Benson Parkinson, founder of the AML-List and co-founder of Irreantum, was kind enough to send me a copy of his essay “Three Kinds of Appropriateness” for posting here at AMV. It used to be posted on the Association for Mormon Letters website, but it got lost in the shuffle a while back. It hopefully will be back up on the AML website soon, but since I refer to it often and will be referring to it again in the future, I’m thankful Ben has given me permission to post it here. It originally ran on the AML-List in January 1997 (and sadly those early days of the List, which featured several excellent essays/columns are no longer archived online).
LITERARY COMBINE: Three Kinds of Appropriateness
Morality is a mark of Mormon literature. It probably wouldn’t have to be that way, but even the most fringe Mormon offerings generally get around to taking a moral stand. People say that everyone has a different idea of appropriateness, a different degree of tolerance for sex, violence, bad language, and depictions of sinful behavior. I find that, when it comes to appropriateness, Mormon literature tends to be of just three kinds.
The first kind is “completely appropriate.” Some of these books duplicate national genre fiction but tone the sex, violence, and swearing down to pre-1970s television levels. Robert Marcum is a recent example. Others focus more deeply on Mormon characters and issues, as in Anita Stansfield or Gerald Lund. The underlying impulse in this kind of literature is community. It’s perfectly willing to look evil in the face and includes portrayals of all manner of sinful behavior, though never graphically or in a way that readers would find tempting. Primary characters behave and think as they ought to and fret over even minor failings. That’s because its readers identify strongly, and want to believe that the characters’ good-heartedness and obedience will bring them through. When a character strays, it can be as stressful to these readers as if a friend had done so. Too much of that would overwhelm a novel, though you need a little to make it interesting.
The second kind of LDS literature is “broadly appropriate.” Douglas Thayer’s _Under the Cottonwoods_ is an example of realistic fiction in this category. An example of speculative fiction is the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card. The underlying impulse in these books is to make the world intelligible. You might see some sex or violence or bad language if there’s literary justification, though less than in comparable works from regional and national publishers. This kind is willing to show evil as attractive in order to make understood its sway. Characters are portrayed in all their variety. They think all manner of thoughts and fret precious little about their failings because they’re not aware of most of them. Its readers identify with characters less strongly but study them more intently. Often the point of a book is to learn compassion by coming to grips with the complexity of a character’s situation. Often the emphasis is on agency–focusing on a sin or flaw in order to follow it through to its logical conclusion.
The third kind is “shockingly appropriate.” Brian Evenson and Levi Peterson are two prominent practitioners. The basic impulse here is to make a point and drive it home. Violence, sexuality, profanity, and every manner of evil may abound. Characters may wallow in degradation, or may revel in perversion, and the book may celebrate either or both. These books violate every convention, every expectation, in order to set up the reader for the big punch, and it always comes. Humans of every description have innate value. Good can prevail. God’s grace is sufficient. Values like these transcend all the little ones the book’s been flaunting.
Books say things their characters don’t, and visa versa. Neither book nor characters in “completely appropriate” literature says inappropriate things. Fans of the other kinds, when they say “completely appropriate,” might mean it a shade sarcastically, but it’s a badge this kind wears with pride. After all, can one be “too good”? The characters in “broadly appropriate” literature say inappropriate things, but the book never does. Fans of the other kinds find it either too “broad” or too “appropriate,” as the case may be, but this kind doesn’t apologize for finding truth abroad, or for serving the cause at home. With “shockingly appropriate” literature, both book and characters say inappropriate things all the time, except for the thing that finally matters. If fans of the other kinds are disturbed, this kind thinks they need a little disturbing.
When the Church publishes fiction or produces plays, it tends to be of the “completely appropriate” kind. My theory is that the Church generally doesn’t condemn the others (if it ever thinks about them), but that some sensitive members take offense so easily that the Church has decided not to support those kinds directly. That carries from Deseret Book to independent LDS publishers, including Bookcraft and Covenant.
When regional or national publishers, universities, or arts organizations publish or promote Mormon literature, it tends to be the “shockingly appropriate” kind. The publishers can’t afford to push too hard against their secular readers’ prejudices. At universities, church-state and multi-cultural considerations produce the same result. The Utah Arts Council, though it serves a heavily Mormon region, will honor any kind of art except Mormon. Signature Books is an independent LDS publisher that prints this kind of literature–one mark of Signature’s unwavering liberal stance is how rarely it publishes the others.
“Broadly appropriate” literature is lacking in market and institutional support. On the market side, Aspen publishes a few titles when it can afford to. Hatrack does, but within a very tight niche only. BYU is the logical institutional sponsor, yet for years BYU has vacillated between welcoming “shockingly appropriate” LDS literature and throwing it out the door. BYU is between a rock and a hard place. It must serve the needs of its sponsoring institution as defined by its board of trustees. But it also has to excel in academia, to find things it can do better than other universities. BYU can only go so far with “completely appropriate” literature because of its narrow emotional range. But given its situation, it will never be a leader in “shockingly appropriate” literature and should quit trying. The university should embrace “broadly appropriate” LDS literature and support it through publications, contests, and all the ways a university can. That’s the type that can thrive in that tight spot, because its goals are the same–to scour the earth for all that’s good and shore up faith at home.