In Vacuums

Arts Book Review Values Women

We had a long discussion recently about an author’s personal background here. The discussion centered around whether or not an author’s personal background was fair game. Particularly if an author’s background appears to relate to their work (or illuminate parts of their work).

I would like to suggest that an author’s background may be an important part of any discussion of a piece of literature. It might not be the only thing to discuss (what’s the plot like? What is the use of language? How believable are the characters, the dialogue?) – but it could be a part of the discussion.

Many famous authors are just as famous for their lives as their work (Byron, Hemmingway, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, etc.) It’s hard to divorce where the fame over the work ends and the noterity begins.

Could we appreciate those authors (Byron, Hemmingway or Dosteovsky) without knowing some of their personal life? Of course – many people aren’t aware of some of the more colorful parts of the authors’ pasts. I think it leads to greater understanding of an individual work. Knowing a war was going on when something was written – and that the author either opposed or supported that war. Or understanding the McCarthy trials, and reading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”.

Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

But it’s also problematic if people write only from their own direct experiences.

I once heard a male author remark that he could write from the female perspective because he had a wife and three daughters. Something didn’t sit right with me about his comment.

I don’t think male authors can always write well about the female perspective or vice versa. What I think irks me is the idea that one novel or one piece of work is the sum total of a population’s “experience”. And this goes for women, men, gays, mormons, etc.

Historically, there are “under-served” populations that did not have their own voices in art and literature. As mentioned in this exponent post – some populations are overlooked by publishing in favor of majority authors.

Does this mean that one population (like men) can’t write about another population (women)? Is one opinion more or less valid?

I believe moderation is the key. I think each serious author has the obligation to research the populations they are writing about. I think it would be disingenuous for me to write about flying planes in Alaska – as I’ve never even been to Alaska. With that said, imagination is a component, and part of the process. I don’t have to have been a pilot in Alaska to be able to write about those experiences.

Which leads me to mormonism.

Authors (bloggers or authors of published work) shouldn’t have to prove mormon credentials or tell everything about their own mormon experience(s) in order to write about mormonism, growing up mormon, or living amongst mormons. There is a long discussion on Andrew’s blog here about this very topic.

To me, it seems like another version of the age-old convert vs. born “in the covenant” mormon. The insidious argument that because someone was not born LDS, they don’t really know mormonism, can’t really know mormonism. And it is true, just as someone who is born Roman Catholic is different than someone who converts, mormons also have different histories.

Yet with that said, the one experience or perspective doesn’t invalidate the other. Many faithful LDS might not like reading what we write, those of us who have left the LDS church in whatever capacity. That doesn’t mean that we can’t try to better understand where the faithful are coming from; and that we can’t speak up about our experiences and opinions.

An author shouldn’t have to explain where they come from, or what their beliefs are, before stating their opinion. But they should be prepared to defend what they’ve written.

12 thoughts on “In Vacuums

  1. I’m glad you think so. I do too. While I’m LDS, when a friend’s wife years ago told me his wife was leaving him for a polygamist (they were temple-married LDS) and planning to take their kids with her into the new subculture of polygamy, I had trouble grappling with the situation.

    Eventually, to deal with getting my head around it, I started writing. At first I just dabbled, journalized, etc., and then it kind of got to be fun. Of course, like all beginning writers, I thought I’d try to write a novel, and soon I was dreaming of a big audience, etc. Perhaps you know how it is.

    I figured a novel about the subject — betrayal by a wife leaving a monogamous husband for a polygamist — would have a better chance with an editor or agent or just a regular reader if it involved non-Mormon victims rather than Mormon ones. So I made the man a Midwesterner and his family all Catholic. I didn’t know much about Catholicism or polygamy per se. But it was fun learning more about them. And I don’t think I had to be Catholic or a Fundamentalist to do it.

    Perhaps, however, readers of my novel, Time for All Eternity, might think otherwise, but so far no one has said I goofed it up. If anyone would like to check it out, it’s available.

    By the same token, I don’t think I have to be an ex-Mormon to write about those who have left the LDS faith either.

  2. One comment that I really liked on the thread where Jonathan Langford reviewed Alan’s book was this one.

    In particular, we have to set up a trust system. It’s not about proving credentials of what we were then or how faithful we were or how authentically Mormon we were…rather, it’s about providing “a good ride with lots of twists and turns” FIRST and then bringing in our own perspective…it’s about realizing that a good story is a good story, so we need to stop thinking there is something so drastically different about our story just because the particulars are so peculiar.

    I think this is a slightly different argument than the BIC vs. convert argument, but I still think it’s important. I think we are not providing a good ride first, and that is the problem.

  3. I think that writers absolutely can and should write characters whose perspective and experiences are very different than the author’s. Otherwise your characters would be pretty uninteresting, with just the same type of person over and over. 😉

    IMHO, the key is curiosity. You have to wonder what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes — not just assume that you already know (or worse, assume that everyone in category X is so uninteresting that you don’t care what their experience is like).

    In the case of the guy who said “he could write from the female perspective because he had a wife and three daughters” — I think it’s far from automatic that you’d just pick up their perspective by osmosis. However, since he’s a parent of three daughters, there’s a very good chance that he has indeed spent a lot of time wondering what their lives are like, which helps.

    Also, I agree with Andrew that the characters are just one component of weaving the whole story. But they’re a very important component. I’m unlikely to enjoy a story if I don’t find the characters interesting.

    wreddyornot — Sounds very interesting! Can I get a review copy of your book? chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com.

  4. My feeling on this subject at present (it shifts…) is if there are nonfictional accounts lacking in the world, an author has an added responsibility of authenticating their fiction and the easiest way to do this is by talking about personal experience. I do not see why an author should be averse to talking about personal experience, at least vaguely (there’s a reason people publish anonymously).

    If there are plenty of accounts in the world, then this is less necessary and less relevant. At that point, it seems to be a question of “did you stereotype too much?” or “did you stereotype enough?” In my novel, for example, I felt a need to somewhat stereotype or “Mormonize” my characters who might not otherwise seem Mormon, but who, for the record, were created based on personal experience in the realm of “gay Mormon youth.”

  5. Alan — I agree that writing from your own experience is perfectly valid, and is often a very good idea. @3 I just meant that it’s highly unlikely that your alter-ego character is the only character in the story. I think it’s useful to spend some time thinking about the story from the point of view of the other characters. This helps to ensure that the surrounding characters are lifelike.

    It’s very true that hitting the right balance on stereotypes is tricky! If you go out of your way to avoid all stereotypes (or to write all the characters as the opposite of expected stereotypes), many people will find it unrealistic (including people in the group you’re writing about).

    IMHO, the key is balance. Each main character should be well-rounded (including some traits that are stereotypical and some which aren’t). Plus, where possible, you can include multiple characters from a given category — some of whom fit a given stereotype and some which don’t — like in real life!

  6. 1- Thanks for stopping by wreddy. It is complicated. I think the Catholic experience is just as complicated as the mormon one. And even midwest vs. west or other parts of the U.S. With that said, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak…

    2 – Andrew – I’m not sure what you mean by good ride. That the story itself hasn’t been interesting enough or or engaging enough for the “great mormon novel”? Or that various bloggers haven’t been interesting enough?

    3 – It is true – one cannot pick up on experience just by osmosis. I think any investigation has to be deliberate. That’s where the art comes in, to my mind. Some people are able to write beyond the stereotypes, with believable characters in a plot and others are not. I don’t think this is related in the slightest to mormonism….

    I don’t think a person has to identify with the main characters or even like the main characters. I agree that characters should be well rounded.

    4 – Strangely enough, we talked about this in my book club – the idea of “memoir” vs. “novel”. In some books (notably _The Glass Castle_) many reviewers thought that it had to be partially fiction, that her work couldn’t be completely true. Then, with another novel we read – the question was how much the author’s own life related to the novel – can’t remember which book that was at the moment. We agreed in the end that writers are d*mned if you do, d*mned if you don’t.

  7. I dont think a person has to identify with the main characters or even like the main characters.

    True, but I think the characters at least need to be interesting. I think the classic example is “Lolita” (which I haven’t read). They say the protagonist isn’t sympathetic, but at least he’s interesting…

    That said, I think I enjoy a book more if I can sympathize with the protagonist at least a bit. Then there are cases where the author clearly means for you to like (and identify with) the main character, but you, in fact, can’t stand the protagonist. That can be grating…

  8. re 7:

    aerin, in this case, the good ride means that our story hasn’t been relatable enough period. It doesn’t have to be for the “great mormon novel,” but just for interactions with other Mormons, period. Unfortunately, the reader determines whether they relate to a story or whether it’s foreign.

    We jump in with the unique parts of our story, but we don’t establish the *general* relatability, I guess.

  9. Actually, I’d probably edit my comment to bounce of what chanson had said in 8.

    It’s true that we don’t have to identify with the main characters (so in the sense I’m talking about, Mormons don’t have to *be* exMos and exMos don’t have to be faithful), but the characters need to be interesting without pushing us COMPLETELY away, (which even an unsympathetic character can do if characterized properly…), and if we can identify on at least SOME level, then that inclines us to have more leeway with our disagreements and disliking of the character.

  10. I think the classic example is Lolita (which I havent read). They say the protagonist isnt sympathetic, but at least hes interesting

    I’ve heard people say that we’re supposed to be sucked in by Humbert Humbert and sympathize with him. But that certainly wasn’t my experience. I’ve never hated another protagonist the way I hated him. But I couldn’t put the book down.

    Then there are cases where the author clearly means for you to like (and identify with) the main character, but you, in fact, cant stand the protagonist. That can be grating

    **cough** Twilight **cough**

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