Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature

Ever since Scott Hales announced his plans to edit a new anthology of Mormon literary criticism, I’ve been thinking off and on about my own past grapplings with Mormon literature and where I’d want to take them — had I world enough, time, money, and the requisite academic chops. What follows isn’t that essay, but comes about as close as I can manage at present. Consider this my submission!

Why do or should we — as readers, writers, and/or literary critics — care about whether a text is Mormon? Potential reasons are legion, as varied as readers themselves. Among the most typical and (it seems to me) important are the following:

  • To understand Mormonism better — as a culture, religion, historical movement, or what have you
  • To investigate specific elements of Mormon experience, thought, and culture through literary works
  • To explore the purpose(s) and role(s) of literature in Mormon experience and worldview
  • To articulate ways that literature has influenced Mormonism
  • As a test case to investigate the interrelationships of literature and religion, literature and identity, literature and culture, and a host of other potential intersections
  • To understand better particular literary works that incorporate manifestly Mormon elements
  • To assert our own membership (or non-membership) in the Mormon community
  • To explore what it means to be Mormon and a reader, Mormon and a writer, or Mormon and a critic
  • To seek out and encourage literature we think is worthwhile, in whatever particular relationship to Mormonism we endorse: celebratory, investigatory, critical, or other[1. The purposes listed here include many I have seen explicitly or (mostly) implicitly pursued via published essays, blog posts, discussions on the email discussion list once sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters, and a variety of other venues — plus a few I’ve not seen much of (such as the influence of literature on Mormonism) but that seem like logical and potentially interesting possibilities.]

Each of these presupposes a body of literature that is in some sense Mormon. But the nature of that requisite connection will inevitably differ depending on the question under investigation. A study of how Mormons think of themselves as reflected in their (our) literature will find its most relevant evidence in works with explicitly Mormon characters and settings. In contrast, an account of how Mormon writers reconcile their commitment to a tight-knit religious community with a profession some of their coreligionists may consider frivolous or unimportant will of necessity focus primarily on writers who do not usually write about Mormon topics — simply because there aren’t that many Mormons making a living from writing for the Mormon market. The nature of the subject changes depending on what one intends to do with it.

To a very great degree, we define ourselves as individuals and communities by the stories we tell about ourselves. Storytellers may seek to entertain, imitate reality, or change the world; but in the process, they reveal themselves. If Mormonism is important to us — as a worldview, a set of standards for living, a communal identity, or even something we feel we must discard as we grow in other directions — why would we not expect that Mormonism will make its way into our stories? And why would we not want to study that connection? Honestly, I’m more puzzled by Mormon readers, writers, and critics who aren’t interested in the rich ground created by the intersections of Mormonism and literature.

At the same time, the very range of reasons for people to care about Mormon literature, and the variety of perspectives from which they may do so, caution that the “Mormon literature” we care about may be quite different from someone else’s Mormon literature. The short history of Mormon literary discussion is rife with cases where inability to recognize and acknowledge such differences has led to miscommunication and missed opportunities at best, and flat-out internecine feuding at worst.[2. Specific examples may be sought (again) in venues such as Dawning of a Brighter Day, the blog of the Association for Mormon Letters; A Motley Vision: Mormon Literature and Culture blog; the archives of the old AML-List (if they can still be located); and elsewhere.] It’s my contention that much of the problem arises simply because we haven’t thought deeply and carefully enough about the basic question of what it means for literature to be Mormon.

How Mormon Is Mormon?

Mormon literature is contested ground partly because Mormonism itself is a contested identity. To ask what qualifies as Mormon literature is to inquire into the meaning of Mormonism itself.

As with any such identity, issues of inclusion can have real-world consequences. A play about a Mormon youth who defied the Nazis may at the same time become a spiritually uplifting event that Young Men’s quorums attend together and a potential threat to negotiations for opening up foreign countries to gospel preaching — and a possible factor in the playwright’s future tenure at a Church university.[3. See Thomas F. Rogers, “Why I Wrote Huebener,” in Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty, by Thomas F. Rogers, ed. Jonathan Langford and Linda Hunter Adams, planned for release by the Maxwell Institute in spring of 2016.] A novel about a gay Mormon youth may get one called an apostate by some, and a Mormon apologist by others.[4. The novel in question being my own No Going Back, published by Zarahemla Books in 2009.] Questions of literary taste can become proxies for perceived faithfulness, and for one’s ability to be accepted and understood by one’s faith community.

On a more purely literary note, questions about the value and quality of Mormon literature (and even whether it exists) require some kind of definition. “Literature by, for, and about Mormons” may be an appropriately broad umbrella for a group such as the Association for Mormon Letters, but most of the potential questions for a Mormon criticism arguably call for some degree of engagement with the stuff of Mormonism — whatever that may be.

In my experience and reading, arguments about whether a literary work qualifies as truly Mormon often involve one or more of the following questions:

  • How central is the Mormon element?
  • How distinctive is the Mormon element?
  • How authentic and/or representative is the Mormon element?

Attempts to consolidate these very different questions into a single characterization inevitably frustrate, leading not only to disagreement but also to lack of clarity regarding the grounds of disagreement. I would argue, for example, that the famous Cracroft–Jorgensen debate hinges on Cracroft’s insistence that an authentically Mormon literature must by its nature be distinctive from modern literary values — mantic rather than sophic, in terms Cracroft borrowed from Nibley — versus Jorgensen’s sense that authentic Mormonism embraces the best of all traditions. In short, for Cracroft, the authenticity of the Mormon element depends on its distinctiveness, while for Jorgensen, the Mormon element must be central and authentic, but not necessarily distinctive. Clarity on this point might have provided more nourishing fodder for future generations of Mormon literary critics, though possibly at the expense of how much fun Richard and Bruce were clearly having, on top of the serious points they were making.[5. See Richard H. Cracroft, review of Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems in BYU Studies 30.2 (Spring 1990): 119–123; the response by Bruce W. Jorgensen, “To Tell and Hear Stories: Let the Stranger Say,” Sunstone 16.5 (July 1993): 41–50; and Cracroft’s reply to Jorgensen’s response, Richard H. Cracroft, “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature,” Sunstone 16.5 (July 1993): 51–57.]

The fact is (as I see it) that there is something worth celebrating, or at least examining, in every combination of the characteristics above: stories where the Mormonism is central, and those where it is peripheral or incidental; stories where the Mormon elements are unique to Mormonism, and those where they are shared with other cultures and traditions; stories where Mormonism is represented in ways every Mormon would recognize, and where it is represented in ways that are idiosyncratic past the point of eccentricity. But in order to have that conversation, people need to agree on (or at least clarify) what they’re talking about. Hence the need for making these distinctions — not in order to hierarchize or privilege, but to provide a common vocabulary.

Deliberately missing from this list is “How faithful is the work?” — for several reasons. First, I don’t think faithfulness is a characteristic that an artistic work can have — only an artist. Second, although I suppose it’s inevitable that this is one of those things we’ll argue about with respect to artists, I really wish we wouldn’t. Faithfulness if awfully close to worthiness, which gets us into territory that I think is poisonous to us as a community and perilous to our souls as individuals. Even praise along such lines can be problematic, as suggested by Jesus’s reaction to being called “good” (see Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). Third, it seems to me that “faithfulness” is a composite of several quite different subjectively weighted (and often subjectively measured) characteristics, not amenable to placement along a continuum. So let’s do our best not to ask whether a given Mormon work or artist is “faithful.”

In contrast, situation of a work with respect to its stance toward Mormonism is certainly acceptable, and often critically important for works that prominently feature Mormon elements. There are many different reasons why a work may incorporate Mormon elements, with many different potential outcomes. But this is not, again, a matter well suited to binaries and continua — though perhaps a taxonomy with illustrative examples might have value (if for no other reason than to suggest consistent and useful search tags for literature databases). However, this lies outside the scope of my essay. Instead, I want to focus on something even more basic: that is, the variety of dimensions or arenas within which literary works may incorporate Mormon elements — the ways they may or may not be Mormon, to whatever degree or end.

Ways of Being Mormon

I think it’s safe to say that historically, most criticism of Mormon literature has focused on works where one or more characters are identified as Mormon and/or the story takes place within an identifiably Mormon culture and setting. And yet clearly these are not the only ways a literary work can engage with the matter of Mormonism. What of Orson Scott Card’s The Worthing Chronicle, which grapples with Mormon ideas of what it means to be a divinity (in terms specifically reminiscent of Mormon scripture at times) without ever mentioning Mormonism?[6. The body of Card’s work — science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, drama, and more — presents a strikingly diverse range of connections with Mormonism, arguably including examples of each of the “ways of being Mormon” that I describe in this essay. The most thorough and insightful (though now seriously dated) examination of Card’s work from a Mormon perspective remains Michael R. Collings, In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990).] Or “The People” stories by Zenna Henderson (arguably the most unjustly forgotten author of Mormonism’s lost generation), in which Mormon distinctivism is transplated into the history and culture of alien refugees with special gifts who just happen to make a new home largely in the American Southwest?[7. Edward A. Geary introduced the concept of a “lost generation” in Mormon literature in his essay, “Mormondom’s Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940s,” BYU Studies 18 (Fall 1977): 89–98. Eugene England used the term in his Introduction to Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996) to describe one of several historical periods stretching from 1930–1970.
Neither Geary nor England identifies Henderson as a “lost generation” author, but she fits many of the characteristics. Born in 1917, she grew up in predominantly Mormon rural communities in Arizona, where she was baptized and raised LDS but “is not known to have been active in the Church” after marrying a non-LDS husband in 1943 (“Zenna and Her People: The Zenna Henderson Homepage,” modified May 9, 2005, http://www.adherents.com/lit/bk_Zenna.html). She was particularly known for her “The People” stories, published in the 1950s through the 1970s, which are unusual for science fiction of the period in presenting characters who are explicitly and sympathetically religious (though not specifically Mormon); a complete collection of these stories is available in Ingathering: The Complete People Stories (Framingham, MA: The NESFA Press, 1995). According to The Encylopedia of Science Fiction, “it has been suggested that not only (Henderson’s) experiences in World War Two (as a teacher in a Japanese interment camp) but also her Mormon background may have contributed to the intensity of her depiction of the life of a group of family-oriented morally impervious exiles in Western America” (John Clute, “Henderson, Zenna,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, & Graham Sleight, Gollancz, 30 Oct. 2015, http://sf-encyclopedia.com/Entry/henderson_zenna). So far as I know, Henderson did not write any stories featuring explicitly Mormon characters. I am not aware of any critical studies examining in depth the Mormon dimensions of her work.]

And then there are the John Wayne Cleaver books by Dan Wells (I Am Not a Serial Killer et al.), in which the non-Mormon main character’s struggle to control his own darker impulses resonates in sometimes uncomfortable ways with the kind of self-control we expect of Mormon adults and youth — including well-meaning strategies (such as not looking at a pretty girl more than three times a day) that seem doomed to backfire. The stories don’t demand a Mormon reading, nor explicitly signal one. But it is our loss if we overlook the Mormonism of these stories due to the lack of a Mormon character and setting. We miss out not only on an extra level of understanding of these books (and relevance for us as Mormons), but also on an enhanced awareness of the possibilities and potential of Mormon literature itself — how Mormon authors have succeeded in engaging with vital gospel issues such as free will.[8. Jonathan Langford, “Destiny, Demons, and Freewill in Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver Books,” Irreantum 14.1 (2012), 115–120.]

Based on my reading of works by Mormon authors and works by authors who may not be Mormon but clearly engage with Mormonism, it seems to me that a story or poem can be Mormon in at least the following ways:

  • Culturally — This may be a central focus, or more incidental; quirky or assimilationist; overt or veiled; critical or celebratory. A lot of popular Mormon humor and film seems to call out relatively superficial characteristics of Mormon culture (I’m thinking here of works as varied as The R.M. and No Man Knows My Pastries).[9. The R.M., dir. Kurt Hale, Halestorm Entertainment, 2003, film. Touchstone, 1994. DVD. Roger B. Salazar & Michael G. Wightman, No Man Knows My Pastries: The Secret (Not Sacred) Recipes of Sister Enid Christensen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992).] On a more serious note, works such as Eric Samuelsen’s plays Gadianton and The Way We’re Wired hold up a much more serious critical lens to Mormon culture. And then there are those works (including many published by Deseret Book and/or on the Whitney Award finalist lists) that either don’t attempt to depict a culture that is identifiably Mormon (other than in its avoidance of R-rated material) or are so muted in their depictions that they might as well not be Mormon at all; the critical observation to be made here has perhaps more to do with the absence or whitewashing of Mormon culture than with how it is represented.[10. See, for example, my comments on the general fiction and general youth fiction Whitney finalists in 2011 on A Motley Vision at http://www.motleyvision.org/2012/whitney-general-fiction-finalists-2011/ and http://www.motleyvision.org/2012/whitney-youth-fiction-general-finalists-2011/.]
    A basic challenge in talking about how Mormon culture is addressed in our literature is that Mormonism is neither culturally monolithic nor cut off from the surrounding non-Mormon culture. Depictions that are simply accurate to some may be caricatures to others, and utterly foreign to still others. As Scott Parkin has commented in online discussions over the years, much of Mormon literature still seems to assume that we all come from small farming communities in the Intermountain West, when in fact there are many of us for whom milking a cow is a more alien thought than flying a spaceship.[11. Unfortunately, I can’t identify a reference for Scott Parkin’s full discussion of this point. It is mentioned in passing in Parkin’s discussion of Steve Peck’s A Scholar of Moab on the AML blog, dated April 16, 2012, http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/2012/04/a-short-stay-in-hell-with-the-scholar-of-moab.]
  • Historically — Mormons have a deep intrinsic sense of our own history, and there is a substantial body of literature that is largely about representing that history to ourselves and/or others. This includes not only overtly historical fiction such as Dave Farland’s In the Company of Angels, Gerald Lund’s The Work and the Glory series, and Margaret Young and Darius Gray’s Standing on the Promises trilogy, but also works that hold up a kind of different mirror to our history. For example, alternative histories such as “For the Strength of the Hills” by Lee Allred and City of the Saints by Dave Butler shed an oblique light on what did happen by speculating about what could have happened, while Orson Scott Card’s “West” shows a future in which future post-apocalyptic Mormons recreate the handcart journeys of the past.
  • Personally — Many of the best works of Mormon literature focus on life challenges where a character struggles to live his/her religion or figure out what that religion means to him/her. Such struggles can be distinctively and explicitly Mormon (as in the the conflict between the main character’s beliefs and his homosexuality in my own novel, No Going Back); explicitly but not distinctively Mormon (as in many of the challenges faced by the characters in Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth); or neither explicitly nor distinctively Mormon, as I suggested above with respect to the John Wayne Cleaver books.
  • Thematically — Themes of free will, human potential, and the nature of family feature distinctively Mormon perspectives. Others, equally important — such as charity, conformity to the expectations of community, and the need for self-sacrifice — may not be exclusively or distinctively Mormon, but are critically important to us as Mormons nonetheless, for reasons having to do with our Mormon belief structure.
    Thematic criticism of works along Mormon lines is, I think, one of the most underdeveloped directions in Mormon literary criticism — and one that could lead in interesting directions, both in terms of understanding specific works and for thinking about how artists can illuminate what Mormonism can and should mean to us. What, for example, are we to make of Dave Farland’s quasi-allegorical ethical criticism of free-market capitalism (the ironically named “endowment” system) in his Runelords books?[12. Personal conversation with the author. The complex ethical dimensions of Farland’s magic system are noted favorably in a review of The Runelords at SF Reviews.net (T. M. Wagner, 2004, http://www.sfreviews.net/runelords.html), although the Mormon dimension is not mentioned.] Or of the character and necessity of the devil in Card’s Abner Doon stories?[13. Abner Doon is an ambiguously satanic figure in Card’s novel The Worthing Chronicle, where his role is to bring about the downfall of an instellar empire that has in his opinion become irredeemably stagnant and corrupt. At one point in the novel, he releases a vicious beast into a forest where the main character Jason Worthing, then a child, is waiting — with no idea how Jason will survive, and yet (as Jason, a telepath, confirms) feeling nothing but goodwill toward him. Later, Jason Worthing echoes Doon’s actions by upending the society his descendants have created in order to reintroduce pain and loss to humanity. Doon also appears several times in Card’s short story collection Capitol.] These writers, and others like them, are tackling some of the fundamental challenges of applying Mormon beliefs within one’s worldview; any Mormon criticism that leaves them out of our reckoning is so incomplete as to be essentially valueless.
  • Symbolically — A lot of the fun in stories like many of those in the Monsters and Mormons anthology lies in how they take symbols and icons of Mormonism and Mormon culture and put them into new and apparently incongruous settings. Sentient gelatin salad at the ward potluck? You got it. Missionaries fighting and baptizing zombies? Bring it on.
    On a more serious note, much of a story’s engagement with Mormonism may be commicated by how it uses the symbols of Mormonism — prayers, ordinances, beehives, flags, white shirt and tie. Thus, for example, Tom Rogers’s play Reunion ends with sons giving their father a priesthood blessing, while Shayne Bell’s short story “And All Their Banners Flying” is essentially a symbolic reconfiguration of patriarchal blessings. I expect that a lot of valuable criticism of Mormon poetry would center on this level of interpretation.
  • Narratively — For Mormons, the archetypal journey is not merely a literary trope or psychological truth; rather, it is an explicit statement of what we believe to be true of each and every one of us, premortality to postmortality. What, then, is the nature of our experience along that journey? Similar questions can be asked of other meaningfully Mormon narrative patterns, such as the exodus and search for a promised land, which appears in Mormon stories from Lehi in the book of Mormon to Orson Scott Card (e.g., “West” and the Homecoming series) to a webcomic my son is currently plotting out. I’d love to see criticism about the shapes of Mormon narratives, and what they say about how we as Mormons view the world.

Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive categories. In fact, I would argue that they are better viewed not as categories at all, but rather as dimensions along which a work can be viewed with respect to its Mormon elements.

So what are the benefits of viewing literature in these ways?

For one thing, this can clarify our discussions when we’re talking about whether and how a particular work is Mormon. One of my criticisms of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is that despite the Mormonness of many of the main characters, there’s nothing in his plays that engages accurately with either the distinctive culture of Mormonism — home teachers showing up at the door, experience of mission and callings in the Church — nor with distinctive Mormon teachings about homosexuality. Using my terminology above, the plays are personally Mormon, to the extent that they depict the struggle of Joe (but not very specific to Mormonism even in that regard), but not culturally or thematically Mormon. But the level at which the plays engage most explicitly and deeply with Mormonism is symbolic: Joe’s stripping off of his garments, the use of angels, the Joseph Smith story as a weird variation on gay coming-out narratives. Kushner’s use of symbols is highly idiosyncratic, and certainly not representative of how Mormons view ourselves and our history; but the element is there nonetheless.[14. Jonathan Langford, “Not about Mormons: One Reader’s Response to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America,” Irreantum 5/6 (Winter 2003/Spring 2004), 135–138.] Indeed, so deft is some of Kushner’s subversion of Mormon symbols that I am forced to suspect that he actually understands some aspects at least of Mormonism quite well, despite his apparent faux pas with respect to Mormon culture. He simply isn’t interested in being accurate.

Similarly, a more nuanced and multidimensional view of the intersections between Mormonism and literature can highlight important differences and distinctions within the field of Mormon literature. Take, for example, two superficially very similar stories: “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made,” by Eric James Stone, and “Avec, Who Is Distributed,” by Steve Peck. Both (aside from the coincidence of a relative pronominal clause in the title) take place in a science fictional future setting and involve challenges related to non-humans who have converted to Mormonism. In both, the cleverness of a human Church leader (the point of view character in each story) plays a key role in resolving the situation. Yet the relationship of the two stories to Mormonism is materially different. In “That Leviathan,” the Mormonism of the main character and the Swale convert generates a challenge that must be overcome, but the resolution is arrived at through a combination of cleverness and courage. It is, in this respect, very much a typical Analog story (the mainstream sf&f magazine where the story first appeared), albeit one with a Mormon setting. In contrast, “Avec” is a story that is fundamentally about reconciling the dual Mormon imperatives of universal opportunity for salvation and strict adherence to the revealed ordinances of the gospel. It is an intrinsically Mormon dilemma, and one that must be resolved through Mormon means of revelation through flawed human vessels. Where “That Leviathan” is arguably Mormon on a personal and cultural level, “Avec” is unquestionably Mormon on a thematic level — which is part of what makes the two very different (though both praiseworthy) stories, both in how they engage with Mormonism and in what they contribute to Mormon literature.

Mormonism as a Way of Reading

Part and parcel of what I am suggesting is to see Mormonism as a way of reading, not an inherent characteristic that texts do or don’t possess. Obviously, there will be cases where such a reading makes more sense and adds more value. And there will be cases where such a reading seems more relevant, due to external evidence such as the author’s own declarations or internal evidence such as explicit labeling within the text. Even in the more questionable cases, however, I think we’re better served by letting the critic make the argument and then judging by the results, rather than deciding a priori whether a particular work “deserves” the Mormon label.

There are multiple advantages that come from framing Mormonism as a way of reading (or, more precisely, multiple ways of reading), as opposed to a textual category. For one thing, it moves us further away from the always tricky and often explosive territory of authorial intentions, sincerity of belief, and relationship to the institutional Church. Second, it acknowledges that the Mormonism of a particular work is (like all meaning of a text) something that is constructed in a cooperative (or sometimes antagonistic) enterprise between the text and the reader — and will rightly vary from reader to reader. Which, again, has extraliterary benefits as well, since (as we have seen from discussion on Mormon literature mailing lists and blogs) arguments about the Mormonism of a story, movie, play, or poem can devolve into remarkably ugly exchanges about the judgment of the reader or viewer. Acknowledging that the meaning of a literary work is to some degree the product of the different experiences that readers bring to it is by no means a panacea, but has the potential to open up a space where we can differ in our evaluations of a particular work without calling each other stupid or spiritually insensitive.

Viewing Mormonism as a way of reading also opens up the potential for us to change how we relate to specific texts. Texts don’t change — but I can learn to read them in a different way. An essay pointing out the deep Mormonism of a work where I had seen nothing of the sort can transform what that work means to me.

Mormonism as a way of reading opens up a much wider range of texts for our critical endeavor — and helps to break down the genre and market snobbishness that have sometimes been part of our discussions, suspected even when not intended. Surely a more inclusive and comprehensive field of view will gain us a better perspective on the potentialities and accomplishments of Mormon literature.

Additionally, viewing Mormonism as a way of reading expands the scope of Mormon literary criticism by providing a space for Mormon readings of texts that are not discernably Mormon by other measures. I’m thinking here of things like John Tanner’s essay on shared elements between Mormonism and Milton, Tom Rogers’s identification of Mormon-resonating themes in Soviet literature and in selected modern movies, and Kathleen Woodbury’s observations about parallels between the Plan of Salvation as understood by Mormons and Patricia McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy. [15. John S. Tanner, “Making a Mormon of Milton,” BYU Studies 24.2 (Spring 1984): 191-206; Thomas F. Rogers, “Hearts of the Children, Hearts of the Fathers: Transcendent Familial Ties in Selected Films and in Works by Twentieth-Century Russian Writers,” forthcoming in in Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand; Kathleen Woodbury, “Storytelling and the Plan of Salvation,” address originally delivered in Provo, Utah, at Life, the Universe and Everything: The Marion K. “Doc” Smith Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy (year not known), now available at http://phaedrekathleen.livejournal.com/14103.html, elaborated as I recall by posts on AML-List (unfortunately no longer accessible) pointing out additional points of correlation to Mormon thought.] While a strict dedication to interpretation of texts in their original context would label such approaches invalid, it is understandable that Mormons, like other minorities (see, for example, the reinterpretation of texts as queer by critics from the LGBT community), would seek out such resonances where we can find them. The Mormon view of the gospel as something all humans subconsciously know from premortal life and recognize here in mortality even provides some doctrinal justification for this approach, though as Tanner cautions, we must be careful to respect the otherness of the texts we seek to examine in this way. Framing the Mormon element as something supplied by the reader grants a commonality that more easily allows us to bring such criticism “into the fold” of Mormon literary discussion.

Finally, it seems to me that Mormonism as a way of reading provides us with a more flexible set of tools for investigating texts. It invites us to create narratives about what we find in a text, compared to the relatively clunky strictures of classification. Each text, and each specific perspective we engage, represents an opportunity for a new negotiation of meaning between literature and Mormonism. This in turn facilitates a more sophisticated consideration about what such texts have in common, as well as the ways in which they differ.

There are, as I’ve conceded above, potential abuses of this approach, as with any way of framing literary discussions. And there are some critical questions and project (such as the market impact of writing about explicitly Mormon subjects, and defining a set of “basic texts” for a Mormon literary canon) where definitional discussions of texts will be at least temporarily necessary and desirable. Still, it seems to me that the benefits of a general shift toward viewing Mormonism as a way of reading would usefully advance the conversation.

Implications

I’ve argued above that how we view Mormonism and literature changes depending on the questions we’re trying to ask and the uses we intend to make of what we learn. This speaks to a necessity to articulate questions and purposes clearly — something I think has been done far too inconsistently in Mormon literary discussions, whether among authors, readers, or critics. We seem to believe that the questions we want to discuss are natural features arising out of the landscape that is Mormon letters, as obvious and self-evident as a boulder sitting in the middle of a field. The territory is the subject matter.

It’s precisely this unproblematic equation of Mormonism with a particular set of works meeting a specific set of criteria that I want to discard. Instead, I’d rather have us see Mormon literary study as a broad and diverse range of potential questions, each with its own audience, methodologies, and priorities for specific texts and categories to be investigated.

What do we gain by such an approach? Aside from greater mutual tolerance, appreciation, and civility within the Mormon literary and critical community — a goal worth pursuing for its own sake — I think we gain a more subtle, nuanced, and precise set of critical tools for investigating whatever particular questions interest us. We also gain the opportunity to glimpse our own subject matter through alternative lenses, with resulting potential for new insights.

Such a perspective also gives us good reasons to abandon zero-sum perspectives of Mormon literature and literary studies: that is, the belief that gains by one author or one part of the community must come at the expense of others. Understanding that differing preferences in Mormon literature and literary criticism are logical outgrowths of a diversity of questions and purposes for reading, reading, and investigation should help us to enlarge the community — with the understanding that what goes around comes around, and growth in any area is all the more likely to attract those whose interests align with ours. This, it seems to me, is a genuine case where the best answer to limited resources is to make the pie bigger.

And indeed we may find that we ourselves expand as the community does. I had never thought to find myself considering The Simpsons as a program celebrating families — until Eric Samuelsen’s posts on AML-list made that case to me. For that matter, I had never thought that I, a dyed-in-the-wool science fiction and fantasy fan, might find myself writing a novel about a gay Mormon teenager — but online discussions with others in the Mormon literary community opened up my eyes to a story that it turns out I really wanted to tell.

In short, it seems to me that there is much to be gained from a more systematic, descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive or definitive), and multivalenced consideration of how works engage with Mormonism, compared to common practices of the past. In an era when works like The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl and Fiona Givens, general conference talks by leaders such as Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Jeffrey R. Holland, and even articles on the lds.org website remind us of the delightful (if sometimes frightening) complexity of our Mormon history and belief, the time has surely come to acknowledge that same diverse complexity in our literature as well.

7 thoughts on “Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature”

  1. While I’m finding all of what you wrote interesting, I think what stood out most was the way you articulate this purpose of Mormon literature: “As a test case to investigate the interrelationships of literature and religion, literature and identity, literature and culture, and a host of other potential intersections”

    I’d like to see more of that.

  2. That’s an interesting thing for you to be interested in. What strikes me about it (in comparison to the other purposes I listed) is that it is largely outward-facing — toward other literatures and traditions, and toward literary criticism as a whole — as opposed to the others, which are more inward-facing in one sense or another. I wonder what other essentially outward-facing purposes for exploring Mormon literature one might identify?

  3. Bravo, Jonathan. It is a delight to see you taking this head on and with so comprehensive a perspective. This is going to feed into what I have been attempting at associationmormonletters.org/blog, but it is going to take time to digest all that you have just put on the table, and I anticipate seeing much more.

  4. Oops, I just did something twice, I may yet get the hang of all this new-fangled technology before I get much farther past my already-used-up three-score-and-ten.

    [William says: fixed]

  5. Hi Colin,

    Thanks for your comments! (I went in and made sure that only the more complete version was posted.) Reading your series at the AML blog is one of the things that prodded me to go ahead and write this essay…

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