Sunday, June 24, 2007

Is Reading Fiction Righteous?

An article in Meridian Magazine, written by Davis Bitton, included the following quotes:

"Works of fiction have been sent forth like an overflowing flood, and the public taste has become so vitiated thereby that everything virtuous, truthful or heavenly is unpalatable, and is rejected with disgust." -- George Q. Cannon

Also from George Q. Cannon: "From the character of a man's reading one may tell just what he is full of. Is he filled with sickly sentiment, heated imaginings, dreamy unrealities — this condition being brought about by his reading? If so, he is more than likely to be a devourer of novels — love stories, exciting adventures, tales of impossible "heroes" and all that goes to make up the fanciful and the exaggerated in literature.

“The actual business of life — its everyday trials and victories, its experiences framed in joy or sorrow, its rebuffs and its welcomes, its frost and its warmth — all this seems to him commonplace, if not even vulgar. He either becomes a prey to disappointment — one of the large class who believe the world has some grudge against them and will not give them a chance — or he plods along without ambition because things are not such as his imagination has pictured them."

"Novels not regulated on the chaste principles of friendship, rational love, and connubial duty appear to me totally unfit to form the minds of women, of friends, of wives." -- Sarah Wentworth Morton

"The consciousness of virtue, the dignified pleasure of having performed one's duty, the serene remembrance of a useful life, the hopes of an interest in the Redeemer, and the promise of a glorious inheritance in the favor of God are never found in novels." –- Timothy Dwight

If you would like to read Davis Bitton’s conclusions based on these quotes, please do follow the link and read the article. But now I would like to present my thoughts and feelings about these statements.

I am a voracious reader and a media reviewer. I read over two hundred books a year, and skim probably twice that many for content. I will be among the first to tell you that novels can be destructive. If you spend your time reading books with a lot of violent or sexual content, it will degrade you and remove you from the higher purposes of life. Your relationship with God and with yourself will suffer. Even if you aren’t necessarily a religious person, you will find that reading such books pulls you away from your family and from regular responsibilities. The counsel given in these quotes, to avoid books that would give us a fractured view of reality, is wise and sound.

However, being a voracious reader and also being careful to avoid certain types of content, I will be among the first to tell you of the power of a novel designed to uplift. Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River” instilled in me a strong desire to become more a woman of God so I might be able to work miracles in the lives of those around me. Rachel Ann Nunes’ “Where I Belong” helped me come to peace with the warring factions within me, mother vs. author. “Lifted Up” by Guy Morgan Galli intensified my testimony of the Savior. Yes, these are all lessons that are included in religious instruction, but for some reason, I hadn’t grasped them as fully as I should have, and it took the vehicle of fiction to drive the point home to me. To argue with the last quote above, yes, you can find Christ in a novel.

At Home in Mitford” by Jan Karon showed me the strength that comes from being a good neighbor. “Two Women of Galilee” by Mary Rourke helped me to understand the land and the politics at the time of Christ. Not every novel is designed to distract us from life’s most important lessons.

I thoroughly believe that we should be careful of what we read. I have noticed for myself, as I look for good books to review for, how even reading one questionable sentence before discarding the book can affect me. But there are so many wonderful, uplifting, inspiring books to be found in the world of fiction, and it would be a shame to discard the entire genre based on those that are less than respectable.

As I’ve spoken with many, many LDS authors over the years, I’ve heard countless stories that go something like this:

“I got a letter today from a girl who told me that my book helped her solve a problem with her mother/bring her back to church/decide to break up with a boyfriend who was pressuring her to have sex. She says if she hadn’t read my book, who knows where she’d be now.”

Fiction does have a place amongst God-fearing people. Use wisdom. Use judgment. But don’t automatically label all novels as questionable just because of the large majority of them that are.


Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what was said in the Meridian article "Those Pernicious Novels," and with the counsel of Elder George Q. Cannon -- taken in context. There is certainly an over-abundance of degrading reading material available today, as there was then.

However, having been writing in the LDS community for over 10 years, I've come to learn that what most LDS authors are attempting to do is to enlighten, uplift, and educate as they entertain. LDS novels are an ideal method of achieving that goal.

In fact, LDS novels ought to have a genre name all their own. We really should invent one. They are, more truthfully, nothing more than modern-day parables.

Here's a little piece of prose that I wrote a couple of years ago that sums it all up for me.


Some of Jesus' most effective teaching was accomplished with works of fiction.

He formulated powerful story lines and plots.
He created dramatic conflicts and resolutions.
He invented compelling and memorable fictitious characters.

Through these works of fiction, He taught important lessons and morals.
He wove in subtle messages,
masterfully hidden between the lines.
And with His fiction, Jesus changed people's way of thinking and way of living –-
He, in fact, changed many people's lives for good ... forever.

In essence, He utilized ALL the elements that good fiction writers and novelists strive for.

Today, we call HIS fiction PARABLES.

Is there not room in the world for our Latter-day Parables?
Should we not emulate the Savior in our writing methods?
Can we not aspire to achieve similar, if not the same, end results?

BJ Rowley
Latter-day Novelist

Josi said...

I also agree with a lot of the meridian article, I only wish there had been a paragraph about the fact that there are good and talented people dedicated to making good books available to people that don't want the "poisonous vile" but who enjoy and learn from a good read.

There is plenty of horrible fiction, there is plenty of it that can take us to bad places, but in today's world (not Cannon's world a hundred years ago) with all it's noise and confusion and vying for our time and attention, I for one am glad for the blessing of a good book that reflects my own values, my own hopes and challenges, that makes my day, and maybe even my life, a little bit better.

I'm a little sad that the article was so unsupportive of the strides so many LDS writers and publishers are making. As I said, there were good reminders in the bulk of it, but little 'hope' for those of us that do read (and write) good fiction.

Amie said...

Tristi, thanks for your kind comments on my blog! We have definitely had the week from you-know-where, but we're looking to the future! Hopefully things will slow down soon. =) Great website, by the way...I'm gonna have to look into your novels. =)

Annette Lyon said...

Considering we have apostles who quote fiction, at least one general authority who writes it, and a church-owned publisher who puts out several fiction titles a year, it's pretty safe to say that fiction isn't evil. It's just a matter of choosing wisely. A lot of quotes from leaders from the past no longer apply to modern times, such as the council to never buy factory-made clothing or fabric. Some things need to be read in context.

Heather B. Moore said...

Great blog, Tristi. I, too, have learned a lot from fiction.

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