Doug Thayer sums it all up

I’ve finally got around to reading Irreantum 12:2, the fall/winter 2010 edition of the Association for Mormon Letters literary journal. Okay, so, how come none of you have mentioned that Doug Thayer sums up the entire field of Mormon fiction in its pages? Maybe you did, and I just wasn’t listening. And I don’t agree with everything he says. But still, his essay “About Serious Mormon Fiction” (which is a revised version of his 2008 Eugene England Memorial Lecture* at Utah Valley University) is remarkable for its breadth. In it he discusses:

  • Why he writes Mormon fiction
  • What he means by “serious” Mormon fiction
  • What he thinks about the “great Mormon novel”
  • Why serious Mormon fiction will offend Mormon readers (but in a useful way)
  • What he defines as the Mormon audience and how thinks it can be reached
  • The state of Mormon publishing and what he thinks is missing (in particular he sees a need for “a major popular web site for serious Mormon literature” [and also suggests that it might need a rating system, which we have also discussed around these parts])
  • Some theories on why Mormon literature “doesn’t flourish as it might be expected to”
  • How he answers LDS-centric criticism of serious fiction
  • Possible “themes, conflicts and plots” for Mormon novelists and some of the types of Mormon novels he would personally like to read
  • How Mormon doctrine might inform the themes of serious Mormon fiction
  • Who is going to write these Mormon novels (not his creative writing students, he says)
  • The craft of fiction writing
  • The fact that the novelists he is hoping for are likely to be Mormon women (and why)

That’s a lot of ground to cover and Thayer basically tackles here all of the major issues of the field and ties them together and sums it all up, and it’s well worth seeking out.

*It’s a pity these aren’t better documented.

14 thoughts on “Doug Thayer sums it all up”

  1. What can I say? Sometimes I let things sit on my shelf unread.

    Tomorrow or Thursday I’ll post the juiciest bit from it so we have more specific to talk about.

  2. So on reading your post, I dug out my copy of this Irreantum and read the essay. And I have to agree: it’s a good essay, well worthy of discussion here. A very good defense of a high-quality Mormon literature that fits the traditional definition of serious, realistic fiction.

    The blind spot of Thayer’s argument, I think, is his dismissal of the seriousness of non-realistic fiction: science fiction and fantasy, romance, historical fiction, and sentimental or “superficial” fiction (among those I noticed him naming). Such literature, he admits, has its place. But Thayer’s defense of the value of fiction is so integrally tied to the nature and function of realistic fiction that it inevitably relegates every other type of fiction to a lesser role. To do justice to these other genres, you have to be willing to entertain other models of reading that center what those genres are suited to do. I don’t think it’s possibly to understand why realistic Mormon fiction fails to thrive (by some measures) without acknowledging what its competitors offer, on their own terms.

    I’d like to see someone attempt to implement some of Thayer’s ideas: most notably, a popular website for serious Mormon literature and a major cash prize for Mormon literature. What’s needed, as Thayer says, is leadership and organization. Unfortunately, there are at present far too few hands even to maintain existing efforts. And I’d love to see the work of the bright, hard-working, kids-grown-up female novelists Thayer envisions taking up the pen — though I wonder how many of them are likely to keep writing long enough to develop the quality he talks about, in the absence of positive feedback or even an audience for what they create. (Something that’s frequently neglected in talking about the 10,000 hours trope is that very few people will stick with any enterprise that long without a fair amount of positive feedback — at least, in my experience and observation.)

    The serious challenge faced by realistic Mormon fiction is, I think, aptly illustrated in Thayer’s argument that reading such fiction provides “emotions, feelings, understanding, and pleasure we can’t have in any other way. Think of the experience of reading first-rate novels like Melville’s Moby Dick, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Dickens’ Great Expectations, Cather’s My Antonia, or a collection like Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” But how many Mormon readers (of any stripe) in my generation, let alone my college-aged child’s generation, read books like these without some kind of external requirement? The only author on the list that I’ve ever read purely for pleasure is Willa Cather. In short, I’m not really sure that realistic contemporary fiction is the literature of serious dialogue in the culture at large anymore.

    In this respect, it is perhaps telling that all the authors Thayer lists have been dead for almost 50 years or longer. Yes, they’re still being read, but largely as artifacts of our literary past. What do Mormon writers need to be writing in order to compete with the most serious voices of today’s literary landscape?

    There’s a lot that I agree with in Thayer’s essay, a lot that resonates with what I tried to do (whether well or poorly) in No Going Back. I think it’s an inspiring manifesto of what could be, mining the rich vein of serious Mormon literature. But I think that in limiting his manifesto to contemporary realistic fiction, Thayer ignores the areas where serious engagement with Mormon experience and ideas is most likely to draw in a broad audience of thoughtful believers.

  3. I completely agree Jonathan. I recently finished Jennifer Eagan’s (splg?) short story collection/novel in stories A Visit From the Goon Squad and was surprised and for the most part delighted to see it take a sci-fi turn with the last couple of stories — as in the last two take place in the future. It reminded me, actually, of Todd Robert Petersen’s Long After Dark (although his stories aren’t linked like Eagan’s are. I found that it didn’t detract from the “literary realism” of the work at all, and, in fact, felt like a logical extension of and ending to the narrative arcs.

  4. Yes, Thayer misses that Card, Sanderson and others (Howard Taylor comes to mind) are writing great fiction, just not “realistic” (by which he really means autobiographical fiction of the type that Thayer writes).

    Religious themes at the core of books, upcoming female authors that have been encouraged by them (cf the podcast series Writing Excuses), and some serious thinking. Too bad Thayer misses all of that.

    Which is why, I think, his vision basically excludes itself from the possible, the real or the future.

  5. Gee, I’d really love to read that… do I have to buy the issue? Is the full article online? Probably not….

    I don’t have a subscription to Irreantum yet. When we get to the point of affording stuff like that, there are lots of things I’d love to subscribe to.

  6. Unfortunately, you can’t buy single articles, and they don’t offer any free articles online or electronic subscriptions.

  7. Would one of you who has the issue be kind enough to tell me the first and last page numbers of the essay? (I’m going to see if I can request it through ILL because I am a terrible person and I don’t want to pay for it.)

  8. .

    I keep forgetting, Katya, and apparently I only look at AMV at work. If you shoot me an email, I’ll look it up.

  9. ILL is a good idea… I bet BYU-I also has it. Will check back for page numbers! (And now I feel guilty… I really should buy the zine if I want the article, I know. Just… this month is Halloween and candy somehow ended up being prioritized. Sigh.)

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