Part Two may be found here.
When a writer presumes an audience for her work based upon whom she believes readers of similar works to be, she fictionalizes her audience, integrating them into her imaginative effort. When readers imagine a writer’s life based upon what they understand her work to mean, they fictionalize her right back. Furthermore, in the process of bringing their own stories — the narratives of their lives — to a novel, poem, etc., readers make of the writer’s work what they will, fictionalizing the work as well as its author. As long as everyone — writer and audience members alike — accept the fictitious roles each thrusts upon the other, the narratives flow like beer at frat parties and everyone has a good time.
There’s more to it than that, of course. Good stories do more than merely entertain, inebriate, or provide escape from the ordinary. I keep saying this, but it’s true: Language does things to and for us. The human capacity for narratizing experience changes us individually; in many cases, it changes the world.
But sometimes one or more parties in the writer-audience relationship reject the fictitious roles each projects onto the other. For instance, whatever the original context might have been, the Christianity Today interview with Richard Dutcher is filled with statements geared toward rejecting projected roles. The first lines of the interview contain a mild rejection of the role audience members have thrust upon the filmmaker: “Richard Dutcher is a Mormon filmaker. But please don’t call him that.” These lines from Dutcher reveal his fictionalization of his (former?) audience: “Word’s gotten out that my films are a little edgier than the others, and have a little more depth and are actually about something. And I think the Mormon community just doesn’t have reverence or respect for art. It certainly doesn’t understand film as an art form.” During the AML-List discussion of this interview, several respondents rejected or otherwise distanced themselves from the fictitious roles of shallow, unsophisticated, and/or unappreciative audience members they feel Dutcher projected onto them, creating new ones for him in the process.
In Part Two of this series, I said that, traditionally, we’ve granted the writer ascendancy in the writer-audience relationship and that has at times resulted in chauvinism on the writer’s part. By chauvinism, I mean that the artist believes herself superior to her audience and acts with lack of regard for audience creativity or as if she had no responsibility to meet her audience on meaningful ground. Chauvinistic writers batter audiences with language, bullying them via destructive plotlines or angry or unfathomable diction. They proclaim themselves keepers of the creative flame and reserve to themselves full rights to experimenting with truth. Chauvinistic writers might not realize they are being chauvinistic or care — a blindness innate in chauvinism. Whatever grand ideas about the nature of art and of truth they claim to hold, ultimately such writers’ reasons for writing are rooted in their desire to keep their worldviews intact. Which, ironically enough, often falls out as their chief criticism of unappreciative audiences.
Readers reject roles writers project onto them simply by refusing to join the audiences for particular writers’ works. For instance, readers have told me, an occasional mystery writer, that mystery or suspense is just not their “thing.” I don’t like slasher/monster fictions — much — and avoid looking at those sections in book or video stores because even the covers of books and movies, once seen, provoke fictionalization in the mind of the beholder, and I have a low terror threshhold.
So in the national book market, it appears that readers simply don’t join audiences for fictions they want no part of. But sometimes the audience subverts the traditional power structure of the writer-audience relationship and, assuming authority formerly reserved only to the most tyrannical writers, rejects a writer soundly, denying her creativity in ways similar to those whereby writers deny audience creativity. I don’t know how often this happens in the national market, but I know that in the smaller Mormon lit market readers do at times assert creative control, and when they do so, it makes a respectable splash.
I know of LDS authors who, at reader outcry, have been forced to remove “offensive” scenes from their novels or had their work returned to booksellers and publishers with strong reader reprimands. In the national book market, such readers voluntarily eliminate themselves from audiences for fictions they wish to avoid; only in their “home” market do they become activists. Probably activist-readers have many reasons for behaving differently in the “home” market from how they behave in the national one. But among the reasons they leap to action on home turf roams the same one chauvinistic writers have for harassing or rebuking their audiences: Whatever ideas about the natures of art and truth they hold, audience members assert creative control out of a powerful drive to preserve their worldviews.
IMO, any Mormon writer writing for the “home” market ought to respect boundaries the reading segment of the community has set. Granted: Literature whose purpose is to launch frontal attack upon Mormonism exists, but Mormon publishers like Deseret Book, etc., don’t publish such work, and many readers of DB etc. products aren’t trolling for fights. In fact, they buy such products because they believe they won’t have to fight, because in their fictionalizations of proper Mormon writers and appropriate home markets they imagine that there, at least, the stories of their lives — which include their ideals — are safe. Whether or not such a belief is rational or realistic or honest is beside the point. It is a compelling enough fiction that when faced with Mormon readers’ rejections of minor scenes where, for instance, a teenager prances around sans clothing or a troubled priesthood holder honestly faces temptation, Mormon booksellers and publishers will choose the readers’ fictionalization over the writer’s as the more profitable (safer) of two conflicting fictions.
Is this right or wrong? Well, like many choices we make, it’s both right and wrong. The question is, what’s a Mormon writer to do?
One obvious solution: If a writer writes a story containing parts that lie outside of the acceptable range of mainstream Mormon fictionalizations, she should take it to the national market, which accomodates a broader spectrum of acceptable fictions. Sometimes a Mormon writer whose work might have met with disapproval if they had first published it in the smaller Mormon market will find greater acceptance at home once they have achieved success in the wider market.
Publishing with smaller, off-the-beaten-track, Mormon-market-oriented presses like Signature Books, the up-and-running Zarahemla Books, or university presses, will automatically eliminate “undesireable” audience members. However, a writer choosing this path might find her story tossed automatically onto mainstream readers’ slush piles of undesireable fictions, whether or not the work contains objectionable material. Regardless, these markets will grow.
Many Mormon writers who feel strongly about publishing in the “home” market have no trouble producing work that falls within the range of acceptable fictions. Like the Mormon readers who seek publishing safe houses, such writers don’t especially want to have to fight to preserve their narratives, especially their narratives of the ideal. In fact, writers of safe house fictions create out of a desire to bolster the truths they love. Readers of safe house fictions read them in search of supportive stories — stories that augment their worldview and shed friendly light upon it.
IMO, Mormon writers who feel strongly about writing for their home market, and who, like Dutcher, aspire to writing “edgier” stories, ought not to expect safe houses to empty of residents as they flood theaters and rush bookstores to acquire “riskier” stories. Nor should they expect them to rush to stories that, while they support overall the preferred safe house fictions, contain edgier moments. Such edgy moments might be the kinds of moments that caused people to take to safe houses in the first place. Either aim for the smaller, edgy-material-friendly, Mormon-themed publishing houses or go for national markets with broader arrays of acceptable narratives. Interested readers will find them either place.
Or, where the stories you love differ radically from those usually esteemed by the folks to whom you wish to tell them, tell them in ways that make it possible for others to love what you love — tell your stories with generosity of tone, allowing for audience creativity and agency at many levels. The writer who considers members of her audience to be no better than rough drafts in desperate need of revision with no meaningful stories of their own falls to chauvinism and brings her own narratives up short. Furthermore, in the grand schemes of creation, truth, and human progression, no story ought to imagine itself to be above revision.