The essential Mormon short story collections

Laura’s excellent post on Benediction got me thinking about Mormon-themed short story collections. Specifically, the relative paucity thereof, but also the fact that even with the few that have been published there are several that I consider the essential starting points (rather than novels) for anyone seeking to understand (or produce work in) the field of Mormon literature.

By essential I don’t mean the most literary or the most Mormon or the most well-known or even the most influential. Rather I mean that if they were to disappear, they would leave the most gaping holes in the field.

Here, then, are my nominations for the essential Mormon-themed short story collections*.

Under the Cottonwoods and Other Mormon Stories by Douglas H. Thayer for outlining the basics of Mormon literary realism and exploring the after-effects of the pioneer era on mid-20th century Mormons.

Nothing very important, and other stories by Bela Petsco for dealing frankly and poetically with the male Mormon mission experience.

Benediction, a Book of Stories by Neal Chandler for mixing biting humor and (actually laugh out loud funny) satire with a keen portrait of post-assimilation, post-Reagan, late 20th century Utah Mormonism.

Long After Dark by Todd Robert Petersen for broadening the palette of Mormon literary realism (and specifically by making it more international) and for writing a novella that keenly explores the dangers, realities and weirdness of Mormons relationship to story.

Readers well-versed in the field will notice several omissions. Feel free to point out the error of my ways in the comments (Breeding Leah and Other Stories is certainly one major omission). And to be sure there are some works missing in my own reading that could change my opinion above. For example, I haven’t yet read Mary Clyde’s Survival Rates. And collections by Darrell Spencer and Levi Petersen are missing (I did seriously consider Canyons of Grace but ranked it below the above four even though I think that as a literary achievement it equals or even surpasses those I selected). And I definitely see a major need for a place for a collection of stories that better represent the experience of Mormon women.

And, of course, the major elephants in the room are the short story anthologies — each with a slightly different ideological slant — that were published in the ’90s: Turning Hearts: Short Stories on Family Life, In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon FictionsBright Angels and Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories and Washed By a Wave of Wind: Science Fiction From the Corridor (speculative fiction). They are very much worth reading, but they are not essential. In fact, before you read those, it’d probably be more interesting and enjoyable to read the short stories published in Dialogue, Irreantum and Sunstone. You’ll get a better range of voices, styles, themes, settings and approaches that way.

Which leads me to the following thought:

There are quite a few excellent yet somewhat forgotten short stories available for free online in the archives of Dialogue and Sunstone (although sadly not Irreantum) and in various and sundry other corners of the Internet. What do you, dear readers and co-bloggers, think of doing a Short Story Friday series where I post a link to a short story that one of you had dug out of the archives or the near or far recesses of the Web, and we read it, and those who are so inclined can comment on it? And we’ll run it until we get sick of it.

I have some thoughts about how we could handle this with the minimum of work and fuss for all of us. And if we do it, I’ll have a list of all the places to check. If you are up for it, speak out in the comments section below (and if you already have a story in mind, call dibs on it) or e-mail me at (my first name)@motleyvision.org.

One of the things that sometimes frustrates me about the discussion of Mormon art is that it too often bats about the same quotes, themes, tropes, canards, problems and speculations without any real engagements with texts and works. There is real work being done and a substantial body of work that has already been accomplished (and can be found for free). What say we dig in to it?

* Disclosure: please note that the links to specific works in this post do go to Amazon.com and if you end up purchasing the title, a portion of the sale (four percent, to be exact) will go to support AMV’s hosting costs. Which considering that most of these titles are used and don’t cost much, won’t be a whole lot so if you want to round out your shopping cart with other purchases during the same session, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all.

20 thoughts on “The essential Mormon short story collections”

  1. I very much like the idea of a Short Story Friday.

    Here’s a thought…

    In my view, the AML review archive represents a valuable resource in Mormon letters as a single centralized, permanent repository of opinions about works of Mormon literature. Is there some way that our discussions of specific works could wind up being archived there? Possibly as a single-file roundtable discussion, or something like that?

  2. Jonathan:

    I don’t know — we could ask.

    One issue with the AML review archive is that it’s using old school technology. There’s no RSS feed for reviews, no tagging, no metadata that you can search by. Of course, the work of creating archives by author, reviewer, title and publisher has been done. I don’t want to underestimate that at all. It’s very useful and I would guess rather underutilized.

    But I don’t know that creating more work (since it’s all done by hand [although the indexing may be semi-automated]) for Kathleen is the best approach.

    One thing we could definitely do though is see if the Mormon Literature database folks would take the data we collect and add it to the database or update existent records with links to the stories.

  3. William,

    If that’s the best way to go, then I approve wholeheartedly. Could links to the AML reviews also be added to the Mormon Literature database?

    My main point is that (as you pointed out) our lack of a collective memory appears to be one of the greatest problems facing Mormon literature today. Finding some way to bind together what has been done into one great and easily searchable/locatable whole would seem an inestimable service.

  4. I would strongly disagree with your remark that Bright Angels and Familiars is worth reading, but not essential. I think it’s one of the most important anthologies of Mormon short fiction. Of course it doesn’t have everything, but shows the breadth of the Mormon short form from Virginia Sorenson to Walter Kirn.

    But clearly there needs to be more anthologies to collect the great untapped resources of Sunstone, Dialogue, Irreantum, etc… Would it be possible to have a “Best of” series every couple years? Possibly. And, would there be a buying audience for such a series? Probably not, or very little unfortunately. In lieu of that, I think a short story Friday is a great idea.

    I really don’t know what the best single author collections are, but you mentioned a few of my absolute favs: Benediction, Canyons of Grace, and Breeding Leah.

    Some other favs worth checking out are: My Hard Bargain by Walter Kirn, Peterson’s Greening Wheat and Night Soil, and pretty much any short story by Margaret Young.

  5. .

    1. I think a SSF is a great idea — although I wonder if the typical tapering off of commenting over the weekend may kill it. Another possibility of course is that it may provide some life to the weekend.

    2. Survival Rates is good and I would recommend it without real reservation, but Long After Dark is incredible. Read it now. All of you. Go.

    3. Hey! I just happen to be working on some short story collections for publication! How apropos! (So be aware of pending self-promotion subtly stuck into shortstory-related conversations. Just sayin’.)

    4. Are there some fine repositories of LDS shortstories online I could examine now?

  6. .

    Disclosure: please note that the links to specific works in this post do go to Amazon.com and if you end up purchasing the title, a portion of the sale (four percent, to be exact) will go to support AMV’s hosting costs. Which considering that most of these titles are used and don’t cost much, won’t be a whole lot so if you want to round out your shopping cart with other purchases during the same session, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all.

    WM—

    I’m pretty sure this isn’t true unless you reformat the links to use your special AMV/amazon code.

  7. Hmm. I use the WP Amazon Reloaded plug-in to generate the links, which is supposed to automatically create such links.

  8. Oh, sorry. I misunderstood, Theric. No, not if commenters make links. But it makes it easy to make links in posts.

    —-

    Good to hear it Ann. I’ll post the plan early next week.

  9. The Mormon Literature database does have links to the AML review database. It also has links to online text of stories from the New Era but not other sources. We do like to link to online texts where possible. Part of the problem is manpower. I’m sure Gideon Burton would welcome volunteers; it is done through a Web interface so you don’t have to be on campus.

  10. I’ve been up to my elbows in Mormon short stories lately because I’m working on an anthology for Zarahemla focusing on stories published in magazines or collections since 2000. It should come out this year. I’ve finally culled my list to 25 stories–25 excellent stories–and I think the anthology will be an important addition to Mormon letters. I often wonder if the short story form is a more mature genre in Mormon letters than the novel, and after all my reading I’m inclined to say yes.

    And I disagree, too, with your estimation of Bright Angels. A very important anthology. And I just recently discovered and read Mary Clyde’s _Survival Rates_ and it’s excellent, as is Darrell Spencer’s _Caution: Men in Trees_. _The House of James_ by Lewis Horne is great, too.

  11. Oh, I agree that Bright Angels is very important. But I could live without it.

    I’m very excited about the Zarahemla anthology, and I also agree that the short story form is a more mature genre in Mormon letters. It kind of has to be because there are so few literary novels that get published.

  12. Perhaps I’m biased — Bright Angels and Familiars had a powerfully strong influence on me at the start of my writing career — but even so I would argue that Bright Angels should be part of an “Essentials” canon for being the first serious Mormon anthology to look past the BYU academia/Lost Generation axis and include genre fiction (Shayne Bell’s and Scott Card’s sf contributions).

    To take Angela’s above observation further, the short story form may _be_ the natural Mormon letters genre. The SF field is one of the very few that still has a viable short story market, so it’s not too surprising that excellent work has been done there by Mormon writers. I’d rank Shayne Bell at the top (Card’s more a novelist), but Dave Wolverton, Virginia Baker, and Susan Kroupa are all very skilled in the short form.

    Acknowledgement of this development in Mormon Letters is, I think, “essential.”

    With all due respect to William’s list (I love Doug Thayer’s work, btw, and can easily see why William chose the others on his list), none of those titles look too far afield past the halls of the Jesse Knight Annex. 🙂

    — Lee

  13. Okay. Unreliable anecdote based on flawed personal memory here…

    I’m pretty sure that I’m the one responsible for Shayne Bell being in Bright Angels and Familiars. And I may be the one responsible for the specific Card short story that’s in the anthology (“The Fringe”).

    I don’t remember the accompanying circumstances very well. My best reconstruction is that it was some kind of casual conversation with Eugene England (possibly a chance meeting in the BYU Bookstore on a trip back to Utah from graduate school in California?) where he told me about the anthology of Mormon short stories that he was editing. I believe that I asked him if he was including any sf&f stories (making some of the same points as Lee Allred about this being an important area where there actually *is* a vibrant short story market, and one where Mormons have been successful). He said no and asked me for recommendations, and I mentioned Shayne’s work, which I’m pretty sure he didn’t know about. He asked me to get some samples, and so I went to the BYU library, found a couple of Shayne’s recent publications in some of the sf&f magazines, and photocopied them for him.

    One of them was “Dry Niger” (the story that wound up being included). I remember this because I had thought I was just giving a sample of Shayne’s work, not making specific recommendations for a story to include in the anthology, and so was surprised when Eugene told me he was including that one. (I’d expected that he’d want something with a more specifically Mormon twist.)

    This must have been about the time he was finalizing the anthology lineup, because I remember that I had to get stuff to him right away if it was going to be considered for inclusion in the anthology.

    I’m pretty sure that I also suggested Scott Card in this same conversation, though it may be that Eugene was already planning to include a short story by him. I do have a vague memory of possibly telling Eugene about Scott Card’s _Folk of the Fringe_ stories as being a set of stories that included a more explicitly Mormon link than his previous short stories, and Eugene not knowing about that previously. But I may be misremembering this part of it.

  14. Cool anecdote. The consensus seems to be that Bright Angels is the best Mormon short story anthology. I agree. But I’d trade it for the four I listed.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the one Angela is working on will compare to the spate of anthologies from the ’90s. And it’d be awesome if we could have a Mormon-themed short story anthology every five years (at the very least).

  15. William wrote: “I definitely see a major need for a place for a collection of stories that better represent the experience of Mormon women.”

    Try Windows on the Sea, by Linda Sillitoe, and Back Before the World Turned Nasty by Pauline Mortensen, both from Signature, which also reissued Virginia Sorensen’s Where Nothing is Long Ago.

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