Theric guest post: “Mormons might well be the new Catholics!”

Wm says: Hey look — it’s time for another guest post from Theric. Thanks, man. I was going to subject everyone to the playlist of insufferably indie-pop songs I write most of my fiction to.

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In DavidEdelstein’s NPR review of the movie inspired by that ubiquitous book by “Brigham University graduate Stephenie Meyer,” he describes the movie as, in “its undercooked way . . . enjoyable” despite its “barely functional” script. But I’m less interested in his view of the movie’s merits.

Check out this:

    The best thing in the film is Kristen Stewart [who plays the
    female lead], and she’s better at conveying physical longing than any
    of the actors playing vampires. She alone suggests how this series was
    born, in the mind of a young Mormon girl who had to sublimate like mad
    with thoughts of vampires. Duncan Lance Black, the screenwriter of the
    gay-rights activist Harvey Milk biopic with Sean Penn opening next
    week, is also a Mormon. With characters that veer between implosive
    sexual repression and explosive sexual liberation, Mormons might well
    be the new Catholics!

Although on A Motley Vision we have often spoken of becoming more like Catholics in the public eye, the fact is, we would much rather be Jews than Catholics. Being Catholic has more downsides than upsides — sure, you’re the default version of Christianity that everyone recognizes, but that means that everything from Nunsense to The Exorcist is necessarily a Catholic story. Jewish stories on the other hand bring to mind Fiddler on the Roof and Asher Lev — Jewish stories told by Jews. But Catholics? It’s open season on Catholics.

The two writers Edelstein mentions have Mormon heritage (and perhaps this is a good sign for our acceptance into the mainstream), but nationally recognized writing about Mormons (by Mormons and especially not) is only beginning. And we can’t count on being misrepresented by only beautiful art (e.g., Angels in America) or unseen art (eg, Miss Misery) either. Count on more South Park instead (rather literally, if Parker and Stone’s magic-underwear Broadway show comes to pass).

But if Mormons do become as popular a canvas for our nation’s writers and filmmakers as Catholics now are, what does that imply for Mormon artists?

[Note: I don’t think there is anything wrong in writing for an exclusively LDS audience. We need such writers and they perform a great service. Let me make that clear now before I try to convince you of the opposite point.]

As Mormons characters become more and more common in public media, the idea of “Mormon” will start evolving more quickly in the arts than through the lives of the Saints or the LDS newsroom or anything else. One huge movie with a bizarrely misinterpreted Mormon lead character will affect public perception more than all the ballyhooing we do on our respective blogs. We Mormon artists need to get out into the world and make a difference.

It would be easy to misinterpret me and suspect I’m suggesting we need to lock arms and present to the world a homogenized, vetted-and-approved image of Mormonism Proper, but please don’t because I’m not saying that at all.

For instance, I’m about a hundred pages into right now and its closest-thing to a vetted-and-improved Mormon is a lady who wears a Glock on her thigh (which Glock she has used, fatally, on humans), collects vibrators, and drops the f-bomb like it was ten-for-a-dollar at the Hy-Vee (on the bright side, she’s thirty-five and a virgin, so she does have that going for her). And you know what? I don’t mind Jovan’s representations of Mormons because they feel honest and real. The lapsed Mormons went through natural and believable and human processes in their lapsing; the sole active Mormon has her issues, sure, but she’s trying (and compromising) and she never ceases to be human while being a Mormon.

Outside Mormondom, we will continue to have writers who present us with a) human characters who aren’t recognizably Mormon and b) Mormon characters who aren’t recognizably human — and in greater and greater numbers. We can’t count on anyone other than ourselves to provide the world with characters who both human and Mormon.

This is our call.

This is out challenge.

Let’s accept it and get to work.

52 thoughts on “Theric guest post: “Mormons might well be the new Catholics!””

  1. I think is a stirring, interesting call to action.

    But I’m not entirely convinced that popular and/or elite culture is going to allow portrayals that move very far beyond the stereotypes that have been part of the Mormon presence in popular culture since the late 19th century.

    I don’t know that we need to get out into the world. Benson Parkinson calls this the missionary school of Mormon culture (vs. the Deseret school which focuses inwardly on Mormons) and argues that both are necessary. I suppose he is right. And you are too.

    But I don’t relish the idea of being coopted and consumed. Sucked dry our dessicated shells stuffed and shellacked and put in the freak show alongside Scientologists and serial killers.

    I think we need to find stronger expressions of Mormon materials that experiment with form and intensify the echoes and reverberations from Kirtland and Nauvoo; the world be damned.

  2. .

    Oh, it will be. (Or so I read.)

    And I think the only way to get the outside world to notice, is to trick them by being actually better.

  3. We aren’t going to be the new Catholics, for the simple reason that Catholics are an acceptable substitute for Christianity.

    Catholicism is the single largest Christian denomination. So if you want a Christian with an actual theology instead of vague Protestantism, then Catholic is the way to go.

    Mormons might end up being the “exotic Christian”. The Christian denomination chosen when you want a Christian with a theology, but more exotic than Catholicism.

    This is closer to the current position of Jews.

  4. .

    You could be right. But it’s worth remembering that in recent history, being a Papist in America was to be scum.

    Of course, it’s not like the world has a longstanding love relationship with Jews either….

  5. You know, whenever the question of how to get more “real” Mormon characters out in the world the only solution that seems viable to me is nonfiction. I guess in my mind fictional characters often fail because no matter how well written, they are still fiction. And because in fiction the LDS standard is markedly different from national standards. We can’t write fiction *they* are going to like. At least I can’t figure out how. But memoir, to me, seems like a much more flexible form. It seems like an author presenting his/her own story can’t be argued with as much as an author creating fiction. And, well, if you are looking for real (or even realistic) portrayals of Mormons, it seems like memoir would be the only place to find it.

  6. We can’t write fiction *they* are going to like.

    This perplexes me.

    1. Because I don’t know who *they* are, and

    2. Because I think we might be confusing what they see and refuse to read with what they don’t know exists.

    IMO, writing it might not be the problem so much as distribution. The Left Behind series, a decidedly evangelical body of work, got national distribution and attention. They weren’t limited to Zondervan’s. It took a while, but a whole lot of *they*s who weren’t evangelical bought the books and read them, so…

    It seems like an author presenting his/her own story can’t be argued with as much as an author creating fiction.

    Is the goal to actively avoid writing that which could/would be argued about? If so, then I would agree with you.

  7. .

    I’m fascinated by your argument, Laura. To be frank, I just don’t understand it at all. Perhaps it’s because I personally prefer reading fiction over memoirs (and thus, necessarily, find much more truth through fiction than through memoir), but I don’t see why TRUTH becomes more arguable when placed in a fictional context. In my mind, truth is truth and those capable of recognizing it as such will feel it no matter where or when or how it’s presented.

    Also, I hope you will explain what you mean by memoir being “more flexible”. Whereas I am living only one life, I can invent any number of lives. And any literary device that can be applied to one form can be applied to the other.

    Finally (and I hope I’m not making you feel beleaguered — I always enjoy your perspective, I just got lost this time), “in fiction the LDS standard is markedly different from national standards”? Do you mean the genre of LDS fiction as recently discussed on LDSP? Or do you mean our moral standards as members? Or are you suggesting we just have different tastes than those in the world?

    (Note: If I don’t reply to your responses immediately, please understand it’s because the holiday’s gotten in the way. Lotta driving ahead of me.)

  8. I think Laura has a good point. There are so many true stories of “real” Mormon people that have not been told. Example: Mellissa Burton Coray wife of one of the soldiers of the Mormon Battalion who traveled with him and Company B the entire 2000 miles to California and then back to Salt Lake City. Look her up. Amazing women. As far as I know that complete story has never been told. Her story would make a great movie.

    Another example: The movie “The Other Side of Heaven”, John H. Groberg’s experience as a Mormon missionary in the South Seas. A true story, a good movie and a well received crossover success.

    The list is long of great true story that could be told about Mormons.

    Mormon spacemen, super heroes and vampires are also cool, although werewolves many lack the required amount of charity to be LDS.

  9. The not so secret truth is that most Hollywood works deal in stereotypes. Minority groups like ourselves complain when we perceive them as unflattering. Although the dominant “WASP” culture gets just as stereotyped.

    So long as we don’t become the stock in trade angry yet loving police chief I’ll be happy.

    I should say that there are exceptions to the rule. Last year’s House character who was a single black Mormon father was pretty enjoyable.

  10. I should say that there are exceptions to the rule. Last year’s House character who was a single black Mormon father was pretty enjoyable.

    I LOVED that.

    Although the dominant “WASP” culture gets just as stereotyped.

    The ubiquitous blockhead dad in sitcoms drives me up a wall.

  11. “The ubiquitous blockhead dad in sitcoms drives me up a wall.”

    Amen.

    Also,

    “I think the only way to get the outside world to notice, is to trick them by being actually better.”

    Does this mean doing what they do better, or does it mean doing things they’ve never done before? Maybe both, but in my opinion, Mormon art should be original, not just improved. In other words, restored, not reformed.

  12. Backing up to the top of this conversation, I don’t think Mr. Edelstein intended his quip about Mormons as the new Catholics as either congratulatory nor even as pleasant. He seemed to be suggesting that we were stuck as a culture in a single, unvarying plot trap revolving around either deeply oppressed or violently expressed sexuality—no subtely (or adult maturity) involved.

    In other words, it seems to me that he just dismissed the entirety of Mormon cultural literature as a tiresome adolescent phase.

    I suppose accusing us obsessing over a culturally immature take on sexuality is better than the old charge of insidious mind control and bizarre ritualistic excess, but it feels like a sneer clothed in faint praise to me.

    Problem is that I’m not sure he’s entirely wrong. We have some excellent authors dealing in some of the core existential questions of what it means to me a Mormon-flavored human, but not very many. Mostly we talk about how we became Mormon (as opposed to how we became human) or how we stopped—proselyting either for or against the institution rather than exploring the human experience.

    Or we use Mormons trivially as window dressing or iconic placeholder—the same way non-Mormon authors do when they just want to deal with a type and not a person.

    Or we write morality tales to each other to demonstrate the superiority of our social / cultural / doctrinal approach.

    None of which are bad, but all of which are early stages toward a mature cultural literature. Which of course underscores the idea that Mormon literature for a general (aka mix of Mormon and non-Mormon) audience is still immature and prone to the same tiresome growing pains as other recently studied cultural lits.

    The problem with progressing to become the “new Catholics” is precisely that we can’t actually do that.

    We don’t have mainstream acceptance—as our recent U.S. presidential primary races fairly strongly illustrated. Mormons are still “them” to the vast majority of humans, and most people outside the Mormon Corridor still think of us as rare and more than a tad odd. They still use cultspeak to describe us and while they no longer look for horns, they do look for garment lines and believe that finding them somehow proves our non-fitness to be categorized as generically “us.”

    We’re still working to achieve recognition by the mainstream as human, never mind ordinary or even vaguely admirable. Every conversation still seems to end with “but would you want your daughter to *marry* one?”

    Which is fine from a social/religious standpoint, but is really hard on the sales numbers from a marketing/business standpoint. People are still looking for the expose (which the Catholics endured for several hundred years–and still do) of Mormonism and will not likely approach our self-exploratory existential tales in a trickle, not a rush.

    But to this point, the more directly relevant a character’s explicit Mormonness is to the development and progression of the story, the smaller the available audience.

    Not so Catholics or Jews. The Evangelicals just decided not to play at all and created their own publishing industry alongside the mainstream.

    I wish we were next Catholics in terms of market acceptance, but I don’t really see it. Otherwise, the critique from Mr. Edelstein is just a clever dismissal of the depth and maturity of works by popular Mormon authors, not a recognition or acceptance of our literary arrival or potential.

    In my opinion.

  13. Th. Mojo et al–I too am embroiled in holiday fun. So I may not be able to explain what I mean. Well, and it’s one of those philosophical thoughts that isn’t fully worked out in my brain yet. (Kind of like Patricia’s idea of sustainable language). Anyway. . .

    For me memoir feels more true and therefore less arguable because, well, it’s the world according to whoever. With fiction there are more layers and I think sometimes fiction authors are forced by critics and media and readers to justify their choices. Case in point: holocaust fiction versus holocaust memoir. Some holocaust fiction (especially the modern stuff) comes across as taking advantage of history–which causes some people to argue with it. Because it’s fiction readers can question the validity of the characters experiences. They can say it really wasn’t so bad or they can say people could have been more charitable. Really, they can say whatever they want because they have the excuse of fiction to fall back on. Holocaust memoir, on the other hand, can’t be argued with. When someone says he stole a piece of bread from a child’s mouth so he could survive, you can’t write him off as an despicable villain because he’s a REAL person who just lost his family and is going through a horrific experience. Maybe people could write him off but I think it happens a lot less often because,well, you can’t argue with a guy saying that this was what happened. Now, good fiction could accomplish what memoir does in this context, but it has to work a lot harder.

    When looking at LDS fiction from the perspective of getting us in the national market and getting us recognized as something more than a strange religious subculture (which I assume is part of the goal of LDS mainstream lit–and maybe it isn’t?), we need to provide something people can’t write off as a device of fiction. Conversion stories are a good example. Almost any fictional character going through a conversion experience can be deconstructed to meaninglessness. But a memoir of a convert can’t be. You can’t tell Coke Newell that he didn’t feel what he says he felt. And LDS/Mormon literature–since it is a reflection of the culture and religion–eventually comes down to what people felt. In fiction you can argue that feelings are a device of the author, but in memoir I think it’s a different ballgame. Again, maybe an exception can be made for amazingly well crafted fiction. But fiction has to work harder.

    And as for what I meant by “*they*” I mean mainstream fiction audiences. I think mainstream literary fiction (at least what I’ve read) involves a lot of people getting sexually molested, being greedy, murder, drugs, what have you. Those things are not central to the mainstream LDS experience and because of that read strangely in most LDS literature. Again I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but an LDS writer could never write what Philip Roth or Jane Smiley is writing and call it an LDS novel. Or maybe they can and I just haven’t seen it.

    I think LDS authors like to think that we could have a place in the national market because other religions have a found a way to mainstream but I think we sometimes forget that our religion is like no other and, in my mind, to be authentic, our literature can be like no other.

    Well, I am now holding a crying child who is afraid there is a mouse in her bed and I can’t think any more! But there are my thoughts–such as they are:)

  14. Oh, and Theric, where are you going to school? Truth was the first baby that got thrown out with the bathwater when I started my lit. studies. There is no such thing as inarguable truth in fiction.

  15. Laura,

    Although I see your point about truth, I’m personally with Theric on that issue. Well, actually, I’m with both of you. That’s because I don’t think you’re making mutually exclusive points – if I understand you both correctly, which I don’t take for granted.

    I agree that truth in fiction is inarguable as long as it’s part of the fiction, but I also think that real truth – existing outside the story and literary devices – can be recognized by the reader. I don’t think that truth is always intended on the part of the author, but can be woven in. Like Theric says, those who can will recognize it.

    “I think we sometimes forget that our religion is like no other and, in my mind, to be authentic, our literature can be like no other.”

    I agree, but I’m curious as to your ideas on what follows. In what ways should our literature be different? Perhaps one is its approach to truth. After all, that is one way our religion differs, isn’t it?

  16. Laura, I do now see what you’re saying when you drew the Holocaust-survivor memoir with the Holocaust-survivor fiction. Good analogy, but I think maybe not a perfect one because the Holocaust was a singular event that we LDS can’t touch for persecution.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the world who believe the Holocaust never happened at all and therefore dismiss the whole genre of Holocaust lit (memoir or fiction) with a snap of the fingers.

    And as for what I meant by “*they*” I mean mainstream fiction audiences.

    Ah, but remember, there are now 2 or 3 (or more) layers of gatekeepers between the author and the audience. Is the mainstream audience reading and rejecting what it wants to read or is it reading what the gatekeepers have decided it should read? Does it hunger for something different? If it does, how would you know?

    but an LDS writer could never write what Philip Roth or Jane Smiley is writing and call it an LDS novel.

    Having never read either of them, I couldn’t speak to that.

    But again we get into genre labels of “LDS fiction” versus “fiction with LDS characters in various stages of their LDS-ness doing various non-LDS things.” (Aside: My argument being that “LDS fiction” has already been defined by the consumer and reinforced by Deseret Book and Covenant, et al. You know, gatekeepers.)

    I’ll tell you what I read besides genre romance: Umberto Eco, Tom Wolfe, Neal Stephenson, Stephen King (I’m a recent re-convert), Ayn Rand (yes, you read that right), Sheri Tepper, Tobsha Learner, Anita Diamant… The list of eccentricity goes on.

    In any case, I was up to my eyeballs in “literary fiction” in college and had no wish to subject myself to any more, but there are many points along the axis of fiction between literary fiction and genre, between blatant preaching and presenting complex ideas and layers of detail without judgment.

    I say, put it out there and let “them” decide, whichever way they’re going to. It’s not like the technology isn’t there to do that relatively inexpensively, even if only in digital formats. Or are LDS writers, like non-LDS writers, waiting for the gatekeepers’ approval?

    Quite frankly, very few church members have dared to crack open my book, and those numbers are far outweighed by those who aren’t members, and the non-members are, thus far, are happy to have a long and complex read they felt compelled to finish and happy to have something different. In my case, I can only say that the genre romance audience has been far more accepting of my characters’ LDSness (lapsed or not) than an LDS audience would be of their lapsed-ness. (That’s not a judgment.)

    My point, really, is to write the fiction, bypass the gatekeepers, and put it out there and let “they” decide.

  17. “there are many points along the axis of fiction between literary fiction and genre”

    Exactly. Points that can be exploited, too. 🙂

  18. Mojo–I don’t know what your book is. I don’t know how to get it or even who wrote it (because you use a handle instead of your name) so I can’t even look it up on amazon. So,not to be rude, but I think the gatekeepers do serve a purpose. They help get books out there and acquaint people with them. If, as a reader, I had to pick from every book that any writer ever thought should be published, well, that’s a lot to wade through. I wouldn’t even know where to start and I would spend a lot of time reading things that are, um, unreadable. I do think that a lot of publishers are too focused on pandering to the audiences rather than stimulating them, but that’s because a lot of readers want to be pandered to. Anyway, those are my thoughts on gatekeepers. But this is sort of comment hijacking . . .

    Adam I’m not sure where my thoughts go from here. This is the first time I’ve really articulated any of this. Maybe this is a future post for me. Hmm . . .

    Oh, and Mojo had an excellent point about there being lots of points on the fiction spectrum. I know William really tries to reach out to the middle reader but it’s hard for me to define who the middle reader is and what they are reading. Most people I know who don’t read much genre fiction and don’t like lit. fiction spend a lot of time reading nonfiction.

  19. Mojo–um, okay, I finally clicked through Theric’s links (I didn’t have time on the first reading) and NOW I know the name of your book 🙂

    Sorry.

  20. .

    Once again, Adam has struck on what I mean. I believe, as a Mormon, in ultimate inarguable truth. And I believe the Light of Christ will spark when someone comes into contact with that truth. So while humanities PhDs can whittle away at truth leaving a pile of truthy sawdust on the floor, Truth still exists.

    So many excellent things have been said, I hardly know where to start (and if I was a good son, I would be setting up chairs now) so instead I will introduce a couple new ideas.

    The first is a disclaimer. When I write a post like this, no matter my tone, I’m really asking questions, not insisting I have the answers. And so I am thrilled to read comments like those from Scott and Laura above that enlarge my thinking.

    Second, we are at a stage in our religious history where we are supposed to be in the world. Someday Zion will be forced to separate from Babylon, but I think that day is a looong way off. In the meantime, I feel we as artists have an obligation to present our face to the world, even if we are rejected and mocked etc.

    Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

    Lastly, thank you Laura for expanding your ideas. I understand your reasons much better now and can agree with you. Mostly. I think it likely will vary greatly from reader to reader, but, for instance, I hated Everything’s Illuminated in part for the reasons you share and I fell On the Road to Heaven may have only been hurt by the ‘novel’ label. So I guess I’m halfway on your side.

  21. Laura said, “And as for what I meant by “*they*” I mean mainstream fiction audiences. I think mainstream literary fiction (at least what I’ve read) involves a lot of people getting sexually molested, being greedy, murder, drugs, what have you. Those things are not central to the mainstream LDS experience and because of that read strangely in most LDS literature.”

    First, the disclaimer: I’m a lurker here and not entirely certain of my welcome in the conversation. But if you want an opinion from someone who feels like an outsider, here’s mine.

    I think Laura perfectly displays the problem in the above statement. If I may paraphrase, Laura says here that “they” are people for whom “(sexual molestation), (greediness), murder, drugs and what have you” are “central” to their cultural experience.

    First, most of the issues aren’t “central” to any culture, so “they” don’t exist. Those types of issues are the dark underbelly that hides in the fringe of all cultures, and literary fiction exists (at least partly) to expose those dark underbellies.

    Second, do you really believe molestation, greediness, etc. happen less often in the LDS culture? I had four roommates in college, all of them life members from good, active families. Three of the four had been sexually molested. I know it’s too small a sample size to be anything but anecdotal evidence, but I believe the research backs up my experience. I’d mention the specific example I know of murder too, but frankly, I’m afraid to.

    The dark underbelly exists in the church culture. In fact, I suspect it thrives, directly due to the fingers-in-ears attitude members have. Until we’re willing to face our dark side — and I reiterate that literary fiction is one traditional way to do so — it’s going to continue to thrive.

    So we can continue to insist that our literature maintain “church standards” (whatever those are), hence stay in our pretty world where things like sexual molestation never happen — or we can educate ourselves about the dark side of human nature, even if it’s painful, and go about doing Christ’s real work.

  22. The dark underbelly exists in the church culture. In fact, I suspect it thrives, directly due to the fingers-in-ears attitude members have. Until we’re willing to face our dark side — and I reiterate that literary fiction is one traditional way to do so — it’s going to continue to thrive.

    So we can continue to insist that our literature maintain “church standards” (whatever those are), hence stay in our pretty world where things like sexual molestation never happen — or we can educate ourselves about the dark side of human nature, even if it’s painful, and go about doing Christ’s real work.

    Amen.

  23. Oh, and Mojo had an excellent point about there being lots of points on the fiction spectrum.

    Laura, actually, I deliberately didn’t use the word “spectrum” and was very careful to use the word “axis.” X, Y; positive, negative. But that’s a minor point in the scheme of things.

    Mojo”“I don’t know what your book is. I don’t know how to get it or even who wrote it (because you use a handle instead of your name) so I can’t even look it up on amazon.

    Well, you could have clicked on my moniker at any time and it would have taken you straight to my blog, but no harm, no foul.

    And actually, I thought I’d been too vocal about it already, but for the record:

    My (pen)name is Moriah Jovan and my book is THE PROVISO and you can buy it (in trade paperback and digital editions) at my bookstore, Amazon, B&N, Books-a-Million, Powell’s, and soon, the iTunes store as an iApp).

    But I don’t feel I have written LDS fiction or Mormon fiction or anything but romance (genre) fiction with LDS characters on various points along their plane of existence carrying varying loads of hardship they either experienced or brought upon themselves. And they are HARSH in their judgment of each other.

    All I can go by is that perhaps, just perhaps, there is a spot for me on the fringes of Mormon literature that will give courage to a couple of other upstarts who come behind me to write LDS characters from an LDS sensibility who aren’t, as Katrina put it, “…stay[ing] in our pretty world where things like sexual molestation never happen.”

    One of my LDS characters murdered a man. He still believes, his testimony of the gospel is unassailable, but he has a tortured soul, believing at once that he served the greater good (and knows for a fact that he saved many lives) and at the same time, that he deserves no consideration from the Lord whatsoever because it was not his place to take that man’s choices away from him, even if it did cost those lives.

    I’m not writing about the deep, dark underbelly of the church which isn’t terribly underbellied after all, as Katrina points out. I’m writing about people who struggle between light and dark, believing, always believing, but unsure as to how to get back on the path of purest truth. They are a combination of both light and dark, as are we all–and I’ve used extreme situations and over-the-top circumstances to illustrate that struggle.

    I think the gatekeepers do serve a purpose… I do think that a lot of publishers are too focused on pandering to the audiences rather than stimulating them, but that’s because a lot of readers want to be pandered to. Anyway, those are my thoughts on gatekeepers.

    A. I think you may have contradicted yourself there a bit, but no matter.

    B. Reader v gatekeeper is a chicken-n-egg question. If the gatekeepers give the readers what they think will continue to sell, that’s what the readers are stuck with. So, yeah, they’ll read it because they have no better choices. It doesn’t mean readers want to be pandered to; it means the publishers aren’t giving them anything better because they’re afraid of the risk.

  24. .

    Katrina —

    Of course I don’t speak for William, but as the author of this post, your comments are quite welcome. (And, correct me if I’m wrong, Wm, but I think the unofficial official policy of AMV is everyone polite and ontopic is welcome.)

    Your comments, in fact, put a new spin on things for me. I, like Laura, feel that the “dark underbelly” gets more than its fair share of facetime, but that has a lot to do with human nature (if bunnies pulled in bigger ad dollars, the nightly news would look a lot different).

    I can’t comment on the equivalent amount of human ugliness within Mormondom (I certainly hope this is not true, but I don’t have stats), but I will say that, using the popular literature-as-a-laboratory metaphor, throwing things like child abuse (that is, extreme situations) into the beaker is apt to have more educational results than contented sighing and handholding.

    That said, I have nothing against books without the horrors of humanity. I’m reading Moriah’s book now and what I’ve read I can vouch for (it’s a really really long book), but I don’t require Mormon characters from the Porter Rockwell school to find things of worth. My sole Mormon novel is entirely free of naked people for instance, and I don’t think that makes it a lesser book.

    In the end, I think we need all sorts of lit represented in the Mormon Arts, representing all types of Mormon humans. We need more “excellent authors dealing in some of the core existential questions of what it means to me a Mormon-flavored human,” as Scott put it. But as we get more such work, we’ll find that Mormon isn’t a single dull flavor like a Hershey’s bar, but that Mormon, like chocolate, tastes different from itself: compare 62% cocoa from Togo to 80% from Papua new Guinea. Both Mormon. Quite different from each other, n’est ce pas?

    (I love metaphors.)

  25. I don’t require Mormon characters from the Porter Rockwell school to find things of worth.

    Neither do I. But I do like to write ’em.

    My sole Mormon novel is entirely free of naked people for instance, and I don’t think that makes it a lesser book.

    Actually, I just finished that. It’s quite brilliant and NO it is not a lesser book in any way than any other piece of Mormon lit I’ve ever read and, dare I say it, is quite superior than almost every other one I’ve ever read.

  26. Thank you, Th. I failed to say, I found your article fascinating, extremely eloquent, and spot-on (which is to say, I agree completely).

    And I accept the challenge. I am currently pitching a novel to agents that includes exactly the kind of characters you mention: ordinary people who happen to have a connection to the church. My protagonist is long inactive (lesser active, whatever), but one of her visiting teachers is fairly prominent. But if a movie is made someday of my novel, it would definitely be rated R. I would never, never promote myself via Mormon channels because most members who picked it up would be appalled. It’s edgy, sassy, etc. There’s sex. There’s violence. And lots of language.

    Personally, I think the book treats the church gently — I love the church! — and the one member who’s read it agrees. But I still worry about earnest members who rarely venture outside DB confines picking it up, thinking it’s “safe” because it was written by a member, and … well, throwing it across the room would probably be the mild response.

    Mine’s a mainstream book, not even remotely LDS fiction, and left of center even in that current. But it occurred to me as I read your article, that my characters are exactly what you mention here.

    I expect, however, an enormous backlash among Mormon bloggers once they realize it was written by a member.

  27. MoJo: Thanks. I’ll be watching for the Proviso App. It sounds most intriguing.

  28. What do you mean you don’t speak for me, Th? Didn’t you get my memo about the press secretary status? Does this mean my weekly fireside chat video podcast isn’t on track?

  29. .

    Shoot. I thought we weren’t starting that till 2012. You know, when the world ends. (Or so I keep hearing.)

  30. I thought we weren’t starting that till 2012. You know, when the world ends.

    It won’t. My to-do list is longer than that.

  31. I’m a few days out on this conversation so it may be too late for me to redeem myself here. Oh well. . .

    Katrina– Welcome! Thanks for shaking up the conversation 🙂 I’m not denying the dark underbelly exists. Trust me, I’ve seen it first hand. But, um, well, in the national-market fiction that I read, especially the supposedly high-brow literary fiction almost every female is molested or raped (usually by a family member–see Philip Roth for a good example of that). Or in national genre fiction there is a lot more violence and sex than there is in everday life–member of the LDS church or not. Also, most main characters (again especially in lit. fiction) are nihilists, which certainly doesn’t jive with my life experience (which is a bit limited. I’m only 26. I’m working on it, though). And in closing, I think that while part of literature’s job is to expose the dark underbelly I would also say good literature provides catharsis for those who have actually experienced the dark underbelly. The nature of that catharsis is between the reader and the writer and can take many forms. This is one of the wonders of writing and reading; part of what make literature vital. Oh, and I can’t wait to hear more details about your book 🙂 Good luck with it!

    Mojo–thanks for giving me more details! And thanks for the no harm, no foul :)I’m a real nerd sometimes. You’ve got a great mind and I appreciate the conversation.

  32. Thank you, Laura. I really appreciate the warm welcome, and the gentleness with which you’ve responded. 🙂

    However, you missed my first point. There are very few cultures where the violence and sex of literary fiction is typical of the everyday members of the culture. Almost by definition, post modern literature features the worst parts of any culture, the fringe elements. And genre fiction includes more violence and sex than the average American faces too –that’s what makes it exciting to read.

    By denying that fact, by insisting that literary fiction does accurately represent other cultures, just not ours, you’re missing the important fact that the humans who inhabit the LDS church culture are exactly the same humans that inhabit any and all other cultures.

    And the attitude that we are different is exactly what creates the us-versus-them mentality.

    Also, I don’t know what lit fiction you’re reading, but in my experience, rape or molestation is definitely not in every book, much less experienced by every female character. In fact, a lot of what’s being written now — literature that will someday be recognized as post post-modern — is actually very quiet and sweet. I think of Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries, for instance, which won the Pulitzer and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The book is about a very ordinary woman. I read it a while back, so it’s possible there was a rape or molestation scene in it, but I don’t think so. She lived a life any member of the church might have lived.

    I’ll certainly give you the nihilism though, but I’ll point out that it’s definitely changing in mainstream fiction and even in literary fiction to a much lesser degree.

    ACK! I’m watering down my point by getting distracted. What I primarily want to say is, it’s true that the average Mormon’s life doesn’t read like a novel (literary or genre). But neither does the life of any average American. Average people just don’t make interesting stories.

  33. “There are very few cultures where the violence and sex of literary fiction is typical of the everyday members of the culture.”

    No more so true than in Japan. It makes me take seriously the proposition that narrative fiction in all its forms is a kind of safety valve that releases pressures that can’t be expressed elsewhere.

    “By denying that fact, by insisting that literary fiction does accurately represent other cultures, just not ours . . . ”

    I would add an amendment: “by insisting that mainstream news outlets accurately represent other cultures, just not ours . . . ”

    I think the Achilles’ heel of literary fiction is the insistence that it’s an accurate representation of “real life.” The saving grace of genre fiction is: “A representation of real life? What are you smoking?”

    This struck me while watching The Incredibles the other day. There’s a scene where Mrs. Incredible is piloting a jet, on the verge of being shot down by a couple of guided missiles (connection to real life: ZERO); shouts to her daughter to use her superpowers to “raise a shield” (connection to real life: ZERO); her daughter panics and can’t (connection to real life: 100 percent); and her mother says, “I know what I said before, but ignore what I said before and do what I’m saying now!” Connection to real life: 100 percent!

    There is a powerful reportorial function in fiction, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that that is it’s only or most important feature.

  34. it’s true that the average Mormon’s life doesn’t read like a novel (literary or genre). But neither does the life of any average American. Average people just don’t make interesting stories.

    Even over-the-top, extreme characters have average days. We don’t chronicle those, either, ’cause they’re…not interesting.

    Laura, did I read somewhere that you’re in grad school, specializing in literature? If so, it’s possible you’re simply drowning in the stuff lit programs like to push as examples of “good writing,” which, because of the constraints of time, may blind a student to other offerings.

  35. .

    Even over-the-top, extreme characters have average days. We don’t chronicle those, either, ’cause they’re”¦not interesting.

    I was the Joker for Halloween and I spent the whole day in character. I had student after student run away from me screaming. But you know what? It’s really hard to unlock a door as the Joker. Or try to remember which students are excused to be in the parade. Or pee. There’s a reason none of those moments made the movie’s final cut: they lessen the character’s impact. Some fictional characters (some fiction) doesn’t thrive on reality. Perhaps none does.

    ——

    I can’t comment on Laura’s assertions and Katrina’s disagreements; I read a lot and broadly, but I find sexual abuse a difficult topic and tend to shy away, so when I do read it, it doesn’t feel normal to me.

    And, for the record, I despise the term postpostmodern. I won’t hold it against anyone, but I hate its implication that “modern” was a hundred years ago and all we can do is look backwards. Makes me wonder if stagnation isn’t just a problem in narrow markets such as ours, but is more widespread.

    (Note: the word “stagnation” intended as a matter of common perception and not necessarily as an absolute truth)

  36. LOL, Th. I agree completely about “post post-modernism” (though by your arguments, “modernism” and “post-modernism” are just as bad).

    Unfortunately, nobody’s come up with a name yet for whatever follows. At least, not that I know of.

    In my own mind, I call it Forwardism. Here’s my argument:

    pre-Modernism literature, for the most part, assumed a faith in God and religion (with some exceptions, but even the Naturalists worshiped Nature, though they probably wouldn’t have used that word).

    Modernism is literature that reflected a loss of belief in religion and an unswerving faith in Science.

    Post-Modernism reflected a loss of belief in Science but with no replacement belief in anything really. That’s one of the reasons it’s so dark. There’s little hope, little purpose to the post-modern thinker. I always think of John Barth as the quintessential Post-Modern thinker. *shudder*

    Forwardism reflects the decision move forward, to choose a belief system, with no certainty. Forwardists have chosen to believe there’s a reason to exist, despite evidence to the contrary. They’ve chosen to be optimistic and follow a code of ethics, not because Religion or Science demands it but because the individual finds value in a life well-lived, regardless of ephemeral eternal reward.

    Understand, this is nobody’s thinking but mine. It reflects changes I’ve noticed in literature, and I certainly haven’t read it all. I also suspect 9-11 has had an influence that might turn the whole tide of literature somewhere completely different from where it seemed to be going.

    But by coining my own little word, I avoid the phrase “post post-modern.” Of course, no one but me understands it.

  37. .

    I like your definitions and I wonder how someone more knowledgeable than myself (eg, Wm) would apply it to our most-used Mormon lit structuring as proposed by Cracroft et al.

  38. Katrina–Sorry I missed your point. I wish I was in grad school! I’m not. I’m a regular old stay at home Mormon mommy with three kids. . .

  39. Sorry for chiming in here late. The Thanksgiving thing, and trying to write rather than writing about writing. But I’m frustrated with the latter, and so…

    Several various points, which I’ll respond to now before reading everyone’s comments. Maybe part 2 to come later.

    I think the difference Laura is getting at in memoir versus fiction is the difference between realism and reality. Fiction must conform to realism. Nonfiction must comform to reality. That allows more freedom to be particular (as opposed to typical) in nonfiction–sometimes. (Keep in mind, though, that Coke Newell’s memoir was rejected by national publishers precisely on the grounds that it was a Mormon conversion story, and therefore–int the publishers’ views–inherently uninteresting to a national audience. At least, as I interpret Newell’s comments that were forwarded to AML-List.)

    As regards Laura’s comment: “sometimes forget that our religion is like no other and, in my mind, to be authentic, our literature can be like no other”–well, maybe. On the other hand, maybe authenticity consists in doing all the same (worthwhile) things that other literature does–but doing them in a way that reflects the greater light and knowledge we have. Like the law of consecration: living it (internally, as opposed to socially) involves a life that consists of pretty much all the same elements as a non-consecrated life (work, housekeeping, child care, etc.), but within a more complete context.

    This relates to a debate we had on AML-List years ago about whether there should be a distinctively Mormon culture, or if Mormonism instead should be like a fire that burns within us as we partake in whatever our culture happens to be. (Note that this was a debate about what should be, not what is.) I tend to come down on the side of the latter option. The same with LDS criticism: I don’t think that we need a distinctively LDS form of literary criticism, only LDS critics who practice well within their chosen approaches, in a way that (to them) adheres to gospel principles. And a criticism that, whatever its approach, takes Mormon art seriously.

    So when it comes down to it, I don’t think we need a distinctively LDS culture, poetics, or criticism. Rather, what we need is consecrated individuals who will bring Mormonism into whatever culture, poetics, and criticism they find cause and occasion to embrace. In a way, I see this as the equivalent of the Church’s counsel to build Zion where we are, rather than moving to a single physical gathering place.

  40. If, in fact, Mormonism “is like no other” (and I believe a strong argument can be made that in the realm of Christianity it is–though this argument is being eaten away mostly from within), then for its symbolic art to be truly “realistic,” it must push even further away from “reality.” This is exactly what C.S. Lewis did with Narnia and The Space Trilogy and Screwtape and The Great Divorce. We can be proud of ourselves for getting our feet wet, but we’re still splashing around in the shallow end of the pool.

  41. Scott wrote: “We have some excellent authors dealing in some of the core existential questions of what it means to me a Mormon-flavored human, but not very many.”

    While I think that’s true in the way that Scott meant it, still I have to wonder…

    What about, say, the much-maligned genre of LDS romances? Are they not in some sense dealing with the question of “what it means to be a Mormon-flavored human”? Of course, the “existential” part may be somewhat lacking, if by “existential” we mean not simply existence but some kind of depth to considering what it means to be Mormon.

    And yet… Don’t we have LDS romances largely because of the sense of difference that Mormons feel–the sense that what they have to deal with, between LDS standards and commitments and the desire to marry within the Church, sets us apart from other groups in that very fundamental question of who we get to spend our life with?

    I think that for many LDS youth, the core existential problem of being Mormon is loneliness–often including a loneliness within their own Sunday School classes and Aaronic Priesthood quorums and Young Women’s classes, for those who choose to take LDS standards seriously.

    I’m not sure exactly how this relates to the larger questions Scott raises. Looking at the quote from Edelstein, it looked to me like what he was saying was that Mormons are good at writing things about twisted sexuality because we’re so repressed in our personal lives and in our culture.

    LDS romances, I suspect, exist precisely because the romantic standards and problems faced by LDS youth come across as strange, immature, and/or silly to the non-LDS world around them.

    One of the problems with any kind of ethically driven literature is that if the reader isn’t sympathetic to the ethos that helps to create the protagonist’s dilemma, then it’s very hard to relate to the protagonist’s story. To choose an example not at all at random: I expect that members of the gay community will find the story I’m currently writing (about a same-sex attracted boy who chooses to stay in the Church rather than pursue an alternative lifestyle) immensely frustrating, since in their view my protagonist is choosing a life of unnecessary misery. That’s a story I don’t expect has much if any potential in a national market, for that very reason–particularly since I’m not writing it as a tragedy.

  42. MoJo asked:

    “Who gets to decide who is consecrated and who is not?”

    I’d say that we’re consecrated when we’re internally dedicated to bringing about God’s purposes, whatever they may be. I think the only people who can possibly have a relevant opinion on that are ourselves and God.

  43. .

    Very true, Jonathan. Speculating on others’ levels of consecration does no good, only bad.

    I do like your consecration metaphor — the idea of being like but more is, I think, very much to heart of being Mormon. And, yes, sometimes we are alone in that striving for more, even among Saints. Especially as teenagers where we’re prone to feeling exceptional anyway.

    Your arguments re: why LDS romance exists and the likely national response to your pending book are sound, but I cannot fully agree with them either. Good fiction brings us into temporary alignment with people we cannot usually understand. The reason I find Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie to be the most frightening book I’ve ever read is because I felt I truly understood what it was like to be a serial killer. If we can do it for Jeffrey Dahmer, can’t we do it for Brother Smith?

    I think it’s something of a copout to say it can’t be done and we shouldn’t try. I grant you that selling your book (to a publisher and then to readers) might be crazy difficult. But a book that’s sufficiently excellent will instruct readers in What It Is to Be Mormon for the time they read. It can potentially be a hit too. A good book of any foreignness can (can) sell well or be beloved if it is truly excellent.

    I’ve never been Japanese. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
    I’ve never been a slave. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
    I’ve never been an Indian immigrant. Interpreter of Maladies
    I’ve never been in my seventies.Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
    I’ve never been an evangelical Christian teen. Blankets

  44. Theric,

    I hope you’re right. Indeed, I believe that you’re right, to some extent at least.

    I’ll agree with you that it’s a copout to say that it can’t be done and we should’t try. I don’t think it’s a copout, though, for an individual writer to decide that the story he/she wants to tell is a story for his/her own people. Plenty of room for both.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment. I was starting to worry that I might have managed to simply stop the conversation on this thread with my long posts…

  45. .

    I don’t think it’s a copout, though, for an individual writer to decide that the story he/she wants to tell is a story for his/her own people.

    I agree. I’m worried mostly about myself. These days I often think of my Mormon-themed work in terms of giving it to, say, Irreantum or Dialogue. The question is why? Is it because I think my odds might be better or because Mormons are really the audience I intended for this work?

    Of course, as long as that stuff isn’t the stuff I’m actually finishing, the question is wholly academic.

  46. .

    I was just skimming through these comments again and came across this from Jonathan:

    So when it comes down to it, I don’t think we need a distinctively LDS culture, poetics, or criticism. Rather, what we need is consecrated individuals who will bring Mormonism into whatever culture, poetics, and criticism they find cause and occasion to embrace. In a way, I see this as the equivalent of the Church’s counsel to build Zion where we are, rather than moving to a single physical gathering place.

    As I reflect, I realize that this is precisely how I feel about it. There are times in the week when I am sequestered with the Saints and I can certainly write for that audience, but most of the time I am in the world, presumably building Zion where I stand. And so if most of my work is projected into that gentile wilderness, is that not just? Is that not appropriate? Is that not precisely what I ought to be doing?

    It reminds me of Elder Ballard’s recent advice: get your words out before the world.

    Comes back to the old placing-your-candle-under-a-bushel metaphor.

    Let me be clear: I do NOT denigrate those who write for an LDS audience only, but as a people, our responsibilities are greater than that.

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