an audience that none of his other writing has, and I don’t think Levi was shaping the novel to his ideal audience. He was shaping the novel to its best possible form, its most effective expression, not to his ideal audience.

  7. Scott Parkin says:

    I think considering your purposes for writing is a worthy part of the process. Do what you do for reasons, know what your reasons are, and act with integrity. If you worry excessively about how others might (mis)take your work, you become paralyzed and ineffective, and cede the space to those who produce. If your own conscience is clear, the rest is just noise.

    The ethos is a matter between the reader, the author, and the author’s god (as opposed to the reader’s reaction, which is between each reader and his/her god). The reader is free to make demands, but the writer has to proceed in peace with his own conscience—and the reader has to decide for himself whether that’s good enough.

    (Tired. Must sleep now.)

    • Scott Hales says:

      Flannery O’Connor suggests that the very paralysis you refer to is the hang-up of many Catholic authors who worry that their work might influence others to sin. I think the same can probably be said for Mormon writers, and I think all Mormon writers who take their faith seriously need to come to terms with their responsibilities as artists, just as they need to come to terms with their responsibilities as parents, church members, neighbors, etc. The “Mormon” aspect of their identity demands that they ask themselves what they owe to that part of who they are and how it influence the way they act towards themselves and others.

      • Mark Penny says:

        The first time I popped in on this discussion, I started thinking about Card and Meyer in a different way. I still wish Card made a lot less use of sex in his premises and plots, but even though the sex in Card goes a few feet past suggestive, it’s far less likely to lead to interpersonal hanky-panky in the readership than, say, Meyer’s chastity porn lolling in the sack.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I don’t know. I’m sure there are a few geek babies out there who are the result of Uncle Orson’s literary art.

        • D. Michael Martindale says:

          But Stephenie Meyer is an interesting case to consider. I do think her series is bascially Mormon porn for females, thinly disguised as chaste.

          But I would peg the beginning point of that result with her honesty in writing the story. I find very little in “Twilight” (couldn’t endure more than the first book) that was truthful to life–and I don’t mean the fantasy elements. She wrote a story that was incredibly dishonest.

          And that’s how it ended up being disguised porn.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          My thoughts are STILL gelling on Meyer’s work, but here are some random musings (this week; I may have changed my mind by next):

          1. At this point, I’m unwilling to label it “porn” (whereas I wasn’t some years ago) because the word has been used to the point of worthlessness.

          2. It’s not about sex.

          3. Edward gives Bella (the cipher) (and by extension, EL James’s warmed-over doppelgangers) some things she craves, which are the complete acceptance, doting attention, and romance from a powerful male. This is something that a) young girls crave as a fantasy and b) women in often thankless pursuits of motherhood and housewifery can lose themselves in.

          The point here is that Bella is a cipher and as much as I DESPISE the idea of nondescript-placeholder-for-reader, what I actually have come to believe is that women who have little enough identities of themselves FEEL as if they are ciphers and so they understand Bella’s feelings of emptiness, aimlessness, and hopelessness acutely.

          It’s her very emptiness that’s identifiable. Whether Edward is good for her or not, whether he’s carving out her personality or not, he’s taking her somewhere because a) she doesn’t know there’s a there there and b) wouldn’t know how to get there if there were because she doesn’t have anything of her own.

          Most seventeen-year-old girls don’t, and quite a few middle-aged women are in the same boat.

          And now I will go back to ducking Tyler on this subject.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Thoughtful ideas, Moriah.

          I soldiered through all the books because many of my students were reading them—and I’m always interested in what makes a big seller. It was easier going than I expected, but certainly not the most rewarding read I’ve ever engaged in. I had a lot of trouble identifying with the characters, particularly Bella, but, like you say (with a twist of my own), the appeal is to people who feel like they’re part of someone else’s story, who need validation and motivation to be given to them.

    • D. Michael Martindale says:

      Exactly, Scott.

  8. Wm says:

    Sidenote: taking risks is also playing it safe.

    I’m going to pretentiously re-write the binary: how do you resist the deeply embedded influences of a post-Romantic artistic individualism that have been harnessed by voracious capitalism to commodify the (appropriate) yearnings to progress in power and glory and love while at the same time fend of the smothering cultural miasma that seeks to patinate narrative with sentiment and moralizing and is created by a fear of engagement with the messy world that is our current inheritance and that itself has been commodified and marketed as a pseudo-alternative to that messiness?

    I don’t know for sure. But I’m coming around to a few things:

    1. Both of those yearnings are unhealthy but also derive from true gospel principles. The trick is to edge them closer to productive variations.

    2. Intake is almost as important to the artist as talent and craft. We write out of what we are experiencing and thinking about.

    3. If you’re going to outwit/outwrestle, you need to have the knowledge and craft to do so.

    4. Leaving activity for the supposed wilds of the broader American culture can produce interesting work, but it’s also work that isn’t going to be all that different from other acculturation narratives. Anyone can rebel against Mormonism. How do you productively subvert both Mormonism and Americanism?

    5. Mormons need to get over their fear of provincialism (of appearing provincial); Mormon need to get over their fear of cosmopolitanism (of becoming cosmopolitan but also of being self-consciously cosmopolitan). BYU, especially, needs to figure this out.

    6. Personal devotion is everything in the struggle (but is also no panacea).

    7. Fretting about audience does no good. Now is the time to fill the storehouses — when and how much they are used isn’t up to us. Perhaps our role is to create the seed stores for those who come later; perhaps our role is to have a supply that can quickly take root and flower (ah, yes, another agricultural metaphor used in the service of Mo-lit) when the need arises.

    • Scott Hales says:

      You should develop your sidenote, but I think I know what you’re getting at with it.

      I also agree with most of what you write here, particularly 1, 2, 5, and 6.

      I’m not sure I follow what you mean in 3.

      4 I agree with, but does it work off of the assumption that the more ambiguous brand of storytelling I refer to in this post is in some way assimilationist? Because I think the other the other kind of literature I refer to is just as guilty of assimilating mainstream American literary forms and conventions.

      7 I also agree with, but I would suggest that thinking, rather than fretting, about audience and audience response is important–even if in the end it turns out not to be a major determining factor in the content of the art.

      • Wm says:

        3. What I mean is that if you haven’t engaged with/question both sides of the binaries, you aren’t going to be able to create something that will be able to subvert and/or transcend them.

        7. I’m referring more to sales and popularity (reception) rather than the envisioning of audience during the act of creation. I also, though, am pushing the idea that writing for what is now a limited audience is okay because we don’t know how that audience might expand in the future and/or how we might influence a later artist who will find that larger audience.

        4. It may or may not be assimilationist, but in my experience, it too often is. It’s a variation of the idea that anyone can “take risks” (and by that I mean not really taking risks, but rather self-consciously “pushing the envelope”) and that that in fact has been the default mode/template for artists in the post-Romantic era.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      How do you productively subvert both Mormonism and Americanism?

      Did it.

      The HOW is in the willingness to be (apparently) anathema to both.

      • D. Michael Martindale says:

        The HOW is to quit worrying abut such nonsense and write a story that is both compelling and honest, then let the chips fall where they may.

        Because after all, neither Mormonism nor Americanism are embodiments of perfect ideals. They both suffer from being associated with fallible humans. And it’s always productive to subvert the fallibility of humans.

        Otherwise you end up with stagnation and no growth.

  9. I think considering the audience can be a useful learning experience after creation of art. There is something I remember Orson Scott Card talking about called “first and final causes” where “first cause” refers to what was intended in an act or a creation and “final cause” refers to what actually resulted (in this case, how the audience received what was created). The difference between the first and final cause can be a source of huge enlightenment.

    This also goes along with the idea that the meaning of the message is not what was sent, but what was received. Consideration of the intended meaning in relation to the received meaning can be important for all who choose not to create in isolation.

    What an artist may learn through such consideration would, of course, be up to the artist, but the audience might learn something as well.

    • D. Michael Martindale says:

      But how does one control that? I cannot go to every reader and make sure they got the right message.

      Sure, it’s wise to take note of how a work was received. If your intent failed generally, then there’s something you’re doing as a writer that’s not communicating effectively.

      But this is a pragmatic issue of improving one’s writing skills. Not a moral issue to wrestle with and feel guilty over. If my intent was good, my intent was good, period, end of story. If my intent failed to marterliaze, that’s a skills issue, not a moral issue.

      And sometimes, it’s a sign that you did your job if your work was misread. You know, like all those prophets that got stoned. Sometimes the communicator is too far ahead of his audience–but is that the communicator’s fault?

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        I suspect that prophets are generally stoned when their message is understood and rejected more than when it’s misunderstood.

        Up above, you made what I think was a useful clarification that telling the story honestly is (for you) the point of responsibility for a story. Up until that point, I wasn’t sure that you were accepting that an author had any responsibility at all for consequences of his or her work — intended or unintended.

        What, then, is involved for you in telling a story honestly? And how does that relate to the writer’s responsibility (to his/her craft, if nothing else) to tell a story in a way that it will be understood as intended? Obviously it’s impossible to protect against all possible misinterpretations (as an informational writer I know this, to my sorrow) — but equally obviously, part of our craft as writers is to predict what reasonable readers are likely to think and protect as much as we can against misinterpretations. So how do you balance those two priorities?

        • Mark Penny says:

          You just do your best. Like in parenting.

          Actually, that’s a good analogy. I’m ashamed of some of my earlier parenting practices, but my children seem to be unscarred by them. I attribute the lack of scarring to the effusion of love with which I have always surrounded them, the benevolent motivation behind most of what I did wrong, the frequent rapid apologies for mistakes, and the continued effort to be nicer and better. Maybe as writers that’s about all we can do: love, try to be good, apologize for foulups, keep trying to be nice and to improve.

  10. Found this blog post by Elizabeth Bear, a rather literary speculative fiction author (if that isn’t an oxymoron), that I believe has some relevance to this topic.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Tangential, but interesting. Thanks for the link.

      I find myself becoming a literary speculative fiction author. I’m no ox and no moron. At least, not the way I read it. Others may differ in their views.

      • Mark Penny says:

        Well, not tangential on the matter of interpretation and response. Tangential on the matter of responsibility. But that’s okay. This is a discussion, not a white paper.

  11. Th. says:


    I was talking about this today with Thomas Glenn who’s visiting my ward because he’s in this. Both operas on this bill are, shall we say, not in keeping with the guidelines handed down to us from on high. Both operas, however, are about the utter destructiveness of sin. So hey!

    But where we draw our lines matters to us as artists personally, regardless of where the audience is coming from or going to. If we care for our own souls, isn’t that the best we can hope for in caring for others’?

    (Incidentally, the blood that will be spurting out of his chest is made from Karo syrup, coffee, chocolate, and food coloring.)

  12. Darlene says:

    Hey, Jonathan, I imagine no one but you will see this, since this discussion is already old news. But I came by to the blog for a visit today (after having neglected it for months) and found the discussions as interesting as anything I see on the net. Just wanted to say THANK YOU for all the work and time you put into this. It is a good thing, what you’re doing. Thanks.

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