LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part 1)

In one of the very early AMV posts, I wrote:

“Mormon artists” above refers to artists who seek to live a life of LDS orthodoxy. In keeping with the big tent definition of Mormon literature, A Motley Vision will, at other times, use the term “Mormon artists” in a broader sense to include those, for instance, who identify themselves as cultural Mormons but are not active LDS.

Since then I and my co-bloggers (and commenters) have used the term LDS on this blog 918 times; we have used Mormon 1,240 times (according to a Google site search). I haven’t analyzed my co-bloggers posts, but I tend to use the two terms almost-but-not-always interchangeably.

Others, however, don’t. One of the most interesting things to come out of the brouhaha over Angel Falling Softly over at LDS Publisher was the idea that LDS fiction is a genre unto itself. I’ll be honest: this label had never really occurred to me. Certainly, I was aware that Deseret Book and Covenant have certain standards (and sometimes double standards) when it comes to what they publish and sell, but it never occurred me to that the term “LDS fiction” applied only to works that would find their way on to the shelves of DB and Seagull.

As Kent Larsen points out in that post, the term is a bit problematic:

[J. Scott] Savage makes, I think, a very good point about the market for LDS Fiction. The problem is that the term seems very generic — LDS Fiction sounds like it is simply fiction by LDS Church members or that talks about LDS issues.

Instead, as used among those active in the market for Mormon materials, LDS Fiction is, as Bro. Savage makes clear, works that are carefully written so that no LDS Church member could be offended.

I agree with Kent. And yet, at the same time I think that the other point of view is entirely understandable. In fact, I’d say that when using the term LDS fiction as a genre term, it’s much more appropriate to use it in the way several of the commenters on the LDS Publisher post above use it than to use it as “simply fiction by LDS Church members.”

What’s fascinating is that a particular fuzzy usage that has gone on in the LDS Church over the past two decades has been extended to the realm of fiction selling and criticism (the same usage problems don’t exist, for example, in film). During the 1990s and into this century, the LDS Church distanced itself from the term “Mormon” (remember that prior to this “the Mormons” was added as a secondary identifier to the LDS Church’s [awesome] television commercials). I’ll assume that most readers know what I’m talking about and so won’t go into the whole history of this effort and instead get to the point: although the Church wasn’t super successful in getting journalists to use LDS Church instead of Mormon Church (even though the preference made its way into the AP Styleguide albeit with LDS Church as the second reference instead of the Church of Jesus Christ), it was successful in getting much of its American membership to identify as LDS instead of Mormon (or not so much as instead of, but as preferred to). And some of us, myself included, also got our non-member friends to use the term LDS instead of Mormon.

However, as it became clear that this was a losing battle (albeit with some gains), LDS Church PR professionals (while still expressing the initial preference) have moved to re-associate the term Mormon and make it exclusive to members of the LDS Church. This process was intensified in reponse to the news coverage of the Mormon fundamentalist groups over the past few years, culminating, of course, this past spring.

Those of us, then, who are both active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and active participants in the Mormon cultural sphere find that things can sometimes get a bit weird when the two things intersect (as they do and as they rightly should), especially when one is more in the middle of the field of Mormon culture. As I note above, my solution has been to be rather flexible in usage (although a thorough analysis of my posts might show that perhaps I haven’t been as flexible as I think). Others have not chosen that same route. And indeed, the philosophical divides among Mormons authors, readers and critics seem to be heightened or intensified by these two competing terms.

One can fairly clearly signal in which camp one stands by which of these two terms one privileges.

For example, although I say that I have been flexible, the tag line for A Motley Vision is “Mormon arts and culture.” And I suppose that I chose that as a direct reference to the Association for Mormon Letters and their definition of Mormon literature as anything written by, for or about Mormons — even though the primary focus of AMV has been work produced by believing LDS.

So the end result is that we have the Assocation for Mormon Letters vs. LDStorymakers (and the AML Awards vs. the Whitneys). And we have Dialogue a Journal of Mormon Thought. And Mormon Renaissance, Mormon Artists Group, Mormon Artist, Mormons and Film, and This Mormon Life. And then we have LDS Publisher, LDS Review, LDS Writers Blogck, Six LDS Writers and a Frog, the LDS Booksellers Association, etc. The only one that doesn’t quite fit, I’d say, is Towards an LDS Cinema (but again: cinema doesn’t quite have the same separateness that seems to have arisen in fiction). The list could go on — I just pulled these examples out of my Google reader — and I’m sure there are inconsistencies and exceptions. But once I began to think about these two terms in relation to each other and to the Mormon cultural sphere, it was a bit eerie how things lined up.

The point then, of part 1, is that because of the two terms for Mormons/LDS and because of the overlapping but not 100% the same definitions/usages, LDS/Mormon culture has a strange definitional situation that doesn’t not exist (or at least doesn’t exist quite so dualistically) as in other religio-ethnic-national cultures. Others have two or more schools/camps, but as far as I know, they can’t signal them in quite such a stark (meaning unadorned — meaning they have to append other signifiers or come up with their own terms/signals) way.

In part two, I will talk more about LDS fiction; Mormon fiction and why the divide is both useful and completely understandable and problematic and irritating and lame and what if anything should be done about it.

Also: I’m thinking of changing to a less tidy but more evocative tag line for AMV — “LDS/Mormon arts and culture from the radical middle.”

NOTE: My apologies for not linking to all of the blogs and sites mentioned above. I thought that all those links in a row would be distracting.

23 thoughts on “LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part 1)”

  1. Nope. I think we are experience a diverse, competitive cultural market. On the whole I think that’s a good thing. But there’s always room for refinement. I’ll talk more about this next week in part 2.

  2. Great post. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s addition. I tend to use the same words with different meanings attached depending on context. For example, when I talk about LDS writers, I am typically talking about all writers who claim to be practicing (or even non-practicing) Mormons. But if you go into most Utah bookstores, you will find an LDS Literature section.

    This section tends to be books for and by Mormons. But there are plenty of books written by Mormons for the national audience. I would never expect to find those in this section.

    But I would be disappointed if a group like AML or LDStorymakers didn’t consider those in their discussions. Twilight is clearly not LDS-centric. But it is written by a practicing Mormon.

  3. Thanks, Scott. I think you get directly at the messiness of the labels.

    “But it is written by a practicing Mormon.”

    Or is it practicing LDS?

    Anyway, I’m afraid that part 2 won’t come until next week. I have notes for it, but I want to really give it the time it deserves because I’m going to need to both tread carefully and provide some meaningful analysis, which means an hour or so of writing instead of 20 minutes.

    Not to set up too high expectations for myself, though. I could end up being totally off base. Of course, I’m sure you all will correct me if I am. That’s the beauty of blogging — often the best content/analysis happens in the comments.

  4. Oh yeah, and speaking of being all over the place with labels, I suppose I should use either Wm or William.

  5. I’d call it a branding crisis. But the underlying theological question is quite serious: whether the church wants to be thought of and treated as just another Christian sect, or as a standalone and independent religious institution. The former has been gaining traction of late, but the compromises it will ultimately require will prove more far-reaching than I think many realize. How Mormons choose to self-identify may well be the key to the whole thing.

  6. It may be obvious to everyone but me, Eugene, but which label do you think imparts which image?

    I agree generally, but I’m not quite sure how to understand you specifically.

  7. When I was a kid, I was a Mormon and attended the Mormon church. The thrust of theological effort was to differentiate the church from the rest of Christendom (Talmage’s The Great Apostasy being the guidebook), not to seek common cause with it. We were a “peculiar people.” Different was good. That kind of worldview is going to produce a different kind of art than one that seeks accommodation.

    In Blood and Chocolate (1997) by Annette Curtis Klause, the existential question is front and center: whether a pack of werewolves will separate from society or try to blend in. The decision in the end is to separate, for the divide cannot be bridged without causing mutual harm. It’d interesting to read Blood and Chocolate alongside Twilight as the 19th century view of Mormonism versus the 21st.

    I can’t help pointing out as well that as humans, the werewolves in Blood and Chocolate are working and lower middle class.

  8. When I was a kid, I was a Mormon and attended the Mormon church. The thrust of theological effort was to differentiate the church from the rest of Christendom (Talmage’s The Great Apostasy being the guidebook), not to seek common cause with it. We were a “peculiar people.” Different was good.

    This is my experience also.

    Since the Community of Christ has gone protestant, the evangelical community simply finds that church to be an also-ran. Not Mormon or Somewhat Mormon (because they really don’t understand the difference). Not Christian. Just…there to be mocked. Or ignored. But never taken seriously.

  9. Eugene,

    I also had that experience, but you never know where people are coming from. It seems that either label (Mormon or LDS) could be used for either purpose.

    I remember hearing lots of talk when the Church changed its logo to emphasize “Jesus Christ.” Some said that it was an attempt at seeming more like mainstream Christians.

    On the other hand, identifying ourselves as “saints” doesn’t have a very unifying effect with Protestants or Catholics. I don’t get the sense that “LDS” as an acronym is particularly appeasing to the crowd, but I also don’t think it’s as distinctive as “Mormon.”

    On the other hand (to take a page from Fiddler on the Roof), “Mormon” sounds a lot like “Baptist” or “Methodist” to someone who isn’t baggage-laden. In the mission field (Arizona for me), I found that while the Church was well known, many people thought of it as not much different from their non-denominational congregations – even if they knew about Joseph Smith and our scriptures. Every church has its founder. We had a hard time getting people to see a difference, in spite of being called “Mormons.”

  10. Wow, I love this post. You could do a corpus analysis of each of those sites and examine in depth how each uses “Mormon literature” vs. “LDS literature,” although the preliminary analysis is revealing enough. I’ve never noticed the divide, but it certainly is interesting. Terms to add to Kent’s Mormon dictionary, maybe? This is making me even more interested in the idea of a Mormon OED.

  11. Or you could Katherine. ;-P

    I think Eugene, MoJo and Adam all make interesting points.

    Of course, the weird thing here is that the side is more accommodationist (in some ways) is the one using Mormon while the side that is more inward focused (in but not of the world) is using LDS. It’s not actually that weird because the LDS term is more associated with perceived closeness to the institutional church. And, of course, these aren’t actually sides. It’s a more complex ecosystem of usage and culture production than that.

    But more on all that next week.

  12. When I was a kid, I lived a half a mile away from an off-shoot polygamous colony. What’s interesting about it is that on a local scale, not only were they not called Mormons, but they didn’t call themselves Mormons. Living in the incorporated community of Pinesdale, they were simply Pinesdalers or “Pineys.” Mormons were those legitimate members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in the valley. I bring this up only because I wonder if the question of off-shoots exists mostly on a national scale (thank you main-stream media) but not so much on the local or regional level. And if that’s the case, is Mormon/LDS literature viewed differently depending upon which of those two geographic microscopes it may happen to be under?

  13. To me, it’s very simple: LDS fiction/literature is DB/Seagull/Covenant because the consumer has defined it so.

    To say that Eugene’s book is LDS fiction raises a cacophony of consumers go, “Nuh uhhhh, not it is NOT!” because they expected something other than what they got, based upon the fact that Eugene’s LDS and it has LDS characters and Mormon culture (notice which term I used for which descriptive). They felt betrayed.

    It’s been my argument all along that since the consumers have defined it, it exists as its own genre. They have certain expectations to be met and are angry/disappointed/frustrated when those expectations are NOT met.

    Brenda Novak and Christine Feehan are Mormons. One writes graphic romantic suspense without LDS characters and the other writes paranormal romance. Does this make what they write LDS fiction? No and I can’t see anybody making the case that they do.

    Of course, how much DB/Seagull/Covenant’s editorial decisions have had to do with defining “LDS fiction/literature” so much so that the consumer defines it the same way probably could go without saying.

  14. .

    I remember hearing lots of talk when the Church changed its logo to emphasize “Jesus Christ.” Some said that it was an attempt at seeming more like mainstream Christians.

    When the First Presidency approached the designers of the new logo, they told them that the Lord was not pleased with the way his name was being treated re:the old logo.

    And really, who can argue that Jesus is not more important that what year the saints live in?

  15. Th.,

    I’m not making that argument. I’m just saying that it caused a stir among some people I knew. I think particularly some of other faiths misinterpreted the change.

  16. .

    I know you weren’t.

    The new logo caught me off guard when it was first announced back in ’96(±1)—I had always liked the funky font of the old one. But once I thought about it for a few minutes, I liked it immensely. I still do.

  17. A couple more thoughts:

    1) I was thinking about these terms and suddenly remembered that the BYU Studies special “Mormons and Film” issue makes a very conscious distinction between “LDS cinema” and “Mormon cinema.” To quote:

    “In this history, as is conventional in academic studies, I have used ‘Latter-day Saint’ or ‘LDS’ to refer specifically to the Church or its members, while reserving ‘Mormon’ to refer more broadly to the culture; hence the preference for the term ‘Mormon cinema,’ even though most Latter-day Saints refer to the movement as ‘LDS cinema’.” (Randy Astle with Gideon O. Burton, “A History of Mormon Cinema,” BYU Studies, 2007, vol. 46, No. 2, p. 15)

    2) I did a google search on “Mormon culture” vs. “LDS culture,” and “Mormon culture” (unsurprisingly) got thousands of more hits than did “LDS culture.” The “LDS culture” search brought up several news articles. I’m wondering what the distinction between the terms is. Or even what the terms “LDS” and “Mormon” mean on their own. I get the sense that “LDS” can be used to directly reference the institution of the LDS Church, whereas “Mormon” can’t–and that “LDS” can be used to mean “Mormon,” but “Mormon” can’t be used to mean “LDS.” But that might just be within the Church. Outside of the Church, “Mormon” can probably be used to reference the institution of the Church.

  18. Part two is set to go up this coming Tuesday. That’s not meant to stop discussion here, but to explain why I’m not commenting further here even though there’s been some fantastic discussion.

  19. When we named Mormon Artists Group, it was a conscious decision to be as “big tent” as possible. Many of our members are cultural Mormons, but not active LDS. The distinction was and is important to us.

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