Short Story Friday: Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! by Eugene England

For today a departure from our normal reading — a piece of criticism rather than a short story. Read it and then go back and read one or two or three of the Short Story Friday stories you haven’t read yet.

Title: Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction

Author: Eugene England

Publication Info: Fall 1999 — Dialogue, Volume 32, Number 3

Submitted by: William Morris

Why?: 1. Because it’s the most significant piece of Mormon criticism published so far that focuses on short stories. 2. Because I think it gets at what I mean by the radical middle (but not entirely) 3. Because it has an hilarious title. 4. Because it’s criticism that actually dares to not only examine ethics but use specific examples! 5. Because it’s Eugene England.

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11 thoughts on “Short Story Friday: Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! by Eugene England”

  1. .

    Man. Another one I want to read but too long for my Friday. I swear I’ll be getting to both of these eventually. I’m glad conversations never die on the web.

  2. Very nice. I would welcome more opportunities to read essays like this.

    I think the best thing is England’s willingness to hold accountable those on both sides of the ideological divide, while yet holding to a viewpoint that is deeply and committedly Mormon. It also makes me wonder (and fear) what his opinion would be of my own book. Which, I suppose, is no bad thing…

  3. The silver lining of sitting up with a feverish baby was the chance to read this in the quiet of the night.

    So very insightful–I was particularly moved by the passage about good ethical fiction allowing its characters to have agency. Thanks, Wm.

  4. I’m glad ya’ll are enjoying it. This was one of the foundational pieces of Mormon criticism that convinced such a thing was both possible and needed. It occurred to me this week that Short Story Friday should include criticism as well (not that there’s a whole lot of it available).

  5. Wow, Wm. Fortuitous timing (since I know you’re working on my life’s schedule and all): I finished Bright Angels and Familiars yesterday just minutes before I got online and saw you’d posted this for SSF (which you posted just minutes before I got online). Either that or my life is one big coincidence and I spend way too much time online…

    One of my favorite lines from this (which is one of my favorite England essays) comes on page 16:

    [Before compiling Bright Angels], I had long been convinced[…] that any literature that is worth much of our attention is ethical–that it is intended to persuade us to understand better the values we do or might live by and thus to choose better, to be more humane, sympathetic, compassionate, at least more courageous, more able to endure.

    This capture for me the essence of England’s life and work, in which he attempted to live as he taught by working through his stories (or, more specifically, through his narratives about narrative)—as he says of the stories he chose for the anthology—“to express, reveal, develop, and challenge the shape of Mormon beliefs.” It shows Mormon criticism at its best, I think, as a critic of personal integrity and moral courage strives to hold himself and his community responsible for living/acting according to the aesthetic(?), ethical, and moral demands placed upon them through their covenant relationship with God and their (supposed) commitment to their craft.

    And it provides a great model for up-and-coming Mormon literary scholars (like myself) to follow (though it also shows I’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill!), especially because of how much it reveals about England’s moral commitment to literature, to Mormonism, and to God; how it balances personal insight with specific examples of what he’s talking about; and how it makes ethical demands of its readers—the same ethical demands he talks about as marks of Mormonism as well as of good literature.

    Thanks for the critical break, a good reminder of what we should, I think, be doing here.

  6. I read this article right around the time I posted my review of In Our Lovely Deseret — one of the two collections that England slams in his essay.

    In a nutshell, England published his own anthology of LDS-interest short stories around the same time as two others were published. In the article, England states what was his goal for his collection, and then proceeds to trash the other two for failing to meet his chosen goal. That the other two collections lived up to their editors’ goals is irrelevant to him. He shows LDS-interest lit branching out and breaking new ground, but rather than celebrating the range of creative endeavor within Mormon culture, he encourages us to fear this “danger”.

    My opinion of E. England was more-or-less neutral before reading this piece, but reading this caused me to lose all respect for him. What kind of person writes a book review praising his own book while panning two others for not being like his??

  7. chanson:

    Two things:

    1) I agree with Wm.’s brief assessment in that a critic is justified in promoting and defending their own work, not only because they have a vested economic interest in that work (however nominally extending its rhetorical reach may contribute to their livelihood), but moreso because they have a vested intellectual and emotional interest in the work. They have every right to be proud of and to tout (to a reasonable degree) that investment and shouldn’t be expected to hide it under a bushel, especially when it clearly represents and defends the principle in question. For instance, is Levi Peterson’s argument suspect when he uses examples from his own fiction to illuminate his critical defense of a Mormon erotica? I’m not convinced it is; in fact, it may well serve to bolster his rhetorical stance because it shows how he has engaged the principle at hand (in Peterson’s case, human sexuality) in multiple rhetorical forms and forums.

    I think the same rhetorical principle (not of sexuality, but of pointing to one’s own work) applies here: in England’s essay he merely points to work he’d done previously in compiling and introducing a group of short stories (none of which were his, by the way) and referring to that earlier effort—specifically to his introduction where he briefly discusses the history of the Mormon short story and the ethics of storytelling— an effort that provides a kind of critical foundation on which he can build his present argument about the ethics of recent Mormon fiction.

    And that leads to 2): In this essay, as in his introduction to Bright Familiars, England isn’t merely laying out or defending his editorial standards for the anthology, though that is one thing he’s doing (and justifiably so: as a reader, it’s nice to know the reasons behind an editor’s decisions). Beyond that, he’s positioning his critical efforts and the anthology in the broader field of Mormon letters (in terms of both criticism and fiction). And that’s a reasonable effort for any scholar, especially one invested as England was in expanding and deepening the cultural work of his community. As such, this essay (as I read it) should be viewed as part of England’s critical project, as part of his moral engagement with Mormon theology, culture, and letters–as a (not the) rhetorical culmination of his previous professional and personal efforts to “express, reveal, develop, and challenge the shape of Mormon beliefs” and the progress of Mormon literature and culture.

  8. Well said, Tyler. Of course, this is not to say that England’s work can’t or shouldn’t be challenged. There is also a danger in dubbing him Saint Eugene (not that anyone here is doing that) and glossing over his work with either a knee-jerk critical or hagiographic eye.

    I take him on a bit myself when I (somewhat indirectly) point out in my essay Slowly Flowering how his conception of the four periods of Mormon literary history serve the period he championed and participated in.

  9. I agree, Wm. As much as I respect England’s work, there are certain things that I can’t quite get on board with. I also can’t deny, however, the impact he’s had on the development of Mormon letters. And I think that confronting his work from as many perspectives as possible (thank you chanson for your thoughts), is one way of building on the foundation he and his generation have laid down and of thereby furthering and expanding the work of Mormon literature and criticism.

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