Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Standards and Authorial Integrity

An author’s integrity, in the Mormon context, might be defined in terms of how well the author stays true to the Mormon beliefs that the author claims. This definition is perhaps the assumption behind those who criticize Mormon authors for including profanity, sex and other violations of Mormon beliefs in their work. In contrast, many authors believe that integrity refers to writing in a manner that is true to life, instead of what might be more successful commercially. Of course, since these two definitions of authorial integrity are different, at times they conflict.

While initially I would have assumed that the latter view was recent among Mormon authors, the following excerpt shows that the view that authors should be independent of commercial considerations and should write what is true to life is much older than I assumed.

This excerpt comes from a Relief Society lesson, published in the Relief Society magazine. No author is indicated in the original, and I have not been able to determine exactly who wrote these lessons. It is clear that the same author wrote all of the literary lessons published in the magazine that year. It is also clear that, while the lessons are not well structured or carefully thought through, the author likely has experience writing and probably had an education in literature.


Literature as Creative Art

Relief Society Magazine


Literature, as already suggested, is the art of reflecting life in words. Just as the painter uses color, the sculptor, stone or bronze, the musician, “a concord of sweet sounds,” to portray life as they see and feel it, so the author uses language to create literary forms to reflect the thoughts, the emotions, the pictures that life brings to him. In common with all other artists, it is the writer’s mission to open our “inward eyes” to the beauties of the world in which we live, to help us to love the good, the true, the beautiful.

To that end the poet or novelist creates characters which represent ideals, and tactfully he guides our sympathies, as we watch these characters working out their life problems, till we, too, learn to love them. Thus, Longfellow leads us with Evangeline through all her faithful wanderings, in search of her lover; or George Eliot takes our minds with Silas Marner through his tragic disappointment which drives him away from life and makes of him a miser; and then we see him led back by the hand of a little child into human sympathy and love. Or in “Little Women”, Louisa Alcott pictures for us the homely joys and sorrows of a good family of the common folk; again in Enoch Arden, Tennyson portrays the noble self-sacrifice of a man who would die in loneliness rather than break in and destroy the peace of his loved ones; in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare gives us a mighty drama portraying political passion and intrigue. In the Bible story, or history of Joseph, we get a wonderful story, reflecting the life of the Patriarch Jacob on the plains of Palestine, the sumptuous courts of Pharaoh, and the hand-dealings of God with his favorite son. No more artistic story than this of Joseph and his brethren is to he found in literature. It is both true and uplifting.

The master writers try always to produce such stories. They would have their tales both true to truth and true to life. This does not mean that the literary story must be true to fact. Most frequently it is not. The historian, the scientist, and others, deal with facts; the author uses his creative imaerination to produce his stories, songs and sentiments that reflect life truly, vividly, that uplift and inspire us. He may base his work on facts, as did Scott when he wrote Ivanhoe and other historical novels; but he may also weave his literature out of the materials of fancy, so long as he makes it consistent, true to the life he attempts to portray.

He may even create supernatural beings, if he chooses; but we still demand of him that these beings be true to the life they represent. The fairy godmother in Cinderella is true to fairy life, as we imagine it to be.

In his Rip Van Winkle, Irving lets his hero, Rip, sleep for twenty years; but though we permit this, we still demand that Rip awake as if he had slept a score of years away, and we follow the poor, bewildered man back to his home to find the changes wrought there in his family, and his friends. It all seems so natural that we do not stop to question the consistency of the fancy flight Irving has given us. The story is artistically true. Shakespeare brings ghosts into his plays very frequently. What do they represent? Simply the workings of the passion-tossed or troubled mind. When Brutus, after his quarrel with Cassius, sits at night in his tent, buried in thought, what is more natural than that his worried mind should bring up the ghost of Caesar, whom he and others have slain?

It is said of Dickens that when he was creating his “Old Curiosity Shop” and running it as a serial story in a magazine, some of the readers, before they had seen the end of the story, guessed that Little Nell, the heroine, was  going to die. And these people actually wrote to Dickens begging him to let Little Nell live. The great writer replied that he could not do it, and be true to life, so he refused to yield to the sympathies of his audience.

The master artist will not violate truth to gain money or popularity. He prefers, as Kipling puts it:

“To paint the thing as he sees it
For the God of things as they are.”

It Is the cheap, the irresponsible author that bends his story to serve commercial ends, distorting truth, painting, highly-colored pictures full of sensationalism to please the perverted taste of the populace. Too many such writers are filling our magazines and scattering their books by the thousands through the country today, or giving them in more vivid form through the movies, and from the stage.

As Josh Billings humorously puts it:   “About half the lies they tell ain’t true.”

The chief concern for our mothers is to guard their children’s minds from unwholesome mental food, studying how to judge the true and wholesome story. Happily there are many good stories which can be substituted for false and unwholesome ones. We commend this as a first guiding principle: Choose literature that is artistically true to life and wholesome.

Relief Society Magazine, v3 n12, December 1916


I think a lot of what the author claims in this lesson agrees with how we see literature today. Certainly we no longer follow the view that, as Mormon leaders like George Q. Cannon taught, fiction should be avoided because it isn’t “true.” And, as I suggested above, many authors agree with the concept that the best literature isn’t written to the demands of the public or to maximize profit. Instead, we have a category of literature today which we call “entertainment” and which IS written according to what will sell. Of course these categories aren’t really dichotomous. They are more likely a spectrum, and most authorial efforts fit somewhere along the spectrum instead of at either end.

Given that, I”m not sure that, as the author of this lesson claims, “the poet or novelist creates characters which represent ideals,…” at least not ideal versions of an principle or character trait or even representations of an idea. Instead, authors must create characters that are “true to truth and true to life,” as this lesson suggests later.

I think the fact that, 50 years after Mormon leaders started teaching that fiction should be avoided and about 30 years after Mormonism began encouraging the creation of Mormon fiction, a lesson about literature still needs to explain how fiction can be acceptable is instructive. The teachings of Mormon leaders must have sunk deep in the minds of many members and have been taught and re-taught for decades. Now I wonder how long the current emphasis on relatively superficial judgments of literature will persist in place of more substantive judgments of value!

It would be nice if today we heard the more substantive judgments, like that expressed in this lesson:

It Is the cheap, the irresponsible author that bends his story to serve commercial ends, distorting truth, painting, highly-colored pictures full of sensationalism to please the perverted taste of the populace. Too many such writers are filling our magazines and scattering their books by the thousands through the country today, or giving them in more vivid form through the movies, and from the stage.

This seems to me to be true today also.

[Please excuse the fact that this was not published on Sunday. I’m trying to get this series back on track.]

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