Criticism: Why Mormon Literature?

I frequently hear members of the church explaining that they are not interested in Mormon literature and film because they’re simply not good enough. Why read a Mormon book just because it’s Mormon when you can pick up a New York Times bestseller or a Man Booker Prize winner? Why see a Mormon film in the theater when you can see a 200 million dollar movie for the same price? I think it’s a valid concern. By and large, I agree that Mormon literature and film both fall short of the national standard in quality. Nonetheless, I find its pursuit is valuable for a number of reasons.

1. Just like Black, Gay or Women’s literature, Mormon literature speaks to us as a group and connects with us with each other. We hesitate to create divisions between ourselves and others, but I think that Mormons, as a group, actually have a stronger case for unification than those who do so by race or gender. As the people of the Lord, we have covenanted to live a very different life from others. And as the presence of the bloggernacle itself suggests, there’s a great deal of heritage, culture, and identity embedded in being Mormon. As such, I think there’s a great deal that Mormon arts can do that will strengthen and support the Mormon community.

2. While cultural identification is important, it’s also relative. In other words, its cultural value does not mean it’s intrinsically valuable. But I do think there is an inherent value to Mormon literature insofar as it is created from a Mormon worldview. Being a Mormon, I believe that the Mormon worldview is, in fact, the correct worldview, and thus Mormon literature has the potential of being the most worthwhile because its underlying assumptions are most likely to agree with the state of reality.

For example, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a beautiful book, but I left wondering if we wouldn’t disagree on a number of points concerning the purpose of life and the nature of reality. No work of art, no matter how masterfully crafted, is going to resonate with us if we’re fundamentally at odds with its underlying worldview. A story that presupposes revenge is a noble cause or that the right thing to do in a situation is “stand up for yourself” by taking an eye for an eye is going to jar with us ““ with me at least ““ enough to lose all connection with the work.

3. Another claim I frequently hear is, “Why see or read something just because it’s clean? Lack of offensiveness is not in itself a quality of good art.” I’m actually totally on board with this one and I’ve never been one to give a book or film a better grade simply because it was “clean.” I join all those who bemoan the degree to which Mormon arts have simply become a forum for “wholesome” entertainment, regardless of its quality.

At the same time, I have to admit that there’s value to a having a body of work that we don’t need to be constantly on-guard about. I do hope Mormon lit. continues to make an effort to embrace mature and complex themes and present material in an honest way, but it’s really rather nice to be able to walk into a Deseret or a Seagull with your whole family and not have to worry about what your kids are looking into.

4. If we care about the future of Mormon arts, current arts need an audience. Many have argued that they have no obligation to see or read what they feel is crap and I fully understand that. And I think I would agree that the very worst ought to be avoided. But good art isn’t going to come out of a vacuum. If we aren’t supporting what’s already there, the production of future works is going to be inhibited. If we all just sit by and wait for the great Mormon works to be created without exploring what is being done now, it’s never going to happen.

7 thoughts on “Criticism: Why Mormon Literature?”

  1. Great stuff, Eric. Your point #3 is a bit ambiguous, however. Are you saying that one of the characteristics of mormon lit is its cleanliness? 

    Posted by Steve Evans

  2. Eric: Great way to fire off the blogging starting gun! A few questions.

    How do you, Eric Russell, determine that a work is Mormon Literature? What is your definition of Mormon lit? In cases where a Mormon-produced work touches in theme or level of insight the quality of great non-Mormon works of literature, does it lose its “Mormonness”? If by some strange twist non-Mormons like a work by a Mormon writer better than Mormons do does that mean that the work isn’t “Mormon” literature?

    Also, about your point that “… there’s a value to having a body of work that we don’t need to be constantly on guard about.” How might you distinguish between work that offends in order to violate and work that contains artistic prowess of the sort that may provoke aporia, or the shaking up of a reader’s world view? Some people’s reaction to such art is doubt; others move more deeply into living their lives and emerge from experience with such texts yet more dedicated and faithful. Yet the soul who feels the tremblings of doubt may well decide the work is something that needs to be guarded against or is even “of the devil.”


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  3. Steve,

    Yes, perhaps it would help to clarify that I refer here simply to things that are vulgar or gratuitous as opposed to things that are genuinely challenging. And I admit that’s a hard line to draw. But yes, I would say that cleanliness is, generally speaking, a characteristic that I see in Mormon lit. But I’m not saying I think it’s a necessary characteristic. It is indeed possible to have vulgar Mormon lit., I just don’t think we often see it.


    Great questions. How do I define Mormon lit? I have no idea. I would say there needs to be something Mormonish about the content, but how Mormon does it need to be and where do we draw the line? I don’t know. But I would definitely say “no” to the last two questions of your first paragraph there.

    That’s a really good point about different kinds of offense. How do we mark the difference? Where is the line? Again, I don’t know. The question, it seems, is, “how do we write about potentially offensive issues without offending an audience that’s going to put a negative label on difficult material?” I think that’s a question that’s worthy of its own post, and I think that is indeed the struggle that many Mormon writers face. But I will say that I think that material that puts you on guard by making you question or confront difficult issues is a good thing. How do we do that without offending our audience? I don’t know if there’s a good solution to that.

    Posted by Eric Russell

  4. Eric, I can’t define Mormon lit either, I just thought you  knew! Do you think the Mormon community needs a definition of Mormon literature at this point? Some people, Richard Cracroft for one, seem to think so. I think definitions are interesting–always good to know what people think something is. But when I write, I’m not thinking during any given passage, “This is Mormon,” “This is only a little Mormon,” or “Oooh, this is REALLY Mormon!” I suppose some might say that that if you’re not checking your Mormometer as you write you’re not writing Mormon literature.

    Maybe we ought to turn the question around: What is Mormon audience? Hm, that doesn’t seem to simplify things in the least. But I wonder how, other than depending upon the “clean” factor you mention, any given Mormon audience is different from other audiences. Do you have any answers for the question, what is Mormon audience?


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. I think that’s a great way to approach the question. I tend to think the Mormon audience is anyone who chooses to read or watch something that they probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for some Mormon aspect, whether content or author (which means a Mormon audience doesn’t need to be Mormon necessarily, like Jeff Needle). Looking at it that way, how we approach Mormon literature becomes a descriptive issue rather than prescriptive. As such, perhaps we can define Mormon literature simply as the body of work that the Mormon audience finds valuable for any Mormon related reason. I think this definition allows for material that is less Mormon in content; so if people are reading a OSC sci-fi because  he is Mormon, it becomes part of that body of work that the Mormon audience values.

    PS. does anyone know, is Needle really not Mormon? I sometimes wonder if he isn’t just playing a joke on us all. I had a BYU teacher who convinced us he wasn’t Mormon, I bought it hook, line and sinker.

    Posted by Eric Russell

  6. It seems to me that the last part of the thirteenth Article of Faith does a decent job of defining “Mormon culture”:

    … anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy…

    The “Lord of the Rings” movies and books (for example) are “praiseworthy”, aren’t they? Can we claim them as a part of “Mormon culture”?

    They weren’t written by a Mormon, and they aren’t true stories, but they do teach lessons about virtue and truth. I think that “Mormon culture” should have claim on anything that does that. 

    Posted by Mark N.

  7. A quick gloss for Bloggernacle readers [Welcome!] who may not be familiar with the small world of Mormon letters:

    Eric references Jeff Needle. Jeff is a non-Mormon who is an active participant in the e-mail list of the Association for Mormon Letters and a prolific reviewer  of Mormon studies titles.

    Patricia references Richard Cracroft. Cracroft is a Professor of English at BYU (now retired, believe) and one of the most important critics and reviewers of Mormon literature. He represents what could sloppily be described as the more Orthodox arm of Mormon criticism.

    A few comments:

    1. The Association for Mormon Letters generally defines Mormon literature as anything written by, for or about Mormons. I generally follow that guideline here — although my interest is more specifically in the Mormon-ness of a work rather than the Mormon-ness of the author/creator.

    Patricia makes a good point about the Mormonmeter and the value of looking at the Mormon-ness of something [the subject of a hopefully-soon-upcoming post of mine — the continuation of the Mormon literaturstreit and Richard Cracroft’s ].

    I’ll only add that this is a question I wrestle with and I expect it to become a mainstay of this blog. I especially welcome posts and comments that refer to specific works — creative and critical.

    2. The question of cleanliness and challenging art etc. arises (and thank you all for not taking us down that tired “Rated R movie discussion” route). I highly recommend my post Mormons and media consumption. It represents, I hope, a schematic that is useful for Mormons all along the scale of reading/viewing habits.

    3. Regarding the 13th article of faith and Mormon culture having a claim on anything that teaches lessons about virtue and truth. I think I agree, but I’m not sure what we mean by claiming it. I agree that we should consume it and discuss it. What is less clear is whether or not Mormon culture can really say anything about it. Although I hold out hope of that. See this Times & Seasons comment.

    4. Patricia makes an interesting move in turning the question around to: what is a Mormon audience? Eric picks up on that and writes “As such, perhaps we can define Mormon literature simply as the body of work that the Mormon audience finds valuable for any Mormon related reason.”

    I think that’s a great place to start. Of course, there are many Mormon audiences and many Mormon-related reasons. What I find interesting is

    a) how many Mormons can find something Mormon in so many works.
    b) how many Mormons don’t really bring their Mormon-ness into their decisions of what cultural products to consume.  

    Posted by William Morris

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