What Would Make a Mormon Theory of Literature Different?

I’ve been listening to course lectures from a Theory of Literature course by Paul Fry of Yale University available through Apple’s iTunesU. If nothing else I hope that by carefully working through these lectures I can work through my inadequacy in discussing some aspects of literature. But I also hope that the course will help me organize what I’ve found in my “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” series.

The course is fascinating and entertaining (at least to me)–I wish I had somehow managed to cover this material years ago. It has led me to ponder a bit about where Mormons are in terms of literary theory. We’ve explored the ideas of Mormon criticism and Mormon theory of literature here on AMV a little, but I’m not sure that, outside of the idea of Wm’s “radical middle,” we’ve come up with anything particularly unusual–although we’ve certainly argued, as Mormons tend to do, about the details of things like the role of evil in literature and the presence or absence of sex, profanity and violence in literature. We certainly haven’t outlined any theory of literature or even discussed what structure such a theory would need. I’m not even sure yet if anyone has talked much about literary theory from a Mormon viewpoint[1. I haven’t done a literature search yet. Has any Mormon author explored anything along these lines anywhere? (other than as a short side piece or introduction in another work?). I’d love to know what BYU Studies or Dialogue or AML articles to read.].

In his introduction, Fry suggests that literary theory (like theory in many fields) boils down to answers or responses to a basic set of questions: What causes literature to be created? What is an author and what does an author do? What is literature? What is a reader and how does a reader read? These questions aren’t particularly surprising, of course. And it does seem likely to me that literary theory would be built on these questions.

Given that basic structure, I think that Mormon authors should (and perhaps have — let me know if you know where they have) ask what Mormonism brings to this structure. If there is a Mormon theory of literature, or a Mormon viewpoint about literary theory, what might be different?

[Before listening to Fry’s lectures, I don’t think I would have arrived at this question or attempted to answer it. However, I will be surprised if it hasn’t already occurred to other Mormons who have thought about literature. In retrospect it seems like an obvious question. If we don’t have something to add to the exploration of literature, then aren’t the already well-explored approaches to literature by non-Mormons sufficient?]

Part of this question lies in the distinction between what Mormons think and what religions in general think. The approach to literary theory as Fry describes it (as far as I’ve gotten in his lectures) is basically a-religious. Is it possible that religion has not seriously entered into the discussion of literary theory? Or have the religious who think about literary theory (there must be someone, shouldn’t there?) simply not found any place where religion makes a difference?

Of course, the obvious difference for the religious is the effect that God or the belief in a God might have on literature — and it isn’t hard to assume that religious thinkers would see the influence of God both on the author and on the reader in various ways. Religious thinkers have, of course, made claims about how reading might effect the reader — these concerns are, of course, the source for current concerns over “R-rated” materials.

Can Mormonism add anything different to the discussion about literary theory? I don’t know, but I suspect that we may be able to, simply because there are elements of Mormon theology that seem unique or unusual and which could bear on what authors and readers do and are effected by literature. Here is my short list of possibilities:

  • Mormon ideas about the nature and role of God (God as a physical being, God as our Father) may yield different ways in which He might influence either how literature is created or how literature is consumed and the effect that these have on the author and reader.
  • The Mormon belief in continuing revelation and regular inspiration from God in many facets of our lives suggests that His influence might be different or at least potentially stronger than what non-Mormon religious thinkers might see.
  • Mormon teachings about the nature and role of Man (Child of God, Spirit + Body, God in embryo) might suggest a different understanding of what an author is and what a reader is and how their roles are fulfilled.

I know this is all very vague and uncertain. Perhaps this is more about my own need to think through these ideas and find some kind of structure that makes sense for a theory of literature. Or maybe these ideas are so obvious that no one else has bothered to spell them out where I can find them (or I haven’t looked far enough and this already exists somewhere). Regardless, I hope that our readers here will tell me where I’m off, or what I have left out of this analysis.

But, more important than my own learning is the question of whether or not there is anything different about how Mormonism might approach literary theory. When it comes right down to it, will Mormon thought, beliefs and views lead to any different way of thinking about literature?

13 thoughts on “What Would Make a Mormon Theory of Literature Different?”

  1. As I have said in the past, I think the place to start in terms of a Mormon theory of literature is with agency.

    There’s a BYU professor who has done some work on an ethical framework for approaching literature (complete with diagrams), but I don’t have that article on hand so I can’t remember who it was or where it appeared (probably in BYU Studies).

  2. This is an area that interests me a lot, and one I used to try to raise on AML-List from time to time. I don’t have time to look things up, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head:
    – While there hasn’t been a lot written on this, there are some important articles out there. These include Mike Austin’s article, “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time” (published in Dialogue in 1994), in which he advocates for Mormonism as a minority literature; some of the essays in Marden Clark’s collection, Liberating Form; and some of the selections in Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature, edited by Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson, though admittedly most of these are more about characterizing Mormon literature than about developing a Mormon theory of literature.
    – Rather than a distinctly Mormon literary theory, I’m more interested in how Mormon scholars and writers can put a Mormon “spin” on the many different literary approaches that are out there. What would a Mormon-tinged Marxist criticism look (or a Marxist-informed Mormon criticism)? Feminism? Deconstruction? I’d love to see all of them.
    – Traditionally, one of the places where religious perspectives have thrived in literary criticism is archetypal theory (including variations such as Northrop Frye’s). Mormonism offers the happy possibility that universal archetypes represent narratives that arise in human cultures because we knew them before coming to Earth.
    – A good place to start with any Mormon theory of literature is how it is that reading literature can help us become better people, in light of Mormonism’s perspective on the eternal destiny of humanity. How is literature training for godhood? If the path of “comprehending all things” is something all of us must follow, that gives a different spin on the possibility of coming to know “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:79).
    – Tolkien’s idea that works of art could be taken up by God to become part of eternal Reality has intriguingly Mormon references that I think it would be cool to take up someday.

  3. One that didn’t make it into my previous post: some of the essays by Orson Scott Card in A Storyteller in Zion. (Firefox crashed and I lost some text…)

  4. I would like to put this question in religious and historical context. The answer that you will probably come up with is not going to be what literary lovers are going to want to hear. Yes, there have been a few positive statements about literature from Orson Whitney quoted by a few recent prophets about potentials for helping tell the story of Mormonism. That might even be the starting point; narrative as historical evaluation. Universal archetypes and jungian allegory are already prevalent in the large science fiction and fantasy collection of Mormon secular literature.

    Despite the small amount of mostly recent positive interactions between Mormonism and literature, the most common theory is that they aren’t compatible. Start talking about Marxism and feminism and you might as well doom the whole idea. The reason for either silence or a careful consideration of having a Mormon literature is that books have been dwarfed by other medium. The historical theory of Mormon literature is that they cannot coexist. It is a past time that teaches nothing and keeps people ignorant with lies and distortions. What happens in literature isn’t “real” or practical. I am not saying that is my own view as I love to read and write, but the negatives must be taken into account in order to make a complete theory. Looking at the past, it becomes as essential to ask “why” a Mormon literature as it is “what” a theory of it would look like.

  5. Jettboy, I have no idea what you are trying to say in your comment. You seem to be worried about what people think about literature more than any particular theory for describing what literature is, how and why it arises and how we can read it. Literary theory isn’t necessarily about what literature is good and what isn’t good. [And, to be honest, I think such debates are boring and generally a waste of time.]

    Personally, I don’t care whether “The answer that you will probably come up with is not going to be what literary lovers are going to want to hear.” I’m more interested in understanding things for myself, putting it all into a framework I find useful, instead of producing some grand theory that everyone accepts (although I guess that would be nice in an abstract sense).

    I’m also not looking for a cogent theory from LDS authority or even from LDS culture. Perhaps you have misunderstood my long-running “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” series. I’m just collecting what LDS sources have said, I am looking at them in a descriptive sense, NOT a prescriptive sense, or as pieces of some already existing LDS theory.

    When you say “Yes, there have been a few positive statements about literature from Orson Whitney quoted by a few recent prophets about potentials for helping tell the story of Mormonism.” I have to disagree because of my “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” series. That series is now up to 84 posts, all of them statements by LDS authorities or appearing in LDS magazines, and I’m far from exhausting these sources of statements. The vast majority of these statements are supportive of literature, although, like statements today, a minority of the statements believe some portion of literature shouldn’t be read or consumed. So I don’t think that there have been only “a few positive statements about literature” nor is it true that these statements are only “about potentials for helping tell the story of Mormonism.”

    You then wrote: “Despite the small amount of mostly recent positive interactions between Mormonism and literature, the most common theory is that they aren’t compatible.” Huh? What do you think I’m talking about when I use the word “literature”? I don’t think that you mean what this statement sounds like: that Mormonism is incompatible with any fiction or poetic expression. Throw out the hymn books! Poetry is incompatible with Mormonism!

    “The reason for either silence or a careful consideration of having a Mormon literature is that books have been dwarfed by other medium.” Another huh? We can’t consider film as literature? It doesn’t tell a story?

    “The historical theory of Mormon literature is that they cannot coexist.” A third confusing and probably erroneous statement. WHAT?? Whose theory? Are you thinking that literature refers to Mormon literary fiction? That is a VERY narrow definition, and not at all what I’m talking about. Literary theory has the same relationship to literary fiction as it does to any other genre or form of literature.

    “What happens in literature isn’t “real” or practical.” Again, I’m not sure what you mean by this. Is the book or drama not really there? Does the story not have an effect on your brain? If some piece of literature changes the way you think, is that not practical? I would hope Mormons think literature is practical, else why would we continually urge members to read literary works like, oh, the scriptures and the sermons from General Conference?

    I do agree with your last statement, “it becomes as essential to ask “why” a Mormon literature as it is “what” a theory of it would look like.” Yes, I think the why question is part of any literary theory. But since literature clearly does exist, that question is more descriptive than proscriptive.

  6. Responding to Kent’s response to Jettboy: Despite the positive comments you’ve accumulated in your Sunday LitCrit series, I think it’s true that in Mormon culture, there is a common (though not I think dominant) attitude that literature and literary production are somehow suspect in one or more of the following ways:
    – Suspect because “not real” and therefore inherently dishonest or (more subtly) likely to reflect the author’s own mistaken ideas about reality and truth, and/or likely to reflect philosophies of “the world”
    – Valuable only insofar as they impart some kind of didactic point, help to “spread the gospel,” or are faith-promoting
    – A distraction from more important things
    – Not a reliable or worthwhile way to earn a living

    None of these perspectives represents a Mormon theory of literature as such. However, each of them could represent possible influences or starting-points for such a theory, which (in each case) would represent a limited role for literature in the lives of the faithful (or anyone else). Any theory that seeks to justify a broader role for literature must answer or address these attitudes — again, on Mormon grounds.

    Put more practically: I daresay any Mormon with a love of literature will likely go through an experience like mine growing up, in which I experienced real anxiety over whether — with all the other good things needing to be done — I should be spending so much time reading and (potentially) writing stories. (And, to be honest, there were a lot of times when the answer was “No.”) My own personal response to that — evolved over multiple years, and involving experiences of my mission only increasing my love of literature — was the beginning of my own personal Mormon literary theory, developed specifically to enable me to say why literature was worth my time.

    I suspect this is one of the key points any Mormon literary theory must address, though hopefully we can move past that to consider other questions as well.

  7. Jonathan, I only have quibbles with what you are saying. [As far as I can tell, what you are saying doesn’t seem to be what Jettboy is saying at all.]

    I agree that Mormonism has been suspicious–of some areas of literature (notably fiction). But I don’t think that suspicion has ever been universal. As you observe, a didactic purpose often makes it acceptable, and some forms and genres (especially poetry) have not been criticized in any printed source I’ve seen.

    But, I’m not sure that a Mormon literary theory should give that suspicion much credit. To be honest, I’m not sure that the Mormon statements of suspicion are all that different from the suspicion expressed by Evangelicals now or many Christians of 100 years ago. They too were suspicious of literature in the same way, and I don’t think that any literary theorists have given their objections any more credit than I am giving the Mormon statements (not that I’m a literary theorist who has thought through all this completely).

    For the record, I do NOT want to simply dismiss all the suspicions of the past (or present). I am persuaded that there is logic behind these suspicions that I agree with. Some literature is simply time-wasting escapist trash — and I suspect that the statements expressing suspicion are simply not well thought out and are too broad.

    The problem is, for what the original post asked, does that really make a Mormon literary theory different?

    I’d have to say no, because I don’t think the objections are culturally different than what has happened in the broader U.S. culture, and there isn’t a clear basis in Mormon doctrine (as opposed to the doctrine of other religions) that demands these objections.

    In contrast, the idea that God is our Heavenly Father IS rooted in doctrine, and probably DOES have an influence on how we might think of literature.

  8. Hi Kent,

    I agree that we’re basically agreeing, with a few quibbles. And in the spirit of those quibbles…

    Historically speaking, I think most literary criticism tends to be at least partly aimed at powerful detractors from the originating culture. Marxist and feminist literary criticism, for example, both seem pretty self-evidently aimed largely at reclaiming relevance for literature in general (and favored authors in particular) in the face of criticisms on the grounds of irrelevance at best and support of existing economic/gender power structures at worst. If modern literary critics aren’t worrying about the concerns of religious folk, that’s because they aren’t seen as a powerful constituency. But a Mormon literary criticism that speaks to and for orthodox believing Mormon readers will have to address concerns on religious grounds from within Mormon culture.

    As to whether there are distinctively Mormon grounds for disapproving literature… I don’t think it’s a question I’d ever considered before. However, two possibilities come to mind — both cases where Mormon doctrine may give a unique impetus to concerns shared broadly by other religious groups:
    – First, the notion of wasting time. It’s true that Puritan New England is infamous for its work ethic, but Mormons (unlike Puritans) actually have a solid doctrinal reason for why each of us must be “anxiously engaged,” since our appointed destiny as humans is *not* to sit on the sidelines praising God but actually to enter the vineyard with him, and ultimately as his peers. Slacking off with time-wasting endeavors such as literature (by this view) is not merely disrespect for God, but waste of our own eternal potential.
    – Second is the strong impetus to, and celebration of, individual particularity that seems to be so innately a part of literature, at least as practiced in Western cultures nowadays. It is all about what makes the individual different and distinct — our limitations and flaws. In contrast, the notion of a progression toward divinity can be interpreted as drawing us away from the particular and limiting. From this perspective, literature and the way it teaches of thinking about life can constitute not just a distraction but a pull in the wrong direction.

    And now I’m off to Utah for a few days of applied Mormon literary criticism at LTUE…

  9. “Historically speaking, I think most literary criticism”¦”

    FWIW, I see theory and criticism as two different things. They inform each other, but aren’t the same. Paul Fry, in the online course I’ve been listening to, makes a very persuasive case for a difference — suggesting, basically, that theory is descriptive — it isn’t about suggesting what should be or what makes best literature, but is interested in explaining what is going on.

    In that vein, I’m not as concerned with Mormon suspicions or disapproval of literature as I am with how and why, from a Mormon worldview, literature exists, what authors are trying to do when they create literature and how readers react to that literature.

    While a theory of literature might inform an attempt to say what literature is better or whether literature is a waste of time or not, IMO that is secondary in literary theory to explaining why it exists at all and what it is doing.

  10. Jonathan:

    You say that because Mormons are to be “anxiously engaged” that “Slacking off with time-wasting endeavors such as literature [. . .] is not merely disrespect for God, but [a] waste of our own eternal potential.” But aren’t we also taught to seek wisdom out of the best books, to become more empathetic (even as I Am), and to make it our business and mission throughout life “to study and learn and become acquainted with all good books [there it is again], and with languages, tongues, and people”? Spending time with and seeking to understand literature and how it works is something that can help us to accomplish these things and to progress toward godhood. Being anxiously engaged in the work of words is a noble effort, especially considering the life-changing and world-making potential of language and narrative. Else why would Christ agree to be the Father’s Word?

    In my mind, since God speaks to us in our own language, to our understanding, it follows that becoming better acquainted with language and narrative and how they function is one way we can prepare ourselves for God to illuminate our minds with truths we couldn’t have previously imagined, understood, or retained. Reading stories keeps the mind active and can ultimately expand the intellect and give us experience–all things that increase the capacities we call intelligence, which is the glory of God. In this light, it’s disrespectful to God to say that spending time with literature is a waste of our eternal potential.

    Granted, we shouldn’t spend all our time with literature to the neglect of other important responsibilities; we need to be engaged with real-live people, too, for instance. But neither should we neglect the acts of language because of the false belief that words aren’t worth our time. Mormon doctrine suggests that words matter and it provides a unique and compelling vision of language and its role in our relationship with deity and in the continual unfolding of existence.

  11. Tyler:

    I think you should be clear to not ascribe that attitude to Jonathan himself. From what I can tell, he is taking a stab at how a disapproval of literature could be grounded in Mormonism as a thought experiment, but that’s not the attitude that he himself holds (especially evidenced by all the time he has spent engaged with Mormon literature). Now, that *is* an attitude that other Mormons might have so it’s important to counter it, and I agree with how you have argued against it. I just want to make sure that the context is clear for the bits that you are quoting.

  12. I know, Wm, and I probably should have made it clear that I don’t think Jonathan holds that attitude. I don’t see how anyone so involved in the MoLit community could…

  13. You caught me out. I’ve actually been hiding my real attitudes toward literature in general and Mormon literature in particular so that when it comes time for my dramatic reveal, you will all be crushed by my disapproval…

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