A response to Rosalynde Welch’s critique of thematic Mormon literary criticism, part 1

Much of the response to Rosalynde’s Patheos column “Oxymormon: LDS Literary Fiction and the Problem of Genre” focused on a defense of genre. For example, several of the comments in the discussion of the piece at By Common Consent specifically reacted to the term “trashy genre fiction”, which Rosalynde used in the subhed to her piece. Many interesting and valid points were made, including Russell Arben Fox’s observation that we should look to Mormon culture for great genre writers rather than for Shakespeares*, but very little of what has been said thus far actually addresses the heart of her main contention, which is that there are major disadvantages to focusing on thematic Mormon literary criticism. In particular, she writes: “By emphasizing the religious themes of the literature at the expense of its textual form–its engagement with the rules of science fiction, or the conventions of the romance novel, or whatever — one can end up in the curious position of having developed a ‘Mormon aesthetic’ that has everything to do with Mormonism and nothing at all to do with art.”

This is a fair charge. Indeed the genre-ecumenicalism of the “literary” wing of Mormon literature as typified by the AML Awards and the fiction and poetry published in Dialogue and Irreantum expresses itself most often in a thematic way. That is, although any achievement of craftmanship by a Mormon writer has a shot of being published or awarded or reviewed or written about critically, it is much more likely to be so if it contains themes that have strong tie-ins to the Mormon worldview. There is a limit, of course, to the genre-ecumenicalism of this wing of the field — romance and thriller, for example, rarely get attention. Most of the genre works that do are mystery and, especially, speculative fiction. And part of the reason why is because of the ease in which the work’s themes can be tied in to Mormonism in a rich way.

This is opposed to the “genre wing” as typified by the Whitney Awards and LDStorymakers, which cares less about thematic elements (insofar as they are present, they are present to appeal to a Mormon audience) and more about storytelling and the demands of the readership (especially in regards to appropriateness). But even there, themes comes in to play whenever attempts are made to explain or understand narrative art in relation to Mormonism.

Now I make that claim while not having done an exhaustive survey of all the reviews and critical essays in the Mormon journals or of all the papers presented at AML annual meetins or at LTUE panels. However, in my experience, Rosalynde is correct in that, generally speaking, when critical readings of texts by Mormon authors (whether featuring Mormon characters or settings or not) are done for a Mormon audience; and when the appeal of works by Mormon authors to Mormon audiences are explained; and when the appeal of certain genres to Mormon authors (especially speculative fiction and YA) are explained what is most often invoke is Mormon doctrine, worldview, ritual, history or symbolism. Or in other words: Mormon themes.

And so on that shaky evidence, I would like to raise two major issues:

The first is that theme and form aren’t easily separated. They intertwine. Themes develop across a work and are dramatized within the form and deployed with the aesthetics of that form. It does no good to point out that Alvin Maker is an analog to Joseph Smith without dealing with how that works within the alternate history/folk magic world that Orson Scott Card creates. And it’s quite obvious that Alvin’s story develops in certain ways that Joseph Smith’s didn’t because of the demands of the form. On the other hand, there are times that the thematic need to hew to the Joseph Smith story distort, perhaps, the norms of that type of genre fiction.

The second is that I’m not sure why theme has nothing to do with art and aesthetics. I may be out of my realm here (and Rosalynde does seem to be using “art” in the quote above to focus specifically on form and especially formal experimentation and most especially art as highbrow art), but it’s not clear to me how theme doesn’t have anything to do with art. In fact, quite the opposite — it has everything to do with art. Indeed, art that ignores theme is lifeless art. Theme animates and adds dimension to narrative.

Moreover, Rosalynde conflates Mormon thematics with “religious themes.” The problem there is that Mormonism contains within it all sorts of themes that go beyond simple issues of religion (say, of faith and lack of faith, and religious rites and displays). In fact, when our genre authors tap in to Mormon themes, they rarely focus on faith as a theme. Issues of agency, creation and creativity, power and leadership, adolescence and maturity, community insiders and outsiders, innocence and experience, endurance and self-control are much more often thematized in Mormon genre fiction, especially speculative fiction, which receives the lion’s share of critical attention. And in many works, even though Mormonism can be highlighted in relation to the theme, the themes can also often be viewed as the central thematics of the genres and sub-genres the authors are working in, and are often in dialogue with other works in the field that are not by Mormon authors. That complicates matters for those who are doing Mormon criticism, but it also suggests that a Mormon aesthetic is not in opposition to art or genre, highbrow or low, but rather overlaps with, affirms, interrogates and stretches the aesthetics and the thematics of the field. This may be less true of the works that are specifically geared towards the Mormon market, but even there you may find these same dynamics in play because the bottom line is that almost no writers of or readers of or critics of Mormon themed works read Mormon works exclusively.

Now even though I make these two points I do think that Rosalynde is correct in pointing out that typically Mormon criticism has focused too much on thematics and not enough on form. And I’m interested in ways that Mormon criticism can expand beyond the pointing at Mormon themes in works by Mormon authors and do a better job of situating such works in the overall context of whichever genres/forms/traditions/trends are appropriate to the work and author (thus my recent post on Brandon Sanderson and deification).

In my next post in this series I’ll look at how Rosalynde provides an alternative way of understanding Mormon fiction as a phenomenon and where that understanding may be useful to Mormon critics and where it may break down.

*a problematic observation in its own right because Shakespeare is an artist of genres working in a pre-novel (and thus pre-literary fiction as genre) world (a point Wraith of Blake makes at BCC)

3 thoughts on “A response to Rosalynde Welch’s critique of thematic Mormon literary criticism, part 1”

  1. Sadly, I’ve lacked the time to follow Rosalynde
    Welch or the reactions to her article. Looking at it now, though, the thing that makes me uneasy is the lack of specificity. While I like her formulation that “Mormon culture values the superior performance of shared forms over originality of artistic vision,” and hope we’ll spend some fruitful time chewing over it, I’d be more impressed with the notion of a broad pattern to how Mormon (genre) writers engage with their genres if it showed more attention and insight into particularities: for example, the specifics of how Mormon sf&f authors engage with their genre.

    Part of this is because, given my history, I’m intimately aware that (with the exception of some works that have been published by LDS publishers) most sf&f that has been written by LDS authors plays out in a space that isn’t Mormon culture as a whole, and that shares almost no overlap (for example) with Mormon romance writers. If there are common patterns, they aren’t the result of shared community but must be something analogous that is playing out multiple times on multiple different stages. Which may be the case, but it requires I think a demonstration from particulars.

    The notion that different genres have something in common with each other is actually (as I see it) a lit-fic-centric way of viewing things. For those of us who see litfic as itself another genre, the question of why Mormon writers have been more successful in genre fiction starts out with a false assumption. A better question is why Mormon writers seem to be more common/successful in some genres than in other genres. (Of course, a really rigorous approach would have to compare percentages of Mormons who read and write different genres with percentages of mainstream Americans who read and write those same genres, rather than assuming that all genres start out equal prior to their engagement with/by Mormons.)

    I’m also unsure that I agree with the notion that individual originality is genuinely more valued in realistic fiction — a claim that I see as essentially accepting litfic’s self-promotion as fact rather than investigating more deeply. If what you’re looking for is original vision when it comes to the story variable of setting, for example, litfic (particularly of the realistic school, passe though that may be in this postmodern day) fails to impress. I could easily argue that the attraction of sf&f for certain Mormon writers has to do with the fact that our cosmogony predisposes us a greater fluidity in considering the physical circumstances of our lives and how those might change.

    I guess that what I’m saying is that in looking at the relationship between Mormon writers and their genres, I think we need to be very careful about assuming that there’s a commonality that crosses genres. Certainly such an approach needs to examine each genre and its Mormon practitioners on their own terms *before* looking for (or worse yet, assuming) some kind of general cross-generic patterns.

  2. Jonathan:

    I’ll take about the notion of performance in my next post. And apparently Rosalynde is writing or has written a paper that goes in to more detail.

    And yes, excellent point about approaching genres on their own terms. The production of works by Mormon authors doesn’t happen in a bubble. I’ll have a brief post tomorrow that illustrates that well, I think.

    Of course, Rosalynde seems to be referring more to genre fiction written specifically for the LDS market (aka “LDS fiction”), which does put her on a little less shaky ground. But then again, Mormon thematic literary criticism has for the most part ignored this body of work.


    Exactly what I and Wraith of Blake are saying.

    Of course, one could claim that Shakespeare took the genres of his time and turned them in to the literary — he inaugurated the characterization with psychological depth that then culminated in literary realism and stretched the forms of the genres he was working in and created something new. But that gets in to a definitional argument of what counts as Art and what aesthetic values constitute Art, etc.

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