Thoughts on Standards and LDS Literature

The word Standards has significant cultural meaning in Mormonism. We use it most often to communicate behavior to our children. We urge them and ourselves to maintain our standards. We have Standards meetings and talks. And this view of Standards even translates into other areas of our lives, where we expect the best of ourselves and others.

Unfortunately, this view has its consequences.

Of course, the standards of behavior rooted in the gospel do need to be maintained. But I think we need to be very aware of what our standards mean. A standard is, in effect, divisive. It divides those things or actions that meet the standard from those that do not. Foods either meet the standard of the Word of Wisdom or they do not. Alcohol doesn’t make the cut, but vegetables do. Everything we ingest is on one side or another.

But when we take this kind of either-or thinking about standards into non-gospel areas, such as art and literature, ideas about what is good and beautiful can become rigid. So we would do well to understand when and how we apply standards.

Because standards divide their targets into groups, there are usually at least two perspectives on what the division means. For example, while most Mormons see alcohol use as misguided, at least, many social drinkers, while acknowledging the problems of alcohol abuse, claim that in moderation alcohol helps them in social situations. It lowers their inhibitions, making it easier for them to interact with strangers. Likewise, (and without the consequences of violating the word of wisdom) the unusual portrayal of Christ in The Backslider can be seen as irreverent under one standard and loving under another.

Of course, alcohol use isn’t the standard we’re concerned with here. What is relevant is the standards we apply to the arts and literature. My own cursory review leads me to several different areas where Mormons apply standards to art and literature (there are likely others):

  • Quality — like in the arts in general, we have a large divide between what is often called popular culture and ‘high’ culture. In my view this distinction exists because of different standards. To put it somewhat simplistically, popular culture rests on a standard of popularity and how much the audience enjoys the art. ‘High’ culture, on the other hand, judges on standards of quality and innovation.
  • “Appropriateness” — Perhaps the vaguest of standards used among Mormons, it is widely referenced by many LDS Church members, who render judgment on art or literature saying “its not appropriate.” I’m still not sure what this means, but it is usually applied to what is considered unconventional, uncomfortable or even offensive, even if it is technically moral and in keeping with LDS teachings. [The portrayal of Christ in The Backslider is a good example of this.]
  • “Mormon” — while not a standard used necessarily by the audience to exclude a work of art, it is sometimes used to determine what can be included by academics and even by stores. Unfortunately, its quite difficult to figure out what gets included. Do works need some Mormon element to be considered Mormon? Or is every work by a Mormon artist considered Mormon? If so, exactly who is Mormon? Are those who have left the Church but who are still culturally Mormon creating “Mormon” works of art?
    [I think about the above question every time I look at the book-length retrospective of the work of Wayne Thiebaud that I own. Thiebaud is perhaps the most successful Mormon visual artist to date, but one most Mormons don’t acknowledge or even know about.]

In the arts and literature, criticism is the application of standards to art. As such, criticism institutionalizes standards. Unfortunately, I don’t think that its always done well. Too often we don’t know what standard or standards are being used in a review or critique of a piece of art or literature. This makes it hard to use or trust the review. [I think this is one reason that an audience gravitates to one reviewer over others — the standard the reviewer or critic uses resonates with the audience.]

For those of us interested in Mormon literature and art, I think the most important lesson here is to be aware of what standards are being applied and to consider why those standards are being applied. For example, it occurred to me recently that we may not be giving the home literature period of Mormon literature a fair evaluation, when we judge its value, because generally we judge it with today’s standards, instead of the standards expected by LDS Church members of the time. Of course if we want to evaluate the usefulness of home literature today, then we should be using today’s standards.

I see a similar disconnect in the attitudes of many Church members towards the art and literature promoted by the LDS products industry. Used to the standards of the national market, Church members are often disappointed by the lower standards too often seen in LDS works, and decide that it isn’t useful because it doesn’t hold up in comparison. That comparison is probably not fair, and I suggest that a different standard should be applied.

This issue sometimes reminds me of the Captain Underpants series of books aimed at male pre-teen readers. This low-brow line of stories concentrates on bodily functions and unpleasant (“gross”) things to such an extent that it drew complaints from parents that didn’t want their 8-year-old boys even more preoccupied with these things. In contrast, many teachers and librarians loved the series and encouraged boys to read it. Why? Not because they too liked pre-teen male entertainment. Teachers and librarians loved the series because it got boys to read who wouldn’t read otherwise. Their standard was different.

I’m not suggesting that the LDS market needs to be encouraged in producing low quality works. In my opinion, we need to do everything we can to raise the quality of Mormon literature. I think Mormon literature has fewer high quality works than it needs.

I am suggesting that we need to be careful what standard we use. The sales of Mormon literature shows that it is successful on some level. We just need to find other standards from which to judge it.

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on Standards and LDS Literature”

  1. Does Thiebaud identify himself as a Mormon? Other than the fact that his parents were Mormon is there any reason to identify him as Mormon artist?

  2. Excellent point in your last paragraph, though I would say standards are not meant to divide. We are meant to flock to the standard. Flock to the Title of Liberty. Flock to the brazen serpent (well, look at it.) Flocking to the standard does separate us out from The World, I guess.

    I think high culture is an ephemeral standard, particularly for an American to achieve. Perhaps what Mormon artists suffer is what American artists generally suffer, distilled. At least, insofar as desire to create something of beauty and be frustrated can be call suffering.

    Notice how no one has ever been sainted (to my knowledge) for being an artist. Art is apparently its own reward. Many saints wrote things of great beauty. To my mind, St. Francis works miracles every time someone reads him today. But for the most part, Art is considered aspiritual though honorable, like (in the Catholic paradigm) marriage and childrearing. I’m not certain our cultural programming is free of this perception.

    Well, it’s just a comment. Sorry to run on.

  3. C. Biden:

    Thiebaud does not identify himself as Mormon. He has been inactive since his youth — just like Cyrus Dallin (carved Angel Moroni on the Salt Lake Temple).

    Its a little off topic, but self-identification has problems as a way of determining what is Mormon. in Thiebaud’s case, there are elements in his work that seem, IMO, highly influenced by his Mormon upbringing.

    But I do understand how he would be excluded under many definitions.

  4. Tricia Voss:

    I’m afraid I don’t see how you can say that standards don’t divide! You impose a standard, and you end up with at least two groups — things that meet the standard and things that don’t. By definition, that is devisive!

    Perhaps you are reading the word “devisive” with a negative context instead of as a descriptive term?

    In terms of commandments we want to be devisive — to divie the actions that obey the commandments from those that do not. In terms of loving our neightbors we generally do NOT want to be devisive.

    Whole gospel treatises can be written on these concepts. My use is merely to point out that we end up with two groups. Sometimes this is positive, and other times this is negative (and other times it is neither).

    Standards clearely divide their objects into different groups. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be standards.

  5. The question of “standards” is a sensitive topic for LDS publishers. We have two problematic points of view. One is underscored by Kent’s excellent article: where do we draw the line for what can be discussed, and how we discuss it? The second is Ticia Voss’ comment: “flock to the standard.”

    Kent’s comments relate more closely with what the current market (i.e., publishers) expect from authors. No swearing, no sex, no behavior outside what we would teach at a YM/YW fireside. As a result, good books have been yanked from Deseret Book’s shelves because management felt the books crossed the line.

    The consequence has been that few LDS authors and fewer LDS readers have a chance to explore “real life.” In “real life” we make mistakes. We encounter situations that can be so far off the path beneath the Iron Rod that the question “what would Jesus do?” is inapplicable (He’d never find himself in that situation….). Kent’s references to The Backslider are marvelous — it’s a book that basically explores Man’s tendency to return to sin “like a dog to its vomit.” Unfortunately, it’s very rare to find books of any kind in the LDS market that seriously explore basic humanity in this way. I hate to admit it, but the market is still in the habit of closing the door on the skeletons, rather than talking about them so we can be rid of them, because the skeletons don’t meet our standard of perfection.

    This is where Tricia’s comments about flocking to standards deserve special comment. The phrase represents the very sensitivity that Kent alludes to in his article. Flocking to one standard means someone isn’t flocking to another (Kent’s assertion of divisiveness applies very well). Unfortunately, most members of the Church don’t really understand what standard it is they should be flocking to. Most want to flock to the standard of perfection — and that’s a good standard to stand beneath, but it isn’t a standard that’s practical for most people.

    I’m a Branch President. If I held my members to the standard that the LDS market holds literature to, I’d be forced to excommunicate 90% of my congregation. It isn’t that the majority are guilty of gross sin (or I would be excommunicating them, as per published Church policy), it’s that they are imperfect, and flocking to the standard of the LDS market usually means hiding our imperfections.

    The scriptures teach “be ye therefore perfect,” but the requirement isn’t to be perfect RIGHT NOW or burn readily, nor does it allow us to spurn or ignore imperfection. Brigham Young said it best when referring to this verse, paraphrasing, “[it] means be as perfect as you know how. As you behave as perfectly as you know how, you will be taught, line upon line, precept upon precept, to live more perfectly. Eventually, you will know how to live your life as perfectly as your Father in Heaven.”

    Holding a standard so high that we ignore the realities of life faced by the vast, vast majority of people does much more harm than good. Kent’s final comments about applying the standards is incredibly important for the LDS market to grow. Rather than publish books that only reflect the perfect life, a life so many cannot yet live, we need to publish books (and art, and music) that reflect the path people need to walk to achieve that perfect life — a reflection that includes acknowledgment (but not necessarily acceptance) of imperfection.

    There is a danger in lowering the literary bar below perfection: there will occasionally be someone who published a book designed to entertain via the imperfection because there will always be some people who want to “consume it upon their lusts.” But the alternative is that the majority of LDS readers don’t read LDS material because they can’t see themselves reflected in the story lines — they can’t live up to the standard presented in the book.

    I’ve lost members of my Branch to infidelity. When LDS fiction starts dealing with infidelity, not to be entertained by it, but to be strengthened by the reality of the struggle and uplifted by the potential to overcome, then we will have taken a very positive step forward. Today, books like these rarely make it to LDS retailer shelves. And I hate to admit it, but when I get books likes these, I pass on them, because I know that most bookstores won’t carry them.

  6. “I’ve lost members of my Branch to infidelity. When LDS fiction starts dealing with infidelity, not to be entertained by it, but to be strengthened by the reality of the struggle and uplifted by the potential to overcome, then we will have taken a very positive step forward.”

    That sounds really dull.

  7. 🙂

    Aren’t many LDS fiction books dull now? In a very real way, you’ve made the very point that’s causing the problem. If you’ll forgive an oversimplification, sex sells. Unfortunately, sex is pretty much outside the literary standards of the LDS market.

    Case in point, a few years ago at the LDSBA tradeshow a woman was moving booth-to-booth trying to pitch her book to publishers. None of us would take it. The book basically explained how to have excellent intercourse as a Mormon.

    Would the book have sold well? Let’s assume that it was a well-written, entertaining, and useful tome. The answer, then, is yes. But it was way outside the literary standards of the market (and still is), so nobody would publish it.

    Closer to the point would be a romantic fiction with characters participating in an illicit relationship. It doesn’t matter today whether or not the character does or does not pull him- or herself out of the (*ahem*) pit of sin, and it doesn’t matter whether or not the book promotes fidelity, describes situations and characters that LDS readers can relate to, or promotes an LDS version of success. At this time, the market wouldn’t let a book like that sell.

    IF the market ever gets to the point where a book describing such realities can sell, it will inevitably come at the price of some minority of books that insist on overemphasizing worldliness, which is a polite way of saying they’ll insist on writing ten pages of seduction “because that’s what happens in the real world.” (You’d be surprised how often trade publishers are given this excuse to justify overly sexual or overly violent content.)

    Where should we draw the line? Setting it at the highest “standard” (there’s never any flaws that reflect reality) means LDS readers will never be able to completely relate to LDS books. Setting it down just a bit lower (allow reality, but only when promoted with idyllic LDS success or “proper values”), makes for a dull book, but setting it low enough that LDS readers can readily relate to the stories opens the door for abuse.

    I suspect that somewhere in the middle is where we ought to land, even if the books are only a bit less dull than today.

    One more point: I’ve been focusing on the literary standard for content, not writing quality. All of us desire higher quality writing in the LDS market, and we all want higher (MUCH higher) quality research (I’m tired of getting Book of Mormon timeline books that have a year “0”). The issue publishers are sensitive to is literary content.

  8. JB:

    You are absolutely right. I’m going to use your quote about excommunicating 90% of your Branch under the LDS market “standards.”

    I do think that there is one aspect of this that we need to keep in mind, however:

    Not all standards involve morality or Church teachings. In fact, MOST standards don’t even involve things that are black and white, good or bad, or whatever dichotomy you want to throw at them.

    Unfortunately, I often get the feeling that Church members connect standards to the Church that don’t involve morality or Church teachings.

    Can someone please explain to me why, according to the LDS market, art can’t include MODERN ART? Are melting clocks somehow evil? Are Thiebaud’s deli counters really incompatible with LDS values?

  9. JB wrote:
    One more point: I’ve been focusing on the
    literary standard for content, not writing
    quality. All of us desire higher quality writing
    in the LDS market … The issue publishers are
    sensitive to is literary content.

    So, I have to wonder, given all you’ve said here, if higher quality writing doesn’t basically mean that the LDS market’s content standard isn’t met. Are the two incompatible?

    If they aren’t, then I have to say that the message the market is giving to many active members of the Church is that they ARE incompatible.

  10. Anna Karenina. Madame Bovary. The Great Gatsby. The Scarlett Letter. A Lesson Before Dying. Vanity Fair. Billy Budd. David Copperfield. The Sound and the Fury. The Brothers Karamazov. One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

    Do these book meet LDS standards? None of them has “10 pages of seduction.”

  11. JB: “There is a danger in lowering the literary bar below perfection: there will occasionally be someone who published a book designed to entertain via the imperfection because there will always be some people who want to “consume it upon their lusts.”Âť But the alternative is that the majority of LDS readers don’t read LDS material because they can’t see themselves reflected in the story lines — they can’t live up to the standard presented in the book.”

    I don’t know if I agree with your “will the readers relate?” question as the ultimate goal. I don’t think the main problem with Mormon literature is that it paints portraits of perfect people; quite the opposite. I think that most of the “literature” being produced by Mormon authors caters far too much to the postmodern tendency to make the marginal seem normal and acceptable.

    The tenor of official church teaching is that we aren’t perfect but we need to be. I always appreciate noting the types of authors who are quoted in General Conference – Viktor Frankl, for example, has made a couple appearances. Are his characters “perfect?” Does he totally sidestep human frailty? Not at all. Is his writing uplifting? Undeniably.

    I appreciate your post. I’ve been trying this week to put together a coherent argument for why I totally loathe Stephenie Meyer’s novels. This idea of standards will undoubtedly help me formulate that.

  12. I just finished reading all the “Twilight” series. As a songwriter I would put this series of books squarely in the “pop” market. It is most definitely NOT high literary art, but kept me reading none the less like a pop song keeps me singing despite it’s lack of depth…it’s the beat that draws you. Stephanie Meyers definitly draws on the beat of sex as does most pop songs.
    I told my youngest daughter she will not be reading the Twilight series till she’s older. How it can be called a book for “Young Readers” is beyond me. The only thing good I can say about the series in regards to it’s characters morals is at least the main character gains some higher standards by the end, despite her lack of “religious” training.
    I could not write a book like Stephanie’s anymore than I could write a pop song about “Billy Jean’s Not My Lover”. I can’t see how most church based stores would sell the “Twilight Series” either as it blurs the lines too much for young readers in my opinion as I set MY standards, based on MY religious upbringing, to it.
    It’s why LDS songwriters write songs for the “world” and songs for the “Church” and rarely do you see their worldly songs in Deseret Book.
    Also, songwriting is like book writing. The money is in the pop culture the quality and greater satisfaction (with usually less monetary gain)…generally isn’t.
    Example: Which song has made more money over time “Billy Jean’s Not My Lover” or “The Prayer”? Which series of books have sold more the “Twilight Series” or “The Work and the Glory”? The later was a better read in my opinion.

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