Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Emmeline B. Wells on Young Writers

5.6.12 | | 32 comments
Emmeline_B._Wells

Emmeline B. Wells

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.

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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.

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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.

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32 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Emmeline B. Wells on Young Writers

  1. Sarah Dunster

    I agree utterly. WIth both EBW and you, Kent. I am not a seasoned writer. I was a closeted writer for about 5 yrs before I joined critique groups (and started commenting on sites like these) and my writing has improved astronomically since then, even though I haven’t written more words on a daily basis. That means people had to suffer through work that I look back and cringe at. But they suffered with me willingly, and made suggestions and were honest with me so that I improved.

    A person joined my critique group recently. He’s not a seasoned writer at all, in fact, his first attempt at writing anything is what he is currently brining to the group. I could see that others in our group were really struggling not to tell him to give up and do something else. IN fact, one of the more experienced mentors emailed me at one point and said as much. But I feel like (especially in the context of critique) it’s important to take every piece of writing seriously, regardless of skill or whether my taste matches the subject matter. And so did many others in the group. That meant we handed a whole lot to him some weeks. ONe week when I was gone, apparently he was the only one who brought something to read, and so they spent an entire hour hashing over where he needed to improve. When I came back that next week I noticed a startling change in the quality of his writing (and so did everyone at group.) If we hadn’t taken him seriously, what would have happened instead?

    As a newly published author, this also hits me right in the gut. OK, so my novel isn’t all that literary. But it’s OK. I’m allowed to say that:D It has problems. I pick it up off the shelf and read a page or two and then feel like maybe I should never write again because I made so many mistakes… things that I know better about, now. But people that I respect are reading it, and giving me honest reviews. And I am very grateful that they are taking that time with me… because I am the equivalent, in this new arena of “being published”, of the guy in the critique group. I’m so behind so many of you out there, but I feel I’m capable of a lot and growing in skill and storytelling ability, making my work continually more “literary” is something I badly want. And feel like I can do, with more practice and experience.

    So I hope people continue to read literature that isn’t as perfect as they think it should be, and give us newbies breaks from time to time. Yay for Emmeline, thanks for posting this, Kent.

    (very long comment, NOT typed on my android device this time!)

  2. Th.

    .

    I really loved this post too. It’s giving me a new framework to think about what I consume.

    I read somewhere about a year ago that every aspiring writer should buy one novel from a new author and one short-story collection a month. Because otherwise how can you expect anyone to buy yours?

  3. RecessionCone

    Yesterday I went to my ward talent show. I spent most of the time cringing at what I perceived to be poor quality performances. After reading this, though, I feel the need to be more generous and encouraging rather than critical and judgmental.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Hassan Butt

    Its not easy to become a writer at once but you need much hard work for this but its not sure that you will be a writer after hard work because it is also GOD gifted.

  5. Sarah Dunster

    @Theric…I realize this, but it means finding room in an already strained budget (hubby works at BYU not as a prof, but as an internet guy, we just took on a mortgage for the first time, we have 7 kids) for a “non essential.” But maybe, when one is a writer, it becomes an “essential”, to buy books and periodicals?

  6. Kent Larsen Post author

    While I do tend to agree with Theric’s suggestion that we should buy new authors, today it seems like it is quite easy to read new authors for free — just not always in book form. Many magazines and newspapers offer text for free, authors ebooks are many times free, esp. when the new author or the publisher is trying to gain an audience for the author.

    While it would be better for the author if we did pay something to read his work, it is common to be able to read something from many authors for free.

  7. Wm

    This reminds me: I should do that cost of Mormon Literary Studies post that I’ve been meaning to do.

  8. Th.

    .

    Yeah. I don’t buy that much either. But I do deduct it on my Schedule C.

    Wm—I wish you would. I want to have somewhere to point people when I chat up rich people.

  9. Mark Penny

    I haven’t read the full Amethyst quote, but I see where it’s going and I notice that a couple of the comments allude to an issue that’s been on my mind lately.

    I think there’s too much concern about being in print, getting paid and being famous. It may be humble grapes on my part, but these days I’m thinking less about career and more about contribution. I just want to get stuff written and make it available. Micro-slotting my time and owning a free website allow me to do those things. It may be that my stories are too plodding for most folks and my style is too (or insufficiently) redolent with literary effects. The audience for what I write may be puny (or non-existent). None of that matters to whether I write and “publish” or not.

    More germanely, I think we ought to think of what we do more in terms of giving and less in terms of getting. I would love to be able to write (and research) full-time–though I wouldn’t necessarily be happy only contributing as a storyteller and wordsmith. I would love to be able to support my family solely (or mainly or even partly) on income from the pen, but I never took up writing to make money. I took it up because it fell out of my pocket. I keep at it, in part, because I fancy I may produce something useful to someone. I want people to be able to read at least some of my work whether they have a book budget or not. So even when I’m rich and famous off my mighty quill, I’ll still post a lot of work on the Web. I dig the gift economy.

  10. William Morris

    Agreed, Mark.

    Although I probably shouldn’t stop and think too much about exactly how much time I have sunk into the Mormon lit world over the past 15 years.

    I’ve also never felt the need to be a full-time writer. I love my job, and while it means my family and l live quite modestly, having it gives me a lot of flexibility in what I do, including participating in the gift economy.

  11. Sarah ter

    Mark,

    I have to disagree a little with your statement about too much concern over being in print. I think it relates back to the whole “literary vs Commercial” argument. My feeling is that one can be too literary. If one is writing something simply for oneself, all one gets out of it is belly lint. I think that trying to play to an audience has an important filtering effect… also mentioned here on AMV frequently in conversation. An audience can give you feedback about your work that as the creator, you are blinded to. For instance, my novel has gotten a couple of reviews to the effect of “this story moved too slowly.”

    I could just discount those reviews and say, that’s because it’s not a gripping, commercially-driven story arc with thrills around every corner so I should just discount such reviews. But honestly… my story likely is too slow and plodding, and I likely did include a lot of things unnecessary to a plot.

    The analogy that comes to my mind is this: some people believe that food should be healthy. They completely discount the enjoyment aspect of it… they say food is to feed the body, to create health, to make one a better person and whether people (or wives or children eating it) enjoy it is irrelevant. Food isn’t to be enjoyed, it’s to provide health and nourishment.

    Then there are those who believe that food is something to be consumed and thrilled by only. That if a dish does not provide a certain level of specific tastes that are easily palatable, it’s not worth consuming. It’s too much work to examine unique combinations and flavors when there are big macs and little debbie… at cheaper prices, too.

    I believe that either side has its vices. I’m not going to cook something (or write something) that isn’t appealing, because then what’s the point? I can’t cram my book down someone’s throat telling them “it’s good for them” like I can with my kids. I need to buckle down and write something that is not only meaningful and important (and possibly avant garde and very different) but I also need to make it palatable so that people will actually consume and benefit from it (if I feel so strongly it will benefit people.)

    I also sing. I practice for hours every week. What’s the point of practicing vocal technique and developing skills if nobody wants to listen?

    I want an audience for my stories. And I have to argue that every writer wants an audience for his/her stories. Otherwise, we are writing for whom? Only ourselves. And belly lint is one thing I’d categorize as completely unconsumable. Unconsumptive. Whatever the word is.

  12. William Morris

    I think Mark’s comment on “being in print” was tied in to the other elements in those series about being famous and making money.

    Even those who give away their work for free want to find an audience of readers.

    That said, I’m at the point where I need some of my work to be paid work.

  13. Sarah Dunster

    I can see that… but I think the ideas are related. If you are famous, you have a larger audience, and you also tend to be making money from your work :) It’s a lot harder to have an audience of say, 100,000 plus if you’re not famous. Even if you’re giving away your work for free. There are a few bloggers who manage to pull that off, but I’d say they’re about as common as bestselling authors.

    Truth be told, I just felt like venting about literary/commercial because I’ve got some kind of bee in my bonnet this week. I’m at a difficult point in my story, and i’m feeling kind of bleak and hopeless right now, like… why am I working so hard if not many will enjoy/appreciate this? ANd Marks’ comment provided an opening. No hard feelings I hope, Mark.

  14. Th.

    .

    Well, Sarah. As soon as I read Luisa’s and Steven’s books, I plan on buying yours. And no doubt I will love it and hope to see your next. So carry on.

  15. Sarah Dunster

    That’s really nice of you, Theric.

    As soon as I get a kindle, there are a whole lot of books/anthologies I will be buying myself. I am excited to have an excuse (william’s post about educating the mormon writer has pushed me over the edge of frugality).

    If you end up reading it… it is a first novel, and therefore flawed. I have a hard time picking it up and reading it because it could have been edited better (and written better… lots of word echoes especially). But there you have it. Moving on, growing up… all of that.

  16. Sarah Dunster

    By the way, I call you Theric because I started calling you that when you first commented on my blog, and I know it’s not your real name, but it’s a hard habit to break :D

  17. Mark Penny

    He’s a real guy?

    Sarah: Disagree away. Hard to have a dialogue when everyone agrees—or only says what they like about your work (or comments).

    I think what I’m saying is that it’s salubrious to stop thinking of writing fiction (or what-all) as a money/fame-making proposition. It’s nice if it can be, but we really ought to do it because (a) we can and (b) people need us to. The problem with the second reason is that the people who need us to might not be around yet—or may not have access to our work at present. Gerard Manley Hopkins and the later Book of Mormon prophets come to mind as writers in that pickle.

    Music is a good analogy. I also sing and play guitar and write songs and record my stuff. I’m internationally famous. Well, people in Canada, the United States, Haiti, Ukraine and Taiwan have heard me sing (often my own stuff) and I’ve never had anyone run from the room or fall asleep while I was crooning. Up until a few years ago, I thought of pursuing music seriously as making it a career and going fro the big time. Finally, I realized that it wasn’t about a career or the big time. It was about creating and expressing and, yes, sharing. But my audience could be as small as the son for whom I wrote “Little Blue Train” as a lullaby or the wedding party for whom I wrote “We Chose the Sun” or the stake concert goers for whom I recently sang a black gospel version of “Love at Home”. Getting paid to do it and being famous for doing it are not the point. It’s a gift I want to give.

  18. Sarah Dunster

    That is great. Hey, I did not know that about you.

    I’d say, though… that type of singing you mention is the kind of stuff everyone likes instinctively (which is good!) what if you were an opera singer?

    I feel like literary fiction is more like opera… it requires development of taste. (also like sushi. which is delicious). How do we make opera palatable to a general audience? Some people have tried, and been wrist-slapped by those of the opera world who want to keep things pure to tradition and traditional forms.

    I feel like playing to an audience isn’t a bad thing. You’re right that wanting fame is a trap that can actually ruin a writer, either by discouraging them when it doesn’t happen or turning them into a hack that churns out stuff because they know it’s more of what an audience wants, but not for any real redeeming reasons. But as writers, we play to an audience just as much as you do with your guitar (very well, from the sound of things.)

  19. Sarah Dunster

    And by the way….I wanted to say I don’t mean to be dissing the kind of singing you’re talking about. Because I think it takes just as much skill and practice to be a contemporary style singer and also a songwriter. Just saying one has wider appeal than the other… and one is kind of a selective audience while the other is more broadly appealing.

  20. Mark Penny

    Sweet dreams.

    Some time ago, I finally noticed that writing and storytelling were not the same thing. Sounds like I clunked on that one, but if you write your stories, your are called writer more often than storyteller and are known more for writing than for storytelling, largely because the two get merged under writing in the writing storyteller’s case. Don’t forget the “Captain” with that. Then I took a look at my catalogue and noticed that although I had once told stories fairly well and had always written well, my writing had been interfering with my storytelling to an extent. I had unconsciously become ambitiously literary—or I had a number of literary extravagances to exorcise. The sci-fi western I referred to elsewhere was in part an attempt to get the extravagances out of the system. It worked. There’s a lot I could say about my experience with that story, but I’ll save it for radio.

  21. Mark Penny

    Oh, yes, and I am currently attempting to embrace the literary while telling stories so well that everyone wants to read them (or hear them—and pay big bucks to adapt them to the screen).

  22. Katya

    >30.

    I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.

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