There was one other Mormon girl in my grade at my high school. We were actually really close friends, but the way we publicly approached our membership in the Church was very different. My friend was the type who asked others not to swear in front of her, gave copies of the Book of Mormon to some of our teachers, and complained when we had to read The Grapes of Wrath in our junior-year English class. I think she objected to the general coarseness of the novel, and particularly to the final scene that involves a woman breastfeeding a man. I, on the other hand, kept silent and mostly thought that I didn’t like The Grapes of Wrath as much as I liked East of Eden. Both of us were widely-read, fairly intelligent young women and were both active members of the Church, but our standards for literature differed significantly.
I was reminded of this incident recently both by the perceptive Enid cartoon and by Eric’s recent post about a review of Love Letters of the Angels of Death in the Deseret News. While I am bothered by the vast gulf between my feelings about the book and that of the reviewer, I also see this as an opportunity to examine why this book review has created such a strong negative reaction among many people I know. It is impossible to write a book review without bringing some personal baggage to the enterprise. Ideally the reviewer would keep critiques specific and focused on the book itself, avoid making sweeping generalizations about the author’s intentions, and consider what factors her audience would find most important in judging a book. I know that this doesn’t always happen, and I’m certainly not the best book reviewer that I know, but I can see that this book review has made two key blunders: judging the quality of the book based on the reviewer’s gut reaction to it and judging the character of the author based on the reviewer’s opinion of the book.
Based on her reasons for rejecting the book, the reviewer seems to have particular ideas about both style and content. This book is told from an unconventional point of view, with a non-linear narrative, and has some content that is more macabre than most novels published by Covenant and Deseret Book. The title of the review notes that the book is not a “comforting or comfortable read”. This seems to imply that the reviewer places comfort as one of her prime qualities for judging a book. I understand this impulse—life can be confusing, ugly, difficult, and painful at times. Many of us, myself included, seek out books (and art and movies) that provide visions of life that is orderly and pleasant, where conflict is manageable, people are good, and endings are always happy. There is nothing wrong with reading books like that. There is, however, nothing wrong with reading books that see the world in a different way. Sometimes we want to be reminded that others have experienced a life that seems to have meaningless pain like ours, and sometimes readers need to be reminded that life is not comfortable or easy. Books like The Grapes of Wrath were not mean to be “comfortable”, and while I’m not comparing Jennifer Quist to Steinbeck (though she is quite good) and I don’t know her intentions, I’m not sure that “comfortable” was her goal in writing her book either. A more helpful review would look at what the author could possibly have meant in creating a book from a particular point of view or from choosing particular vocabulary. Another way to create a strong review would be for the reviewer to look at her own initial reactions and question them. What is the book doing that makes her feel that way? From one point of view you could say the book is a ‘success’ since it created such a strong reaction in a reader, but specifics about how the particular book does that would be more helpful in a review than vague assertions that it is “not for those looking for a pleasant read.”
The second problem with the review, a questioning of the author’s orthodoxy as a Mormon (which has, thankfully, been removed), makes me wonder if another part of the problem is the reviewer’s expectations of Mormon literature. I would like to know which authors she prefers and usually reads. She obviously knew the author of the book is LDS, and seems to have been expecting the book to address Mormon ideas and culture in a more explicit and straightforward way than it does. Would the review have been different if the book were not being looked at in the context of the Whitney Awards? The issue of authorial intent is a perennial problem that crops up all over the place. I’ve seen friends accused of promoting immorality based on what they have written and authors who are assumed to be homosexual or atheist based on their depiction of characters that are. Unfortunately, LDS authors often seem to get judged more harshly by their fellow church members than non-member authors. I think we all get threatened when our particular version of Mormonism is not shared by others. In my family while I was growing us, seeking learning from the “best books” included reading works by John Steinbeck, Thomas Hardy, and Ernest Hemingway. For my friend and her family, youth (and maybe adults), should generally avoid reading books like that because they contain sex, violence, and a generally pessimistic world view. I still think this point of view is a little wrong, but I don’t think they are bad Mormons. I think there is a place in the church for both of us and neither of us should assume anything about the other’s membership status.
While I still disagree, fairly strongly, with the review of Love Letters of the Angels of Death published in The Deseret News, I also see it as an opportunity to examine why I liked the book and responded to it so positively. It gives me a chance to examine how I write reviews and to wonder whether I am falling into some of the same pitfalls that this reviewer did. Hopefully in the future we can find book reviews that give better reasons for judging a book besides the fact that it makes us uncomfortable. When it comes to books, I’m going to keep hanging out with Enid.