A Plea for Fiction (1898)
by Nephi Anderson
1569005A Plea for Fiction1898Nephi Anderson

The statement made by critics that fiction reigns supreme in the literature of the day is no doubt true. In the list of published books, the novel takes the lead. Fiction comes in a continuous stream from the press of the country, and it reaches all classes of society.

Is the Latter-day Saint justified in reading fiction? I think I hear a mighty chorus of “No” from the spectacled fathers and mothers as they pause in their reading the latest tabernacle sermon, and a faint hearted “Yes” comes from our boys and girls as they timidly half conceal the story with the proverbial yellow back.

Both may be right, both may be wrong, for this reason: There are good novels and there are bad novels, as well as good and bad in all classes of books. This fact every reader, every parent, and every provider of reading matter should know.

I enter a plea for fiction, the good, pure, elevating kind. You, good soul, who claim that everything that is not a fact, or that does not literally happen is bad, have no scruples in hanging on your walls a beautiful oil painting, whose majestic hills, green foliage, and blue waters have no existence save in the imagination of the painter. The incidents of a story are just as existent as the scenes of your picture. You distinguish between drawings, praising the beautiful and condemning and shunning the evil. Consistency claims that you should do the same with the products of the pen.

Again, some, who strictly exclude every work of fiction from the home, admit any newspaper. The latter may be and often is filled with accounts of base deeds and revolting crimes put into readable form and which are eagerly “devoured” by the young. As such reading matter is supposed to be true and deals with facts, it is all commendable or at least, permissible; but the story wherein characters are drawn that beautify honor and virtue and nobleness, is shunned and condemned. Facts may be debasing, fiction may be elevating. Jesse James was a reality, Adam Bede was not.

The Great Teacher recognized the value of fiction in presenting truths to the understanding. Of him it is said: “But without a parable spake he not unto them.” Many eminent writers have recognized this. The dreariest description or argument may have vitality and interest brought into it by bringing it in contact with human life and action. Vivid life pictures of any time or any place may be portrayed by the story. What historian has so correctly colored historical characters as Shakespeare? What can be better than Hugo’s pictures of Parisian society? If you would know English life read Dickens.

Now then, if reading novels is not a sin, what will help us to choose the right kind? Among the vast amount of advice given on this subject, perhaps none is of more importance than this: Know the authors, learn something of the writers. “Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” A writer consciously or unconsciously weaves within his work his own emotions, sentiments, conceptions of right and wrong, of duty, or morality. Then first, even above the literary qualifications of a writer, see to it that he or she views the virtues from the proper standpoint. Too few people know nothing about the authors of the books they read.

We should know that many names do stand for something. What a help it would be, for instance, if we always remembered that Scott and Lytton wrote historical romances, and that Cooper’s were mostly of Indian adventure; that George Eliot’s works are always deep, but the Duchess’ are shallow; that Crawford is a romancist and Howells a realist; that Mary D. Ward writes of English life, religion and social problems, and Mrs. Herbert D. Ward describes New England scenes; that Mrs. Holmes writes solely of love, Mayne Reid of adventure, and Antony Hope of love and adventure, mixed; that no father or mother need fear to place in their children’s hands stories written by Mrs. Alcott.

“The prose story,” says a recent writer, “comes close to the heart of the world, gets into the pulses of the people, lounges in the slippered ease of the drawing room, swings in the summer hammock, circulates in the brain of the day, airs its opinions, its theories and philosophies through human lips in a hundred lands, and is read, read, read!”

Yes, the world reads fiction. If one has a message to deliver, he puts it in a novel, into a living, breathing thing. The Latter-day Saints have a great message to the world. What a field is here for the pen of the novelist. As Tennyson says:

“Truth in closest words shall fail,
When truth embodied in a tale,
Shall enter in at lowly doors”

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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