Criticism: C.L. Hanson on Mormon literature

The Utah Valley Monitor has published a column by C.L. Hanson that apparently was prompted by Patricia’s post on a recent letter from Irreantum editor Laraine Wilkins to the readers of the journal (which is published by the Association for Mormon Letters). Hanson then posted a comment here at AMV with a link to the column and: “Doing my part for the cause… ;-)”

The piece is rather fascinating in that it illustrates the divide (and the misunderstanding of the Mormon cultural scene) that exists between conservative and liberal (or faithful and apostate — or whatever lame labels one wants to use) Mormons (and I should make it clear that I’m speaking for myself and not for my co-bloggers — who are free to chime in with their own thoughts).

Hanson’s column focuses on her decision to submit a ‘racy’ story to Irreantum and her reaction to its rejection by the editor. It’s rather amusing in places and as a frequent purveyor of self-deprecation myself, I have to say that I admire her facile use of that particular mode of humor.

However, Hanson gets the Mormon cultural scene, and, in my opinion, the mission of Irreantum wrong. Or to be blunt, I’m not sure that her cause is exactly our cause. It very well may be, but that’s not really evidenced in her column.

In particular, Hanson writes:

“My impression is that that’s not the way it works in LDS society. You see, if (like me!) you write a story in which most of the characters just happen to be Mormons (some more righteous, some less), throw in a bunch of borderline-inappropriate sex jokes, and top it off by accidentally forgetting to mention how inspiring General Conference is, that’s not Mormon literature. That’s anti-Mormon literature.”

This is, of course, meant to be humorous, but I also don’t see evidence that Hanson understands how rich, interesting and fruitful the field of Mormon letter is — even as it is, admittedly, still underdeveloped. I invite her to engage such works as Alan Rex Mitchell’s “Angel of the Danube,” Richard Dutcher’s “States of Grace”; Margaret Young’s “Salvador”; Doug Thayer’s “The Conversion of Jeff Williams”; Bela Petco’s “Nothing very important and other stories.”

I also wonder how equipped she is to engage with literature that is from a faithful perspective. In other words, it’s two-way street. And to stretch the image a bit too far — unfortunately too many people seem to want to stand on either side of it and point and yell at each other while the real fun stuff is going on in the middle.

At any rate thank you, C.L., for giving me the chance to reinforce the mission and tone of A Motley Vision:

Through criticism, personal essay, news and reviews, we’re trying to build a discourse that fully, faithfully engages Mormon culture and Mormon worldviews. We want to cultivate readers and authors who have moved beyond the ‘if it’s edgy and pisses of Mormons, it’s cool’ and the ‘I find that offensive and in fact think that fiction is suspect you should just read the scriptures’ discourses. Yes, we will do this from the perspective of believing Mormons, but the beauty and danger and allure of narrative and visual arts is that there’s room for exploring the messiness of life.

NOTE: For those interested in Irreantum’s take on content appropriateness for its readers, read “Three Kinds of Appropriateness” (it’s an approach I fully endorse). For my take on appropriate content, read Mormons and media consumption.

13 thoughts on “Criticism: C.L. Hanson on Mormon literature”

  1. Well put, William.

    I think you hint at something that may lie behind C. L.’s post; a common phenomenon among Mormons: the unfortunate divide and misunderstanding that too often exists between active church members and those who have left.

    Both members and former members too often make bad assumptions and stereotype each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if C. L. was the victim of stereotypes by church members. Her comments in her article make it seem like she is stereotyping the Mormon Literature crowd. No doubt some in the Mormon literature crowd do think the way she saysm, but I know that its not everyone.


    Posted by Kent Larsen

  2. You see, if (like me!) you write a story in which most of the characters just happen to be Mormons (some more righteous, some less), throw in a bunch of borderline-inappropriate sex jokes, and top it off by accidentally forgetting to mention how inspiring General Conference is, that’s not Mormon literature. That’s anti-Mormon literature. ”

    While I don’t think that the above describes anti-Mormon literature, neither do I think it describes Mormon literature. It sounds like run-of-the-mill fiction that happens to have Mormons in it. I suppose that’s what some people may be looking for in Mormon literature but not me. I want an LDS Tova Mirvis. Her books were interesting and accessible but still gave you the world of the Orthodox Jews on their terms.

    LDS literature should have characters who speak in our voices, with our beliefs and our experiences. We shouldn’t have books that merely ape the outside world and have some characters that happen to be Mormon. 

    Posted by harpingheather

  3. Hey guys!!!

    I’m just getting the hang of this whole blog thing, so I’m not sure if my earlier comment is awaiting moderator approval somewhere, or if the updates are just really slow, or if I pressed the wrong button and it fell in a black hole or something.

    I think everyone picked up on the fact that the column is a humor column, so a lot of what I wrote was in jest (although it’s a true story).

    To explain my comment about “doing my part for the cause,” I only meant that in case my column has a following (not clear that it does, but just in case), I figured I could give some extra publicity to Irreantum ’s Christmas gift subscription drive by mentioning it.

    One point I’d like to make clear is that even though some may find some of my work shocking or offensive (not sure), I never write anything with shock or offense as the express intention. It’s just the usual “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Something that looks very tame to me may look shocking to someone else and something that looks neutral to me may look “anti” to someone else.

    That’s part of the reason I got the idea to write that column — to explain myself a little bit. I just wanted to be sure that those few people in the Mormon Lit community who have had the misfortune of corresponding with me don’t get the mistaken impression that I’m intending to show disrespect for their faith or that I’m sitting at my computer rubbing my evil little hands together saying “Hehe! This’ll really get ’em into a lather!”

    I’m just writing my own narrative from my own perspective like the rest of you guys.

    Also, please don’t get the misimpression that I meant to accuse you guys of being closed-minded or limited — remember, it’s a humor column! 😀 The fact that you guys are willing to enter into this dialog with me shows that you are not.

    Actually, I read a bunch of LDS fiction this past summer, and one of the most fascinating aspects of the exercise was to analyze how the author’s perspective the portrait s/he draws of LDS culture.

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  4. I figured I could give some extra publicity to Irreantum ‘s Christmas gift subscription drive by mentioning it. 

    Hey C.L., you convinced me! My check is in the mail. I can’t think of anyone to send a gift subscription to, but I sent a (small) donation today!

    And Wm, I’m shocked, SHOCKED! That you didn’t include my novel, The Pictograph Murders, in your list of recommended reads! You DON’T get a donation this year!  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. I imagine nobody’s reading this thread anymore ;-), but I now have an example for the question “Is it Mormon lit? Or anti-Mormon lit? Or other?”

    I posted a cute little short story to my blog here .

    If any of you from the Mormon lit community are willing to read it and give an opinion on which category it falls into (or really give any other comments or criticism) it would be greatly appreciated!!!

    (note: I would be very  surprised if it’s “anti”…)

    Thanks!!! :D 

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  6. C.L.

    Cool. I’ll check it out when I have the time. But I think you are still missing the point. We’re not so worried about whether it is Mormon or anti-Mormon as to whether it speaks thoughtfully and artfully to the range of Mormon experience and draws deeply from the wells of Mormon culture. :-) 

    Posted by William Morris

  7. To be honest, that’s essentially the reason I’m even interested in the question. One point I was trying to make in my column was that I had had the impression that there was this strong dichotomy, and then realized that I was oversimplifying.

    Particularly in my own work I’m kind of straddling the line. My intention is to reaslitically describe ordinary people within Mormon culture without dwelling too much on the spiritual component of it.

    If either side (faithful or former LDS) responds by saying “What a load of propaganda/garbage!” then I feel like I haven’t really written an realistic or interesting narrative… 

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  8. I read the 10 page excerpt on your site. The story caught and held my attention. As a male I was unfamiliar with the world of preteen girl sleepovers, and yet it had an authentic ring to it.

    I’m a believing Mormon. At least, I attend church every week and hold a calling. But I am also trying to grapple with paradoxes between what I’m taught at church, and what I learn and experience in the world. It’s not always easy. All of my wrestling, however, has been done with the presumption that the central facts of church doctrine are accurate.

    I’ll admit that as I read your story, I became a bit nervous. I started to sense that your characters were heading in a direction that didn’t lend itself to continued faithfulness. I suppose this says more about me than about your story. I’m willing to go a long way with an author, even a shockingly appropriate author (see the link to Benson Parkinson’s column above), as long as I sense that there is ultimately some good to be shown.

    Obviously, I’d need to read more to know the direction the characters in your story are heading, but I began to get the vague sense that their creator may have an agenda of leading readers away from faith. And as one who is still hoping to be able to reconcile his faith with his experience, I wasn’t sure if I was willing to follow them.

    Posted by Brad Mortensen

  9. Dear Brad Mortensen,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my story and give your feedback. In keeping with William’s latest post regarding JT Leroy, Mormonism and authenticity , I appreciate getting opinions and criticism (even negative) from active LDS.

    I have a few responses:

    Brad Mortensen writes: “I started to sense that your characters were heading in a direction that didn’t lend itself to continued faithfulness.”


    Both April (the narrator of this segment) and her sister Lynn leave the church about halfway through the novel.

    The only thing I object to in your comment is the following:

    Brad Mortensen writes: “I began to get the vague sense that their creator may have an agenda of leading readers away from faith.”

    Maybe people who write stories of people converting to  Mormonism have an “agenda” of convincing people that Mormonism is true. I don’t know. I would not accuse them of such a thing.

    My “agenda” is to portray (and hopefully foster understanding), not to convince people to change their worldview.

    The experience of leaving the LDS church is not so rare, and the people who leave the church are real people with feelings and narratives to relate. It is no more evil for apostates/exmormons to want to see narratives that reflect their experiences than it is for anyone else.

    It is my hope that both current and former LDS will find my novel realistic, fair, and even entertaining :-D. And my “agenda” is to write a story that will resonate with the people who have left the church, and that will help those who have not had this experience to better understand the situation and perspective of their exmormon/apostate friends, neighbors, and family members.

    I don’t portray either side as angels or as devils, and much of the novel is focused more on current and former LDS trying to understand each other and get along than it is on the question of whether or not the church is true. 

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  10. I can see that my comments were offensive, and I apologize. It was wrong of me to ascribe an agenda to your work.

    I’ve read other authors who write of the process of questioning the church, and moving away from complete faithfulness: Levi Peterson’s novels and “Dancing Naked” come to mind. So I have enjoyed stories that depict characters honestly grappling with their faith. I can’t say why I found your story threatening.

    In the introduction to Bushman’s Joseph Smith biography, he writes that despite the many attempts, it is difficult to get a complete picture of Joseph from the works that have been published. He suggests that Joseph is a polarizing figure. Believing Mormons have a hard time engaging with the troubling aspects of his story, because to embrace them may threaten what has become the foundation of their lives. On the other hand, non-believers (especially former Mormons) are hard pressed to acknowledge the possibility that Joseph’s actions were divinely inspired because of the implications that may have in their lives.

    I’m sure the same holds true when former Mormons write about Mormon issues. If their characters still believe, and find no problem with the doctrine, or the culture, then where does that leave them, philosophically? Though I acknowledge that it is possible to write about leaving the church without trying to motivate others to do so (i.e. Peterson, and Van Wagoner), I think there may be an inherent tendency in the work of a former Mormon to validate his or her own path by pointing out his or her reasons for disassociating.

    I do not mean to imply that your novel would fall into this category. Based on the first chapter, I found it entertaining, and it piqued my curiosity enough that I’d like to continue reading. I would enjoy reading an honest account of a person’s grappling with troubling aspects of the Mormon faith. If, however, in my continued reading, I sensed an attempt to convince others to depart from the path of faith, I’d likely abandon it. Again, as I write this I realize that I’m revealing more about me than about the quality of the novel. It’s just my honest reaction in this phase of my faith journey.

    Good luck as you continue to work on it. If you let me know when it’s finished I’ll purchase a copy and read it.


    Posted by Brad Mortensen

  11. Hey Brad!!!

    You haven’t offended me. I’m just trying to explain my position with respect to this issue. I think it’s nice of you to be willing to enter into this sort of discussion with me.

    I would like to respond to this question:
    “I’m sure the same holds true when former Mormons write about Mormon issues. If their characters still believe, and find no problem with the doctrine, or the culture, then where does that leave them, philosophically?”

    My novel has a lot of characters in it, and some of them leave the church and some don’t. It includes a number of characters who are perfectly happy, well-adjusted, good people who are faithful LDS. I don’t think it would be very realistic otherwise. Also for realism, not everyone in the story falls into this category — the characters vary in happiness, well-adjustedness, niceness, faithfullness, etc. Where that leaves me philosophically is that — while I think that my conclusions are correct ;^) — I don’t think that the answers are necessarily obvious, nor do I think that people who disagree with me are evil or stupid.

    As far as validating the choice to leave the church is concerned, there is a chapter that describes what goes through Lynn’s mind as she concludes that she doesn’t believe in the church. However, it isn’t some sort of footnoted list of anti-Mormon talking points written out to persuade the reader. The chapter mentions some standard issues that are undoubtedly already very familiar to most LDS, but mentions them more in the vein of describing the process than debating.

    Additionally, one point that will likely irritate many of my fellow apostates ;^) is that I refuse to portray her decision as some sort of purely intellectual conclusion taking place in a vacuum. Instead, I place it in the context of the character’s entire personal situation, which lends ambiguity (and IMHO realism) to the portrait, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

    Even though, as I said, I hope that LDS readers will find some parts of the story entertaining, funny, and realistic, I doubt the novel will lead many faithful LDS astray since they have to get past a fair amount of sex and bad language before getting to any arguments against Mormonism. If my goal were to convince people to leave the church, I’d make the novel more accessible to faithful LDS by cleaning up the language and editing out the sex scenes. But I can’t do that, since I’m writing about a bunch of exmormons/apostates, and my goal here is realism… ;^)

    BTW, that’s really sweet of you to say you would be interested in reading it!!! Of course I imagine you may change your mind now that I’ve told you it’s not quite PG… However, when it comes out, I’m planning to provide a list of which chapters to skip for those people who are willing to brave some of the questionable stuff yet prefer to avoid the actual sex scenes… ;^) 

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  12. I am active LDS, a Chemist and Jewish/Italian convert to Mormonism. I have great joy in the Gospel. I wrote the below response to CL Hansen on her page about her ‘deconversion’ as she calls it: I wrote: So very sad. You’ve basically just doubted your way to not believing in God, although you are in the same boat. You STILL do not have any proof that there is NO God. Even Carl Sagan (one of my favorite scientist, I’m a Chemist and adore cosmology and LOVE Carl Sagan) not to be confused w/ his atheist wife, said there is a Divine Creator, else Evolution would have created other creature from various substances or perhaps another earth somewhere in our Galaxy or beyond. So fine, how does this earth have every single perfect gas, element etc for our lives and the lives of other living creatures, fish, insects to exist? Think of SPACE, I’ve taken some basic physics courses and genetics courses and even the men who have helped code the DNA sequences had to admit this was PROGRAMMED, created somehow by an intelligence of some sort, not willy nilly. Young lady, you need to go back to the drawing board and take a basic physics and chemistry class etc, and then tell me that all of the sub orbitals and intricacies of atoms and matter and states of matter etc are all just random and chaotic. I promise you there is order as in mathematical order to the Universe. I am active LDS, convert from Jewish background. I can tell you that as you seek so shall you find. You gave up way to early. I have had profound spiritually personal experiences that tell me that for me, there is no more doubt. Not as a scientist or a latter day saint, I know that God exists. I cannot download this knowledge to you my dear, although I wish I could. Sometimes I feel that way about chemistry, so many people tell me “i just don’t get chemistry!” I tell them: well, memorizing the periodic table it the first step, but it is hours and hours of study, practice, study, practice etc.. same w/ religion and belief. Just listening to others testimonies is NOT enough. Being on ones knees for hours, as I have done, going to the Temple each week, reading the Book of Mormon and Bible and most of all, living my religion, forgiving, loving trying my best: that is when the spiritual experience happened which changed my life. I am sorry that I cannot tell you the experience, I will tell you it was a NDE. I was just as surprised as anyone to have it, and it profoundly changed my life. I don’t know why some have these experiences and are prone to more spirituality then others. It is not a question of being “˜better’ it is just a question of faith, seeking, and working very hard at solving the question you want answered. God bless you in your future, I mean that sincerely, I hope you will study more about the Universe and Matter and the components of Science and Math that most assuredly will lead you to say as many of we scientists DO say: that the Elegant, Beauty and precision of life and the Universe, is Designed by a Designer as any other great work of Art is.

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