Tending the Garden
Lavina Fielding Anderson, editors
Just the Fiction, Ma’am
Tory C. Anderson
[p.69]I remember my first day of classes at Brigham Young University—particularly my first day in English 115. I sat near the back of the room wondering, like everyone else, what this class had in store for me. When the door opened, I turned and saw Douglas Thayer, his round glasses propped on his nose, walk into the room. If I had only known what Brother Thayer was going to do to me, I could have dropped his class and gone on to live a normal life.
I remember Professor Thayer’s lectures for several reasons. For one thing he liked to embarrass me. Often while he lectured, my feet would become very hot and I would slip off my shoes to let my feet cool. (My socks were clean.) On one occasion he noticed my shoeless feet and asked, while shaking his head (at the audacity of freshmen, no doubt), that I put my shoes back on. The class thought this was funny.
Another time my whispering to Sara across the aisle bothered him and he wrote my name in huge letters across the entire chalk board. He announced that this was a technique aimed at embarrassing delinquent students in an attempt to persuade them to behave more acceptably. It worked.
These amusing memories might be all I got out of Professor Thayer’s class had he not written “The Red-Tailed Hawk” and made his freshmen students read it. “The Red-Tailed Hawk” is a short story that deals with a boy who has anti-establishment sentiments. To make [p.70]matters worse, he is just reaching puberty. The story made many of us innocent freshmen raise our eyebrows. After all, we were fresh from homes run by Victorian parents and had never talked about things like running naked through wheat fields at night. The story made us wonder about Professor Thayer’s boyhood. But “The Red-Tailed Hawk” is only fiction. Just ask Professor Thayer. We did.
For some reason “The Red-Tailed Hawk” spoke to me, moved me, changed me. It opened my mind to the nuances of my own life and increased my level of consciousness 100 percent. I had done a lot of reading before I went to college, but this was the first experience I had ever had. “The Red-Tailed Hawk” affected me more profoundly and positively than any scripture I ever read or any talk I ever heard—and I’ve read powerful scriptures and heard moving talks. Ever since I read that story, I have wanted to become a great writer of fiction. Not because I thought there was money and fame in it, but because I wanted to be able to do to other people’s lives what Douglas Thayer did to mine.
It never occurred to me that others might not see fiction as a powerful tool for good. But my experiences as a writer and editor have taught me that when compared to “true” stories, the status of fiction within the Mormon culture is low. I’ve heard friends describe their favorite movie by saying, “And it’s based on a true story!” as if they were thus providing evidence about why it should be their favorite movie. The editor of a small Mormon publishing house told me she accepted a novel manuscript because it was based on the true history of the settlement of Utah Valley. It was clear that if the book had been written exactly the same, but not based on the true history, she would have rejected it. I was shaken when an editor of one of the church magazines told me they would not be printing fiction anymore. “Why do we need fiction when we can print true stories?” he said. Why indeed! I’ve read the “true” stories this editor prints. Many of them are touching and inspiring, but in my experience none of them have come near to having the cathartic power of good fiction. How can this be? How can something that didn’t happen have a more powerful, positive effect than a “true” story? The argument between fiction and true-life stories comes down to the reasoning that true-life stories are true and fiction is not. Ergo, true-life stories are better. [p.71]However, my experience tells me that “true” stories are no truer (and often less so) than good fiction.
There are three questions you should ask before placing such high esteem on “true” stories and so little on fiction.
First, how “true to life” are “true” stories? Time tends to fog the memory where “true” stories are stored. We’ve all heard the fisherman or hunter tell us about the one that got away—the twenty-four-pound trout, the twenty-five-point buck. Or how about the story Bill Cosby tells so well (we’ve maybe told similar stories in earnest) about his grandmother telling him that she walked to school when she was a little girl—and the snow was four feet deep and the trek was ten miles long and uphill both ways. Each of the four gospels in the New Testament is written with the unique perspective of a separate individual—each writer remembering or summarizing the events of Christ’s ministry differently. Joseph Smith, years after the fact, told several different versions of his first vision.
Second, how much of the story is being told? For decades after World War II, Japanese history books used in Japanese schools described a different war (when it came to Japan’s involvement) than the one described in American history books. Even in our personal stories, only half the truth often gets told. A woman I worked for at Brigham Young University told me that, while on her mission in Texas years ago, she saw many horrible things that broke her heart. But she also had many wonderful experiences that inspired her. She told me that the inspiring stories were so wonderful that the horrible stories have no importance in comparison and therefore do not need to be told. Her telling only a part of the truth reveals a distorted picture of her mission—a distorted picture that disillusions some missionaries when they experience the part she didn’t tell.
Third, is there any “truth” at all in this true story? Check out Soviet history (as written by the Soviets). Check out Paul Dunn history (as told by Paul Dunn). The Soviets fabricated history to inspire their people to be better communists. Paul Dunn fabricated history to inspire youth to be better Christians. But can truth be fabricated? imitation leather looks and feels like leather, but the person who tries to tell you it is real leather is lying. And just as Christ wasn’t flattered when evil spirits testified of him, truth isn’t flattered by lies “told for truth’s sake.”
[p.72]Experience has taught me to question every “true” story that I hear. It doesn’t matter who tells it—a church leader or a local politician—I have to ask, “How accurate is this story?” “What is being left out?” … “What is the storyteller trying to get me to do and how is that affecting the story he or she is telling me?”
Yet what is weakness in true stories is strength in fiction. In fiction we don’t wonder whether the characters really existed and did what the author says they did. We know they didn’t. I don’t take good fiction seriously because “it really happened!” but because it offers me experience, which to me is synonymous with truth. This is important because experience is the purpose of life.
Truth cannot be got at directly. If it could, I believe God would have done away with the idea of sending us to earth. Instead, he would have simply given us our bodies and the truth and have had done with it. But truth is something that cannot be given. It must be obtained through experience—and each of us has to experience it for ourselves. I think Christ was speaking of this in his parable of the ten virgins. No matter how much they wanted to, the five wise virgins could not give of their oil to the five unwise virgins. I’m sure that God has plenty of oil in his lamp. But even he is unable to give any of it away.
Yet in our mortal naiveté, we think we can share our oil. We try to force the truth of chastity, the truth of tithing, the truth of honesty, the truth of love, and the truth of God’s existence across the pulpit in the form of sermons. Then we augment these sermons with “true” stories that have been edited, altered, and sometimes even fabricated to make sure people get the truth. It isn’t that these sermons and “true” stories are bad. It’s that the prevailing attitude is that they are all weneed to learn the truth. The speakers speak from their experience and hope we understand, but unless we have comparable experience, we aren’t going to understand. If we have had comparable experience, we already know what the speaker is talking about, so he or she isn’t all that much help. If we haven’t had comparable experience, we won’t understand the speaker, although we may gain knowledge.
Reality shows us that sermons aren’t all we need. Our youth continue to learn about morality and immorality through experience. Our adults learn about loving, marrying, hating, and divorcing [p.73]through experience. Anyone who truly knows God knows him through experience. We cannot learn the truth of anything without experiencing it. Sermons and “true” stories act as guides, but understanding depends upon experience.
Am I saying that a person can’t understand something like the ugliness of unchastity without experiencing it? Yes, but I’m not saying a person has to be unchaste to gain this experience. Is this a paradox? It’s no more paradoxical than Christ’s feeling the pain of our sins, the pain of our agonies in the Garden of Gethsemane. The pain he felt was real, not imagined or sermonized. And yet the sins he suffered for weren’t his sins (i.e., his experiences). Does he understand the person who has been unchaste? Completely. Has he been unchaste? No. He experienced unchastity and its eternal effects vicariously. We have the ability to experience vicariously, too. We have to experience at least some things vicariously or it will take four billion earth lives (give or take a million) to experience what we need to experience to become like God.
This is where fiction comes in. Good fiction is refined life. It gets at the heart of the meaning of life without ever talking about it like sermons do. The meaning of life is found through experience. Good fiction is experience. A sermon is just knowledge. In sacrament meeting I hear a talk on chastity. The speaker quotes scripture and makes it clear that to be chaste is good and to be unchaste is bad (i.e., it brings spiritual death). The speaker tells “true stories” specially chosen to prove the point. If I’m attentive and have an open heart throughout the talk, what have I learned? To be chaste is good; to be unchaste is bad. These are things I must understand if I am ever to become like God. However, how much has the sermon taught me about the heart and soul of man and woman? I have learned that the unchaste man is bad or is doing something bad and that the chaste woman is good or is doing something good. That’s all.
Good fiction strikes much deeper. Good fiction isn’t concerned with teaching lessons (although lessons can be derived from it) but with the heart and soul of life and the human beings who live it. The more experience I have, the more I understand this heart and soul, myself, and my fellow human beings. I have my own living experience, but good fiction expands that experience ten-fold, a hundred-fold, and makes it possible to apply any knowledge I have.
[p.74]Madame Bovary is a work of fiction that deals with, among other things, adultery. Sermons and their “true stories” have already taught me that adultery is bad, so what could I gain from reading a fictional account of adultery? I think that God knows a lot more about adultery than that it is bad. I want to be like him and know what he knows. When the adulterer stands before God, I don’t think God is going to say, “You’re an adulterer. You’re bad. Go straight to hell.” Perhaps the unrepentant adulterer will go to hell; but, even so, God will see more than the sin—he will see the whole person and all the circumstances that led this person to the adultery—and he will understand.
Madame Bovary is good fiction. Through it I experience adultery. Through it I come to understand. Flaubert gives me a front row seat to Emma’s life. I see her as a young, beautiful, unmarried woman who has romantic notions about love and marriage. (Ironically, she got these notions from reading bad fiction and not being wise enough to recognize that it was bad fiction, fiction that does not get at truth.) I watch as she marries a country doctor, and I feel the hopes and dreams she has for the future. When reality sets in, I experience the disillusionment that her simple life and her good but dull-witted husband bring. When she meets Léon, a man who will become one of her lovers in the future, I feel the feelings of excitement and release she feels because I have also felt her feelings of boredom and repression. I understand the temptation she feels to commit adultery.
Let me stop here to say that I already know that if Emma gives in to this temptation, it will lead to trouble in her life. But the novel is not trying to teach me a lesson. It is after the understanding that can come through experience (truth). Because of Flaubert’s skill as an artist, Emma is a human being, and her situation is as real as any situation I’ve ever been in in my life. Because of Flaubert’s skill, at this point in the book I can empathize with Emma’s disillusionment and boredom. This empathy helps me to understand her temptation as she feels it; but because I am outside of her life, I can see it more clearly for what it is.
Emma temporarily wins the battle with this temptation, but she lacks the wisdom that would allow the victory to bring her peace of mind and self-respect. Instead, she feels guilt for what she sees as her weakness in not being able to give herself to Léon. This is an absurd [p.75]emotion to feel but she felt it; and because of Flaubert’s skill as a writer, I also feel it and understand it, even though I reject it.
Emma meets another stranger, Rudolphe, with whom she does have an affair. The affair adds excitement to her life; she is finally able to realize her romantic fantasies. I feel her excitement and the relief she feels in escaping her dull husband and dull life. But I also experience the lies she tells her husband, I feel her neglect of her daughter, I experience her loss of self-respect as she knowingly lies to herself. I feel disillusionment as the excitement of the affair wears off and, finally, the dark feelings of being used when Emma’s lover dumps her, feigning repentance when really he is just tired of her. I understand when Emma stands in the window ready to leap to her death, even though I am aware that her own stupidity and selfish desires brought her there. Charles, Emma’s husband, unwittingly stops her suicide.
I thrill with Emma when she meets Léon again, the one who can truly give her what she wants. This time she gives herself to him without reservation. I feel the excitement of the letters they write to each other, their secret meetings, the sticky web of lies she constructs to deceive her husband, and her dark uneasiness at her reckless spending on clothes and jewels. I reject what she is doing (as does any wise reader), but all the while I understand why she is doing what she is doing.
When the debts come due, when the web of lies begins to tear, and when she grows tired of Léon, I feel the same sickness and despair Emma does. Everyone else in Emma’s community is puzzled when she swallows arsenic and dies a slow, agonizing death. I am not. I understand. I don’t ask why Emma didn’t know that God loved her and that she could repent and salvage her life. Why? Thanks to Flaubert’s skill, I felt the despair Emma felt and understood the course of action she took. In addition to the despair, I am also able to pity Charles for being too stupid to discover Emma’s affairs while they were going on and to understand why they began in the first place and then too weak to deal with them when he did find out. I pity Berthe, their young daughter, who, because of her mother’s Selfishness and her father’s weakness (he dies soon after Emma), is going to have a very difficult life. I find myself wishing that Berthe Could read Madame Bovary or a book like it, and experience what her [p.76]mother experienced. By applying knowledge to that experience, she might escape her mother’s fate.
When I turn the last page of Madame Bovary, I have completed an experience. I knew adultery was destructive before I started reading the book, but now I understand it as I have never understood it before. I have suffered Emma’s sins, Charles’s despair, Berthe’s loneliness. The novel has given me experience. The novel has given me truth.
What makes Madame Bovary even more effective is that it was not written to teach me a lesson about the horrors of adultery. Gustave Flaubert, by most Christian standards, was sexually immoral and thoroughly unrepentant. He had no motive to manipulate the characters or tell just half of a story to make sure his readers understood that adultery is bad. Flaubert was concerned with life and the art of recording life. He gave Emma every chance to be happy in her “sins,” but in the end she wasn’t. Flaubert wasn’t trying to teach a lesson; he was only recording honestly what life was like.
This novel is unhampered by the weaknesses inherent in almost all “true” stories: details haven’t been forgotten or exaggerated—all the details are Flaubert’s creation based upon his observations; anyone who is a skilled reader will most likely agree that Flaubert told the whole story (the fact that Madame Bovary has survived the test of time is supporting evidence), not just the part needed to make us believe like him; the same test of time indicates that Madame Bovary is not a lie.
What we have in the experience of Madame Bovary, is truth about adultery. in a way no “true” story could ever give. All good fiction does this same thing, whether it be about charity, as in The Grapes of Wrath, pride, as in The Rise of Silas Lapham, or power, as in Macbeth. Whereas sermons and true stories talk about life, good fiction is life refined to its essence. Truth that took me only four hours to absorb took Emma a lifetime. God has given me my life to live, to experience truth. God has also created great creative writers, who, if I’m willing, will expand my own experience to the nth power. I’ll always be willing to sit through a good sermon and hear about the truth. But I’m even more willing to read good fiction and experience the truth first hand.
To that editor who said, “We don’t need fiction when we have true stories,” I say, “You are wrong.” Sermons and their accompany-[p.77]ing “true” stories (and vice versa) have their place and play an important part in imparting knowledge; but I think that Mormons who grow up on a diet comprised of nothing else, when they die and apply for a position in the kingdom of heaven, will be like many college graduates who, when looking for a job, are told by prospective employers that they have knowledge but little or no experience. Jesus is our savior and judge because of his experience. He had all knowledge before he came to earth. What he gained on earth—what he gained in the Garden of Gethsemane—was the experience that made his exaltation complete.