The other day, I woke up and wound up writing — well, this. And so I decided that I might as well share…
Science fiction as a genre has a high and holy calling of engaging us in dialogue with science, the future, and technological change (corresponding to fantasy’s calling to engage us in a dialogue with history, mythology, and the unconscious, but that’s a topic for a different essay). Like most such callings, it is a potential caught mostly in glimpses, seldom if ever fully realized. Yet for all the protestations one hears of simple storytelling with no pretense of oracular or legislative responsibility (Shelley notwithstanding), it is a vocation pursued with remarkable persistence by most of the genre’s writers and never really forgotten by the bulk of its readers. (I speak now of literature. Movies are a different thing entirely.)
Today, an interview with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott appeared in Slate. The following is an excerpt from that interview (I’ve reversed the original bolding—bold is now Scott and plain is interviewer Isaac Chotiner):
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.”
I feel pretty confident in asserting, without further evidence, that I find myself in a relatively small number of people who wake up on a Saturday morning thinking about questions of Mormon literary criticism. Possibly almost as small a number as those who might read the fruits of such questioning. (But only possibly.) Still, it is the nature of the essayist to find oneself compelled to write. And so…
Throughout most of Mormonism’s literary history (such as it is), there has I think been little evidence of Mormons taking pleasure in or valuing a different kind of literary experience than what is valued in larger (mostly American) culture. Home literature, missionary fiction, lost generation fiction, faithful Mormon realism — all find close corollaries and even direct models in the larger writing universe.
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.]
In Alma’s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: “we will compare the word unto a seed.” He continues by outlining some criteria for the seed’s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.
My focus in this brief note is on Alma’s statement about the seed’s health—if it be a true seed, or a good seed—and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics.
The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes “good” over “true,” a priority supported by the fact that he uses “good” not “true” through the rest of the discourse. Alma’s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truth—their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative aren’t “Is it true?” or “How true is it?” but “Is it good?” or “What good does it do or encourage its audience to do?”
The prioritization of a narrative’s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (including—maybe especially—Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.
I’ve gotten into the, perhaps bad, habit of looking for a Mormon parallel to interesting works I come across. I know I’m not alone in doing this–after the first online dating site how long did it take before we had a Mormon one?
My most recent foray into potential Mormon parallels came when I purchased a copy of Raymond Queneau’s fascinating book Exercises in Style, which consists of 99 versions of the same mundane story told in a stunning variety of ways. For me this book has highlighted the similarity of much of today’s literature, especially so-called genre fiction. Contemporary fiction seems focused on a narrow range of styles–either first person or third person omniscient, narrative told in chronological order. [There are, of course, plenty of exceptions. But elements like this seem to dominate.]
In his book, Queneau doesn’t really invent new styles. Instead, the styles reflect what already exists; the way people talk or write or portray stories. Styles in the book include things like Metaphorically, Retrograde, Dream, Word Game, Narrative, Anagrams, Onomatopoeia, Logical Analysis, Official Letter, Past, Present, Reported Speech etc.
For example, the “Notation” style (first in the book) is told this way:
On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.
Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.
To me this concept is brilliant. For authors and readers alike it breaks down the customary approach to literature and promotes creativity. It also simply helps us to understand what style is and the breadth of its possibilities.
So, would it be possible to produce a Mormon Exercises in Style? I know many of our fellow Church members who would say no — that Mormons have no style, or that all of Mormon writing and discourse uses the same style. But this seems demonstrably false to me. If nothing else we see stylistic differences in different situations: testimonies have stylistic differences when compared to lessons or talks or interviews. And different authors have their own styles–who doubts that President Monson’s familiar use of a kind of passive past tense near the emotional and spiritual climax of his stories (“Hugs were shared; tears were shed”¦”) constitutes an important element of the Monsonian style?
I don’t know if there are enough identifiable Mormon styles for a book like Queneau’s. But I think the effort of telling the same story in a series of Mormon styles would at least help those who wrote the stories, and likely would enlighten readers about the customary ways Mormons communicate with each other.
Since I’m not at all confident about my own ability to mimic a variety of Mormon styles (I’m not even sure I have the ability to do just one!), I’d like to suggest open this idea up to the online Mormon world (the bloggernacle or whatever you would like to call it) and ask for submissions, which would then be published here on AMV and perhaps improved by the suggestions of our readers and visitors.
In order to do this, we will need a couple of things:
First, we need a mundane story. Make that a mundane Mormon story. I hope to write a post in the next week asking for suggestions about what should be included in this story. Somehow, without being dramatic, I think it will need to include elements of a typical Mormon life — perhaps what happens in Church, at least in part. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.
Second, we will need a list of possible styles in which the story can be rendered. I’ve mentioned some possibilities above, and I’m including those and a few more below.
[Note that some of these could be subdivided — travelog testimonies may be stylistically different, for example — while others may not actually be clear styles, and still others may not work to tell a story at all. To get started, lets list possibilities regardless of these issues.]:
church lesson (as delivered)
sacrament meeting talk
priesthood leader interview
I don’t know if this will work or not. To me it seems like it might be fun and perhaps useful. What do you think?
It’s May, which means it’s time to celebrate (among other things) loyalty, Star Wars, nurses, Sally Ride, the end of the Middle Ages, and, of course, Mom.
To that latter end, I’ve put myself to the task of reading and commenting on the poems featured in 2014’s A Mother Here Contest. You can read more about the contest via that link, but here’s how I see my project working: as an attempt (alongside and in conversation with the contest artworks) to “express the nearness of our Heavenly Mother” and to witness her presence in the cosmos (as coeval with Father) and in the intimate details of our lives.
As I mention, the project (which I’m hosting on FireinthePasture.org) will be two-fold:
1. I’ll post a recording of me reading one of the featured contest poems.
2. Alongside that reading, I’ll post a short audio comment (likely no more than four minutes long) in which I respond to the poem and explore what it says about the Mormon Divine Feminine.
My hope in taking this on is to expand the rich discourse that’s emerging re: Mother in Heaven and, in the process, to explore my own relationship with her. I’ve posted elsewhere about my experience talking about the Eternal Mother in a short sacrament meeting sermon. What I didn’t mention was how nervous I was when I stood to speak. I knew there was no silence officially mandated on the topic, but the cultural silence hung heavy in my ears and on my mind. As a result, just before I began speaking about her, my heart rapped hard on my sternum. When I introduced the idea that Mother stands beside Father as they carry out the work of eternity, though, I felt her presence and peace in a way I’ve never felt them before.
I’ve sensed that again as I’ve spent time the past week or so with the contest poems.
So: here goes—my first reading/commentary combo. A caveat, though: since May has 31 days and the contest only features 30 poems, what to do with the extra day? Rather than cut the month short, I found another poem to highlight: Emma Lou Thayne’s “Woman of Another World, I Am with You.” I think it provides a fruitful beginning to this month-long engagement with the “A Mother Here” poems.
Emma Lou Thayne’s “Woman of Another World, I Am with You”
Post 1/31 in my A Mother Here reading series. (I’m four days into the project now. Check out all posts in the series via the link embedded in the previous sentence.)
Keep in mind that I don’t write historical fiction myself and haven’t read deeply in the genre so my advice may not be worth much. But my exposure to it includes: reading all of the historical fiction nominees this year, reading the historical fiction finalists back in [[insert year]], other reading of Mormon historical fiction, other reading of historical fiction published in the past three decades, other reading of fantasy fiction that draws on historical fiction, reading of quite a few novels from the main eras that authors write historical fiction in (the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries), reading of nonfiction from/about those eras, and reading of several of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. Scott, along with Jane Porter, launched the genre of historical fiction. This is all to say that while it’s not one of my primary genres, I do have some familiarity with its tropes and forms and what it can do well. Continue reading “Advice for Mormon writers of historical fiction”