Thoughts Toward a More Thorough Treatment of Mormons, Mormonism, Literature, and Theory

Last week Kent asked AMV readers to consider what would make a Mormon theory of literature different. I could be wrong, but I’m assuming that his points of comparison–his different than–are general theories of literature as well as the theories of literature practiced in the Mormon Letters community. In response to Kent’s query, to the responses it received, and to some other things that have been written in the past two years or so about the relationship among Mormons, Mormonism, literature, and theory, I’m developing some ideas on this relationship and the ways it has been theorized by members of the Mormon letters community; as I develop them, I’ll further address some things that I think are vital to this relationship and how it functions as a critical apparatus. I offer the incipient thoughts that make up this post in earnest of the more thorough treatment I’m composing. My primary focus in this brief discussion is to outline the ways theory and Mormonism get talked about in Kent’s post and its thread of responses (at least those made up to Jonathan’s 2/10/14 reply).

I see reference to at least three kinds of theory in the discussion: theories of Mormon literature, theories of Mormons and literature, and Mormon theories of literature. While I plan to elaborate more on these kinds of theory as I develop a more extensive response, for now here’s how I distinguish among them:

*Theories of Mormon literature

    explore and attempt to explain the functions of literature written by, for, and/or about Mormons.

  • Jonathan points to this kind of theory when he mentions how many of the essays in Tending the Garden are concerned with “characterizing Mormon literature.”
  • Jettboy addresses it when he mentions that the statements made by Orson Whitney and reiterated by recent prophets have potential “for helping [writers] tell the story of Mormonism” and when he suggests that we ought to ask ourselves why we need a Mormon literature.

*Theories of Mormons and literature

    explore and attempt to explain the relationship between Mormons and literature. Among other things, these include efforts to understand, to analyze, and to critique: a) the literature Mormons read and/or the literature Mormons eschew and why they read it or eschew it; b) the ways in which Mormons read, receive, and respond to literature; and c) literature as a means to increased truth and righteousness. Such theories are often concerned with texts’ level of appropriateness for Mormon readers and often focus on how texts adhere or not to the principles listed in the Thirteenth Article of Faith: with how virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy a text is and by extension with how the text helps or doesn’t help readers become more honest, true, chaste, benevolent, and virtuous, and of greater benefit to others.

  • Kent points to this type of theory when he mentions the things Mormons tend to argue about when it comes to reading: “the role of evil in literature” and “the presence or absence of sex, profanity, and violence in literature.”
  • Jonathan addresses it when he says that “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”; when he suggests that within Mormon culture “there is a common (though not I think dominant) attitude that literature and literary production are somehow suspect in one or more [. . .] ways”; and when he argues that “any theory that seeks to justify a broader role for literature” “in the lives of the faithful” must do so “on Mormon grounds.”
  • Jettboy addresses it when he brings up the belief that “Mormonism and literature [. . .] aren’t compatible” and “cannot coexist” because reading literature (which isn’t “”˜real’ or practical”) is “a past time [sic] that teaches nothing and keeps people ignorant with lies and distortions.”

*Mormon theories of literature

    explore Mormon theology as a system of thought that, among other things, can uniquely discuss the creation and functions of language and literature and the ways readers interact with and are influenced by texts; and that can contribute to, draw from, expand upon, and critique other philosophical systems that have been used and/or constructed to discuss the functions of language and literature and the ways readers interact with and are influenced by texts.

  • Kent’s post as a whole asks after a Mormon theory of literature, which itself centers (in part) on this question: “Can Mormonism add anything different to the discussion about literary theory?” (Perhaps a more productive way to frame the issues central to this type of theory might be to ask the question like this: What can Mormonism add to and/or learn from other theories of literature and how can it critique them?)
  • Wm address this type of theory when he argues that “the place to start in terms of a Mormon theory of literature is with agency” and when he points to the work of “a BYU professor who has done some work on an ethical framework for approaching literature,” one that I’m assuming draws somehow from Mormonism.
  • Jonathan addresses it when he says he’s “interested in how Mormon scholars and writers can put a Mormon “˜spin’ on [. . .] different literary approaches” (including Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, archetypal criticism, and Tolkien’s thoughts on how God might use works of art).

As I mention in my introduction, this framework isn’t fully fleshed out: there’s obviously some overlap among these approaches (as happens with any attempt to categorize things) and each theory could be illustrated with specific texts that take up said theory. But I’m throwing my thoughts out there as I develop them so I can test the ideas on an audience and see how useful others think the categories might be in extending the conversation on Mormons, Mormonism, literature, and theory.

I, for one, am convinced that one way to advance this conversation is to avoid conflating the types of theory I mention here. Each ultimately serves a different function and may be more or less useful to different audiences within and without the Mormon letters community (more on those audiences to come). But I think distinguishing among these types of theory and their functions could promote less confusion as the discussion proceeds (confusion of the kind that happens when critics talk past each other because they’re each asking after different things) and could suggest ways we might more fully develop our personal and collective interests in Mormon approaches to literature.

So: thoughts on this framework-in-process?

10 thoughts on “Thoughts Toward a More Thorough Treatment of Mormons, Mormonism, Literature, and Theory”

  1. Good addition, Wm. How would you describe this type of theory? As efforts to explore and explain the functions of Mormon literature using general theories of literature? Or something different?

  2. I think that making these distinctions/creating operational definitions is good if only for the purpose of steering the conversation away from “this is good to read, this is bad to read, LDS writers write so that LDS readers can read clean stuff” etc. I think we’re more than that. I think we have some very valuable and unique things to add to every conversation. We are, after all, one of the few religions of American origin, and our history is such a grand mix of puritan, protestant, isolationist, zionist, yet, as a culture, we’re so big on getting our message out there.

  3. I like that this framework is at least a good place to start. I haven’t given it enough thought to know whether or not I agree, but I’d at least be happy to work within it until we have something better (assuming something better exists–I don’t know that it does).

    BUT, I do think that it would be useful to proceed.

    How about an ongoing series of posts, where we bring up questions in this framework, and attempt to work through the them? Is that feasible?

  4. A series of posts is definitely feasible, Kent. As I said, the framework is incipient and needs further development. It might be useful to flesh out some of the ideas, problems, and potential of it as a community. I’ll throw something together…

  5. I think we must be careful in the use of the word literature. Mormons have been a very literate people, but like I said very critical of fiction and imagined narratives. These last two are the bulk of what these posts seem to be discussing. Are the other forms considered part of the questions?

  6. “These last two are the bulk of what these posts seem to be discussing.”

    I don’t think that is true, Jettboy. At least in my own posts and comments, I don’t think I have been focusing on “fiction and imagined narratives” above any other form of literature.

  7. Jettboy:

    You say we “must be careful in the use of the word literature,” but I see no benefit or use in limiting the spectrum of literary forms taken up by any of the theories I’ve outlined in this framework. I see where you’re coming from when you mention that Mormons have historically been suspect of fiction and other imagined narratives; however, why should this attitude limit any of these theories to a focus on certain forms over others? Unless a theory (as would arise in the “Theories of Mormons and Literature” category) is dealing specifically with the relationship between Mormon readers and fiction–or any other form, for that matter–I think it’s of greatest benefit in all the categories I mention to define literature as broadly as possible and for critics/scholars to explore all literary forms.

  8. Several thoughts…

    First, Tyler, great start. I agree with your distinctions, and I think it’s important to be clear about what we’re discussing when, though I also think that in practice, there aren’t rigid boundaries among them — at least in part because criticism is written by people who, while they may be talking about the role of Mormon literature (for example), may do so from a perspective of trying to show how Mormon literature fits the criteria for why reading makes us as Mormons better people. And that’s okay. Nothing we do as part of this discussion, in my view, should disqualify any of the various kinds of literary criticism, including those that cross the categories you’ve mentioned here; rather, it should help us be clearer about what we and others are doing. (This is one reason why, although I concede Kent’s definitional distinction between criticism and theory, I don’t think the distinction is one that can or should be rigorously applied in practice.)

    Second and (I think) implicit in this is that different questions interest different readers/scholars/critics/whatever, to varying degree. And that’s okay, too. Too much effort in literary criticism/theory in general is spent trying to promote one set of questions above another set. There are too few of us talking about Mormon literary criticism/theory to waste our time (and potentially alienate each other) doing this.

    Third, I think Jettboy issues an important caution, which is that the answers to these questions are often quite different depending on the type of literature we’re talking about. I acknowledge that most of what I wrote in response to Kent’s earlier post, for example, was about fictive narratives. But what about nonfiction narratives? Personal essays? Poems with no narrative structure? We’ve all seen how theories for the value of certain types of literature (even within the category of imagined narrative) can fill a secondary purpose promoting one type of literature at the expense of others. Which I suppose I have to acknowledge is legitimate if it really represents a person’s views, though personally I don’t much care for it, from any direction. But while we’re being clear about the questions we’re asking, I agree that we also need to be clear about which types of texts we’re asking and answering them about.

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