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.