I was startled recently to find myself described (in response to my review of Alan Williams’s novel Ockham’s Razor) as acting like a gatekeeper for Mormon literature. Partly this was because I had seen my comments mostly as definitional rather than exclusionary: Ockham’s Razor is a book of type X, as opposed to type Y. Mostly, though, I think it’s because calling me a gatekeeper seems to imply a level of power I don’t see myself as having.
The question of who gets to define Mormon literature, and what is good and bad within it, is an area where it seems to me that this kind of conflicted perspective is common. We here at A Motley Vision don’t see ourselves as a center of power and authority in the discussion of Mormon literature: rather, simply as a place where some of us get to hang out, shoot the breeze, talk about things that interest us (and that usually have nothing to do with our day jobs), and spout opinions that generally encounter as much disagreement as agreement from other posters (as witness the reaction to that same review). But to others, we are a bastion of The Establishment in Mormon literature — or so I suddenly perceive or guess. It is (would be) to laugh, if it were not also such a sad commentary on the state of Mormon letters.
We used to run into the same thing at AML-List, which was sometimes characterized by others as a kind of monolithic and elitist Mormon literary establishment, intent on imposing its taste and values on the entire field. As list moderator for several years, this perspective seemed ludicrous to me, partly because I was so often forcefully reminded of just how diverse opinions on the list really were.
The other thing I saw as moderator was just how easy it was for people on any side of a particular argument to feel beleaguered, misunderstood, ignored, or even silenced — while at the same time their own actions led to similar perceptions by those with whom they were disagreeing. Each side was seen as the power holder by the other(s). And then people would leave the list or lurk without commenting and then talk (elsewhere or on the list itself) about “the AML-List mindset,” usually based (so far as I could tell) on two or three people who happened to agree with each other in some particular online discussion.
Of course, the only power we typically possessed on AML-List — or possess here at A Motley Vision — is the power of our own comments. Most of us didn’t and don’t run bookstores or publishing houses, teach classes on Mormon literature, or exercise any other variety of power that extends beyond our own (thin) wallets and keyboards. Apparently, that personal power strikes some people as a rather larger thing than it seems from the author’s side of the keyboard, where you hope (often in vain) for comments as evidence that someone has actually read what you wrote.
The same thing has happened with AML the organization (a very different body from AML-List), which people from outside sometimes see as some kind of statutory body upholding a specific canonical vision of Mormon literature. Those on the inside, in contrast, see the organization as both pretty powerless (how can any group possessing the kind of institutional power its critics suggest be constantly scrambling just to get the renewal notices out?) and highly diverse, staffed by an “aristocracy” of the willing.
I’m sure that similar perceptions of gatekeeping power are held by some with respect to Irreantum, the Whitney Awards, Chris Bigelow and Zarahemla Books, the editors and book-buyers at Deseret Book (stores and publisher), Gideon Burton and the Mormon Literature and Creative Arts Database, the LDS Publisher blog sites, and basically anyone else who writes, teaches, talks, or makes decisions that touch on Mormon literature in any setting, no matter how limited. Heck, I see the editors of BYU Magazine as literary gatekeepers just because they cut Richard Cracroft’s positive mention of No Going Back (though I’m assured that positive mention by Richard Cracroft does not, in fact, translate into mega-sales. Alas).
The simple fact of the matter is that there just isn’t that much power anywhere in the Mormon literary world. Fantasies that it does exist Somewhere Else are, I suspect, based in a wish that there might be something more to the community of Mormon letters than there really is — coupled with a full awareness that wherever such power might reside, it sure as heck ain’t here.
Part of the problem is one of scale, where market is defined in terms of “small,” “tiny,” and “tinier,” while “large” (or even “reasonable”) practically speaking don’t exist. Case in point: Dave Farland (a friend of mine) was complaining recently about the fact that Deseret Bookstores probably won’t restock his Whitney Award-winning novel In the Company of Angels, due in part to a whispering campaign by some who feel the book is too critical of some early Church leaders. My response (more or less) was along the lines of commenting that at least his book was there for a while, as opposed to No Going Back, which has never had any presence in LDS bookstores (and has now been removed from the shelves of the BYU Bookstore) and which has sold to date only about 200 copies. And then I was complaining about that to Johnny Townsend, a nationally published short story writer who decided to go the self-publishing route, who responded that from where he was sitting, 200 sales sounded pretty good. It made me feel rather small.
What it comes down to is that in a market so small, all of us really are literary gatekeepers, whether we feel particularly empowered or not. This is particularly hard to see when whatever power we may possess consists of something we created and have maintained purely on our own iniative, in some area where no one else seemed interested, where we’ve put in long hours without much in the way of praise or external rewards. All too often, it seems like those asking for a piece of our (laughably small) pie are quite thoroughly competent to bake their own, thank you. It can be quite startling to realize that some people think of us as “the big boys.”
So what’s the solution? Better understanding and a measure of charity and forbearance all around, I suppose. A recognition that there is no “them” in Mormon literature, and that each of us, no matter much of an outsider we may feel, actually embodies a perceptible portion of the communal gatekeeping power. And perhaps a hope that someday our small efforts might make way/prepare the ground for — possibly even metamorphose into — something larger.
19 thoughts on “Gatekeeping and Power in the Mormon Literary Community”
As Chairman of the Mormon Literary Establishment, I’m pleased to report that we have added a second dacha and all maroon card holders will see their timeshare increase to 3 weeks per annum.
I’m sorry to report, however, that we have upped the number of lines of poetry that receive equal credit to a short story to 120.
I don’t know – I have to roll this around in my mind for a little bit. But my first impulse is to say that we definitely live in a culture with gatekeepers. We do believe in higher authority. True, there is no actual commercial or governmental “establishment” (and thank goodness Halestorm didn’t turn out to be the “establishment” that young Diaspora Mormon me thought they were) but there are very real forces that define the scope of our work by defining what our audience should be looking for.
Anyone in the popular American arts scenes would have an absolute fit about this. Anything coming anywhere close to cultural gatekeeping is really just the mortal sin of censorship in disguise, right? And we’re all educated artsy people who could never condone censorship, right? (Donny Osmond is “against any form of censorship”)
But the truth is, we believe very strongly in censorship. The frequency with which our apostles and prophets blatantly condemn pornography and enlist all of our efforts to fight it are a form of censorship. We believe in working to influence public policy, in censoring the things we allow into our houses, in censoring ourselves – in watching our “thoughts, and our words and our deeds.” I’m using pornography as the most extreme example, but we have very blatant teachings from the pulpit that warn us explicitly about everything from R-rated movies to World of Warcraft. There is very real power in the Mormon literary community and it’s the power of our church leaders and our very doctrine to dictate the kinds of things we should read and listen to.
Do we have personal choice in the matter? Of course we do. Like any other church doctrine, we are asked to seek personal testimony, but this isn’t a backing down on the truth of the teachings. Are there plenty of Mormons at varying levels of activity who consume certain media contrary to church teachings? Of course there are. But we can’t pretend that we’re all just doing our own thing here, because a major unifying force in our community is our belief that actual representatives of God tell us His opinions on things that impact our modern daily lives on a very frequent basis.
If the prophet stood up tomorrow and announced that we should all avoid xylophone music, we could argue the gospel ramifications of the choice until we were blue in the face, but the truth is that our markets and publishing opportunities would be greatly affected and that xylophone music in Mormon art would almost immediately enter the realm of “apostate” or purposely non-compliant art, a reactionary offshoot of our culture and community.
I’ll even be bold enough to say that none of this is bad! I believe in a church that condones certain types of censorship, because I believe in a church that understands the power of media and ultimately the power of personal thoughts and environment on spiritual well-being. But I don’t think that’s the issue at the center of this question. If we’re merely asking who’s in charge here, I’m going to say “well, we’re just a bunch of kids hanging out here for a while doing our own thing, but Dad gets home in the afternoon and we’re going to have to run everything past him.”
The solution? Figure out how to survive and thrive as a smaller fish in a much bigger pond.
Anneke: Good points, though I think that for the most part, LDS General Authorities try very hard *not* to make “rulings” on the worthiness (or otherwise) of specific works of literature. Also, groups like AML that people tend to think of as part of the “Mormon literary community” often tend to include a large proportion of people who may not be LDS, may not be terribly active (by their own definition), or may not hold mainstream views about how to translate prophetic counsel into judgments about specific works of literature. So I think the notion that “when Dad comes home we have to run everything past him” doesn’t really hold water, unless either (a) you define the community of Mormon literature as consisting solely of what’s published by or sold in Deseret Book, or (b) you define “Dad” as being Jesus, and not earthly Church leaders (which would change the import of what you’re saying).
Certainly prophetic counsel and our interpretations of and reactions to it are one force of gatekeeping in the Mormon literary world. But it’s by not means the only force, and sometimes I think it’s not the most powerful force. Mormon literature does not equal literature that passes correlation — both because not everyone agrees with that standard (indeed, I’d say that very few people outside DB would even try to apply that standard) and because a lot of other standards get applied that have nothing to do with this.
Case in point: The comment about me acting like a literary gatekeeper for Ockham’s Razor had a little to do with my comments on the explicit descriptions of homosexual sex — which I noted as something that most believing Mormons would be uncomfortable with — but more to do with me saying that particularly with respect to the experiences and ideas depicted related to homosexuality, it was “definitely a book written from the outside looking in, or perhaps more accurately from a post-Mormon life phase looking back.” Which, I should note, does not mean it doesn’t qualify as Mormon literature — something I had never intended to imply — but rather that within the field of Mormon literature, it’s not from the variety that understandably communicated a believing experience or that most believing Mormons would be interested in reading.
Eugene: Certainly that’s one solution, though it strikes me that this is like someone saying “We really need a good Chinese restaurant in this town” and someone else responding, “What you need to do is learn to like Mexican food.” Thriving as a smaller fish in a much bigger pond will certainly work for some goals (it accurately describes what my own next novels will probably be, assuming they ever get written), but it doesn’t serve the goal of telling Mormon stories to the community of Mormon readers. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, the larger pond isn’t as attractive as a proposition.
The answer, “Just tell Mormon stories in a way that will appeal to a non-Mormon audience” (which some have proposed) ignores what seems to me a fundamental and inescapable truth, which is that different stories appeal to different people. Some Mormon stories can be told which will appeal widely to non-Mormon readers. Other Mormon stories will inevitably appeal more narrowly. It seems to me that denying this essentializes human experience in a way that postmodernism and practical experience in the real world both suggest is highly problematic.
I’d also note that on a literal level, the notion of simply transplanting a fish to a different pond environment is equally problematic, particularly if it’s an inherently different kidn of pond–e.g., large versus small. Both literally and metaphorically, the fish that can thrive in the big pond often isn’t the same fish that can thrive in the little pond — not just because of differing levels of competition, but because it’s an utterly different environment.
For whatever it’s worth (not much, because I don’t offer a solution), for me as an outsider coming into the Mormon arts and letters community, it DOES seem largely insular and censorious, resistant to change and somewhat out of touch.
The only oasis I’ve found is here on AMV.
The thing is, when the Ensign is treated as scripture and every word that proceedeth out of the mouths of the general authorities is taken as commandment (versus guideline or suggestion), you’re going to run up against this internal gatekeeping.
Not saying you did that, Jonathan, as I haven’t read the book and long posts are beyond my gnat-worthy attention span, but yes, there’s internal gatekeeping by someone other than the publishers, explicitly or implicitly.
It’s the nature of the beast. I just choose not to ride that particular beast.
(I guess that added nothing helpful to the conversation, but I had to say it.)
No, it’s like saying “We really need a good Chinese restaurant in this town” when the town already has a dozen Chinese restaurants. Declaring that yours will be umpteen times better isn’t a marketing strategy. It’s wishful thinking, unless your secret sauce really is umpteen times better. But even then, you’d better be prepared to do some loss-leading.
To be sure, a large measure of confidence (arrogance) is required to launch any commercial venture. But if you’re not Steve Jobs, it’d probably make more economic sense to relocate to a market with a lower per-capital density of Chinese restaurants than play a zero-sum game with a population already saturated with Chinese restaurants.
I am a gatekeeper. Although it’s important to note that my gate is not connected to a fence and it is very easy for anyone to walk around me.
I would break down the gatekeepers and their functions like this:
(1) Institutional church:
Generally benign. Doesn’t usually endorse or attack individual works. Teaches correct principles, concerns itself primarily with its evangelical mission, etc., etc. Has an interesting (read: mixed) arts history and profile. Owns Deseret Book, which people read a lot into. Authors/artists sometimes wonder whether church leaders will take notice of them, call them in for discipline related to their art, etc., etc. My sense is that this is extremely rare.
(2) Joe and Jane Mormon on the street:
Seem to read/consume relatively little art on average (not unlike the population in general). Not particularly interested or knowledgeable. Will savage works that they have not read on “moral” grounds.
(3) Decision makers at publishers:
A relatively small group of people who have the power to give an award to and/or accept for publication a novel, story, poem, etc., etc. These are the true gatekeepers, I think. They have real power, and (for better or worse) their taste and judgment means something.
(4) Chattering classes:
AML list, AMV, other bloggers, reviewers in journals and newspapers, etc., etc. Bad reviews can probably kill a work, but great reviews seem to go only so far. Interesting, fun, and meaningful to me. But a powerful gatekeeper? Maybe. I certainly know whose opinions I value, and if they tell me something stinks, I probably spend my reading time elsewhere.
Where the rubber meets the road. But they only have the power to choose from what gets through the gatekeepers in No. 3 above. A small group that seems to consist mostly of: (1) authors/ artists themselves, (2) authors/artists family and friends, and (3) heavily-involved players somehow involved in No. 3 and 4 above.
Interesting breakdown, Shawn. One thing I’d point out about group (3) is that which publisher is doing the gatekeeping matters a great deal. At the risk of stating the obvious, a work published by Deseret Book is likely to get far more traction in the LDS marketplace than a work published by Zarahemla Books.
Obviously, the size of the publisher comes into play, but I don’t think that’s the only issue. Another factor is product placement in physical bookstores (which I don’t see represented in your breakdown), especially in bookstores with some tie to the LDS Church. However, I’d say the biggest factor is the extent to which Mormons perceive that particular bookstores and publishers are somehow speaking for or acting under the imprimatur of (1). Because you’re right that the institutional Church doesn’t often endorse or attack a particular work or artist, but we (we in the LDS community, as a whole, not we at AMV) seem to be awfully quick to infer such endorsements or attacks, based on other pieces of data.
(1) Being “definitional” versus being “exclusionary” is a false distinction. A group is defined by who it excludes.
(2) Power is relational; it’s not individual.
One review of your novel suggested that your story was from the perspective of a “straight male with leadership experience in the Church.” Now, whether or not this is accurate, it points to the question of storytelling as a continuance or disruption of power structures; all storytelling is political. The Church has some pretty solid power structures, and I’ll point to three that are pertinent to both of our novels: (1) ordination gives one ecclesiastical power, (2) ordination is for men only, (3) ordination is not for men who are intimate with other men. This is not only a question of censorship of what stories might be told in Mormon culture, but a question of what stories might be heard. So, to take your point of “a description of homosexual sex doesn’t disqualify a story from being Mormon” versus “ideas depicted related to homosexuality that are ‘outside’ Mormonism” what does this outsideness really mean? Who counts as an expert on insider/outsiderness and why?
Consider the following:
PUBLIC AFFAIRS: On some gay web sites there are those who argue that homosexual behavior is not specifically prohibited in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Some argue that Jesus Christ’s compassion and love for humanity embraces this kind of relationship. What is the Church’s teaching about that?
ELDER WICKMAN: For one thing, those who assert that need to read their Bible more carefully.
Now, even if the majority of Mormons agree with Wickman (which he wouldn’t be a “church leader” if they didn’t), there is still gatekeeping going on here. In fact, if Wickman weren’t a church leader, his statement about what is a “true” interpretation and what isn’t might strike one as seriously lacking humility. Yet, the whole interview is about both describing what is “Mormon” and excluding what is “not Mormon” on the question of homosexuality. I agree with Anneke@2, that gatekeeping is kinda part of the Mormon mindset.
The Mormon mindset? I’ve never encountered a mindset that didn’t engage in gatekeeping.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Anneke’s and Alan’s comments are fine within the context of this discussion but they do invite me to offer the following reminder:
Let’s make sure that discussion of how art is gatekeeped in relation to the institutional LDS Church is focused on art. This is not the blog for political or doctrinal discussion.
“(1) Being “definitional” versus being “exclusionary” is a false distinction. A group is defined by who it excludes.”
To which I respond: Yes to the latter, but that doesn’t mean the distinction is necessarily false.
Gates (inherently) keep things out. However, it’s possible to draw lines (gridmarks, what have you) that mark boundaries without preventing passage back and forth — only telling you where you are. To collapse the distinction between the two because gates also mark boundaries strikes me as unuseful. Practically speaking, there’s a significant difference between saying “This book belongs in the fantasy section of the library” and saying “This book doesn’t belong in the library.”
It’s true that on a theoretical level, any definition is exclusionary. However, in terms of community dynamics — which is what “gatekeeping” implies — there are definitional activities that nonetheless do not exclude items from consideration as part of the set of things worthy of interest on the part of the community.
I agree that it’s worthwhile to look at both literature and literary criticism (another distinction that some object to but that turns out to be generally useful, practically speaking) from a perspective of power dynamics. However, if you collapse all definitional activities into gatekeeping, you render the term useless. At that point, the statement that “gatekeeping is kinda part of the Mormon mindset” is meaningless, because that’s a statement that would inherently be equally true of any existing community. Drawn so broadly, “gatekeeping” becomes an unavoidable part of all critical discourse.
I should add that definitional activities can function as much to facilitate access as to deny it. In the example I gave above, saying “This book belongs in the fantasy section” can be seen as exclusionary, in that one is saying (perhaps) that it doesn’t belong in other areas of the library. However, if the evaluation is accurate and the category system is a good one, the classification will help people find the book who might be interested in it.
Note that the question of whether (for example) my evaluation of Ockham’s Razor was accurate, or whether the category system I was attempting to apply was a helpful one, is a different question. Here, I’m reacting to Alan’s general statement that definition is de facto exclusionary, independent of accuracy of evaluation or usefulness of the categories applied.
Jonathan, you say “I think that for the most part, LDS General Authorities try very hard *not* to make “rulings” on the worthiness (or otherwise) of specific works of literature.”
This is true, though I think their reason in not naming specific works is to err on the side of not including more work as appropriate rather than excluding borderline work that people feel they still need to consume. I think the attitude is pretty clear in such official statements as the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet.
For example, “Don’t attend or participate in any form of entertainment, including concerts, movies, and videocassettes, that is vulgar, immoral, inappropriate, suggestive, or pornographic in any way. Movie ratings do not always accurately reflect offensive content. Don’t be afraid to walk out of a movie, turn off a television set, or change a radio station if what’s being presented does not meet your Heavenly Father’s standards. And do not read books or magazines or look at pictures that are pornographic or that present immorality as acceptable.
In short, if you have any question about whether a particular movie, book, or other form of entertainment is appropriate, don’t see it, don’t read it, don’t participate.”
I think that sort of counsel – “If in doubt, walk out” – is a very powerful gatekeeper in our church culture.
And you’re absolutely right in that communities like AML involve a lot of non-practicing LDS and non members, but in terms of numbers for the consumer base for Mormon art and literature, academically oriented groups like the AML are tiny. My making the argument that church doctrine and official counsel are huge cultural forces is based on the assumption that the vast majority of people interested in Mormon art are practicing members of the church.
I agree. The existence of your review of my novel on a Mormon arts blog facilitates access of my novel into the world of “Mormon arts” (to the extent that A Motley Vision is representative of this world). I’m grateful to you for this; I wanted at least one faithful/insider review of my novel out there. It’s tough, because as Annake@14 has pointed out, Mormon culture is one of high censorship. I knew this going in, and I warn potential Mormon readers by having a cover with two young men being close (not sexually, IMO, but just…close). Your review of my novel is clear about how you see it as fitting/not fitting into the world of faithfulness/insiderness, which is to dismiss alternate fittings (hence, my statement that definition is always exclusionary). What you say in the review was not unexpected and even in some ways desired.
What I’ve pointed out in the thread following the review, however, are questions of readership, alternate audiences, alternate futures imagined by faithful Mormons on the question of homosexuality and how my story might speak to those alternate futures (since any future is different than the present). There is, despite what Anneke is saying @14, anti-censorship forces in Mormon culture, which include academic spaces, individual variation, and the fact that censorship can’t exist without an up-to-date image of what it is that’s being censored (the exercise of gatekeepers for the community, or one’s own conscience for oneself). You asked before: “Are you saying Mormons should read non-Mormon accounts about homosexuality for their own good?” and I’m saying that “They already are.” Not only for their “own good,” but also for their “own interest.”
The politics of reception for No Going Back and Ockham’s Razor are thus very different, but you treat them the same in your review. Whereas you have stated your novel targets a Mormon community grappling with homosexuality, my novel is about Mormon-raised characters grappling with homosexuality and wasn’t written primarily for anyone, only those who would be interested in and/or see themselves in my representations, including faithful Mormons (since the story is based somewhat on real people and events).
You might say, “That’s fine. The review only talked about how faithful Mormons might pick up your book.” Yet, let me ask you this. Would an LDS young adult grappling with same-gender attraction (a potential reader for both our novels) actually be concerned with the direction of the Church institutionally on the question of homosexuality? Wouldn’t s/he be more concerned about whether her/his potential choices are “faithful” choices, interested in making sense of a confusing terrain? This young adult might be one that pushes the boundaries in a way that Brendan in my story does–or actually less so, since instead of “experimenting” with homosexual intimacy, this person might only seek out and read narratives of it for the purposes of self-determination. And why not read a narrative that concerns LDS characters? This reader is not difficult for me to imagine. You said that my story is not as “pleasing” as a “faithful” story to those who are “faithful,” but pleasing for whom and why?
What is the nature of your call for more “faithful” stories in the context of the review of my novel, beyond the concern of the institutional Church, or more optimistically, to keep the Gospel in tact? Are not “unfaithful” stories (such as mine, if you insist) also helpful in this regard? Any postmodern philosopher would say yes: “you can’t have good without evil” or “censorship without knowing what it is you’re censoring.” Literature is more commonly reduced to these dualities in cultures that believe in a “good God” and a “bad devil” (to get to WM’s concern @11 of my phrase “Mormon mindset”). Your review of my novel engaged heavily in this duality, rather than letting the characters stand on their own. Yes, you nuanced the duality more than, say, Janice Graham did (who blatantly called your novel a “no-go”), but still.
Interesting thoughts. I’ll attempt to engage them equally intelligently, though my brain is currently mush from working on interview category tabulation for a research project on an alternative-to-incarceration program…
You wrote: “my novel… wasn’t written primarily for anyone.” Given my training in rhetorical criticism, it’s hard for me to imagine *not* having an audience (or multiple audiences) in mind as one writes. And in fact you do mention at least one specific audience: that of an LDS young adult grappling with same-gender attraction (which I agree is a likely audience for both our novels). I can’t help but think (if your writing process is at all like mine) that at some point in the writing/revision process, you would have imagined people of various types and categories and thought about which ones were more likely to respond well to your novel — and that those were the readers to whom (consciously or unconsciously) you directed your writing.
It would probably make more sense to continue the rest of this discussion back under my review of Ockham’s Razor. However, since this is where the questions arose, I’ll address them here…
My intent in comparing No Going Back and Ockham’s Razor was not to imply that they should be judged by the same standard, but rather primarily to point out ways they are different. Of course, we all know how tricky intent can be.
I can’t speak to what *your* intent was, because I’m not you. Rather, I tried to speak in terms of the book’s stance toward the subject matter of Mormonism and its potential reception by different audiences. Most of that space was spent talking about the Mormon audience, as is fitting for a Mormon venue. However, I also talked about what I saw as potential problems with other audiences as well, including the fact that the story is cerebral and that it lacks a happy ending — comments that are not at all specific to the Mormon readership. They’re also not intended as criticisms but rather as pointing out some of the problems Ockham’s Razor faces in finding an audience. (I’ve learned firsthand just how limiting the lack of a happy ending can be for some readers.)
In your response to my review, you focus on my discussions of the book’s description of the intersection of Mormonism and homosexuality, which is certainly fair. But there’s a lot else in my review as well. I did my best to review your novel from every worthwhile perspective I could think of: style, potential audience, theme, character development, *and* connection with Mormonism. That’s my general approach to reviews. Saying that my review “engaged heavily in this duality, rather than letting the characters stand on their own” ignores other places where I do talk about the characters as characters, including aspects of them that have nothing to do with being Mormon. In light of the centrality of Mormonism as both an element in Ockham’s Razor and a central concern of this venue, I felt it was justified, however, in treating that aspect of the characters and the book at length.
Much of your response to my review seemed to focus on the final paragraph, where (in time-honored critical fashion) I move away from discussing your book directly to talking about its larger literary and cultural context, calling for more “faithful” stories to be told. The nature of my call has to do with the fact that looking at the universe of stories (particularly fiction) that have been published about the intersection of Mormonism and homosexuality, I see far more stories reflecting the experience of those who have left the Church, compared to very little describing the experience of those who choose to (and manage to) successfully stay in the Church. This problem is exacerbated by the general rule within the mainstream LDS publishing houses that homosexuality simply won’t be mentioned. As a result, there’s an entire dimension of experience that is largely absent both from (a) most LDS fiction (especially the stuff that gets into LDS bookstores or is seen by most Mormon readers), and (b) the general discourse of fiction about homosexuality and Mormonism.
Ockham’s Razor, in my view, does nothing to address that gap, as my review points out. I’ts not, ultimately, a book about the experience of living a life of faithfulness to LDS teachings while grappling with homosexuality. In fairness to you and me both, it never occurred to me that this was something it was trying to do, which is why I found it startling when you seemed to object to my saying so.
Ockham’s Razor has its virtues as a book, many of them having to do with its depiction of a young man who is deeply confused by his first significant relationship with someone else. Hopefully, those who might find your novel engaging would be able to recognize that fact from my review (which is always one of my goals: that those who might like a book will have enough information to recognize that fact). However, it perpetuates (as I see it) an imbalance in the existing fiction about the Mormon experience. With respect to the connection between homosexuality and Mormonism, ultimately it is another story about why gays should leave the Church.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be stories like that out there (as you imply in your last paragraph). Rather, I’m saying that stories like Ockham’s Razor should not be relied on to depict a believing LDS perspective with respect to homosexuality. If members of the Church want stories of that sort (depicting those who are same-gender attracted but also stay within the Church), we need to write and create them ourselves. Suggesting (as I think you’re doing) that this was some kind of call for censorship strikes me as an eccentric over-reading of what I actually wrote.
Returning to the main theme of my original post: You see me as gatekeeping with respect to Mormon literature, excluding your book from consideration. I see myself — far from being a gatekeeper — as arguing for the existence of a literary space that so far only barely exists: that is, a space where the experience of a believing Mormon who is homosexually attracted can be explored. That’s not a space, so far as I can tell, that you were trying to occupy with your book.
We seem to be speaking past each other still. I’m a fan of philosophers like Nietzsche and Derrida, so I use words like “censorship” or “violence” (though I haven’t used that word yet) in perhaps an overstated fashion. =)
You’re right that I’m also overstating that I thought of “no one” as I was writing the book, but I did not think of a community of readers as such.
Basically, I do not think Ockham’s Razor is “ultimately another story about why gays should leave the Church,” because this strikes me as conflating the story with all possible receptions. Derrida tells us an the author’s intentions can disappear and the reception of a text can take over and give it meaning. If picked up by the potential reader I’ve noted above, my story could help gays stay in the Church because of its honest portrayal. Thus, the book is potentially about the opposite of what is on the page. (Similarly, your novel has been read to be story about why gays should leave the Church; the faithfulness portrayed is not enough to justify Paul’s choices.)
So, ine might see in themselves in my story how they’re making choices based on cultural expectations and fear and become more self-aware. This is indeed a space I tried to occupy, because I didn’t write Brendan’s choices to necessarily be lacking “faith” even if “faith” is not on the page. For people struggling with a testimony on this issue, my story could be AS useful as a faithful story, because a faithful story can potentially frustrate a struggling person. Yes, my novel should not be relied upon to depict a believing LDS perspective–because this is lacking in my story. I acknowledge this. But to talk about my novel as not addressing a “gap” seems short-sighted to me, because it doesn’t take into consideration the purpose of addressing this gap, which is to not only “create representations of faithful Mormons,” but is also to help the Mormon community grapple with same-gender attraction. Right?
Typos there. Sorry, didn’t edit.
Sorry for not responding earlier; I’ve been caught up in a work deadline. Right now, though, I have a couple of minutes (I’ve submitted my piece and haven’t gotten it back yet for revisions), so I’ll try to respond briefly.
I agree that a text depicting someone struggling can be helpful for those who struggle, and might even help them to stay in the Church. What makes me think this is unlikely in the case of Ockham’s Razor is not that it shows Brendan’s struggle, but precisely that it does NOT show that struggle. Brendan’s thoughts, motivations, and experiences leading to the decisions he makes take place almost entirely off-stage.