Saturday, June 10, 2017

Book Report (revised! more about what I meant about Mormon fiction)

The past few months I've gotten better at abandoning books that aren't rewarding to me. This involves the skill of evaluating what "rewarding" means to me, the skill of recognizing relatively early on that the book doesn't measure up, and the skill of trusting that when I let go of something that isn't rewarding, room will open up in my life for something better, and that space will be filled soon.

What is rewarding to me isn't simple to define. It's not just what entertains. Well, not completely. Because it's true that I am less and less entertained by "empty calorie" reading than I was earlier in my life. Oh, boy, I'm running into definition issues right and left. I was going to talk about how I used to be satisfied with something that was simply a "good story," but am no longer. But that's not exactly right. It's that my definition of a good story has become more exacting, and fewer things feel like good stories to me.

Let's try this: it's not enough, any more, to have a story depend entirely on plot for its delight. Example: Game of Thrones. Gave up after about eight chapters. The Wheel of Time series—gave up after the first book. I felt like these books were just a series of Things Happening. And yet, I'm thinking of exceptions. I don't think I'd give up on Pelican Brief or Jason Bourne books if I were reading them for the very first time today. What's the difference? Is it that I didn't feel any progression or interest in actual characters (Wheel of Time)? Or that there were too many characters and plots to keep straight in my very memory-weak mind until the time that their interweavings became interesting (Game of Thrones)? I don't know. But even with these exceptions, I can't read them very often or more than one in a row.

I guess it's like growing up and moving to good, chewy bread instead of the childish preference for Wonder bread, or my love of dark chocolate when I only liked Hershey's as a child. In my reading, now, I want FIBER.

I also have no tolerance for when a narrator (author) betrays my trust, either through sloppy, cheesy writing or through the sloppy over-use of details and description.

Recently I abandoned an LDS-themed (Mormon characters) book, A Song for Issy Bradley (by Carys Bray). It reminded me very much of another LDS-themed book that was also written by a writer from the UK, The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth. While I did finish The Friday Gospels, I felt very bogged down, in both books, by the time taken in world-building (that is, creating the sense of Mormon culture). I'd really like to hear others' opinions on this, particularly people unfamiliar with the LDS culture, but to me all the mentions of the inspirational wall-hangings, Sunday-school platitudes, kitsch, etc. felt inauthentic. Not because I didn't recognize these things, but that I felt it was a violation of the characters' points of view to NOTICE them. This is a tricky thing I try to explain to my students: when you are in a certain character's point of view (even if it's a somewhat distant third-person), mentioning details is tricky, because it feels to your reader in a subtle way as if the character is noticing those details. And so the mention of all these details, which are very common in my culture, made me lose trust in the narration because I think a character who has grown up with these things, seen them every day, wouldn't notice them in particular on this day just because his/her story has now begun.

I'm thinking now of Orson Scott Card's example of a bad description of a character leaving a futuristic room: "The door dilated and he went out." The point is that, in the future, no one would comment on the fact that the doors dilate; if all doors dilate and it's part of normal life, we just think/say, "He went out." It would be like us saying today, "The door swung on its hinges and she went out." Duh.  I feel that the use of all these details in books with Mormon settings is similar. I also see this problem in a lot of well-researched historical fiction (The Work and the Glory comes to mind, and quite a lot of setting-heavy young adult historical fiction). We don't really need to know about the style of the fire grate or the pleating on the sleeves of the dress, unless it's somehow pertinent to the story in a way that it makes sense that the character suddenly noticed something that is usually just part of the background.

So when there is so much (unnecessary) detail in a Mormon book, I assume it's there for one of two reasons: either the authir is not, or only minimally, LDS, and wants to show off her research, or she feels that this cultural stuff is somehow pertinent to the story. I like neither of these situations. I'm so tired of the "poor thing; look at the crazy stuff she had to grow up with" story, in which there is always the chastity anecdote of the fondled flower or the chewed gum. I want a Mormon fiction that is as complicated and beautiful (as well as sometimes tragic) as our culture is, and I think too many books go for the low-hanging fruit. And it shows. And I'm tired of it.

The good news is that so much GOOD writing is being done, and I'll never run out of things to read, even despite the books I’m abandoning.

And so here I'd like to tell you about a book I HAVE been enjoying lately. But not because it is great literature or even especially well-written. Rather, because its ideas have been changing me. It is called He Did Deliver Me From Bondage, by Colleen Harrison. This was written as a workbook, or handbook, to accompany Alcoholic Anonymous's 12-step program when used by Mormons. It is basically one women's scripture journal: the results of her search through the Book of Mormon for ways that it applies to the 12-step program (or, inversely, ways that the 12-step program applies to the gospel). I listened to this book on audio, and although I found the voices of the reader (not sure whether she is the author or not) and her co-reader (for the actual quoted scriptures) rather irritating at first (heavy Utah accents, for one thing), after a while I came to love their voices, because I came to love what I was hearing. I picked it up because I had seen the book referred to in another book I was reading, and the referral mentioned that Harrison struggled with an addiction to food. I had been wondering whether I had an addiction to food myself (because I spend so much time thinking about the next time I'm going to eat, and what it will be, etc.).

Through listening to the book, I came to realize that, yes, I do have an addiction—but not to food. I am addicted to feeling in control of my life (perfectionism, I guess, or a variation of it). And the things I learned through this book have given me a glimpse of another way to live. I feel like I have a lot of work ahead of me, that I'll need to listen to this again and again and probably actually work the program, but I am so grateful for the glimpse I got. I am learning, very slowly, how to apply it to my moments of unease (with myself and others). I think I'll talk more about this later, but I just wanted to put this out there in case there are others who might be helped by it. You can get the audiobook from the library.

1 comment:

Emily M. said...

Hi Darlene! This is the post I thought about commenting on. So here goes:

I've been reading a lot of junk food lately. Like, the worst kind of junk food, the sort of book you just inhale like a bag of potato chips, and not even because it's that great, just because it's something to read and it's on my kindle and I don't have to think about it too hard.

And EVERYONE VIOLATES POINT OF VIEW with unnecessary details. In the kind of books I've been reading it's there constantly, and I almost feel like it's more of a genre convention than a flaw in the book itself. Every silly romance novel out there will describe what the female protagonist it wearing, even though it's a POV violation, because that's what's done in those kinds of books.

The best writing only mentions details to the extent that they support the POV, but many many authors just don't even worry about that idea at all.