Mormon narrative art: interesting — not serious

I’ve been following with equal parts hope and concern, the conversations on Dawning of a Brighter Day (see here and here) that are attempting to revive the Association for Mormon Letters. I have written a guest blog that should be appearing in that space soon that lays out my thoughts on the foundational stuff for the AML — mission and board structure/purpose.

I have many other thoughts as well, but the primary one that I want to address is the tension between literary fiction writers/readers/critics and genre writers/readers/critics. There are other important tensions that impact the AML, but this is a foundational one. And one that has the potential to foul things up considerably. It has already cropped in the comments to Theric’s post and was a contributor (although not the driving factor) to the creation of LDStorymakers and also to the Whitney Awards.

I use the terms literary and genre in the previous paragraph. I don’t like those terms. And neither do some of the people who get labeled with them. They have their uses, but they can be quite limiting. And some of the best works of Mormon narrative art completely break down when trying to categorize using that division.

One way to get around the use of “literary” is to deploy the related term “serious literature”. Serious just isn’t a very useful descriptor. And it’s insulting. As in: if someone using that term doesn’t include certain works in it then that by extension means that those works aren’t “serious.”

All creative work is serious (even, often especially, if it is humorous).

So what I propose is that as we think about what narrative art should get attention from the new AML, we use the word interesting. Not actually use it as a term, a label. But rather that that’s a* key metric for what works get attention.

The nice thing about interesting is that it doesn’t exclude genres and audiences. There are many ways that a work can be interesting in a way that fits with the AML. For example: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is not very interesting in terms of sentence level prose or overt Mormon content or use of poetic imagery or plot structure or narrative voice (all qualities that many people would file under the umbrella “literary” or “serious”). And yet it has received attention from LDS literary critics because it is interesting in terms of thematics, plot, reception among readers, including LDS readers, and reception among national reviewers/critics.

Stories can be interesting in many different ways and interesting in different ways to different audiences. But, at least in my experience, not every story is interesting enough to write about, talk about, receive consideration for awards, etc. So using interesting as a metric doesn’t mean that every single work get the same amount of attention. It simply means that the works that the AML engage with need to have aspects that stand out, that are worthy of taking notice and considering further. And that’s regardless of how “literary” or “serious” they may or may not be.

*There’s another key metric. But that is covered in my guest post for the AML.

43 thoughts on “Mormon narrative art: interesting — not serious”

  1. .

    I’ve actually given this word some consideration, but not enough to decide whether or not it was really the word I was looking for.

    Your argument works for me though.

  2. This is one reason I stay out of many conversations both here and on other sites. I don’t feel qualified in the “literary” area and the things I find interesting never seem to contribute much to anyone else’s conversations. I can be interested by myself in silence and though I wish for interaction and discussion, I sometimes fear the labels that might start flying, or the implications that my thoughts aren’t serious enough. This is based on early experiences of mine trying to join this community. This is also a reason I’m hesitant to share my own work, or to even make it in the first place. I know it’s not a good reason, and it’s not my only one, but it is one.

    I agree that “interesting” shouldn’t be applied as a label, though. That could become even more insulting than “serious.”

  3. Wm,

    I agree that we need to be careful, and I think I like this metric. I hope I wasn’t one of the people giving you pause. My primary concern is that AML be an association that keeps thinking about the ML, both in terms of what constitutes it and in an engagement of its content. Genre work has, potentially, everything to do with that. (As well exclude Mel’s plays because they get performed, right? Doesn’t seem sensible. Of course, Mel’s stuff IS highly literary, and genre fiction can be, too.)

    That said, the nature and performance of our interest ought to matter. I hope the AML remains big tent, and that anyone with an interest in Mormon arts feels both welcomed and stimulated by what goes on, but I also hope that conferences don’t become (exclusively) workshops. Storymakers et al serve that function. In other words, what sets AML apart is that it is both critical and creative in its outlook, and those two dimensions can very productively overlap. There ought to be rigorous and high-level conversation about key issues, scholarly presentations, and energetic readings and panels, the whole simultaneously responsive to a broad audience and a range of interests.

    Similarly, I hope Irreantum (restored or resurrected) can support that (call it a) personality that differentiates it from the sort of poem-a-day populism that would ultimately dilute and not fortify our collective sense that some pretty dang awesome things are going on and are worth attention and consideration.

    So maybe what you’re sensing over there is an awkward effort to negotiate a range of potential interests, expectations, educations, and exasperations.

  4. It’s definitely an awkward range. It always has been. I’m trying to put together some foundational principles that might help us negotiate those.

  5. Exactly.

    So, when it was thriving, the AML-List tended to generate activity because of interest in these definitional conversations. They could be fun sometimes. And the energy also created some great discussion and analysis of specific works, which was quite valuable. But boundary and definitional thinking can only take you so far.

    What I’d hope is that the new AML will focus itself on activities that, while not ignoring the definitional, canonical and boundary discussions that are always come up, will put a primary focus on activity that is specific. That is about works and people rather than the broad questions. Those are important. But I suspect that focusing on specific works will help us explore those questions even better than just discussing them in the abstract.

  6. I know that I’m the person who introduced the term “serious” into the conversation, but I’m not really very wedded to it. Mostly, I was trying to express it not as part of what AML’s focus ought to be, but rather in terms of the need that isn’t being served elsewhere if not by AML (or some future substitute). And as I hope my later comments clarified (when asked about this issue), really I want to interpret this broadly, and not as a marker for particular genre so much as for whether works “seriously” (in whatever way) engage with Mormonness. Which, yes, can certainly include humor.

    More precisely, I tend to think that it’s not so much works as conversations that qualify as serious. On any of a number of different grounds. For me, promoting that kind of conversation is one of AML’s key purposes (and joys). But yes, I also think AML serves as a way of promoting literature that deal seriously with Mormons that in many cases don’t have major institutional sponsors, simply by drawing attention to them.

    Honestly, though, the first need is simply to get things going again and get the conversation restarted. Which I, too, watch with “equal parts hope and concern” — though considerably more hope than I’ve felt for a year or more.

  7. Even though I have used the word “serious” or “literary” as descriptors of literature I’m interested in, I do appreciate Wm’s suggestion that maybe I don’t want to be as exclusionary as what my word choice may have conveyed. That’s why in my comment over at the “Accountability for the little guy” post mentioned the idea of “excellence.” I’ve read Science Fiction and Fantasy works that are excellent and a part of the “canon,” meaning books well-read critics, writers, and readers recommend to each other that are likely to stand the test of time. But, ultimately, words like “interesting,” “excellence,” or whatever-word-we-choose are subjective to the reader doing the judging. And the respective reader’s mind is a moving target. Some readers find plot-driven, fast-paced popular fiction interesting, but character-driven, lyrical, meditative literary fiction boring. Yet, depending on the reader, those judgments could be reversed.

    Not that I’m a big player in this decision, but I’m all right with keeping the field wide. There are interesting and excellent works in all the genres. It’s just that I saw AML’s focus as being the purveyor of excellent, interesting Mormon-themed works that one hundred years or more from now someone can point to as still being “excellent” or “interesting,” and still “relevant,” in some way. I guess, for me, that means these are works that one can read and re-read and still get something out of them. Many popular works are one-shot deals, in my opinion.

    I think in the end AML’s focus will have to be exclusionary of something. If its mission is to promote the best in Mormon-themed art, theatre, film, poetry, essay, and fiction (fill in anything I missed), then it does not promote what doesn’t meet that standard. Of course, what is “best” is often one person’s or a committee’s subjective, but hopefully not arbitrary, decision, open to debate. But since many of you are in academia and teaching literature, you can probably get an idea of what I’m after, what I mean.

    It reminds me of what some judge who had to decide what was obscene in a pornography case said, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” I feel a little like this with what we’re trying to define here. Anyway, my two cents.

    Wm, I look forward to your post about the other key metric. I do enjoy your reasoning and respect your opinions.


  8. Michael said:

    If its mission is to promote the best in Mormon-themed art, theatre, film, poetry, essay, and fiction

    What if the revitalized org framed part of its mission (at least its potential litcrit mission) as promoting ongoing, quality discussions about Mormon narrative art?

    I know some people are wary that AML will become too academic, but in my mind the org has always existed primarily to promote Mormon literary scholarship–critical readings of texts from a Mormon perspective. We have organizations that promote scholarship in Mormon history, sociology, theology, psychology, etc., and organizations that foster and promote Mormon creative writing, but none that promote/foster Mormon thinking about (Mormon) literature. AML seems poised (at least historically speaking) to step into that space.

    Granted, it could have a two-pronged mission: to promote Mormon literary scholarship as well as to foster and highlight writers/the writing of high-quality Mormon narrative art, genre notwithstanding.

    Just throwing out ideas here…

  9. This is good, William. I also repeated the word “serious” in the comment thread for Theric’s last AML blog post, and apologize for any standoffishness that might have implied. But I would like to point out that it was qualified: serious as a word that signals intent with regard to the writing/form (whether that intent is to entertain, provoke, make you laugh, pose questions, or grapple with answers, or whether that form is sci-fi/romance/mystery), not some tonal quality or euphemism for “not-sci-fi.” I realize this still skews somewhat elitist, for who would write a book if they weren’t dead serious about the endeavor? Lots of people, that’s who, who are serious about getting their “message” out there, or making a buck, or making a name for themselves, or building an empire, but not as serious about their craft. Again, inescapably exclusive on some level. But for me, the connotation of serious also does not necessarily exclude genres and audiences. But, in the end, I have no serious attachment to the word. I agree, let’s junk it. 🙂

    I also agreed with Michael Ellis’ offering of excellence. Seems harmless enough. I can also get on board with interesting. I like what you did with it. And I look forward to part two of your metric. As you mentioned, there is a history here, and relationships that need to be mended and images that need to be finessed. I’m happy to go with what you and other more experienced observers are feeling.

    Just to reiterate what you and Michael have pretty much already acknowledged, any words we choose are going to represent some kind of boundary (permeable, malleable boundary but still). Someone will still hear it and feel slighted or accused. This same problem is evident in the mission statements/about tabs for so many lit journals and small presses. They basically all say 1) we accept the best stuff out there, doesn’t matter as long as it’s good, and 2) read the journal if you want to know more. When you submit your work and get rejected, the message is clear, yours wasn’t among the best. (A very familiar feeling for some of us.)

    There are some journals that mention a soft spot for humor, or speculative fiction, or a special dislike for stories about cancer, or memoir essays. For the most part, though, I think we’re kind of stuck with the same dilemma. What does AML cover? Stuff that’s good (and interesting!) for various reasons. What do we mean? Well, look at the website, the awards, the reviews.

    I love what you said in your comment about focusing on specific works that people are interested in for whatever reason, rather than trying to create a filter based on broad, somewhat arbitrary and easily overturned categories. With this in mind, maybe eventually people will start to say, “Hoh, guys, AML is having a great conversation about the new Stephanie Meyer novel,” and then later say, “Man, last year’s symposium on Stephen Peck’s latest book is way dope,” and the next week say, “Man, isn’t it interesting that they gave the nonfiction award to that woman who left the church,” and then say, “What do you think about the AML review calling Dean Hughes’ new book the finest of his insanely long career?” and then, “That lady on AML says that Elder Bednar’s new book is the best written by an apostle since Parley P. Pratt.”

    Anyway. Getting carried away.

    For the record, I also get uncomfortable with the words “literary” and “genre.” And, strangely enough, “creative writing.” As if there is a kind of writing that’s not “creative.” (Maybe a case could be made.)

    And, for the record, if Stephanie Meyers will come to Hawaii, we will line up a key slot for her in 2016. We tried to get Brandon Sanderson already but he declined.

  10. Also, what Tyler said. Maybe “interesting,” “good,” “excellent,” and other adjectives refer more to the conversation itself rather than what’s being talked about.

    Samuelson (as noted by Tyler at DBD): “We can certainly discuss, with precision, kindness and insight, how a particular work functions in our culture, or the effectiveness of the prose or any other matter relating to what a particular work seems to be trying to achieve and how well it achieves it. We value criticism. What we can’t do is excommunicate any genre or approach or style or form. Mormon literature can be transcendent or transgressive, or both, or neither. We embrace it all.”

  11. Tyler,

    poem-a-day populism of the Reader’s Digest or Better Homes variety. PK and I try to avoid that over at WIZ. We select work according to its connectedness with stated preoccupations of the site and its, wait for it, literary potential. That is, we don’t dismiss work that shows promise, but we don’t accept work that is vain or irrelevant or just plain lousy by any reasonable standard of judgment.

    There is an editorial process, too, especially when we work with newer or unseasoned writers. We suggest, tutor, nudge, or occasionally correct where warranted.

    But we are all dancing around the bald fact that there are amateurs and there are Amateurs, and something like Irreantum and AML conferences will occasionally be assaulted by the former. How we handle that also has to be decided.

  12. To be honest, I’m not a fan of “interesting,” although I like the intent behind it. “Serious” Mormon fiction is the way Doug Thayer chose to describe realistic Mormon fiction several years ago at the AML conference, so the term has an important history. Still, it does seem to narrow AML’s scope more than even I would be willing to narrow it…

    I’m not a fan of “interesting,” though, which seems a little bland to me. For me, I think “engaging” might capture your meaning better. “Engaging” seems more active and interactive–a kind of relationship between the reader and the text. For me, that’s what AML is about–really engaging Mormon texts–in every sense of the word.

  13. It’s not the term itself — it’s what it delineates in relation to Mormon narrative art. Engaging is also good, although works can be engaging in the readerly moment that don’t remain interesting after the reading experience is over.

  14. I should also add that I’m not intending to call out anyone who used the term “serious”, although I’m glad that it elicited clarification from Joe, Michael and Jonathan. What I’m really getting at is that it’s difficult to find words that succinctly express what kinds of works we are interested in without drawing boundaries that are easily misunderstood.

  15. @Tyler

    I agree with your thoughts about AML also being a place where discussion about Mormon-themed literature can take place. That’s where you grow your readers. LDS readers who have been “raised” on certain flavors of Mormon fiction can be introduced to other works that expand their palate, and taught how to read them. But, alas, this is where things get dicey, with some LDS readers not being able to get past uncomfortable, “inappropriate” elements in the work. In the end, though, you can’t please everyone, and you can’t force anyone to drink, either.

    Now I’m rambling, but I was thinking tonight that AML should shoot for supporting works, whether by publication or discussion, that could go head-to-head with the best of the broader national or international literature, IF the World could see past the Mormon theological elements in the works, or the absence (mostly) of the “inappropriate” material the World finds so interesting. As I read works of contemporary literature, I find it more and more evident that no matter what, there is likely to be a distinction between the content of Mormon-themed literature and other contemporary literature. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is a way to explore all the “forbidden” topics and do it while artistically preaching. In fact, I’m certain there is. But even without the “forbidden,” I think we can write, read, and discuss skillfully crafted works that present realistic portraits of Mormons living their lives, not the propaganda ideal.

    But then we swing back around to audience. The average Mormon is uncomfortable with going down the rabbit hole that realistic, or realistically fantastic, works take you down. Thus the need to educate and invite. But maybe, as Jerry Argetsinger said at the AML conference, our audience could also be non-Mormons who are interested in quality works that speak to the Mormon experience. We’ve got non-Mormons who are interested in our history and theology, why not our literature? I think our audience can and should be broader that just the LDS community.

    How do we judge the size of our audience anyway? How many people in the LDS community have a taste for this kind of literature?

  16. As this discussion has already suggested, I think that the interesting questions may be different for different works and categories of works. For the works of authors such as Orson Scott Card and Stephenie Meyer, it may be about pointing out the underlying Mormon themes in works that are accepted in the mainstream but not perceived as particularly Mormon. For other works, such as Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, it may be about pointing out that yeah, here’s this great Mormon novel that could go head-to-head with nationally published mainstream literature and that a lot of Mormon readers who are looking for more challenging Mormon fiction might like, if they ever heard about it or read it. For others like Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene, it could be about internal discussions (like the recent one here on A Motley Vision) about how we as a culture differently define what is means to be “Mormon” — and how we sometimes use external signs of “appropriateness” as proxies for critical judgment. All worthwhile, and all (I would submit) solidly in the bullseye for what I would want AML to be about.

    And so I don’t see a lot of need to define in too-specific terms what AML is about, and particularly what it’s *not* about. That will evolve. Further, I think the organization can take strength from involvement by people with different interests and agendas, so long as there is some shared territory and a mutual toleration for each other’s interests.

    A corollary of this (an essential one, in my opinion, for any volunteer organization) is that those with an interest in a particular area need to be willing to put in the work in that area. Just as an example: I really like what Tyler said about the central role of AML in promoting Mormon literary scholarship (I would add, on both a professional academic and a more amateur level, hopefully with substantial cross-pollination). For me, that’s what I’m most interested in for AML. I’m less interested in writing workshops and promoting literary creative writing. But I can’t expect those with a primary interest in creative writing to organize a scholarly AML conference for me. AML can accommodate their interests and mine. It’s not a zero-sum game. We only benefit (up to a certain point) if the community gets bigger and accommodates multiple areas of interest.

    There will always be disagreement on any terminology we evolve to describe what AML is about, or should be about, or what it is in Mormon literature that merits our interest. To some degree, it’s a moot point, so long as we’re willing to allow a diversity of opinions and interests, although as William said conversations about definitions are often among the most interesting, and thus worth having for their own sakes. The important thing is not to be exclusive, while recognizing that each of us (inevitably) has areas that interest us more and less. But that’s a subject for a different comment.

  17. There’s been some discussion of exclusiveness, and indeed AML has at times been viewed as exclusive (particularly of the more populist manifestations of Mormon literature). This has taken at least three forms during my tenure as a member of the AML community:
    – AML insiders v. outsiders: i.e., those with leadership positions within AML versus those on the outside who felt that the decisions of those in leadership positions were arbitrary, unexplained, and/or elitist
    – Professional v. amateur: i.e., those with formal literary/critical (and sometimes creative writing) training versus those without such training
    – Literary v. popular/genre fiction

    In all of these cases, I think I can safely say the following:
    – There has been some unfair characterization and name-calling in both directions.
    – Offense has been taken far more often than it was intended.

    A big problem is perceived issues of balance of power. In all three of the (often interacting) categories I mention above, the first term is generally perceived as those “in power.” Those aligned to the second term (and ironically, I have felt myself to be among both groups in all three cases) have felt their concerns were not being addressed, and have at times reacted with intemperate language that made those in the first group feel that they were being used as straw-men and surrogates for old injuries. And so on.

    We have to get past this. We have to get past an “us” versus “them” mentality, and genuinely accept that even those who don’t share our interests and perspective usually mean well. We all need to accept each other as contributing members of the community. And we need to not take offense when others don’t share our interests, or don’t respond to our thoughts, or seem insensitive to our concerns. We need to take responsibility for being part of the community, whatever our background or past history.

  18. I’m a fan of the term “literary,” and don’t necessarily see it as being the opposite of genre fiction. I prefer to use literary as a term of quality rather than type. I think many pieces that rise to the level of literary fiction explore and utilize genre conventions.

    Though I suppose an over reliance on genre conventions does harm the quality of a piece, I think this is true both of more traditional genre categories such as sci-fi, and in more traditional literary categories such as realist fiction.

    For me the term literary encompasses the idea that the work seeks for a greater dialogue with the world around it. Similar to Th’s “Something to say” approach. I think literary encompasses the idea of engagement or “interesting” because of its thematic depth, and it speaks to the idea of longevity.

    I like the idea of judging a work on its literary merit, because it necessarily asks us to judge based on the history. What works have survived, and what are the qualities that have given it longevity, and then seek for those same qualities among contemporary mormon literature.

  19. Literary value is an important concept. Literary as a term, however, is fraught and will turn off a large segment of one of the audiences that I would hope the AML could attract.

  20. I prefer to use literary as a term of quality rather than type.

    Well, there went all my warm fuzzies.

    “Literary” is a genre term (aka “Which shelf do we put this thing on?”) as much as “science fiction” or anything else. If I were deciding which shelf “literary” should go on, it’d be the “middle-aged upper-middle-class white male boredom angst-and-fantasy mourning his lost youth” shelf.

    Do I really think of that as “literary”? You bet I do. Sometimes Oprah.

    Be careful to whom you say “Literary means quality. Genre means mass entertainment crap.”

  21. I’m the one who objected to “serious” on Twitter, but not in an angry way. I made the observation that it’s divisive and inflammatory, possibly infantilizing.

    This is where I think we are with regard to #MormonLit: We, as a culture, have a fraught relationship with light amusement, humor (not to be confused with social fun), and anything that keeps us from putting our shoulder to the wheel and gathering in the harvest. Or, you know, doesn’t fill the last 16 minutes of your day doing your calling.

    We’re ALWAYS serious. And we are exhorted to read SERIOUS works, where “serious” = nonfiction, the words of the prophets, scripture (yeah, I put them in that order on purpose), and other things such as those works worthy of being quoted in General Conference.

    I mean, look at our church decor. It can’t get any more serious than that. Ditto temple decor: serious elegance.

    Nobody is going to call romance “serious,” even when it can be (“issue books” are common). Likewise, it’s literature by and for women, so it’s buried underneath another layer of sludge. Romance from Deseret Books can be called “serious,” however, when the first criterion anybody wants is, “Is it clean?” The second is, “Is it faith-affirming and/or testimony-building?” The third is a critique: “Those characters are too flawed for me. They’re not Good Mormons.” (Where “Good Mormons” is actually a myth.)

    The level of quality is directly proportional to how clean and kingdom-building and PURE it is.

    Those who expect quality of storytelling, engagement, and overall, ENTERTAINMENT to go with their deeper meaning are the ones who left #MormonLit years ago. They don’t expect any better and don’t have time to look for where it might be. Deseret has the lock on the market and, like it or not, they built the reputation of Mormon literature as lacking quality.

    In short, in Mormondom, fiction is not serious. In fiction, there are no truths to be gleaned because truth delivered metaphorically isn’t pure.

    Let’s come over here to the AML/AMV tent and take my explicit books out of the equation. That leaves what? Characters who struggle with faith. Characters who may or may not stay in the church. They may be very harsh about the church. They may have been created simply as a character study (e.g., Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth. They may, horrors of horrors and the worst crime of all, may remain as ambivalent about the church as they were when the book started. Oh, look. Also overwhelmingly written by men. Where are the women in this equation?

    Ohai, Mel. She’s it, fellas.

    There are other women doing it, but almost none we actually talk about. (Not including myself. I write romance, remember.)

    For those of over here way left of Deseret, this is our “serious” fiction, and the degree of ambivalence or straying is DIRECTLY proportional to its “quality” of writing because its metaphor is PURE.

    Fine. And then there are the movers and shakers out there who don’t have a place either because they don’t write “serious” literature in either incanation (clean or ambiguous) and they’re making bank pretty much without Mormon characters and they have no need to discuss any of this.

    I propose that, somehow we come up with a moniker to say, “Anything that speaks to me and I need to talk about.” This is where we are.

  22. I got a kick out of “middle-aged upper-middle-class white male boredom angst-and-fantasy mourning his lost youth,” and a part of me is trying not to take the truth to be hard. Haha. But I would like to point out that on a national and international level, fiction considered to be “literary” is written by many talented women writers. Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and the list goes on. But Moriah has a point that maybe some of #MormonLit, the literary variety, could be shelved in that way because of how few Mormon women writers write in that genre, if you will. But I think that Mormon women are well positioned to write realistic stories that show contemporary Mormon life, that tell the truth about it. We need more. I’ve enjoyed Courtney Miller Santo’s stories in Sunstone that I’ve read. Really, one of the defining characteristics of good literature that has the longevity that Christopher mentioned is that it tells the truth, while lying. Oh, the paradox. And telling the truth can happen in Romance, too.

    Romance from Deseret Books can be called “serious,” however, when the first criterion anybody wants is, “Is it clean?” The second is, “Is it faith-affirming and/or testimony-building?” The third is a critique: “Those characters are too flawed for me. They’re not Good Mormons.” (Where “Good Mormons” is actually a myth.)

    Ah, yes. Getting hung up on those three questions is exactly what hinders the spread of quality works in the LDS community. I still haven’t figured out how to combat this. I want to believe that AML can serve to educate readers on the quality of works they may not otherwise consider. (The hypocrisy on this point is rampant, of course. I know plenty of “upright” Mormons who will watch violent, sexy, vulgar Hollywood fare, but who cringe when a Mormon “who should know better” writes about such matters.) I too have learned about works that I hadn’t thought to consider. Scott Hales’s support of the works of Nephi Anderson gave me a reason to look at him again. Before now, I thought, in my ignorance, that Anderson’s works were too much propaganda. I’d heard about Added Upon, but had discounted it because it was said to have inspired Saturday’s Warrior. I’ve read it now and have learned that there is something there to discover. I’m interested in reading other works by him. Dorian is next. The same thing with your own work, Mojo. Being the middle-age reservoir of repressed angst that I am, I don’t usually read Romance, but having Scott’s (two for Scott!) recommendation about Magdalene has peaked my interest and I plan to read it. Anyway, what I’m getting at is that if we keep the discussion about what’s going on in #MoLit #MormonLit wide enough to cover the “best” of Mormon letters, or even as you say “anything that speaks to me,” then I think, I hope, gradually the audience will grow.

    Characters who struggle with faith. Characters who may or may not stay in the church. They may be very harsh about the church. They may have been created simply as a character study (e.g., Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth). They may, horrors of horrors and the worst crime of all, may remain as ambivalent about the church as they were when the book started.

    Guilty here, too. And you’re right that this has been a theme for some time, but I’m hopeful that it will pass as doubt becomes as much a part of the religion as faith is. I’m hopeful that I can get it out of my system, and then get to exploring other aspects of contemporary Mormon life, even if it’s just that my characters happen to be Mormon with nothing beyond that. I don’t know. My imaginary friends just keep harping on the tension between faith and doubt right now. But I agree that the umbrella of Mormon arts should be about more than just faith crises.

    Anyway, write on! I think we’re all serious about what we write and want to write. I think we all have something to bring into the tent.

  23. … fiction considered to be “literary” is written by many talented women writers. Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and the list goes on.

    Just so we all get our licks in. 😉

  24. I don’t have a problem with any thematic writing mentioned above (middle-aged white male angst) (faith v doubt) (clean v explicit).

    I have a problem with favoring one type of thematic element over another as “better than” another, where “serious” and “literary” = somehow INHERENTLY better BECAUSE OF its thematic element, which invariably favors the taste of the author and/or reader.

  25. Exactly.

    And while they are all great authors, the Munro-Oates-Atwood, etc. list makes those of us who know genre fiction well and/or have a particular interest in women authors roll our eyes.

    It’s just like rattling off Le Guin, Dick, Wolfe and Bradbury when talking about SF&F that has “literary value”. Totally true, but there’s interesting work being done in the non-respectable/canonical areas.

  26. And while they are all great authors, the Munro-Oates-Atwood, etc. list makes those of us who know genre fiction well and/or have a particular interest in women authors roll our eyes.

    Right. As a long-time romance reader and of other things non-literary-or-genre, I don’t find these women to be any better in terms of skill/quality than some of the romance novelists I’ve read. In fact, I find Munro to be, well, pedestrian. And Oates had to resort to zombies to make some money.

  27. All of which makes Zombie a very good novel for me to avoid reading. Recreational terror being not, well, recreational for me…

    I find it interesting that so many people lump horror together with science fiction and fantasy, when I like both of the latter two and actually can’t read the first. Relevance to Mormon literature? Back when I was a teenager, I would have found the concept of “Mormon horror” a contradiction in terms. Now, I accept that it can (does?) exist, even if it’s outside the range of my personal sympathies.

    (Now if I can only get my sister to accept that Orson Scott Card isn’t a child of the devil because children suffer in his stories…)

  28. Christopher said:

    I like the idea of judging a work on its literary merit, because it necessarily asks us to judge based on the history. What works have survived, and what are the qualities that have given it longevity, and then seek for those same qualities among contemporary mormon literature.

    Many works have survived simply because they were talked about, while other equally important or good works faded into obscurity because no one talked/is talking about them. Maria Popova posted something at brain pickings earlier this week that speaks to this idea: that certain things have gained longevity because someone initially celebrated them, calling them to others’ attention.

    One quality of lasting work, then, is the fact that someone–a critic-curator, as Popova calls her/him–paid attention to it in the first place.

    So how does that apply to AML? Well, as I see it, it suggests that we need to spread our umbrella wide, to invite people with diverse reading interests to the table and to attend to the works of Mormon literature (viewed broadly) that they find interesting, to discuss them with the respect and compassion and hospitality demanded by our theological heritage. By celebrating diverse works of Mormon literature, by taking them and their champions (as it were) seriously, we give our literary heritage and our community longevity and provide a way for the works that matter to us a chance to reach a broader audience (beyond our generation).

  29. Michael said:

    AML should shoot for supporting works, whether by publication or discussion, that could go head-to-head with the best of the broader national or international literature

    A lot of work by writers who affiliate with Mormonism is already recognized as being among the best work released in mainstream American literature. For instance, many of the poets we claim as our own are nationally-recognized and their work is well-deserving of extended consideration.

    Then again, so is the work of our poets aren’t or don’t have ambitions to be nationally-recognized.

    So: what do we gain by focusing on a “head-to-head” model for judging which works should be worthy of our attention?

  30. I love being educated by this group. Thank you, Tyler, for your comments. I admit that I’m not as familiar with the poetry side, something that I hope to remedy. I’m happy that poetry is doing well with a broad audience. I know of a few works of Mormon-themed fiction that have reached a national audience, but many have not. At least, that’s my perception. Correct me if I’m wrong. I heard mention at the last AML conference that novels as great as The Tree House were not selling very well. (But don’t interpret that as my believing that monetary success equals quality. Oh no, I don’t. The feeling was that these works just weren’t finding their audience.) Anyway, I said that about “head-to-head” only in the sense that I wouldn’t want AML to focus solely on works that answer each of Moriah’s three questions with a resounding “Yes,” because of the purity factor, because I find more value and quality from works that challenge my worldview, that are set in the world, but find ways, although not obliged to, to direct the reader to a worldview not of the world, that are edgy (sometimes for the sake of being so), than I do from works that present the facade of “All is Well” and perfectionism.

    But you’re absolutely right that some writers who are very good fall into obscurity because people don’t read and talk about them. Kafka almost had that fate if it hadn’t been for Max Brod refusing to burn his manuscripts. I recently read a novel called Stoner, written in the 60s by John Williams, that only recently achieved critical acclaim. And Moby Dick was re-discovered in the early 20th century.

    Anyway, I am definitely opening up to the idea of casting the net wide and seeing what AML catches.

    Also, even though in my comments I have pushed for the possible “creative writing” facet of AML’s vision, I want to cast my vote that, at least historically, I understood one of AML’s primary purposes is to be a place where “Mormonism is discussed overtly in relation to narrative art [or poetry, drama, romance, etc.]” (Wm on Facebook). I think that is great. I think it is needed.

    Well, I’ve probably said too much. I’m pretty new to this blog commentary thing, so I hope that I haven’t offended anyone. I’ve appreciated the discussion.

  31. You’re right< Michael, that the audience for overtly Mormon, non-Desert Book fiction is small. And you haven't said too much. Discussion is good.

    I want to make it clear that I think that creative writing is part of the conversation.

  32. .

    I want to LOUDLY ENDORSE what Tyler said about the importance of critics. For all the bad press critics get, without a certain volume of criticism, books cease to exist. Hamlet is the greatest piece of writing in English because the most has been said about it. That’s the reason.

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