Emily Milner writes, edits, and blogs for Segullah:Writings by Latter-day Saint Women. You can also find her at her personal blog, Hearing Voices. She spends most of her time lately reading Whitney finalists and nursing her broken leg.
Does good writing matter? I’ve read a couple of interesting perspectives about this, from Shannon Hale and an anonymous poster at LDSpublisher. Shannon Hale holds that the quality of a book is far less important than whether it speaks to a reader. She gives the example of young readers, who might find a lesser-quality book engaging, a kind of gateway book, that could help them appreciate other works later on. Anonymous explains that books speak to different people different ways at different times; one story might engage someone at one point in their life, but bore them at another.
I think there is validity in both of these points of view. My kids love the Magic Tree House books, and they do not boast superb writing. But for my son, these were the books that helped him transition into chapter books. Hooray! There are many books I loved as a teenager, that spoke to my angsty soul, which I don’t care for now. And vice versa–I don’t think my teenage self would enjoy the all books I like now. My tastes have changed.
However, while the reader’s response does matter, I also believe that good writing matters in and of itself. There are at least two reasons for this, both of which should be crucial to Mormons. 1-Good writing is honest; bad writing is dishonest, and 2-Good writing allows the reader his/her own agency; bad writing takes away the reader’s agency.*
Arthur Henry King (1910-2000), scholar and BYU professor, explains that the best, the greatest writing, is absolutely honest. In fact, it was the stark honesty of Joseph Smith’s personal writing that led directly to Arthur Henry King’s conversion:
When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.
…Joseph Smith begins his story in his matter-of-fact way, setting out carefully the reason that he is writing this history and the facts about his birth and family. Then he moves from the matter-of-fact to the ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at the time—the behavior of the New York clergy in trying to draw people into their congregations. He tells about reading the Epistle of James. He doesn’t try to express his feelings. He gives a description of his feelings, instead, which is a very different thing. Look at verse 12:
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” [JS—H 1:12]
I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it as it is, who is bending all his faculties to express the truth, not thinking about anything else—and above all, though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself.
According to King, the best writers in history have worked to tell truth. Great honesty=great writing. I think the issue of honesty is an important factor in evaluating current LDS writing. For example: in an LDS novel I finished recently, the female protagonist is in peril, in a challenging, life-threatening situation, which she accepts with very little complaint.
But it felt like a lie to me. She didn’t demonstrate the normal range of emotion. I think the author wanted to set her up to be a good person. That’s nice. But this protagonist was just too good. She didn’t feel real. She didn’t feel honest. I felt deceived as a reader–was I really supposed to believe that she was as amazing as all that? I wasn’t given enough depth, enough layers, to feel like it was true.
Also in this book, there were several opportunities for the male and female protagonist to get very upset at each other. And they never did. I assume this was because they were supposed to be falling in love. Okay. But don’t you get extremely upset at the people you love sometimes? Isn’t that kind of conflict worth digging into and exploring? In this book, it was never explored in depth. I believe in love more if the romance includes real obstacles, thoroughly explored and then overcome. Again, it felt dishonest.
Character arcs are a crucial part of being an honest writer. If the main characters do not grow or change, the novel is dishonest. Why? Because events as important as the ones worth writing about in the novel would surely change the characters, and cause them to grow and develop. A novel in which the only change in the character’s status is from single to in love, or from in peril to out of peril, is not an honest book.
On to agency. Arthur Henry King explains that an important aspect of Joseph Smith’s writing was that he did not care at all what the reader thought of it. Joseph’s story was true, and he was going to tell it exactly as it happened, without being sensational or trying to convince the reader of anything. Joseph Smith respected his readers’ agency, to believe or not. He did not use writing to manipulate the reader.
A great practical application of this principle of respecting reader agency is the old-but-true standby, “show don’t tell.” Sometimes you do need to tell; it moves the action along. But whenever I’m told too much about a character, instead of shown what they are like, I’m being being forced to believe who they are, instead of allowed to discover them for myself. Whereas, if the author works in character traits through a nice showing scene, my agency as a reader is respected. The more the author tells about a character instead of shows, the less he allows me agency.
I love the way the Whitney website phrases the objective of the Whitney Awards:
Elder Orson F. Whitney, an early apostle in the LDS church, prophesied “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” Since we have that as our goal, we feel that we should also honor those authors who excel and continually raise the bar.
I feel that many of the finalists have raised the bar, and I am grateful for that. I also think that an ongoing conversation about what constitutes good writing in LDS fiction is important. In my opinion, what we as a people should be seeking is honest writing, writing that respects readers’ agency. Asking for writing that follows these ideals isn’t being mean. It isn’t being overly critical or too picky. Instead, it’s seeking to apply fundamental principles of the LDS faith in our literature.
*These ideas concerning honesty, agency, and Arthur Henry King are from writer and writing teacher extraordinaire Tessa Meyer Santiago.