Friday, September 18, 2009

Can LDS Writers Incorporate LDS Ideas in Works for the Mainstream?

Many years ago, I attended an awards dinner in Salt Lake City, celebrating LDS writers. In the course of making dinnertime conversation, I voiced my opinion that it was a shame that more LDS writers were not writing for the mainstream population.

Well, I sure got put in my place.

My recollection is that more than one of my dinner companions responded forcefully that the mainstream culture had no appetite for LDS ideas, would not be interested in reading them, and certainly would not be interested in publishing them.

Perhaps that is why, in our day, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series -- which features LDS ideas like exaltation and the eternal family unit, without labeling them as such, under the guise of a teenage vampire romance series -- has sold skatey-eight million copies. (The author has her own labeled sections at Barnes and Noble and Borders. That should tell us something.)

Perhaps this is why Orson Scott Card's Ender series -- which features LDS subtext through and through-- was the first occasion for a novel and its sequel to take the highest honors that science fiction writing gets. (Look for the forthcoming movie to be truly massively popular.)

Perhaps that is why, this week, Dan Brown -- the world's bestselling living author of adult fiction -- released a novel whose conclusion features his (somewhat distorted) version of the distinctive and controversial LDS doctrine of exaltation. (As the GB Shaw-inspired message runs in code on the back of the dust jacket: "All great ideas begin as blasphemies.")

Yeah, the people of the mainstream world can't stand to hear LDS ideas. Not at all.

Except when they can't get enough of them.

Let me state this plainly: The body of LDS doctrine -- concepts like atonement; the plan of salvation from pre-mortal existence to exaltation; the eternal family; apostasies, both societal and personal; repentance; consecration; covenant; our own versions of both angels and demons -- present two wonderful advantages for artists and writers:
  • First, these concepts are distinctive and inspiring, and have the potential to move individuals and entire societies.
  • Second, these concepts have the power to inspire wonderful art. Look at what Dante did with Catholic ideas in The Divine Comedy. Now consider that a good beginning.
My first of two suggestions to LDS writers: don't listen to my dinnertable companions of so long ago. Write your heart out. As artfully as you can, incorporate your vision of the Gospel into your writing. Don't worry about explicitly labeling your ideas as LDS in your writing; get your ideas out there, and people will come to know where your ideas come from. (The first thing that Stephanie Meyers states in her author notes is that "Stephenie Meyer graduated from Brigham Young University"; I don't think that a lot of people read that and miss the fact that she's LDS.)

Something in the world is turning. I don't know how to state it more elegantly, let alone explain it, but . . . something in the world is turning. People are becoming more receptive to at least hearing LDS ideas. Maybe it's the simple fact that there are more of us, over three times more Latter-day Saints in the world than there were when I was baptized during my sophomore year of college in 1975. There are certainly over 7 times the number of temples in the world as there were then. Maybe it's some unexpected manifestation of the Spirit of Elijah. Maybe it's a result of the world falling to pieces, this way and that.

For whatever reason, Latter-day Saints and their religion -- which were simply not on the cultural radar when I was first baptized -- are on the scope now.

Sure, there are negative portrayals of the Latter-day Saints (HBO's Big Love; the forthcoming off-Broadway revival of Angels in America). We also have our share of bizarre fringe elements who attract unfortunate attention in the news media (polygamist arrests in Texas; the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart). And, frankly, we also have some LDS people in the media who do not put us in a good light.

But we also have a temple in Manhattan. (A temple in Manhattan! This is Galactic Central, as far as American media is concerned. A Manhattan temple would have been material for bad science fiction when I was baptized.) We have missionaries in places like Moscow. (I was ridiculed for the very idea that we would preach in Russia, back in the early Seventies.) In other words, we have a larger presence in the world than we have ever had before. As part of that presence, we have writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer, and others who have found a place in the national cultural discourse. Thus, on balance, we have the opportunity to succeed, in working against the negative stereotypes of Latter-day Saints that exist in the media.

Why should we be timid here? Is the world less in need of Gospel-nourished insights than it was yesterday? Are we less creative than we were last week?

My second sugggestion to LDS writers: "Tie yourself to your chair."* Crank up Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten," and write every day. No excuses. No whining. Just do it, now, with a plan. (Apologies to Nike and the late LDS President Spencer W. Kimball for mashing their mottos.)

To paraphrase the Talmud: If not us -- who? If not now -- when?

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My thanks to an anonymous reader who commented on my Dan Brown-related blog regarding Stephanie Meyer. That comment clicked with me, and resulted in this post.

Yes, I have mentioned that dinner before, back in the early '90s in an essay in the now-defunct and lamented Wasatch Review International.

*I am quoting Joshua Henkin from his piece in the September 2009 issue of Writer's Digest (p. 20).

[The images of the woman and the man above were obtained from Wikimedia Commons. The image of the woman, a photo by Produnis, appears under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. The image of the man, "The Writing Master" by Thomas Eakins (1882), is in the public domain.]

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