On sentimentality, cynicism and Mormon art

I recently ran across an Oscar Wilde quote that stopped me in my tracks. I’m only going to pluck out the beginning and end of it, the full thing is available at Goodreads:

A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. … And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.

I am often uncomfortable with the grand pronouncements made about the Mormon audience by artists who want to be better received and understand by that audience. I think it’s condescending, short-sighted and uncharitable to dismiss Mormons who look mainly to Deseret Book for their cultural consumption. While I agree that much of the art that American Mormons produce is poorly crafted, insipid, and simplistic, I also think many of the alternatives that are offered are not much better. They may be better crafted, but that doesn’t mean what they have to say is more interesting and profound. Or to be simplistic about it myself, while the former may sell out to the Deseret Book audience, the latter too often sells out to the New York Times audience.

And as I’ve said many times, the Mormon audience(s) doesn’t owe us anything. Artists are the ones who are asking for their time and money. We have to prove that we can be trusted with it. It’s up to us do something about it rather than whine about what others should do more of or be less of.

But that doesn’t mean any of us are off the hook for what we’re supposed to learn in this world, and I firmly believe that what we don’t learn in this life, we have to learn in the next (if we can). Which means that eventually we’ll all need to grow out of our sentimentalism and our cynicism. The reason Wilde connects those two–and the reason why each of them is dangerous–is that both sentimentalism and cynicism are an attempt to protect oneself by shying. One does so by wanting to only focus on a simplistic picture of the good. Of taking a static image of pleasantness and mistaking it for something beautiful and secure. The other by seeing everything as tainted and not worthy of trust.

Nothing is static. That’s fundamental to LDS doctrine. Agency is given to individual beings as an engine for progression. Heaven is a state of creation not of being. Perfection is faith, hope and charity–not a cool, self-sufficient completeness.

Everything is tainted, but it’s tainted with goodness and the desire to love others. Humans are fallen, selfish being–who are also capable of great acts of charity. We all have the seeds if divinity inside us. Nurturing them is difficult, slow work that requires developing trust (in ourselves, in God, in Christ’s atonement, in others) and being vulnerable.

The Deseret Book Mormon is being cynical when they refuse to engage with art that makes them uncomfortable. The NY Times Mormon is being sentimental when they applaud uncomfortable art that pushes their particular socio-political buttons. Yes, it’s okay to be discriminating. Yes, we all live in our own culture bubbles. Yes, there’s an element of subjectivity to matters of taste.

But in our creation and consumption of art, we should do our best to avoid sentimentality and cynicism.

Announcing the States of Deseret table of contents

I’m delighted to announce the table of contents for the forthcoming Peculiar Pages alternate Mormon history anthology States of Deseret:

The Guns of Perdition by D. J. Butler
Latter-Day Confederacy of Nations by Lori Taylor
Richard Meets the Missionaries by Anneke Garcia
Not Even the Names Have Been Changed by Marion Jensen
Another Meadow by Eric A. Eliason
The Father by Inari Porkka
The Electric Apostle by David J. West
Subject to Kings by Lee Allred

It’s a fascinating, fun set of stories that range in time period from not too long after the death of Joseph Smith all the way to the modern day. More importantly, our authors tackles the idea of alternate Mormon history in very different ways, both in terms of concept and storytelling.

More news to come, including a release date, as we work through the stages of production. Most likely it’ll come out in the first quarter of 2017. May 2017 at the latest. I can’t wait for you all to read these stories.

On a personal note: I went into the task of editing this anthology with selfish reasons — I wanted the community of authors who are interested in Mormon fiction to pick up this genre and play with it in a way that’d be interesting to me because it’s something I’ve been thinking about (and even tried writing myself) over the past couple of years. So thanks again to all those who submitted and especially our contributors. It’s always nice to get what you want.

On Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers and Categories of Relgious Fiction (with a most inappropriate comparison)

I had the pleasure of reading Sheldon Lawrence’s book Hearts of the Fathers a couple of weeks ago. Dr. Lawrence is a professor at BYU-Idaho, and when I requested to review an advance copy, he had it delivered to my husband, who also works at BYU-Idaho. When my husband picked it up and read a page on his way to delivering it to me, he stated that it read like “a book written by a BYU professor.” This worried me. He didn’t mean it in a bad way, but I’ve had some bad experiences with fiction written by BYU professors.

Then I began to read it, and to my pleasure, I was immediately drawn in. Continue reading “On Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers and Categories of Relgious Fiction (with a most inappropriate comparison)”

Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist

Amber Gilchrist is an independent writer of fiction that is unapologetically LDS and aimed at a general audience. When I set into reading her newest novel, The Librarian Shoots a Gun, it was with the intent of studying how she grounds her general readers in LDS culture–what she feels a need to explain, and how she does it without interrupting the flow of her story. Continue reading “Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist”

Zion, Utopias and being politically agnostic artists

Based on the evidence we have (the scriptures), it seems to me that it takes extraordinary social, political and economic conditions for a community of believers to form a Zion state. The city of Enoch required a separate city-state protected by a prophet who could work miracles to keep enemies at bay. The no-ites found in Fourth Nephi required a series of natural catastrophes which caused the deaths of thousands (and thus a major reduction of the population) and (presumably) disrupted existing economic and political structures, followed by a personal visit from the resurrected Christ, and the personal calling of Twelve Apostles in front of hundreds, perhaps, thousands of witnesses and all that even managed only two generations worth of Zion. The post-Millennium situation requires Jesus Christ himself to vanquish evil and rule personally (not to mention a fairly dramatic restructuring of the physical elements of the planet itself). Even the not fully successful attempts at establishing Zion, such as certain periods among the Nephites and/or Lamanites, the people of Israel, and the early Mormons required a fairly homogenous population forged out of much tribulation (and, generally, a prophet who was also the main political leader).  And all of those periods were difficult, fragile, and short-lived.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about neo-liberalism and the way in which it erodes families, communities and individuals in the service of technocratic utopian visions, which while may be sincere and well-meaning on the part of some are undergirded by the demands of capital. I am by nature and experience a political pragmatist and radical centrist. Which means I find value in libertarian and Marxist and democratic socialist and crunchy conservative critiques of neo-liberalism (and of each other). But I also find myself frustrated by and/or deeply skeptical of the solutions proposed by each of those political philosophies.

So I think what I’ve arrived at is that all utopias–all ideal states that are not Zion–are flawed and something to be fought against. All political philosophies tend to have elements of them that are totalizing. That are willing to sacrifice humanity and human agency on the altar of the political philosophy.

Satan’s plan is not socialism. It’s not neo-liberalism. It’s not Marxism or libertarianism or anarchism. It’s any world view that attempts to totalize, that degrades, that dehumanizes–that can swerve into fascism on the way to utopia. Anything that loses patience with human agency and sacrifices human compassion on the altar of expediency and tries to smooth out the messiness of this physical existence through force or coercion or seduction.

While engagement in the democratic process is necessary, important and can lead to much good in the world. While engagement in the economic and cultural marketplace is necessary, important and can even lead to much good in the world. While we as Latter-day Saints are not called to the monastery, the compound, the commune, the enclave, I worry that we are too often too much in the world.

I think this is especially dangerous for artists. I’m not calling for solely apolotical art or artists to not engage in politics. Artists shouldn’t be willfully blind to the realities of the modern world. In fact, I think artists should be in dialogue with current political and socio-economic thought and action. I think artists should be angry, concerned, hopeful, curious, engaged and informed about the world. I don’t believe that art for art’s sake is actually possible or desirable.

But I also think that artists, and especially Mormon artists, should have at their core a deep skepticism of utopian solutions and an ultimately agnostic stance towards politics that prods them to interrogate the reifying language of politicians and technocrats even when (especially when!) they happen to lean towards a particular party platform and/or candidate. We should want to make the world a better place within the current social, economic and political constraints. In order to do so, we have to work with the ideas and people of our time. It’s just that Zion should be this pulsating hope inside us that repels other ideologies from burrowing all the way through to our inner core worldview and artistic themes and concerns.

Am I wrong about this?

Note: comments are welcome — this is not, however, an invitation to talk about politics in general or any one politician or party, and rather about artists positioning in relation to the discourse of politics.

A Labor of Love: Editing Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand, by Tom Rogers

It all started back in the summer of 2011. Tom Rogers and I were trading pieces of writing back and forth via email. At one point I wrote: “Have you contemplated publication of a collection of your essays? It seems to me that there could be real value in that.” Little did I know…

Continue reading “A Labor of Love: Editing Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand, by Tom Rogers”

Vote in the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz and you will be blessed

Voting for the twelve finalist of the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz is now open through this Saturday, June 11. The editors have made it super easy to vote this year. Just click on the link above, open up the links to each of the eligible works in a new tab, narrow your choice down to four, rank those four and then fill out the form on the original page.

Also: if you feel compelled to publicly comment on any or some or all of the entries, do leave a comment on the discussion post. We authors appreciate it when readers engage with what we wrote.

It’s a fascinating group of finalists this year — some names that are familiar from LitBlitzes of yore; some that are new. And quite the eclectic mix of poetry, personal essay and poetry. Kathy Cowley and James and Nicole Goldberg have done a wonderful job. So much so that I’m going to say something about each of the entries. You might want to wait to read the commentary below until you’ve read all of the entries. But I’m not kidding when I claim that you will be blessed if you do the reading required to vote for the finalists. I was:

“Foolish and Wise” by Lisa Barker: Lisa gets at something that I can really relate to — parables often present contrasts of two or three types of individuals. But most of us don’t fall cleanly into one of those types. We’re both or all.

“Fresh Courage Take” by Bradeigh Godfrey: when it comes to flash fiction the most difficult thing to do is fit a robust premise into 1,000 words. Bradeigh chooses the right situation for his story. We’re so familiar with the post-apocalyptic/trek back to Zion tropes that he doesn’t need to worldbuild those out. Instead he shows us the emotional impact and let’s us fill in the blanks to add even more weight to the story.

 “Leaving Egypt” by Tyler Chadwick: When I taught the Old Testament, I was a bit harsh on the Children of Israel at points, but I also tried to show how they weren’t all that different from us and tried to provide context for their experience. Tyler captures in a few lines what weeks of clumsy lecturing on my part barely got across. That’s the power of poetry, folks.

“Ghost” by Merrijane Rice: I’m going to repeat a comment I left on the discussion post — If “Ghost” is about what I think it’s about, then Merrijane has given me quite the bittersweet view of the future (my daughter is currently 12). Actually: already starting to glimpse it. But then again: isn’t that exactly a type and shadow of our relationship to our Heavenly Parents? — and then add that this line continues to resonate with me: “let me haunt the corners of your mind”

 “Requiem for Those People Who Lived Briefly in Your Ward” by Rose Green: Transient ward members are such a pain. The ones who live in a place too long to be visitors but not long enough to settle in. The ones who you have to reorganize home and visiting teaching around. Who you want to get to know, but not too well because, well, it’s painful when people you love leave. Read that third to last paragraph again. What a perfectly observed metaphor with a multitude of meanings.

 “The Gift of Tongues“ by Annaliese Lemmon: I love, love, love that Annaliese takes this initial (very interesting and unique) conceit and then complicates it in a way that is so very Mormon.

 “Branch 9 ¾” by Kaki Olsen: I have a thing about the personal essay form. I so often find it frustrating. Too crafted. Too earnest. Not fiction. But here Kaki takes one of the major themes that preoccupies me on an abstract level — that of the interaction between Mormonism and the broader culture — and presents us with something very real and meaningful.

“Golden Contact” by Lee Allred: Lee’s story is a joke. I mean that literally not as a commentary on the story. But I like that even in a story that is a joke Lee can include lines like “There’s sort of a unnatural sharkskin texture to them that almost glows.” He’s one of our best at expressing the uniqueness of Mormonism in a unique way.

“The Back Row” by Kelli Swofford Nielsen: Kelli’s essay does for me some of the same things that “Branch 9 3/4” and “Requiem for Those People Who Lived Briefly in Your Ward” did but with the added bonus that because I’m a back row sitter (who underwent a similar process to that described in the essay), I can very much identify with her observations.

“Rumors of Wars” by Zachary Lunn: An impactful poem because it connects the wars of today with the Church of today with the Church and wars of before and does so with some simple, powerful imagery.  

 “Last Tuesday” by William Morris: I hope other readers find that it balances the things I wanted to balance; otherwise, it’s kind of ridiculous. But what am I if not a leading Mormon purveyor of the ridiculous and the sublime?

 “From the East” by Merrijane Rice: While up until this year Steve Peck might have some claim to the crown, I think it’s now obvious that Merrijane owns the Mormon Lit Blitz contest. This poem is another proof why. Pay especial attention to the rhythm of it and the use of alliteration which seems profligate in its abundance until you read it out loud and then it seems perfect.