Defending minor literatures

Over at my personal blog I wrote a response to Lev Grossman’s recent WSJ article defending fantasy fiction. I think much of what I wrote over there applies to Mormon literature as well. In a nutgraf: trying to defend a minor literature (which is what Mormon literature is even though it’s status as such is messier than, say, an ethnic or minor national literature) almost always backfires because it is almost always done by positioning the minor literature in relation to the major literature.

In that post I also rail against something that I have mentioned a few times here and there in discussions of Mormon literature: the goal of literary respectability.

I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with individual writers aiming for literary respectability — to be published in the venues that give it; to write works that are in the idiom that garners that label. However, when fields (or a grouping of works in that field) consistently and obviously strive for such respectability they set themselves up for disappointment. Literary respectability never actually embraces or envelops a minor literature; it always simply plucks out the authors and works it deems respectable and co-opts them for its own purposes (Ursula K Le Guin, Gene Wolf, Phillip Dick, Brady Udall?).

As I point out in my paper Slowly Flowering, which looks at how the various literary periods of Mormonism are framed by Eugene England, by positioning Mormon literature as underdeveloped, authors and critics create a discursive space where they can be the ones to lead the restoration, the great leap forward, the Renaissance. This is a natural inclination. It is one I carried with me for several years.

But no more.

I’m not interested in taking defensive positions. I’m not breathlessly awaiting a Shakespeare or a Milton or a Roth or Morrison or even a King or a Rowling. I’m going to take the stories as they arrive and see what thrills me and intrigues me and touches me and annoys me. There’s a lot of good stuff going on. That’s what I want to talk about. And I also want the liberty to ignore some of it because it just doesn’t interest me without feeling guilty that I’m letting the field down. Not that all of this is much different from when AMV started out. I just sometimes need to restate it.

18 thoughts on “Defending minor literatures”

  1. I think I agree intellectually with what you are saying here, but I’m one of those who really wants Mormon literature to be respected and recognized as a legitimate minor literature–maybe because I’m trying to make a career (in part) out of studying it academically. So I’d like to see the day when Mormon literature garners as much admiration as the most admired of the minor literatures.

    At the same time, I recognize that Mormon literature will probably have to “sell out” in order to win the full admiration of the arbiters of literary respectability. Part of what’s great about contemporary Mormon fiction, after all, is that it’s operating outside of a variety of literary respectabilities, so it can pretty much be whatever it wants to be and say whatever it wants to say. That’s the advantage of having a small readership.

    Pandering to a wider, more diverse audience (i.e. making Mormon books more like, say, the latest National Book Award winners)–which would likely attract more respectability–would ultimately reign in Mormon literature’s uniqueness, whatever that might be. Frankly, I don’t want to read a Mormon novel that reads like a Phillip Roth novel. I’d rather just read Roth.

    So, I want Mormon literature to be respectable, but I want it to be respectable on its own terms. If the price of respectability is more novels like “The Lonely Polygamist”–which is an excellent novel, but not really typical of Mormon literature in general–then I’m not sure I want respectability. But if respectability can be gained from Mormon lit being what it is, then I’m all for it.

    Of course, getting that kind of respectability will be an uphill battle, but I still think it’s worth getting from an academic point of view, if not necessarily from the creative writer’s or reader’s point-of-view.

    Part of me also thinks that Mormon literature ought to first strive to gain a little more respect in the Mormon community itself, before trying to establish itself as a recognized minor literature, since Mormons seem to be largely unaware that it has anything close to a respectable literary canon.

  2. Wow, Scott. I’m sure its no surprise that I identify best with your last paragraph. I suspect it might have implications for the way the industry is structured currently.

    But I have to admit that both Wm’s and Scott’s points seem valid to me, and I suspect that the two views are not completely incompatible. (But don’t ask me to sort out how, I’m not sure I can).

    Wm, how does your position relate to the mormon publishing industry? I worry that your position would lead some Mormon writers and publishers to not push the envelope, or allow them to try to stay isolated from national influence and criticism.

    I don’t think that is what you were trying to say, I just wonder if some might use it as an excuse.

  3. Boy, Wm, I love your last paragraph and hope I’m able to someday claim your same level of aloofness. I’m getting there by degrees. It does seem a waste of time to wait for the great Mormon voice to emerge in the wider world when there are so many strong voices to celebrate right now. Really, as a culture, we aren’t very mature, but we do produce a fair amount of mature stories. What other group, especially religious group, of our size does this? I’d call that respectable. But I understand you to speak of respectability as something bestowed by respectable venues, by which you mean nationally publishing venues or small presses blessed by the approval of academia. I get that. But, like Scott, I can’t fully get over the desire to see MoLit gain respectability. Interestingly,I don’t see this as coming from the publishing world, which does tend to pluck authors and set them in pre-ordained categories, but from the academic. I’m still excited to hear of MoLit classes flowering on more and more college campuses.

  4. Scott:

    “I want Mormon literature to be respectable, but I want it to be respectable on its own terms.” I agree with that completely. One of the things that I like about your blog is that you are willing to approach various works of Mormon fiction on their own terms. I don’t know what one can expect from an academic point of view. One of the issues that Mormon literature has is that Mormon Studies has been largely focused on history (with a bit of sociology and religious studies). In addition, we have the weird dynamic of the two institutions — BYU and the UofU — best equipped to support Mormon Literature have political reasons not to (and so don’t — or at least not to the degree that one would expect). I’ve long that if I had the $40 million I would need to do what I want to do, one of the most difficult decisions would be which institution to set up the endowed chair in Mormon literature at. UVU has made a nice foray into Mormon Studies, but I would prefer a larger institution that has robust graduate studies. I think the best bet is for Mormon scholars to continue to produce good work.

    I’m less certain about gaining respect in the Mormon community. I think that respect will be more of a byproduct of an accretion of individual work rather than any effort of direct engagement. But I could be wrong. Perhaps we simply require the right effort at the right time.

  5. In addition, we have the weird dynamic of the two institutions — BYU and the UofU — best equipped to support Mormon Literature have political reasons not to.

    Can you elaborate more on this? (I don’t necessarily disagree, but I’m curious as to what you think are the politics behind the decision(s).)

  6. I think that they can be boiled down to this:

    BYU gains nothing from strongly supporting Mormon arts. If it does so, well, that’s what it would be expected to. In addition, because of the nature of art, especially narrative Mormon art which focuses more directly on the socio-cultural dynamics of Mormonism, BYU runs the risk of alienating the more conservative sections of its donor base.

    The UofU is in a no-win situation in that if they support Mormon Studies too strongly they risk alienating their non-Mormon donors and students. If they support it, but go edgy with it at all, then they risk outrage from the conservative Mormons. If they don’t go edgy then they don’t credibility from the non-Mormon or more liberal Mormons.

    In order for an ethnic literature department to work it needs strong support from donors and a rather ecumenical vision. I could be wrong, but it seems like neither BYU nor the UofU are likely to be places where that could easily happen.

  7. I attended a conference at BYU last year, and one of the graduate students there voiced the opinion also that Mormon literary studies would probably be taken more seriously from a scholar not affiliated with BYU than one who is–mostly because the expectation is that someone from BYU would A) study that sort of thing and B)study that sort of thing with a strong non-critical bias. I don’t know if this is really the case, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

  8. Kent:

    Your question presumes that I have some influence on other writers, which is clearly not the case. But to be clear, what I’m saying really has no bearing on the work of individuals unless they are motivated by grand visions of being the Mormon Milton (which seems unlikely). Rather,

    I think Mormon writers should continue to write and write for both the Mormon market and the national one. I hope that Mormon publishers continue to (and even do a better job of) publish Mormon-themed fiction and/or fiction geared towards a Mormon audience that is well-crafted and shows an awareness of literary history and the current state of narrative art — and I do hope that we see viable boutique/indie publishers grow/arise/flourish.

    What I’m less interested in is couching how we receive individual works and how we talk about the field as a whole in the terms of defending Mormon literature or prophesying Mormon literature.

  9. The funny thing with A), Scott, is that there are no strong indications that A) is a valid concern of scholarship at BYU because most of the signals of late have been that it’s *not* an obvious expectation that someone there would study that sort of thing. Indeed, BYU seems to be overcompensating because they are afraid of charges of provincialism. This is exactly the sort of thing that I’m tired of. But I admit that I could be reading the situation wrong.

  10. Lisa:

    I don’t think it’s a position of aloofness. Rather I think it’s a restatement of something that I’ve been saying over the past couple of years: I think we all would do better to spend our time engaging with individual texts. Digging in. And not being afraid to be a fan of works even if that makes us less respectable. And not being afraid to ignore some works.

    This is a weird thing to admit, but because for several years, I read almost everything, I now feel guilty when I don’t. I think that because the field seemed so small that it seemed to me like in order to have credibility one needed to keep up with everything that was happening. It burnt me out. And then I felt bad that I was ignoring certain works (I still haven’t read Dispensations and there’s an edition of Irreantum that I’ve been studiously ignoring. And then there’s all the novels, etc.).

    And yes, I agree that we are respectable already. That’s part of my point. To get Zen, a lot of energy seems to be spent in defining or defending rather than just being.

  11. Th.

    Now, see, at one time I would say that one of these days something will (catch on), but I now no longer care. {wink}

  12. coming back here late, as usual. Aloofness. I guess that’s what it would feel like to me if I could get past feeling like I should be better aware of what the community is producing. and it doesn’t make a lick of difference whether I’ve read something or not. I desire to feel more aloof.

    As far as the BYU/UofU dynamic goes, I think you’ve nailed it. I’m placing my bets on UVU as the future center of MoLit scholarship. I’ll will happily wait for MoLit studies to grow and for graduate progroms to burgeon. That little school (not so little anymore) is one dynamic institution. My daughter opted for UVU over BYU and I grow more and more pleased w her decision. But not the out of state tuition. sheez.

  13. Interesting.

    Honestly, this discussion digs into me just a little. I love writing. I love writing fiction geared toward a Mormon audience, but of course would love to take that message… that “us mormon” ness, to a larger audience. It seems to me, though, that mormons don’t tend to become mainstream because of their mormonness, but because chance takes them into the limelight and their mormonness is a piece of controversy. Or because someone from “the outside” (eg south park dudes) take an interest in us and sort of paint us on their canvas.

    I get caught up in that sort of mindset that has been mentioned often here… the idea of the “Great Mormon Novel.” And then I think, well, I just like writing. And I happen to be mormon… and I happen to love writing on LDS themes (among other things) so… I’ll just put everything I can into my stories, and they’ll be as great as they can be.

    I think that when we create with the intent to “show the world who we are” as Mormons or “prove we can be great” as Mormons, we end up accidentally giving a preachy kind of edge to what we create. I don’t know. I’m probably entirely guitly of that, too.

    I hope you at least read my story, William. I’m getting published by Cedar Fort this coming spring 🙂 So excited.

  14. Make sure to let me know when we’re close to publication, Sarah. We’ll do an author Q&A here at AMV.

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