Eric D. Snider

An Embarrassment of Richard's

Snide Remarks #334

"An Embarrassment of Richard's"

by Eric D. Snider

Published in The Daily Herald on November 24, 2002

When you think of stores that sell pornography, probably the first name that springs to mind is Deseret Book. But those purveyors of smut are finally cleaning up their act, starting with a refusal to sell Mormon author Richard Paul Evans' trashy new novel, "LaVonda Does LaVerkin."

No, I am kidding about the title. It is called "The Last Promise." It is about an American woman living in Italy with her Italian husband, and this Italian husband is emotionally abusive, and later physically abusive, too. So the woman develops a friendship with another man, and they share some hugs and kisses (but no sex), and she realizes she should dump her worthless spouse for this other guy if she ever wants to be happy.

I read this book very quickly, the way you would wolf down an intestine sandwich if you were compelled to eat one. I can say that it (the book, not the sandwich) is better than Evans' "The Christmas Box," though that is not much of a compliment, since the Hanta virus is also better than "The Christmas Box."

But my point is, "The Last Promise" is a fairly good book, as far as romance novels go. Deseret Book hasn't pulled it from its shelves due to a lack of quality. If quality were part of the criteria, they wouldn't persist in selling things like "The Book of Mormon Sleuth." (Actual description from the back cover of this teen novel: "Whether it's how to solve everyday problems, escape from the clutches of a demented thief, or solve the mystery of Aunt Ella's cellar, Brandon's scriptures never fail him.")

The decision on "The Last Promise" stemmed from the content of the book: Though there is no sex, the woman in the story does have an emotionally intimate relationship with a man who is not her husband. This can be viewed as a form of adultery, which is a no-no among most of your major religions. One of those religions is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns Deseret Book and whose members make up, I don't know, about 100 percent of Deseret Book's clientele.

Now, I could go down to Deseret Book and make a list of other books they sell that have content far more objectionable than what's in "The Last Promise." That seems like something I would do, and it would get me out of the office for a few hours, because I would probably go to the movies, too. But Deseret Book has beaten me to it. They have announced that they are systematically going through all the titles they sell and removing the ones that don't match their customers' "core values," as Deseret Book president Sheri Dew put it.

You are already thinking that the Bible contains some very graphic sex and violence, yet Deseret Book has no problem selling it. That is another matter, though: The Bible, while depicting sinfulness, also generally depicts the woeful effects of sinning. "The Last Promise" shows no long-term ill effects of the woman's relationship; in fact, it's not even portrayed as sinful.

I think the woman probably makes some mistakes along the way, but I also think she ultimately does what's best for her. Why stay in a loveless relationship? Because you need help with the rent money? There are a lot of gray areas in life, and this book explores one of them. In the world of Deseret Book, however, there is no gray, only black and white (mostly white). DB apparently doesn't want to burden its customers by making them think about the gray areas, the parts where divorce is sometimes the best option and where a close friendship is more valuable than a dead marriage.

There is a stifling air of perfectionism in the magical world of Deseret Book. Things are very cut-and-dried in the books they sell there. If you say your prayers, read your scriptures and go to church, life will be fantastic. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But they will be temporary, and easily overcome by praying, reading and going. If you find yourself stuck in a life that is somehow more difficult than that, then it is surely because you have failed to repent of some sin along the way -- it is your fault, in other words.

I hope Deseret Book is wrong about what its customers want to see. I hope people can read a story about someone who makes a difficult decision and, whether they agree with the decision or not, find some good in the story. I hope people can see that some situations are multi-faceted, with no clear-cut right answer.

But mostly, I hope Brandon can solve the mystery of Aunt Ella's cellar. Because seriously, what's DOWN there?

Stumble It!

Notes:

I am not exaggerating when I say that for seven years, I had wanted to use the phrase "purveyors of smut" to describe Deseret Book. Obviously, opportunities for that sort of name-calling don't arise very often.

For non-Utah and/or non-Mormon readers, Deseret Book is both a publishing house and a chain of bookstores. (The bookstores sell Deseret Book publications, obviously, but other titles as well.) In Utah, some DB locations sell regular, non-religious books, too, which has some people wondering if Shakespeare and Hemingway will be removed from the shelves, now that quasi-adultery is apparently taboo in literature.

In writing this column, I had to visit Deseret Book so I could find something to fill in the blank in this sentence: "If quality were part of the criteria, they wouldn't persist in selling things like ______." Naturally, finding something absurd at Deseret Book took me all of 30 seconds. I literally almost fell over from laughing when I read the blurb on the back of "The Book of Mormon Sleuth."

This is the fourth column in a row to end with a question, in case you're scoring along at home. Being the work-ahead sort of guy I am, I can already tell you that next week's does not.

I arrived at work the day after this column was published to find the following voice mail on my phone. This person best exemplifies something I saw a lot of, both in my e-mail and in comments posted on the Herald Web site: "Hooray for Deseret Book for refusing to carry a smutty book!" Which of course I would absolutely agree with if that were the case. If the book were filthy, then it would make perfect sense for Deseret Book not to carry it. But the book ISN'T FILTHY, you see. A lot of people are taking the fact that Deseret Book won't carry it as proof that it must be offensive, which is kind of a dangerous attitude.

Anyway, as soon as I heard this woman's voice, I knew exactly what she was going to say. Her voice, for you Mormons, was that Mormon mom/Primary president voice, with a sing-song quality to it. You'd recognize it if you heard it, and yeah, you'd know what sort of things she was likely to say. Here is a transcript of her voice mail:

Mr. Snider, I just read your article in the Sunday newspaper about the Deseret Book store. I'm not a frequent shopper of the Deseret Book store, but I have to tell you something: You are a very sick man. There is nothing wrong with a store that wants to sell moral books. There are plenty of other bookstores out there that are welcome to sell smut. I actually applaud Deseret Book for being able to do this, I think it's wonderful. [You are about to read one of my favorite things that anyone has ever said to me] You know, life can be black-and-white if you choose to have it that way. [Isn't that great?] If life is gray, it's because you have chosen to do that. You've made those choices in your life, to have your life to be gray. So I am really sick about your article, and as far as "The Christmas Box,"? that is an incredible, heart-touching story. I think you are way off your rocker. Yeah, you're welcome to call me back to discuss this, but I don't expect to hear from you. [Then she gives her phone number, but not her name.]

I didn't call her back. I figured there would be no convincing her that the book wasn't smutty. Deseret Book said it was! Well, actually they didn't say that. But they sort of kind of implied it, a little bit.

(By the way, I never thought I would get an argument on my assertion that life isn't black-and-white. I figured everyone would agree with that. I learn something new every day with this job, especially in terms of what people are capable of disagreeing with.)

Then there were the e-mails. First:

Sir,
In your recent Sunday column you criticized Deseret Book for its decision not to carry Mr. Evens, latest offering, The Last Promise. Perhaps you'd also criticize a health food store for not selling cotton candy or a specialty deli for eschewing peanut butter and jelly. Fear not, Mr. Snider. Those who patronize the Church's bookstore know what we're there for, just as when we go to Beehive Clothing or the Church distribution center. You say that you hope people can read a story about someone making difficult decisions; that you hope people could see that some situations are multi-faceted with no clear-cut right answers, as though if Deseret Book doesn't sell this entrails sandwich they won't. Please! There are more than enough places to get all that. [In other words: "No, life isn't black-and-white. But we like bookstores that help us forget that fact."] Deseret Book is a specialty store with a very narrow market. And you needn't worry that we who shop there aren't burdened enough with thinking about the "gray areas in life." After all, despite the stifling air of sanctimony, we still read your column, Mr. Snider. [I enjoy the irony of this person calling me sanctimonious. Hello, Kettle? Hi, it's Pot. Listen: You're black.]

[His name]
Spanish Fork, Utah


And then a lady person sent this e-mail:
Eric,
I've followed your columns for several years, while attending BYU. I've always enjoyed your sense of humor and interesting take on various topics. I was disappointed to see your recent piece entitled, "Bookstore an embarrassment of Richard's." I'm sure you pride yourself on being somewhat of a cynic, but I felt that this column crossed over from a fun, playful stab at a current event, to an all-out attack on Deseret Book and anyone who is "closed minded" enough to not want to read books that glorify/justify being unfaithful to your spouse. I applaud Deseret Book for taking a stand against the current tide of portraying adultery as acceptable. I'm just trying to figure out why you don't.
Amy

I replied thus:
Because, as I discussed in the column, the book is NOT about adultery. It's about a woman whose marriage falls apart because of her husband's actions, and she realizes divorce is the best option.

We probably should not have a discussion about the book's content unless you've read it, though.

Best wishes,

Eric


Her reply:

Eric,

Obviously, as my comments portray, I'm not interested in reading books that promote stepping out on a marriage. But, if you're telling me that her hugs/kisses with another man happen after the divorce, than I take back what I've said. [No, they do occur while the marriage is still legally intact.] If it happens while she's still married, then it's wrong. If you think otherwise, then that's something you need to take up with your bishop. [Once again: "It's black-and-white!!!!!!!!!!!"]

Amy


And then this very special letter to the editor, written by someone who co-owns a community theater whose productions I had often given poor reviews to (though there have been some extremely favorable ones as well). I believe you will enjoy the roller coaster of themes and emotions presented by her letter:
Dear Editor! (And I hope you'll find it in your heart to publish it with all the punctuation and capitalization intact)

So Eric Snider read a book! And joined in the brouhaha over the book ban! I'm impressed! The area's wiliest, most acerbic (snide) writer has it right most of the time, except perhaps when he is gripped by seizures of hatred for earnest fledgling entertainment-makers against whom he manages without compassion to spew vitriolic fumes which torch them off the face of the critical map -- offending thousands. ("Storm Testament," "Almost Perfect," etc., etc., -- The entire Herald is moving away too fast from the fun-loving audience here that enjoy simple road-show-type theater.)

[I don't even know where to begin here.

First: I have it right "most of the time," except when I disagree with her. That's pretty typical of most angry letters I get.

You should know that "Storm Testament" was produced in 1997 at this woman's theater and is hands-down the worst theatrical experience I've ever had in my life, and one of the worst experiences of any kind. "Almost Perfect" was a 2002 UVSC production that was very bad, but not quite to the extent that "Storm Testament" was bad.

As a point of fact, my "vitriolic" theater reviews are very few and far between. I've written maybe five reviews -- out of 400 -- that expressed outright hatred for a show.

The idea that negative reviews "offend thousands" is silly. They're barely even READ by "thousands." Of those, how many have seen the shows in question, and liked them so much that they would be offended by a negative review? Lots of people simply disagree with reviews, rather than actually being offended by them. Perhaps "offending me and my husband" would be more accurate.

I will not argue with her observation that the Herald is less and less interested in catering to people who like "road-show-type" (i.e., crappy) theater. Find me a respectable newspaper that is.]

I know Eric believes someone has to take upon himself the business of trashing public taste, and one must admit this is a free country. [But....] But there isn't any question that IT ISN'T FAIR. (Eric gets 800 words, and I get only 300.) [That's the maximum length of letters to the editor, except that it's actually 250. And she used 94 of them in the first paragraph alone, a paragraph that had nothing to do with whatever her letter is actually about. And if it's not fair that I get more space to voice my opinions, then it's also not fair that she gets a theater where she can produce any show she wants, while I have no theater at all.] I think Eric is right about the intestine sandwich and the "Christmas Box." But besides continually showing an over-vitriolic side like a kid with habitual temper tantrums about something he doesn't like, he betrays his inexperience when he allows the intestine sandwich to be so thoroughly digested, and I quote: "...when a close friendship is more valuable than a dead maarriage." [The extra "a" is not actually a direct quote from the column.]

Eric, it takes SO MUCH GUTS in today's world to GET and STAY married. Why doesn't the public get excited about that theme? Anita Stansfield's 1st book on Evans' theme ALSO took the publishing world by storm! Instead of FACING and CONFRONTING relationships, solving them in the throes of the more difficult road to take -- COMMITMENT -- it's just easier and more titillating to get a new relationship. (And the trashy art never portrays what happens as the SAME difficulties come up in the new one.)

I could write a book about our national weakening moral fiber [and that book would have a lot of capital letters in it], and their growing sport of both emotional and physical fornication and adultery, and its reflection in our art, but I only have 100 words left. Actually, as a matter of fact, I HAVE written several books! My recent GHOSTS OF THE OQUIRRHS (which by the way was also BANNED by Des. Book for a bad paragraph, although I dutifully CHANGED it [collectors, hurry if you want the unexpurgated version, there are only 400 copies!]) is an exploration of the "gray" if there ever was one! The difference between Evans' book and my book (besides great publicity and several million dollars) is that I call a spade a spade. And Eric did get that one beautifully right in his paragraph about the Bible. [I believe what she's saying here is that her book explored a similar theme, except that in hers, the protagonist made the "right" choice -- which means maybe it's not quite as gray after all, but black-and-white again.]

Don't you digest that intestine sandwich, Eric! [I don't even know what's happening now. I'm very disoriented.] You take that light of yours and go down into that dark basement! [Aunt Ella's cellar?] But if YOU'RE the one with the LIGHT (and you shed it better than many), please CALL IT WHAT IT IS: ESCALATING DARKNESS!

Marilyn Brown
Springville, Utah


So ... yeah.

This item has 7 comments

  1. Allister McBurton says:

    I do love the last letter writer's facination with the word "vitriolic."

    I also enjoy this collumn after a recent conference talk referred to the futility of a dead marriage. That is all.

  2. ClobberGirl says:

    I wouldn't put this in your top 10 (11?) worst columns, Eric. It's not a very funny column, but you raise a very good point about religion and censorship, and it at least gave us some entertaining angry letters.

    During my last year at BYU, I was contacted by a reporter from the Daily Universe who wanted to do a story about myself and my husband for a piece on interfaith marriages. I said sure, sounds fun. I don't recall the reporter's name, but she was a nice gal who seemed very earnest to write the story and be very fair about it. I did the interview and pointed her to some other folks who had interfaith marriages on campus. She told me the day the story was supposed to run, I waited for it and checked the paper that day. You can imagine my surprise when I could not find her article anywhere in it.

    I called her to ask what had happened, and she said that the powers that be at the Daily Universe had decided at the last minute not to run it. Too controversial, they said. They would get too many complaints that they were promoting interfaith marriage and shunning marriage in the temple, they said. Recently they had run a piece about interracial marriages and apparently caught much hell for that. She sounded she'd been crying, and I felt awful for her; I wished her the best and let it go.

    I bring it up because I see it as something of a parallel. Zomg, we were taught to get married in the temple, we don't want to hear about Latter-day Saints who did otherwise--who aren't saying it's wrong to get married in the temple or right not to, just that they did it and this is how they live. Zomg, divorce is always wrong and marriage is forever, we don't want to read a story where divorce might be the best thing for someone.

    I have a lot of respect for Sheri Dew, whom I had the pleasure of corresponding with for a short time once upon a time. I think she genuinely has always tried to do what's best for her church and her customers. But gray is out there in the real world, and it makes me rather sad when people would rather just pretend it isn't.

    So... *cough* for what it's worth, I vote that you take this off your bottom 10 list. I at least liked this column the first time I read it, and still do. :)

  3. mommy says:

    I have never understood why Deseret Book chooses what it chooses. I would love for it to be all quality. I would love for them to carry classics, but perahps there is just too much of htat pesky human nature stuff in the classics.

    I read the Last Promise and was disappointed. The book does make clear that her husband was an idiot...but I couldn't help thinking two wrongs don't make a right. I thought it would have been more powerful for her to leave the romance guy, go out on her own, then later possibly get together with him. I wanted her to be her own person first. I wanted her to be strong and independent and stand up for herself. Insterad she schnooked around on her husband in front of her child.

  4. Amp says:

    I think Gen Y is going to revoke my membership for being so net lingo challenged. What does "Zomg" mean?

  5. ClobberGirl says:

    Ah, the etymology of "zomg": "Zomg" is "OMG" aka "oh my god/gosh," only when you type it so fast that you get sloppy and your fat finger hits the Z key along with or instead of the shift key. I guess people got tired of being wrong when they typed "zomg" on accident so they decided to make it standard net speak.

    I view it as a pretty silly development in net lingo and equate it with rather dumb exclamations and objections, hence my use of it above. I cringe every time I see someone type it in a serious sense--or worse, hear a person who spends too much time on the Internet say "Zo my god!" in person.

    Haven't read the Last Promise, but I have to say, the descriptions listed here sort of remind me of the plot in Waitress. Sounds like Waitress had the right ending though while Last Promise didn't.

  6. Sean says:

    This is one of those times I just have to disagree with Eric (I reserve the right to do so with proper grammar and without becoming angry). Not everything is black and white, but some things are. Some things are so important, God has laid down absolute boundaries we are not to cross, and marriage is one of those. It is never appropriate to have an external romantic relationship while you are still married. That is true even if your marriage is abusive. A woman in a genuinely abusive relationship has the right to preserve her dignity by getting out of a bad marriage. But an abusive relationship does not magically transform an inappropriate romance into a proper courtship. This is not because the injured spouse owes anything to the abusive spouse. It's because she owes to herself and to God the dignity of honoring the principle of marriage.

    There is also a practical side to this issue. First, taking on a new romance gives a disincentive to repair those marriages that are salvageable. While it's true that some divorces are the result of legitimate abuse, many (I'd even venture to say most) are the result of both parties simply being selfish and/or petty. If a partner has already run off and found his or her "true" love, a marriage that might have been repaired will fail. Second, if you truly are in an abusive marriage, right in the middle of it is a very bad time to be looking for a new relationship. You're vulnerable and your perspective is skewed. You are in grave danger of simply ending up in another bad relationship. In fact, bad men have an uncanny ability to find and ingratiate themselves to vulnerable women. The better path out of an abusive marriage is to get out of the abusive relationship, take some appropriate time for healing and rebuilding yourself, and then to look for an appropriate and healthy courtship. Running right into the arms of another person before you're even out of the first bad marriage is often a formula for a second (or third, or fourth) bad marriage.

    That's my two cents.

  7. Phil says:

    I love this column, and can't imagine it in the bottom 10. I think it's hilarious that people can become so fanatical that anything conflicting with their world view must be censored or banned.

    And I would like to point out that while it is true that you are not allowed to have an external romantic relationship outside of marriage, if someone is abusive past a certain extent, the marriage could be considered over. At what point does someone need to be beaten or emotionally abused before a marriage could be considered invalid? Does God really care about court approval for a divorce?

    I have not read the book, so can't speak in this particular instance, but circumstances should probably be considered.

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