The New Mormon Fiction: Post-Faithful Directions of a Post-Utopian Form–Scott’s 2014 AML Conference Proposal

Following Tyler’s lead, I’ve decided to post the proposal for my AML presentation, which will be an expansion of my DBD post on “The New Mormon Fiction” from a few months back. Glenn Gordon is accepting proposals for the conference until March 20th, so if you are interested in presenting, there is still time. Based on Tyler’s proposal, and other proposals I’ve heard about, it’s going to be a great conference. 

See you there.

Mormonism has undergone significant changes over the last twenty years, leading sociologist Armand Mauss to declare that the LDS Church now has a different “feel” than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among the changes has been greater transparency from the Mormon hierarchy on controversial subjects, an increase in open dialogue within Mormonism via the internet and social media, an apparent spike in faith crises, and the emergence of new sites of cultural tension.

What effect have these changes had on Mormon literature? In my presentation, I will argue that these conditions have contributed to what I call the New Mormon Fiction. Like earlier works of Mormon fiction, these works are “post-utopian” in the way they continue to reflect Mormonism’s desire to assimilate with its host cultures. However, unlike earlier examples of Mormon fiction, these works are essentially “post-faithful,” or largely unconcerned about fiction’s role as a vehicle for Mormon propaganda (of any stripe). Rather than bearing testimony, they seek to capture both the euphoria and anxiety of Mormonism in the information age.

My presentation will outline several trends that characterize the New Mormon Fiction. For instance, some works of the New Mormon Fiction are absurdist and darkly comical. Others are comprised of fictional documents, document fragments, and interviews that call into question what we know about history and narrative. Still others foreground conflicts between individuals and information rather than between individuals and the Church, its members, or the dominant culture. Collectively, my presentation will argue, these works comprise a new Mormon fiction that foregrounds acts of discovery and recovery, creative production, and paradigm subversion to disorient readers and force them to configure new realities, question long-held assumptions and notions of truth, and confront the challenges having “too much information.”

20 thoughts on “The New Mormon Fiction: Post-Faithful Directions of a Post-Utopian Form–Scott’s 2014 AML Conference Proposal”

  1. “Like earlier works of Mormon fiction, these works are “post-utopian” in the way they continue to reflect Mormonism’s desire to assimilate with its host cultures.”

    Do the works you are talking about merely reflect the desire to assimilate or do they sometimes interrogate it as well?

  2. Yes, definitely–although I think some contemporary Mormon writers are more interested in aggressively interrogating it than others. At the same time, I’m interested in the idea of reflecting being a form of interrogation. To evoke or reflect a desire is also, in some ways, already to initiate commentary on it–or the seed of commentary.

    I might say that your story “Conference” is a short story that aggressively interrogates the “post-utopian” desire (or stance), whereas “Gentle Persuasions” or Theric’s “Byuck” do so in a much more subtle way. All three of them, however, reflect it.

  3. Interesting. I do feel like some of my other (at the moment unpublished) work is responding to what you’re talking about as well, although, of course, it’s generally difficult to create the distance from your own work that is needed to approach it critically.

  4. .

    I hope you and Tyler at least will record your papers for the internet since that’s the only way nonattendees can be assured of hearing them later.

  5. Please don’t ignore sf, horror, and other genre fiction in your framing of this. It seems to me that (for example) most or all of the stories in Monsters and Mormons fit the frame you’re describing, as does Butler’s alternate history Mormon steampunk novel City of the Saints. I’d say that in general, almost any alternative Mormon history has a high likelihood of falling into what you’re describing — though I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s true of Orson Scott Card’s fiction along those lines (e.g., Alvin Maker series), which are in fact (it seems to me) largely about indirectly promoting faith in what Card sees as the essential messages of Mormonism.

    On another level, I have to admit to a certain ambivalence about this direction in Mormon fiction. I see and often like and admire the kind of post-faithful writing you’re talking about (nice term, by the way, though liable to potential misinterpretation from those not familiar with literary-speak), but don’t feel entirely comfortable with it — and can’t imagine writing it.

    Perhaps it’s a generational thing — though at the risk of sounding dreadfully ageist (or something like that), I also can’t help but wonder how much relates to having children of a certain age. Faithfulness is higher on my radar now that I’m constantly wondering about the choices my children are currently making and will be making over the next few years, and whether the tools we’ve provided are sufficient to help make those choices good ones.

  6. .

    Since Scott can’t possibly read every book available, it seems like excluding those that don’t ask to be included in these discussions is a reasonable paring.

  7. I may, of course, misunderstand Scott’s intended category. If I understand it correctly, though, it seems to me that recent directions in Mormon-themed sf&f fit that category so well and make up such a large part of what *could* be talked about as part of that category that not at least mentioning them would be egregious. They are part of the literary-cultural moment.

    I fear this discussion may be contaminated by the larger discussion of “what is Mormon literature” going on at the moment over at the AML blog. In this case, though, I really don’t see how you can talk about the phenomenon Scott is mentioning without talking about such a huge part of it — or, alternatively, clarifying why it is that this *isn’t* what you’re talking about.

    It’s certainly true that no one can read every book. That’s why it’s useful to put things like this out there — so that others can point out germane aspects of the phenomenon of which you might be unaware. Obviously, it’s up to Scott whether he feels that any of these are worth pursuing. In this case, I think that what he’s talking about is a framework that would allow for a fruitful discussion of Mormon fiction that crosses some of those genre boundaries. (A discussion that crosses boundaries, I mean, not fiction that crosses boundaries, though there may be some of that too…)

  8. .

    That stands to reason. And things like Butler’s novel I imagine would decidedly qualify. But you are right in that the discussion at the other blog is contaminating things.

    I have a post tomorrow that I hope will give us some new vocabulary.

  9. Part of why I think it could be valuable to draw in examples across genres is because what Scott’s talking about may be less a literary shift than an extraliterary trend among younger generations of Mormons (younger than me, I mean), toward a genuine celebration of Mormon difference as opposed to embarrassment and/or defensiveness. Neither assimilation nor circling the wagons, but seeing our own particular Mormon identity as itself a legitimate part of the larger culture, just as worthy as any other identity.

    And if that’s the case, it’s something that’s happening across genres. And sf&f is a very big part of it, not just within Mormonism but across American culture. It is, I hypothesize, akin to the impulse toward (geeky) eclectic playfulness that makes XKCD so popular.

    Which leads to the following new thought (for me): Maybe young Mormons are becoming *fans* of Mormon culture, history, and doctrine in a way that hasn’t really happened before. And where else but sf&f, in all the literary world, has the line between fans and practitioners been so blurred? Where else have the inmates been so thoroughly integrated in running the asylum? Maybe in another 10 years — if it flourishes — the AML conference will look more like a science fiction convention than an academic conference.

  10. At the risk (okay, near-certainty) of running this into the ground…

    During my graduate career, I encountered (though I didn’t study in depth) Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. To the extent I remember and understand correctly, Bakhtin frames phenomena such as parody as democratic inversions of existing power structures. And there’s some truth to that.

    It seems to me, though, that there’s another kind of parody, one which in celebrating and mocking its object also celebrates and mocks itself — because the parodist is part of what is being parodied. Perhaps it’s nothing more mysterious than simply not taking yourself too seriously.

    In any event, I think that’s the spirit of playfulness I see among fans of various kinds: in Randall Monroe, in the authors of (most of) the parodic fanfiction I read on the Internet–and in people who write stories about Eliza R. Snow as a sneaky ninja assassin, or about the desserts at a Relief Society dinner mutating and attacking ward members, and which a certain segment of Mormon literature of all stripes seems to be embracing. If I understand correctly, I think that’s part of what Scott is talking about.

  11. .

    I’m in that unnamed generation between X and Millennial, but I think Jonathan’s right in that I may be like the Millennials who, research is proving, are more open to the variety of human experience and demand a right to sit at the table no matter how they self-identify. I’m unwilling to apologize for being Mormon. (Maybe I’m hipper than I thought.) So yeah, Jonathan may really be onto something here.

  12. “If I understand correctly, I think that’s part of what Scott is talking about.”

    Yes, I think there’s nothing I disagree with in what you write about parody and how it functions in the kinds of literature I’ll be speaking about.

    As I see it, the New Mormon fiction is “post-genre.” I think the rising generation–both in American literature and Mormon literature–is less interested in generic boundaries than previous generations–which is probably a hard sell for Mormon audiences since the Mormon market thrives (so to speak) on generic distinction. Still, I think the New Mormon fiction has the potential as a middle-ground between (or, put another way, has the potential to deconstruct) the apparent divide between “literary” and “genre” Mormon fiction.

    You might say, then, that the New Mormon fiction offers critics an invitation to quit beating a dead dog. It doesn’t ask us to take sides, but rather work together. (You might say this is the utopian work of the NEw Mormon fiction.)

    I should probably mention, also, that “City of the Saints” (much of which I didn’t care for) and “Monsters and Mormons” (much of which I did) have long been a part of my understanding of the New fiction. Both will get shout-outs in my presentation–just as they did in the conclusion of my dissertation.

  13. Excellent.

    One of the tricky things about about playfulness (a word I notice that I keep coming back to) is that it depends so fully on personal taste. Which, of course, is true of every aspect of literature, but seems particularly crucial in areas such as parody where there seems to be a noteworthy switch between “cool” and “meh.” For myself, there was a lot of Monsters and Mormons which, although I approve the concept, left me cold, largely because I wasn’t all that captivated by zombies or whatever and so didn’t get that thrill fromm encountering them in a Mormon setting.

    Which is part of why I’m not sure I accept that the results of this kind of impulse are post-genre, although I agree that the impulse operates across genres. So much of what appeals to all of us in what we read is about elements that I see heavily linked to genre. Embarrassed though I am to admit it, part of why I like fantasy is because I think trees are cool — and although there’s a lot of fantasy that isn’t about trees, you find precious little about “trees as trees” (as Tolkien put it) in any other genres (except, nowadays, writing about nature).

    Lest this seem too superficial, I hasten to add that I think a lot of the impetus for realistic literature is much the same. Part of why I don’t care a lot about Faulkner is that I simply don’t care that much about the post-Civil War American South. And if you don’t care not just about people and society in general but about people in that particular society, Faulkner’s writing is a lot less interesting.

    All of which, however, is part of a larger argument I have with a long trend in literary studies that elevated character and theme as “universal” while denigrating setting as a key concern only in certain kinds of genre fiction, and therefore as part of the reason why genre fiction was inferior — not acknowledging, as I see it, that part of why we like any given story or set of stories more than others is its particulars, as opposed to the universals. Maybe literary criticism is finally getting past that. (One of the disadvantages of no longer being in the academy is that you tend to assume the same arguments are still being fought there as when you were a student.)

    In short: I’m skeptical about proclaiming post-genre while most readers still say they like certain kinds of books and stories but not others, in ways that largely sort themselves out in genre-based ways. Readers such as William Morris who seem to equally enjoy dabbling in sf&f and literary fiction still seem to me to be the minority. (Which raises the question, for William and those like him: Does all your reading go into one general experiential pool, or do you simply enjoy multiple — but still different — kinds of reading?) My own children (very much readers, and very good readers) have explicitly told me not to bother them with any contemporary realistic fiction I might happen to write, though if and when I finally write some fantasy stories they’ll gladly read that. But I readily admit that my sample size is limited.

  14. One final thought (for now):

    My other reason for not wanting to jettison genre too quickly as a critical category is because I do think different genres genuinely have different strengths. Most (perhaps all) of the attempts I’ve seen to develop a critical apparatus that is supposedly independent of genre wind up privileging aspects of literature that are strengths of some genres, but not others. That, I think, is an inevitable reflection of the fact that we as readers (and then critics) inevitably value some things more than others. The preservation of genre as one element in the critical mix serves as a reminder that others’ priorities may, and often do, vary.

  15. I should probably mention here that my topic is not trying to generalize about Mormon literature as a whole. This is merely one direction some writers are taking. I don’t see Mormon writers generally abandoning genre any time soon. Sci-fi and romance writers (and readers) can still do their thing. I’m focusing on the Jack Harrell-William Morris-Theric Jepson-Steven Peck crowd who color outsie the genre line. They represent interesting one trend among many.

  16. ” Does all your reading go into one general experiential pool, or do you simply enjoy multiple — but still different — kinds of reading?”

    As a reader, I try to be forgiving of the limits and tics of various genres/subgenres. Which means there are some genres/subgenres that I just don’t read because I can’t be charitable about those limits and tics.

    The majority of what I’ve read (60-80%*) the past decade has been SF&F; whereas the previous decade it was literary fiction (that was more like 80-90%).

    In comparing those two decades of reading experiences, I’d say that I’m reading all of it for the same things (themes, effects, experiences), but that I have different expectations for what aspects of those things I’m going to get out of what I’m reading. This adjustment of expectations can be difficult to navigate, which is why I often don’t know exactly how I feel about a book after I read it, although for whatever reason I have the good/mis-fortune to be the kind of person who can immerse rather fully into the flow of a story and buy-in to the world of the book fairly easily.

    I had an interesting experience after finishing grad school: I went on a binge of SF&F reading that lasted an entire year. And at first, I found the emphasis on plot and setting kind of silly and was distrustful of stirring, emotionally satisfying endings. But very quickly, I got hooked on that kind of reading experience, and a year later when I returned to literary fiction, I found it hard to get into and frustratingly low on plot and too high on ambiguity. But after a couple of days of sticking with it, I discovered that I like the effect that it was having even if it was different from (much) of the SF&F I had previously been reading. Which meant that in the space of a year, I experienced moments that reflect the stereotypes that genre and lit-fic readers have about each other and their preferred genres — and yet was able to get over myself and enjoy both modes of reading (but not just both — because different books in the same genre require different expectations).

    This suggests that, at least for me, so much of how we reaction to fiction is conditioned by our prior reading experiences as well as as our expectations going into a book. Not a new insight, I know, but it seems like this is ignored so often when these discussions come up.

    So, yes, there are different reading experiences, and I do enjoy each of them, but they also all feed into one tasty melange that is comprised of “the reasons I read fiction and what I want to get out of it” and also those reading experiences definitely don’t break down cleanly along genre lines. Indeed, the sweet spot for me is often somewhere in the middle between (the best**) lit-fic tendencies and (the best**) SF&F tendencies.

    And that reading record also partly explains my writing interests which range between overt Mormon and not Mormon and genre and literary fiction with various points in the middle.

    *I know this because GoodReads tracks this.

    ** meaning “those which I prefer”

  17. The majority of what I’ve read (60-80%*) the past decade has been SF&F; whereas the previous decade it was literary fiction (that was more like 80-90%).

    In comparing those two decades of reading experiences, I’d say that I’m reading all of it for the same things (themes, effects, experiences), but that I have different expectations for what aspects of those things I’m going to get out of what I’m reading.

    I go back and forth like this. I got tired of romance and for a long time I read women’s fiction (not the same as romance), mainstream, and literary fiction. I didn’t classify any of it. If a premise intrigued me, I picked it up.

    This is the key: I did not differentiate nor did I go into anything with expectations. I never have. I was reading litfic and mainstream fiction when I was a tween and into my teens and it never occurred to me to think about what shelf the book belonged on in the bookstore. My method of finding books back then was just to wander library stacks and pull out random books and read the blurb.

    I classify myself as a romance writer because I felt that was closest to the kinds of stories I really liked to read, but turns out those weren’t romance at all. They were women’s fiction. There were happily ever afters in them. Why WEREN’T they romance? I didn’t know. It confused the crap out of me. I could have saved myself so much angst if I’d been more aware.

    So while I love discussions like this, sometimes it frustrates me because I don’t know ANYBODY else who reads without genre expectations. I can read what is marketed as romance and be able to say afterward, “This is not conforming to genre expectations and shouldn’t be marketed this way,” but I don’t enjoy it or NOT enjoy it on the basis of what genre it’s in.

    (Although what does irritate me is if the hair color of the cover models don’t match the description in the book.)

  18. I tend to prefer works that don’t conform to genre expectations — it’s those that hew to closely to genre expectations where I need to sometimes think about and acknowledge them.

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