April 24, 2008

Home literature


When I say that The Path of Dreams belongs in part to the "home literature" genre, I'm referring to Orson F. Whitney's original defense (made back in 1888) of fiction written specifically for the spiritual and moral edification of the religious community.

I see "home literature" as a direct extension of the stories I once wrote for The New Era. Or to be more precise, the kind of stories I would write if I didn't have to deal with Correlation, but without altering the overall approach or underlying intent.

In other words, taking Chris Bigelow's definition of "provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories that yield new insights into Mormon culture and humanity" (which I am totally on board with), here I would exclude from those first two adjective anything violating theological or moral standards.

Now, Whitney more specifically challenged writers to

Make books yourselves that shall not only be a credit to you and to the land and people that produced you, but likewise a boon and benefaction to mankind.

The second clause in that sentence sets the bar far higher than the humble target I'm shooting at here. Namely, to remain faithful to the objectives of "home literature"--fiction that remains entirely within the community of believers--yet at the same time wedges into the niche occupied by the modern, secular, genre romance.

The two would obviously seem incompatible from the start. As explained by the Harlequin writer's guidelines:

We want to see an emphasis on the physical relationship developing between the couple: fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism are needed.

Hard to accomplish--and keep the protagonists temple recommend worthy--when marriage is the goal the plot leads up to. In The Path of Dreams, I came up with a clever (I think) end-run around this problem, though not one that could be deployed formulaically.

Moreover, by inserting a pivot point into the story--the marriage halfway through--those moral constraints (against romanticizing premarital sex) could be set aside for the remainder of the story.

A second reason is that, taking Austen as the classic romance template, by the time the engagement arrived with the certainty of marriage in the historical romance, the social structure of the lovers' lives thenceforth was determined. This is definitely not the case in a BYU romance (to take one sub-sub-genre).

Erica Friedman points out the problem of "stories end[ing] where they should begin." That is, they end with declarations of love and the decision to marry (or the marriage itself), when "what comes next" is really more interesting.

With the plot centered around the marital pivot point, the narrative will veer from strict romance to what I might call "family formation melodrama." The challenge, then, is to keep a firm grasp of the erotic thread and not turn into a dreary soap or one of those painfully unfunny sit-coms about what is in actuality an intolerably dysfunctional marriage.

Of course, we citizens of Utah County know that Mormons happily read (gentile) romance novels and attend R-rated movies at pretty much the same rates as the rest of suburban America. Whether such a genre with a "Mormon" label on the cover could survive that cognitive disconnect is another question.

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