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A Mormon Writer Looks at the Problem of Evil in Fiction - Orson Scott Card

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Sesquicentennial Lectures on Mormon Arts, Letters and Sciences, Harold B. Lee Library
Published by the Harold B. Lee Library Forum Committee and the Friends of the BYU Library
Lecture given March 13, 1980 by Orson Scott Card

A Mormon Writer Looks at the Problem
of Evil in Fiction

By Orson Scott Card

In January 1977, the Ensign magazine ran an article designed to encourage inactive Latter-day Saints to prepare themselves to seal their marriages in the temple. It was a struggle to come up with an eye-catching photograph to lead off the article, but what we decided to do was show an inactive father reading that very article, so that he held a picture of himself holding a picture of himself holding a picture of himself. The only problem was how to show that he was inactive. Since we at the Ensign had not yet earned any fame for our subtlety, we decided on the most obvious symbol-right in the dead center of the picture was an unlit pipe sitting in an ash tray. If that didn't suggest an inactive Mormon, we would despair of our audience's powers of reasoning.

Alas, we had underestimated the ability of some people to misunderstand. A certain small percentage of our readership wrote letters protesting that illustration. They fell into three categories:

"Aha! You thought you could put one over on us, didn't you, running that picture of a pipe in the Ensign, but we caught you!"

"We thought there was one place that we could count on never to show evil, but there it was, right where our children could see it, an actual pipe, and in the Ensign, no less, our modern-day scripture!"

"Don't you people check this stuff before you print it? Right there in the middle of a picture on page 60, there was a pipe! You really ought to screen your pictures more carefully, if mistakes like that are getting through!"

These few letter-writers had got part of our message-they noticed the pipe, and they knew that for a Latter-day Saint, pipe-smoking is evil. What they completely missed was our purpose in showing that evil-to attract the attention of people who might have that problem so we could help them solve it.

Showing evil is not necessarily advocating it.

The Worst Things in Life Are Essential

The question of whether and how evil ought to be presented in art is one that intrigues a lot of people. some people regard it as their life's work to drive pornography, the ultimate artistic expression of evil, completely out of their community. Others regard it as their life's work to use their talents to explore and understand evil in their art. I am a two-headed animal; born and raised in an orthodox Mormon family, I couldn't escape the Latter-day Saint view of good and evil if I tried. And I don't try-I am a radically orthodox Mormon today, and have no intention of changing my beliefs on the subject. But as a writer of fiction, I have found it impossible to write well without dealing directly with evil, without portraying it in my work.

Over the years, some people whose judgment I respect have asked me a question that you might think is naive, but it is not. "Why do you have to write such depressing stuff? Why can't you show the good things in life? Why do all your characters have to suffer?"

Well, why indeed? After all, fiction isn't fact. Fiction is lies. Those people are made up. They'd better be-if they're not, you can get sued. As long as you're making things up, why not make up a happy life for them?

The most obvious answer is also the most trivial. Money. He who writes about happy people being happy in a happy world ain't gonna last long as a writer. Nobody buys that happy stuff. Evil is intrinsically more interesting. More entertaining. Evil sells.

"Indeed, "answers the English Puritan after Cromwell's successful revolution. "All these people are going to the theatre to see evil reenacted on the stage. We will make England a much better place if we simply ban theatre altogether. No more Macbeth and his bloody crimes. No more King Lear and his self-destructive madness. We have made the world safe for Christianity."

But it took about twenty minutes after the Puritans were thrown out for the theater to be back in business. The people wanted it. And I don't think they wanted it because they were evil.

Evil is more entertaining than unrelenting goodness because any depiction of life without evil is a lie. Now, fiction is made up, but it is not all lies. Or rather, out of the sum of his lies the author's view of truth inevitably emerges, and if the writer has wrought skillfully, some portion of his view of the world will remain with the reader, changing and shaping him. While readers of fiction know perfectly well that what they're reading is made up, they also insist on the illusion of truth and on truth itself. First, the illusion of truth, because while the reader surrenders himself to the writer's controlled tour of the life experiences of some interesting characters, the reader insists on some correspondence between the surface details of the story and the reality that the reader knows in his own life. It must ring true. And second, the substance of truth, because no matter how many deliberate lies a writer tells, his own most deeply held beliefs about good and evil will inevitably appear in his work. It is impossible to write a morally neutral work of fiction.

Both the illusion of truth and the unavoidable substance of truth require evil to be present in fiction. Almost from the first moments of consciousness, human beings are aware of the fact that the world isn't always nice. My son Geoffrey, almost two, has had to face the bitter truth that his shoes won't always go on right. He has wept over the agonizing discovery that when he deliberately rubs Jello in his hair, his lunch abruptly ends. Two nights ago, no matter how much he cried, Daddy and Mommy didn't make the thunder go away. And, the cruelest truth of all, the other children in the Primary Raindrops class occasionally hit him and knock him down for no reason at all.

The painful lessons are only beginning. As we grow older, we learn that people die, even when we love them very much. Friends that we counted on cheat us. Family members that we love hurt us. People we never harmed commit crimes against us.

But we aren't always victims. It's sometimes a terrible discovery that we ourselves are the perpetrators of evil, but it's one we all make at some time or another. The world is often ugly, and uglier still is the realization that in our own small way we have darkened it for others, and for ourselves.

Nature, other people, and our own desires conspire to bring sorrow into our lives. No one is immune to that. No one is so good that he is untouched by evil.

And if that is life, how can a fiction writer honestly write without depicting evil in the lives of his characters?

The illusion of truth demands that there be evil, or his readers will cease believing in his characters and toss the book away.

And his own inner demand for the substance of truth requires that there be evil, because what in the world can a writer say about a character if he does not tell about the character's struggles against suffering? If the writer knew a way for a human being to live without evil, without suffering, without sorrow, he would go and live that way, and forget writing. But the writer-no, let's forget the third person-I know of no way to live untouched by evil, and so the characters that I write about will also confront evil. It is impossible to write any other way.

Of course, the Puritans of Cromwell's stripe in England had the answer to that. If you can't write any other way, then stop writing. If writers are only going to add to the total amount of evil in the world, then let's stop them from writing for everyone's sake!

It can't be done. It's been tried. The Russians are trying it right now. But even in the darkest times, there are those who would give their lives in order to read good fiction and pass it on. In the samizdat system in Russia, the writer creates his pack of truthful lies, and passes it to a friend, who could destroy him by giving the manuscript to the authorities. But instead the friend reads it and laboriously types his own copy-no Xerox machines involved here-and then gives both copies to other friends. They could be caught. They could be imprisoned, torn from their loved ones for decades of slave labor; they could be tortured; they could be killed. But they read, they type, they pass it on.

Of course, not many people do this. Even here in the United States, the overwhelming majority of us don't read a thing, if we can help it. The biggest bestsellers, the ones that take the reading public by storm, have never sold more than ten million copies. Out of a population of 220,000,000, that's a pathetically small four and a half percent. And those are the bestsellers. My most recent paperback novel sold only forty thousand copies or so, and that's perfectly normal, better than average, in fact. My most recent hardback novel has sold only two thousand copies. Think of it-all that work, all that emotional involvement, and only one thousandth of one percent of the American population has read it. In a nation of voluntary illiterates, who needs censorship?

Nevertheless, even in America there are those who would rather read than eat. Whatever it is they get from fiction, they need it.

And even those writers who can't find publishers for their work insist on writing manuscripts that are never read except by underpaid and uninsightful slushpile readers, who tuck a rejection slip under the rubber band after reading twenty pages and send the manuscript back.

The need for fiction of some kind is almost universal. In preliterate societies, the storytellers are respected and loved; much of our scripture is devoted to recounting tales of evil people and righteous people in conflict; we sing about it, we dance about it, we perform plays about it, we make films about it. Even the silliest television series meet some of those same needs: on its most basic level, isn't Laverne and Shirley really about the struggle of the mentally deficient to find happiness in an unfriendly world?

Reality Is Just an Escapist Retreat from Fiction

You've all heard of escapist fiction, I'm sure. It's a myth, and one with little foundation in fact. The standard image is of a twenty-three-year-old housewife, three small children biting at her ankles, ironing with one hand as with the other hand she holds in front of her face a paperback book. On the cover is a picture of a girl about her age, running from a dark and sinister building that has one lighted window, as the sky looms and threatens a storm-and worse. Of course, say the believers in the stereotype. She's escaping from her humdrum life into a much more interesting fictional existence.

Escaping? I think not. Do you know what goes on in those gothic novels? If you actually identify with the main character, something that I am only occasionally capable of doing, you are put through terrible tension, an ordeal of fear and uncertainty, mistrust, pain, betrayal. The inevitably happy ending comes as a blessedrelief, because along the way the poor reader has been through a grueling experience.

Science fiction is also branded as escapist. Anyone who believes such nonsense was simply incapable of identifying with Paul Muad-dib in Dune, as the beleaguered heir to an incredibly valuable world discovers a terrible destiny that he cannot avoid no matter how hard he tries. There is nothing escapist about Westerns or Harlequin romances or Mysteries-not to readers who care about the characters. To me, the grim-faced, handsome cowboy who rides off into the sunset after curing all the town's ills is laughably unbelievable. But I can't dismiss the whole genre as escapist, not worthy of my consideration. I can only conclude that I am not a member of the audience for that particular sort of fiction. Because those who regularly buy and read those Westerns do care about that grim-faced, handsome cowboy. His experiences are their experiences. His fear is their fear. His pain is their pain. And, ultimately, his victory is their victory.

The appeal of fiction and, ultimately, of all the tale-telling arts, is catharsis. The character becomes the surrogate of the audience. The artist shapes the audience's experience, but ultimately the audience lives through the experience privately, personally, and emotionally. No matter how many millions of people sit in front of their televisions, no matter how many hundreds come to watch the play, each person is receiving an intimate individual experience. It is never entirely the experience the writer created. It is always the experience of the character combined with the experience of the audience member.

That is why some works appeal more to some people than to others. I just gave a copy of my favorite novel of 1979, Engine Summer by John Crowley, to a friend of mine whose taste I respect. He hated it, thought it was the most boring thing he'd ever suffered through, and he was grateful that it was short. Yet to me, it was one of the most perfect books I had ever read, and it has already become a part of my life, part of the well of memory that I dip into constantly to replenish myself and to gather whatever wisdom I can find to make my decisions. Why did he receive it one way, and I another? Because we are different people, that's all, and a character I could identify with left him completely cold; writing that helped me into the story was a barrier to him.

Fiction is not an escape from reality. Fiction is simply another kind of reality, one which takes place within finite borders, between endpapers. Unlike life, it begins and ends; we can close the book and draw conclusions. It is often easier to learn from fiction than from life; but fiction is a necessity to so many of us because through it we live many lives, and learn many things, instead of staying in the much safer reality and learning only a few things.

Yet all of this depends on the reader's willingness and ability to add himself to the novel or the story. The illusion of reality must be built up within the reader's own mind. And those readers who lack the desire or the ability to join in the creative act cannot receive what the author is trying to give. That ability to share in the author's creation is one that develops through practice. Teachers of literature see it time after time. Young people weaned on Nancy Drew, an unusually simple kind of fiction, gradually learn to handle the better mystery writers, from simple works like those of Agatha Christie to more complex writers like Ross MacDonald and John LeCarre. Suddenly they make the incredible leap to even more difficult writers like John Updike and John Fowles, and from there they spring joyously into the really great writings. Then, somewhere along there, they happen to pick up a copy of The Mystery of the Hidden Staircase-I mention that because it was my favorite Nancy Drew when I was eight-and they start to read. The stuff is trash! It's unreadable! By the second chapter you want to strangle Ned Nickerson! By page sixty you hope Nancy Drew falls in a mud puddle, or at least gets her hair mussed. And by the end you are either giggling uncontrollably or tearing the pages out one by one and ritually immolating them.

But the writing hasn't really got worse. The reader has simply got better. It takes years of mind-stretching reading to be able to receive the best fiction. An untrained or unpracticed reader is usually incapable of understanding what's going on. He finds it boring, affected, hoity-toity. And don't think the writers don't know the difference. Mario Puzo wrote a couple of decent, critically praised novels that sold seven copies each (I exaggerate, of course). He decided that this was ridiculous; he had a family to support. So he wrote a deliberate piece of trash called The Godfather. It made history-because it was accessible to a much larger audience that simply lacked the training and desire to read his more difficult but better works. I have a faint suspicion that John Irving's novel The World According to Garp was that little bit of history repeating itself, only more self-consciously and with a bit more style.

The point is that those who do not read are generally incapable of understanding what is going on in those few books that they attempt to read. Even those who do read are often unable to receive particular books that simply don't satisfy their personal needs and desires. Reading is individual. There is no universal standard for judging the worth of a piece of fiction.

Which Evil Is Good Evil?

Which finally brings us full circle-back to those people who misunderstood that pipe that appeared in the pages of the Ensign magazine. They were able to recognize a pipe, and they knew that pipes were not good things for Mormons. What they seemed incapable of understanding was why the pipe was there.

We run into the same problem in dealing with evil in fiction. A lot of people who are alerted to the problems of pornography go to the bookstore, pick up a book they have heard about, or one with a particularly lurid cover, and start to read. They are perfectly able to understand what words the letters spell out. They can tell when a writer is talking about sex or violence or when some little four-letter clumps spell out words they'd wallop their kids for saying out loud. But, like those few readers of the Ensign who didn't understand the moral message behind the photograph of a pipe, they are simply incapable of understanding what is really going on in the fiction. They do not know how to tell the difference between an evil book and a good book that depicts evil. And since all fiction inevitably depicts evil somewhere, the well-meaning but functionally illiterate censor finds, to his horror, that every book he reads is just dreadfully bad, and should be banned.

That's why some of our modern self-appointed censors commit such absurdities as recommending that only Tom Sawyer, of all Mark Twain's works, be allowed in the public schools, and then only with certain strict warnings. Ban The Prince and the Pauper? Do you have any idea what goes on in that book? Why, there are criminals in there who blame their suffering on the system, and the book teaches children to feel sympathy for those who are justly punished for their crimes! And what about Huckleberry Finn? If that isn't a tract for rebelling against society, I don't know what is!

I can't think of a book you can't do that sort of thing to, if you are determined to misread and misunderstand the overall purpose of the book. I know of a book that shows two brothers who take over their parents' sea-going ship, tie up their younger brother and threaten to kill him, terrorize everyone aboard, and have a drunken orgy until the ship is almost destroyed. In that same book women and children are thrown into a fire alive; in a bloody little battle the hero cuts off the scalp of his enemy and we're supposed to cheer; a woman arouses the lust of a man with her obscene dancing and gets him to kill the king. And if that isn't enough, another work by the same author-gets heavily into human sacrifice and has a man who sets up a mafia-like organization in order to kill people without getting punished. Practically a blueprint for evil.

Just so that nobody here goes out trying to ban those books, I'll mention to the people who have been out to lunch for the last two years at BYU that the books I have just described are the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price.

Am I saying that no books are evil? That freedom of the press and freedom of speech should protect everything?

No. I'm saying that there is evil and there is evil-if you'll forgive the semantic absurdity, there is good evil and bad evil. And middling evil.

As a writer given to splitting infinitives, I now stoop to splitting absolutes. There are three types of evil in relation to fiction:

Evil depicted in fiction.

Evil advocated by fiction.

Evil enacted by fiction.

For clarity, let's turn to the principle of freedom of speech for an analogy. Freedom of speech obviously includes the right to speak about evil. Our own General Authorities devote a considerable amount of time to speaking about evil, from the evil of Communism to the evil of child abuse, from the evil of non-attendance at sacrament meeting to the evil of forgetting to pray.

And, under our inspired Constitution, I doubt that anyone would argue that we are not guaranteed the right to advocate evil, if we want. Any speaker may advocate any evil act. In America, a speaker may advocate revolution, crime, cowardice, dishonesty. In my own neighborhood in Orem a man has been going around urging people not to pay their taxes, a crime; no one stops him, because it's his right. In any society, what seems evil to one person may seem right and just to another-and in a free society, the government is forbidden to silence one and promote the other. Instead, each individual is expected to listen to all and make up his own mind.

But there is a third class of speech which in itself enacts evil. The traditional example is the person who shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theater. He can call it a joke; he can claim that his freedom of speech allows him to lie; but in fact his lie, his joke, may cost people life or limb in the panic that ensues. Likewise, freedom of speech does not include the right to publish troop movement information in time of war, because it can cost life. There are times when some rights conflict, and a free society, to preserve itself, must place limits on its own freedom.

How does this apply to fiction?

All fiction depicts evil, but the mere depiction of evil is not wrong. And, because all fiction unavoidably expresses the moral convictions of the writer and because every writer will have different moral convictions, some fiction is bound to advocate things that at least some readers think is evil. But even that advocacy is protected.

It is only when the fiction actually enacts evil in itself that it becomes dangerous, and the government of a free society can begin to consider limiting it.

Pornography is the obvious case of fiction enacting evil. Pornography is designed to give direct or indirect sexual gratification. The appeal of pornography is not literary; though the writer may be skilled, the effect of pornography is not aesthetic, but orgasmic; it teaches the reader or the viewer to seek more such instant pleasure.

Pornography is merely boring to large numbers of people-they are not susceptible to it, just as many people in a crowded theater will not panic and run for an exit when someone yells "Fire!" But for those who are susceptible, it can have serious debilitating effects. First, it is progressive. The regular consumer of pornography finds that what used to satisfy him now is boring, and he seeks ever more bizarre, brutalizing pornography to achieve his ends. Second, it is destructive, drawing the regular consumer into a fantasy world where women love to be treated cruelly and where the only good is self-gratification. Third, while pornography has never been proven to cause other sex-related crimes, it has been shown to accompany them. The sort of person who is likely to rape or murder or torture is also likely to be a consumer of pornography, and however the fantasies and the vicious reality may interrelate, it is difficult to extricate them.

But pornography of this sort is easily identifiable. It is aimed at a definite audience that wants it. The X rating sells pornographic films; the covers of the books leave no question as to what they are selling inside; whatever else they are, the purveyors of pornography are businessmen, and they advertise what they are selling to reach the market they want to reach. It doesn't take literary training to identify this kind of evil enacted by fiction-or rather, masquerading as fiction-to bar it from a community.

The problem arises when the untrained reader finds a passage describing a sexual event or a violent one in a work of fiction that is not aimed at the pornography-consuming market. Unaccustomed to reading at all, this would-be censor can only understand that he sees a pipe-he sees a sex act-and cannot see what purpose that depiction of evil might serve in the rest of the book. Reading The World According to Garp, he is incapable of recognizing that the lengthy kidnap/rape/murder passage is really satire by overkill; reading Daniel Martin he is incapable of understanding that this character who seems to wallow in his mixed-up sex life, writing panegyrics on extra-marital love, is really the author's tool in writing a beautiful defense of marriage and commitment. Unable to receive what the author is really trying to give, such ignorant readers are only able to receive such works as pornography. They have no perspective. They are like thirteen-year-old boys, their bodies stirring with the first urges of sexual drives that they will later learn to control, who lust after the buxom ladies in the comic strips and stare with guilty curiosity at the underwear ads in the Sears catalogue. They simply don't understand what's going on, and so everything they see looks provocative to them. The context is forgotten. They are children who simply aren't grown-up enough to handle the responsibility of judging what is really going on.

Things become more complex and yet much simpler in the area of evil advocated by fiction. It is simpler because it falls clearly under the area of freedom of speech. A writer can show people committing evil acts and living perfectly full, happy lives if he wants to. A writer can show righteous people as miserable, self-serving bigots if he wants to. A writer can even lie. It's his privilege, as long as he doesn't slander anybody who can get a good lawyer and sue. Eventually, however, a writer must be true to himself. It is impossible for a writer to convincingly violate his own conscience in his fiction. If he really believes that if you abandon your family you will become a hollow, miserable, unlikeable character, it will show up in his fiction whether he tries to make his character seem happy and fulfilled or not. Eventually, a writer is forced to be honest to himself; even if he lies, the reader sees the lie, consciously or unconsciously, and rejects the fiction as false. The illusion of truth is lost because the substance of truth is inescapable.

But where writers honestly disagree with each other, their most truthful work will contradict someone else's dearly held beliefs. And that contradiction does not work itself out. The reader hears the ring of truth in works by writers with widely variant viewpoints. It can be confusing. Sometimes it can be infuriating.

And this is an area where some Mormons-and many non-Mormons-seem eager to lay the heavy ax of censorship as well. The Prince and the Pauper does indeed say that a vicious system has victimized those who are called criminals, and that fixing the system will cure the problem of crime. Mark Twain believed that, or believed in a great deal of it; and there are those-I think of a good born-again couple in Texas who provide a textbook-guide for born-again school districts-who want to ban such evil books because they have a ring of truth as they teach such things.

There are books that have a ring of truth to them as they teach us that an individual should forsake his commitments if they get in the way of his personal satisfaction. There are books that have the ring of truth to them as they teach us that sometimes a person just has to forget the laws and put a stop to crime himself, even if it means committing crimes to do it.

This was taken to absurd lengths recently when a television station yanked a program that some thought advocated teenage sex-in fact, it was a rather badly-done attempt to show how much teenage sex can mess up a kid's life-and instead ran the movie Dirty Harry, which is one of the most sickening films I've ever seen in its celebration of vigilantism and violence. To one sort of a person, the change was obviously viewed as an improvement. To me, it was a definite step down. But the fact is that in a free society, advocacy of any viewpoint is protected, even in fiction. The writer of Dirty Harry has a right to make an American Stalin look like a hero, and I have no right to stop him, however I might disagree. However, I do have a weapon at hand-I can write my own book, and with any luck provide readers with a more powerful experience that leads to a different conclusion.

It is no accident that totalitarian countries invariably censor their writers, including-indeed, especially-their writers of fiction. The power of fiction to advocate particular viewpoints is astounding. Those who prefer to govern slaves know that when writers are free, the government cannot control the hearts and minds of its people. And that is why in our free society we cannot even silence those who advocate slavery-because their right to advocate the overthrow of freedom is what freedom is all about. If we were to silence them, we join them; if, to preserve freedom, we destroy, we have become the enemy.

Now That We've Dissected Evil, On To Truth!

Here is where we come to a particularly Mormon problem; where the issue of advocacy in fiction becomes complex instead of simple. Mormons, you see, have the truth. We have no doubt about what is good and what is evil. So we're perfectly safe in banning fiction that advocates evil-we run no risk of accidentally throwing out something good. With our perfect knowledge of the truth, we can always tell the baby from the bath water. Right? I don't know if we can always be sure of that.

I was reading recently a book entitled Roots of Modern Mormonism. The author, Mark Leone, a sociologist, had studied several wards in eastern Arizona, turning on Mormon society a carefully unbiased eye that sought to understand us, not from what we say about ourselves, not from what others say about us, but from what we actually do. The perspective was enlightening.

One insight from this book startles me, however. Leone said that Mormonism has remarkably little firm doctrine; that the variance of belief within the Mormon Church is very wide; and that while Mormons are convinced that they have the complete revealed truth from God, in fact, have very few beliefs that are universally agreed upon.

That seemed impossible to me. But the writer had been so perceptive on other matters that I couldn't help but try to think where he might have gone wrong. It's an important question. If a large area of doctrine is not firmly established, then we would be treading on dangerous ground if we tried to ban writers who disagree with what we believe.

While we do have a core of absolutely certain and universally shared beliefs, there are many doctrines that have varied or changed over time, and many other doctrinal areas where there has been no general agreement among members and leaders of the Church.

Some examples of doctrines that have changed:

A hundred years ago in General Conference, apostles were preaching that polygamy was essential to salvation.

In the early days of the Church, the old Lectures on Faith clearly taught that the Godhead consisted of two beings, the Father and the Son, and that the Holy Ghost was the mind of God and Jesus Christ; and it was only well after the time of Brigham Young that the doctrine of the Holy Ghost as a separate individual was clarified.

It wasn't until the presidency of Wilford Woodruff that the doctrine of sealing was really understood; before that time, people tended to get themselves sealed to a great leader of the Church instead of to their own parents or grandparents, so that they would be assured of a noble lineage in the hereafter. It wasn't until the 1890's that the Church policy changed to the one we follow today, of sealing children to parents back as far as we can go.

In short, there has been a great deal of doctrinal change and development over time. And why should that disturb Latter-day Saints? We sing it dozens of time a year-"The Lord is expanding the Saints' understanding." Line upon line, precept upon precept, we change our doctrines as we become better able to cope with greater light.

Yet, every time there is a major change, some few poor souls fall away from the Church. They splintered away when Joseph Smith misspelled their names, when Joseph Smith's bank failed, and when Joseph Smith edited his revelations.

They splintered away when the Church abandoned polygamy, and when Blacks received the priesthood before the Millennium. These Saints forget that each living Prophet speaks the word of the Lord to the people of his time. Today's prophet takes precedence over yesterday's. And tomorrow's prophet will supersede today's.

But the Church is not only diverse over time. It is also diverse among the Saints at any one time. In this room there are probably good Latter-day Saints who believe that the theory of evolution is perfectly compatible with the gospel-and equally good Saints who believe that the theory of evolution is directly contrary to scripture.

But the differences of opinion are not just among ordinary Latter-day Saints. Diversity of opinion has often existed at the highest levels of Church government. David O. McKay, for instance, believed firmly in the principles of geological time; in a speech at BYU he urged students to study many things, including the millions of years it took to create the earth. Yet President Joseph Fielding Smith held just the opposite opinion. It is no accident that at BYU, the Church's university, you can take a class in the Eyring Science Center where a teacher will quote David O. McKay in favor of evolution, and then you can cross the street and take a class in the Joseph Smith Building where a teacher will quote other authorities to buttress the idea that the earth was created in seven thousand years. This disparity is actually official. President Joseph F. Smith, early in this century, issued an official statement of the First Presidency to the effect that the Church has no official doctrine on the theory of evolution, except to state that whatever the method he used, God created the earth, and man.

The disparity can amount to outright disagreement. At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson was a fervent advocateof the League of Nations, believing that the League would be a potent instrument to avoid the kind of suffering and carnage that had virtually destroyed a generation of European youth. Church President Heber J. Grant and most of the General Authorities agreed. They spoke in General Conference, in stake conferences, in wards, everywhere they could, advocating that the United States join the League of Nations because without our full entry into the League it would not achieve the objective of world peace. Some apostles went so far as to preach that Woodrow Wilson had been raised up by the Lord for the purpose of establishing the League. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the official position of the Church was to favor the League.

But in Washington, D.C., one of the Senators from the state of Utah was Reed Smoot, a one-time student at this school, by the way. Reed Smoot was one of a group of Republican Senators who perceived the League of Nations as a surrender of American sovereignty, which we should shun or hedge about with so many restrictions that the effect would be the same-the death of the League as an effective international policeman. It also happened that Reed Smoot was an apostle. He held an opinion directly contrary to the expressed will of the Prophet of God and directly contrary to the general feelings of the Twelve Apostles. Only a few General Authorities agreed with him-among them such loyal stalwarts as David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Charles W. Nibley, and future General Authority J. Reuben Clark, Jr.

I think it is instructive to all of us to see what these loyal Latter-day Saint leaders did when they disagreed with the Prophet of the Lord. Apostles on both sides conceived of it as a moral issue, and quoted scripture both to support and oppose the League. At the height of the controversy, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote a letter to President Grant. (Portions of the letter were quoted in the article "Personal Faith and Public Policy" by James B. Allen, in BYU Studies, Autumn 1973.) Elder Smith wrote, "It appears that I am not in full harmony with the majority of my brethren. This is a solemn matter with me for I do not want to be out of harmony. I have but one desire and that is to support my brethren in defense of truth and live in such a manner that I may at all times be in possession of the Spirit of the Lord. I have prayed about this matter and have lain awake nights thinking about it, and the more I reflect the more the position which I have taken in opposition to the League of Nations appears to me to be correct. Under such conditions I know of no one to whom I can go, only to you, and I do so in the hope, and I believe the confidence, that I will not be misunderstood and that you will appreciate the position that I am in."

And when the Senate vote for ratification of the League treaty came, Apostle and Senator Reed Smoot cast his vote directly contrary to the publicly expressed will of the Prophet and the majority of the Twelve. And in part because of his vote, the League failed.

What happened to these Brethren who disagreed with their Prophet? Charles W. Nibley was called a few years later to be President Grant's Second Counselor. J. Reuben Clark later joined the First Presidency of the Church. David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith were later Presidents of the Church. And those who supported the Prophet were also, of course, in full fellowship with their quorums.

The clear lesson of this episode is that the Mormon Church is a tolerant, loving Church, where people of sometimes diverging beliefs are joined by the all-important beliefs that we have in common. I won't list them for you-you memorized many of them in Primary. It is not only possible for loyal Latter-day Saints to disagree, even on moral, scriptural, and doctrinal issues, it is likely. We are not members of a common Church because we are all adherents to a narrow catechism that precludes the possibility of disagreement or misunderstanding. What bonds us together in the Church is the brotherhood of Christ and our common goal of securing eternal exaltation for ourselves and everyone else who will receive it. The Church is inclusive, not exclusive; flexible and changing, not rigid and intolerant.

The extension of this to the matter of advocacy in fiction is obvious. Even within the Church, it is rarely necessary, desirable, or even possible to say that a particular work of fiction is indisputably evil and must be forbidden reading to Latter-day Saints. We are trusted to decide such matters of belief for ourselves. The only time the Church acts to officially discipline people who oppose official Church positions outside those few areas where doctrine is firm, is when those individuals cease to advocate their viewpoint and begin to directly attack the Church itself. At that point, such a person has already chosen to remove himself from the fellowship of the Saints, and the Church merely ratifies that individual's decision.

The Lord defined truth as things as they are, as they were, and as they will be. But as long as we remain human, we are consistently at least one step away from that truth. In the search for truth, we have no direct contact with things as they are, were, and will be. Past events are relayed to us through observers, who, no matter how honest they were, still color their observations with their prejudices. Our own prejudices cloud our vision of things as they are. The Prophets relay to us a vision of the future, but it is impossible to collate those visions into a clear, accurate forecast of all that will take place, Duane Crowther to the contrary notwithstanding.

We discover truth through many means. Observation tells us, not what happened, but what was observed to have happened. Generalization tells us not what happens, but what has always happened in similar or identical cases so far. Prediction tells us not what will happen, but what the evidence leads some individuals to believe will happen. Prescription tells us not what should happen, but what individuals desire to have happen. Whether it will really be good or not will only be revealed in the actual event.

Indeed, the shakiest of all approaches to truth is prescription, because it invariably depends on the accuracy of our prediction. When a doctor prescribes penicillin, it is because penicillin has been proven many times in the past to relieve the particular symptoms you exhibit. It is because of the doctor's prediction that penicillin will cure your ailment that he prescribes it.

There is a great deal of evidence to support the idea that penicillin is worth prescribing. However, when you move away from physics, chemistry, or the other hard sciences, prediction gets pretty shaky. Into the realm of history and politics and psychology and sociology prediction ceases to be what will happen-it becomes what might happen. Despite the much-vaunted repetitiveness of history, history does not repeat in detail. Empires may rise and fall along the same patterns, but in its relentless progression the event still unwinds one day at a time, and no two days are ever identical. So predictions of human behavior-those grand speculation on what might happen-are not based on experience of what happens every time the experiment is repeated. Those predictions are based on conclusions drawn from a collection of independent events that may or may not have a relation to the event in question. In predicting human behavior, we find ourselves relying on statements that boil down to what might have happened, what we think happened, and-the most dangerous of all-what would have happened if only.

If only. If only there had not been sex education in school my daughter would not be pregnant. If only there had been sex education in school my daughter would not be pregnant.

If only the textbooks could be brought into line, our children would not think incorrect thoughts.

If only the novels that show sex and violence could be banned, our terrible crime problem would be solved.

If only John Gacy's father had not been cold and distant from him, Gacy would not have killed a score of innocent young men.

If only we could get people to stop mentioning ugliness, the world would be beautiful.

So much prescription depends on that insidious phrase if only. And yet if only contains two vicious lies that make that phrase the eternal enemy of truth.

The first lie is the word only: Its root is the word one, implying a singleness that never occurs in real life. It implies that a single change would have a single effect, which is absurd on its face: for instance, the popular lie that if only Chamberlain had not tried to pacify Hitler and instead had taken firm action years earlier to stop the Hitler menace, the Second World War could have been avoided. Isn't that nice? Isn't it pleasant to think wistfully about how easily such tragedy could be avoided, and how easily we could avoid it in the future? Yet Chamberlain's pacification attempts were themselves an effect, not a cause. If he had even suggested going to war with Hitler before the invasion of Poland, his government would have collapsed and the English would have replaced him with a government that would try, as he did, to avoid war. And if England and France had invaded Germany long before Hitler's build-up was complete, wouldn't we today condemn that action as vicious warmongering? There is no single cause of any event, and no single result from any change.

The second lie is the word if: If implies that the predictor has a perfect knowledge of the cause and effect chain. But that perfect knowledge has not been vouchsafed to any man. That is one of the meanings of the veil that blinds us to eternal things. We live in time, day to day, and the world is narrowed to what we can perceive with our own senses and learn from those who teach us. If we had the perfect knowledge that God has, it would be no test for us here; we are kept in ignorance because only in that ignorance are we able to reveal to God and to ourselves who we really are. We do not know what would have happened if only we had done something different; we only know the desires of our own heart, and what our goal was when we acted. That is what we will be judged by-what we desired and tried to do. The intent and the act, but not the long string of consequences that extends infinitely from that act. We are not so implacable as the Greeks. We Latter-day Saints do not believe that God would punish Oedipus for sins he never desired to commit. If only has no meaning to us.

So why does anyone believe that if you can just keep children from reading about sex, they will never perform their own disastrous experiments? Long before there was such a thing as a novel, Europe was heavily populated with people whose coats of arms bore the bar sinister-illegitimate births and illicit sex are as old as mankind, and we writers of fiction are not the cause of them.

Why does anyone believe that if you can just keep writers from depicting acts of violence, acts of violence will disappear from our society? There were mass murders among the illiterate nobility of medieval Europe as rapacious knights pillaged their own people when they couldn't find any enemies to pillage. Ivan the Terrible needed no novelist to tell him how to be a butcher. Rape was not invented in the penny dreadful.

The depiction of evil in fiction is not the perpetration of evil. The mention of unpleasant things is not equivalent to their advocacy. Because in the novel I am writing now I will recount the murder of the Prophet Joseph Smith does not mean that I am consenting to his death. Those who, in the name of truth, would ban all depiction of evil, are in fact the enemies of truth. Their motives may be good, but neither their goals nor their methods have any likelihood of improving the world to even the slightest degree.

A Lover of Goodness and a Student of Evil

All this puts the LDS writer in the anomalous position of being a lover of goodness and a student of evil. Because my fiction has to have the ring of truth, I must learn to write evil convincingly. I have never murdered, but I must understand the motives that can bring a man to kill. I have never committed adultery, but I must understand the motives that bring a man to break a commitment sealed not only by vows but also by years of shared experience. The terrifying thing is that I can find all those human motivations to evil simply by looking into myself. The only solace is that I can also look into myself to find all the desires that prompt people to do good.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a textbook example of the problem of dealing with evil. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was, of all things, a decent man. And look what he does with evil. Sauron isn't evil, he's just mean. He does nasty things, and we're never given the slightest clue of what motivates him. If it's good he destroys it. If he can't destroy it, he perverts it. But why? Tolkien just calls him evil and leaves it at that. It's a cheap way of dealing with evil-paint it black, make it do nasty things, and everyone will hiss whenever it comes on stage.

But Tolkien's Sauron and his little surrogates, the impish and absolutely unindividuated Orcs, are not where Tolkien really deals with evil. Even Saruman, the wizard of white who succumbs to the temptation of pride and turns to the pursuit of selfish ends, even he is shallowly treated and arouses little pity and fear in the reader. Where does Tolkien deal with evil well, believably, importantly? Primarily in Frodo, the protagonist. The good guy we follow from his first possession of the ring to his terrifying finale at the Cracks of Doom; Frodo, whom we weep for when he sails west with the Elves and leaves Sam Gamgee behind. Isn't it Frodo who wrestles with the temptation to throw responsibility on someone else and try to escape? Isn't it Frodo who at the end is overwhelmed by the power of the ring? Isn't it Frodo who is faced with the temptation to kill Gollum, and yet resists? Frodo's companion, Samwise Gamgee, goes through similar struggles with his evil desires. And in Gollum we find good and evil mixed, in different proportions, but still all there. There are the only complete characters in the Lord of the Rings, and it is no accident that in Tolkien's strongly Christian viewpoint, it is these three weak and flawed individuals who, together, bring about the supreme good act of the story. It is no accident that these characters, with their inward struggle between righteous and evil desires, are the ones best-remembered and most-loved by readers.

Like Frodo and Gollum, we contain within ourselves the desires for both good and evil. We children of God are not neatly divided into Elves and Orcs, some desiring only good and some desiring only evil. Such creations are only cardboard, thin and flimsy. It's a good thing Tolkien only sent one elf on the quest-we would never have been able to tell two of them apart.

Not only does a writer reach into himself to discover both good and evil, but also a writer's most believable characters will have those conflicting desires. It is not because the characters do evil that we find them interesting. We identify with them because we recognize both their good and evil desires in ourselves, and through their acts we learn the consequences of our own as yet unmade decisions.

Yet in my depiction of evil in stories and novels, I have never had any problem keeping that confusing mixture of good and evil in perspective. When my character sins, I don't have to tell the reader that his act was sinful. To me it seems inevitable that the adulterer pays the cost of his treachery, that the murderer loses his humanity when he takes another person's life so lightly. Without even thinking about it, my innate sense of what is true shapes the plots of my stories and subtly preaches the moral values instilled in me by a lifetime as a Latter-day Saint.

Right now I am immersed in the fictional experience of a Latter-day Saint woman I've named Dinah Kirkham, who is reared in the terrible poverty of industrial revolution Manchester and is brought by her new faith in Mormonism to America even though it means abandoning her children and her husband. In Nauvoo she becomes a plural wife of Joseph Smith; after his death, she marries Brigham Young and then lives to see her best-loved niece reject the gospel. In all the thousand pages of the novel, I never once even address, let alone attempt to answer, the question of whether Mormonism is really true or not. That is not what I'm writing about.

What I'm writing about is the way these characters behaved because they believed the gospel to be true. To abandon her family, to accept polygamy, Dinah Kirkham's faith has to be incredibly powerful; for the reader to believe her character, I have to make her motives utterly believable. When the reader closes my novel, he won't say, "The Mormon Church must be true." But, if I do my job well, he will say, "Those Mormons were great people." More important, however, than the image of the Church that my novel will project is the fact that the novel inevitably projects my personal moral beliefs. Dinah Kirkham is a happy, admirable, secure person at the end of the book. She never loses her faith, despite her trials. Mormonism and the sacrifices the gospel called from her make her great. And in that sense, I can't help but preach the gospel. I believe that's the way the gospel works on the choicest spirits. I can't honestly write the book any other way.

Yet in this novel, as in every other story and novel I've written, I find that some of my most powerful passages are devoted to the depiction of evil. There is murder, there is rape; people are profane, people are cruel, people suffer, people inflict suffering. There will undoubtedly be some who read my work and misunderstand, like those few Ensign readers who do not comprehend the purpose of that pipe. Because they don't understand how fiction works, they'll see evil depicted and think it is advocated; they'll search for some overt statement of my testimony and never find it.

And this is something that a Mormon writer inevitably faces. When my play Stone Tables, with music by Robert Stoddard, first opened at BYU seven years ago, there were some who came and saw only that Moses and Aaron were portrayed wearing jeans, who heard only that the music was raucous and noisy. There were some who concluded that the play was obviously inspired by the devil, that it was evil and did not deserve a production at BYU. Yet seated in the same audience with them were people who did understand what Robert and I-and the cast and the directors, all faithful Saints-were trying to do. They received the play as it was given.

All this took place while I was on my mission. When I got home, a friend of mine took me aside and told me that when Stone Tables opened, she was only in Provo visiting; she had dropped out of school and even though she had been baptized only a year or so before, her testimony had faded and she was convinced that the gospel was an empty promise that didn't deliver. Then she attended a rehearsal of Stone Tables, and found ideas and feelings through the play that she had not thought of or felt before. She did not go home to California on schedule. She stayed, and watched the play again and again. She remembered all the feelings that had led to her conversion in the first place. And she told me that the play had changed her life.

Of course, the play hadn't changed her; the Spirit of God changed her. But isn't it funny that night after night, when some people came to the show and found only the spirit of evil, right there in the same audience was a woman who found the Spirit of God?

The writing of fiction is a solitary act. The art of fiction really exists as immediately as theater or film or a symphony-though the printed page can last for years, the story only lives when someone is reading it. The creative act of fiction depends as much on the reader as on the writer. It is not the presence or the absence of evil in the events recounted in the story that decides whether a work of fiction is good or not. What decides the moral value of fiction is the character of the person writing it and his skill in writing, and the character of the person reading it and his skill in reading. An evil writer will write an evil book; an untalented writer will accomplish little with his book whether he is a good person or not; an evil reader will detect nothing but evil in his reading; and an unpracticed and unskilled reader will never discover what is really in the book no matter how good his personal moral fiber might be.

And even that is too simple. However good I try to be, there are undoubtedly flaws in my character that I have not yet discovered or rooted out. Those will show up in my writing. And in even the most corrupt of writers, there are still remnants of righteous desires that will leave their clean traces in their work. Even if we could always be certain which writers are good and which are evil-and we can't; even if we could always be certain which of our personal beliefs are actually eternally true and which are in error-and we can't; even if with consummate skill as readers we could always be sure we had found every shred of good and evil in a particular work of fiction-and we can't; even so, we would be foolish to set ourselves as judges over what people can and cannot write, and what they can and cannot read. For we never know which book, which offends us, might not contain that shred of truth that leads another person that much closer to happiness.

It is not inappropriate to think of books as children. Some children are obviously good; but there are others who bring their parents to the brink of despair. It seems they'll never amount to anything; they rebel constantly, deliberately choose evil at every opportunity. But if you had it in your power, would you even want to try to choose which children to allow to grow to adulthood, and which lives to snuff out before they do any more damage? Unthinkable. You never know what a child might become.

Only when the fiction ceases trying to be fiction at all, and instead has as its objective the gratification of the reader's basest desires; only when the fiction directly enacts evil instead of merely depicting it or even advocating it; only then does a free society have a right to protect itself at the expense of the freedom of the writer and reader to communicate as they wish.

But does that leave you defenseless against the advocates of evil? Of course not. There has never been a book written that has one hundredth of the power in shaping human lives that parents exercise every day. You can combat the errors your children learn from fiction exactly as you combat the errors your children learn from their friends-by teaching them otherwise, by setting an example, by strengthening their conviction of and commitment to the truth; by loving them. In spite of that, some children inevitably choose evil because that is the desire of their hearts-but those who desire evil don't need fiction writers to teach them what evil is and how to get it.

And in the meantime, those of us who find much of our lives through the work of writers of fiction will continue to share the creative act of fiction. To some people we seem to be peculiar creatures, surrounded by books, spending hours of our lives in Tolkien's Middle Earth, in Hardy's Wessex, in Renault's Greece, in Tolstoy's Russia, in Singer's Poland, and Walter's Wales. They cannot understand our eternal love affair with Captain Ahab, Samwise Gamgee, Hari Seldon, Horatio Hornblower, Lew Archer, Yossarian, Demian, Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, the Emperors Claudius and Julian, Von Humboldt Fleisher, and Rush-That-Speaks. To the overwhelming majority of Americans-and the overwhelming majority, alas, of Latter-day Saints-everything that I've talked about today, which I've treated with such importance, would seem quite trivial. Because, by their own choice, books are forever closed to them, they simply do not understand the major part that reading plays in a reader's life. And the non-comprehension goes both ways. I look at the people whose only brush with fiction is the emptiest of television and the most vacuous of movies, and perhaps a memory of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in their childhood, and I do not understand how they survive.

* * *

Presented here in paraphrase, several questions were raised in the question-and-answer session following the lecture, the answers to which help illuminate the viewpoints expressed.

"In your lecture, you appeared to use the terms evil and suffering interchangeably. Don't you distinguish between them? Isn't it possible to show human beings suffering without showing evil?"

I was aware of my deliberate broadening of the term evil; what surprises me is that anyone was listening closely enough to realize it!

Yes, of course suffering is different from evil, though I believe that evil inevitably brings suffering. Much suffering comes from seemingly random events that are not caused by human beings; or that are only inadvertently caused. For instance, floods and fires, earthquakes and major depressions do not impinge on our lives at the deliberate instigation of other human beings. And fiction could indeed be written (and has been written) completely about a character's response to such natural disasters.

But that subject matter soon gets pretty thin, and to write only of natural disasters is, I think, to perpetuate one of the lies the world would like us to believe. After all, one of the most insidious beliefs in anti-Christ philosophy is the claim that man is victim, not actor; that all of man's suffering comes from forces which no man can control, and that therefore no man is blameworthy. If that were so, why would a just God presume to put men before his judgment bar? One of the most important doctrines unique to Mormonism is Joseph Smith's teaching that man was uncreated-that our fundamental desires are who we are, and neither God nor any natural force created those desires. We have always been ourselves, and therefore we are the only ones responsible for our own acts. God is not toying with his creations-he is trying to elevate and bring joy to his fellow intelligences. That view of God and man tells us that while natural disasters may cause us stress, we are individually responsible for our responses to that stress, and will be judged for them. And once again, a Latter-day Saint fiction writer is forced to present evil, unless he chooses to write only about characters who are already on the verge of being translated. Furthermore, a Latter-day Saint fiction writer is bound to present the truth that most human suffering is the result, not of natural events, but of human sin or human weakness. Otherwise, we again find ourselves blaming God for all that's wrong with our lives.

For this reason, I don't think the difference between suffering in general and suffering caused by evil is significant to a writer of fiction. All suffering eventually raises the question of evil. And since Latter-day Saint writers start from the position that man is responsible for his own unhappiness, and that man's unhappiness is inseparable from either his own evil or his response to the evil of other men, evil is especially forced on the writer who believes in the gospel.

"Aren't there ways for a writer to sidestep the depiction of evil, and merely leave it up to the reader's imagination, instead of depicting it?

That depends upon the conventions of the audience. The writer must communicate. Eighty years ago, the audience knew perfectly well what the writer was leaving out when he said, "And upon what happens next we must draw the curtain." But today, the audience would reject such direct elision; and because they have become accustomed to graphic depictions of practically everything, they have a tendency to be unaware of subtlety-if it isn't shown, it didn't happen, so far as the reader is concerned.

This does not mean that a writer has to pander to the ignorance of his audience. It does mean, however, that a writer may have to depict more in order to communicate with most of his audience than some of his audience might think is necessary. In such matters a writer must be governed by his own sense of proportion and decorum. I have never written a scene in which I believed either sex or violence was provocative, though I have written scenes in which sex and violence take place. I have never included sex or violence at all unless they were strictly necessary in order to understand the character's subsequent actions. For instance, in Saints Dinah Kirkham is nearly raped in what I hope is a rather terrifying scene; in the first draft, I did not include that scene, but merely referred to it. However, readers of that draft made it very clear that because they had not actually experienced some of the terror of that scene, they were unable to understand Dinah's later actions in response to it. So I added the scene, still being very careful to make the scene frightening rather than arousing.

Of course, some readers will respond in the wrong way-it can't be helped. But I know my own intent, and I know that it works just the way I want it to with several intelligent readers. Beyond that, I can't be responsible for the individual responses of the readers, since I have no control over the frame of mind in which they approach the work. Certainly I don't advocate that writers of fiction depict evil willy-nilly; but then, a sense of proportion is required to write fiction at all, and the writer's handling of evil will be only one demonstration of the particular faculty.

"Isn't it possible for the constant reading of sex and violence in books that are not intended to be pornography to still have a deadening and brutalizing effect on readers?"

It certainly is. A steady diet of occult horror novels, for instance, is not exactly going to be conducive to the reader being close to the Spirit of God. But that is not the decision of the writer-it is a decision of the reader. No one will be brutalized or deadened spiritually by reading any novel or story of mine; but there are some who might be offended; and there are some stories I've written which, if the reader read them over and over for months, would certainly have a harmful effect.

But the reader is responsible for the diet of fiction he chooses, just as the grocer is not responsible if one of his customers eats nothing but chocolate bars and dies of obesity. The world of fiction provides opportunities for a well-balanced intellectual and emotional and aesthetic diet; it is up to the readers to choose wisely. Only if you believe the government should determine your daily menu can you consistently believe the government should determine what people can read-outside the realm, of course, of poisons both literary and culinary.

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