I’ll give you a couple of book discussions after one short paragraph on fiction and history. Both fiction and history are a form of narrative. Historical narrative is (ideally) constrained by facts and historical evidence; both fiction and history are constrained in a looser sense by the sensibilities of their reading audience, as few people will read a boring or irrelevant or uncredible narrative, whether packaged as fiction, nonfiction, history, or scripture. We readers want plausible, relevant, interesting narratives. Life is too short to bother with anything else. So let’s start with some fiction, Mette Ivie Harrison’s His Right Hand, the second installment in an ongoing series. The blurb on the front cover describes it as “A Linda Wallheim mystery set in Mormon Utah.”
I confess I don’t read much fiction these days, and I studiously avoided any LDS fiction for a very long time. I read the first novel in the series, The Bishop’s Wife, last year when I stumbled across it on the new books shelf at the library. (Linda Wallheim, who solves the mysteries, is married to Bishop Wallheim.) I decided that if an LDS author went to all the effort to write and publish a book with an LDS theme (set in exciting Mormon Utah!), it deserves some readers, and if LDS readers won’t step up to the plate, who will? So I read it out of a sense of duty to the tribe. Does mixing murder and Mormonism somehow work for non-LDS readers? Interesting thought. We’re still talking about Mountain Meadows and Mark Hoffman and Danites. Maybe murder and Mormonism works for all readers.
His Right Hand is interesting and relevant because transgenderism and homosexuality are part of the story. So there’s that. It’s plausible in the sense that any narrative set in Draper, Utah and featuring lots of Mormons struggling to grasp or even understand what’s going on with transgender or gay characters is fairly plausible. I think a lot of the LDS characters in the book are one dimensional (exceptions being Sister Wallheim, her female exercise pal, a non-LDS female detective, and maybe the dead guy). It dawned on me that this is not a failure of the author but an accurate depiction. Most real-life Mormons are one dimensional. This realization was my payoff for reading the book. At least they (well, we) come across that way, because Mormons often speak and act following a script, the “what Mormons are supposed to do and say” script that we all learn while growing up in the Church. Even non-LDS know the script and often give you a hard time if you deviate from it. The author manages to craft a three-dimensional story using these largely one-dimensional characters, which is something of an accomplishment. For an LDS reader, it is all so familiar but so unsettling. It’s worth a read to see how these fictional Mormons grapple with the reality of alternative sexualities, because you won’t have many such conversations with real-life Mormons.
Now, about history. Books that reflect on the relation between fictional and historical narrative come in two types. Those written by historians stress the differences between the two types of narrative. Those written by writers or literary critics stress the similarities. I just finished Christopher Bram’s The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction and Nonfiction (Graywolf Press, 2016). Bram has written nine novels, so this short book leans toward similarities between history and fiction. Some of the similarities he noted include structuring the narrative as a story (with a beginning, middle, and end); the need to choose a start and a finish to the story (how far back do you go in beginning the story, and when do you stop?); and the writer’s choice of scale and focus, covering decades or centuries versus a very short time period, even just a day, for example.
As inventive writers have explored the space between fiction and history, something like a spectrum has emerged. Historical fiction (e.g., War and Peace) has been around a long time. Narrative nonfiction (e.g., Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm) is a more recent development. Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage, noted for its realism, is the account of a fictional Civil War battle. Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels recounts the real battle at Gettysburg through the eyes of a variety of leading participants. Strictly speaking, it’s a historical novel, but you will learn more about Gettysburg and the generals involved reading it than you will from most history books. So we have this puzzling situation where readers often learn more about history reading fiction than by reading history.
It is worth pondering over this puzzle a bit in relation to LDS history. A lot of Mormons have read The Work and the Glory, no doubt many more than have read say Leonard Arrington’s The Mormon Experience. Few of them, I think, have reflected on the difference between history and historical fiction. Some are likely not even aware that The Work and the Glory is a work of historical fiction rather than actual history. In an ethical sense, it seems terribly important for LDS authors to expressly inform LDS readers where on that spectrum from fiction to history they think they are working and what liberties the author has taken in crafting the characters and story.
I wonder where Saints, the soon-to-be-published four-volume official LDS history, will fall on this spectrum? Elder Snow, the Church Historian, has stated that the series “will not be a reference work, but a narrative based on well-researched facts.” That sounds a little like “based on a true story,” which puts it somewhere between historical fiction and the Killer Angels sort of enhanced nonfiction. He also stated the history will be “transparent, honest and faithful.” Transparent and honest point to the straight history end of the spectrum; but faithful suggests some material that is controversial or confusing will be either whitewashed (made to appear faithful rather than troubling) or simply omitted. The first volume will show us how the author(s) and editor(s) balance transparency and honesty with faith affirmation in the resulting historical account.
Last thought. Here’s a quotation from Bram’s The Art of History:
People never tire of saying that truth is stranger than fiction. But that’s because fiction needs to mean something, while true events can simply be. True stories speak to us most strongly when they mean something, too.
In traditional accounts of LDS history, all events are portrayed as meaning something. If you believe God micromanages historical events, particularly LDS historical events, then that probably doesn’t bother you. If you believe that “true events can just be,” that history exercises its own free agency, so to speak, then that is a problem. Again, the first volume of the upcoming LDS history will show whether every event is seen as a meaningful piece of the preordained Mormon panorama or whether some events just happen and we must deal with them as they are, as they just happened to turn out, not as they were somehow meant to be.
This is an interesting topic. Expect a few more posts reflecting on the nature of history and historical narrative in coming weeks.