Criticism: About that Whitney quote

So about that Orson F. Whitney quote…

No, not this one. Not the one that crops up almost everywhere.

This quote — the one that appears near the bottom of the right sidebar:

“Our literature must live and breathe for itself.”

The quote comes from the same source as the Shakespeares and Miltons one. It’s part of the section in Whitney’s foundational essay “Home Literature” where he most clearly defines how Mormon writers should go about creating a home literature:

“Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of “Mormon” literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no “sisters nine,” no “blue-eyed maid of heaven”; no invoking of mythical muses that “did never yet one mortal song inspire.” No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God’s supreme design.” (Orson Whitney. “Home Literature.” The Contributor: July 1988).

Setting aside the whole Holy Ghost question for a moment, it may seem that talk about muses is out of place in the world of (post)modern fiction, but how many times have you heard authors discuss the process of writing in terms that seem to hearken back to the idea of a muse? Sure, now we call it the subconscious, but authors continue to claim that their characters come from some ‘other’ place. You hear things like: “I thought the novel was going to be about James, but then the character of Tess grabbed me by the shoulders and yelled in my ear and forced me to completely changed the focus.” Or, “At first I didn’t know exactly what her story was so I had to get her to tell it to me.” Or, “Yeah, that was a weird twist for me too — David completely surprised me by doing that.” [Full disclosure: I made all those quotes up. They are based, however, on interviews I’ve heard/read over the years].

Now, granted this is just a way to explain the creative process, and in some cases is probably exaggerated to mystify the experience of writing for non-writers. At the same time, I know that for me writing a narrative, writing about characters, requires a sort of tugging on the subconscious, an inner staging that can’t be consciously blocked out beforehand.

Okay, so that’s all well and fine — the subconscious has a role in the creative process and you could describe that as a sort of ‘muse.’ The real question is: how involved is the Holy Ghost in the process?

I can’t answer that question, of course. Sure there are authors in the LDS market that claim that they were inspired to write a particular work. But there’s no real way to verify that. For even if readers feel the Holy Ghost when reading, viewing or listening to a particular work, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work itself has received some indelible stamp of the spirit — especially since not only is feeling the spirit a subjective, virtually indescribable experience, but it also varies by reader. Even those of us who claim some sort of orthodoxy, who have built a common ground of trust, of feeling the spirit in similar situations, don’t always respond with the same intensity [or even at all sometimes] to works of art.

Which I guess gets at the real difficulty here. What does it mean for the Holy Ghost to inspire a work? Is it some form of automatic writing where the writer only acts as a conduit? I’d doubt that any Mormon writers would claim that. Does it mean that God somehow wants a particular work to come forth? In my experience, God wants us to use our talents and can encourage us in a particular direction, but that doesn’t mean he sanctions the work for all time and all peoples. None of us are writing for the scriptural canon — no matter how inspired we feel our work to be. [Okay, so there’s some room for discussion on this point, but I don’t feel like going into it here].

No, I think that at most I can say that this about Whitney’s quote: Mormon artists should seek to live close to the spirit, to do those “Sunday School” things [prayer, service, scripture reading, temple attendance] that keep us in tune, and just as importantly, I think, Mormon artists should be obsessed with Mormon materials, with the stuff of our history, theology and culture. Assuming it is possible, and I remain hopeful that it is even though I think that it will take some time and will not be in abundance, originality, a literature that breathes for itself, will come from someone who can digest and interpret Mormon materials in a way that is informed by and refreshes but resists, even critiques Western, canonical [and pop, I think] culture.

CAVEAT: “Mormon artists” above refers to artists who seek to live a life of LDS orthodoxy. In keeping with the big tent definition of Mormon literature, A Motley Vision will, at other times, use the term “Mormon artists” in a broader sense to include those, for instance, who identify themselves as cultural Mormons but are not active LDS. I’m not sure how this Whitney quote would apply to them. But I’m open to comments that speak to that issue.

Criticism: What is Mormon literature?

Now that the introductory material is out of the way, on to the business of blogging…

There are two questions wrapped up in the post title.

The first: What works and authers count as Mormon literature?

The answer to this question varies by audience, obviously. The tendency in Mormon letters has been to take a broad approach, thus, Mormon literature is anything written by Mormons (active LDS or otherwise) or any work that is about Mormons [generally meaning, at least when it comes to fiction, has at least one Mormon character ]. That works for me, for now, and so I expect A Motley Vision to range from Walter Kirn to Jack Weyland. But I have to admit that, for me, certain works and authors ‘count’ more than others. Why is that? And what elements make a work resonate more fully with me [and with others] as a Mormon reader — that arouse my ‘Mormon-ness’ as opposed to simply my ‘literary-dude-ness’?

The second: What type of literature is Mormon literature?

Typically Mormon literature has been regarded as a sub-set of Western regionalism. If you look at the non-LDS bookstore, non-BYU market, Mormon literature crops up in the form of titles published by the University of Illinois, Utah State and the University of Utah as just one part of a catalog of Western works. In addition to its own meetings, the Association of Mormon Letters usually sponsors a session at the annual Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association conference. The Weber State journal Weber Studies and the University of Utah’s Western Humanities Review focus on Western regional titles, including some Mormon works.

This is all fine. But Western regionalism isn’t a very telling category — especially as the field develops and titles come out that aren’t rooted in the Intermountain West. So is it an ethnic [Mormo-American], religious, Christian [certainly much of the Mormon publishing and book selling market is modeled after the Christian market], minor or even national literature?

I think that it’s a strange hybrid. That it is unique in the way that it seems to be caught between and interacts with an active, even dominant institutional LDS discourse , a rather provincial ‘home’ market and the field of American literature . And I think you could even argue that Mormon literature is still in such nascent form that any attempts to categorize it are premature. And yet, I can’t leave this topic alone. I intend to keep trying to tease out where it [or parts of it] seem to point in a specific direction, always with the understanding, of course, that I my perspective is biased because I desire for it to grow and gain in legitimacy as a field of its own, as Mormon literature.