Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two

In my last installment, I mentioned my skepticism about a Mormon literary esthetic. I’ll start this round by explaining in more detail my reasons for that skepticism.

Differing values are relatively easy to come by. Differing stylistic preferences likewise. What group doesn’t vary within itself — often widely — in the personal styles of its members? Within my own immediate family, there are those who are melodramatic and those who are reserved; those who crave excitement and those who prefer contemplation; those with a taste for the subtle and those who like the blatant. (But no one who likes rap.)

A distinctive group esthetic is a rather taller order to fill. A distinctive esthetic, it seems to me, extends beyond differing preferences to become almost a different symbolic language, where words and phrases and characters and stories mean something different to those inside the group than they can ever possibly mean to those outside the group. Outsiders, by and large, don’t “get it.”

And sometimes insiders don’t get it either. Anyone who thinks that all Mormons speak the same language — even all American Mormons, even all American Utah Mormons — has not attended a Utah ward, or has not paid attention while doing so. But then, that’s always true. Did all of Chaucer’s literate contemporaries “get” what he was writing about? I highly doubt it. An esthetic may be particular to a group without being shared by all of the group members.

I also tend to think that practically speaking, a distinctive esthetic requires its own literary tradition. Text speak to texts, as postmodernism tediously reminds us.

Finally, esthetics require reasons: not just preferences, but the potential to articulate underlying causes for those preferences. Here at least Mormonism is rich in possibilities. We have a distinctive theology. We have a distinctive history. We have an at least semi-distinctive way of life. We have strikingly different views of the nature and importance of family, work, community, creativity, and more, even if our actual experience of these critical dimensions of life is not necessarily that much different from other people’s. We have a worldview that could give us different reasons for valuing art, though mostly it doesn’t seem to. In short, we seem to have reasons for a distinctive esthetic. It’s just not clear that we actually have one.

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But there are candidates, mostly in what Scott Hales has tentatively called “new Mormon fiction” but for which I propose the label post-missionary fiction, suggesting a movement past boundary issues (from inside or outside) toward an often playful, sometimes experimental exploration of Mormonism as a realm of imagination as well as lived experience. I’m thinking here of things like many of the stories in Monsters and Mormons, much of the more Mormon work of Steve Peck, Dave Butler’s City of the Saints, the plays of Eric Samuelsen, and even (possibly, in its aspirations more than its accomplishments) the Halestorm comedies.

It’s a geeky esthetic, often sophomoric, relying largely on in-jokes, playful exaggerations, and unexpected parallels and juxtapositions between the specifics of Mormon life and other literary or real-life contexts: zombies, steam punk, high school. In this respect, it resembles a lot of mainstream literary production of our time: tongue-in-cheek, metatextual, eclectic, snickering but not malicious, middle-class, calculated, incongruous, flashily intelligent, self-consciously self-conscious. Like postmodernism, but less serious and more genuinely open to difference. (Are my prejudices showing?) I don’t know what that’s called in the larger culture, though I do know at least some of the places where it can be found. (Ground zero? XKCD.)

It’s an esthetic which, quite frankly, I don’t entirely get, either in its mainstream or in its Mormon versions. Why even think about Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter, or Eliza R. Snow as a seductive super-spy? Even as I giggle, part of my brain whimpers, I just don’t understaaaaaand! (Which, maybe, is what this type of writing is all about, as much as it’s about anything. Which is often quite a lot, actually.)

I also don’t know it well enough to be certain how the mainstream versions of this might differ from Mormon versions. But I think there are some differences — some ways that Mormon stories of this ilk speak to their Mormon readers differentially, and not just because non-Mormons don’t get the in-jokes.

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Textuality, in the kind of fiction I’m talking about, acts as a kind of universal solvent for ideas and conventions and storylines and relationships. But not necessarily for everything. Such fiction has finally arrived at the position that stories are only meaningful when put into relation with individuals. It’s not that individuals are seen as unconstructed, but rather that they are seen as the only construction to which we as humans can meaningfully relate what we think and perceive and experience in the universe.

And this is where Mormon fiction of this type differs fundamentally from the mainstream version. Because Mormonism does accept some external givens. For example: God. Revelation. The eternal potential of relationships. The importance and value of the institutional Church.

What I’m calling post-missionary fiction doesn’t throw away any of these. However, it also doesn’t attempt to construct an entire structure of meaning around them as earlier rationalist approaches to Mormonism have done. Rather, it playfully deconstructs and recombines and accepts indeterminacy in its givens while at the same time allowing them to remain givens.

And hence the possibility of a different, and distinctive, esthetic. Dave Butler may reconceptualize Brigham Young and his associates in startling ways, and yet he somehow remains a prophet. Indeed, part of the energy of the fiction derives from the tension between Brigham-as-prophet and Brigham-as-steampunk-character.

It is in this kind of tension that I see possible signs of a distinctively Mormon esthetic: one where the jokes are funny because Mormonism is true, even if we in our limited, upside-down, topsy-turvy mortality don’t know exactly what that means. And that’s okay.

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How different is this from post-postmodernism (or whatever you may choose to call it) in its mainstream iterations? I honestly have no idea. Maybe, just as I argued with respect to the various earlier phases of Mormon literary production, what we have here is Mormon content applied to a generic frame. And yet perhaps not.

Certainly there’s a distinctive demographic attached to it: Mormon, intellectual, educated, quirky. Young, predominantly. People like my older son, many of whose best friends in high school with whom he shared intellectual and artistic tastes were atheist or agnostic, simply because he shared more in common with them than with most of the Mormon and other religious kids around.

He hasn’t shown any inclinations toward writing specifically Mormon fiction. But if he does, I expect it will be this type.

Thoughts?

6 thoughts on “Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two”

  1. Speaking specifically about my own work: guilty as charged. In particular, I find this to be an accurate description: “Rather, it playfully deconstructs and recombines and accepts indeterminacy in its givens while at the same time allowing them to remain givens.”

    But there’s something else that I think is present — at least it’s present in the act of creation. I don’t know if it really shows through in my stories. That something else is not just the givens but the hope and tragedy that is tied up in them because of the inescapable physics of human agency and the necessity of the veil.

  2. William,

    I’m glad my description strikes you as accurate.

    Do you think there’s anything distinctively Mormon about all this on an esthetic level? Or is it simply a Mormon flavor of something that’s already out there in the zeitgeist? Equally legitimate either way, I think, but I’d be curious to whether it feels to you like you’re doing something qualitatively different.

  3. I have to ask: why is XKCD ground zero for Mormon post-missionary esthetic? Or am I misunderstanding something?

  4. Sorry. What I was trying to suggest was that XKCD was ground zero for where this kind of fiction (or something similar to it) can be found in the larger (i.e., non-Mormon) culture.

    As you may have guessed, I have at least two agendas here: (a) trying to characterize what I’m calling post-missionary fiction, and (b) trying to figure out whether the Mormon version of this is any different on an esthetic level from corresponding modes in non-Mormon literary culture — and if so, what those differences are. I hope that I’ve succeeded in doing (a), but don’t feel like I have a really clear answer on (b) yet.

  5. Also: the Hesses (creators of Napoleon Dynamite and other less successful movies since). I’m not that familiar with their work, but reading about their hit-and-miss connection with audiences, I find myself wondering if part of the problem might be that they’re trying to apply a Mormon post-missionary esthetic to non-Mormon subjects for non-Mormon audiences. Certainly a lot of the critical responses to their post-Napoleon work sound like their work could be falling between esthetic/genre cracks for some viewers. What if that’s because they’re working in a mode that works for Mormon viewers of a particular disposition, but is unfamiliar for non-Mormon viewers?

  6. Since Jonathan’s first post on this subject, I’ve been trying to reflect on my own work. I would say I’m not influenced much by a Mormon aesthetic. I react to Mormon aesthetics quite a bit, react by working against what I notice. So, I guess there’s something there if I push against it, but I’m not sure at all what it is that I’m reacting to, but it’s a thing. It’s not always visible, like so much of the electromagnetic spectrum, but I think there’s a Mormon default aesthetic, and it’s one that exists in a pocket dimension in which there was no Modernism or David Foster Wallace.

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