The Writer’s Desk: More on Messages and Agendas

I’m admitting upfront that I’m stealing this topic from J. Scott Bronson. His last post was titled, “There’s Always a Message,” and it struck a chord with me.

Back in my early teenage years, my older sister, then an English major, and I got into a friendly discussion/argument about whether a story could exist on its own without an underlying message.

I was firmly in the camp that yes, of course it could. Not everything is a fable or must end with a moral. Not every writer pens a story just to teach a lesson. Puh-leese. My sister disagreed, saying that every story has something to say and teach. At the time, I was too immature to get what she was saying.

Many, many years later, after my first novel came out, this same sister came to me after reading it. She had a bit of an, “I told you so” grin on her face. I had no idea what she was about to say. What came out stunned me.

“Your book has messages and themes and symbols.”

It . . . what?

She complimented me on how well I’d incorporated a particular theme into the narrative, teaching the reader a certain lesson. “Told ya,” she said.

I never did admit that I hadn’t meant to weave any theme or symbol into the book. After she pointed it out, I looked back and thought, “Cool. That’s actually kinda neat.” But I didn’t put it there on purpose. (That was 2002. I have yet to tell her.)

I was cautioned by a writing teacher to never try to write a story with a message, because instead of telling a good story that happens to teach something, the story will end up being a didactic mess. I heeded that advice . . . until I had a topic I really, really felt needed to be out there. I thought that surely I was the exception. I could tell a great story and get the message across.

Not even close: that manuscript is and forever will be gathering dust on my hard drive. It has a couple of good scenes, but as a whole, it’s a preachy hairball. I immediately turned my attempts back to trying to tell a good story first. If a message comes after, great. That’s gravy. But the story must come first, and I won’t force any “message.”

The irony, of course, is that my sister was right: messages always still come through. The trick is that, at least in the drafting phase, the writer can’t intentionally be pulling the strings on it, or the message won’t work.

I believe when writers try too hard to write something with a message, it’ll fall flat on its face. If they instead focus on characters and their problems and how they find solutions, the writer ends up learning right along with them, and THAT becomes the message. Any time I’ve seen a writer deliberately write something with an underlying message, it’s never been good. But if the message grows out of the story . . . wow.

With my last book, I participated in an extensive blog tour and as a result, was interviewed a lot. I was amazed at how many times I was asked about my “message”: “What do you feel is the most important message in the book?” or, “What message do you hope your readers take away from it?” or, “What messages did you put into the book?”

I wanted to cry out, “I didn’t put in any messages!” But I know that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Looking back, I see several themes (and yes, even symbols) in that novel. But they didn’t happen with a deliberate outline on my part. (In chapter nine, I’ll be sure to show such-and-such, which will emphasize this moral . . .”)

I wasn’t sure how to answer those interview questions beyond saying that I didn’t write the book an intent to put any messages in, but here’s what I learned while writing it.

Is it possible to write a story without a message? Perhaps, although I think it unlikely. A writer’s personal belief system, goals, world view, and more will always come through no matter how hard they try to contain them, and with them come messages of some kind.

Should you try to write a story with a message? In my never-quiet opinion, I say (rather loudly) absolutely not. The message/s should develop organically.

Shoving messages down a reader’s throat has been a big criticism about LDS fiction for a long, long time. It might even be the biggest criticism about the market. (This book is about staying away from drugs. This one is about peer pressure. This one is about temple marriage. And this one . . .)

But there’s a flip-side to the issue. Force-feeding messages is the very reason, in my opinion, that some of the so-called “liberal” LDS fiction has failed in both audiences and sales. Some of it (no, not all) appears to be written with the express purpose of giving a specific, opposing message—a blatant agenda—countering what the bigger LDS presses publish. It might be that Mormons are hypocrites. Mormons are intolerant or judgmental. They’re backward. They’re stuck in their ways. Or something else altogether.

Ironically, I rarely hear such books criticized for their sloppy, didactic writing. Instead, they’re lauded for pushing the envelope, for taking a stand, for being “realistic.”

Why? They’re just as preachy as their conservative counterparts. Isn’t agenda-pushing, regardless of the agenda, poor writing?

It’s as if some of these people abandon putting together a well-crafted story with believable characters and instead shove a liberal lesson down readers’ throats. But that’s okay, because it’s not a conservative message. They’re “open-minded” (whatever that means), so it doesn’t matter if the writing is sub-par and just as didactic as the books they openly criticize—it’s just didactic in the other direction.

As a Whitney Awards judge this year, I’ve come across two excellent examples on each side of this fence. The first was didactic in the extreme. (Message: Nearly all Mormons, including the leadership, are all judgmental, hypocritical bastards.) I got so sick of being hammered with the blatant agenda (I might have sympathized with the characters if the author hadn’t been so obnoxious about pushing the agenda) that I was ready to take a blunt spoon to my eyeballs. Bad, bad writing.

The other was a potential didactic landmine, but the topic was handled skillfully. The characters were real. They were put into heartbreakingly difficult situations. And in the end, they stayed faithful to the gospel even though they had no clear-cut, easy answers.

It was downright refreshing. Kudos to that second book: Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back. From what I’ve read, Langford didn’t set out to teach or preach. He set out to explore the “what if” of being a faithful LDS teen who happens to be gay. What would that be like? And you can tell that’s the angle he took, because there’s no preaching–but there is loyalty to the Church.

I hope more writers, from across the conservative/liberal spectrum, will do their best to tell a great story first instead of trying to write an agenda with the story coming second—and that readers will judge books based on the quality of the writing, not on whether their agenda was the one being preached.

Because contrary to what many believe, agenda-pushing isn’t a problem you see only in the books sitting on Deseret and Seagull shelves. It’s a problem lurking pretty much anywhere if readers and writers don’t insist on better.

All of us deserve better.

I was cautioned by a writing teacher to never try to write a story with a message, because instead of telling a good story that happens to teach something, the story will end up being a didactic mess. I heeded that advice . . . until I had a topic I really, really felt needed to be out there. I thought that surely I was the exception. I could tell a great story and get the message across.

Not even close: that manuscript is and forever will be gathering dust on my hard drive. It has a couple of good scenes, but as a whole, it’s a preachy hairball. I immediately turned my attempts back to trying to tell a good story first. If a message comes after, great. That’s gravy. But the story must come first, and I won’t force any “message.”

The irony, of course, is that my sister was right: messages always still come through. The trick is that, at least in the drafting phase, the writer can’t intentionally be pulling the strings on it, or the message won’t work.

I believe when writers try too hard to write something with a message, it’ll fall flat on its face. If they instead focus on characters and their problems and how they find solutions, the writer ends up learning right along with them, and THAT becomes the message. Any time I’ve seen a writer deliberately write something with an underlying message, it’s never been good. But if the message grows out of the story . . . wow.

With my last book, I participated in an extensive blog tour and as a result, was interviewed a lot. I was amazed at how many times I was asked about my “message”: “What do you feel is the most important message in the book?” or, “What message do you hope your readers take away from it?” or, “What messages did you put into the book?”

I wanted to cry out, “I didn’t put in any messages!” But I know that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Looking back, I see several themes (and yes, even symbols) in that novel. But they didn’t happen with a deliberate outline on my part. (In chapter nine, I’ll be sure to show such-and-such, which will emphasize this moral . . .”)

I wasn’t sure how to answer those interview questions beyond saying that I didn’t write the book an intent to put any messages in, but here’s what I learned while writing it.

Is it possible to write a story without a message? Perhaps, although I think it unlikely. A writer’s personal belief system, goals, world view, and more will always come through no matter how hard they try to contain them, and with them come messages of some kind.

Should you try to write a story with a message? In my never-quiet opinion, I say (rather loudly) absolutely not. The message/s should develop organically.

Shoving messages down a reader’s throat has been a big criticism about LDS fiction for a long, long time. It might even be the biggest criticism about the market. (This book is about staying away from drugs. This one is about peer pressure. This one is about temple marriage. And this one . . .)

But there’s a flip-side to the issue. Force-feeding messages is the very reason, in my opinion, that some of the so-called “liberal” LDS fiction has failed in both audiences and sales. Some of it (no, not all) appears to be written with the express purpose of giving a specific, opposing message—a blatant agenda—countering what the bigger LDS presses publish. It might be that Mormons are hypocrites. Mormons are intolerant or judgmental. They’re backward. They’re stuck in their ways. Or something else altogether.

Ironically, I rarely hear such books criticized for their sloppy, didactic writing. Instead, they’re lauded for pushing the envelope, for taking a stand, for being “realistic.”

Why? They’re just as preachy as their conservative counterparts. Isn’t agenda-pushing, regardless of the agenda, poor writing?

It’s as if some of these people abandon putting together a well-crafted story with believable characters and instead shove a liberal lesson down readers’ throats. But that’s okay, because it’s not a conservative message. They’re “open-minded” (whatever that means), so it doesn’t matter if the writing is sub-par and just as didactic as the books they openly criticize—it’s just didactic in the other direction.

As a Whitney Awards judge this year, I’ve come across two excellent examples on each side of this fence. The first was didactic in the extreme. (Message: Nearly all Mormons, including the leadership, are all judgmental, hypocritical bastards.) I got so sick of being hammered with the blatant agenda (I might have sympathized with the characters if the author hadn’t been so obnoxious about pushing the agenda) that I was ready to take a blunt spoon to my eyeballs. Bad, bad writing.

The other was a potential didactic landmine, but the topic was handled skillfully. The characters were real. They were put into heartbreakingly difficult situations. And in the end, they stayed faithful to the gospel even though they had no clear-cut, easy answers.

It was downright refreshing. Kudos to that second book: Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back. From what I’ve read, Langford didn’t set out to teach or preach. He set out to explore the “what if” of being a faithful LDS teen who happens to be gay. What would that be like? And you can tell that’s the angle he took, because there’s no preaching–but there is loyalty to the Church.

I hope more writers, from across the conservative/liberal spectrum, will do their best to tell a great story first instead of

I was cautioned by a writing teacher to never try to write a story with a message, because instead of telling a good story that happens to teach something, the story will end up being a didactic mess. I heeded that advice . . . until I had a topic I really, really felt needed to be out there. I thought that surely I was the exception. I could tell a great story and get the message across.

Not even close: that manuscript is and forever will be gathering dust on my hard drive. It has a couple of good scenes, but as a whole, it’s a preachy hairball. I immediately turned my attempts back to trying to tell a good story first. If a message comes after, great. That’s gravy. But the story must come first, and I won’t force any “message.”

The irony, of course, is that my sister was right: messages always still come through. The trick is that, at least in the drafting phase, the writer can’t intentionally be pulling the strings on it, or the message won’t work.

I believe when writers try too hard to write something with a message, it’ll fall flat on its face. If they instead focus on characters and their problems and how they find solutions, the writer ends up learning right along with them, and THAT becomes the message. Any time I’ve seen a writer deliberately write something with an underlying message, it’s never been good. But if the message grows out of the story . . . wow.

With my last book, I participated in an extensive blog tour and as a result, was interviewed a lot. I was amazed at how many times I was asked about my “message”: “What do you feel is the most important message in the book?” or, “What message do you hope your readers take away from it?” or, “What messages did you put into the book?”

I wanted to cry out, “I didn’t put in any messages!” But I know that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Looking back, I see several themes (and yes, even symbols) in that novel. But they didn’t happen with a deliberate outline on my part. (In chapter nine, I’ll be sure to show such-and-such, which will emphasize this moral . . .”)

I wasn’t sure how to answer those interview questions beyond saying that I didn’t write the book an intent to put any messages in, but here’s what I learned while writing it.

Is it possible to write a story without a message? Perhaps, although I think it unlikely. A writer’s personal belief system, goals, world view, and more will always come through no matter how hard they try to contain them, and with them come messages of some kind.

Should you try to write a story with a message? In my never-quiet opinion, I say (rather loudly) absolutely not. The message/s should develop organically.

Shoving messages down a reader’s throat has been a big criticism about LDS fiction for a long, long time. It might even be the biggest criticism about the market. (This book is about staying away from drugs. This one is about peer pressure. This one is about temple marriage. And this one . . .)

But there’s a flip-side to the issue. Force-feeding messages is the very reason, in my opinion, that some of the so-called “liberal” LDS fiction has failed in both audiences and sales. Some of it (no, not all) appears to be written with the express purpose of giving a specific, opposing message—a blatant agenda—countering what the bigger LDS presses publish. It might be that Mormons are hypocrites. Mormons are intolerant or judgmental. They’re backward. They’re stuck in their ways. Or something else altogether.

Ironically, I rarely hear such books criticized for their sloppy, didactic writing. Instead, they’re lauded for pushing the envelope, for taking a stand, for being “realistic.”

Why? They’re just as preachy as their conservative counterparts. Isn’t agenda-pushing, regardless of the agenda, poor writing?

It’s as if some of these people abandon putting together a well-crafted story with believable characters and instead shove a liberal lesson down readers’ throats. But that’s okay, because it’s not a conservative message. They’re “open-minded” (whatever that means), so it doesn’t matter if the writing is sub-par and just as didactic as the books they openly criticize—it’s just didactic in the other direction.

As a Whitney Awards judge this year, I’ve come across two excellent examples on each side of this fence. The first was didactic in the extreme. (Message: Nearly all Mormons, including the leadership, are all judgmental, hypocritical bastards.) I got so sick of being hammered with the blatant agenda (I might have sympathized with the characters if the author hadn’t been so obnoxious about pushing the agenda) that I was ready to take a blunt spoon to my eyeballs. Bad, bad writing.

The other was a potential didactic landmine, but the topic was handled skillfully. The characters were real. They were put into heartbreakingly difficult situations. And in the end, they stayed faithful to the gospel even though they had no clear-cut, easy answers.

It was downright refreshing. Kudos to that second book: Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back. From what I’ve read, Langford didn’t set out to teach or preach. He set out to explore the “what if” of being a faithful LDS teen who happens to be gay. What would that be like? And you can tell that’s the angle he took, because there’s no preaching–but there is loyalty to the Church.

I hope more writers, from across the conservative/liberal spectrum, will do their best to tell a great story first instead of trying to write an agenda with the story coming second—and that readers will judge books based on the quality of the writing, not on whether their agenda was the one being preached.

Because contrary to what many believe, agenda-pushing isn’t a problem you see only in the books sitting on Deseret and Seagull shelves. It’s a problem lurking pretty much anywhere if readers and writers don’t insist on better.

All of us deserve better.

trying to write an agenda with the story coming second—and that readers will judge books based on the quality of the writing, not on whether their agenda was the one being preached.

Because contrary to what many believe, agenda-pushing isn’t a problem you see only in the books sitting on Deseret and Seagull shelves. It’s a problem lurking pretty much anywhere if readers and writers don’t insist on better.

All of us deserve better.

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67 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: More on Messages and Agendas

  1. Woo-hoo! Thanks for the positive comments. I started reading your column, and partway through I started getting nervous about whether I’d been doing exactly what you said not to do… and then got to your comment, which pretty much made my Sunday evening. Maybe my week, but it’s still too early to tell for sure…

    I have to wonder whether the emphasis on creating stories that aren’t message-driven (which I think is what you’re saying: it’s fine for stories to have messages that organically rise to the top, but not for those messages to be in the driver’s seat) is something that’s characteristic of our modern culture. Are Milton’s stories message-driven? Are the stories from the Bible message-driven? If so, is that a problem for them?

  2. Annette Lyon says:

    Jonathan, You said exactly what I meant–messages rising to the top versus being in the driver’s seat. Amen!

    As far as Bible and other stories go, I think the intent and purpose of the story has to factor into the equation.

    For example, a parable’s entire purpose to to teach, often on a variety of levels. No one, not even the parable teller, is pretending it’s anything but that–a chance to teach something and get a specific message (or messages) across. It’s not trying to be literary, it’s not a pretty story, it’s not a novel. It’s a teaching method pure and simple, a message-delivery system, so to speak. So to me, those stories don’t really fall into the same category as typical literature.

    As for Milton, at least with Paradise Lost, his own stated purpose was to glorify God, not to teach readers anything. I think he did his best to tell a great story to achieve his purpose. And that, to me, is exactly why the parts that take place in Hell are far more fun to read than those in Heaven. They’re great storytelling, with great characters and conflict. Heaven got a bit boring–it’s hard to tell a great yarn when there’s no good villain around!

  3. Boyd Petersen says:

    I think you’re absolutely right here, Annette. And I think this was the essential message Gene England had in his essay "Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction" which was published in Dialogue vol. 32 no. 3 (fall 1999). It’s a great read and is available at the Dialogue archives. Great blog post and Gene’s essay is a must read!

  4. I’m sympathetic to the idea of this post, especially the left/right concern.

    I do think, though, that there are writers who can start with a theme and do well. At least, that’s how I typically write and it seems to work fine.

    For example, with "Prodigal Son" I wanted to say things about family love across religious difference that still took religious commitments and tensions seriously. There’s a moral to that play, but because it understands and respects the multiple forces that act on people, it works–for many people, at least. I have yet to hear the piece condemns as preachy, although the whole thing is built around a theme/message.

    I also think we’re unwise to rule the parable as a form out of the realm of the literary. Tkae the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example. Deep, sympathetic characterizations of multiple individuals. Dramatic moments. Unexpected twists. That’s strong, tight storytelling.

  5. Annette Lyon says:

    James, You have a point, but I love how you used the term, "theme" instead of "message." I have a feeling that even in your own play you wanted to explore a theme rather than cram an agenda into it–and that’s why it works. Just a guess, since I haven’t seen it.

    One popular LDS writer known for taking a theme and NOT cramming agendas is Josi Kilpack. She’ll take a topic (say prescription drug abuse, internet predators, or infertility) as her THEME and then she steps back to decide what kind of story she can write around it. But she never has an agenda beforehand, and I think that’s what makes her books work. She’s not an outliner, so even she has no clue how her books will turn out. She’s simply exploring a timely topic.

    A YA book that does have a message but worked for me is Shannon’s Mirror by Luisa Perkins. It’s an older book and probably hard to find, and it’s about eating disorders. So yes, it does have a clear message, and it was written, I’m guessing, with that in mind. But she approached the story as a story first. The anorexia came second.

  6. I suspect a lot may have to do with the nature of the message or agenda. Arguably, my book was written with an "agenda": that is, as Annette wrote, "to explore the ‘what if’ of being a faithful LDS teen who happens to be gay." And I definitely was hoping that my story might help to increase understanding of that situation–but the only way it could possibly do that was if it *did* work as a story.

    Did my agenda drive my story? Well, yes, and no, and sort of. There were some directions I could have taken the story that I didn’t, simply because (a) it didn’t fit with the message I was trying to communicate, and (b) it wasn’t the story I was interested in telling. Except that I’m not sure (a) and (b) can be separated out in any meaningful way.

    There was certainly some agenda operating in my early thoughts that led me in the direction of this story, and they continued to operate as motivators for writing. One: I wanted a story about someone who WASN’T on his/her way out of the Church, partly because it seemed to me that kind of story wasn’t being told (at least, in fiction). It was a largely unrepresented experience. Two: I didn’t want to write a story that ended with the kid committing suicide. Been there, done that, and those are important stories but by golly they’re not the ONLY important stories. I wanted a story about someone *dealing* with it–if painfully and with difficulty.

    So in a way, the message came first. But in another way, there wasn’t a message, just a story I wanted to tell. A lot of it comes down to definitions, which (as we all know) are slippery.

  7. Katya says:

    It’s interesting that you’ve highlighted this (potential) problem in liberal LDS fiction. Do you feel that conservative LDS writers are better at avoiding these kinds of agendas? Or is conservative didacticism simply more tolerated in the LDS market?

  8. It sounded to me like the point Annette was making is that the charge of didacticism is most frequently made in criticism of conservative LDS fiction, but that liberal fiction can (and often does) fall victim to it just as easily–and that it’s a bad idea artistically whichever kind of agenda it’s called to serve.

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    Since the liberal book in question was not named, I submit that the charge of liberal-with-agenda is…problematic.

    Name the book, then a real discussion can be held. Otherwise, the entire discussion is stuff and fluff.

  10. Wm Morris says:

    "It sounded to me like the point Annette was making is that the charge of didacticism is most frequently made in criticism of conservative LDS fiction"

    Actually, it’s been a very strong current in Mormon letters to make the charge against both liberal and conservative (or whatever terms you want to use) works/authors/purveyors of narrative art. Boyd’s mention of Eugene England’s essay above is the classic example (and one I will be exploring in a series of posts this week at AMV*.

    * http://www.motleyvision.org (I would embed the link, but it appears that the blog commenting system not allow html markup)

  11. A lot depends on which ox has gored you most recently. If you’ve been gored from the left, you tend to shy away from that direction. If you’ve been gored from the right, ditto.

    (I’m not sure that metaphor quite works, but oh, well…)

  12. Annette Lyon says:

    Katya, Jonathan said it exactly–the criticism is lobbed all the time at conservative LDS fiction. I find it ironic that much of the liberal stuff is full of the exact same thing.

    Which is why, Moriah, there is no need to mention the other book by name–it’s not anywhere near the only work pushing an agenda. There’s a laundry list of them. If Eugene England was writing about this issue over a decade ago, I’m not the first person to notice the trend.

    Jonathan, The way you approached your book, I don’t think, was necessarily message-driven. You made a couple of conscious decisions about what would NOT happen in the story, and both were good artistic choices. They were also true to yourself. Making story decisions like that, at least in my opinion, isn’t what this is about. You were taking a brand new angle on a topic and still exploring the "what if." And you did a good job of it.

  13. I’ve been thinking on this topic a lot lately; thank you for the post.

    I’m a big fan of keeping the story first priority. At the birth of Western theatre, Aristotle ranked the major elements of strong drama in order: plot, character, theme, diction, music, spectacle. Everything is secondary to the story. Everything needs to be as organic as possible, as real as possible. The way a reader or viewer gets the take home message is not because the book or story or play holds up a sign that says "You should now feel this way." If there is a change in heart or idea, it’s hopefully due to the strength of the storytelling and a connection with the characters. The theme of the piece, the message — if people get it, that’s bonus points. It’s gravy; it adds flavor and makes the meal richer. But no one wants to eat gravy without the mashed potatoes, right? Forgive the messy metaphor, but you get my point.

    I haven’t had a chance to read Jonathan’s novel yet, but I do have it in my possession, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. :) From what I’ve heard it can be simply and aptly described as a different perspective on a difficult subject; very different than the perspective a majority of Latter-day Saints may have had in the past. For some, that shift in perspective will be more than enough to inspire, without need for a straight-up message or moral. Gay people are people, too; having some folks make that realization alone is a huge step in the right direction.

  14. Wm Morris says:

    "There’s a laundry list of them."

    I would be very interested in seeing this list — or at least a few examples from it — so I better know what you are referring to (and if you don’t want to be public, e-mail me at william AT motleyvision DOT org).

    One of the problems with all the talk about Mormon literature is that there seems to be a lot of opinions about the field but not a whole lot of specific engagement with specific works. I’m as much as fault as anyone — in fact, even more so than most. It’s something I’m trying to work on.

    One of the reasons England’s essay "Danger on the Left! Danger on the Right!" is so helpful is that he wasn’t afraid to actually call out the works he thought were not up to his standards (and he’s also careful to define what those standards are). Not only does he present literary criticism of the two (left and right) anthologies, he talks about specific stories in those anthologies and why they illustrate the points that he was trying to make. This means that if you agree with him, you have a better understanding of why you do, and if you don’t, you have specific bits of literary criticism that you can counter with your own readings.

    I’m especially interested to how you formed this impression: "Some of it (no, not all) appears to be written with the express purpose of giving a specific, opposing message—a blatant agenda—countering what the bigger LDS presses publish."

    What is this some? And how can you tell it’s meant to counter "the bigger LDS presses"? I’m genuinely interested in this because I think there’s a tendency to conflate agendas related to Mormon culture with those related to the LDS Church. Certainly there’s a lot of overlap — and a lot of room for those of us interested in LDS literature to tease out how that all operates. But it’s not clear to me yet how much LDS fiction (for our purposes let’s call them Covenant and Deseret Book authors) and Mormon faithful realism authors and presses/publications engage with each others work. Part of the reason that it’s unclear is that no one is talking with specifics or if they do, they seem to be reporting on something someone else said or their impression based on marketing copy rather than direct experience with the work itself. I’m thinking, in particular, here of the blog discussions of Angel Falling Softly as well as some of the dismissing of LDS genre fiction that take’s place in both the bloggernacle and took place in the AML-List during its heyday.

    Which is why it’s lovely that Anette is a) contributing to this blog and b) has some interesting, specific things to say about [i]No Going Back[/i]. I’m just feeling the need for a little more (from all of us) because otherwise we’re having the same discussions that (many of us at least) have had for more than a decade now.

    Finally, this is a bit of a calling out. That’s not really fair to Anette so I’m calling out all of us. Have a generalized opinion about Mormon narrative art? Let’s see some examples because otherwise we have no idea if we really agree or disagree when we keep it vague.

  15. Th. says:

    .

    I would be interested in what book Annette was referring to also. I don’t think I’ve read a Mormon novel with a clear "liberal" agenda, but without specifics I don’t know if I’ve just missed them all or if I’m working from a different set of definitions.

    I think William is exactly right. And without specific examples, we run a risk of never understanding each other.

    Granted, in reviews of authors by authors (generally, not just in Mormondom) it’s become verboten to say bad things, but if we don’t we can’t understand one another.

    There must needs be opposition in all things.

  16. Moriah Jovan says:

    Annette, I asked for the title as an efficient way to define our terms.

    You see, I happen to know that you loved a book I thought was badly written and loathed because of it. I’m interested to know if you equate "bad writing" with what you find personally objectionable.

    I would think it an interesting point of differentiation for those whose books you are judging for the Whitneys.

  17. Th. says:

    .

    Sheesh, Moriah. Now you need to tell us what THAT book was.

    Practice what you preach, sister. ; )

  18. Th. says:

    .

    I would find it interesting if people widely read in Mormon lit made lists of books promoting one side, promoting the other side, promoting the radical middle (see Wm’s link) and whip up some Venn diagrams.

    I wonder how many books would always be in one camp and which books would jump around according to reader perspective.

    Of course, in my opinion, a book is meaningless until it is read and the reader assigns us meaning. So I wonder how much of our assignation of roles is based in our readerly souls rather than the writer’s writerly soul.

  19. Moriah Jovan says:

    All right.

    The Actor and the Housewife. Rants here [b]http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/this-books-kinda-giving-me-the-willies[/b], here [b]http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/update-on-the-creepy-book[/b], and here [b]http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/book-review-the-actor-and-the-housewife[/b].

    Much profanity. Because I don’t faux curse.

  20. Wm Morris says:

    "There must needs be opposition in all things."

    Opposition that is just opposition doesn’t do much either. What we need is a way to talk about the failures and triumphs of a work (and which audiences those failure/triumphs may apply most keenly to) without having to see things as a us/them or trashing/hyping.

    England is careful to mention the stories in the two anthologies he takes down that worked for him.

  21. Moriah Jovan says:

    Th., exactly so. Reader baggage has not been taken into account here.

    With regard to theme/symbolism/metaphor, not everything can be blamed on the boys in the basement.

  22. Th. says:

    .

    [quote]All right.

    The Actor and the Housewife. Rants here moriahjovan.com/…/this-books-kinda-giving-me-the-willies, here moriahjovan.com/mojo/update-on-the-creepy-book, and here moriahjovan.com/…/book-review-the-actor-and-the-housewife.

    Much profanity. Because I don’t faux curse.[/quote]

    Oh yes. I should have guessed.

    —–

    What I meant by our need by opposition is that we need to be able to compare things. Without something to compare JL’s book to, it’s hard to understand what it is doing right. I generally don’t simply trash books (I think I’ve done it once out of the hundreds of book reviews I’ve posted), but if they fail it’s important to understand why. Else how shall we learn?

  23. Th. says:

    .

    Hmm. Those blockquotes don’t set things apart very well, do they? I hope everyone can tell what I was quoting and what was me.

  24. L.T. Elliot says:

    Amen and Amen! I’m demanding better. (It’s why I read you, after all!)

  25. Angela H. says:

    You know, personally, I don’t think Annette needs to name names if she doesn’t want to. It can be a tricky business, trying to be both a writer and a critic at the same time. One reason I’ve become so leery of saying anything specifically critical about the state of Mormon letters (e.g., I don’t want to call anyone out by name) is because, while I DO have my personal opinions, I also feel a sense of solidarity with those folks who have the courage to put their name on a piece of writing and send it out in the world. Now, I’m just speaking for myself here, but if the only way I can contribute to a critical conversation about the state of Mormon literature is to speak in specifics rather than generalities, then I’ll just say nothing at all. I guess I’m just saying it was a lot easier for me to call out authors by name before I became one. I’m betting Annette might be in the same boat.

    Also: I have no qualms with OTHER people publicly criticizing Mormon authors, of course. That’s why we have critics, and their role is extremely important. And other authors might be entirely comfortable also functioning as critics, and we need their voices. I just can’t do it myself anymore, and if Annette feels the same way I do, I don’t think we need to force her into the position of total disclosure or silence.

  26. I think Angela has a good point. On the other hand, I also agree that without the specificity of discussing specific titles, it’s easy to get caught up in generalities–and leaves open the question of whether readers from across a spectrum can agree on whether or not a particular work is didactic, or if such judgments inevitably come down to whether or not we agree with the agenda.

    Is anyone willing to pitch out some well-known titles we can discuss as clear candidates for didactic fiction, along various points of the political spectrum?

  27. Th. says:

    .

    This problem isn’t Mormon-specific. I’ve read more than one article bemoaning the nicey-nicey reviews writers give each other in the NYTRB.

    But I feel it <i>is</i> appropriate for writers to be critics. And as we’re talking about books’ "agendas" and not their "quality" I’m not really sure there’s a problem.

    I can’t name any recent books I’ve read that commit these sins on either side, so I can’t offer any titles. Alas. Because I would.

  28. Angela H. says:

    Just to be clear: I’m not saying it’s inappropriate for writers to be critics. I’m just saying that *some* writers aren’t comfortable with saying specifically negative things about other writers. I just don’t think this should disqualify writers from commenting on the state of Mormon fiction in general. Yes, we definitely need specificity in our discourse. Certainly we do. But the truth is, many working artists find specific criticism of their peers quite personally and professionally treacherous. As Th. pointed out, even writers on the NYTRB struggle in much the same way. This is one reason it’s important to have critics who aren’t also necessarily working artists.

  29. Wm Morris says:

    See to me solidarity means that we do criticize each other and push the field forward instead of replicating the silly little treacheries of the World.

    But, of course, I’m not interested in turning this in to a ghoulish making of lists of who is this or that — we’re not a bunch of indie hipsters (or at least I’d hope we’re more mature than that). It was Anette who claims to have the laundry list. The reason I brought this up in the first place is that charges of blatant agendas are just about the worst things you can bring in art (after plagiarism) and while I do think that because of the warping (and I use that word lovingly — but I’m weird in that way) effect of the LDS Church agenda-driven works may be a bit more prevalent among us, I also am interested in preserving as much as possible as wide a view of What Counts As Mormon Literature as the community can reasonably hold.

    And I do find it a barrier to understanding what you all mean by liberal or conservative or agenda-driven or aesthetically-good or aesthetically-bad or aesthetically-mixed when we can’t get in to specifics. I also don’t think that we need to repudiate or aggrandize entire works or authors or journals or anthologies. In my opinion, there are no unalloyed, unmitigated successes so far in Mormon fiction. We all are in need of criticism — and better it come from people who are actually invested in faith and artistic production.

    I do realize that artistic creation can be a delicate thing (although I think a portion of that is because we’re learning the wrong lessons from the larger world of artistic enterprise) and that authors feel a strong sense of ownership of their works. But I also think that there’s a responsibility that comes with putting the power of narrative in to the world and part of that responsibility is to allow the works a certain measure of autonomy and life with the readers and critics and where we can handle it to learn from the reactions to it (and forgive those whose reactions we don’t like).

    I should also add that although Angela may not act as a critic per se, she isn’t immune from the demands of specificity and actually does act as a critic in the ideological/aesthetic signals she sends with her work as an editor. I’m sure she doesn’t view it quite in that way (and that’s a good thing).

  30. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]Is anyone willing to pitch out some well-known titles we can discuss as clear candidates for didactic fiction, along various points of the political spectrum?[/b][/quote]

    [i]Atlas Shrugged[/i], Ayn Rand

    [i]The Gate to Women’s Country[/i], Sheri S. Tepper

    Diametrically opposed. Clear in intent to preach. One I agree with and one I vehemently disagree with. I love them both.

  31. Th. says:

    .

    Classic Mormon lit: Nephi Anderson’s [i]Added Upon[/i] preaches heavily and shamelessly (although I still like it). His [i]Dorian[/i] also preaches, but it’s the characters preaching, not the book itself, and the book is much more emotionally complex so I don’t consider it didactic at all.

  32. Annette Lyon says:

    Wow–I step away for a couple of days and come back to find a whirlwind has happened (not sure why I didn’t get the comments in my in-box in the meantime).

    First off, no, I don’t see good writing as only something that aligns with my values. Not at all. In fact, I’m working on a freelance edit right now that very much has values OUTSIDE mine and any LDS person’s, but the book is very well-written. The morals are really not the point.

    Hale’s book is one of those that people either love or hate–I haven’t found anyone lukewarm about it. It has a distinct voice and personality, and if it’s not something you’d like, then I guess that’s just not your style. But I personally thought it was fresh and original and well done. I think she’s a great writer, and I loved that she didn’t cop out at the end. (Have you read her YA work? I loved The Goose Girl and Book of a Thousand Days. Beautiful writing and very different from The Actor and the Housewife.)

    There were years I was very active on the AML-list, and I bailed at one point because I got such a negative feeling from so many people pushing a liberal agenda, members constantly bashing DB and Covenant books and upholding nothing but liberal stuff with agendas. I could pull out old issues of Irreantum and give you titles that fit my laundry list–I can remember topics and interviews but not titles as clearly.

    But even greats like Levi Peterson has written stuff that, even though he’s a fantastic writer, just left me cold because I felt that even he was pushing an agenda. With Night Soil, I went in fully expecting to love it. I came out thinking that wow, the guy can write . . . but I won’t ever read his stuff again, because he was preaching at me much of the time (that, and he got a lot of basic Mormon details wrong, which I found odd).

    As for some of the other comments–Zarahemla’s own tag line used to be something about being liberal but not apostate. What was THAT supposed to mean? It immediately turned off a specific section of LDS readers and targeted another section. Talk about propaganda. (And yes, I’m aware that No Going Back is one of their books.)

    Angela also hit it right on the head when she said that it’s a bit tricky naming names and titles when you’re one of the LDS writers yourself. It was a different story before I was part of that group. It’s easy to praise, but this is a tiny sandbox. An offhanded remark can make an enemy, so imagine if I were to give an honest review of that other book. Yeah. Let’s just say I don’t dare. (That said, I’ve had people come to me since I published this post and ask if I was referring to such-and-such book, and they were right. It’s not too hard to figure out, I don’t think.)

  33. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]I loved that she didn’t cop out at the end.[/b][/quote]

    My objection is [b]precisely[/b] that she copped out at the end. She set up a semi-adult relationship (more like teenage shenanigans with kids sprinkled in here and there) and gave it a faith-promoting-rumor EFY youth-conference-testimony-meeting ending. I would never trust her with another minute of my time, nor another dollar. I didn’t realize [i]The Actor and the Housewife[/i] was YA. /snark

    [quote][b]An offhanded remark can make an enemy, so imagine if I were to give an honest review of that other book. Yeah. Let’s just say I don’t dare.[/b][/quote]

    Well. THIS I understand completely.

    However. I still think "liberal," "conservative," "agenda," "propaganda," and other such terms are so loaded that they’re meaningless, especially in this sandbox when it doesn’t take a whole lot left of [i]The Miracle of Forgiveness[/i] to be thought liberal. It’s the vagueness of how the terms are being used that bothers me, because there is no basis for comparison possible.

  34. Put me in the lukewarm camp.

  35. Wm Morris says:

    Anette:

    Welcome to the wild and woolly (and whirlwind) world of blogging. :-)

    But seriously, thanks for your follow up comment. It helps me better see where you are coming from. I agree that some voices on the AML-List could be way too dismissive and strident about LDS genre fiction, and I would guess in relation to Irreantum that you may be talking about such writers as Neil LaBute and Brian Evenson (I know one issue in particular featured an interview with Evenson where, as I recall, he cast some broad aspersions towards the mainstream Mormon audience).

    I wouldn’t put either of those two authors in the same camp as Zarahemla Books, though (the tag line was "edgy but not apostate" — although I’d say the majority of the works Chris has published so far aren’t all that edgy in LDS terms let alone in relation to the broader world of narrative art).

    ——

    "An offhanded remark can make an enemy"

    I wish I knew how to create a cultural space where this was not as much of a concern because I would if I could. Not that I think we should all go around making offhand remarks — good literary criticism should have some thought and rhetorical nuance behind it — but it’d be nice if (except in the case of egregious offense) folks could both be secure in their opinions and not feel threatened by criticism of their own work.

  36. Annette Lyon says:

    To clarify, Hale writes YA fantasy and some books aimed at adults. This was one of her adult books, and I was suggesting you could try one of her YA fantasies to see if you like that better–they’re very different than this book.

    A cop-out ending, in my opinion, would have been to cave to the Hollywood hormone machine and get them together. The ending was inevitable and realistic, not EFY-ish. At least, for me.

    But again, we all have our own opinions. And wow–we found a lukewarmer. :)

  37. Moriah Jovan says:

    Yes, we have our own opinions. IMO, she was having an emotional affair and never got called on it.

  38. Wm Morris says:

    The problem I had with The Actor and the Housewife is that her husband never gets his due. Make him a stronger, more complicated, more obviously why-he-is-attractive-to-her (not necessarily with more sex, but with more sensuality and spirituality) and then it becomes a lot more interesting. And I would have bought that she wasn’t, as Moriah terms it, having an "emotional affair."

    And yes, I’m also lukewarm about Shannon Hales’ adult novels. I thought Austenland was going to go for the jugular and instead it cops out in the end. Man, if she had rejected him. Told him whatever and that he should call her when he gets his act together and figures things out and then boards the plane. Fin. That would have been awesome.

  39. Th. says:

    .

    We’ve been reading Hale around my house lately. Mrs Thteed has read Actor/Housewife (loathed it) and Goose Girl (loved it). I read Rapunzel’s Revenge (not great but highly enjoyable; review: http://fobcomics.blogspot.com/2010/01/rapunzels-revenge-by-heapa-hales.html).

  40. Scott Parkin says:

    Wait long enough and eventually a troll will come out…

    I don’t actually have a problem with agenda-driven fiction, as long as that fiction doesn’t pretend to be agenda-free. Say your piece, make your argument, and do so with active intent and malice of forethought.

    If I happen to dislike the book for other reasons (or if I fail to find a reason other than the agenda to *like* the book), then the agenda simply adds a couple of extra MPH to the book’s speed as it hits the wall or flies out the window.

    But if a book makes its arguments well I will tend to appreciate it more for that fact, even when I disagree with the agenda.

    One case in point–Barbara Kingsolver’s novel _The Poisonwood Bible_ is one whose (aggressively presented) agenda seems a bit too glib, one-sided, and romantic for my tastes. But she presented it well, made her arguments clearly and directly, and entertained me on the basis of story as well as technique and voice.

    For me _Atlas Shrugged_ was significantly less interesting. A good, punchy 220-page novel bloated up into a massive repetition of a one-sided strawman that was best summed up by its own 45-page summary in the guise of a radio address. There was some fun story in there, but it got so lost in the repetition of a core argument that rarely varied from its key talking points that I ended up being very disappointed. I’m told _The Fountainhead_ is a more entertaining book, but Atlas kind of burned out my interest in finding out.

    I found Margaret Atwood’s _A Handmaid’s Tale_ to be an interesting story, but the argument weakly made. Worth another read, but not something that moved me as an effective argument, and at best a weak run at a genre story.

    In the LDS realm, I found both _Dancing Naked_ by Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner and _The Freedom Factor_ from Gerald Lund to be equally frustrating. Both had a strong argument to make, but neither was willing to grant any hint of validity to the other side of the argument, and as such dropped to the level of propaganda (Lund’s more overtly, but Van Wagoner’s no less condemning, if considerably better written).

    As others have suggested, I thought Jonathan Langford did a fine job of making an argument for a character’s legitimate decisions without attempting to make any grand claims of absolute authority. Even if he had made the larger claim, I found his argument well reasoned, fair, and interestingly presented.

    I find many agenda-driven stories irrelevant because they fail to argue strongly more than because they make an argument I disagree with. If they offer good literary value along side a well-made argument, then I can do nothing but like them.

    A semi-case-in-point is Pullman’s _Golden Compass_ series. I happen to find his arguments unmoving, but ultimately I ended up disliking the series because he claimed to be responding to Milton but ended up throwing all the rules out mid-way through the first book. He failed to maintain discipline to his argumentative response to Milton and turned into a tiring (and largely unoriginal) snark session against a specific class of religious thought–despite creating a vibrant and interesting world that he largely misused in search of supporting his agenda.

    It’s not the agenda itself; it’s the effectiveness (and fairness) with which it’s delivered that makes the difference for me.

  41. Scott,

    Very nice, thoughtful comment (and not just because of the positive mention of my book). You make a good case for the notion that an agenda–even an agenda with which one disagrees–can help to make a work of art compelling, if done well and passionately enough.

    Of the books you mentioned, the only one I’ve read all the way through is _A Handmaid’s Tale_. I think you hit the nail on the head with that one: an interesting story, but unless you started out agreeing with her point, I don’t think you’d be convinced that she’d actually succeeded in building a good case for it. Which, come to think of it, was also the way I felt about _Jude the Obscure_ when I read it, many years ago: that clearly I was supposed to feel a sense of moral indignation against the society that had made everything so horrible for Jude, while instead what I felt was pity for a guy who just couldn’t seem to get a break.

    So tell me, you have have read it: Is Jude the Obscure agenda-driven? I think it is. As is (to take an extreme example) _A Christmas Carol_. Does that stop them from being good works of art?

  42. Th. says:

    .

    Scott. You shouldn’t call yourself a troll. That is for others to decide. Be kind to yourself.

    And of all your examples, remembering [i]Freedom Factor[/i] made me feel revulsion all over again.

    End-of-the-world-as-we-know-it fiction (Atwood is another example) maybe can’t exist without an agenda. Think [i]Nineteen Eighty-four[/i], [i]Brave New World[/i], [i]Fahrenheit 451[/i] . . . .

  43. Th. says:

    .

    Wm said (and I would like clarification on the parenthetical thereon):

    [i]I should also add that although Angela may not act as a critic per se, she isn’t immune from the demands of specificity and actually does act as a critic in the ideological/aesthetic signals she sends with her work as an editor. I’m sure she doesn’t view it quite in that way (and that’s a good thing).[/i]

    Why is her not viewing it that way a good thing?

  44. Wm Morris says:

    Scott:

    Well then that makes two trolls because I’m right with you on your reactions to the novels you mention (except for Dancing Naked and The Freedom Factor, which I haven’t read).

    Theric:

    I could be wrong, but I would imagine that if you let the critic voice too much in to your editorial choices, especially the critic that thinks about reader reception, it could get a bit paralyzing.

    Or perhaps more like: you go with aesthetic and craftsmanship achievement primarily and aim for a broad but within the realm ideological range (and I’m using ideology broadly here — it’s not simply pro/anti-Mormon or whatever) and let things fall in to place that way. Rather than: well if we run yet another Darin Cozzens story, we’re going to be signaling that we prefer rural Mormon stories.

  45. Annette Lyon says:

    Scott, Very well put. (Hardly trollish!)I think we’re largely on the same page: a message can be there, but if it overshadows the story, if that’s what’s "in the driver’s seat" (as I think Jonathan said), then it’s not going to work.

    Fahrenheit 451, for example, is definitely about censorship. BUT it’s a ripping yarn first. Same with 1984. That’s one freaky book with great characters and a great story–far better than Animal Farm, which is a bunch of animals preaching to the reader. I loved The Poisonwood Bible–but I didn’t really care about any message. When Scott mentioned it, I actually had to think back to remember what message was in there. I was just drawn in by her language, her story, her characters. They were all so good that I put the book down in awe but with a bit of sadness that crap, I’ll never write that well.

    The writing versus message thing is a delicate balance for sure.

  46. I agree with Moriah: the terminology of political discourse perverts the discussion or becomes completely meaningless. I’ve concluded that artistic culture ends up being discussed in terms of political culture because Mormons have so little confidence addressing these issues theologically (I don’t mean "true/not true; I mean theology). It’s funny and sad that non-Mormons are the ones making so much hay over Stephenie Meyer’s supposed theological agenda. I’d dearly like to believe she did it on purpose. But I’m reminded of the dogs in [i]Up.[/i] You start to lay out your religious agenda, and, "Look, squirrel!"

  47. Scott Parkin says:

    A couple of thoughts–

    Eugene/Moriah…what lexicon can we use? I’m all kinda game for discussions around the integration or art, religion, theology (as distinct from religion), culture, etc. Sadly, as a non-academic (and non-artist) I have neither a strong critical vocabulary nor a conceptual framework for a better kind of discussion. If you can recommend a good sample, I will gladly attempt to use it as a model.

    I suspect this is the foundation of my generic disagreement with opposition to agenda-driven fiction. I don’t have the vocabulary to articulate the distinction, but it’s not the agenda that bothers me so much as the author’s respect for me as a thinking person capable of making judgments on the arguments being made.

    When the author treats me as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with their opinion I tend to become rapidly disinterested. If your intent is just to entertain those who already accept a certain agenda, then there’s nothing much to hold me. If I agree with you I learn nothing new, if I disagree with you I am faced with weak arguments that I easily dismiss–end result, because the author didn’t engage me beyond a simple stimulus/response level, I walk away having spent time but accomplishing nothing. I tend to hold that against an author.

    Which is where much simply didactic fiction ends up for me. I don’t begrudge the message at all, especially if the author has no pretense of being something more challenging. A good didactic tale that succeeds on its own terms and makes those terms clear meets the ends of its creation and asks to be considered (aka, judged) by a different set of criteria than I use for a story that promises to challenge me. What I begrudge the time spent to hear what I’ve already heard and see what I’ve already seen when the author has promised me something more challenging or exotic. The only time I like surprise is when I get more than I expect, not when I get less.

    Likewise, when an author passionately argues a point about which they have little direct knowledge, otherwise excellent work falls short. I will end up posting a reader-response review here in a month or so of a science fiction novel that sets out to illustrate the futility of faith, but ultimately fails–primarily because the author didn’t understand how a person of faith thinks, feels, or reacts to opposition. They claimed knowledge they didn’t have–understanding the viewpoint of faith–and failed to deliver on that promise. Thus, an otherwise superb novel made me far more angry (and hold a deeper grudge) than a less artistically relevant work that remained true to its own promises.

    As others have suggested, an attempt to convince the reader of an idea is the foundation of a great deal of fiction. Steinbeck made a career of it, and much (though not all) of science fiction (and horror and mystery) actively thrives on it. Such stories choose the settings and details specifically to illustrate or clarify the agenda rather than discovering a theme as a result of exploring a situation or character.

    It’s not where the story comes from for me, it’s how well it executes on the promises it makes. I can be disappointed with a simple story, but if the author never claimed complexity, then shame on me for imposing unreasonable expectations on the work. I can’t condemn a bucket for failing to be a silver chalice if it was sold to me as a bucket.

    The intersection of art and marketing is a different story, and has little to do with the authors/artists themselves.

    On the other question–what art is better–I can only claim general disinterest in the discussion. What I find value in is so specific to me as an individual that I can only report what I think and why in an effort to inform those of similar mind or aesthetic foundation; the rest is just posturing to prove that my opinion is better than yours–another argument I find largely tiring. There may be value to the discussion, but right now I just don’t see it.

    Comments on some other posts in some other posts…

  48. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    You are interesting people, the lot of you.

    Scott, I loved: [i]I can’t condemn a bucket for failing to be a silver chalice if it was sold to me as a bucket. [/i]

    I also think you nailed it with:[i] I will end up posting a reader-response review here in a month or so of a science fiction novel that sets out to illustrate the futility of faith, but ultimately fails–primarily because the author didn’t understand how a person of faith thinks, feels, or reacts to opposition. [/i]

    This describes [i]Dancing Naked[/i], for those who’ve read it. The guy who wrote it was an outsider–someone raised around Mormons, but who never believed. It offers his misunderstanding of what makes us tick and offers characters as symbols for the Mormon patriarchy/hierchy that simply are not Mormon in their thinking. His understanding of Mormon doctrine, particularly on God, struck me as so unMormon that I wondered if he’d ever talked to one of us without cotton in his ears. IOW, it doesn’t deal fairly with the antagonists (the Mormons) so it sets in the propaganda column for me.

    I’d have never said those things in a public forum when the book came out because it came out thru Signature and they, if I remember right, were the only game in town for lit fiction. Like Angela, I’m hesitant to criticize other writers–and their publishers–because a) who am I to talk? and b) I need those publishers.

  49. It’s quite simple: define your terms going in (pardon the geeky example, but the same as CSS is to HTML). Everybody’s got an agenda–the writer, the reader, the critic. I don’t think you can produce truly great art without one.

    I’m not big on "subconscious" motivations, but I believe we’re all motivated by passions and prejudices we can’t or won’t fully articulate to ourselves or others until we are called on it. That’s why, when using the words "liberal" and "conservative," we must take pains to explain whether we’re referring to diction, explicitness, behavior, theology, politics, etc.

    The reflex to associate "liberalism" with "license" and "conservatism" with "decorum" makes it easy to get distracted by squirrels. My brother likes to point out that you can easily edit the naughty bits out of [i]The Thomas Crown Affair[/i] (1999), and it still celebrates two amoral people committing a crime and getting away with it. He likes it anyway, but he knows why.

  50. Moriah Jovan says:

    What Eugene said.

    Liberal? Conservative? In a discussion on what [b]I[/b] consider to be a very conservative Mormon arts blog? Add in the fact that I identify as [b]libertarian[/b] and have divorced myself from both "liberal" and "conservative" as they are defined politically and socially?

    Thing is, I can extrapolate, from what I know of Annette’s writings and tastes, that her idea of "liberal" and mine are not simpatico, but without a basis for comparison, the whole point of the post is moot because I don’t really know what she’s talking about.

    Now, if the point is to have a readership (on this blog) of people who DO know what she’s talking about and will agree without qualification, then I get that too. No problem.

  51. Moriah,

    You wrote: "Now, if the point is to have a readership (on this blog) of people who DO know what she’s talking about and will agree without qualification, then I get that too. No problem."

    Isn’t that a bit of a red herring? Given the diversity of people who are writing for this blog, it seems to me pretty clear that the point is to have exactly the kind of exchange we’re having here. Inevitably, that will involve some frustration on all sides as people discover that they’re talking past each other, or that the topics that engage some aren’t the same ones that engage others. My own sense it that this is exactly the kind of diversity that the AML blog is intended to foster–so long as it’s done in a tone of mutual respect, which, it seems to me, everyone has managed to maintain so far.

    I can’t speak for the blog leadership here, since I’m not one of them. But I do know they’re open to guest posts. (I’ve got one or two that I’m supposed to be working on in my copious free time.) I think it would be fascinating for you to develop a guest post about some of the divisions and issues you see in Mormon literature–which I’m sure would be quite different from Annette’s, and just as interesting.

    It’s my opinion that we *all* learn when we see what the world of Mormon letters looks like through other people’s eyes. I know I do.

  52. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]Isn’t that a bit of a red herring?[/b][/quote]

    Well, I will admit that I took Scott to be calling ME a troll, and I’m not entirely convinced he wasn’t, but I may be reacting to that.

    However, my statement does reflect how I saw the first several comments on this topic until I introduced the skepticism. I like to think I respect other people’s sandboxes, so it was NOT intended to be snarky, although I do understand it probably came across that way. Apologies.

  53. Part of my problem is that despite bumming around the AML scene for so many years, I’m still pretty limited in my reading of LDS fiction, and so don’t feel like I have a basis for agreeing or disagreeing with a lot of what people say about specific books. That’s something I hope to work on correcting this year… In any event, I’m quite sincere about saying that I think we would all benefit from hearing (well, reading, but you get my idea) many different views about the landscape of Mormon literature–including yours.

    I can attest that there were times when AML-List appeared to have a bias against more "conservative" Mormon writers. And there were times when it seemed to have a bias against more "liberal" Mormon writers. (And yes, I agree that "liberal" and "conservative" don’t actually align that well with discussions of Mormon literature, but discussions on AML-List often seemed to sort themselves out that way.) Most frequently (when I was the moderator, at least), writers on both sides of a particular debate would feel beleagered…

  54. Th. says:

    .

    [i]Most frequently (when I was the moderator, at least), writers on both sides of a particular debate would feel beleagered…[/i]

    Then you must have been doing a good job.

  55. I always thought it was an interesting commentary on how all of us as humans tend to "hear" most keenly the voices that are raised in opposition to ours. I also think that all of us are quite aware of the internal caveats that accompany what we write, but which don’t necessarily come through clearly to readers, so that we tend to sound more confident than we are. At the same time, we also don’t "hear" other people’s internal caveats, and so may think of them as being more absolute in their views and more self-convinced than they necessarily are. Something I should remember in my own interaction with others, but often don’t…

  56. Scott Parkin says:

    No, Moriah. I wasn’t calling you a troll, and I honestly can’t figure out why you think I did.

    I was referring to myself as a troll because I fundamentally disagree with the prevailing (if not universal) wisdom offered in this thread that in a worthwhile literature agenda must be discovered *after* writing and not conceptualized *before* writing. In my view agenda should be part of the author’s position and should be at least partially intended.

    I then followed up by naming titles and authors–something that had not been done explicitly up to that point (with the exception of your problems with _The Actor and the Housewife,_ a novel I haven’t read and thus can’t offer a qualified opinion on). As evidenced by the fairly extensive recommendations by others that naming names creates enemies, that would make my extended list of names and titles a trollish activity by the standards evidenced in prior conversation.

    I can’t stop you from choosing to feel slighted, but I honestly wasn’t even thinking of you when I wrote my first comment on this thread. I don’t know you nearly well enough to call you names in a public forum, nor would I choose to even if I did. It’s not my style.

  57. And hence (the whole "troll" thing) an example of the kind of miscommunication I was talking about.

  58. Moriah Jovan says:

    Thanks, Scott. Obviously, I was far too touchy, and I apologize.

    And actually, I agree that one can have an explicit agenda going in. I also don’t think every work has to have an agenda and that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    I agree with whoever said dystopian fiction’s very foundation is agenda, so that never bothers me, one way or another.

  59. Scott Parkin says:

    Well-said, Moriah. Presence or lack of discernible agenda is essentially irrelevant (unless that agenda is well-understood as the author’s primary purpose for the book–in which case it becomes the primary point of consideration). For me agenda is merely a point to be evaluated, like pace, style, imagination, cleverness, insight, fairness, etc. There are enough stinkers on both sides of that fence to beg any fair generalizations, in my view.

    I certainly don’t expect anyone else to share my opinion on that (though it’s always gratifying if when one is not completely alone in one’s thoughts). Likewise, I don’t begrudge anyone else their opinions, even when I feel differently. I just want to clearly understand those opinions.

    I had thought about including _Brave New World_ in my list as a story that was clearly trying to dramatize a very specific idea, but that also worked simply as an interesting story. Maybe the passage of time has softened the dramatic impact of its presentation.

    For me C.S. Lewis’s Space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) went steadily downhill from imaginatively interesting to blatantly (and ham-handedly) metaphorical, to one-sidedly argumentative–and my appreciation dropped off as I went. The Screwtape Letters managed to be aggressively preaching, yet still wonderfully entertaining for me.

    I found Dracula to be exceptional both as metaphor and story, and though I aggressively disagree with the primary arguments made in Frankenstein, I have nothing but good things to say about it as art or tale.

    Jonathan asked about A Christmas Carol (and I might add The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables as functional equivalencies), noting that it makes a very specific and direct argument for its moralistic viewpoint. I think all three of those novels succeed as art, argument, and story at least partially because they make no bones about what their argument is or where their sympathies lie, freeing them to apply their art as storytellers to bringing those ideas alive in vividly constructed scenes.

    I’ll stop talking now; I’m starting to bore even myself. Sadly, a preponderance of words is one of my failings.

  60. Moriah Jovan says:

    I don’t really like talking about my own work, especially ones in progress, but I’m working on something right now that I’m HOPING that I get the balance of art, argument, and story just so–although I have to admit that I don’t have an AGENDA.

    My first book had an agenda, but I don’t think I got overly PREACHY with it. My second book had even less.

    The one I’m working on doesn’t have an agenda. It’s just an allegory of the Atonement.

  61. Annette Lyon says:

    I’ve been quiet for awhile, just watching the interaction and enjoying it–lots of good points.

    But I have to say that holy cow, some definitions are really broad and confusing if an allegory of the Atonement isn’t classified as something with an agenda. If there ever was a story with a clear-cut message the audience is supposed to get, THAT would be the one.

    Moriah, I trust you said that tongue-in-cheek, yes?

  62. Moriah Jovan says:

    Well, Annette, I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t.

    Am I trying to PREACH the Atonement? No. Well, I don’t think so.

    Let me explain. I’m a really lazy writer. I take something that’s been done, strip it down to its studs, put up new drywall and redecorate. Frex:

    Book 1 == Hamlet.
    Book 2 == Gift of the Magi.
    Book 3 == Allegory of the Atonement.

    So in MY mind, there was a story there whose framework and architectural details I could use for characters I’d already created and loved. Someone who’s not familiar with Christian theology wouldn’t get it, but it wouldn’t matter, either. Kinda like the jokes on Rocky and Bullwinkle: they’re funny on a kid level and an adult level at the same time–but the kids aren’t going to get it.

    It’s a game for me, a puzzle. A joke, maybe. Me thinking (totally inaccurately) that I’m clever. So I load my books with Easter eggs (heh, no pun intended). I’m not trying to PREACH anything especially in light of the fact that one of my characters (who is Pagan) argues quite vehemently AGAINST the need for the Atonement.

    (I got the idea from Tom Wolfe. He titles his chapters so oddly and I started to try to figure out what they were, and then I started to GET IT and I was so delighted! Then I started seeing his little Easter eggs here and there, and I SAW them and I was delighted! So I felt like I was sharing a good joke with the author and I was privileged enough to get it.)

    My real goal, though, by using LDS characters in varying states of grace with the church, and especially with this one, is to humanize us to people who don’t know anything about us but think we’re freaks. I wanted to get our culture and jargon out there–CORRECTLY–before other people define us for us and do it INCORRECTLY. (My email is telling me I’m accomplishing this goal quite well.)

    So if I have an intentional agenda with this book, that would be it, because my characters came first and I went scrounging for a story I could wrap them around.

    Here’s the cover, if you’re interested:

    http://b10mediaworx.com/b10mwx/images/2009-07-05-Magdalene-02.jpg

    Oh, and the release date is April 24, 2011. That’s one of my jokes. If you get it, yay! If you don’t, it doesn’t matter.

  63. Th. says:

    .

    I don’t get it.

    What does the sixth birthday of the world’s first cloned dog have to do with the atonement?

  64. Moriah Jovan says:

    Well, Th., if you don’t get it, it doesn’t matter! (See, that’s the beauty of it!)

  65. Wm Morris says:

    I stopped by the Zarahemla Books website today and noticed that this is the way Chris defines what ZB does:

    "We publish provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories that yield new insights into Mormon culture and humanity."

    http://zarahemlabooks.com/

    I do believe he was using "edgy but not apostate" at one time, but I thought that this is a more nuanced, interesting description.

  66. Th. says:

    .

    And smarter. Say "not apostate" and what people remember is "apostate."

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