The Impact of Culture on the Stories We Tell

There’s an interesting article over at The New York Times called Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson on Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness.

It looks,  in part, at the influence on one’s culture on the stories authors write. The problems I have with it is that at times it lacks nuance and offers sweeping generalization. Look, for example, the headline — “cautionary lesson” — what? One cannot have a “sunny outlook” and “literary greatness”?

Shannon Hale is quoted, and I wish I just had her entire interview to read, because her approach is nuanced: “The books she was assigned treated “decline and the ultimate destruction of the human spirit” as necessary ingredients for an honest portrayal of life. But what if Mormons do not think that way? “I think Mormons tend to have hope and believe in goodness and triumph, and those portrayals can ring false in a literary world,” Ms. Hale said.”

I think there is a good discussion that can be had about the “literary world,” and Hale captures why I tend not to read literary fiction. I’m not a Mormon; and I also don’t believe that goodness will triumph, no, I’m too pessimistic for that; but I don’t want my literature to be all “ultimate destruction,” as she puts it. I also don’t believe that is or should be the definition of what makes literature “great.”

And I say “culture” because it’s both more and less than what one’s religion is. The article mentions some specific aspects of Mormon belief that may influence what people may write — such as the existence of other worlds — and I find that type of exploration into what inspires, as well as the framework of a person’s worldview that they may not even realize they have, fascinating.

The article also gets into some blanket statements about genre and category that bothered me. There is an assertion that Mormons write books for children and teens (or have their works labelled as such) because it’s a way to avoid “having” to write sex scenes. Stuff like that makes me want to list all the non-children and non-teen books that don’t have pages and pages of sex scenes. And there’s a professor who calls genre literature like SF/F “uncomplicated.” Which, yeah, that.

Despite leaving the article wishing for something with more substance, there are a couple of questions raised that I think are worth examining. (And it’s largely due to Hale’s quotes that I’m thinking about them.)

What is “literary greatness” and is that definition the correct one? Is the issue not whether an author has “sunny outlook” but, rather, whether today’s definition of “literary greatness” is too narrow to embrace great works that are not doom and gloom?

And, how does ones culture and outlook influence what one writes? 

Also, I’m using “Mormon” so frequently because the article does. Should it simply be LDS? I’ll go back in and revise this if I’m using terminology wrong.


6 thoughts on “The Impact of Culture on the Stories We Tell

  1. I don’t even know where to start with this article. First there’s the “Mormons have not produced Shakespeare!” beginning, followed by the admission that no one has produced Shakespeare recently. Plus some genre-bashing and downright odd assertions–“Christianity and genre fiction both depend on Manichaean, good-versus-evil plots, and the savior motif, in which an anointed one saves the kingdom or the world, is important to sci-fi and fantasy and central to the Christian Gospel.”

    And of course the last line: “Because when you write sci-fi and so forth, things aren’t as messy as with realistic fiction.” Oh, really? By what definition of messy?

    I suspect there’s some fascinating stuff to be written about why Mormon theology and culture in particular lend themselves to speculative fiction. But I would far rather hear it from people who are themselves Mormon, and/or who have a sense of nuance and specificity.

    I do agree that there’s a popular concept that literary greatness = doom and gloom, that the depressing book is better and better written. I completely disagree; of course, depressing books can be wonderful, but I personally would say rather that literary greatness should be at least partly based on a sense of wonder, challenge, being more open to the world than before you began reading. Not every book needs a happy ending, but not every book needs a sad one either. I don’t know–perhaps it’s better and simpler to say that a great book is one of integrity, telling the story it was meant to be. [all of that is personal and subjective and perhaps hard to apply broadly]

    Of course one’s culture influences what and how you write. If you’re religious and have grown up within a particular religious community, that will inform what you’re interested in, what kinds of stories you want to tell. If it’s a major part of your life, then it will be a major part of the ‘leaf-mould’ that Tolkien talks about. It’s not the only influence, and different authors will engage with that aspect in different ways, of course. I suspect often it comes out in ways that are less consciously wrought.

    After all of that, I’m not sure this comment makes much sense. Apologies if I am simply rambling!


    1. Maureen, my initial post had a long rant about that “producing Shakespeare” title and quote, and some musings on “OK — so all fantasy writers are Christian?” There seemed to be a lot of sweeping generalizations, both about Mormons and non Mormons. The bit about writing in the diary? And also the non-exploration of whether an excommunicated Mormon “counts” as a Mormon writer? But the post was just all over the place so I pulled it back to Hale, to just make it less messy and more focused.


  2. No, Mormon is just fine as terminology. We use it and LDS interchangeably.

    As for literary greatness, I look at the (adult) ones that are nominated for the National Book Award, and it’s not depressing topics or sex that sets them apart, but rather an introspection to their writing. Take Lahiri’s Lowland, for example: it’s about an inward journey rather than some sort of external one. And the writing, of course. Long, Literary Works seem to have overly complicated sentences.

    As for culture, I think it’s such a part of oneself, that it can’t help but influence the way you write. It takes effort to put aside everything about yourself and write (or read!) something wholly unlike everything you know.


    1. Melissa, thanks! I wasn’t sure.

      I like the “introspection to their writing.” And “overly complicated sentences….” just made me laugh.

      I think the examination of culture on art is interesting. I guess some would say that the art should stand alone, but sometimes to understand the art you need to understand the artist. And I know that I sometimes pick up on things in certain books that others wouldn’t — sometimes about being Catholic, or about being from NJ, etc.

      Reading “something wholly unlike everything you know” – -THIS as a reader. Seeking out diversity. I’m sure I don’t do it enough.


      1. After sitting through Lee Wind’s panel here, I KNOW don’t seek diversity out enough. I need to be better about reading the Other. But it’s so nice to sit in my comfort zone. But, I recognize that my life is more enriched by reading outside of it.

        And I agree: knowing the artist helps to understand the work. But it can also hurt. Orson Scott Card is a homophobic asshole, but part of me wishes people would judge his earlier works apart from him, because they really are good. It’s a complicated line to walk.


      2. Melissa, I wish I’d been there to hear Lee speak!

        Yes, Orson Scott Card — that’s one of the instances where I wish I knew nothing about the author. Just a blank slate.


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