“…[E]ssentialism, usually regarded as dead in contemporary cultural studies, has survived and is thriving, having gone incognito under the rubric ‘authenticity'” (9) writes Jeff Karem in the introduction to The Romance of Authenticity: The Cultural Politics of Regional and Ethnic Literatures. Karem goes on to show how that plays out in the reception of the works of the writers William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Ernest Gaines, Rolando Hinojosa and Leslie Marmon Silko. It’s been good reading so far (I’m about halfway through), and, in particular, it’s an excellent example of reception studies (which dives into reviews, sales, correspondence, etc. to show how particular works are received by various publics/publications/peers).
How this essentializing plays out is fascinating to me. For example (and I’m reducing Karem’s careful scholarship here to make a point), in the case of William Faulkner, he had more critical and sales success when he wrote works that confirmed what people already believed the hallmarks of Southern Literature to be. Readers and critics were looking for work that, while well-crafted and new, reflected their notions of the South. Indeed, Faulkner’s more complicated (formally) and complex (thematically) novels — the ones I’ve actually read like Absalom! Abaslom! and The Sound and the Fury — were largely rejected (or recommended-with-reservations) by many critics and definitely by the reading public. This rejection, according to Karem, actually affected Faulkner’s later fiction, where he more or less accepted the role that he was expected to play.
Mormon literature has yet to produce a writer who has received the type of reception that the authors included in Karem’s study have gained with their fiction. But I do think that Mormon literature as a field is bedeviled by essentialism operating under the guise of authenticity. This is especially true of the representations of Mormonism and Mormons in popular culture, but also more broadly in the public sphere.
It appears, especially in this Mormon Moment (but also in past ones) that many (most?) critics and authors and even readers/viewers are only looking to confirm what they have already decided. To put it more bluntly: they essentialize all narratives about Mormonism, filtering them through the “key” touchpoints of Krakauer and Brodie (with maybe a little Mitt Romney nice/bland thrown in).
Thus we get the utter weirdness of objections to Matt Bowman’s recent book. As if any portrayal of Mormonism that doesn’t bring in Krakauer or Brodie (popular histories that are, in the case of the former, only marginally relevant to modern members of the LDS Church and, the latter, come with major qualifiers in terms of the evidence marshaled and the overall psychobiographic approach) is somehow in-authentic. As if Matt is refusing to face the true portrait of what Mormonism is. Because, of course, the only authentic Mormon narratives are the ones that essentialize, that reinforce the conventional wisdom of the educated elite (which is why when lower-educated detractors essentialize, the elite will sometimes rush to Mormonism’s defense — it threatens their essentialization from another direction).
The essentializing, of course, also gets rather schizophrenic because on the one hand Mormons are weird, marginal, sex-crazed (because of polygamy [note whenever the word harem comes up in relation to early LDS leaders]), perhaps even insidiously violent creatures (Mountain Meadows Massacre, Danites) who follow a strange mishmash of 19th century intellectual ferment created by a venal charlatan. But on the other hand we’re also the bland, nice, Puritanical, repressed, suburban, teetoling, Republican, meritocratic-seeking shorthand for all church-going conservatives in America. Want to make a joke in a film or television show about somebody not being able to do something? Deploy the Mormon reference. But also: the dual brand serves well the purposes of all those who think that must be something seedy and/or corrupt behind the niceness and competence (c.f. a hundred columns about Mitt Romney).
More work needs to be done on how this all operates, although some of it seems much too slight to be worth the effort.
I also wish we had more examples LDS authors who had written Mormon-themed nationally published novels so that I could compare their reception to the authors featured in The Romance of Authenticity. For now, though, I’d suggest the works of Orson Scott Card (especially the Alvin books), The Backslider, the works of the Lost Generation writers, Brady Udall’s two novels, and the Twilight series as particularly ripe candidates for Mormon lit-crit forays into reception studies. Angels in America and The Book of Mormon Musical also could benefit from this approach. Does anyone know if any work has alread been done in this area? I’d love to read it if there has been.
Finally, it occurs to me that I dipped my toes in these waters with one of my first posts here at AMV on the critical reception of Napolean Dynamite.