Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: The Influence of Fiction

The beginning of the Home Literature movement brought with it a moderation of the harsh rhetoric that condemned all fiction, in favor of a view that some fiction could be true when it described events that were typical or that reflected the way that people acted in reality, and when, of course, the work promoted the prevailing moral code. I included an excerpt from the Young Woman’s Journal that makes this point several months ago, but the following article from the Contributor is several years earlier. I’m not sure exactly when this view was introduced or who first made this claim, but whenever it was, it does mark a clear turning point in how Mormons perceived fiction.

But after making that observation, the author of this extract goes on to make some wonderful observations about the impact that fiction has on the reader.

Just who the author is I have not been able to ascertain. The article is merely signed “F. B.” but those initials do not appear in Melvin Bashore’s list of Mormon Literature Initials and Pseudonyms[1. Bashore, Melvin L. “Pseudonymns and Initialisms in Mormon Literature.” LDS Church Historical Department, 1992.]. Unfortunately, the use of initials in the late 19th century was widespread, making it sometimes difficult to identify the author. Given how comment this practice was, I do not think the author was trying to obscure his identity in this case.

Whoever he or she was, the author had clearly thought a bit about the influence of fiction:


The Influence of Fiction

by F. B.

OF THE many books that direct the destinies of men now days, works of fiction wield a great influence. Some one has said, “you may judge a man more truly by the books and papers which he reads, than by the company which he keeps, for his associates are in a manner, imposed upon him; but his reading is the result of choice, and the man who chooses a certain class of books and papers unconsciously become more colored in their views, more rooted in their opinions, and the mind becomes fettered to their ideas.[2. Crumbling, Rev. L. E. “Influence of Literature upon Life” in “The Evangelical” before 1874. Crumbling’s essay was reprinted frequently in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.]”

Now if things were as they ought to be, history and biography would satisfy the cravings of man. But history treats of dry facts, and biography gives the lives of great men, and unfortunately the majority of the people don’t care much about either. They seem to prefer ordinary occurrences and ordinary people and the historian is pushed aside, and the novelist takes his place. If proper fiction is selected it cannot always be said that people prefer the false to the true; for though, probably, the story never occurred, it may be a picture of real life. Though the parable of the prodigal son is a fable, the incident of the boy running away from home, spending his money among strangers, and coming back a beggar to be forgiven by his parents, is too true. Homer’s Iliad wrought itself into the soul of Alexander, and became the brain and sword with which he conquered the world.

To the child everything is wonderful and strange. Big strangers seem giants; unseen gifts come from fairies or Santa Claus; and cats, dogs and even dolls can talk if they like. Accordingly, the character in a fairy tale must be very wonderful. The naughty characters are great, big giants, like Blunderbore and Cormoran; and the heroes are little bits of fellows like Hop-o’my-thumb, and Jack the Giant Killer. The good people are all very, very good, and the bad people are all very, very bad. But the child soon becomes a boy and then he must have a book like Robinson Crusoe; where a boy runs away from home, gets washed on a coast where none but cannibals dwell; runs to a cave; finds a gun and lots of ammunition; has a great many narrow escapes, and finally gets away. The boy clutches his book in one hand, a chunk of bread and butter in the other, devours them both, and when through, pronounces it a great book.

But he soon discovers that he needs a looking-glass, and gazing into it, gets his first idea of manly beauty. He is very particular about his manner of dress, the color of his necktie, the parting of his hair, and the size of his shoes. He fondly dreams of a rose-tinted future of beauty and bliss; and agrees admirably with the bard who says:

“New hopes may bloom, and days may come,
Of milder, brighter beam,
But there’s nothing half so sweet in life,
As a young man’s first love dream.[3. Moore, Thomas. “Oh! the days are gone” in Irish Melodies, 1821.]”

He must read poetry, and the elements of his book must be a beautiful lady and a devotional love, who rescues her from a hated wealthy rival and delivers her to the threshold of a happy marriage, which ends with a delightful monotory of unmitigated bliss.

But if the man’s mind be of a deeper turn, he hunts for reading that will not only give him pleasure, but will enable him to more easily travel the rugged journey of life. Such works have three objects in view: First, they give recreation to the mind; Second, they teach history; Third, They picture forth human character.

If we read the proper books, our minds will “grasp the grand ideas of spirits far greater than our own; our hearts will inherit their glowing sentiments; and our souls enlarge into greater, nobler beings.”


The Contributor, v12 n11, September 1891, p. 416


I thought F. B.’s description of fiction as “a picture of real life” even when the story never occurred was enhanced by his use of the prodigal son as an example; putting fiction in the mouth of the Savior makes it quite difficult to refute.

But while I like this example, his outline of the typical evolution of personal reading is fascinating, both for its assumptions and for the fact that it even suggested an evolution at all. While I doubt this evolution holds true for everyone, still, it seems like it might be true for many readers. So I wonder, what kind of evolution happened in my own reading and why? And has my evolution stopped for some reason? Or am I still progressing? And if so, to what?

The idea that our reading evolves leaves me with a lot to think about.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: The Influence of Fiction”

  1. When I read this post I immediately began thinking of options to give my boy to read as he grows up to fulfill each of these postulated fiction needs. I deeply love the idea of fiction being about “ordinary lives,” though I’d argue that a great deal of the time that’s not the case. Which makes me wonder if people, back in the day, did not ever write fiction about “great figures.” Which leads me to think of my own historical fiction writing and wonder, uneasily, if it is unrighteous to portray prophets or pioneers or political leaders in the context of a fiction story.

    But then, there have always been opinions. And they change over time.

    The thing I like most about this post is how the author never mentioned the necessity of video games in a young man’s education 🙂

  2. Ivanhoe came to mind. My husband read that one when he was eight years old 🙂

    Obviously that’s some good genetic material passing on to my sons.

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