When I lived in Minnesota, I belonged to a book club that met at the local Perkin's (like Denny's) every first Thursday. We started at 8:30 pm so we knew the children were in bed and went late into the night. The almost empty restaurant often rang with our laughter, and it wasn't uncommon for other customers to shoot annoyed glances in our direction. One night a couple walked up to our table while we were in a heated discussion. The woman asked if we had read "Plain Song" and said it was her favorite book in the world. We decided it must be kismet and chose to read it the following month.
I got the book from the library and sat down to start it. I wish I could say I put it down, but I read with voyeuristic interest the story of a little boy in a small town and the sad sexual encounters he was forced into. It was horrific, and we met the next month all shaking our heads, wondering how anyone could think that was their favorite book. I'd forgotten about this experience until I read Marsha's recent post, and I had to ask myself again, "What makes a book good?"
Some LDS writers feel that if there is anything close to immoral behavior depicted in a book, then it is not moral. Personally, I disagree. I think that often the depiction of evil can illustrate the depth of a character's redemption and bring a realism to the piece that can give it great power. The problem lies in the fact that the majority of pieces that "cross the line" often do so without having any lofty motivation behind those scenes.
When my mother passed away, I inherited much of her library. One small volume was entitled "On Moral Fiction" by John Gardner. I opened it for the first time this morning and found the definition of what I had felt. Gardner says " true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it." In contrast he speaks of trivial art which "has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality."
In trying to write fiction that sells it may be tempting to create trivial art, what Gardner called "frothy commercialism." In this venue sexuality is cheapened, and I think wrong- the difference between porn and Rueben's nudes or Michelangelo's David.
Last year I listened to a popular film executive who worked on "Transformers." He talked about the heart of great movies. He emphasized over and over that for a movie to be lasting it must illustrate some "great truth"- love, loyalty, honor, trust, patriotism. He believed that the classics of film have all done this and that is why people are drawn to Star Wars (use the force) and Wizard of Oz (there's no place like home.) Without some powerful epiphany, writing doesn't become true art.
Most of the women in ANWA are far more concerned with true art than "frothy commercialism" which is probably why I'm so drawn to them. I admire the pure quality of their writing. I've got to admit that I personally find it easy to be sucked into "popcorn fiction" (no nutritional value) which, if it's clean, I suppose has it's place. That is, as long as it doesn't twist truth and portray evil as though it was good, which seemed to be Marsha's frustration.
In playing with words, it's imperative that we respect the ideas behind them. Whether we choose to write light romances or heavy historicals, we need to take care that our narrative ultimately elevates the reader. My favorite line from a movie is in "As Good As It Gets." In the film Jack Nicholson plays a depressive who is interested in a single mother. She is ready to leave him when he turns to her and explains that the night she became his friend, he started taking his medication. He says, "You make me want to be a better man." That is exactly what I hope my books do for people and in my opinion is what makes a book "good"- because it encourages me to be a better person by reading it.