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.