On sentimentality, cynicism and Mormon art

I recently ran across an Oscar Wilde quote that stopped me in my tracks. I’m only going to pluck out the beginning and end of it, the full thing is available at Goodreads:

A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. … And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.

I am often uncomfortable with the grand pronouncements made about the Mormon audience by artists who want to be better received and understand by that audience. I think it’s condescending, short-sighted and uncharitable to dismiss Mormons who look mainly to Deseret Book for their cultural consumption. While I agree that much of the art that American Mormons produce is poorly crafted, insipid, and simplistic, I also think many of the alternatives that are offered are not much better. They may be better crafted, but that doesn’t mean what they have to say is more interesting and profound. Or to be simplistic about it myself, while the former may sell out to the Deseret Book audience, the latter too often sells out to the New York Times audience.

And as I’ve said many times, the Mormon audience(s) doesn’t owe us anything. Artists are the ones who are asking for their time and money. We have to prove that we can be trusted with it. It’s up to us do something about it rather than whine about what others should do more of or be less of.

But that doesn’t mean any of us are off the hook for what we’re supposed to learn in this world, and I firmly believe that what we don’t learn in this life, we have to learn in the next (if we can). Which means that eventually we’ll all need to grow out of our sentimentalism and our cynicism. The reason Wilde connects those two–and the reason why each of them is dangerous–is that both sentimentalism and cynicism are an attempt to protect oneself by shying. One does so by wanting to only focus on a simplistic picture of the good. Of taking a static image of pleasantness and mistaking it for something beautiful and secure. The other by seeing everything as tainted and not worthy of trust.

Nothing is static. That’s fundamental to LDS doctrine. Agency is given to individual beings as an engine for progression. Heaven is a state of creation not of being. Perfection is faith, hope and charity–not a cool, self-sufficient completeness.

Everything is tainted, but it’s tainted with goodness and the desire to love others. Humans are fallen, selfish being–who are also capable of great acts of charity. We all have the seeds if divinity inside us. Nurturing them is difficult, slow work that requires developing trust (in ourselves, in God, in Christ’s atonement, in others) and being vulnerable.

The Deseret Book Mormon is being cynical when they refuse to engage with art that makes them uncomfortable. The NY Times Mormon is being sentimental when they applaud uncomfortable art that pushes their particular socio-political buttons. Yes, it’s okay to be discriminating. Yes, we all live in our own culture bubbles. Yes, there’s an element of subjectivity to matters of taste.

But in our creation and consumption of art, we should do our best to avoid sentimentality and cynicism.

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Susa Young Gates on immorality in literature

SusaYoungGatesPerhaps one of the most discussed literary subjects among Mormons is morality in literature. We worry about profanity, violence, and nudity in media today, and sometimes also worry about the actions of characters and moral messages in what we consume.

These worries are not new, although more than 100 years ago profanity and nudity didn’t appear in plays and novels, so instead the worry was more about how the characters acted and what moral messages were in literature and amusements. And apparently this was true even if you didn’t seek the “sentimentality” so common in the literature and drama of the 1890s.

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In defense of sentimentality

Over at John Salzi’s blog, the sci-fic author James S.A. Corey (the nom-de-plume for the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) defends sentimentality in fiction. In fact, they come right out and say, “Embrace sentimentality.” And they contrast the joys of embracing the sentimental with the tactic of either going Fluffy Bunny (not taking your characters seriously and winking at the readers) or becoming the Solemnist (larding everything with too much, ponderous, overstated meaning).

I agree, and I think that there are some lessons here for Mormon fiction.

Sentimentality is the big bugaboo of those who take Mormon fiction seriously. It is the number one thing to avoid.

Sentimentality is also supposed to be the major hallmark of the “bad” Mormon fiction, the treacle.

I suppose. And I think that Daniel and Ty would also note that you still have to write the sentimental well. That you need strong characters and deft prose and good plotting.

But they still say:

Writing genre fiction is undignified. Reading genre fiction is undignified. If we’re going to do this, it should be joyful. We should create a little literary pocket universe where we can shuck off the irony and defensiveness and care about these imaginary people, and weep for them, feel awe when they’re awed, triumph with them when they win, and grieve with them when they fail.

Writing Mormon fiction is undignified. If we’re going to do this, it should be joyful. And if we’re going to do this, love should be our grand motive because love, true love, involves a deep investment in the progression of others. And narrative art is how we show that progression (and why love is the crucial component to it).