Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: The Young Woman’s Journal on Novel Reading

First Page of the Young Women's Journal, 1889

With the advent of the home literature movement in the end of the 19th century, Mormon culture began to produce novels for the first time. For decades church leaders had taught from the pulpit that church members should avoid reading novels because they weren’t “true,” and one speech at a late 1880s YMMIA event by a Salt Lake City-area bishop (although admittedly an influential one–Orson F. Whitney) wasn’t going to change the perception of many church members. The message that reading some novels was acceptable would need to be explained and repeated.

The following article from the Young Woman’s Journal is one of the attempts to change the perceptions about novel writing. What I found interesting is the logic used:

Novel Reading

“I have never read a novel in my life,” said a young lady in a boastful tone of voice.”

“That is no credit to you,” replied her companion.

The girl looked incredulous, and asked, “Do you believe it right to read things that are not true?”

The idea is widespread among our girls that novel-reading is hurtful, which is only half true.

Novels are true or false according to the way they picture life. If the characters, events and scenes are unnatural, then the story may be said to be false and is hurtful, inasmuch as it creates ideals that can never be realized and often brings sorrow and disappointment in life. Such are the novels against which our girls are properly warned.

But a true work of fiction–that is, a story whose counterpart can be found in real life–educates the mind and the heart as no other literature can. Such fiction is often truer than history. It is, in short, the history of private life as observed by men and women of superior culture and judgment: and it is written, not in the abstract terms of mere intellectuality, but in warm, glowing colors which appeal to the emotions.

Young Woman’s Journal. v8 n10, July 1897, pg. 486.

I find it fascinating that this short article begins with a fictional conversation, although it doesn’t call attention to that fact. The logic used is also, I think, similar to what we might say today about a portion of literature, although it doesn’t go as far as we might, nor does it seem to allow reading purely for entertainment. Truth, according to this perception, is based in similarity to reality, and error in fiction comes from unrealistic portrayals of life. While I’m not sure that the author actually wants to imply a particular literary philosophy, the ideas expressed may hint at the ideas of literary  realism.

But this passage goes beyond simply suggesting that realistic fiction is true; it also then claims that literature can teach better than a dry statement of principle, something that today at least every author hopes is true. We might then extrapolate that the experiential element of literature is perhaps more important than the simple ideas expressed. However, the anonymous author of this article (perhaps the editor, Susa Young Gates) then invests the authors of literature with authority as “men and women of superior culture and judgment,” which is, I suspect, a dubious proposition. Perhaps she suggests this to avoid dissonance with the humanity of authors?

Today, I’m not sure many of us would be comfortable accepting the definition of what novels are worthy implied here. At least, the view presented here doesn’t seem to allow for speculative fiction, although I think much speculative fiction contains important truths.

Still, this passage is interesting as an example of how Mormon views of literature changed and the logic used to influence members toward a different perception, and can, perhaps, suggest some ideas that need to be examined in developing a Mormon literary theory.

8 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: The Young Woman’s Journal on Novel Reading”

  1. An anecdote:

    One day in my mid-teens I came home from church bursting with wonderful stories I enthusiastically relayed to my inactive dad. He scoffed and said, “That didn’t happen. Those are faith-promoting rumors.”

    I argued with him because his cynicism toward the church was pretty much routine, but it made me doubt. Then, some time later, came the news that many of the stories Paul H Dunn were highly embellished and that faith-promoting rumors really didn’t happen. I haven’t believed a personal story out of a general authority’s mouth since, never mind the faith-promoting rumors.

    So…let’s talk about fiction in book form again…?

    (Kent, this is not directed at you at all. PLEASE do not think it is. It’s the idea that fiction–when one knows it’s fiction–is somehow bad, but telling tall tales and calling it truth to get you to believe something is totally okay. It kinda ruffles my feathers.)

  2. I have always found the attitude that fiction is somehow less viruous reading material than nonfiction, puzzling. It seems like this attitude is perpetuated today in the way the author has discriminated…that to be worthy of reading it must be realistic, therefore historical fiction is better than, say, fantasy. The thing I find kind of funny, thinking about this, is that by far the bulk of LDS literature(at leaast from what I see) is either hisorical fiction or romance. And my mother taught me that many romance novels are written to be purposefully unrealistic to provide an escape, and therefore possibly damaging if you aren’t careful. She had no problem with us reading fantasy or books with some violence, or chick lit humor with the odd swear word or worldly and there, it was the fluffy (even clean) romance novels she worried about, that she felt could make us get a distorted view of life. And yet I bet thereis a segment of the LDS population who’d say Harry Potter, for instance, has more inherent danger than say, Twilight. Just to give an examole. I honestly think this is what Susa (or whomever) was hinting at in her article…that unrealistic portayal of romance can be damaging.

  3. The Relief Society Magazine used to print fiction and even sponsored a writing contest annually. Emaline Wells wrote romance novels under more than one pen name. But the idea that novels can be harmful is very old. There are some truths that can be better presented through fiction than in any other way.

  4. Guys can comment, right?

    I’ve heard Harry Potter denounced in priesthood meeting—by a class member, not a teacher or leader. Personally, I’ve read and re-read all seven books and watched and re-watched all seven films, not least in order to figure out what makes a billion-dollar best seller.

  5. I am afraid that this definition of a “true” novel would include the collected works of Jack Weyland and Chris Heimerdinger. Eugh. I would hope that it would exclude “Twilight,” but I imagine there would be a fierce debate on that one.

    When I was growing up, my mother would roll her eyes and scoff if we ever read a book that described a world view contrary to Mormonism – ie, a differing description of the afterlife – even if the book was fabulous and uplifting otherwise. “That’s not what it’s really like,” she would insist. “That would never happen.” Well, the story also had sorcerers and fairies in it, so no, it wouldn’t.

  6. Hey, don’t diss Tennis shoes! Sorry, but I am unfalteringly loyal to (at least books ine and two of) that series 😀 And U think there is merit in Weylands writing; at least he attempted to address tough issues and even had a book of his banned from DB shelves for a while as a result. But change thise names for a couple others (which I won’t do myself because it’s impolitic) and I agree with you 🙂

  7. From Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3d ed.:

    Plato would not allow poets in his ideal commonwealth of the Republic because they were “liars”—in the sense that they imitated the truth. In Poetics, Aristotle took a contrary point of view and held that the poet told the truth by imitation. Between them they raised an issue that was much debated on and off for centuries…. Now, it is generally accepted that poetry conveys something beyond the literal verisimilitude. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of fiction in prose.

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