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LDS Fiction: A Good, Clean Read

April 29, 2009

One of the things I most enjoyed about H.B. Moore’s Whitney-winning historical novel Abinadi is that (and I will be blunt here) Alma the Elder has nonmarital s-x (gotta foil the search engines and bowdlerize my post. So much for bluntness.).

This is not because I am a big fan of gratuitous s-x. On the contrary. I skip over graphic scenes, and I have been known to quit reading books altogether, even books I was really enjoying, because of content issues.

But Moore’s descriptions were not graphic; they were, however, scripturally based — King Noah’s court had wine-bibbers and an abundance of loose women. The scriptures are pretty clear on that point. And yet, it would have been tempting to gloss over that while writing the book. Just make Alma a little drunk, you know. Don’t make him really consort with women.

Kudos to Moore for taking the larger view of the situation: Alma the Elder needed to experience sin, and the sin that the scriptures alluded to, so that his healing could have more power.

Which brings me to the essay Tanya alluded to in an earlier comment, by Orson Scott Card. The gist of it is this: depicting evil is not the same thing as advocating evil. But Mormons get mixed up, and think that because something bad happens in the book, the book is promoting sin.

I agree with this as a writer. You’ve got to show depth to be able to appreciate light. Books that never allow sin feel shallow and fake to me.

But my agreement only goes so far. In my personal reading habits, I hate objectionable stuff, even when it’s in a moral universe that gives it weight and depth. Most of all I hate swearing; if I have to break out my black sharpie too often I just put the book down. If it’s a library book, I stop reading it.

I do waive my objections depending on the book and how effectively it’s done. It’s kind of a case by case basis. But when I feel the depiction of objectionable material start to affect my spirit, even if the book itself does not advocate evil, my goal is to put the book down. Doesn’t always happen; books are my weakness. But that is my goal. And I have quit reading many books because of it.

Here’s the thing though, and I think this is important: every person’s spirit responds differently to this kind of content, and I think it’s important to respect that. A work of art or film that I can’t sit through may have lasting, life-changing impact on another person (this has happened more than once with a book I hated and a dear friend adored).

I’m a big believer in honest writing. And, I’m also a big believer in writing that does not offend my spirit. Are the two mutually exclusive? I don’t think so; I’ve read plenty of books that feel true and not Spirit-offending at the same time. And I think that LDS fiction is getting better and better that way. For so long it leaned towards the not-offending side, at the expense of story truth. I do think things are changing, though. Abinadi shows that Moore made what might have been a tough choice–to tell the truth of the story–at the expense of possibly offending someone who wanted to believe that Alma the Elder was never really caught up in all the doings at King Noah’s court. The book was stronger because of it.

It’s a tough balancing act though, especially because “doesn’t offend the Spirit” is such a personal standard. I don’t yet know how to navigate it as a writer. As a reader, though, for me the key is to have respect for those who will read a book that I can’t get through, and hope that they will respect me in turn, and not think I’m being a goody-goody. I won’t judge you for reading the book if you promise not to judge me for needing to put it down. And vice versa.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2009 3:21 pm

    As part of Heather’s critique group, it was interesting to watch her deal with those issues–and debate with her editor how far she could take those scenes. I think she walked the line really well.

  2. April 29, 2009 7:36 pm

    Very well put, Emily. And I’m glad to hear, Annette, that Heather’s editor was open to debating the issue.

    I have yet to blog about what I learned at the conference and the Whitneys, but I will (probably tonight or tomorrow), and a large part of what I gleaned had little to do with panel discussions or presentations. I suppose it had more to do with the state of LDS writing and publishing, in general.

    Check out my blog on Friday at:

    http://tpmills.wordpress.com

    I should have it all sorted out in my mind and put into words by then.

  3. April 29, 2009 8:04 pm

    I want to see your reading list, Emily. It sounds like we have similar views/preferences.

  4. Emily permalink*
    April 29, 2009 8:28 pm

    Annette, yes, I think she walked the line very well.

    Tanya, I will look for your post–I hope to be able to attend next year.

    Wendy, my reading list… I don’t know. For the last couple of months it’s been all Whitney finalists. I really like YA fiction, though. I’m a Shannon Hale fan, of course. And I like Janette Rallison’s light teen romances. I also really like Neal Shusterman’s dark YA fantasy. And Garth Nix –also children’s and YA fantasy–is amazing. Diana Wynn Jones is on there. And also early Orson Scott Card.

    Who else? Kaye Gibbons (Charms for the Easy Life; don’t remember the content issues, though, because it’s been too long since I read it). Margaret Maron (the early Deborah Knott mysteries are my favorite, but again, I don’t remember what content issues there were). She is a great plotter, and she gives Deborah nice character arcs too, which is hard to do with an ongoing detective character.

    I really liked These is My Words, in spite of some icky stuff. See, I’m scared to make recommendations for fear I don’t warn you about this part or that part, because I didn’t remember it. For me it’s also a question of whether the book allows me to skip over bad stuff easily, or whether it’s scattered everywhere.

    Then there are books laden with every kind of objectionable material which I confess to loving anyway, because of their sheer power. The Glass Castle was like that for me. It’s a memoir of a crazy childhood, and I don’t think she could have told it any other way.

    See, sometimes I put the book down, and sometimes I keep reading… But that’s an idea of what I’m interested in.

  5. April 29, 2009 9:53 pm

    Thanks for the review! We are on the same wave-length. One small technicality is that in the first paragraph, it should read Alma the Elder ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Emily permalink*
    April 29, 2009 9:56 pm

    D’oh–thanks for catching that! ๐Ÿ™‚ And for stopping by.

  7. April 30, 2009 3:42 am

    Certainly one of the reasons Heather deserved her award! She’s got talent.

  8. April 30, 2009 10:41 pm

    I’ve always liked that piece from Orson Scott Card and I think he sums up things well. Honest writing doesn’t have to be explicit, but it sometimes has things that aren’t very comfortable in it and sometimes things are kind of graphic. I’m fairly omnivorous as a reader and I always worry that someday a blog reader will get upset at me for recommending a book on my blog, but I figure that people can investigate things on their own before they read them. And if they want to know more they can always ask me. I always hesitate to recommend books in person, though, unless I know a person really well or know what other types of things they like to read.

    This book sounds really good–one reason I’m glad to return to Utah is the opportunity to check out Mormon books from the local library again. I know I should buy them to support the authors (and my hubby is a writer), and I try to do that, but I just don’t have that much money. If I do like something and want to share it, then I will certainly buy it. Anyways, this is long and off-topic. I love your insight on books and reading.

  9. May 1, 2009 4:35 am

    Becky, thanks for stopping by.

    FoxyJ, I hear you on the money issue. I would love to support my favorite authors, including the LDS ones, more than I do. I’m so grateful for libraries. And thanks for liking the reading posts ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. thmazing permalink
    May 8, 2009 6:49 pm

    .

    This is a book I’ve had my idea on for a while and your post makes it seem even more worthy of my attention. I’m glad to see some (virtuous) boldness.

  11. May 8, 2009 7:09 pm

    .

    Hi, sorry. Ignore this comment. I’m just trying to figure out a wordpress thing……

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