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Friday, August 01, 2008

R-rated Books: An LDS Perspective

Gaye over at Inside A Book left me an interesting comment about how much profanity I can tolerate in a book. I began typing a lengthy response, then decided the issue might be better discussed in a post. Plus, since I'm still in the middle of Linda Greenlaw's first mystery novel, I don't have a book to write about, so here goes ...

Most of you know that I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (more commonly known as Mormons). Have been all my life. Since I was a child, I've heard the church's admonition to "Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom (D&C 88:118)." When leaders expound on this verse, they usually mention the scriptures, the classics, and other wholesome, uplifting literature. It goes without saying that the "best books" are those that uphold LDS standards of decency - they must have no profanity, sexual innuendo, explicit "love" scenes, vulgarity, or excessive violence. Deseret Book, the LDS Church's publishing company, follows these standards, publishing only books that fit the aforementioned requirements. As a result, LDS bookstores generally offer shelves 3/4 full of scholarly and clean non-fiction. Fiction offerings are few, and usually focus on bygone eras when life was more genteel. Novels set in our century surface more and more, but tread lightly in areas that could be considered offensive to the church's general population. While these books offer spiritually uplifting stories, they often "censor" reality, creating tales that are sappy and unrealistic.

Don't get me wrong - I understand why church leaders encourage us to read only the purest, most inspiring books. They make us feel good. I definitely feel lighter and happier after reading a book like Anne of Green Gables than a darker tale, a la Stephen King. So, I'm not disagreeing with the Church's stance, I'm only saying that it limits what a person can read. Am I trying to justify my less-than-stellar habits? Absolutely.

So, what's a fiction-loving LDS bookworm to do? Deseret Book's meager, but sanctioned offerings pale in comparison to the mountains of murkier titles begging for perusal in libraries and bookstores. Thus, LDS readers have a few options: (1) They can vow to read only "clean" books, thereby keeping their thoughts pure and consciences clear, (2) They can stick to books they know to be in the PG-PG-13 categories, thus feeling only slightly guilty when they come across swearing or questionable scenes, or (3) They can read whatever they want, cringing and feeling tremendous guilt when they digest R-rated behavior. I think most LDS readers fall within the last two categories. In our defense, I believe most of us use "filtering" behaviors (i.e. skipping over swear words or replacing them with more acceptable terms [this is where the famous LDS expression "Oh heck" comes in handy], or flipping past racy sex scenes). The question Gaye asked me is, where do I fall? Are there some things I can tolerate and some things I can't? Where do I draw the line?

I wish I could say that I read only books that are clean and uplifting, but that would be a lie. And Mormons don't lie. At least, they aren't supposed to. I read to learn and to experience things I otherwise wouldn't be able to. Therefore, I don't want my fiction censored. I want to know what it's like to live through war, poverty, scandal and life-threatening danger (all without leaving my comfy couch, of course). I crave authenticity. Still, I don't want to fill my head with trash, so I try to be discerning. A book must offer me substance, some kind of moral or discovered beauty to justify my journey through whatever filth also lies between its pages. Am I occasionally distracted by a substanceless Stephen King horror story? Well, yes, but I try to resist.

If you know any Mormon kids, you probably know they are encouraged not to watch R-rated movies. Ever. It's the same principle as reading only the "best books." A movie like Se7en doesn't exactly produce happy feelings (trust me, I know). Instinctively, we all know this, but no one likes to miss out on the newest book or movie. Countless LDS parents hear their kids whine, "But, it only has a couple bad parts" about the latest hit film. This can be countered easily with a popular LDS "object lesson," in which a teacher (or parent) offers a student (or child) a delicious-looking brownie. When the student/child eagerly reaches for the confection, the teacher/parent frosts it with a layer of their own saliva (or mud, or mucus, or whatever). Obviously, the student/child rejects the ruined treat, to which the teacher/parent replies, "C'mon, it's only got a couple bad parts." Persuasive, no?

The problem for me lies in a movie like Schindler's List. It's full of nudity, violence and haunting images. However, when I watch it, I feel educated, moved and inspired. Although the film carries an R-rating and contains disturbing content, to me, the end justifies the means. Again, I know I'm justifying my actions, but this is how I watch movies and read books. If a movie provides only raunchy humor and vulgar language, I turn it off. If the F-word shows up on every other page of a novel, I close it. My tolerance level may be higher than other Mormon readers, but there's definitely a point at which I can no longer take all the filth that appears in so many current novels.

I know there has been a discussion on Chris's blog about the way Stephenie Meyer (who is LDS) wrote the love scenes in her adult novel, The Host. Several people contend that because the characters do not have sex, the relationships are not very realistic or "adult." In some ways I agree, but I also respect authors who dare to write "clean" books. If more writers did, LDS readers would have an easier time of it. Until then, we have to choose wisely, filtering the books that are worth it from those that aren't, which wouldn't be that difficult if it wasn't for that darn Stephen King ...

This is probably way more information than Gaye or you wanted, but her question made me think. So, I'm turning her question to you as well - Does profanity/vulgarity in books bother you? What can/can't you handle? Do your religious or moral beliefs have any influence on what you do or don't read? I'd love to hear your opinions!


  1. I applaud the way you stated all this and feel that it echoes my own reading habits. To be honest, even though I have at least two books going all the time, very few of them are LDS fiction for these very reasons. Perhaps that's why I enjoy your blog so much. Thank you for being honest.

  2. I agree that it's a matter of trying to decide if a book or movie is worth the "inappropriate" parts, but I also confess that I read trashy romance without any redeeming qualities except sheer escapism. Sometimes I feel guilty. But not enough to stop.

    The discussion of The Host is fascinating to me (as is everything Stephenie Meyers), though I am usually too wracked with jealousy of her to be sure that I am objective.

    I read that she didn't write Twilight with a YA audience in mind, but it was obviously a good fit with that marketing niche. Haven't read the Host yet nor pre-ordered BD (see jealousy, above), but I think she's a fantastic storyteller, and I'm impressed she's been able to do what she's done without "compromising" her standards.

  3. I'm a new reader of your blog and am thoroughly enjoying it! Thank you for your honest post. I read pretty much everything but like you I want it to have some inherent value, some message that will help me grow and learn in some way. I enjoy LDS fiction but again, it sometimes seems simplistic and naive. However much we would like the world to be like that, it's not. I guess I prefer a dose of reality every now and then!

  4. I am and avid book much so that I have about a dozen authors that I have read all of their books. But since I have joined the LDS church (about five years ago), it is rare that I will read anything that is not religious in nature. My reasoning is simple - would I read this book if Jesus was looking over my shoulder? At 61 years of age, I simply don't have much time to digest all the good books out there - and I might as well study for the "final exam" that is coming up soon. The same "exam" that we all will take sooner than we think. There are so many good books written by reputable LDS authors that I cannot possible read them all - but I will not stop trying. I am thankful that Christ is looking over my shoulder so I don't get tempted to read something that He wouldn't read.

  5. Hurray Susan for writing a post that I agree with. Although I've never made a clear statement on my blog that I'm LDS, I'm sure most could figure it out. I also love to read and admit that I have a pretty high tolerance level. I've admittedly recommended books to my mother-in-law who returns them to me saying that she couldn't finish them because it had too much language. Language that obviously I didn't remember.

    Our book club at church just got in trouble for reading Sold by Patricia McCormick (the first book that I recommended and we got slammed!). We were told we could only read books that were inspiring and uplifting. Sold was enlightening (although not uplifting) and I loved it. We voted and now we are a neighborhood book club so we can read what we want(although that doesn't mean we are rushing off to read the worst books we could find). So I know how it's hard to find those right books. Nobody wanted to read only LDS fiction by LDS authors for the rest of the year.

    On my blog, I'm known for stating whether a book has too much language or sex. In fact, a lot of my readers are starting to "warn" me about books on my TBR because they know how I feel. If you're interested I have a great discussion that you can find here:

    A interesting post that I just read by Deena at A Peek at My Bookshelves where she was slammed by a commentator for putting a book down because of "sin". If you haven't seen it, it's:

    Anyways, I know how you feel. It's hard to find the right balance in your reading. Especially, when something "bad" pops up expectantly.

    Great post! It's something that I've long thought about but haven't written about.

  6. Hear, hear! It basically comes down to the fact that not everyone in the world is a member of our church. That doesn't mean they have nothing to say that is of value to us. I judge a good book as one that causes me to: evaluate what I take for granted; gain new insight; see the world in a new and unexpected way; identify true human foibles in my own imperfect nature and in human nature altogether; simply pause and appreciate the power and beauty of eloquent manipulation of words. I will forgive a profane book that is well-written and condemn a virtuous but inane work of fluff.

  7. Terrific post. I agree with so much of it. I read a lot. I would not be a happy person, if all I could read was LDS fiction. Although much of it is getting better.

    In my reading, I don't mind an occasional "f" word. I don't like it, but one or two isn't going to make me stop reading. However, prolific use might. It will certainly mean my review probably won't be as good.

    I don't like books with graphic s*x in them either. I used to read trashy romance novels in college: I was an English major and needed "light" reading after all the required stuff. Now, if a book has a lot of graphic s*x scenes, I won't read it, and even if there is only one, I will skip through it.

    In my opinion, vulgarity and details s*x scenes rarely, if never, improve a story.

    Great post.

  8. I think you wrote a wonderful reflection on this topic. I am not LDS but am a Christian. My tolerance of language depends on its use. I often mention when the profanity in a book bothers me in my reviews.

    I would also say that my religious beliefs influence my reading books about certain topcs, but again it all depends on how it is portrayed. There are definitely books I won't read becasude they are against my moral/religious beliefs.

    But then, I love reading Stephen King too!

  9. I don't want to ban books but it would be nice if there could be a rating system like movies so that you could make a choice before opening a book.

  10. Hi there,

    Interestingly, we once had a stake president recommend that we watch Schindler's List. We did and were glad we did.

    As far as fluffy LDS fiction goes, I wonder if you've read Sheep's Clothing by Josi Kilpack. She attacks the problem of Internet predators in such a way that it's realistic without being overly so, and it's not fluffy at all. The LDS market is finding more and more ways to address the issues of today without crossing those lines, and her books are definitely ones I recommend.

  11. eh, I actually have been stricter with myself about this for about two years now. I just don't like reading stuff with trash in it. With swearwords, and sex scenes, and basically really depressing themes. I can't avoid that stuff even if I tried. It is all around me in music, on T.V., walking down the street. It doesn't make me feel good, or particularly enlighten me so I avoid it. It's not worth the depression I get over it. So, I read lots of Y.A. and Children's literature, and I must admit I love LDS fiction. I really do. I've read it for years. I'm a G-PG-13 reader, and I'm a happier person that way.

  12. Its funny that Cheryl wished there was a rating system for a books contents. I have wished that all along. Thats why finding these blogs has been so great for me. If you or other book bloggers tell me in advance that a certain book has lots of sex or language then I can choose ahead of time to read it.
    In the past I have just picked up a book at the library and really got into the story when the book starts to get dirty. Well Crap,now I got to find out what happens so I end up reading it anyway.
    Thanks to you and Natasha,Kt,Kim and Becky I feel I know have an advanced warning system.
    P.S I wish my local library carried more LDS fiction (like Utah). I cant afford to buy a book at Deseret book exspecially if it turns out to be cheesy.

  13. Thanks for this post! I struggle with this in reviewing b/c while I can read and enjoy books with some language and sex (and violence for that matter) I have to feel like there's a redemptive element to the book. But on my blogs I want my readers to feel like they can trust my recommendations. (I'm Christian--of the evangelical sort)
    My mom, sister, and I have been trying to figure out how to rate books on our blog, the Friendly Book Nook, b/c we want to be clear about any so called "potentially offensive elements"

  14. Susan, Thanks for taking the ball and running with it. You answered well. My recipe for reading is much the same as your; with screening tactics in place that are self monitored. I'm proud of that. I do believe that's what we are supposed to be doing in life! I am grateful for the "guard rails" and counsel given to us, yet I am also grateful for the freedom to make my own choices. Intrinsically my inner warning system goes off on occasion and I try to pay attention to it. As I said about Linda Greenlaw's book, I enjoyed so much of it, but 4 years after reading it all I can really remember of it was the language. A sad comment about a book that should have been richer in experience for me. Again, thanks for sharing. I appreciate your insight and beautifully phrased responses. You sure leave me in the dust!!

  15. I'm not Mormon, but I understand exactly what you expressed in your post. These are some of the same things I think about and talk about when discussing the idea of censorship and banning books. The literary merit must come first. If that includes something objectionable, I can usually just look over it. However, there are some authors who simply write trash and include things just for the shock value. That's not literature.

  16. Well, I had to jump in and give my two cents. I was out of town for a week, so I'm coming a bit late, but here it is anyway. :)

    I had a playwrighting teacher at BYU (the university owned, sponsored, and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) who was very careful to never find out what a movie was rated. The problem with the rating system, as he saw it, was that it villified certain elements (language, nudity, "adult themes", etc) and said nothing about the propriety of the message expressed by the film. For example, The Gladiator, which promotes the idea of strong family ties (even after death) gets an R rating (mostly for its volume of very fake-looking blood) while Grease, which promotes the idea that you should have sex with your boyfriend to be truly happy... gets rated PG. (Both excellent films, by the way, and two of my favorites.) Obviously, the rating system is severely flawed and can't be trusted as the only measure of what is "good" to watch.

    Coupled with this stance, he also believed that "all words are morally neutral" and that it is only how we use them that gives them a positive or negative moral value. Even the dreaded "F" word can be used in a morally positive way. (Yes, it can--though I'll grant that most writers... and teenagers... use it only for shock value or to define their character as a bad-a.)

    Expanding on these two themes, I believe that all elements of a novel go into the decision of its worth. I don't stop reading because I run across too many "bad" words (but then, since I defend criminals for a living, I SO don't even notice anymore) or because the characters make choices I consider immoral. (Honestly, as a married woman, I find sex scenes to be rather instructive....)

    Certain elements do bother me: 1) if the author seems to be trying to convince the reader that the characters' immoral choices are actually morally good (ie: her young lovers don't just sleep together because that's their decision, arising from their own version of morality, but because they want to set an example of the only sane behavior exhibited by two people in "love");

    2) Changing reality to something far rosier than it is. Such ploys (common in LDS fiction) fail to teach us how to make correct choices while living in the modern world. Sure, kids can hold their hormones in check when the worst that happens is tongue kissing, but what's a girl to do when her real-life boyfriend sticks his hand down her pants... and it feels good? If we ignore the ugliness in life will it just go away?

    3) Bad writing, bad dialogue, fake/flat characters, blech. With all due respect to those who love the books, I couldn't get past the first chapter of The Work and the Glory. Every time Joseph had a line, I wanted to throw the book against the wall. President Kimball envisioned LDS artists who could draw the acclaim of the whole world with the quality of their products--LDS fiction is lagging far behind that vision. Until we step it up (ya know, like Stephenie Meyer is doing), we stand little chance of helping the world at large understand the benefits of our peculiar way of life.

    Finally, I note that one of the first buildings Brigham Young built in the fledgling Salt Lake Valley was a theatre. He did it because it is one thing to be taught correct principles, but it is quite another to actually see and vicariously experience EVIL and its EFFECTS. It is one thing to guess that a small moment of passion can cause long-lasting pain and quite another to live through it with a character who has his life fall apart because of one bad decision. It is the connection we feel to the character that carries the message to our hearts. It may not be a happy, uplifting message, but if we learn to make better decisions ourselves because of it, isn't that the best kind of good?

    Me, though, I read to escape. I get enough reality at work and I really hate learning hard, painful lessons in my down time. :)

  17. Clover - Aw, thanks. I promise I'm going to review your book soon. I've heard lots of good things about it :)

    Jane - Why doesn't it surprise me that you read trashy novels to escape? You should meet my friend Robin, she of the Post-It-note-covered Laurell K. Hamilton books.

    Both of you make good points - lots of time people are just looking for a nice, juicy piece of escape fiction. Trashy romances work as well as Stephen King, I guess!

    Sue - I agree.

    Focus & Gamila - I admire you for being picky and choosy. I'm sure it helps you to live a purer, happier life. Focus, I think it's a great idea to imagine the Savior looking over your (not my) shoulder - I've thought about this when my 6-year-old peeks at the books I'm reading. Sometimes I have to close the book before she reads something I don't want her to. Gamila - There are tons of clean YA novels out there, thank goodness.

    Natasha - Our church book club failed for that same reason - it was so limiting to read only books approved by the bishop.

    I'm going to check out the links you provided as soon as I'm done commenting here.

    Cami & Holly - I totally agree. I have never been a trashy romance reader, but I used to love horror novels. These days, I find them too gory and dark to digest. If a book makes me feel dark and depressed, I avoid it. I have to find some substance in the book if I'm going to wade through all of that stuff.

    Nicola - I also try to mention graphic sex and language when I review books. I appreciate it when others do, too!

    Cheryl & Laura - I would love a rating system, too. Like Robin said, such systems will never be perfect, but at least we would get a little warning. If I'm considering a book at the bookstore, I usually flip through it to get an idea of its "rating." If I see lots of profanity or raunchy humor, I put it down. I think a rating system would be especially helpful when buying books. I don't usually scan books when I'm at the library, since I can easily return them if they turn out to be worse than I expected.

    Laura, I wish libraries carried more LDS books, too. I don't live in Utah, but I do live in a city with a big Mormon influence, so our libraries actually have a pretty good selection of LDS books (so does Wal-Mart, incidentally). I, too, hate spending a bunch at Deseret Book, especially when the book turns out to be a big disappointment.

    Tristi - I do think LDS authors are getting gutsier, which is great. Also, it seems that more and more Mormon get published every day, giving us a bigger selection of "clean" books than ever before.

    Josi's book is on my TBR list, as is yours. I promise I will get to it soon!

    Amy - I have the same problem on my blog. When I deem a book "clean," I make sure to label it as such. However, I don't know if I'm clear enough about this - I would hate for someone to assume a book I talked about was clean just because I'm LDS and should be reading clean books. Again, I appreciate it when other reviewers warn me about things like profanity and graphic sex.

    Gaye - I think there's something wrong with a book if the only thing you remember is the offensive language. Books should have some redeeming qualities, something to make it memorable and moving.

    Lisa - Exactly! It's all about finding the books with substance, not the ones that are written solely to be shocking or titillating.

    Robin - You just crack me up - I was laughing out loud at the "Honestly ... I find sex scenes instructive" part. I agree, though, that rating systems are flawed, but at least they provide some warning. I really hate renting a movie (or buying a book) that looks really intriguing, only to be disappointed by all the language/sex. I can handle a little (probably a lot compared to some Mormons), but I don't want to be constantly barraged with filthy language and other offensive material.

    I also agree with the elements that bother you in stories. Number 2 is what especially bothers me about LDS novels written for YAs. I think teens need books that reflect their realities.

    Reading for escape has been mentioned a couple of times, and I totally agree. Sometimes we need things that are light and fluffy, no heavy thinking required. This is where my OCCASIONAL dive into horor or chick lit comes in to play.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. This discussion has been fascinating to me. Keep up the dialogue - it's awesome!

  18. Natasha - I just read both the posts you mentioned. Yours, especially, hits the nail on the head. I don't have a problem with sex in literature (I mean, I may be a bit of a prude, but even I don't deny that sex is a natural part of life), I have a problem with graphic sex in literature. I absolutely agree with you that I can fill in my own blanks.

    It's interesting that you mention Water for Elephants. I felt the same way about it. Just a couple of weeks ago, my niece was asking what I thought of the book since someone had suggested she read it for her book club. Although it's a neighborhood club, it's made up of LDS women, so she was asking if I felt it was appropriate. I told her I thought it was a good book, but it was definitely R-rated. I don't know if she ended up reading it or not, but I hate that I can't recommend otherwise engaging books because of offensive elements.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment and the links.

  19. I'm not LDS or particularly religious at all (not to say I don't have my own ethical code!), but I don't enjoy reading books with excessive profanity (they just make me roll my eyes) or a steamy scene every other page (hence why I don't read romance novels!). However, I certainly don't feel guilty for reading something 'R' rated-probably because I'm not part of an organised religion. The only way my (non)religion affects my reading choices is that I don't wander into the "Christian fiction" of the bookstore. ;)

    Of course, I don't cut any author that much slack-if their writing style has any flaws, I tend to set the book aside pretty quickly.

  20. I'm sorry to have missed most of this discussion, as it is something that I struggle with too. I love how you've addressed it all Susan. Perfect. I feel the exact same way.

    There are some books that make me squirm a bit, but usually I love them anyway. On my blog I'll let people know when I'm squirming, just in case they are looking out for those kinds of things too.

    Great disussion!

  21. I enjoyed your post very much. I am LDS, and a romance author. Some of my LDS friends write "clean" and some write probably R, but not graphic sex.

    I write according to the moral compass of my characters, but there are a lot of places I won't go! And I really don't like LDS fiction for the most part myself. It's not real. Well, I'm working on a book that I wanted to paint with broader strokes and do as a Christian book instead of specifically Mormon.

    Did you know that Christian publishing standards are more strict than Deseret Book!? My characters wouldn't be able to lie EVER (not even if they learned something from it) unless it's a matter of life and death. Wouldn't be able to have sexual pasts that are inappropriate without a lot of explanation and repentance and making it essential to the plot. Wouldn't be able to be divorced "except for Biblical reasons." Now that's really not real!

    I love romance because you get your happy ending and the vicarious experience of falling in love with someone new without cheating on your spouse! It helps me remember what life before kids was like. I will read sexy, but I am very picky about how detailed the books are, which is about where I go with movies as well.

    It's wonderful to discover so many blogs that recommend reading taste I can applaud!

  22. Eva - I guess you're lucky to escape the guilt that seems to come with organized religion! LOL. I think the Catholics and the Mormons have it down to a science :)

    Suey - Like I said before, I'm always grateful when book bloggers mention when they're "squirming." If I have that knowledge, I can make a better decision about whether or not to read a book.

    Grace - Thanks for your comment. Very interesting. I had no idea that general Christian publishers were even more strict than Mormon ones. Wow. I love that they want to publish uplifting stories, but I really think we need books that reflect our realities. Otherwise, they just come off as superficial and cheesy. Again, this is why I generally avoid religious fiction. I don't read much romance either (no offense), but that's a different story ...

  23. I think for me at least, it depends on the book and the context. My husband read the book "Between a rock and a hard place" which is about the man who had to cut his arm off down in Zion's park in Utah. He usually doesn't tolerate any language at all, but in the case of cutting off one's arm, I think it can be excused. I left you a post on my book blog, hope your move went well. We moved this past month too.

  24. Great blog. I found it only moments ago. I also LOVE to read. I spend as much time as I possibly can reading. I also am LDS and I must say, echo your reading preferences. I am no prude and will read nearly anything, as long as it isn't horribly nasty and cursing without merit. I will read LDS fiction and enjoy it. The LDS culture is vastly different from most others so I do indulge even though it can be a little out there sometimes. Thanks for the awesome blog. Can't wait to return and see what else you read.


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