Mormons Can’t Write Real Literature?

I wanted to add my two cents on this NYT piece that’s been causing a bit of a stir in the (rather substantial) LDS writing world. Having read and re-read the article several times, I can honestly say I’ve seen much meaner articles. It’s not anti-church or anti-LDS to the degree that I’ve come to expect from the dogged critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (one might call such critics “devoutly opposed”) but it does bring up that hoary old drawing room argument: what constitutes Real Literature?

The first basic assumption the article-writer seems to be making is that Real Literature cannot, by definition, have a happy ending. Or at least it must not be happy in tone. It must be Serious in tone. Ergo, the conclusions and/or outcomes must be morally ambiguous, and the story or book should have as part of its foundations at least one or more nihilistic pillars.

The second basic assumption the article-writer seems to be making is that Real Literature cannot, by definition, have a niche or genre label attached to it. Thus anything that is Science Fiction or Fantasy or Young Adult or Paranormal, no matter how widely-read or how widely-sold, does not qualify for Real Literature status.

Guess what? I think the article-writer is precisely correct. Real Literature cannot have a genre label nor can it be non-dreary, because what is and is not defined as Real Literature is not up for public debate. It is a (painfully) crafted insiders’ list of names and titles compiled by academics and critics. Who, perhaps not coincidentally, have a disproportionately high number of struggling and failed writers in their ranks. People not concerned with whether or not what you and I read is enjoyable as much as whether or not it’s been declared Important and Meaningful; according to the standards, prejudices, and peccadillos of that self-same body of academics and critics.

Thus we often see Real Literature thrust at us the same way our mothers used to thrust Brussels sprouts at us across the dinner table.

But does any of this Real Literature stand a ghost of a chance of being remembered or read in 100 years? How about 200? Or 1,000 years? More importantly (to my mind): if Science Fiction and Fantasy can’t qualify for Real Literature status, what hope is there that any of what I (or any other genre writer) compose can have any kind of lasting impact, for good or ill?

We get a hint of what’s possible by examining an author like J.R.R. Tolkien. A man not so far removed from our age (as Shakespeare is) to make him economically remote, yet far enough still (in the past) that we can see how well his writing has survived (popularly) across generations more recent than his own.

Tolkien — an academic, yes, but primarily a fantasist; thus his genre label — has achieved such world-wide impact that it is impossible to examine any example of modern fantasy (at least the kind involving swords, knights, dragons, and elves) without following the jellybean trail back to Tolkien’s proverbial Hobbit hole in the English countryside. Lord of the Rings and all that surrounds it has become so enmeshed in the hearts and minds of modern entertainment consumers, you simply can’t pluck it out. It’s part of who we are now, as participants in Western culture. And has been so to an ever-greater degree since at least the 1960s.

Yet Tolkien is only now being (grudgingly) allowed into the canon of Great Literature — and then at a snail’s pace, with unhappy hemming and hawing by the academics and the critics. Mainly because Tolkien (or rather, Tolkien’s legacy) has been far too financially successful. Because one of the key sins (of Great Literature) is to make boxcars full of money.

The other key sin is being spontaneously popular. The deciders of Great Literature do not easily abide anything which achieves widespread public recognition outside accepted literary or critical channels. Anything or anyone not properly baptized and anointed at the inception will have a difficult time finding acceptance in the lit crit cloister later on.

Yet, barbarian writers (and their works) seem to be thriving all over the place. With what I might be tempted to call hybrid vigor. LDS writers especially.

Case in point. I routinely visit the homestead of Larry Correia. A man who has, in recent times, seen phenomenal success with his Monster Hunter International series. Very genre. Very label. And very, very popular. It wasn’t that long ago that Larry was (as all of us are in the beginning) unpublished, and struggling. Now the man writes full time, and enjoys a splendid level of country living (with his lovely wife and four delightful kids) such that he and his family would be the envy of any five dozen starving Real Literature artists.

So how does Larry do it?

As the title of the series implies, Monster Hunter International is not precisely Maya Angelou. It’s a hard-hitting, fast, fun series of adventure books which essentially bring every boy’s (and many a girl’s) favorite childhood fantasy to fruition: good guys with lots of guns and lots of attitude, taking on every creeping, howling, crawling, fanged, slimy example of monstrous-under-the-bed nightmare demon you can imagine.

Now, the premise alone does not make the series a success. But because Larry is a very proficient and entertaining wordsmith (with more knowledge in the field of small arms than the entire training cadres of most small countries’ armies) and he genuinely enjoys his characters and the world he has created for them, the love and energy Larry has for this series shines through on just about every page.

Thus Monster Hunter International sells like hotcakes. Because writers who are talented and excited about their own books tend to accrue readers who enjoy and are excited about those very same books.

Would Larry sell nearly as well if he wrote something else? Perhaps designed to appeal to the lit crit sensibility? For example, an emotionally claustrophobic and dreary tale (ala “Cipher in the Snow”) about a bullied gay teenager who is misunderstood by both parents and friends, and who ultimately concludes life is cruel and meaningless, thus (s)he commits suicide — said story to have been picked up by a Midwestern college journal (for payment in contributor’s copies) where it would be read by literally dozens of other lit crit types, all writing similar stories and trying to “sell” to similar journals at similar schools?

In a word: no.

So, does it even matter if a guy like Larry ever gets the blessing of the academics and the critics?

To my knowledge, Edgar Rice Burroughs never got it. Yet everyone knows the character Tarzan, and almost everyone has heard of John Carter and the lovely Deja Thoris. Characters made immortal (or as close to immortal as you can get) in the collective popular imagination of our era.

Likewise, I don’t think Frank Herbert ever got any sort of critical or academic attention for Dune when it debuted — not in magazines like The New Yorker or The New York Times Book Review. Yet the various books of the Dune series (by Herbert, and also by his son Brian, in collaboration with my friend and mentor Kevin J. Anderson) have become the top-selling original Science Fiction series in the history of the English language. And have spawned several movie adaptations.

So that, as with Tolkien, there are new generations of pop culture consumers who know the Dune universe for precisely the same reason they know Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe: they saw and/or enjoyed the book(s) through transformative interpretive visual media.

Larry’s already got people interested in making Monster Hunter International into a Hollywood property. It would not shock me to see this series on the large or small screen soon. As Gene Roddenberry discovered (and George Lucas knows fully well) once your popular intellectual product is being ingested by the hungry hearts and minds of youthful moviegoers or television enthusiasts, your IP takes on a life of its own, and hardly anything can stop it. Least of all unhappy, dyspeptic academics or critics who wish the unwashed masses paid more attention to stories like the aforementioned “Cipher in the Snow.”

So allow me to conclude that whether or not any critic, meta-critic, or academic deems a thing worthy of being called Real Literature, is just about meaningless. That IP which survives beyond the lifetime of its creator, transcends most contemporary judgments of what is (or should be) considered Important and Meaningful, anyway. Such IP has managed to attain a voice unto itself, speaking to the hearts of readers (or moviegoers, or television series enthusiasts) on a wavelength above and beyond the mere sniping of intellectuals.

Furthermore, allow me to similarly conclude that any judgments — as to whether or not LDS writers and LDS fiction are “too happy-clappy” to be worthy of Real Literature status — are meaningless.

Ours (the gospel, doctrine, and culture of the LDS church) is not an epistemological framework prone to self-indulgent bellyaching about the existential meaninglessness of a Godless, randomly-constructed cosmos. Ours is foundationally based on the idea that the world, while flawed, was put here with a purpose. And that each of us on it, large or small, millionaire and pauper alike, similarly has a purpose. Perhaps not discernibly great in the eyes of the world. But great in the eyes of a Creator who wants each of us to strive and to learn and to grow beyond ourselves — to seek and magnify talents, abilities, and our understanding of our purpose in the universe. To make good choices with the most precious of all gifts: our free agency.

Naturally, that kind of outlook isn’t going to churn forth a significant number of authors concerned with appeasing academic or critical circles. There are 41,976,423 writers far more capable of cranking out dreadful, boring, morally ambiguous fiction about dreadful, boring, morally ambiguous people, than us small circle of LDS writers. So we (as a whole) simply don’t bother. We tell the stories that our hearts demand that we tell. And let the critical, academic, and financial chips fall where they may.

Typically, the financial chips turn out to be made of silver and gold.

Mormons, it seems, have a penchant for doing as Tolkien did: writing bold tales, told boldly. Of deeds true and brave. Of memorable characters — not perfect perhaps — but nevertheless concerned with issues of Right and Wrong; and not in the relative sense, but in the sense that these are real things worth caring about. And I think audiences respond to that the way a thirsty man in the desert responds to being offered a glass of water. There are so many forces in our lives pushing and compelling us to compromise our principles, ourselves, our sense of duty and justice, that it’s supremely refreshing to see any story plant a solid flag in the soft soil of moral ambiguity and declare: these truths will not be shifted!

Label it simplistic, sure. If you’re looking for a group of authors adept at subtly constructing worlds wherein sexual and ethical depravity are not only common, but laudable, you’re definitely looking in the wrong place. Go watch Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. The LDS writing community’s aggregate product is probably not for you.

But that doesn’t mean LDS authors can’t be nuanced. Nor does it mean LDS writers can’t tackle hard subjects, or that we can’t deal with difficult relationship details, or even (if the need arises) intimate explorations of what it means to be human; or alien.

It just means that LDS authors are liable to take a side in the matter. Informed by our particular vantage point on the human religious-political spectrum. It’s not a vantage point tailored to please all comers. But it’s a valid vantage point just the same. And — clearly — LDS writers have not been shy about putting the proverbial literary trumpet to their lips, and sounding off. There are hundreds (thousands?) of us doing it, to one degree or another. And we’re making some decent cash along the way, thanks to readers who respond positively to what we have to offer. Whether those readers are LDS or not. Which they don’t have to be.

Do we, as LDS authors, occasionally get to hear gripes from fellow church members for it? Or church leaders, even?

Sure. Orson Scott Card is somewhat notorious for having had an entire file drawer filled with complaints against him — all from LDS church members who felt offended by something Card wrote which was not “Mormon enough” in one respect or another.

Do we let it stop us? Do our church officials and leaders remonstrate us or threaten us in any way?

Honestly, the worst I personally have ever gotten from anyone in any position of authority, was some mild teasing about how my characters curse, or drop the f-bomb now and again. Otherwise, said authority not only bought my fiction, but said he enjoyed my theologically-themed Analog magazine stories “The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy” to boot. Because they spoke to him as a lay minister in our religion.

So, clearly, living in the LDS church and being able to fully explore the human condition through story, are not mutually exclusive propositions. Let’s sweep that little (false) chestnut into the fireplace where it belongs, shall we?

Likewise, let’s ditch the idea that writing “in-genre” is any kind of limiter.

In the years I’ve been writing and publishing — primarily award-winning and award-nominated Hard Science Fiction — I have not once felt that my chosen “label” posed any kind of limits. Far from it. My canvas is . . . the whole universe. Galaxies and stars and planets, peopled with a potentially endless menagerie of creatures and intelligences. Many of which are, to borrow Larry Niven’s quip, as smart as you or me, but just think differently. My stories can travel to the far future or the distant past, I can (and have) changed history, reversed fortunes, re-fought wars, pitted thoroughly alien minds against one another until they discover (sometimes the hard way) that neither of them is superior to the other, and explored the heart-wrenching aspects of addiction, abuse, of relationships broken by time and distance, only to be made whole again through effort, long-suffering, and love.

Tell me again how I am limited? Because I’m just not seeing it. Nor am I seeing where or how the original NYT article-writer arrived at his particular conclusions. I suspect he took a very hasty, shallow sample — just enough to confirm his pre-existing ideas. So that it’s not we the LDS authors who need to more fully grasp and grapple with Real Literature. Oh no. I think Real Literature (and the lit crits) need to more fully grasp and grapple with us.

About Brad R. Torgersen

Science Fiction & Fantasy Author - Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award nominee
This entry was posted in General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Mormons Can’t Write Real Literature?

  1. wasatchdan says:

    Good post, Brad. I very much agree with you.

    The one question I never see asked about the literati is this–what makes these people who claim to be the stewards of the written word worthy of the title? What makes them important at all? I guarantee that the vast majority of these self-important windbags aren’t worth knowing in the real world, if their works are any indication. and if I wouldn’t want to know them personally, why would I want to read the mental diarrhea they spew out in the pages of a book? I’ll take one Larry Correia or one Brad Torgersen over a thousand of these nihilistic, sad sack clowns any day.

    As far as good LDS fiction goes, since I moved to Salt Lake and become familiar with all the quality LDS writers in this town, I’ve found myself happily devouring their books, which call to me in ways that other authors sometimes don’t. I think your observation that LDS people believe in good and evil, right and wrong, and black and white is what makes me like their books so much. Mormons believe in things. They don’t drift between shades of gray and worry so much about appealing to every side that they wind up with no convictions of their own. It’s refreshing. I’m sick of political correctness. I’m sick of authors who parse their words so carefully that they squeeze all the soul out of their work. I’m sick of authors who worry so much that someone, somewhere, might be offended by something they may say that they wind up not saying anything good at all.

    What I want most of all is for somebody to tell me a good story that doesn’t sucker punch me in the end. I want a good ending; not necessarily a happy ending, but a good ending. I want it to be right. And if there is no room in literature for happiness or joy, to hell with it. I’ll take genre fiction any day.

  2. masgramondou says:

    No no, you’re selling your artisitc soul to Mammon for a pot of message (or something like that) and therefore. And apparently literature can only be produced if you suffer for your art – where suffering means tenure at some minor university out in the sticks somewhere

  3. Julie Frost says:

    Considering the fact that most if not all hoity-toity lit-ra-CHURE is unmitigated boring depressing crapola read by twelve people, I wouldn’t want to write it anyway, because blech. I’ll stick with my werewolf fiction, thanks.

  4. I have a theory that most people only say it’s great lit-ra-CHURE because they won’t want to look stupid in front of other people who are also too afraid of looking stupid to admit that what they say is great lit-ra-CHURE, is actually tedious and boring. (wink)

  5. HAH! When I was 18 (and scripting a little SF serial on the local community radio station) I sat in on one class at the local university, which was designated in the class catalog as a “literature class for aspiring writers.” After listening to the putz prof drone on for an hour about how awesome he was for getting one book published with a small press, I hopped up to him (young, innocent, eager-beaver that I was) and told him I was an aspiring SF author, and could his class help me. Guy acted like I’d crawled out from under a rock. Treated me like I was subhuman. I have never forgotten that. He almost dripped with contempt for me; like, on a personal level.

  6. Tom says:

    Since I read Larry’s comments on that article, I have basically been telling people that I could write literary fiction if I wanted to, but I just don’t want to spend 300 plus pages writing about how my soggy breakfast is indicative of the futility of life.

    I read to escape reality. If I wanted to write literary fiction, I could just use my life as an example. I bought a newspaper in 2011, the first blogger to ever do that so far as I’ve been able to tell anywhere in the world. I was on cloud nine. Unfortunately, the business was in worse shape than I thought as advertisers left and I’ve been barely holding on ever sense.

    I’m not outlining that because I expect pity. I don’t. Such is life, and I’ll take it as a sign from above. What I’m saying is that what I experience every day is the kind of thing that provides the framework for lit fic. It’s about how much life sucks. The problem is, life DOESN’T suck. Life is amazing!

    Like a lot of people, I read to escape the aspects of my life that actually do suck. I don’t want to read about someone else’s crappy life. I want to read a butt-kicking adventure. I like dark just fine, but there has to be light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve got to see some end to the darkness.

    Of course, I’ve kind of thought the same thing you said above. I often wonder if literary fiction is actually enjoyed by the literati, or whether or not they just say they like it because they think that they should? It’s kind of like movies that way. A pile of movies that racked up awards are just slow as hell to me, kind of like how lit fiction is. I can’t believe someone actually LIKES that.

  7. nshumate says:

    What the poor, beknighted article writer misses is that the original premise — that Mormons will yet have “Shakespeares and Miltons” of our own — does NOT mean that they will produce works fit for the contemporary English Lit canon. Shakespeare wrote crowd-pleasing adventures, bawdy romances, passionate fantasies, and self-congratulatory military epics; Milton wrote epic religious literature. That sounds to me like the very definition of the “genre literature” that our esteemed cultural critic dismisses out of hand as being somehow lesser than the forgotten Nobel prizewinners of twenty minutes ago. Or, to put it another way, Shakespeare and Milton aren’t “theirs,” they’re “ours” — they are the progenitors not of post-Modernist dissections of suburban ennui and patriarchal false-consciousness as written by assistant professors for assistant professors, but of engaging storytellers who speak TO the masses instead of above them. By the metrics of what makes Shakespeare or Milton still readable and readworthy, Larry Correia himself has a helluva better chance of being a “Mormon Shakespeare” who’ll still be read in five hundred years than the contemporary masturbatory academic-lit that isn’t read NOW.

  8. Jettboy says:

    My own reading of Mormon authors is only in the Science Fiction genre. When I was a boy and first heard of Orson Scott Card, I didn’t want to read him because he was Mormon. Since I was of that same religion, it made me very cautious because the Mormon literature I was exposed to was the terrible Deseret Book variety. Finally picking him up was a blessed event. He was good and not sappy. Better than most of the Lit Fic found in the library. Who wants to read boring self-aware nonsense when whole worlds are at your imaginative fingertips? That is what separates good writing from bad writing, no matter the genre.

  9. Well written and argued, as always, Brad. My own reaction to the NYT piece was a loud guffaw. Not so much because he dismissed Mormon authors as genre limited, but because he had so thoroughly avoided talking to, or about, any except Shannon Hale and had allowed so much column space to a guy who was obviously antagonistic towards the faith.

    I appreciate your perspective, and defense, and I’m grateful for the “bold tales” that guys like you invent and write. They are the substance of the stuff that inspired me growing up, and that keep me going when my desk job threatens to bore and dull my brain into oblivion. Keep at it.

  10. Doctor Clu says:

    Was the classic Battlestar Galactica basically written by Mormons? At least the Mormon idealology is there.

  11. Pingback: This Month in Mormon Literature, December 2013 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

  12. pst314 says:

    “The first basic assumption the article-writer seems to be making is that Real Literature cannot, by definition, have a happy ending. Or at least it must not be happy in tone. It must be Serious in tone.”
    That is standard Marxist dogma. (It’s sad how badly leftism has infected our culture.)

  13. pst314 says:

    The Great Literature of past centuries is literature that was popular at the time, and that was enjoyed by later generations. Its first gatekeepers on the way to immortality were not critics and professors, but the entire reading and theater-going public.

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