Still Dawning?: A Response to Michael Austin

Recently, I had the privilege of publishing a review of Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell in the second issue of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Mormon Studies Review. In the same issue, Michael Austin, a veteran of Mormon literary studies, published a piece entitled Among Mormon literary scholars, Austin is best known for his essay “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time,” which he published as a doctoral student in the mid-1990s. At the time, Austin was writing in response to the Cracroft-Jorgensen debate of the early-1990s, and his essay sought to give critics a much-needed new way to think about and order the study of Mormon fiction. It was an important essay in the development of Mormon literary theory, and it remains a touchstone of our evolving understanding of the definition of Mormon literature.

Austin’s latest essay seems deliberately less-ambitious, representing an effort to update scholars outside the field on the state of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies. While much of the first third of the essay reiterates information Eugene England established in his landmark 1995 essay “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” Austin also includes valuable information about the study of Mormonism in American literary history and literary studies of Mormon sacred texts, particularly the Book of Mormon. His analysis of these latter two fields is where this essay excels most. Having recently published Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, 2014) and the essay collection Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen (Utah State UP, 2010), which he co-edited with Mark Decker, Austin writes from a deeply informed position and offers great insight for those who wish to begin work in these branches of Mormon literary studies.

Unfortunately, Austin’s reliance on England’s essay from almost twenty years ago, particularly its characterization of the four eras of Mormon literary development, makes the first part of the essay seem dated in its treatment and assessment of contemporary studies of Mormon literary arts and the field of Mormon literature itself. Like England, Austin dismisses the Home Literature era as not “very good,” overlooking recent studies done on blogs and in print on early Mormon poetry, Mormon women writers, and Nephi Anderson, including the forthcoming (this month?) critical edition of Anderson’s 1921 novel Dorian. Moreover, he caps the progress of Mormon literature off at “Faithful Realism,” suggesting that little has happened in Mormon literature since the 1990s. This causes him to characterize a writer like Steven Peck as a Faithful Realist, when Peck’s works, in my opinion, have very little in common with most writing in that category. It also has very little to say about new Mormon literary anthologies other than Angela Hallstrom’s anthology Dispensation, leaving out Tyler Chadwick’s poetry anthology Fire in the Pasture (2011), William Morris and Theric Jepson’s speculative fiction anthology Monsters and Mormons (2011), Mahonri Stewart’s drama anthology Saints on Stage (2013), and Jerry Argentsinger, Jeff Laver, and Johnny Townsend’s gay Mormon fiction anthology Latter-Gay Saints (2013), all of which have been published in the last five years and demonstrate the richness and variety of contemporary Mormon literature.

Austin, of course, rightly asserts that “the publication of scholarly work on Mormonism has declined since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s,” yet in saying as much he diminishes the importance of the critical work being done informally and semi-formally on Mormon literature blogs like A Motley Vision and Dawning of a Brighter Day, which have made it such that more is being written now about Mormon literature than was ever written about it in the 70s and 80s. Moreover, he overlooks the important critical essays and interviews that have been published in Dialogue, Sunstone, and Irreantum about Mormon literary texts. Notable among these have been the essays of Jack Harrell, which constitute some of the most important recent Mormon literary theory to be published in the last decade. Likewise, his omission of anything about Tyler Chadwick’s work on Mormon poetry–both online and in print–marks another unfortunate oversight in the essay, as was his omission of anything else happening in the world of Mormon poetry, where Mormon literature is perhaps most successful.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the essay, however, is Austin’s conclusion, which characterizes the field of Mormon literature as still dawning, still anticipating the brighter day that England and Orson F. Whitney imagined. (This idea is evident in the title as well.) Such a characterization, I think, focuses attention too much on what Mormon literature and literary studies are not–and not enough on what they are now. Austin writes:

Judged by other standards, however, the brightness [of Mormon literary successes] fades. Mormonism still has not produced any Miltons or Shakespeares, but this should not surprise us at all. Very few cultures, and very few times, produce world-shaking writers like these. And even Milton and Shakespeare were not “Milton and Shakespeare” until long after their own deaths. But Mormons have not even been very good about producing, or recognizing, their own Flannery O’Connors and Cynthia Ozicks–challenging but deeply spiritual writers who draw on the power of their religious traditions (Catholic and Jewish, respectively) to produce works of significant literary merit. (73, emphasis added)

Austin is right to cast Orson F. Whitney’s “Milton and Shakespeare” statement as impossible standards, but I think he is wrong to say that Mormonism has not produced any Flannery O’Connors or Cynthia Ozicks in its nearly two-hundred-year history.  True, no Mormon fiction writers has achieved the fame of either of these writers, but that does not mean there are no “deeply spiritual [Mormon] writers” who have been able to “draw upon the power of their religious traditions” in any comparable way. Deeply spiritual Mormon writers, from Nephi Anderson and his contemporaries to the present, have been doing interesting and powerful things with Mormonism, and suggesting otherwise only feeds the notion that Mormons are still waiting on a literary messiah. Great things are happening right now in Mormon literature, and characterizing the field as ever-dawning gives an inaccurate picture of the field and slows the progress of Mormon literary studies, leading critics to believe that there is little still to study when already there is more than enough for generation of scholars to study, publish on, and teach.

Mormon literary studies, to be sure, have not yet been able to achieve the same kind of crossover success that Mormon history has had by publishing studies through Oxford University Press and other nationally-respected publishers. Austin makes this clear in his conclusion, and he is right. Yet, I know some Mormon literary critics, have published essays on Mormon literature in non-Mormon journals and my experience submitting to these journals is that they are always welcoming high quality work on Mormon literature. To date, no national press has published a work specifically focused on Mormon literary studies, but I don’t think that day is too far into the future. What we need now are scholars who want to work and write and publish in the field. Mormon literature has dawned and it’s begging for more scholars to play in its sunlight.

30 thoughts on “Still Dawning?: A Response to Michael Austin”

  1. I had a similar reaction, Scott.

    And it reminded me of what I wrote in my grad school paper Slowly Flowering, and so I kept waiting for Austin to complicate this “still dawning” notion or at least draw more meta-attention to it. The tl;dr version for those who don’t want to take the time read my essay is that Eugene England’s formulation of Mormon literary history, which is echoed in Austin’s essay, and also invoked by “Dawning of a Brighter Day” (the name of the AML blog) as well as the various claims over the past decade by a few figures in the field a Mormon renaissance is all a way of — as Scott mentions — of using prophecy (whether that’s literally Orson F. Whitney’s or it’s a more scholarly “Mormon culture is yet young” formulation) to delay the fulfillment of their particular vision for what Mormon literature should look like.

    Or as I wrote:

    “But more fundamentally, through its recovering and criticism of Mormon literary history, Mormon literary theory invokes a set of texts and way of viewing them that helps preserve a Mormon ethnies, an ethnies which includes individuals beyond active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And more importantly, by exposing the deficiencies of the current Mormon literary canon, Mormon literary theory sustains the dream of a great literature produced by a chosen people, a dream that combines memory and desire, a prophecy that drives the very literary production that ensures the survival of the ethnies.”

  2. Also: Austin does nod towards A Motley Vision and Dawning of a Brighter Day in his essay, which is nice, but the overall engagement with the field as well as notions of literary canon is a bit old school. Sure, my pouring out of words over the past 10 years may have been better served by instead publishing 5 essays in established literary journals. But as someone without academic-side academic affiliation — and without my compensation and promotion tied to scholarly work — I decided that blogging (and writing fiction) better fits with what I can devote to the field.

    Also also: I think some of the best writing about Mormon literature of recent has been James Goldberg’s essays in Irreantum, but unfortunately because those came in the later run of the journal (and because they were in that journal itself instead of elsewhere), they haven’t quite received the attention they deserve.

  3. Good points. Thanks, Scott, for taking this on. I need to read Michael’s complete essay; maybe after Christmas…

    I think a good case can be made that we are seeing a fifth phase in Mormon literature: one that postdates “faithful realism” in that it takes Mormonism less as its subject matter than as a given, but then plays on that in often whimsical or fantastic but nonetheless serious ways. Monsters and Mormons and A Short Stay in Hell are both good examples (I haven’t read The Scholar of Moab but am guessing it falls into this category even better), as is Butler’s City of the Saints. Probably many of the Mormon-themed comics/webcomics fall into this too. Maybe even some of Card, at least in some interpretations (perhaps most notably his Folk of the Fringe stories). My own reading in this category has been relatively sparse, but enough to recognize that there’s something going on that’s different from the classic canonical categories of Mormon literature a la England. I’d love to have someone articulate a good, solid definitional essay. Maybe as a follow-up in Mormon Studies?

    William’s second comment above does a good job of articulating the trade-off experienced by those of us without any formal academic career to be served by formal scholarly publication. In the absence of any need to make a place for ourselves in the larger world of literary scholarship, it’s far more rewarding to devote such critical time and attention as we have available to conversation with others who actually care about the subject in places like this blog (discouraging as it sometimes is that there aren’t more of us). Bluntly speaking, this is a ball that can only be carried by full-time tenure-track professors, at least under the current academic model. And there are precious few of them. I hope that Scott will be joining their rank one of these days — and will be somewhere his critical work on Mormon texts will help his career (unlike, say, Gideon Burton, who I gather has been all but forbidden by the powers that be at BYU from devoting his time to Mormon literature). The rest of us can be support for this effort — and I think there are a lot of good insights to be gleaned from our more inward-facing conversations, as Scott has described. But under the current model, we can’t realistically spearhead it.

  4. HALES: “Great things are happening right now in Mormon literature, and characterizing the field as ever-dawning gives an inaccurate picture of the field and slows the progress of Mormon literary studies, leading critics to believe that there is little still to study when already there is more than enough for generation of scholars to study, publish on, and teach.”

    What great things? One could convincingly argue that it’s been all downhill since The Giant Joshua.

    LANGFORD: ” …unlike, say, Gideon Burton, who I gather has been all but forbidden by the powers that be at BYU from devoting his time to Mormon literature.”

    Please elaborate

    MORRIS: “Also also: I think some of the best writing about Mormon literature of recent has been James Goldberg’s essays in [now deceased] Irreantum …”

    A perfect, if unintended, summation

  5. Also, Jonathan writes: “I’d love to have someone articulate a good, solid definitional essay.”

    I presented an essay like the one you describe here at the last AML conference. I can send you an audio recording of it if you like…or the essay itself.

  6. Not unintended. I’m very aware of how all my comments add up to both affirm AND push back against Austin’s formulations in his essay. But yeah, the demise of Irreantum is due in part because of the failure of the field to understand changes in cultural conversation and production tied in with the need to hold to established models of respectability as well as a sense of “still dawning.”

  7. One thing that bugs me about the “Shakespeares/Miltons” or “O’Connors/Ozicks” or whatever other formulation you want to use is that it doesn’t recognize the changes in literary production and literary careers that have occurred. That shouldn’t be used as a crutch or an excuse. But it also should be taken into account if you’re going to make claims of what Mormon literature should be producing.

  8. What I believe is true about Gideon Burton (and I no longer remember exactly what it was that gave me that impression, though I think it was mostly secondhand) was that one or both of the following happened:
    – He was told that work on Mormon literature would not count toward tenure and the suggestion was made that it actually counted against tenure
    – He was directly told by department chair or someone else in authority to focus his efforts in his other areas of specialization

    It’s possible that I have misinterpreted or misremembered. In any event, I do know that after heavy activity, Gideon largely dropped out of involvement in the Mormon lit community. It’s certainly possible that some of that was due to other personal and professional reasons (e.g., feeling that other areas needed more emphasis).

    It is perhaps noteworthy in this regard that earlier proponents of Mormon literary criticism among the BYU faculty already had tenure and a well-established reputation for scholarship when they took up the Mormon lit banner. Maybe that’s the way it needs to be with a not-yet-established area of academic specialty.

    Scott: I’d love to see your essay. Better to send it to me in text than audio recording… although if the recording includes discussion afterward, that would be worth hearing as well. For that matter, I’d love to see you post the essay either here or at the AML blog. Or a link to it (if it’s posted elsewhere, say on your own blog) with an invitation to discuss.

  9. .

    I’ve downloaded this essay and was hoping for more of the positives you mention and less of the negatives. But I haven’t read it yet.

    I do think it’s remarkable how even those of us who write the most in the field don’t know what’s going on—it’s such a small field! But the essays by Austin and Hales in the latest MSR make me wonder if that venue can finally become the place where everyone interested in Mormon Studies generally can discover that Mormon Literature is also a field where stuff is happening.

    Also some kind of clearinghouse for what’s happening would be good. Andrew’s lists are helpful but the serious criticism and scholarship will always be outflooded by YA science fiction—a dedicated, searchable something would be helpful. If it were comprehensive and available, no one could publish states of the study without at least checking they know what they’re talking about.

    (Note: I’m not suggesting Austin doesn’t know what he’s talking about—and I haven’t read the essay yet myself—but my impression here is that he hasn’t paid close attention to the field since Linda Sillitoe was the fresh name on the scene. I’ve been guilty of this myself. The simple fact is that MoLit is too big now for any one person to read every last thing.)

  10. .

    (Incidentally, P is a good demonstration of what I mean. I assume she read The Giant Joshua somewhere between ages 15 and 28 and thought it was good and therefore “knew” that it was the high point of Mormon lit. Perhaps she’s read a couple other things since, but probably just an early-’90s Deseret Book offering a cousin pushed on her. Prove me wrong, P. But I’m assuming you’re a new datapoint proving Jetboy Phenomenon. If folks would read broadly before becoming experts, that would be great. It’s hard to converse with experts who never bother to read. But I get it—it’s easy to bloviate but it takes time to be well read.)

  11. .

    One other thing as long as I myself am bloviating, I think pretty much everyone’s first publication (or first publication after a long hiatus) on Mormon lit reveals a lot of ignorance. I remember with shame my first published MoLit review (may it never be unburied). When a field doesn’t have visible-to-the-outside experts, it becomes easy to overlook your own lack of expertise. I mean—not talking about Tyler in a survey of the current scene? That just flabbergasts me. How do I take seriously someone who knows neither his books nor his webwork?

  12. Part of the problem, I think, is that AML itself used to function as a centralized clearinghouse for Mormon literary criticism in a way that is no longer true of any venue. There are, I suspect, still simply more people who have read Cracroft/Jorgensen/et al. than have read the more recent voices.

    It sounds to me like Theric is calling for a database specifically of Mormon criticism, as opposed to Andrew’s mammoth summaries of everything related to Mormon literature, in which the trickle of literary criticism can easily be lost in all the publication information and reviews of recent releases. Yes? (Which, by the way, I think it’s a bit of an unfair swipe to single out YA science fiction: out of 30 new releases in Andrew’s latest This Month in Mormon Lit, by my count only 8 qualify as middle grades, YA, or adult sf&f.)

    Since someone else raised the sf&f question, I’ll add that if anything, there’s considerably less solid criticism of sf&f from Mormon perspectives than there is of “serious” realistic/literary fiction. And there’s still less of other genre fiction (such as romance and detective fiction). I recognize that’s not part of Scott’s focus here, which is on work that more explicitly addresses Mormon content/character/identity, but it’s a legitimate and important branch of Mormon literary criticism as well. I don’t think it’s a case of either/or: rather, I think that an increased volume of formal and informal criticism about both more explicitly Mormon works AND less explicitly Mormon works (including popular and genre fiction) could be mutually catalytic to each other, as well as bringing in a larger pool of interested participants in the conversation.

  13. It occurs to me that the Maxwell Institute is missing a bet by not providing a space for this kind of discussion on their website. Is there even a way to comment on individual articles in their journals?

  14. .

    Jonathan, Jonathan, Jonathan. You have to stop assuming that anytime anyone mentions SF that it’s a “swipe.”

  15. Perhaps. Still, I’m a bit tired of the trope that somehow sf&f is what’s stealing sales/authorial effort/critical attention from more “serious” Mormon literature. Just as others, I’m sure, are tired of me raising sf&f as a case study in Mormon literature, and Mormon authors, that deserves a place at the table despite not being realistic mainstream fiction. (Which, for me, it is: there’s nothing unique about sf&f in that regard, compared to other genres, except that it’s the genre I’m most aware of.) The point is: it’s not a zero-sum game.

    Since we have started talking about rhetorical tone in these comments, let me point out that rather than respond to the substance of my comment, or clarify what your own intent was, what you’ve done is call me to task — humorously but unmistakably, and frankly condescendingly — for my interpretation of your comments. I accept the part of this that may be laid to my account, but reject the notion that all of the responsibility for the interpretation lies in my fault as a reader.

    Looking at the phrase in question — “the serious criticism and scholarship will always be outflooded by YA science fiction” — I think I can be forgiven for reading “YA science fiction” as a kind of synecdochic shorthand for that-which-drives-out-serious-criticism. So my response: if you don’t want others to take your comments as a swipe, then be more careful about what you say and how you say it.

    In any event, the key substantive point of my parenthetical response remains: that popular Mormon fiction includes a lot more than YA sf&f.

    Has anyone done a statistical breakdown of work by Mormon writers by genre, including both Mormon-directed and national/international publications? Andrew Hall’s annual summaries would provide interesting fodder for that. For that matter, are there lists of the Whitney-eligible books each year, broken out by category? It would be an interesting set of statistics–though not (in my view) terribly meaningful, since (as I suggest) I don’t think genres are really in competition with each other in any meaningful way.

    And I apologize, again, for making sf&f somehow the subject of the debate. Except that I really think Theric and I have been partners in this particular dance.

  16. “One thing that bugs me about the “Shakespeares/Miltons” or “O’Connors/Ozicks” or whatever other formulation you want to use is that it doesn’t recognize the changes in literary production and literary careers that have occurred. That shouldn’t be used as a crutch or an excuse. But it also should be taken into account if you’re going to make claims of what Mormon literature should be producing.”

    Remember that NYT article that asked why so many American minority communities have had literary flowerings over the past 3-4 decades and Mormonism has (supposedly) not? The article looked for an answer in the Mormon psyche. I figured it has more to do with university priorities. After the multi-cultural movement swept English departments, which decided there ought to be literatures of specific subcultures, said literatures magically appeared: both by an increased production of new work and increased discovery and canonization of old works.

    I suspect that the same would be true for Mormon Lit if universities decided today that they needed a grand Mormon literary tradition. People would dig up past works and articulate their value even if it isn’t apparent on the surface. People would pay for and talk about new writers’ work more, creating more careers.

    For a community without external support, I think we’ve performed well above average. We have our own internal publishers which have survived recent economic transitions that have not been kind to publishers. We have pretty strong internal writing relationship networks, strengthened by good online interactions. We have a disproportionate number of skilled writers working in more broadly acceptable genres. And we have pretty good readers, despite the odd cultural sensitivities that often crop up.

    We need to understand things through the lens of economic and institutional realities, but I think we can be confident about the literary work we’ve done and are doing, not just about what we could do down the road.

  17. .

    Jonathan: your synecdoche point is correct. I could have said historical fiction or literary fiction or poetry or drama as well. The contrast was with anything other than criticism. And since YAsf is so big right now as to justify its own Whitney category, it’s an obvious choice. I’m sorry for setting you off, but I do think it’s strange that you would assume that someone who coedited Monsters & Mormons, whose first pro publication credit was science fiction, who has won an award for his sf poetry, who is adding a full-$ professional sf publication credit to his resume early next year, who published two sf shortshorts this year, and who has written serious criticism of Twilight is your enemy out to slam science fiction. Dude. I’m not.

  18. .

    I apologize for the exasperation.

    On James’s comment, I agree that we’ve done remarkably well producing good work and good readers. So if criticism matters, why is it lagging so far behind?

  19. Gideon has archived many of the key Mormon literary criticism articles from the 90s and before here: http://mldb.byu.edu/mcrit.htm .
    So maybe we should make an updated page, with copies or links of the key articles since then, like articles by Hales, Goldberg, Austin, William, Harrell, and the rest.

  20. I apologize in turn for my thin skin and testy response. Sadly, such impulses don’t always fade sufficiently before I hit the “Post Comment” button…

  21. First, let me thank Scott for his generous review of my work. Bless you. x10,000.

    Second, one of the biggest problems I see in Mormon literature from this end of things is a lack of venues in which to publish. Most of the venues for publishing serious work carry with them baggage–This one if faithful, this one is unfaithful, etc. And none of them have a national distribution (unless its YA / SciFi). I was lucky in that the Scholar of Moab fit into Torrey House’s emphasis in environmental fiction (and for fiction in that area, Torrey House is becoming a national player), but Gilda Trillim does not, so what do I do with it?

    What we need is a place that is recognized as a filter for excellent MF, something like a university press that focus on high quality Mormon fiction. A place where professors teaching minority/regional literature can look to find books that consistently represent the best in the genre and reviewers at, say, the New York Review of Books can look to when new books come out in Mormon fiction that deserve a national audience.

    So here is what I’d like to see ya’ll to do. Contact some struggling, but reputable university press (Like U. of Illinois Press used to do when Levi Peterson was starting), point out to them that sells of Mormony stuff isn’t awful, paint them the picture of building a reputation in an area that desperately needs an international voice, and has potential to make valuable contribution to arts and letters writ large. Let them appoint someone like Scott as editor and chief and start a new era of Mormon lit because there is a venue for it. It can’t be BYU, or I’d argue even a Utah school, too much baggage. But somewhere like UNC or SUNY or wherever, ya’ll would know better than me. But we so, so need a venue.

  22. .

    I agree. And it’s why Peculiar Pages won’t publish single-author work. To give just-one-author credibility, it would be nice to have a press with a more traditionally built-in reputation.

  23. I should add that the depressing part of reading the conversation between Scott and Michael over at the Maxwell Institute website is that it confirms my sense that there’s little those of us who aren’t full-time academics can do to promote Mormon studies in the way Michael is calling for. Personally, I don’t have the time or motivation to push forward a campaign of peer-reviewed publication.

    I agree that the whole thing is a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. Certainly if we had a Mormon writer creating Mormon fiction that reached a national audience, that would provide a nice entry-point for Mormon-themed criticism that would attract the attention of non-Mormons.

    Which may mean that the most promising venue for Mormon-themed literary criticism for a national, non-Mormon market is in criticism of nationally published sf&f by Mormons. Which, I recognize, doesn’t directly advance the cause of promoting realistic Mormon literature. But it may help create a critical environment where that kind of critique could more easily take place.

  24. Based on the account you link, I would say that a savvy Mormon critic would clearly be able to do a more sophisticated job of putting works of Card in a Mormon context. When others are doing so poorly on a national stage, it’s an invitation to us to do it better. (Except, of course, that the “us” have to be people who are actually presenting at academic conferences…)

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