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?
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:
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.]
Spanish Fork, Utah
And then a lady person sent this e-mail:
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.
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.
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!!!!!!!!!!!"]
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!
So ... yeah.