The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Middle

The middle is an appealing place to be albeit a difficult place to define and defend. And it brings with it its own dangers. By very definition it relies on other operative ideologies and is thus too often reactive. By inclination, as I mention in the first post, it tends to be wish-washy and self-conscious (or even anxiogenic), often producing thousands of words on what it isn’t or is, seeking to write itself a space, to carve out its outer limits and vigorously defend what falls in to that space. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of the middle, but is merely an attempt to define some important strands that are woven into the concept.

Between the poles

If we take our cues from England’s essay “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left!,” the middle is the place between two poles of Mormon narrative art. In most specific terms, it is the works that fall between the two 1990s Mormon short story anthologies Turning Hearts: Short Stories on Family Life (Bookcraft) and In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions (Signature). It is represented by the works England selected for his own, earlier anthology Bright Angels & Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories (Signature). Now England does make some larger philosophical claims for what this middle is, in particular linking it to the idea of ethical fiction, but in terms of defining the middle, well, the middle is in between these two poles — between the right and the left.

However, England does remind us that being between these two poles doesn’t mean simply sitting there between them. Rather, there is an ideological power that comes with taking both of those poles on. Early on in the essay, he cites a phrase from Joseph Smith — “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest” — and then goes on to explain that:

By “prove” he did not mean to provide a final proof of one or the other contrary, but to test, to try out, to examine both alternatives, or all, in the light of each other; he meant that truth is not found in extremes, in choosing one polar opposite over another, but in seeing what emerges from careful, tolerant study of the dialectic between the two. Ethical fiction brings the great contraries into juxtaposition and moves us to new visions of truth greater than any of the poles. [end block quote]

Agreed. But whether those new visions happen or not (and sometimes they do and when they do, it is quite lovely), the middle remains between, and that between-ness brings with it a whole host of complicating circumstances.

Not the center

One of those circumstances is that, for all its between-ness, when it comes to Mormon narrative art, the middle is not the center. It is not the locus of institutional attention and support from either native LDS sources or from the major national supporters of narrative art (for example, neither Deseret Book, BYU nor the LDS Church proper have done much to support “broadly appropriate” works; attempts made to publish such works with national publishers have mostly failed). Nor is it a center of much economic activity or even of cultural awareness. LDS genre fiction and populist national market works by LDS authors (Stephenie Meyer and Orson Scott Card) hold that ground.

Now, of course, the middle is not without its own resources, and it often claims works from the centers of power for its own, although such appropriations are not always without controversy — both from those in the middle and those without (c.f. Meyer, in particular). And there may be times when the centers may throw a few bones to the middle, and some in the middle may have some hopes of gaining institutional support and power, but as with most radical middle movements, any attempt to infiltrate, infect or co-opt centers of power/activity is bound to have limited success or in turn be co-opted. This is particularly true when it comes to the LDS/Mormon world because of the unique position of Mormon art in relation to LDS ideologies. We are awash in the “shockingly appropriate” and the “completely appropriate” and the “broadly appropriate” is ignored because there is more at stake than simply literary positions. Mormon art is bound up in the whole struggle between the supporters and detractors (both provincial and national) of the LDS Church; no wonder that such a struggle has produced an abundance of didactic work. And, of course, Mormon art is complicated further by the fact that many of the radical middle are active in these other centers. This is the strength and weakness of Mormon artists, that their institutional allegiances aren’t confined to their own little literary or artistic school/movement.

Certainly, the great hope of the middle is that it will produce some work which crosses over, which hits one of the centers with such power and craft that it is widely embraced, perhaps even winning new converts to the middle and thus becoming its own center of power. I have no idea whether such a thing is possible when it comes to Mormon narrative art. And I certainly don’t mean to diminish the centers of activity that are currently operating in the middle. I’m part of all that. But in defining the middle, it’s important to recognize that there are centers of power who are at best mildly supportive, for the most part impassive, and at the worst hostile to the middle.

Encompasses as much as possible

But even as it is not a center, the middle in Mormon narrative art has traditionally sought to encompass as much as possible. Radical middle authors have written for and worked for LDS Church publications and have published with Signature Books. During Chris Bigelow’s tenure, Irreantum published news and reviews of LDS genre fiction and even interviews with and stories by LDS fiction authors, and the AML-List has always been willing to run reviews of such works. The recent inclusion Anette Lyon and Rachel Ann Nunes in the new AML blog is another nod in the direction of LDS fiction. And, of course, many of those in the middle have been willingly to consume (if not entirely embrace) work by such “shockingly appropriate” artists as Brian Evenson, Neil LaBute and Matthew Barney (which, of course, is met with suspicion by those in the “completely appropriate” school).

But casting a wide net is not without controversy and a major feature of the middle has been vigorous debate about exactly how much to encompass — the Mormon literarturstreit of the ’90s, which can be found in the , being a good example (as well as countless conversations on the AML-List). And Irreantum, the AML Awards, and A Motley Vision all tend to focus the large majority of their attention on works that fall solidly in the middle.

But when forced to draw boundaries, even when such boundaries are contested, the middle tends to encompass as much as possible. For more on this, see my AMV post LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part two), which includes an extended metaphor that I think captures well the uneasy yet broad way in which the middle tries to take a broad approach.

May or may not be middlebrow (but pretty much is)

The middle may or may not be middlebrow. For the most part, it is totally middlebrow and classically middlebrow authors (such as Jane Austen) and works are quite popular among American Mormons generally and the radical middle, in particular. In addition, I think that at this point in American literary history, literary realism is totally middlebrow and Mormon faithful realism very much so. For all that there may be a bit of radicality to the use of some Mormon materials in how the faithful realism plays out in some stories, for the most part, Irreantum publishes middlebrow work, and with its turn to journal status a few years ago, and continued attempts at literary respectability, I think it’s safe to say that the middlebrow is the dominant strain of Mormon narrative art in the middle. The emphasis on “broadly appropriate” is also a mark of the middlebrow. And in fact the one recent middle work that has had the most success in receiving attention across several strata of Mormon readers is Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth, which is as about as middlebrow as you can get (whereas the un-middlebrow Angel Falling Softly had some problems in the market).

Now this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I have thrown out the term middlebrow pride in the past. But there is a danger to focusing too much on the middlebrow, especially if we are serious about this radical middle term. One immediate one is that it has traditionally meant that radical middle players have ignored the LDS genre fiction market  and as a result have lost potential participants and power (the Whitneys, the LDStorymakers Writers Conference — although again the inclusion mentioned above in AML blog is a good sign)

More on all this in the next post, which focuses on the radical. For now, let me quote from the tag line of the blog Hilobrow: “Middlebrow is not the solution.” I don’t know if it is or not, but I do know that anything that calls itself the radical middle is going to need to account for the hilobrow in some way.

The middle as ethical and esthetic

Because his use of the term radical middle comes at the very end of the essay, England doesn’t really provide much direction on what he means by middle and radical, but the analysis of stories that leads up to the conclusion bring in two concepts that I think illustrate what he means by the middle — creative work in the middle is ethical and esthetic; whereas work that’s not in the middle is unethical and un- or even anti-esthetic. For example, he write that ethical teachings are “reinforced powerfully by ethical fiction, both through honest and thorough examination, of difference and the gaps in our thought structures and institutions that reveal our efforts to suppress it and also in visions of new and healing possibilities” (page 15). He then late links esthetics to activity of ethical authors and identifies an esthetics that creates stories that “have characters who seem independent from their authors, capable of making decisions the authors would disapprove of and still love them” (page 18).

Certainly there can be disagreement on what is ethical and aesthetic, but based on my experience the middle takes a similar view and has a similar concern with ethics and aesthetics that England outlines in his essay. In particular, the appeal to these two concepts, which goes back to Horace and the idea that narrative art should both delight and instruct, seems a particularly middle stance between the purely didactic and the purely aesthetic.

The middle as middle

I end this post with the idea of the middle as, well, middle. There are definitely advantages in being able to situate and negotiate between two poles — in absorbing ideas, works, authors, tricks from both sides. The middle can be (but isn’t automatically so) a place from which engagement can happen with everything that defines itself as LDS/Mormon art/culture. In addition, because the middle often takes a rather ecumenical role, it is often better equipped to create space for sub-groups to form and experiment. Since the middle is squishy, there’s less chance that a voice will be squelched if it doesn’t conform to the often rigid expectations of those on the poles.

But the middle can also feel hemmed in, squeezed, always pushing to defend its space. And, as any middle child knows, even worse — it can also feel lonely and ignored. This is why the idea of being not just the middle, but the radical middle seems so attractive, and that’s what awaits in the next post.

15 thoughts on “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Middle”

  1. William,

    First, a minor note: You’ve got a parenthetical that seems to be missing something: “(see, for example — and yes, I’m as much in need of repentance as any in this regard).”

    And now, in response to what you actually wrote…

    Interesting thoughts. I’m afraid that your notion of the middle winds up going so many different directions that I’m unsure if there’s any “there” there–that is, if we can actually point to an audience and/or set of works and/or authors that share and are to some degree defined by these characteristics, or if the notion of middleness in Mormon literature has become (at this point) purely a theoretical exercise.

    I admit that “middlebrow” is a concept I have never truly understood (and which, possibly as a result, tends to strike me as a bit mushy). Part of what bothers me is that it seems to me that you have to already be pretty high on the cultural ladder to appreciate “middlebrow” art. If you have a quick, clear description of what you mean by middlebrow, and especially how it distinguishes from highbrow (particularly in an LDS context), that would be helpful.

    You talked about the lack of centers of power in the middle. It’s long been a contention of some that there is a large, unsatisfied body of potential readers of LDS fiction who are kept from high-quality LDS fiction because they know not where to find it. According to this theory, the body of readers for literature of the middle (as I *think* you mean it) are not to be found so much among converts from the right or left, but rather among those who are unsatisfied with both of those alternatives–and therefore tend to do their book shopping not at LDS bookstores or through the Signature catalogue, but rather in places like Barnes and Noble. What’s your take on this theory?

    I see, by the way, two potential issues here: (a) whether such readers exist, and (b) whether there’s any conceivable way of reaching them. It’s been my theory, for example, that any typical ward probably includes a good 5-10 people who might like my novel if pressed into reading it (by, for example, me), but who would never go looking for such a thing–and certainly wouldn’t expect to find it in an LDS bookstore (where they mostly shop for other things, like doctrinal works or pictures to use in the Primary classes they teach, but not fiction).

    But how to reach them? Ideological concerns create specific, powerful forces for market creation and solidarity on both the right and the left; I’m unsure whether corresponding concerns exist so powerfully in the middle.

  2. Good catch — I can’t remember what the parenthetical was supposed to be so I deleted it.

    To respond to your point about the middle: Part of the point of this series of posts is to be theoretical. That said, I think each sub-hed above explores aspects to the radical middle that are very much part of the movement, as amorphous as it may be. You say point to authors and audiences. I don’t know that there is much of an audience. But certainly, the AML, Irreantum, the fiction and poetry published in Dialogue, most of the novels published by Signature, most of the works that have received AML awards, all of the works published by Zarahemla and Parables, a few works published by Cedar Fort that share characteristics of the above, etc. have all contributed to creating the substance and define some of the boundaries (although these get hazy in places) of the radical middle in Mormon art.


    Regarding the middlebrow: did you look at the Wikipedia page I linked? Have you read Bound on Earth and Angel Falling Softly? (actually a case might be made that AFS is a mix of middle and low brow).

    Middlebrow at its most basic is works of art that don’t violate the norms of the middle class (although they may titillate or aghast them just a bit). This changes over time, and, of course, may vary depending on the region.

    PBS is middlebrow. Jane Austen is ubermiddlebrow. So is John Updike and John Irving. Works selected for the Oprah book club are middlebrow. Time Out for Women is middlebrow. These days, I’d say that even a lot of speculative fiction is often rather middlebrow. Ender’s Game is, for sure. As are the Alvin books. Some of OSC’s short stories — maybe not so much.

    There’s nothing wrong with middlebrow-ism. I am a fan of Austen, for example. And I think Angela’s suite of stories in Bound on Earth is an important addition to Mormon faithful realism.

    But I also think that the middlebrow can only take us so far. And, of course, as much as I downplay the Miltons and Shakespeares quote (and I do maintain that that quote needs to be understand in the context of belated modernity thatis late blooming national/ethnic cultures), I also hold out hope for works that transcend browisms — or at least messes with them a bit. Like Shakespeare’s plays. Or Kafka.

    —–

    Finally, I have no idea if this body of readers exists. It very well may not, and if it does, it hasn’t been reached yet. Thus the resource issues that radical middle authors, publishers and organizations find themselves having.

  3. BTW, here’s a great essay that espouses middlebrow pride.

    And it reminds me that one particular feature of the middlebrow is the use of art for the enrichment of life, for improvement, a particular concern for art that exposes you to diverse cultures and/or provides some sort of insight in to life and/or challenges your middle class status (but not too much and hopefully in an exotic way). Book groups are a very middlebrow phenomenon.

  4. Unfortunately, I haven’t read either the Hallstrom or the Woodbury titles. Want to, plan to, but haven’t yet.

    I’m afraid both the other sources you cite (the Wikipedia article and the admittedly delightful essay “Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor) strengthen my sense that “middlebrow” isn’t a terribly useful label for describing literary production. The latter essay states it flat out: when you take the classics of “highbrow” literature and put them in Great Books covers, they suddenly become middlebrow. It’s a name for an attitude about art, not a category of art itself–and an attitude (self-improvement) that seems remarkably ill-fitted to the Mormon market. Who, in Mormonism, reads fiction for self-improvement? Maybe The Work and the Glory–but is that the kind of literature we’re claiming as the “radical middle”?

    See, this is the problem. The original Jane Austen may have been “ubermiddlebrow.” But in today’s culture, those who actually read Jane Austen for enjoyment are about as highbrow (educationally) as you can get. There simply isn’t any group more educated than Austen-lovers. What, then, is “middle” about middlebrow? Simply the fact that (a) it requires some literary sophistication to read and enjoy, but (b) is nonetheless accessible to a broad range of (say) college-educated readers?

    Reading, for most of the literary Mormons I know, isn’t a tool of cultural aspiration. Rather, it’s a kind of guilty pleasure, indulged at the expense of doing one’s home teaching or cleaning the house or doing one’s family history. It’s not something I see fitting well into the paradigm from which “middlebrow” springs as a term.

  5. William,

    I think I’m starting to understand part of what you’re saying (with apologies for being so doggedly clueless about all this…)

    I think what you’re saying is that there’s a broad “middle” in Mormon literature that shares the following characteristics:
    – A middle stance toward LDS teachings between skepticism and untroubled belief
    – A middle stance between liberalism and conservatism, more generally speaking
    – Depicting experience through a lens of faithful realism, as opposed to either naturalism or idealism
    – Embracing both the ideals of entertaining and instructing through fiction
    – Requiring some literary sophistication to fully enjoy, but attempting to speak broadly to the class of educated readers
    – Falling between the centers of power/patronage associated with the LDS Church, on the one hand, and national secular presses on the other

    Which of these (if any) are accurate, and which not?

  6. Yeah, it doesn’t work for me either, William. High, middle, and lowbrow means something very different within the bounds of Mormon culture than it does in the publishing industry or reading public in general. DB is middlebrow. Anything edgier than that is not. You can’t put BoE and TOFW in the same category, or it loses all meaning.

  7. Wm, while I can get behind the way you deal with the term “radical middle” or “broadly appropriate,” I think the way you’re using the term “middlebrow” is problematic. And, yeah, I realize one of the reasons it seems particularly problematic to me is because you’re using my work, both as a writer and as an editor, as an example of middlebrowness.

    An excerpt from the Wikipedia site you linked to calls the middlebrow “a forced and ineffective attempt at cultural and intellectual achievement, as well as characterizing literature which emphasizes emotional and sentimental connections rather than literary quality and innovation.”

    Harumph. I think John Updike might take exception to your designation if that’s the definition we’re using. And taking my own fiction out of it, if I look at the latest issue of Irreantum I find very little there, either, that could be covered by the above definition.

    As much as you say, “Hey! Being middlebrow is not so bad!” the term itself carries with it some baggage I think you’re ignoring. And I think Kathryn’s right that the term becomes even more problematic within the bounds of Mormon culture. And squishing John Updike AND Time Out For Women underneath the same “middlebrow” umbrella? Oh, my.

  8. .

    “TOFW”?

    Anyway, I don’t think we have to define the middle by the edges. We can define the edges against the middle. Or, more accurately, instead of a line, lit is a circle. The middle is most whole — most representative of the whole; as we move away, things are lost. In a circle are infinite axes and so there are many ways to move away from the center with LaBute over here and Lund over here, etc.

    I just hate the idea of polarity because it is naturally combative which I don’t think is terribly Christian (contention being of the devil and so forth). I prefer we are all a diagonal slide from everyone else.

    Because of there is anything this debate needs, it’s a further mixing of metaphors.

  9. I should have been more clear: by middlebrow I mean middlebrow not in relation of some works to others within Mormon culture but as an overall category of work that most middle works fall in to. If they aren’t low brow or high brow, then what are they?

    But yeah, Updike (although Irving even more so and Updike may have been highbrow at one time, but he seems thoroughly gentrified to me now — your mileage may vary), TOFW, Irreantum — totally not pop, not low brow, and not high brow, not avant-garde. I don’t think radical middle should mainly shoot for that anyway. I would like to see some room for the hilobrow, but recognize that at best there’s going to be an uneasy tension there.

    Now, I think browism only takes us so far, especially in a world where the low brow and high brow have been co-opted for branding and marketing. But as I have experienced it, in general, most Mormon literature (even the romance novels, which don’t fall in to lowbrow because they hold [rightfully so, for the audience] the line well away from eroticism) is solidly middlebrow. That’s why Bound on Earth and On the Road to Heaven can win both AML and Whitney awards. The divisions may seem rather sharp to those who are in it (in part, because at Theric mentions there’s a tendency [as in all minority cultures] towards polarizing), but most of our literature seeks to speak to (and reflects) middle class values and audiences and although may be innovative within the field, is by no means avant garde.

    And for what it’s worth, I think the quote Angela took from the Wikipedia page (and, of course, this is the problem with being lazy and relying on Wikipedia) is a little overexcited about things. That’s what I get for trying to use such terms in a Mormon context (and are, of course, in dispute anyway). I’m open to using a different term.

    What I wanted to capture is that Mormon literature for the most part neither seeks to shock sensibilities through formal experimentation and high concept works (highbrow) nor simply entertain [and sometimes shock sensibilities] through low concept, primitive, kitschy, popular, genre-formula works (lowbrow).

  10. William,

    Based on your clarification, perhaps I should make an addition to my bullet list:
    – Aligned to the values and concerns of the middle class

    That, I think, is a lot less controversial and carries less baggage than the “middlebrow” label. However, as others have pointed out, I think that in this category, pretty much all of Mormon literature (and most of American literature) occupies the middle. I don’t believe there is any Mormon literature at all which aligns to values of the lower or upper classes. Perhaps because we live in a society where the middle class has so largely swallowed up the other two, at least in terms of cultural production and consumption…

  11. Thanks, Jonathan. That was exactly the point I was trying to get out.

    And I should add that these are just the areas I’ve come up with that help me explore the radical middle. They each may or may not deserve further treatment. This is an initial salvo — not the final word by any means.

    ——

    To clarify on Time Out for Women: although it may be essentially conservative in relation to Mormonism, the form TOfW takes, the way it brands itself, the price points — all very Oprah-esque and all very middlebrow.

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