What does it cost to develop a writer? Do readers bear part of that cost? If readers refuse to read anything but the best works, will authors still be able to develop? And what is the role of criticism for a developing author? While these questions are perhaps more about education than strict criticism, when they have such a large potential impact on the quality of literature its hard to see how literary criticism can ignore them entirely.
And Emmeline B. Wells did weigh in on this issue, chiefly in response to a series of complaints about there being too many books, and too few books that are worthy of careful reading. We hear these complaints today, but these complaints ignore Wells’ question in response: how do authors develop if only works of literary genius are read?
I wish I had read carefully and internalized Wells’ essay years ago, before I joined A Motley Vision. I believe it would have informed both my views of Mormon literature as well as what I’ve written. There is sound advice here for readers and authors, and, I think, an important corollary to what I wrote a while ago in What Bad Mormon Literature Do We Need?
I tried to excerpt some portion of this article, instead of running the whole thing, but I could find only one paragraph that I could eliminate from the article. So here is Emmeline’s views on Young Writers.
by Amethyst (Emmeline B. Wells)
- “He that writes,
- Or makes a feast, more certainly invites
- His judges than his friends; there’s not a guest
- But will find something wanting, or ill-drest,”
There is perhaps not a class of people in the world who are more severely criticized than writers… We hear remarks occasionally like these: “There are too many books;” “There are too many scribblers who fancy they can write, who push their works upon the public;” “The world is full of them, we don’t want so much rhyming and scribbling, we want real poetry and prose, worth careful reading;” “We want depth of thought and sentiment, and eloquent and brilliant expression; not so many common place writers.” All this is very discouraging to the young, to the beginner, who must first try his skill and strength in the path of literature; I know some will say one should keep the first efforts to themselves, but the writer is not a good critic, he cannot possibly judge, without prejudice in favor of his own work; of course he should revise, correct and re-write, but some one else must be the judge.
The world is not made up of geniuses, in fact they are very few, and those few are often in need of a balance. If only literary geniuses produced books and writings, the world would be scantily provided with literature; great writers are about as scarce as great singers, and what should we do in all our little villages, in all our homes, our schools, and our churches, if people refused to sing because some one had succeeded in achieving a great musical triumph, and possessed a voice like a nightingale, and had set the world in a furore; if such were the case the world would not be so full of music as it is, and many a sad heart would lack the sweet consolation and healing balm that comes through the soothing influence of song; it is a blessed thing, to be able to sing, or play on a musical instrument. It gives relief to the feelings, and voice and expression to the holiest emotions of the soul; then let us encourage all that which elevates and purifies; and whatever opens up avenues for the exalted emotions of the human soul, tends to fuller development of the inner life and promotes that higher culture, which is a step in advancement towards the exaltation, we all desire to attain.
Instead of discouraging those who have a desire to write, even though their efforts are poor, rather stimulate them to greater diligence, and more persistent effort, in cultivating the talent with which they have been endowed, or in pouring forth the song which is welling up in the soul. We have not too many writers, nor too many books in my humble opinion. We had far better pay out more money for books and reading matter, and less for many other things not so useful or pleasant in a home. I hope to see the day when in every home in the land, there will be a library of choice books and papers, suited to different tastes, and also musical instruments, and other attractions for a home that will elevate the minds of the inmates and produce a higher mental and spiritual atmosphere, and make mankind more godlike in intelligence, which is said to be the glory of God, Himself.
How foolish it would be when one has a song upon his lips not to pour it forth, because some who are learned and able will criticize him severely or unjustly; such a one is unjust to himself, and is not making use of the talent committed to his keeping, and will one day be held accountable for hiding it. Such a one lacks fortitude, and needs encouragement from those who are stronger or braver. St. Paul says, let those who are strong bear the burdens of those who are weak, and if we truly loved one another we would be more willing to do this; but instead of such being the case, many are ready to pull down and discourage those who are using their best endeavors to benefit the world of mankind, and often crush the one who is struggling against difficulties, when they might reach out and help him; a little influence to support one when making an earnest effort to develop one’s gifts is most welcome, and the gratitude of the receiver is ample recompense, for it is always more blessed to give than to receive.
I know it is said true genius will surmount every difficulty and rise triumphant in the greatest emergency, but unless the genius has an indomitable will, or destiny has given him a particular mission to fill, such will not of necessity be the case; most geniuses have had patrons, men or women of influence,who have brought them forward, for true merit is modest and retiring; besides, geniuses are rare—they are like precious diamonds—but there are a quantity of other gems, and people with one talent or two are much more common in this world than those gifted with ten.
Every human soul wants some development mentally, and one day we shall become more fully alive to this truth. In the Gospel there is full scope for this development if it were understood. There are many superior advantages for the Latter-day Saints that will, when comprehended, more fully satisfy the yearnings of the human soul.
But I am anticipating, to come back to the question under consideration in regard to writing and writers, we would say, never shrink from a duty because there is another who can perform it better, let not your heart fail you from writing a few lines because you are not equal to Thackeray, or Carlyle, or George Eliot, or George Sand, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, but write in your own simple, unaffected, unpretentious style, and who knows but many people may be better pleased and more edified than with some heavy article from the pen of a great writer. We want variety, and originality is always more acceptable than affectation.
Should a star refuse to shine because some other more brilliant casts a shadow over it—it may be even the more lovely? What if the sparrow were to decline to sing because the robin’s song was more admired. Each one may shine in his own way, it is not noble to refuse to do what one has the ability and talent to perform; but it is very ignoble to discourage another in any pursuit or profession; we may advise, if we think one has mistaken his calling, and so be helpful to a friend.
“Mormonism” is rich in themes for the production of literature, and one may find subject for rhyme, for poetry, for a variety of prose works, for the drama, and for the most profound writings; and though our home writers may not be very highly esteemed at present, and their works not so meritorious, yet those who desire to see Utah take an honorable place in the nation should encourage the author, and help sustain literary labor. “Despise not the day of small things,” when we see the blossom it is significant of fruit; but the garden of literature wants great attention, careful culling, weeding and pruning. Our young people should try to do their literary work well, and not be offended if they are not successful in being recognized at first.
The humble daisy blossoming by the wayside cheers the weary traveler, and has as many admirers as the gayest flower that blooms in the garden; so it ‘ often is with the homely writer, he blesses the lowly and the humble; they comprehend and appreciate him, his simple language is music” to them and they laugh at the critics, who deem his efforts a failure. I rejoice to see progress in this direction and I feel sure there might be much more were some encouragement held out to stimulate young writers. If those who have means and influence would become patrons of literature, and draw out some of the talent that at present is buried in obscurity, the community might be enriched, for there must from natural consequences be a mine of wealth in the hearts and minds of the young people born and reared amidst these mountain vales.
From The Contributor (2) August 1881, p. 348.
I love almost everything that Wells says here, despite its rather dated language. The complaints she cites in the first paragraph sound like those I hear today. She is right that there is a role for authors who are not literary geniuses (although I have to question what seems like the norm in the Mormon market to exclude whatever pretends to literary genius an only carry the rest!) It is also easy to agree with statements like “We had far better pay out more money for books and reading matter, and less for many other things not so useful or pleasant in a home.” or “How foolish it would be when one has a song upon his lips not to pour it forth, because some who are learned and able will criticize him severely or unjustly.”
Wells’ criticism of the idea that “true genius will surmount every difficulty” might be stronger given that we don’t really know if or to what extent “true genius” may have not surmounted difficulties because what hasn’t surmounted difficulties is long forgotten and likely lost. I also like the intriguing phrase “Despise not the day of small things” (which refers to Zechariah 4:10)—and its easy to see her day as a “day of small things;” but I suspect we today have a hard time seeing our day as a “day of small things,” whether it is or is not.
I suspect that today we are in both a “day of small things,” and a day of greater things. For those who are beginning the development of their talents in whatever art they have chosen, it is a day of small things, even if great things are happening. What is important in a day of small things is that we have in place the elements needed and maintained for a day of greater things.