The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality: Part I

The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality: Exposing the Achilles’ Heel of Jerry Johnston’s Commodified Theology, or An Ethics of Latter-day Saint Reading–Part I

(The title’s a mouthful, I know.)

This is the first post in a five or six part series (to run on Thursdays) that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. Working within a framework of the redemptive paradoxes inherent in Mormon theology and the moral universe it embraces, the series attempts to probe the place of this ambiguity in the central, recurring conflicts in Mormon letters (particularly in light of the debate between those who think Mormon literature should primarily serve orthodox, didactic purposes and those who think it should provide a more challenging aesthetic), to present an economic reading of why much popular Mormon literature remains in the former camp, and to show how one contemporary Mormon writer has attempted to transcend this paradox–and thus to serve a more deifying need–in their own writing.

I. (Mis)Reading the Mormon Tragic Quest

In his recent review of Eric Samuelsen’s new play Inversion, Jerry Johnston introduces what is and should be a demanding discussion on the ethics of Mormon literature, then bows out before giving the dialog due course or even before acknowledging that he only tells part of the story. Because he takes the easy way out, I have to wonder how much homework he actually did before piecing his Mormon Times article together and posting it on the Web. This failure to really examine or review the subject at hand becomes apparent in his first sentence, ten words that could have been lifted directly from the playbill: “Eric Samuelsen is a faculty playwright at Brigham Young University.” While such a comment may imply that Samuelsen’s work, for all intents and purposes, is Church-sanctioned fare, it doesn’t really reflect, as Johnston suggests it does, the depth of the playwright’s artistic, cultural, and theological “gene pool.”1 And yet, Johnston may have avoided this initial moment of shallowness by simply throwing “Eric Samuelsen” into Google’s search engine.

With this few seconds of typing and the click of a button, he might have been directed to Mahonri Stewart’s interview of Samuelsen on A Motley Vision. Beyond revisiting here what he already knew, Johnston might have learned that Samuelsen found his artistic inspiration to “write about [his] own culture”2 by piggybacking on Spencer W. Kimball’s desire, as articulated in “A Gospel Vision of the Arts“, that “someone [would] [“¦] do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, [“¦] the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions”3 of the Latter-day Saint soul. In this, Johnston might have also discovered that Samuelsen feels a “disconnect with Utah culture,”4 with the conservatism, both in culture and politics, that pervades the Beehive State and its predominant religious institution and way of life. Knowing this, Johnston might have been able to add a little depth to his reading of Samuelsen and not have been so stunned that this non-conservative professor from a deeply conservative university had joined with “a Salt Lake [theater] troupe with a penchant for mounting plays that would make a lumberjack blush” to stage his “bizarre”5 new play, especially since Inversion is not the first union of this playwright and the players of Plan-B.

With a bit more digging, Johnston could have also uncovered Samuelsen’s 2008 Association for Mormon Letters’ Presidential Address in which Samuelsen discusses his present view of Mormon arts and letters, including his fears about the corporatization and commodification of word and image and his assertion “that Literature is testimony. It’s a writer telling us what the world looks like from where he’s standing, or even better, imagining how it would look if he were standing somewhere else.”6

In the end, this few minutes of directed reading might have helped the reviewer better understand the avant-garde creator of such an avant-garde world as Inversion, according to the review, presents. Instead, Johnston spurts a few sketchy lines about the play’s sketchy plot and its inconclusive conclusion, then tries his hand at something of an interpretation, though, as he admits, he “can’t be sure” about his reading. (But really, when can we ever be sure?) Not having seen the play, I can’t dispute with him on interpretive grounds. I might guess, however, that the title has more to do with inverting our assumptions about certain things (including American/Mormon culture and the moral dilemmas of the universe) than with just the temperature inversion that smothers the “mountain rescue station [in which seven young people are trapped] [“¦] in fog.”

I’m convinced, however, that the most damaging and damning aspect of Johnston’s review is not this failed reading of Samuelsen and his play, but rather the way his failure to read and write carefully results in overgeneralizations about and misrepresentations of Mormon culture and theology. Because of this and because of my belief that lazy, unkempt, patronizing, or shallow scholarship, even if masquerading as journalism, is intellectually dishonest and thus fails to fully serve its audience, I really take issue with what Johnston does next. With this comment, “What I am sure about is Inversion is not the kind of fare Mormons will flock to,” he launches into a excusive discussion of the reason why he didn’t like the play (as evidenced by the language and tone of his review) and why most Mormons won’t–or at least why they perhaps shouldn’t–like it either: because, he says, “Mormons, for the most part, like their theater tidier. They like a story that has a message.”7 While I agree that we Latter-day Saints, above most others, are obsessed (and perhaps rightfully so) with the quest for meaning and truth and that as humans we generally like our path to understanding straight and broad, without much risk laid against our hard-won (or not) faith, I don’t agree with the implication of this tidiness: that the moral universe and Mormon theology can (let alone whether or not they should) be tied up in a little bow and distributed as lesson favors at church to our friends and even to some of our enemies or that Mormon writers should maintain a clean and comfortable platform if they want to keep their audience engrossed or even if they want to keep an audience in gross. Such attempts, in my mind, trivialize and in effect undermine the tragic depths to which our forebears, including Christ and Joseph Smith, moved in their efforts to establish and redeem the truth by examining and reexamining, in action and in thought, the central contraries of existence and of the Mormon religious experience.

By reducing the Mormon tragic quest into such shallow and simplistic assumptions about the nature of the paradox driven universe, Johnston (my scapegoat for the impulse of cultural Mormons to strain at an ethical gnat even as we swallow a theological camel by failing to consistently engage with our own mythos) negates or at the very least underestimates the power and influence of Mormon theology and the Mormon God to persuade us into productive engagement with the eternal ambiguities of existence. Indeed, by essentially denying the demands of paradox their well-earned though sometimes culturally neglected place in Latter-day Saint literature, history, and theology, Johnston undercuts the tragic doctrinal insistence of Lehi that, without opposition,

righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore if it [existence] should be [reconciled into] one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. [“¦]

And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; [“¦] wherefore, all things must have vanished away.8

Johnston’s shallow review thus discredits the work of the many Mormon artists like Samuelsen who don’t blatantly “include a lesson or two in [their] work,”9 who see literature as experience, as a witness of life (which, at least in my experience, is never written in black and white and absolutely ripe with meaning) and who strive to capture the opposition inherent in all things in their literary worlds without blasphemously moving to reconcile one side with the other (an attempt, as William Blake also concedes, that would stop our progression and ultimately “destroy existence”10) or to maintain a devoted following.

(Next Thursday’s post: “Part II: In Exchange for the Soul.”)

Footnotes:

1 Johnston, Jerry. “Playwright’s scripts are a departure from Mormon morality tales.” Rvw. of Inversion, by Eric Samuelsen. Mormon Times. mormontimes.com. 23 July 2008. 25 July 2008.

2 Stewart, Mahonri. An Interview with Eric Samuelsen. A Motley Vision. http://www.motleyvision.org. 2 May 2006. 8 Aug. 2008.

3 Kimball, Spencer W. “A Gospel Vision of the Arts.” Ensign. July 1977.

4 Stewart.

5 Johnston.

6 Samuelsen, Eric. “Towards a Mission, Minus the Statement.” Presidential Address given at The Association for Mormon Letters Annual Meeting. 8 Mar. 2008. http://www.mormonletters.org/events/AMLprezaddress.htm. (For some reason the link has gone dead. It was there, I promise.)

7 Johnston.

8 2 Nephi 2:11, 13.

9 Johnston.

10 Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors Edition. M.H. Abrams, et al, eds. New York: Norton, 2001. 1384.

27 thoughts on “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality: Part I”

  1. Tragic tell? You mean tragic tale? Eric Snider’s been running a series on this pronounciation 🙂

  2. No. I mean “tell” as in the sense we typically associate with card playing: a behavior that gives clues as to what’s going on beneath the surface.

    Thanks for clarifying though.

  3. Tyler,

    This is a well-written and thought-provoking essay, but I think you’ve misread the review. Johnston doesn’t pretend to be a scholar; his review reads like, well, a review. I felt like he admired the play, but didn’t enjoy it. He goes on to make the obvious point that many Mormons probably won’t see the play. This surpriseth me not.

    The point I thought you might address from the review is how most successful Mormon writers are genre writers. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    I look forward to next week’s post.

  4. You may not like Johnston’s analysis of Samuelsen’s work, or prefer that Mormons should accept edgier works, but you shouldn’t argue that he is wrong in describing Mormon preferences for stories that clearly privilege good over evil. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years now for the movie version of Samuelsen’s “Peculiarites” to see the light of day after it was previewed at Sunstone. Someone appears to have made the decision that there’s no market for it.

  5. Privileging good over evil is not the same as wanting tidy theater with a message.

    I can’t speak to “Peculiarities” — the only Samuelsen work I have read is “Gadianton”* — but I’m not sure that there being a market for a particular work really speaks to what Trevor is getting at. The Mormon market is something that we discuss here at AMV (and yet I still am not fully satisfied with things yet — which I suppose is good news for fans of the blog because I [and my co-bloggers] have a lot more to think and write about), but it seems like what Trevor is saying is that by supporting the tidy and didactic, some LDS consumers, artists and critics circumscribe the richness of the Mormon worldview, the depth of our doctrine. Of course, it’s well within their right to do so. Trevor thinks that that’s a tragic thing.

    His take down of Johnson, then, (and notice that he admits that he’s using him as a scapegoat) is not really to say that Johnson is a “bad critic” (and so neither can we dismiss Johnson’s column as “just a review”) but rather it is emblematic of a particular aesthetic approach. One that may have some deficiencies.

    I’m not entirely convinced that an appeal to Lehi’s opposition in all things is the right way to go about this argument. To be more precise: I think one can question whether or not extending his formulation to the realm of aesthetics is warranted. But before I pin myself down on this, I’m going to wait and see what’s next in the series.

    *Which has it’s problems — in particular, a portrayal of a conservative character that is nowhere near as nuanced and developed as I would like to have seen (and by seen, I mean read as I don’t live in Utah and so have never seen a Mormon play produced).

  6. .

    I’m sympathetic to Johnson, although I agree that not googling someone is simply irresponsible.

    I had my first article on Mormon Lit published in 2002 and I’m ashamed of how little I knew at the time (and that it was published–frankly, I’m kind of glad the article’s not available online; even though it was well written, it was poorly researched and I don’t think nearly as highly of it now as I did then; and! as it was published in a sanctioned BYU organ, I’m shocked no one ever corrected me). Granted, six years ago someone with little knowledge had few places to look (although again, I was at BYU so shame on me) and now the web is filled with good information, but it’s easy to assume that our assumptions reflect reality.

    The election season offers a handy metaphor. How many of us know someone who refuses to examine the other ticket carefully because they already know all there is to know?

    Too many people already know all there is to know about Mormon literature. I make a lot of grandiose statements myself, but I’ve never read a single straight LDS romance novel–the bulk of the fiction market, right?–so what the heck do I know? Only what I’ve gotten secondhand and what my biases tell me.

    But I don’t mean to defend a poorly researched article. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s time we start recognizing the (growing) breadth and depth of the field.

    If the rest of Mormondom wasn’t so stuck on old assumptions, Mormon Lit would sell a whole lot better.

  7. It was just a newspaper review of one play. Johnston surely didn’t have the space to do a survey of Samuelsen’s oeuvre, or of the Mormon avant-garde. If Johnston oversimplified, he still has a point. Mormons expect art to be didactic. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tidy, I don’t think, (is the Book of Mormon tidy?) But it has to have a discernible moral point. I keep waiting for a Mormon Flannery O’Connor (I suppose “The Backslider” comes close.

    I had also hoped for a Mormon Dostoyevsky in Brain Evenson or Neil LaBute, but both became embittered by criticism and exited Mormonism. So I suppose the question is: who is going to be tough enough to find a way to meet marketplace demands, and brave enough to meet the well-meaning but naive criticisms of other Mormons and still stay in the church? Johnston’s description of current LDS attitudes seems correct to be and an avant-garde that implies that Mormons aren’t hip enough to get it compounds the problem.

  8. First of all, let me make it abundantly clear that I have no beef with Jerry Johnston. I don’t know the man and I’m not judging him. My issue, as I thought I stated clearly in my essay, is with his review and its oversimplification of Samuelsen’s work specifically and of Mormon culture in general. Yes, I know a review can’t be comprehensive. But it can, as all writing should, I think, be built on solid knowledge and research, which is what Th. suggests and what I’m calling for here. As an example of reviews grounded in a broad knowledge base, I consider (off the top of my head) Roger Ebert, whose long years of cinematic experience coupled with a strong education and intellect allow him to read films more closely than most of us might imagine possible and to write about their images, cultural and cinematic connections, and ideologies persuasively.

    I bring ideology up, because no cultural artifact (including Johnston’s review and my essay) comes to us free of ideological underpinnings. One might be ideologically positioned more consciously and to a greater degree than another, but, as I see it (and consider this part of my ideology if you want), we should examine the texts that come to us more closely; and we should do so, not simply so we can discover their ideological motivations, but because we, as Latter-day Saints, have been given the ability and, with that, the responsibility to discern. (My mission president thought we often took this gift too lightly and I tend to agree.) As Paul puts it, we must “[p]rove all things,” even if that means testing our own ideological assumptions and examining our own cultures. This coincides with something one of my professors told my class when I was an undergrad and with the modern penchant for skepticism: “Question everything.”

    But perpetual doubt shouldn’t be the end of our educative journey (nor is it the end of my series, as you’ll see if you stick around). Paul also counsels (at the end of this verse), “hold fast that which is good“ (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Elsewhere we have the admonition to “seek [“¦] diligently and [to] teach one another words of wisdom; yea, [to] seek [“¦] out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). Prove. Hold Fast. Seek by faith. All these things suggest to me that, yes, even…especially as Mormons we should question things–in fact, we’re counseled to do so; but that we should do so while holding fast to our convictions of the Gospel’s truth even as we seek to expand and clarify those truths in our lives and in our writing; even if that means letting go of the traditions of our fathers or, as Th. calls them the “old assumptions” that keep us from accepting greater truths, from living more Godlike lives.

    And if that means suggesting, as it does for me (and, I think, for AMV, though I can’t speak for the collective), that we should expect more of ourselves as readers and writers, more of our reviewers and critics, more of our literature, then I’ll suggest it [and try to live up to and develop these literary standards in my own writing]* until I’m blue in the (inter)face.

    *Added at 1:51 pm, 9/5. After reflecting on how stubborn I sounded without this phrase, I thought I should clarify by implying that I realize the need to hold myself to the same standards. I’m not really that hypocritical. I’m not. Promise…

  9. I reacted badly to that review, too, even though I haven’t seen the play. My issue wasn’t his depth or breadth of knowledge so much as an apparent unwillingness to look past his own baggage to what value it might have outside the didactic.

    This is my question: WHY must Mormons ALWAYS have a morality tale? WHY must we ALWAYS have everything tied up neatly with a pretty bow on top a la ABC After School Special?

    Are we THAT unsophisticated? Or are we just lazy?

  10. My issue wasn’t his depth or breadth of knowledge so much as an apparent unwillingness to look past his own baggage to what value it might have outside the didactic.

    I think you’ve captured here the things that really stoked such a response from me. Johnston barely even acknowledges anything outside of the didacticism of the morality tale, something I see as a failure to engage or to want to engage with knowledge or anything else beyond the comforting province of Primary.

    And I can’t really place my finger on whether or not this necessarily equates to ignorance or unsophistication or laziness or something else–or even all of them. (I do have another suggestion, however, but that will have to wait until later in the series.) What I do know, however, is that anything that takes us (as Mormons and as human beings) beyond familiar views isn’t received well at first or sometimes, unfortunately, ever.

  11. I have a very difficult time commenting on this particular issue of the Mormon audience without getting into a ton of socio-historical and aesthetics stuff that I’m actually not that well-trained in but that seems rather important.

    But I will point out that there’s a lot going on here in terms of discourse: a blog post that mixes the more casual discourse of blogging with literary criticism, cultural criticism and aesthetics appeals to scripture that is about a review that mixes journalism (although perhaps not enough journalistic inquiry), populist reviewing (e.g. the function of the review is to discuss if the “ideal reader” should go see the work or not), provincial attitudes toward arts (no value judgment here — just an observation of the function of the Deseret News) and popular Orthodox, Utah-focused Mormon discourse that is reviewing a play that is produced by an alt-weekly oriented, underground theater company of a play written by a BYU professor who is a bit maverick, a bit postmodern, and very much concerned with Mormon culture.

    So yeah. That’s a lot going on. This is not to say that I’m upset that Tyler is taking this on. Quite the contrary. But I hope that our readers, including Ardis, understand that AMV is continually trying to articulate a vision of what Mormon arts and culture is, has been, should be and could be that delicately balances the concerns of LDS practice and belief, artistic freedom and expression, craftsmanship and community building.

    On the one hand, one can’t fault Jerry Johnston for playing his prescribed role as a reviewer-columnist for the Deseret News/Mormon Times. On the other hand, when it comes to Mormon arts, we all would do well to not fall to easily into the patterns, roles and discourses of the world. Use them and transmute them, maybe (and maybe that’s not possible).

    —–

    I will say that I find the positioning of MoJo interesting: we — unsophisticated — lazy. Generally when one uses such a grammatical formulation, the we doesn’t really include oneself. It’s a way of being in but not of the group one is generalizing about. I think many Mormon artists feel that way so it’s a valid frustration to express. But I’m not sure that it’s a useful grammatical positioning. It distances while trying to appear inclusive.

    Now that’s a way over-analysis. But as I hope I’ve shown, these things get rather complicated and layered.

    Oh and forgive me for this comment and the previous one on this post. I’ve been reading too much Bakhtin lately — although I’m not sure I’m absorbing very much other than the tendency to use words like discourse and to express everything rather abstractly.

  12. But I’m not sure that it’s a useful grammatical positioning. It distances while trying to appear inclusive.

    I can see your point; however, I feel the relationship of ME being included with the group of “unsophisticated” and “lazy” is more of a yin/yang than trying to force two magnets together on the same pole.

    A story:

    I was sitting in Gospel Doctrine one Sunday listening to Brother The-Gospel-According-To-Me wax eloquent on the stupidest thing I’ve heard in Sunday school in a long time. In currying favor (because it’s good politics to be in with this Brother), a whole chorus of Me-Toos piped up and nobody questioned the absurdity of it.

    Except me. I was angry and I spoke up, using scriptural reference to refute everything that had been said. Did I feel an outsider at that moment? Yes, because my opinion was the only dissenting voice (well, the only one that chose to be heard anyway).

    But did I also feel like an insider? Yes, because these were my people and I can speak OUR language eloquently enough to challenge Brother The-Gospel-According-To-Me’s errant teachings and all the Me-Toos after him who didn’t think before they spoke.

    Yin/yang. I don’t want to distance myself from THEM nor do I want to accept the social discourse as it stands just to be included. I want to stand in the middle and challenge what’s said. If someone else wants to stand in the middle with me and challenge ME, that’s perfectly wonderful, too.

  13. I see where you’re coming from Wm, especially since in most of my own critical essays the “we” is more of a formality used, I think, to include myself in the observations I’m making–because, in fact, I am making them–while at the same time distancing myself to some degree from the group I’m writing to (generally a group of high-falutin academics). Yet, in this essay, I’ve tried to put my personal affirmation, my presence, my “I” in the observations because I feel so close to both sides of the discourse. And, for the most part, I include myself as one of the cultural Mormons–the “we”–that sometimes takes our theology and the aesthetic potential of our literature for granted. We all do to one degree or another and I think that’s why this is such a touchy issue to some.

    And I completely agree with you MOJO: “If someone else wants to stand in the middle with me and challenge ME, that’s perfectly wonderful, too.” I really want to encourage dialog, not stifle it, because, in all reality, the only way we can develop deeper compassion and become more like God is to engage with both (or more) sides of an issue.

  14. Every story is a morality tale. Either you are writing about “good role models”, to use a worn-out phrase; or you are writing a cautionary tale. You may not like this, but you can’t get away from it , no matter how much literary theory bullbleep you toss around.

  15. Looks like Tyler struck a nerve with this one! I have to say I feel a bit like Th. A few years ago I read a few Mormon books and thought I knew what LDS lit. was all about. But then I read more–and engaged in meaningful discussions with more members–and my perspective changed. LDS lit, like our religion, isn’t something that’s easy to write off. I think that’s where the danger of the “morality tale” comes in. If we can boil down every dilemma we face, whether it be in life or in books, to good versus bad then we will miss a lot. What about Adam and Eve in the garden? Was Eve good or was she bad? I can’t think of a more classic morality tale than their story and the LDS view of it is so complex we pracitically have to have a rhetoric lesson every time we tell it. (I’m thinking of the whole, “it was transgression, not a sin” point.) So maybe both sides are right? I may have lost the point of Tyler’s essay somewhere in all the comments–sometimes I think you all are too smart for me!–but it seems to me that maybe the heart (and perhaps future?) of Mormon literature lies in the nuances of the morality tale. (Incidentally just how many morality tales/plays have you all read? They might not be what you think they are.) After all, we all know which side wins, it’s just a question of how.

  16. With all due respect, the problem with Mr. Chadwick’s essay is that he relies exclusively on Mr. Johnston’s short review of a play he hasn’t even seen to make bold statements about an entire religious body as art consumers and producers. Chadwick writers, “Not having seen the play, I can’t dispute with him on interpretive grounds.” What? Is he kidding? He goes on to say: “I might guess, however, that the title has more to do with inverting our assumptions about certain things (including American/Mormon culture and the moral dilemmas of the universe) than with just the temperature inversion that smothers the “mountain rescue station [in which seven young people are trapped] [“¦] in fog.”” With this, Mr. Chadwick is basically saying that he is smart enough to shoot down Mr. Johnston’s own reading of the title, someone who has seen the play, as someone who has NOT SEEN the play.

    This offends me. How can Mr. Chadwick teach us anything about Mormon art, Mormon audiences, and where Mr. Johnston has gone oh-so-wrong when he hasn’t even seen the play in question?

    Mr. Chadwick’s essay is much more irresponsible than the review it uses as a straw man. Chadwick writes, “because of my belief that lazy, unkempt, patronizing, or shallow scholarship, even if masquerading as journalism, is intellectually dishonest and thus fails to fully serve its audience.” To me this sounds like early graduate school rhetoric–naive rhetoric that can’t see the forest for the trees grounded in a thesis generated entirely by negative definition. Mr. Chadwick obviously does not see the irony here. He admits to using Johnston as a scapegoat as if this makes it okay, but instead of using the review as a real jumping off points, he beats the review death with his own self-righteous rhetoric.

    Finally, Mr. Chadwick writes, “I don’t agree with the implication of this tidiness: that the moral universe and Mormon theology can (let alone whether or not they should) be tied up in a little bow and distributed as lesson favors at church to our friends and even to some of our enemies or that Mormon writers should maintain a clean and comfortable platform if they want to keep their audience engrossed or even if they want to keep an audience in gross.” To me this point is both obvious and redundant, but what bothers me here is that Chadwick lays this at the feet of Johnston’s review, as if he Johnston himself has suggested otherwise, as if Johnston is somehow responsible for propagating the idea that Mormon audiences like their entertainment tidy. Chadwick notes in one of his comments that “we should expect more of ourselves as readers and writers, more of our reviewers and critics, more of our literature.” Amen to that.

    Yes, we should all do more to promote a more complex Mormon literature and scholarship. The real problem, I believe, is that Mormons cannot compartmentalize beliefs and art–they always have to be married in one grand unified truth (the Mormon GUT). We are so obsessed with setting boundaries for what is and isn’t Mormon art that we can’t see the real picture. I know, for example, that Brian Evenson and Neil Labute have been cast aside as Mormon writers. If we had any sense at all as an artistic culture, we would embrace Evenson and Labute just as we embrace Meyers or Card or Wolverton. And yes, I am using the WE to set myself apart a bit. I believe Mormon literature is wide and diverse but instead of talking about it many of us are obsessed with being gatekeepers, and when one of those artists offends us we disown him/her.

  17. I think you make some good points, Pratt.

    However, I don’t think that laying it all at the feet of Jerry Johnston is all that irresponsible. The Mormon Times has set itself up to be a major gatekeeper and arbiter of taste in the world of Mormon culture. It’s sort of weird that that is the case, but it’s the result of a provincial (and I don’t mean provincial as an insult — I find, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle to be just as provincial as the Deseret News a lot of times) publication serving a region dominated by a religious people that have a rather peculiar cultural history/trajectory.

    Now, I like a lot of what the site publishes. And I think that Johnston hits all the right notes in terms of what a review for MT of an avant-garde play is going to be. I wouldn’t expect anything different. But that doesn’t mean that his rhetoric should be unchallengeable. And neither should Tyler’s. Luckily, AMV allows comments. (BTW, I’m kind of glad that MT doesn’t allow comments considering what takes place at the bottom of many Deseret News stories, but I sure wish that they would at least offer direct RSS feeds that include an excerpt from the column. And I’ve let them know that.)

    The question that Pratt raises, and I think it is a good one is whether Johnston is merely reflecting how he thinks the Mormon audience is going to respond or how he thinks it should respond. It’s a bit hard to tell. But I think what’s interesting about the review is that a lot is about the works perceived reception among the Mormon audience and not as much about the merit of the work itself.

    ————

    I would prefer that commenters not toss around terms like “literary theory bullbleep” or “early graduate school rhetoric”“naive rhetoric.” I mean, come on, that’s an easy place to go. It’s one I’ve done (and regretted) many times in internet discussions, but in the end it’s a rather empty posture. A sneer that dismisses without engaging and so can be met by any other kind of empty sneer. Dude, you’re such a grad student. Dude, you’re such a Philistine. Dude, you’re such an elitist. Dude, you’re such a reactionary, etc. etc. And that’s not very useful. Or cool.

    I’m not asking that commenters not dispute anything we write here at AMV. And Pratt has at least provided some analysis of where he thinks Tyler’s argument falls apart. But we all have different trainings, approaches and methodologies. Let’s let those difference manifest themselves in analysis and dialogue rather than posturing. Of course, all blogging is posturing to one degree or another, but I prefer it when we break down assertions and evidences and even more when we riff of and build on posts.

  18. Interesting article and interesting responses. And I actually found Johnston’s review interesting as well, in the sense of what it said and what it didn’t say. For example, I didn’t get the sense from Johnston’s statement about Mormons liking their entertainment served with a moral to be as much of a value judgement– instead it seemed to be more of an observation. He wasn’t condemning or supporting the play with the statement, but forecasting how Mormon audiences would respond. I thought it was interesting that he did this, and wondered why. It seemed that he side stepped the subject, and refused to say what was really on his mind. It was a tantalizing tid bit that forced the reader to make their own value judgement. He provided the information and seemingly asked the reader what they thought, instead of telling them what to think. Whether this was purposeful or not, I’m not sure, and this interpretation may simply be subject to my reading of it. But Johnston’s interesting slyness piqued my interest, and didn’t put me off like it seemed to have done with Tyler. It’s almost like Johnston was the referee throwing up the ball and then stepping back to see the players struggle for it (which, now, they have). Interesting.
    As to the “research” that Tyler suggests Johnston should have been put into his article, I’m not sure that I quite see eye to eye with Tyler on this one. That point rather depends on how you see the relationship of the artist and his art. There is one school of thought which leads me to think of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw insisted that the audience see his play as he MEANT them to see it. He would write whole essays to accompany the play, telling the moral, showing the meaning. When people would mess up “Pygmalion” (such as when they changed the ending to fit their own wishes for Higgins and Doolittle, ala “My Fair Lady”), by golly, he let them know what they were supposed to think of it! And, you know, I think that’s fine. Shaw is one of my favorite playwrights and, as a playwright myself, I often do the same thing. I write a play for a reason and I want the audience to see that reason. Eric Samuelsen’s (who I admire immensely, by the way. Another of my favorite playwrights and a friend) work can get just as heavy handed in works such as “Gadianton.” You don’t leave that play with a sense of ambiguity– and you probably shouldn’t, for its message is beautifully clear.
    On the other hand, there is a different school of thought, informed by postmodernism, that says a work should be able to stand on its two feet, without any other further information from or about the author. This is the track Johnston is leaning towards. He wasn’t writing a review of Samuelsen’s body of work, nor was he writing a paper about how Samuelsen’s worldviews and life informed his work. He was a writing a review of a single play, “Inversion.” When an audience member goes into a play, they haven’t the leisure of whipping out Google or obscure books on Mormon Art. Unless the playwright’s famous enough to warrant a dramaturg, besides a short bio in the program (if even that), what the audience knows about the playwright is presented before them in the form of a play. And that play is all they have to judge from. And if we simply expect the reviewer to be an informed audience member, I don’t see any problem if Jerry Johnston has never read the interview I conducted with Eric Samuelsen.
    Otherwise, I found Tyler’s article, and its following responses, to be interesting and thought provoking. My main regret, however, was that I didn’t find out about “Inversion” until it was too late. I always enjoy Eric’s work.

  19. Fascinating discussion.

    There is an assumption here that I’d like to challenge, or at least throw out as something that may not be entirely true. The assumption comes from the reactions to Johnston’s statement that Mormons probably won’t see the play.

    It seems to me that we need to stop seeing the audience as static, as something that will not and can not change. That seems to me to be as pessimistic and anti-Mormon a view as there is.

    I agree with the concept that, as Tyler wrote in comment 11, “anything that takes us… beyond familar views isn’t received well at first…” But I have hope, and perhaps even faith, that these views can change, that at least a strong portion of the Mormon audience will come to respect works that go beyond the familiar didacticism of mainstream Mormon works.

  20. Another thought. Tyler’s comment (11) that “anything that takes us”¦ beyond familar views isn’t received well at first”¦” makes me wonder if one of the problems with more sophisticated Mormon literature isn’t just a matter of how the work is packaged.

    If someone wrote a more sophisticated work that was also a romance novel, would it be better accepted?

  21. In comment #18, William wrote:

    The Mormon Times has set itself up to be a major gatekeeper and arbiter of taste in the world of Mormon culture.

    Doesn’t that carry a certain responsibility with it? Is reinforcing the current taste filling that responsibility?

    [Of course, I’m not suggesting that Johnston or the Deseret News see things that way…]

  22. First off, Pratt, let me agree with William. I think you’ve got some good points. I also think that if you’ll remember this post is only the first section of a much longer essay, your judgments might be a little rushed. Yes, I use Johnston’s short review as a springboard into a greater discussion on Mormon culture and letters, but only because I do see the reviewer and his forum’s sponsor, Mormon Times/Deseret Book, as parties responsible for propagating, as you state, “the idea that Mormon audiences like their entertainment tidy.” They may not be the ultimate source of this cultural ideal, but they do in fact propagate it (as all of us* might do at one time or another).

    And if you’ll read my essay more closely, you’ll notice that I’m not actually trying to dispute with Johnston about what the play means, as you seem to claim I am. I’m merely reading the play’s title and Johnston’s reading of the play itself** and suggesting that there might be something more to the play, as suggested by the title’s ambiguity, than the interpretation Johnston sets forth. In fact, Johnston himself asserts something along these lines when admits that he “can’t be sure” of his interpretation; but instead of suggesting that his readers should go find out for themselves–something I think he may have encouraged–he essentially takes on the role of gatekeeper you seem to despise and implies that there’s really no point in seeing the play, a drama that might not “teach us how to live” because (as Johnston again implies) it’s so unfamiliar and untidy.

    Again, not having seen the play, I can’t agree or disagree with his interpretation, which is why I only offer a guess; but knowing something of Samuelsen’s tendency to push at cultural borders and the delight wordsmith’s take in wordplay, I think my hypothesis is somewhat informed. Would it be better informed or confirmed/disproved if I had seen the play? Probably. But I haven’t, which is why I state explicitly that my observations emanate from the title only and that I’m simply offering a guess.

    As for the claim of irresponsibility you level at my attempt to sift through Johnston’s and Mormon culture’s ideological sediment using the tools of literary theory and criticism, I don’t see how the desire to engage in critical dialog with one’s culture and one’s peers and to maintain a high level of discourse while doing so is a symptom of naiveté. I do consider myself inexperienced (and yes, I do see the irony in this, which is why I speak with some degree of tongue in cheek) in that I fully acknowledge that my knowledge of said theory (which I admit does have its own restricted views) and of Mormon culture and theology is limited and that the more I learn the more I realize how little I know. Hence, I fully include myself in the group of cultural Mormons that sometimes strains at an ethical gnat while swallowing a theological camel by failing to consistently engage with our own mythos. If any one of us didn’t fail in this regard to some degree, well, they won’t be around for this discussion or any others like it because it’s likely that they’ll be talking shop about culture with Enoch himself.

    ****

    *This includes those artists and scholars who take offense and leave the Church once they realize how critical the Mormon audience can be toward those who push at borders and how slow we sometimes are to receive new things. In my opinion, bailing out in the face of criticism hinders our cultural development, as does an unwillingness to work with and persuade an audience, as Kent suggests and as I believe can happen, to realize and accept a greater degree of otherness in our arts. Perhaps then the real question becomes, as R.W. asks in comment #7, “[W]ho is going to be tough enough to find a way to meet marketplace demands, and brave enough to meet the well-meaning but naive criticisms of other Mormons and still stay in the church?”

    **Are blogged reviews beyond our critical province?

  23. Mahonri:

    I’m not sure I catch what you’re getting at with this:

    As to the “research” that Tyler suggests Johnston should have been put into his article, I’m not sure that I quite see eye to eye with Tyler on this one. That point rather depends on how you see the relationship of the artist and his art. There is one school of thought which leads me to think of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw insisted that the audience see his play as he MEANT them to see it. He would write whole essays to accompany the play, telling the moral, showing the meaning.

    I’m not suggesting that Samuelsen should have commented himself on the meaning of the play and that Johnston should have sought that commentary out when preparing his review. In fact, I rather prefer it when authors say very little about how their texts should be read; that often provides for more lush interpretive paths. What I am suggesting is that I think Johnston–as a journalist and in the interest of approaching his audience as an informed reviewer, one who’s used the tools at his disposal to become more informed on his topics, perhaps, than his readers–should have taken greater care to depict Samuelsen’s “gene pool” for what it is–richly diverse–instead of implying (and this is how I read his first sentence) that because Samuelsen teaches at BYU, his aesthetic offerings are as conservative as the Church’s university and that, because of this, they’re Church-sanctioned fare.

    If he’d dug around a little bit after the play, even if he hadn’t read your interview, IMO he may have been able to offer his MT audience something more substantial to aid in deciding whether or not they should attend the play. I don’t mean to imply that he should have written an expository essay on Samuelsen’s life and work or that everyone should be able to Google the playwright’s name right in the middle of a performance or have access to what you call obscure books on Mormon art. I was just outlining one possible approach–Googling “Eric Samuelsen”–because that’s the place where I and many others begin the process of becoming better informed (though my route often moves to less accessible locations from there).

  24. Equal and opposite reactions seem to the be a rule of life. You post something that’s sharp, you’re going to get a sharp response.

  25. Tyler, my point, more or less, was that a play can (not even necessarily should, but can) be interpreted by itself and that a good review can simply take the play on its own merits without ANY outside information besides that. However, I personally love to know as much as I can about an author. Biography and research (not to mention familiarity with an author’s other work) I believe can inform the work, and bring added layers of meaning to a reading or viewing of a piece of literature or theater. I personally believe that the way you would have written the article, with those principles in mind, would have most likely produced a more interesting and more nuanced review, with layers of social commentary and insight that wasn’t available to Johnston. But I don’t think that the approach Johnston took was illegitimate either, however much I may disagree with a couple of his conclusions. That’s all I’m saying.
    Whatever the case, I think your post was a job well done. Enjoyed it very much.

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