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Sesquicentennial Lectures on Mormon Arts, Letters and Sciences, Harold B. Lee Library
of Evil in Fiction
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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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