How do we judge literature to be good or bad?
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“How do we judge literature to be good or bad?” New Era, Nov. 1983, 9–11

“We are often admonished to beware the evils of pornography. How do we judge literature to be good or bad when we occasionally find questionable inferences and explication in literature that is thought to be great—such as found in Shakespeare, Fielding, Flaubert, and others?”

Answer/Richard H. Cracroft

Your question is an important one to all of us who aspire to the title of “Latter-day Saint.” All who desire to do right must struggle during mortality with the task of avoiding that fine point where we become too much a part of the world instead of being simply in the world. We are mindful of the Savior’s admonition in the Sermon on the Mount that “the light of the body is the eye,” that it is the eye that can fill our souls with light—or with darkness. When we turn our eye to literature, then, it is with a knowledge that use or misuse of literature can, as with anything that really matters, fill our souls with light or with darkness. It is up to us; we have our free agency.

There is no question that books do something to us. Some works of art can lift our spirits and ennoble us, while other works can degrade and debase us—or they can affect us at any number of points between those extremes, for literature is seldom simply good or bad, as your question implies. So complex is man—and his art—that the same literature that ennobles one may, in fact, debase another, for it is a fact that literature does to us only what we want it to; its effects are dependent upon the conditions that we bring to it.

Just as there are many degrees of righteousness among the children of men, so there are many levels of understanding literature. As we grow, spiritually, philosophically, culturally, intellectually, and physically, we find ourselves moving to different levels of interest and understanding. Our individual challenge in mortality is to keep growing, to keep moving to richer insights into human and eternal life—all the while striving to enjoy the companionship of the Holy Spirit as we move upward from level to level. It is often difficult, for the Holy Spirit “shall not always strive with man” (D&C 1:33).

Let me illustrate: Several years ago, while teaching a course in American literature at Brigham Young University, I assigned a famous novel, a book familiar to many students, a book that I found to be, when I first read it after my mission, a thought-provoking, stimulating, uplifting, and essentially spiritual book, a book of “good report.” I had read and studied the book without feeling my delicate relationship with the Holy Spirit bruised in the least. I was surprised, then, when a lovely young female student approached me after class, with tears in her eyes, to confess that the first few pages of the book had so upset her that she could not continue reading what she felt to be indecent literature. Although it was not what I considered an “indecent” book, by any standard, I saw that her relationship with the Holy Spirit had apparently been harmed by exposure to this book, and I promptly asked her to read, instead, another book by the same author. Still concerned about the assignment, I queried other students. At their various levels of development they had found the book generally unobjectionable. Indeed, one of the students, a returned missionary, thanked me for the opportunity of reading the book, for he had met many people in his missionary experiences who resembled characters in the book, and the novel had opened to him, he insisted, new insights into those people and new vistas regarding life in general. The occasionally earthy (not obscene) language had not troubled him, for he had heard such language and dismissed it; instead, he had thrilled to the portrait that the author had penned of children of God on a troubled journey through a life full of wrong turns and dead ends that arose because the characters were having to learn, the hard way, of the need to be in harmony with eternal principles. The young man was ready for the book. In fact, when I told him of his classmate’s response to the novel, he asked, “Have we both been reading the same book?”

The book was as different as the experience that each student brought to it. The young lady was on a level of development that prevented her from seeing beyond some of the rawness described in the work; the alternate selection was more suited for her personal development, and she was delighted by her insights into that novel. Perhaps there would come a point when she would be ready for the other book. There had surely been a point in the returned missionary’s life, as in mine, when we, too, would have been unable to see beyond some of the rawness of life as depicted in the book to the genuine beauty and truth of the work. The young lady was right in rejecting the book. The returned missionary was right in reading it. Finding that self-understanding which enables us to make careful and proper selections which will not discourage the Holy Spirit from remaining with us is part of reaching for spiritual maturity. Enroute to such maturity, most of us make some mistakes, along with a lot of right decisions.

But we need not make many mistakes. Even though our age abounds in excesses of literary detail, even though too many authors believe in self-exposure instead of self-expression, which embarrasses all of us who treasure the companionship of the Spirit, we need not be deceived by books that proclaim philosophical integrity while brandishing blatant immorality in the name of truth. The key to being sure is, as we progress from level to level in our development, that we can take the Holy Spirit with us into each new level, without damaging our relationship.

The key to the problem of how one judges literature lies, then, in our own spirituality and not in a simplistic rejection of all literature. We must learn, as Francis Bacon advises us, that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” We must select carefully among the vast menu.

We learn also, enroute to higher levels of perception, that some books which deal with negative experiences can often be uplifting and should not be rejected. Just as the story of Laman and Lemuel, or of King Saul or even Jonah are negative but uplifting, so some works of art that at first appear negative are in fact affirmations of universal truths. We learn from the bad as well as the good, and recognize the wisdom of Brigham Young’s admonition that “we should not only study good, and it’s effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences” (Journal of Discourses, 2:94). But in studying evil we need not emulate or revel in it. In fact, our greatest benefit may simply come from being repelled by a bad example found in a book.

Reaching a solution through the Spirit, it seems to me, leads us to realize that because life and time are short, we will be able to read only a few thousand books in our lifetimes. When we pick any book, we are ruling out hundreds and thousands of other books. How important it is, then, to choose time-proven great books that will foster the Holy Spirit and enable us to rise to greater levels of truth and beauty and insight and understanding and, hence, spirituality. Many great men and women have found that a steady, systematic approach to literature has enabled them to fill their beings, in a lifetime of good reading, with the great thoughts of men and women of all the ages, for through reading great books we are put in touch with the great minds of all time, and we become their spiritual and intellectual heirs.

We know as well that much of the literature of the world springs from the promptings of the Spirit of the Lord and that our libraries are full of works written by men and women not of our faith, but “who have contemplated deeply,” President Young once said, “on various subjects, and the revelations of Jesus have opened their minds, whether they knew it or acknowledged it or not” (Journal of Discourses, 12:116). In our own reading programs we need to look into the inspired writing of such men and women, remembering, as Elder Adam S. Bennion often reminded us, that “good reading is a great guarantee of spiritual enrichment” (The Candle of the Lord, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1958, p. 266).

So, rather than turning to works that seem to us, at best, questionable as to what contribution they can make to our lives, we might ask ourselves if we have met some of the great fictional heroes and heroines (since your question specifies fiction) who await our acquaintance: Ulysses, King Arthur, Beatrice, Don Quixote, Falstaff, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, Leatherstocking, Jane Eyre, and Huck Finn. Or some whose lives have become examples worth pondering because of mistakes made—often overcome at great cost: Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, Becky Sharp, the Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, Ahab, and countless others. Becoming acquainted with these people (and they are as real as others we make part of our lives) will teach us much about great truths emanating from great people in great situations—and all dealt with in great literary style.

If you have made lasting friendships with such as these, you will probably not really be bothered by the problems of selection, for you will have acquired a grand gauge against which to measure other, perhaps lesser, works. Literature about human life, dealt with proportionately and honestly and maturely and in such a way that the Holy Spirit is not bruised, will mean more to you. You will not only be able to gauge such work by its strengths in relationship with the increasing body of literature with which you are familiar, but also measure it against the standards that you have gleaned through study of the standard works, the words of the living prophets, and the promptings of the Spirit. If you read widely and thoughtfully, and retain the companionship of the Holy Spirit as you progress from level to level in your development, you will find yourself seeking the good in everything you read, and you will not be disappointed. You will be responding, wholeheartedly, to the Lord’s injunction to “seek … out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118), and he will reward you abundantly.

  • Dean of the College of Humanities Brigham Young University