SF&F Corner: Direct Address: Writing of Faith

Since this will be the last new blog post before the fact I wanted to remind everyone that the annual AML Conference is this Saturday, February 27 in the library at Utah Valley University. It’s a great opportunity to meet people, hear fascinating presentations, and share interesting conversation. If you can make it, I highly recommend the event. Registration starts at 8:00, so get there early.

On to the post proper.

Despite its reputation for hostility toward organized religion, science fiction has a storied history of directly addressing issues of ethics, philosophy, spirituality, and transcendent experience. As often as not the harsh treatment of institutions of religion is designed to point out that meaningful experience comes from the inside out, not by being pushed down from a homogenized organization. We discover who we are and what we believe (or at least who we want to be and what we hope is true) by personal exploration, not prepackaged dogmas.

Sf is just as hard on corporations and government institutions—and for largely similar reasons.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about science fiction’s attempt to debunk religion is how close so many of its writers come to describing things that I consider gospel truth. In the very act of describing how religion gets it wrong, they end up offering some compelling dramatizations of very Mormon doctrines.

Arthur C. Clark was probably the most generally recognized with 2001 A Space Odyssey wherein he describes God as nothing more than a super-evolved man—a startlingly Mormon claim. Of course we differ radically in the details. God is more than just a biologically or technologically advanced man; he is more importantly, a morally advanced man. Simple evolution or Humanism are shallow reflections of eternal progression in much the same way that communism is a hollow fake of communitarian united orders.

Which is why it’s a shame that Mormon authors cede so much of the direct interrogation of the core questions of religion to writers who don’t really understand what the real thing looks like from the inside, and in the process let them define the terms and concepts—most often, shallowly. We allow relatively simplistic and self-congratulatory deconstructions of institutional religion with nary a counter argument about the very powerful and intimate experiences of real personal faith.

I believe we have a responsibility to directly address issues of personal faith and spirituality in our art. If we have truly experienced plain and precious things we ought to be more active in sharing them. Not pearls before swine, but comforting those in need of comfort; not standing atop our Rameumptoms and pointing mocking fingers, but meeting people on their own terms and using accessible metaphors.

I understand the injunction against propaganda, but that’s not what I’m advocating. I think Mormons shy away far too much from direct engagement with issues of personal spirituality and what that means for us as we deal with the struggles of daily life. I’m talking about intimate understanding, not institutional attacks or defenses. I happen to like science fiction because it allows the kind of cognitive distance that facilitates direct engagement with the core questions precisely by dint of separation in time, space, or culture from the here and now. Sf readers not only tolerate the strange, they actively seek the exotic and unusual precisely in order to expand their own range of view.

As Dr. Michael Collings (or perhaps it was our own Lee Allred speaking of Dr. Collings) suggested at the recent symposium on science fiction and fantasy at BYU, the fantastic genres are collectively a literature of hope—fantasy shows us that the transcendent is possible, science fiction offers practical methods for making hope real, and horror shows us what happens when hope fails.

While sf can make such exploration easier, the fact is that every genre seeks to explore the exotic as a means of understanding the mundane. Historicals abstract us in time and place (and often culture). Mystery takes us places we can’t go and puts us in company of people most of us can’t know, then asks us to discovery fact (if not truth) by direct mental investigation.

Thoughts on a couple of sf novels that garnered wide praise and acceptance in the mid-1990s—

Towing Jehovah by James Morrow: For me one of the most engaging presentations of tantalizingly close-but-no-cigar criticism of institutional behavior comes from James Morrow’s wonderfully absurd novel Towing Jehovah. God has died and his two mile long corpse has fallen into the North Atlantic. The Catholics are scandalized because 1) god is dead, 2) he has a body, and 3) he is most decidedly male. On the other end of the spectrum the atheists are scandalized because it turns out there was a god after all and the proof is floating in the ocean for all to see. Both sides have the same goal—hide (or destroy) the evidence before anyone notices so they can protect their social, political, and economic empires from the deeply inconvenient truth of the reality of god. Between those extremes are many others with varying degrees of horror, mania, and pragmatic opportunism looking to interfere with the Vatican’s efforts to use an oil tanker to tow the body to an Arctic ice cave out of sight and mind of the public.

On the one hand I have to giggle—a corporeal and distinctly male god causes me no heartburn (though a dead one is a bit of a problem), and I love seeing ministers of corrupt philosophies scrambling to protect their disproven assumptions despite the undeniable evidence. On the other hand, the criticisms are a tad too glib and the caricatures a bit too smug for comfort. He gets so much right—but for entirely wrong reasons. Unfortunately, the sequels to Towing Jehovah turn this fun, initial frolic at everyone’s expense into a more pedestrian (though exceptionally clever and pithy) anti-religious rant by an atheist for other atheists that boils down to “I don’t believe in god, and besides it’s all his fault.”

A Mormon couldn’t have written (or at least published) that particular book, but it is a shame that one of the more entertaining deconstructions of popular notions of deity came from the pen of a proud atheist. Do we steer clear of it out of a sense of propriety? Are we afraid to engage the question in public? Don’t we have something good to add to that conversation?

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: A more difficult novel for me was Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. It’s a well written and extremely well-told science fiction novel set fifty years in the future where a team of eight Jesuits mount an expedition to a distant inhabited planet when the governments of Earth don’t have the political will to do it through traditional channels. The story is told from the point of view of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who is deeply committed to both his religion and his god, and who sees the opportunity to be the first to visit another inhabited planet as evidence of both god’s works and his glory.

The plot revolves around the disastrous aftermath of the failed expedition. When government representatives of Earth finally arrive on the planet Rahkat several years later, they find Sandoz in a brothel and witness his violent murder of a local child she opens the door to his room. He is both physically and emotionally damaged and offers no explanations for his circumstances or actions. The story is told as interweaving threads as his Jesuit order tries to get him to explain his ordeal alternating with flashbacks that provide the detailed back story. The threads come together when we see what actually happened as Sandoz faces a Vatican inquest—essentially an ecclesiastical trial where he must explain and justify the reports offered by the authorities.

The Sparrow is essentially a story of Emilio Sandoz’s trial of faith and his attempt to find a context for understanding and accepting the atrocities he sees and experiences on Rahkat—trials that end with his serial rape by beast aliens who then immortalize their experience in extraordinarily beautiful songs broadcast to the public. Though he had an intellectual understanding of the tortures and depravities his forbears in the order experienced in the name of pursing the greater glory of god, that knowledge proves insufficient when the experience becomes personal. He feels abandoned by his friends, his order, and his god.

This novel broke my heart because it came so very close to a deeply powerful reconciliation of ugly events with the idea of a loving god. In fact, though Emilio struggles to find any kind of peace or acceptance that God would allow these things to happen to him, he actually does find at least a moment of separation and retains his desire for hope even when he can’t find evidence of its reality. That hope is reflected as a quieting of his rage and a calmness toward his accusers, and the novel ends with his feelings left ambiguous.

Unfortunately, the only ideas given actual voice by the characters over the last thirty pages are the hopeless ones. On finally describing the facts of his rape, one of his accusers whispers “My God,” and Emilio replies:

Do you think so, John? Was it your God? You see, that is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself…The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious then at least I have the solace of hating God.”

This basic refrain repeats several more times with the culmination that the only answer is that God “…observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.” The image that the sparrow still falls even if God does note it ends the scene.

The fundamental choices offered are either that he is absent, vicious, or disinterested. The best the novel can manage is that God exists, but is so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to intervene. At first I was angry at Russell because she didn’t seem to understand the mind of faith. I felt cheated and betrayed that she found no hope in God.

As I’ve thought about it a little more, I think it’s more likely that she offered the most compassionate answer she could based on the cosmology she understood. As a Mormon, I believe that Man exists not solely to sing praises to God but to become his heirs—a learning process that requires a trial that we must face alone in order to decide for ourselves who we want to become.

So while the effect is the same—that God rarely rescues us from ugly experience—the difference is context. At the moment of crisis there may be little comfort in the idea that I signed up for this test, but that fact at least offers a thread of hope that this, too, will be for my good. A Mormon could have brought that context to the last thirty pages of The Sparrow and saved it from the essentially hopeless conclusions it drew.

Literature can tolerate direct engagements with questions of religion and individual response to the trials of human existence. As Mormons we have something plain, precious, and powerful to add to that discussion—not as ministers of the institution, but as fellow travelers sharing personal understanding with those who seek. We should not be afraid to engage the questions and offer insights that only we can bring.

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20 Responses to SF&F Corner: Direct Address: Writing of Faith

  1. Lee Allred says:

    "I believe we have a responsibility to directly address issues of personal faith and spirituality in our art."

    I’m not sure I agree with that, any more than I would agree that it’s the responsibility of a Mormon plumber to directly address issues of personal faith in unclogging a drain. Or, to borrow a line from the movie, MICHAEL — "It’s not my area."

    My job as a writer really boils down to two duties: 1) tell the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them; 2) tell the professionally-written stories that editors want to buy and their audiences want in the way the editors and audience want them told. One’s Art, one’s Craft. (Sometimes, with a lot of work, effort, and luck and pluck, you get both Art and Craft in the same story.)

    I can’t speak for other writers, but artificially replicating the promptings of the Holy Ghost in a work of fiction or proselytizing for the Church is … well, it’s not my area.

    Later though, in the same paragraph you write doing the above by "meeting people on their own terms and using accessible metaphors." That’s something I totally agree with (and practice — those are stories I do want to tell), but it’s frankly the diametrical opposite of your previously mentioned "direct/personal" approach.

    In which case, again, I’m not sure I then agree with your other point that Mormons are ceding the spirituality discussion and shying away if we include the metaphorical approach.

    Card doesn’t shy away from frank discussions via metaphor in the Alvin Maker series. Nor does Wolverton in THE RUNE LORDS nor Zenna Henderson (in her own way) nor, I feel, do I.

    But then, again, it depends if one means "frank" or "direct."

    In my case, I don’t think I have a prose piece in my body of work that doesn’t take as a given that the transcendent to be as much a part of the physical world as the oxygen we breathe. Even that is a major accomplishment in an audience that rejects even a vague non-threatening, non-demanding New Age transcendence.

    Scott, a couple weeks ago, you sat in on a reading of my "Hymnal" story (reprinted in DISPENTSATION), which is as direct and personal as I’ve ever gotten in a published national market story. The main characters (the married couple) are Mormons although that’s never stated. Half the story takes place in a Mormon chapel (the second-hand Mormon chapel of my childhood, in fact, on the south corner of Lane and Main in Roseburg, Oregon — it’s now a catering chapel).

    http://www.jasminescatering.com/gallery/our-building/ (for the curious)

    The story is a stylized science-fictionalizaton of 19th Century Mormon cosmology with everything from True Names to inanimate objects having souls to the Hosanna Shout. The characters quote from the D&C and sing the lyrics of "The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning." The atheists give up while the Mormon couple keeps going because of their Mormonness and their temple marriage. Mormonism wins, atheism loses. Religion saves the universe.

    A "frank" direct recitation of all of that, however, would completely alienate a national market sf audience.

    in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was striking out preaching to the Athenians via the direct and personal until he wandered up Mars Hill and happened to come across the pedestal honoring "The Unknown God." He then told them, "Hey, I know who the Unknown is. Let me tell you about him…" and he was off and running using their own myths & tropes.

    I mentioned at LTUE that "Hymnal" is kind of a companion piece to my paper on Michael Collings’ poetry (at AML tomorrow), dealing with many of the same themes in prose form, particularly what I call the Singularity of Einstein (godhood via pure science) verses the Singuarly of Lorenzo Snow’s couplet ("As God is, Man may become").

    "Hymnal" uses the trope of ‘Godhood’ via scientific Singularity. It uses the trope of "God does not exist" — the omniscience, omnipotent characters know — they’ve searched every nook and cranny of the universe and He’s simply not there. It discusses morality and humanity through snippets of Tennyson, not scripture (aside from a fabulist-reading of Job). The characters attempt to save the universe in the traditional John Campbell libertarian sf tradition of rugged self-reliance, hard work, and science (admittedly made-up post-Singularity science in this case). All the comfort-food tropes of national market sf.

    And the characters fail.

    It takes the transcendent to finally save them all … but it’s a transcendence that logically flows Campbellian-like from their efforts and puzzle-solving.

    Did it work for national market readers using their tropes? Here’s one review:

    "At the end of time only a few humans survive. Powerful beyond our reckoning, with an innate understanding of the workings of the universe, will they be able to reverse the irreversible? Does the solution lie in science or in something more? I like the way Mr. Allred weaves all these questions (and more) together. The result is a fine, high quality, multi-layered story." (SFReader.com)

    The essence of the story via standard sf tropes is all there. The reviewer then mentions that he didn’t at time he didn’t get what was happening and put this down to his quote/unquote "shortcomings" as a reader. I contend that this was the Mormon stuff of the story he had no reference for, particularly the Mormon ending.

    Saving the universe in the story takes a Snowian Singularity, not an Einsteinian one — or to use your very well put phrase, "more than just a biologically or technologically advanced man … a morally advanced man."

    The denouement occurs between pg. 381 "How could doubt … open doors?" and pg. 382 "Sam set down his hymnal." Between those points, the character figures out what to do. I follow the character’s thought process from the rational to the transcendant. It’s not Campbellian — it’s the Mormon process of personal revelation. Seek to know, and learn, and prove…and then follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

    Because, contrary to what tropes I used, regardless of what the characters said, God does exist in the story. He’s been there listening all the time and tells the main character, via the promptings of the Spirit, what to do. To a Mormon reader, what happens is patently obvious.

    But that’s where the story fell apart for other readers, not because they’re not smart, but because they simply lack a common frame of reference (to tie in your previous column about color-blindness). Even discounting ill will and militant anti- biases, a direct discussion of the kind you’re asking for without a common frame of reference is, I think, impossible.

    You’re right that a Mormon author could have saved the last thirty pages of The Sparrow from itself (we’ve had this discussion many times right after the book came out), but then again I’m not sure a Mormon would have written the previous 378 pages, either. Certainly not gotten it published.

    There’s been a recent re-discussion of the Mormon "Radical Middle," but the simple fact is, to Gentiles, even the most watered-down milquetoast Mormonism is too radical for commonality. I touched on this in my paper on Harry Turtledove and the Mormon "Other," but even to an audience who reads a genre entirely about alienness, we’re just too doggone alien for sf readers. They simply aren’t ready — nor, frankly are we — for the kind of direct Mormon ethos literary discussion you’re asking for. Not yet.

    We’re at the ALVIN MAKER stage, the RUNELORDS stage, the "Hymnal" stage. I don’t know when, if ever, we’ll be at the Mormon SPARROW stage.

    – Lee

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    To me direct engagement with an idea and literalism are very different things.

    I am not calling for the trivial trappings of religion, for explicitly Mormon settings, for prayers or promptings or revelations. I’m not asking for religion to be literally presented in any way. To me that’s just packaging and has nothing to do with directly engaging the underlying issue. As you suggest, that’s craft.

    Perhaps I was too ambitious in using two stories that explicitly addresses questions of religion. My intent was to show that religion itself need not be a scary thing and stories with explicit religion (not unlike Card’s [i]Speaker for the Dead[/i]) can succeed despite the common wisdom that religion itself is anathema. My example overtook my intent in this case. I’m not asking for religion in story.

    What I’m asking for is that a few more of us choose to go at core existential issues (using whatever trappings, tropes, settings, characters, or other conventions our chosen genres or target audiences demand) and not shy away from presenting the uniquely Mormon [i]understandings[/i] we have in approaching those questions.

    You offer Card, Farland, and your own stories as examples of being deeply informed by Mormon thought yet (generally) steering clear of the literal elements of Mormon religion or culture. I can only applaud and agree that these authors represent precisely what I’m calling for more of–direct address of difficult existential questions that use the unique understanding our particular religion gives us to inform how characters respond.

    I would add Sanderson to that list, thought I would specifically exclude Meyer. Brandon Sanderson presents powerfully Mormon-resonant social and philosophical constructs in the trappings and metaphor of epic fantasy–and not a single literal element of Mormon religion in sight.

    One of the reasons I’m a fan of your work is that I think you do it right–not because you cleverly mask a Mormon revival meeting, but because you directly address some very Mormon philosophical constructs, including an evolved human as a functional god of a new universe created in hope, not by accident or in despair.

    That’s good stuff. Frankly, you could have removed all resonance to the physical trappings of Mormonism and the story would have been no less informed by it. That deeply spiritual approach to story is what drew me to your fiction many years ago, and it’s precisely why I’ve worked to help you publish in whatever small ways I could over the years. I think you’re a prime example of exactly what I’m asking for.

    That’s why I used [i]The Sparrow[/i] as an example. It grapples with a core existential question: How can a loving god permit horrible things to happen to good and worthy people? Mary Doria Russell offered the most compassionate answer she could imagine, and it left me flat; I think a good Mormon author could have offered an even more compelling answer–using exactly the same situations, settings, characters, trappings, etc.–with just a tiny bit of tinkering in those last thirty pages. You would never have written that novel, but I think you could have edited those last thirty pages to make them even more powerful than they were.

    My frustration is that Mormons seem to generally avoid those kinds of existential questions in their stories. Use whatever settings, genres, or tropes you want–but directly engage the difficult questions.

    I think precious few of us do that. We seem to be afraid of being accused of proselyting, so we avoid the questions altogether. And I think that’s a shame, because I think we have something vital to offer in the larger literary discussion.

    Not everyone. Not every story. But more often than we do, and with more malice of forethought in the effort. Not Mormon literalism, but Mormon understanding of existential questions woven in just a bit more often than we do.

    Some argue that to be Mormon means that our works are automatically infused with that, but I’ve heard too many arguments against intent in fiction in this and other forums to accept that. I see Mormons working very hard to explicitly remove any identifiably Mormon thought from stories intended for general publication.

    You mention Card, Farland, and yourself as example. I argue that you are the exceptions, not the rule. I also note that Card, Farland, and Sanderson are very popular authors–at least partially because they go directly at those difficult existential questions. Part of their unique appeal is that they intentionally and directly embrace their own religious/philosophical/ethical viewpoints to create the exotic resonances that appeal to their readers.

    With stunningly few exceptions I find stories that embrace literal elements of Mormonism to be trivial. I want the meat beneath, not a Mormon-colored coat of paint over a framework of stale ideas and dead men’s bones. I think that has to come by explicit choice and effort, not merely as a passive or subconscious by-product.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    One comment on the Mormon plumber…

    The plumber does not attempt to reveal, explore, or explicate interesting ideas or human experience as a function of his profession, and as such has no responsibility to that exploration.

    If the argument is that storytellers are merely technicians of sentence construction and not thoughtful explorers of ideas or experience, then I can accept the analogy that authors have no more responsibility to truth as they understand it than plumbers do–quality construction is all that matters.

    But I believe that storytellers pretend to far more than simple constructionism, and with that pretense comes some responsibility for the ideas they choose to address–and the questions they choose to avoid.

    Suggesting individual responsibility is not quite the same thing as demanding performance as a moral duty. I think most of us see it as a shame when a talented (or at least capable) person walks away from their gift for reasons that we don’t understand. We feel at least a little sad at the potential performances left unrealized, and sometimes we even feel a little cheated at the lost chance to appreciate that gift.

    I feel the same way about Mormons choosing to leave explorations of existential questions to others. I believe we have a responsibility by dint of our own experience and the greater light we have been given access to. Not by constraint or commandment, but as a word of wisdom for those with lips to speak for the benefit of those with ears to hear.

  4. Lee Allred says:

    Thanks for the clarifications, Scott. Your actual points are there in the original article, but my first read was a bit hasty (I’d been rasslin’ my final draft of my AML paper all day), and where there were two ways of reading into what you wrote, looks like I took the wrong fork. :)

    Quick follow-up comments before I head out to AML conference this morning:

    1) I dashed off the names of Scott Card and Dave Wolverton/Farland as obvious and well-known choices in the sf genre for the type of fiction you’re calling for. I could have added others — Russ Asplund, Ginny Baker, yourself, Shayne, Scott Bronson. Actually, the more I thought about it, the more difficult I found it to name folks who don’t. It may well be that I’m thinking of a different subset of Mormon writers than you are, and I’m not up on the current crop of sf/fantasy novelists as you are.

    2) I used myself as an example really only because a) the story, ‘Hymnal’ is readily available to AML blog readers in DISPENSTATION and they can follow along at home; b) I could specifically and directly address my thought process, concerns while writing the story, and method of attack in writing it.

    Constraints: the anthology was theme-based — stories set at in the far, far, far, far, far future. Bruce Holland Rogers, a very literate and stylistic writer, was the editor. I had basically two days to write the story before I had to head off to a deployment in Saudia Arabia.

    The initial kernals of the story — ideas I’d been kicking around to write a story around — the (I think) entropy-defying power of music and Tennyson’s "we are not that which in old days" snippet got shoehorned into a prevent the final heat death of the universe story.

    The Mormon reference points to the story, well, it’d be impossible for me to tell a far, far, far, far future story outside the frame of Mormon cosmology. The problem with bringing in specific Mormonism into a story, however, were what I wrote earlier. The specific but unlableed Mormon elements weren’t there as some sort of sneaky trick on the readers, but as the proving me the means of writing the story I wanted to tell within the constraints I was working under. You’re correct that they aren’t neccessary for the reader, but they were very neccessary for me the writer.

    3) On the plumber thing and the duty of a Mormon writer. I think this is the one area we actually disagree in. I don’t see the writer as that much apart from the plumber. The Mormon plumber’s job is to give an honest day’s work, to give full value to their customer. The same for a writer. He needs to be honest to his readers (and himself) and give full value to his readers. The talents excercised by plumber and writer are different, but in the end, like everyone else, we’ll be judged on the way we excericised what we had.

    It’s true that the writer has an unique opportunity of influencing hearts and minds that a plumber doesn’t have, but I don’t think it neccessarily follows that means a special duty to write a certain kind of fiction. There is a room and need for all kinds of ficition ("of good report"), and what fiction influences one reader might not another. Miltons and Shakespeares of our own, yes, but for heaven’s sake let’s have some P.G. Wodehouses and Alistair MacLeans. :)

    I enjoy and write "deep stuff", but I’ve written some purely brainless fun fluff and feel that’s part of my job, too.

    I’m reading the new editions of the David Drake COMPLETE HAMMER’S SLAMMERS anthology series. Drake includes little essays about how he came back from Vietnam and started writing this series that nobody wanted to buy about things nobody wanted to read. He was selling his other stuff, but the Slammers stories based on his ‘Nam experiences in tanks was going nowhere. But he kept at it, even taking the step of quitting his day job (as a lawyer no less) to keep writing them. Eventually he got a break (only because an editor needed to fill a hole in a magazine and his stories were of professional level and could be plugged into the whole — the craft thing I wrote about earlier). They’ve been in print twenty years and allowed him to support his family financially.

    Drake writes that that’s not the only way to work in the business, but:

    [i]"But I’m saying one thing more: I believed in the truth of the vision I protrayed in the Hammer series. I followed that vision of truth to the exclusion of all other considerations in writing the stories.

    "And I don’t believe any writer can have real success unless he follows his own truth."[/i]

    Folks like Card and Dave and me believe in the type of fiction we write, the kind you’re asking for, but that’s not neccissarily the case of the other writers who write other stuff, and at the end of the day, I think it’d be a mistake to ask them to write what they don’t fully have their heart in.

    It’s a fun discussion, though, both the parts where we agree and disagree, and something I’m very glad to see the AML blog address.

    Thanks, Scott! :)

    – Lee

  5. Th. says:

    .

    Off topic, but you really need a better spam filter. What are you using now?>

  6. Scott Parkin says:

    With respect to the plumber, I still argue that the fundamental difference is that writers choose their subjects.

    Yes, writers operate within a specific context of a market and often write individual pieces to spec. Yes, if one wants to succeed one must first engage, then entertain, and only lastly inform. But they still choose what to write about and using what convention.

    (Or at least fiction writers do. I publish nonfiction work in the technical trade press on a regular basis with the initial intent of informing. What’s made me relatively popular is that I also work very hard to engage/entertain at the same time.)

    Which is really my primary point there. Because we can choose–because we [i]must[/i] choose or no work gets done–we inherit a responsibility for that choice.

    I’m not asking anyone to write something they don’t have their heart in. Quite the opposite, I’m asking people to [i]choose[/i] to engage the other parts of their heart in their work. To connect the dots, as it were. To tear down that wall.

    I guess I just don’t see those as exclusives. The fact of market pressures and the pragmatic business of writing sellable fiction does not exclude the idea of choosing what we write and how we engage the issues. We already make the choice; I just want to encourage Mormon writers to intentionally engage those questions in context of their Mormonness as well as their authorness. Allow the influence rather than cede control.

    As I suggested earlier in the thread:

    [quote]Not everyone. Not every story. But more often than we do, and with more malice of forethought in the effort. Not Mormon literalism, but Mormon understanding of existential questions woven in just a bit more often than we do.[/quote]

  7. I agree that a Mormon perspective has much to offer both to considerations of the "big" questions and also to depictions specifically of religious experience. I’m not sure, though, that anyone is "choosing" not to address LDS themes. Yes, there are writers who go through their works weeding out the Mormon details, but as you pointed out, that doesn’t prevent them from connecting on a deeper thematic level. And I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone editing his/her story to make it less Mormon thematically.

    One of the keys to writing good stories is engaging important issues — issues that are important first to the writer, and then (through the writer’s craft and the reader’s identification) with the reader. I can’t help but think that working to improve one’s craft and capability as a writer will generally move one in the direction of learning to write more meaningful stories over time — and hence more Mormon stories, if one is a Mormon author.

    So while I hope for the same thing you hope for, Scott, I’m not sure there’s a finger of blame to point toward those who are currently practicing Mormon writers. Maybe there’s a finger toward those of us who could be writing, but aren’t — because we quail at the thought of the labor and self-exposure involved. Maybe, in a way, what you’re writing is (for example) an answer to the question I posed you in a private email — what real value is there in me going on to write "just another" fantasy novel? One possible answer — if one combines your call for Mormon perspectives with my sense that attempting simply to tell meaningful stories will automatically yield Mormon perspectives, if you’re a Mormon writer — is that being a Mormon storyteller is another way of witnessing for our faith and even sharing gospel truth on a human level, even if we *don’t* tackle the explicitly Mormon. This is the case, even if the "gospel truth" we’re sharing is something that appears on the surface to be entirely non-Mormon — like the importance of compassion.

  8. Scott Parkin says:

    I’m not pointing fingers of blame. I’m not invoking moral duty. I’m not trying to guilt, or force, or browbeat, or chastise, or excoriate, or even hint or suggest that authors force anything into their stories that they don’t want to put there.

    I *am* attempting to encourage, to suggest, to advocate–even to cheerlead–that Mormon writers actively consider how their Mormonness affects the way they approach and understand basic issues, and that they intentionally consider whether that uniqueness can have intended and structured place in the kinds of stories they want to write.

    I suppose I am asking people to consider expanding their artistic vision to intentionally consider uniquely Mormon thought as a worthy part of the toolbox.

    If the answer is no, then that’s fine; it was only a suggestion. But I still advocate (suggest, encourage, recommend) for making an explicit decision about the ways we *consider* approaching a story. To me it’s no different than considering time, place, setting, genre, voice, tone, or any other core element of writing.

    You suggest that Mormons automatically write deeply Mormon fiction, and in that I simply disagree. Most people don’t write anything deeply unless they put at least a little bit of explicit thought into what, how, and to what degree they will approach that element. Accidental inclusion is wonderful; I think intended inclusion might be worth considering, too, as an element of art and/or craft.

    Do whatever you think is best. I’m just asking people to consider a possibility. I don’t think that’s accusatory, uncharitable, or lacks compassion, and I won’t apologize for making the suggestion.

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote]I suppose I am asking people to consider expanding their artistic vision to intentionally consider uniquely Mormon thought as a worthy part of the toolbox.[/quote]

    Actually, that’s what I’m doing, only I’m not doing it for a Mormon audience. I’m doing it for a national audience who, so far, likes it. But I’m a microscopic name with a microscopic press. I value each reader who comes to me.

    My book [i]Magdalene[/i] (http://snurl.com/os99e book 3 in my series) is being beta read by two published authors. One is a Jew and one a lapsed Catholic, both of whom came to me as readers/fans first, and then colleagues/critique partners. Both of them have told me that it’s their favorite of the three so far (and it’s just in [very] rough draft stage). I lay it all out there–who we are, our meetings, our vocabulary, (some of) our doctrine, garments, the laying on of hands. I poke fun at the world’s perception of polygamy and have, in passing at least, shown us to be very NOT hostile to homosexuality.

    We are NEVER going to make the kind of progress we SEEM to want with regard to how the world views us by keeping it all wrapped up in secret code for SF/F readers.

    What’s going to happen (what’s already happening) is that outsiders who have little if any insider’s knowledge at all will define us to the world, and then the world will take that as its benchmark. We seem to be so shellshocked from the persecutions we’ve suffered and the ridicule we still suffer (at least in my neck of the woods) that we’re afraid to go out there and say, "This is who we are–oh lookie, human, just like you. We bleed and suffer and have issues and hurt and make bad decisions and have differing opinions from our tribe and think and read and enjoy life–just like you. We have a faith–maybe you do, too. We struggle with it–just like you."

    My goal is and always has been to demystify us and our culture and our vernacular, to un-insulate us, to put us out there in modern, contemporary terms–to humanize us to a world that thinks of us as freaks or puritanical or both, to do it in a contemporary time frame, without using SF/F or some other thick cloaking device to get some–what?–point across. ARE we trying to get some point across?

    I don’t want to preach. I want to present a lifestyle and belief system that is overall willfully misunderstood, in a manner that’s understandable, in a context readers are familiar with–because it’s real life.

    Now, members may not like what I write (most won’t make it past the first page), but I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for me, for stories I won’t ever see in either LDS fiction or genre fiction, toward a specific goal, and which goal I KNOW I am attaining.

    Last night, another Jewish friend of mine asked me if I’d ever read anything like what I write. I said no. She said, "I’ve wanted to write something like what you write, with Jewish characters, but never had the courage. Now I do. You’ve started a whole new genre."

    Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. I had stories and I couldn’t write without my Mormonness (or at least, Christianity) inserting itself. Basically I decided to stop trying to mitigate the Mormonness/Christianity and make my characters explicitly Mormon and not obliquely…something unrecognizable to anybody.

  10. Th. says:

    .

    I myself am not impressed by the argument that Outsiders Cannot Understand Us. Ridiculous. We are not more than human. And don’t we <i>want</i> to be understood? Aren’t we compelled to? Commanded to?

    Granted, being misunderstood will be common. But I have a hard time understanding why that should bother us. We can’t be much more misunderstood than we already are. Ultimately, fiction put out nationally can only be a net gain.

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    Th., where is that post where you had read a book that had its Mormon characters having coffee after going to the temple?

  12. Scott Parkin says:

    I’m not sure anyone here has argued that outsiders can’t understand us. Rather, I think the suggestion is that outsiders aren’t generally interested in trying, and in some markets–such as national market sf–the attempt to explain is an immediate and direct repellent.

    I think that’s both fair from the reader’s standpoint, and a general truism from a market standpoint. Readers looking for imaginative speculation don’t want a tract; their interest in religion is usually to see how the practice of that religion leads to trouble, reveals a character’s tragic flaw, or motivates people to conflict. The larger the market, the less religion is offered as an answer rather than a problem. It’s easier to leave religion out and avoid the knee-jerk.

    In general, readers have been leery of stories structured to offer religion as a solution. In fiction they’re not generally interested in being convinced that a particular creed offers a better answer, and tend to reject a story quickly when that argument is made–if they want to be converted, they look to non-fiction.

    I think they are interested in a character’s thoughts and motivations, and to the extent that their faith plays an active role in their motivation, then the tenets of religion become interesting. Likewise, to the extent that the practice of their religion leads characters to story conflict it’s all part of the game.

    Having said that, I think there is a market for direct, literal explorations of questions of religion and its practice for its own sake, but I believe that market is fairly small, and tends not to be a market where you can make a living from writing those kinds of stories.

    That’s a hard choice Mormon writers have to make. Direct, literal exploration of Mormon religious practice tends to limit a story’s broad market appeal–a suggestion born out by national market sales figures.

    That’s one of the decisions a writer has to make, and I won’t criticize any author for choosing to write in a particular genre or form, nor for a particular market segment. Honoring the conventions of an established genre is how you get repeat readers (aka, fans) in a broad market. That’s fact of the business of writing.

    But I absolutely agree that both explicit and subtle Mormon elements can succeed with non-Mormon readers, and I would like Mormon authors to make the attempt more often. I think our beliefs and the actions they drive can be interesting to a general readership if packaged as characterization rather than thematic argument. I believe we have short-changed ourselves as a people by worrying too much about the institutions and not paying enough attention to the individual and deeply personal (and individually unique) faith of the characters.

    Bold, subtle, overt, veiled, explicit, symbolic…it’s all good, and it depends on the author, genre, market, and individual story how you approach it. Some can’t accept direct address of religious thought in any way; others are quite ready to accept it if we as authors will make the effort to understand our readers and genres and work within the conventions–and constraints–of those genres to meet readers on their own terms.

  13. Moriah Jovan says:

    @Katya, thank you! That’s it precisely.

    @Scott Parkin

    [b]a suggestion born out by national market sales figures. [/b]

    Well, I think there are far too many variables about national market sales figures to be able to say that it shows anything.

    For one, what titles are actually out there at the national level that fill the bill of this topic/thread? If IT (whatever IT is) doesn’t exist, of course, it’s not going to sell.

    For two, if there are any, how widely exposed was it? What was its shelf life? How hard did the publisher push to market it? I really think there are far too many things that go into making a title sell that it can’t be said that people didn’t buy it because they didn’t like it. They probably didn’t know it existed.

    For three, those numbers don’t take into account returns/stripping because once the "it sold 12 gazillion copies!" hits, nobody’s going "but wait, we need to subtract 11.75 gazillion" 3 months later.

    For four, sales numbers are all relative; what might be a bad sales figure for one author would be an excellent one for another.

    For five, publishers lie. A lot.

    I should probably explain that I’m coming to this from a community where good-selling midlist authors get their contracts cut off after 2 books of a 3-book series because they didn’t make it onto the shelf at Wal-Mart. I’m coming to this from a community where most of the authors are in mass market paperback, while book publishing revolves around hardback and trade paperback–and the readers (genre) buy mass market paperback. So something a lot of readers might have picked up if it were in mass market paperback instead of hardback or trade paperback (if they even knew it existed) never got to those people.

    While I think that looking to national sales numbers to give us an idea of what sells or what doesn’t is NATURAL, it’s not, in fact, a good indicator of anything.

    [b]But I absolutely agree that both explicit and subtle Mormon elements can succeed with non-Mormon readers, and I would like Mormon authors to make the attempt more often. I think our beliefs and the actions they drive can be interesting to a general readership if packaged as characterization rather than thematic argument. I believe we have short-changed ourselves as a people by worrying too much about the institutions and not paying enough attention to the individual and deeply personal (and individually unique) faith of the characters.[/b]

    Yes!!! That!!!

    We just don’t know until we try, and I (for one) am not content to wait on the market to tell me what it will and will not accept, particularly when a market for this type of story doesn’t seem (to me) to have been built yet. It takes time, patience, and commitment. (I’m seriously short on the "patience" portion of that.)

  14. Moriah Jovan says:

    Thank you!

    [b]"It felt like when I went to temple with my parents…"[/b]

    Oh, what a difference a left-out "the" makes, no? And that’s just the FIRST (of many) things wrong with it.

    IMO, this is a HUGE example of what can happen if our language/vernacular/syntax, culture, traditions, and lifestyle aren’t put out there on the national stage by someone who knows it and can share it effectively. Because someone else will do it and it will perpetuate.

    But that is something that concerns ME and I am not intending to burden anyone else with what I see as MY mandate. (Of course, I’m also not depending on agents or acquisitions editors, either, so I’ll grant that it’s easy for me to say and then follow through on my own.)

  15. Th. says:

    .

    You crazy rebel you.

    But I also feel it’s my job to move out into the world — as a Mormon.

    The trouble is, spending all my time hangin with my AML buddies is so, so easy.

  16. Scott Parkin says:

    I know the commentary window for this thread is essentially passed, but I wanted to pop in and apologize for being a bit of a troll in the conversation.

    The thing is that I think we are often too judgmental and dismissive of the work being done by other Mormons–and we tend to be a bit too thin-skinned when we feel that our own work is not properly appreciated.

    My goal with this post was not to blame anyone for an insufficiency of vision, moral fortitude, or imagination; it was to cheerlead for doing even more of the good work we are already seeing, doing it more often, and looking for ways to do it for a larger audience.

    No condemnation intended; just encouragement. That’s why I got a bit cranky at the assumption I was calling anyone a deadbeat.

    Moriah, I am curious what your circulation numbers are, if that’s not too personal a question. It seems like we’re seeing more adventurousness in smaller and regional markets, and I’m curious to see 1) the size and 2) the general (non-Mormon) reader-response of those markets.

    I tend to believe that it might actually be easier to address Mormon thought overtly (literal reference) in non-Mormon markets than it is in the FUBU market, and I’m curious what others’ experience has been with that. Basically, an outside-in approach intended first for non-Mormons or for Mormons who don’t look to the LDS market for fiction.

    It feels like that would be a small/niche segment, but if done on a more national scale it also seems like the best chance of enabling a breakout novel that doesn’t carry the baggage of being "sanitized for your protection."

    Thoughts appreciated. I’ll try not to be so defensive to any responses.

  17. Moriah Jovan says:

    Scott, I’m not doing too badly, but it’s slow going for obvious reasons (small press, small visibility). My first book, The Proviso, has distinctive religious (lapsed, struggling, and ex LDS) and political/philosophical overtones of the objectivist variety, and so it’s surprising to me that my biggest fan base is made up of self-styled and unrepentant liberals. For whatever reason (and I’ve been told this), they can’t fathom why they like my imaginary friends. But they do.

    I *suspect* it’s because of the melodramatic (read: soap opera) and longish nature of the book, but don’t hold me to it. I’ll scrounge up some random comments in blogs across genre romance (including mine) if you want. One fan-turned-friend (whose URL I won’t include because it’s filthy) said, "If you can make me fall in love with a bunch of crazy Mormon objectivists, you’re doing something right."

    Considering the people most vocally supportive of my work don’t agree with anything my characters do, say, or think, I figure *something* is striking a chord.

    I can’t nail it down to the copy right at the moment, but The Proviso has sold about 100 paper copies (and considering it’s 736 pages long and around $30 a pop, I’m good with that), and somewhere around 150 ebook copies. Stay hasn’t done as well as I’d hoped, but it’s only been out since December.

    Moving along…

    I give away a sample of my books everywhere they’re posted where I have total control. They’re good-sized samples, so a reader will get a good idea if s/he wants to buy the book or not. In 14 months, The Proviso sample had 1500 downloads (heh, and one review based on the sample because it was so large the reviewer thought it was the whole book). In 3 months, Stay’s excerpt had >400.

    Now, I’m not one for giving away my work *shocker* but I was looking at the sample download numbers versus the purchase numbers and decided to run an experiment to see if I could draw some conclusions on a number of questions I’ve had.

    So for 26-1/2 hours, I gave away both my books (in e-book) on my blog and only on my blog. http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/free-ebooks My final numbers were for The Proviso (book 1), 420 downloads and Stay (book 2), 364 downloads. I didn’t track ISPs or emails or anything, so I can’t say what that distribution was, where it came from. It was a spur-of-the-moment experiment that ran at a bad time of the week for only 24 hours. It propagated on Twitter and was confined mostly to Twitter. (The e-book is $6.49. You do the math.)

    Now, as a result of that experiment, another digital press offered to list my books on All Romance eBooks and Omnilit (a third-party ebook distributor), where I have wanted to be forEVER because I think in a year or two, they’ll be the premiere ebook distributor. I haven’t been able to get on there because self-publishers aren’t allowed, nor are small presses with fewer than 10 titles. B10 Mediaworx only has three, and even then, one is a 72MB PDF.

    I just got a report from the publisher who’s "sponsoring" me, I guess, and between the two, have sold a lot more copies than I was hoping for. I’ve also had requests for my Paypal address so they could pay me, but it was free, so I refused that money.

    I can’t draw a correlation of numbers, though, because while I *think* it was confined mostly to Twitter, I only have <1100 followers. If I assume that 420 people responded to a 24-hour call, they had to either be part of my network or part of a network of people who are in mine and thus, trustworthy for recommendations (i.e., "trust network").

    What I also have behind me, though, is a strong genre romance community, a strong romance writer’s community, and a very visible presence in that community as a self-publisher who’s doing it right.

    During that experiment, I really realized that what I need to do is go after the 1,000 true fans. Not in the Mormon lit community, not in the church, although I have had quite a few readers who are members and at least one whose response to The Proviso really touched me and showed me that even there I might be fulfilling a need.

    Okay, so here’s where I want to plug Th., who edited Stay. He’s excellent. I can’t say that enough. Not only that, but when I started popping up on the MoLit boards, it was Th. who befriended me and caught my vision and encouraged me. So I am deeply in his debt. At every turn, whether he likes what my characters do or not, or how he personally feels about my penchant for description (clothes *squee*), he is there and understands what I’m trying to do.

  18. Th. says:

    .

    Thanks, Moriah. That’s very sweet*. But I wouldn’t have said yes if I didn’t think you were a good writer. (Editing isn’t my "job", so the money wouldn’t have been reason enough.)

    It is true though that I always sin on the side of underdescribing and wish more people would do the same. (I’m looking at you, Victor Hugo. I don’t [i]care[/i] about your bleeding sewers already!)

    *[i]I feel obliged to add that I don’t mean this in the dismissive sense it’s often used in. It is actually the proper word in this case.[/i]

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