Mormon narrative art: writers and critics

Some of the comments (across twitter, the blogs and Facebook–ah, the joys of online discussion in a social media world) about the Association for Mormon Letters deal with a core tension that has existed in the AML, and, of course, in the project of literature itself: the writer and the critic.

This is not a tension that the AML is going to solve. But I do think it has a decent chance of pulling in some of each crowd for the following reasons:

  1. Many of the most active personalities in the field are both writers and critics.
  2. There are not many other viable forums for writing — creative or critical — that focus on Mormon thought and the Mormon experience.
  3. Mormonism does not have a theology per se, but Mormons themselves are used to talking about various aspects of doctrine and interpreting them in different ways and telling stories that relate to them and our understanding of them. The project of literature, both writing fiction and writing criticism, is not all that different. And I would hope that both writers and critics experience that commonality as the go about their work and that they are both interested when their thoughts about Mormonism intersect with the work they write and read.
  4. Related to that, I don’t see how you can be engaged with the project of narrative art without being both a creative writer and a critic. No writing is truly autonomic. It all comes from engagement with particular concerns and forms and images and stories and those are shaped by other things that the author has read as much if not more than their direct lived experience.
  5. Writers and critics have overlapping needs/interests but not the exact same ones. They also have needs/interests that can be better met by other organizations. And, I hope, ones that can be best met by the AML. One of the things that we need to do moving forward is look at how the activities of the AML fit with that spectrum of needs. It seems to me that those projects where there is overlap between the two (messy) categories should be a priority. But that there should also be activities that speak more strongly to one or the other to help strengthen overall engagement with the AML.
  6. One concrete idea: while it’s nice to have a journal that includes both criticism and fiction, one or the other category (not to mention the various forms of fiction [film, drama, etc.]) tends to be lose out depending on the primary interest of the editor. It might make sense to split out the two projects so that there’s one publication for criticism and one for narrative art. Or perhaps one publication but rotating editors/themes.
  7. Note that by criticism, I include all reader reactions to narrative art, including formal and informal reviews as well as scholarship and reporting that deal with all the extra-textual stuff related to the production, distribution and reception of narrative art.

What am I missing? Or even more bluntly: am I completely wrong? Is there no way to attract both narrative artists and critics? What do you all find most interesting in the intersection between the two? What bores you?

11 thoughts on “Mormon narrative art: writers and critics”

  1. .

    I know you know this, but it’s worth stating again that this tension between “writing” and “criticism” is larger than the Mormon scene. Writers are leery of writing anything other than praise of other people’s work. If the national scene is too nice, hoo boy but are Mormons in trouble.

  2. Yep. That’s part of what I’m alluding to with the line: “This is not a tension that the AML is going to solve.”

    And I don’t think it’s simply a matter of being “too nice”. Rather it’s a complex stew of prejudices and histories, monetary interests, reified notions of culture and cultural production, etc. It’s the cult of the author and the cult of the book and the cult of the critic. It’s modernism and post-modernism and post-romanticism.

    There’s a lot going on that plays into the divide and I understand why it’s easy to buy into it. But I keep coming back to the fact that all writing is conversation. And there are good conversations and bad conversations, and good conversations require patience, practice, longevity and both new and established voices.

  3. In relation to us Mormons, I really do think it’s our nice combined with our history of being persecuted by outsiders. There are so few of us and we feel some need to stick together and criticism feels like little more than infighting, fracturing a delicate standoff.

    I wrote about an LDS romance on my blog that I couldn’t get through two chapters it was so childishly written, and some anonymous person showed up to say, “Oh, yeah? Well, yours is vile.” Expected reaction *yawn* but the person felt the need to post anonymously. The person couldn’t be nice and couldn’t not say anything, so the second best option is to be a coward?

    I would rather be *legitimately* criticized by people with the courage to post their name rather than posting anonymously or pussyfooting around.

    By the same token, when honest criticism is given, many authors feel the need to engage, argue, and tell the critic s/he is WRONG! Do not even go so far as to say “thank you” or “I’m sorry it didn’t work for you.” I have seen this over and over again all across MoLit and I cringe every time. Some authors are louder than others.

    Don’t do that. Just don’t. It’s awkward for everybody, it stifles the conversation, and it discourages anyone else from critiquing the work. The reading experience belongs to the reader, not the author.

    If a critic engages me personally either in private or public, I will consider that an invitation to engage, but only in private or perhaps flirtatiously in public unless sincere questions are asked.

    I have also had the experience of a reader live-tweeting @ me her hatred my book and then reiterating her hatred in a comment on a review. I did respond to that since she engaged me first.

    Lastly, publicly expressing bitterness that one’s work wasn’t chosen for publication is just crass.

    Another example from a different angle: the argument that broke out over OUT OF THE MOUNT was acrimous and awkward, yes, but instructive. I was mad too, but the primary players had legitimate beefs and I thought the public airing was necessary.

    If MoLit critics could be assured authors wouldn’t engage unless invited to, I believe that would go a long way toward getting more and better criticism.

    (Also please note that here in the radical middle I rarely see Deseret’s catalog critiqued, which I think is very UNhelpful to the goal of building a healthy culture of criticism.)

  4. I’ll add a couple more reasons why AML *ought* to be an organization that can support the needs of both writers and critics:
    – Every writer is also a thoughtful reader, and hence (at least by implication) a critic. (This I suppose is a subset of William’s point #1, but also worth emphasizing.)
    – All of us need to interact with those who are different from ourselves, lest our attitudes and discourse become too solipsistic. Granted, writers and critics are similar enough that you don’t really get huge diversity in perspectives there — but it’s a start.

    With respect to William’s point #6: I’d love to see the Proceedings volumes get resurrected. Or a separate, peer-reviewed journal based on that but also accepting independent submissions, which could count for academic publication. The problem, of course, is just who will do it?

    Very good points from Moriah. I for one would love to see more critiquing of Deseret’s booklist, but I know everyone else is at least as busy as I am…

  5. Again, I feel like my newness to the AML community means I don’t see or understand how a lot of this has played out in the past.

    But many insightful comments here, about the tension between writers and critics, about the protectiveness and sensitivity of the LDS community, about the need for civil discourse and the difficulty of trying to do too many things at once. All issues that are understandable and, as mentioned, not necessarily Mormon-specific. How do even the most seasoned writers feel after pouring years into a project, only to have it dismissed out of hand by a possibly snarky or fiercely biased critic who spent all of three hours composing their response? It’s tough. But I do believe it’s a somewhat necessary antagonism. But I agree with Moriah, I think there is a way of fostering a place where people can come at this with passion and respect. Rawness doesn’t have to fan into rage. Praise doesn’t have to bleed into politics. Maybe it should sometimes, but it doesn’t have to. But again, I feel I speak as a relative outsider.

    So. Yeah. Feeling our way through the dark I guess. But continuing these kind of questions and the struggle for answers. I think the idea of a rotating editorship for publications has been widely praised, allowing for diversity of genre and audience, but allowing those forays to be focused.

    Maybe because I am not a big shot in any particular field of work (critic or writer), the endeavor still feels friendly and potentially fun. If I was an acknowledged “expert” on anything, or someone trying to support myself with my writing, I can see how my feelings might change, with the need to maintain my reputation, image, book sales, etc.

    In the meantime, I am trying to view AML as a kind of salon. Excuse me while I quote from Wikipedia: “A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.” Can AML be the inspiring host? Can we amuse one another and refine one another and learn from each other without ending up hating one another? Can we admit our own prejudices and lacks without fear of retribution? Can we lift each other up? Can we temper our honesty (and honest feelings) with real compassion? Can we squabble and still be friends afterwards (think Hemingway and Orson Welles)?

    From what I can see, AML is ready to host, but the question is, are we (and the broader LDS arts community) ready to be hosted?

    It’s particularly difficult because participants have to walk that line between being completely invested in their work and being able to let go and allow others their say. Many a feud has been born from the inability to do both at once.

    Thanks, William. Let’s hear more.

  6. I like the salon notion.

    And I think too often we talk about fiction and criticism as “the critic tearing apart the work of the author”. Authors tear apart the work of other authors and critics and the world as they experience it and think about it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t write — there’d be no point. All authorship is an attempt to say something in your own way. To show how you view things. And that’s true of fiction, fan fiction, and criticism. Literature is conversation. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that literature without conversation is dead.

    The conversation about Mormon narrative art is small enough and intriguing enough that I think it’d be a shame for those who mainly identify as writers and those who mainly identify as readers or critics to not talk to each other and produce work that is for each other.

    Yes, I have training as a literary critic. I’ve also written how ever many thousands of words of fiction. I didn’t start AMV or (even further back) engage with the AML listserv because I wanted to proclaim to the world that I’m an author or a critic. I did it (and do it) because I think narrative has something interesting to say about Mormonism.

  7. Nice: Literature without conversation is dead! Tattoo it. Pin it. Make it the AML slogan?

    You’re right, when it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as the pure author or the pure critic. Just a bunch of people who “think narrative has something interesting to say about Mormonism.” (Another AML slogan! Man, you should get paid to come up with these, Wm.) Get all those people under the same roof laughing and talking and having a good time (and, occasionally spilling drinks on each other) and there we go.

    I guess we’re working on the formula. Is it just being in the right time at the right place? Better marketing/promotion? Relentless outreach? Quality conversation starters? One part conference, two parts reviews, a cup of Irreantum and a salting of awards? Anyhow, you laid it out perfectly.

  8. Thank you for this post, Wm. I, too, would like to see both criticism and creative work promoted and encouraged by AML. I like the idea of two journals, but I could see there being spells when there just aren’t enough submissions to have both. For one thing, quality work takes time to write, whether it be criticism or creative work. But given enough momentum from both sides, I’m optimistic.

    I like Joe’s idea of the salon. I’m not too familiar with the literary criticism side of things outside of the attempts I made at it while studying English in college, but I have the idea that the works reviewers would write about would be “recommended reading” mostly. I realize that it can’t be all praise, nor would I want that, but I would hope that AML was a venue whose criticism recommended more than not. I remember someone commenting on here or at Dawning of a Brighter Day that what lasts is what writers and critics talk about and recommend.

    Has anyone read Jack Harrell’s Toward a Mormon Literary Theory in the latest issue of BYU Studies? Although Mormonism doesn’t have an official theology, and all that that implies, it does have some distinct theological ideas that, as Wm pointed out, are exciting to explore in creative works and then expound on in criticism of those works. Anyway, Jack Harrell’s article is worth a look. Its ideas certainly add to this discussion.

  9. In case anyone here doesn’t also follow the AML website, I’d like to point out that we’re back up and that William’s post about AML positioning has now been posted.

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