Fiction and History

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.

LDS 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.

23 comments for “Fiction and History

  1. “It dawned on me that this is not a failure of the author but an accurate depiction. Most real-life Mormons are one dimensional. ”

    No, they aren’t. This says way more about you and your biases than it does about actual Mormons. And frankly, it’s an insult, and a rather nasty one that ignores the real, actual struggles of “normal” Mormons.

    It’s quite clear you would rather keep your “my inner life is richer than thine” attitude of an adolescent than actually take the time to become good friends with some of these supposedly “one-dimensional” faithful Mormons. You clearly have no idea what is going on the lives, hearts, and minds of many of those who just “follow the script.”

    That statement alone is enough to pretty much discount anything else you have to say on the topic of Mormons.

  2. Has someone labeled Dave B as they would an enemy? This is the problem with biases; if one does not own one’s personal biases, one remains an unreliable narrator of history or fiction. A favorite quote, from the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:” No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Ivan, something tells me you would identify more with the straightlaced yet friendly Bishop Wallheim rather than the sensitive and progressive Linda Wallheim.

  4. Dave –

    Perhaps. My guess is that I would identify with them both, but even your description of both characters betrays a rather condescending bias.

  5. “Has someone labeled Dave B as they would an enemy? ”

    Not sure what that means. The answer is: no. However, Dave B has labeled my parents, my family, and many of my dearest friends as less than fully human.

  6. I wonder if some may be too tough on the condescension of Dave ( to use a Book of Mormon turn of phrase). He did qualify his one-dimensional assertion by including himself and discounting it to coming across that way: “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.” I have known Mormons who take pains to adhere publicly to the script. On getting to know them personally, I’ve found that none of them are in fact one-dimensional Molly Mormons or Peter Priesthoods, even though they may superficially appear to be. I doubt that my experience differs significantly on this point from Ivan’s or Dave’s. My judgment, however, may be suspect, as I do not take pains to “adhere to the script” and when I’ve commented to good non-Mormon friends that I do not fit the stereotype, they have laughed at my apparently thinking that even needed to be said. I will await instruction from an angel on the condescension of Dave (if in fact there is any).

  7. My encounter with Mette Ivie Harrison was quite like yours with one exception. I also found her book on the library’s new fiction shelves and had pretty much the same reaction that tribal ties made it almost an obligation to check it out, so I did. The one exception was that Harrison had been talked up and praised on many LDS blogs that I read so I had some high expectations. They weren’t met. Harrison aligns more with Jack Weyland than Doug Thayer. Her writing and her characters are one dimensional, not because she is an adept observer but because she is an average writer. It’s not that I didn’t read and kind of enjoy her book, she was writing about places and people that I know and that rarely make it into fiction, but wasn’t much more than that.

  8. I think if we think our acquaintances or neighbors are one dimensional it typically means we just haven’t gotten to know them sufficiently. Nearly all the time this is a failure on our part. Although given all the time commitments we have, often this is just a practical reality. I think of Sartre’s old discussion of meeting a waiter in an authentic or inauthentic way. That is do we see them in purely functional terms or do we see them as having unplumbed depths which lay beneath the surface? That’s a basic attitude we ought have – recognize the hidden depths people have that we just don’t know. Even people who engage with us in a typically superficial manner (as most people at say checkouts or restaurants do) are far more than the role they play for us. When we realize that and act accordingly I think we’re acting in a more Christlike fashion.

    It’s an easy trap to fall into to assume that because our engagements are superficial and often functional that’s all there is to people. Ideally we should be moving past that with activities, home teaching, and more. However (speaking guiltily as I’ve not done my home teaching the past month primarily due to ridiculous time commitments as my wife’s in her 9th month of pregnancy) it’s far too easy to be superficial even there. Don’t get me wrong. I often don’t care at all for the way Mormons in Utah engage with each other. I just don’t care for it and thus it’s not particularly socially enjoyable for me. Socializing ends up being something I have to concentrate on and get me out of my comfort zone. But the problem is me, not the other people even acknowledging some problematic aspects to typical Utah culture.

    The benefit of fiction is that often the author can take an omniscient or semi-omniscient view and plumb underneath the level of superficiality. However let’s be honest. This is contrived typically. The author controls people and intentionally makes characters that are interesting to them. Ironically this leads to a certain superficiality of it’s own where characters seem deep and layered yet still function along traditional tropes. They’re no less functional than the superficial characters who exist merely to move a plot along.

    Real life though isn’t so convenient. The complexities people have are not necessarily what we’d find enjoyable. Further we don’t have that mind reading that the omniscient or semi-omniscient narrator is able to do. In a certain way this is why avoiding the omniscient or semi-omniscient narrator is so much more difficult for an author – you have to figure out how to present people to the reader in a way the reader can plump their depths without the easy methods of doing so. Effectively you have to make people interesting while dealing in the superficialities of how we as humans actually engage with each other. That kind of literature perhaps is helpful because it’s attempting to teach the reader what they should be doing all of the time.

  9. Really interesting post, Dave. I really like the continuum you talk about of narratives that vary in how constrained they are by facts and how you apply it to the Church’s forthcoming publication. I think you make an excellent point about the question of whether historical events (in Mormon history) have to mean something, and how our answer to that is related to how much we think God micromanages things.

    On that last point, I think that probably applies more generally to how we think and talk and construct narratives about our own lives. If we think God is micromanaging things, we will explain that everything happens for a reason, and will search diligently to find what that reason might be.

    Also, sorry to follow the tangential discussion of the one line in your post, but I think you’re spot on in saying that Mormons come across as one-dimensional. That’s not by accident either. The major goal of Correlation is homogeneity. All the talks telling us that a “real” testimony has to contain a certain set of elements, for example, are targeted at polishing off the rough edges that might make one Mormon different from another. We may be multi-dimensional people, but as Mormons, especially in the way we relate to non-Mormons, the Correlated ideal is that we all be pretty much the same.

  10. Ziff, there is a huge difference between Mormons coming across as one dimensional, which you say, and Mormons being one dimensional, which is what Dave wrote. The former is a defensible position that a skilled author could use in a story, the latter is either lazy thinking or lazy blog posting that a not very skilled author could seize on as being revelatory but which is just naive.

  11. KLC, maybe Dave could have phrased it better, but you realize he qualified it in the next sentence, right?

    “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.”

  12. Ziff, thank you for trying to stay on topic regarding Dave’s thesis involving history and fiction. I regret that the dialogue has been about a statement Dave made that personally did not offend me, but did end up misdirecting thinking away from the thesis. I have been in a position similar to Dave’s, having made statements while advancing a particular argument that ended up misdirecting thought away from the poster’s thesis.

  13. Ziff, it’s a pretty weak qualification to say that *at the least* we come across as one dimensional. Here is what a real qualification that doesn’t still imply all mormons really are one dimensional might look like:

    “Most real-life Mormons are one dimensional. OK, not really, but sometimes we come across that way.”

    See the difference? If you don’t then maybe you are being too one dimensional.

    And unlike Jerry and yourself I have no qualms about chasing down this seeming tangent. Real life conversations ebb and flow and take surprising and interesting turns and deviations. When you are with friends do you police them with stern warnings that someone’s comment is off topic and caution them to not misdirect the conversation? Or do you enjoy the give and take and the realization that people are engaging in what you say, even in ways that you might not have imagined? Chiding people about how a conversation develops, either in person or online, is more often than not just an attempt to shut down honest discourse.

  14. Ziff, in my last paragraph when I say ‘you’ I don’t mean you personally but the generic ‘you’ plural. I realize it may seem to be more confrontational than I intended.

  15. Ziff, I’m not sure I’d agree that the goal of correlation is homogeneity. It’s certainly having a common messaging which in that sense is homogenous. But it seems to me that’s quite different than having a homogenous people. I recognize that you mean in terms of how we relate to non-Mormons as Mormons. But even then I think there’s a lot of variation. Indeed too much. I personally cringe when I see Mormons with dysfunctional families popping up shows like Dr. Phil. While on the one hand my cringing might be evidence precisely for that homogenizing feature of Mormonism on the other it showcases the wide variety of ways Mormons present themselves. I’d point to the difference between Mitt Romney and Harry Reid as an other interesting distinction. While there is a certain common way we present ourselves – often as nice and non-confrontational. That’s hardly universal. It’s hard to see say a Glenn Beck who is a very public Mormon as non-confrontational for instance. Then you have the voice of Mormonism for NPR – Joanna Brooks who is a pretty non-standard Mormon in many ways.

    There are of course stereotypes of Mormons and in some ways we do foster those stereotypes. Overall though I think most non-Mormons who have met actual Mormons recognize a lot of diversity. (At least that’s my experience with non-Mormons)

  16. I have to note that whether the poster intended to or not, one of the poster’s own statements affected the direction of the comments. As I didn’t feel the statement in question was not a productive line of inquiry, I tried to respond to Daver’s thesis. But I’m confident Dave is capable of handling the tangent without needing my help. Dave opened the possibilities of the conversation with words chosen, so those words are fair game for response.

  17. Thanks for the comments, everyone. No need to apologize for where the conversation goes or whether you agree or disagree with me or my post. There is certainly no reason for anyone to be personally offended by anything I say in a blog post. I’m sure if any of you showed up in my ward on Sunday we would have a fine conversation and be the best of friends.

    Think about the pressure for conformity within Mormonism and how it might appear to outsiders. Like sustaining votes at general conference, where every single hand goes up, apart from perhaps a handful of opposers who make everyone uncomfortable (because they are departing from the Mormon script). To an outsider, it looks like a North Korean election. Or how every missionary looks the same with short haircut, white shirt, suit coat, and name tag. That conformity, where everyone is encouraged to look the same, is just another aspect of the one-dimensionality I noted in the post, where everyone is encouraged to sound the same and act the same. Deep down there is diversity, we just tend to repress it for the sake of appearance.

    If you disagree … don’t take offense, just share your own view or be quietly thankful you live in a particularly diverse Mormon enclave.

  18. I appreciate what you wrote about history ‘meaning something’. I used to manage an LDS bookstore and I had many customers who were only interested in reading fiction if it was based on a true story. This struck me as odd, but the point about actual history ‘meaning something’ could be an explanation. They saw fiction as meaningless. I wonder if this idea is also part of our love of representational art?

  19. The OP is right. Many Mormons are one-dimensional folks. Sorry, but it’s true and I say this having grown up in Utah among strong Mormon families and friends. Those taking offense to this, you’re just butthurt losers.

  20. Perhaps those saying Mormons are one dimensional could explain what they mean by that.

    In literature it tends to represent characters who act only according to their role in the plot. Again I think for all his flaws Sartre is actually fairly useful here. But when I move from literature to life I get a bit more confused. I assume what Dave was getting at is that we fulfill stereotypical roles but nothing beyond that.

    Again I just don’t see that. But maybe that’s because I’m far enough away from the stereotypes? Although if I was far from the stereotypes you’d think I’d be getting bothered by all these stereotypical people with no interests outside of their functional roles. (What roles are those anyway?) But again it’s hard for me not to raise the question of ignorance. Have those making these label calls tried to see if people have interests and practices outside of the stereotypes? I’m just curious as to what information is leading to these judgments. My suspicion is that people are conflating “people aren’t interested in what I’m interested in” with “people aren’t interesting.”

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