If you haven’t yet read the Building Zion issue of Irreantum edited by Natalie Brown, you should.
And not just because it features my essay “When Home Isn’t Heaven on Earth in Mormon Literature.”
By the way: if you are one of those folks living in Utah who use Google Fiber and can’t access it (as of this post, we’re still working on fixing that), here’s a link to a PDF version of my essay:
When Natalie announced the call for submissions earlier in the year, I knew I had to submit something. But I wasn’t sure what.
The most obvious route would be a short story.
But I’d been wanting to return to literary criticism and so found myself thinking about homes in Mormon literature.
I had an inkling there was something important there but wasn’t sure what until I read Donald Marshall’s “The Week-End” in his story collection The Rummage Sale and was struck by how the main character’s home was described. This led to the following notes (in a text file–all notes and writing begin in text files for me):
Angel Falling Softly scene with vampire in home
The Weekend Donald Marshall
Bound on Earth ????
Bound on Earth is the lovely novel in stories by Angela Hallstrom. One of the finest works of faithful realism of the 21st century.
Angel Falling Softly is a not well known Mormon vampire (or more Mormon meets vampire) novel by Eugene Woodbury. Published by Zarahemla Books not too long after the Twilight series came out, it does things with the vampire mythos and Mormonism that are strange and heretical and yet also mundane and ultimately orthodoxically Mormon. In some ways, it’s much more in dialogue with Bound on Earth than Twilight.
The Tracy memoir is, of course, The Burning Point by Tracy McKay. It’s one of the works of recent-ish Mormon literature that I’ve though about the most over the past couple of years. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how one of the reviews of it said something about how the the third person interludes in it didn’t really work. I’m not entirely sure why, but that judgment has gnawed at me since I read it. I suppose because to me it felt like those interludes were doing something important even if I couldn’t quite articulate what that was.
The next set of notes were these:
Love at HOme, home as temple, home as sacred,
The World – Danny Mark Fisher on the uncanny
Chicago book on the home as domain – nuclear family
The World refers to Danny Nelson’s short story in Monsters & Mormons by that title. The Mark Fisher book is The Weird & the Eerie. The Chicago book is Families against the City: Middle Class Homes of Industrial Chicago, 1872-1890. Both are fascinating works that could be put in fruitful dialogue with Mormon topics, but didn’t make it into my essay due to space/scope considerations.
I wasn’t sure I had something there. But I re-read portions of Angel Fallling Softly and Bound on Earth, and it all began to add up. Specifically, the descriptions of Mormon homes as sites of the uncanny or weird were oddly parallel or resonant in the works I had put together even as unlikely as a set of works as they are.
This, by the way, is what makes the study of Mormon literature interesting and challenging for a critic: Mormon literature as a field brings in all types of narrative art in many types of genre that were written and published under a whole variety of circumstances.
It also may be why not only is there not very much Mormon literary criticism, but often it’s focused on an individual work or author or genre. Worthwhile work. But my background is comparative literature, and I can’t help but have a magpie approach.
The next step was to transcribe all of the passages were relevant to the framework. That process did more than anything else to help the essay come together. It validated (to me, at least) the approach I was taking.
At the same time, I worried that The Burning Point wasn’t quite going to fit, especially my point about the interludes. And I was worried that the essay was going to be too long because I knew I’d need to do quite a bit of summarizing and quoting, partly because that was the nature of the project, and partly because I knew the audience couldn’t be expected to have read all five of the works I was going to include.
In fact, if you have read all five, let me know in the comments or at me on Twitter.
The first draft came in at 5,952 words.
The introduction was too indulgent (I went heavy into the gnomic mode that comes much too naturally to me); some of the summarizations were awkward; and the ending wasn’t quite all the way there.
But to my surprise and delight, the conclusion was very different from what I had thought it would be – the interludes in The Burning Point had turned out to be critical to a larger point and a bridge between the memoir and the fictional works as well as to the field as a whole.
And then I didn’t touch it for two weeks, maybe three. Not for the valid writerly reason of wanting to build some distance, but because I wasn’t sure it worked. It was all summarization and not enough analysis.
But as the deadline for the special issue approached, I decided I should at least give it a shot. And I discovered that what was wrong is that I kept trying to say too much and provide too much context. There are forms of literary criticism that need to do that. That need to be boiled down and condensed more. But that’s wasn’t what I was actually trying to do.
The summarization was the analysis.
That is, the way in which the portions of the text that describe when homes don’t feel like heaven on earth are woven into how I tell the story of the individual works provides a reading that, hopefully, brings something to the audience.
To put it another way, hopefully it makes The World seem a little less like a satire and the first chapter of Bound on Earth feel a little more strange.
I spent (parts of) two days revising the essay.
The second draft ended up longer – 6,138 words.
But they were better words. Everything fit together mpre solidly and smoothly. I submitted it and was delighted that Natalie accepted it.
In the editing stage with Irreantum, I fixed some textual infelicities in the sections on The World and The Week-End along with a few other minor wording changes.
I know that the essay is a little rough, a little weird. I could have done a lot more to build the critical framework. It relies way too much on the reader being able to decode and contextualize the assertions I make in the introduction.
But hey: I’m writing Mormon criticism again.
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