Elsewhere: Mormonism and Ender’s Game

Over at Times & Seasons, Kaimi Wenger has posted an interesting discussion of “Ender’s Game as Mormon literature.”

I won’t repeat what I’ve already said over there. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to point to a few resources for those interested in Orson Scott Card’s work and Ender’s Game in particular.

1. The idea of Ender as a Christ figure comes up in the T&S discussion. Pre-eminent Card scholar Michael Collings has made his essay available online. It’s also found as a book chapter in his critical study of the works of Orson Scott Card: In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card. Collings claims: “Ender is a particularly LDS Christ-figure, however. The choices he must make are real choices; his sufferings, real sufferings.” Other essays by Collings on Orson Scott Card — including some that deal specifically with Mormon elements in his work — can be found at Starshine and Shadows.

2. One of the most interesting works of Orson Scott Card criticism that takes an explicitly Mormon stance is Eugene England’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Orson Scott Card with it’s great opening line: “Orson Scott Card is a radical Mormon.” In fact, that essay is a great counter balance to…

3. …the popular perception among non-LDS who see OSC as a one-dimensional, homophobic, conservative ideologue. In order to understand that perception, you need to read the Salon.com interview — My favorite author, my worst interview: I worshipped militaristic Mormon science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card — until we met. Whatever your political beliefs or biases for/against Salon.com, it’s a fascinating case study in how non-LDS often just don’t get us (and don’t seem to try too hard to do so).

Of course, OSC has certainly fanned the flames a bit with his . Although he is (was?) a socially conservative democrat and somewhat of an anti-capitalist, the column doesn’t vary much from the standard Republican party/social conservative line. And his rhetoric gets a little sloppy and heated. Understandable, perhaps, considering that it is a newspaper column. But I wonder if England would be tempted to revise his assessment above — were he still around (and how I wish he was).

4. The author himself discusses how his religious beliefs influence his fiction here, here, here, several places here, and in a myriad of other places on the Web.

Review: Two Mormon-themed NaNoWriMo novels

I realize that as a card-carrying member of the liteary elite it is my solemn (is there any other kind?) duty to sneer at those who particiapate in . After all these people are writing novels, and they’ve never even been accepted in to a creative writing program.

But at the rick of losing another corner from my membership card (it’s okay — there’ll still be one left [it’s a Boy Scout joke. I use it often]), I am proud to bring you demi-reviews of The Lotus Eaters by Anneka Majors and The Scoundrels of Provo, Utah by [name removed at the request of the author ~Wm] — both first-time novelists, I believe.

Both novels explore the joys and travails of young, single LDS students and do so in a postmodern (whatever that term means), kind-of-hip, often humorous way.

WARNING: These reviews aren’t terribly well-informed because I only had time to skim the novels, and skipped huge chunks of them.

The Lotus Eaters

I already knew that Anneke Majors was a talented artist and graphic designer. I had no idea she could write. Yes, her work is a little too-exposition heavy, and the narrator is sometimes a little too self-aware. But Anneke has at least attempted something I’ve wanted to see: a truly postmodern Mormon novel — one that takes the faith seriously while at the same time not shying away from some of the difficult stuff that educated Mormon singles have to deal with. And it’s sprinkled with pop and Mormon culture references.

The narrative follows several young women at a state college in Montana as they try to carve out an identity as women, as scholars or artists, and as Mormons. Again, I just skimmed thing, but a few points of praise:

1. Anneke takes the stance that educated Mormons are doubly conscious — post-post-modern — in the way that they knowingly embrace a culture and religion that is seen by others rather one-dimensionaly.

2. It’s quite current. This can be problematic, but considering how narrow the field of Mormon culture is, I think it’ll stand up. The Singles Ward and Fascinating Womanhood both make appearances. I’m pretty keyed in to Mormon culture, but I think Anneka would kick my butt in

3. Scenes actually take place in church meetings and in college classes. I’m amazed at the works of Mormon literature where much of the action takes place outside of these two important arenas — even when the main characters are active LDS.

4. Anneke has turned some clever phrases. A couple of examples:

“Was it bourgeois to use Crisco?”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that dreamy, romantic girls of the scholarly type are all in want of a husband like Mr. Darcy. Most of these girls know about five young men of similar character and attitude and may even be good friends with them, but would never seriously consider dating them, missing the point of Austen’s masterpiece entirely.”

I can’t judge the work as a whole. But I did read enough to decide that it merits further reading.

The Lotus Eaters is available for sale at Cafepress (and even if you don’t intend to purchase it, at least click through and look at the cover art — as I said, Anneke is a talented graphic designer). Or read it for free at Anneke’s Livejournal.

The Scoundrels of Provo, Utah

I spent even less time with [name removed at the request of the author ~Wm] The Scoundrels of Provo, Utah, but as with Anneke’s novel, I found things to like. The novel is about James, a BYU student who is five months returned from an LDS mission in Russia. Again, the chapters I read were a little exposition heavy (too be expected from the first draft from a first-time novelists), and the exposition was clunky at times. But the author also creates a convincing and interesting milieu and deals with issues that I think have been missing from Mormon literature. Two of the main concerns of the main character are 1) finding a girlfriend or at least dating more actively and 2) the falling away from the church of a less-recently-returned Russian RM that he had looked up to in the mission field.

I’m not sure if I’ll read the entire novel, but let me put it this way: it interests me way more than much of the didactic stuff that is popular in the Mormon market.

The Scoundrels of Provo, Utah [is no longer available online ~Wm].

ALSO: If any AMV readers are interested in doing a more serious, formal review, please feel free to do so. I’d be happy to post it. Or if anyone else wrote a Mormon-themed NaNoWriMo novel, I’d be happy to mention it. E-mail me at motleyvision AT gmail DOT com.

Review: ‘Black and Mormon’

For the most part the eight essays in the plain-titled essay collection Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, are masterpieces of velvet-fisted discourse. They seethe rational, measured arguments and relevant, pointed examples, and end with subtle observations and lingering questions.

This is a good thing.

As the title suggests, the experience of black Americans in the LDS Church is best expressed by a conjunction rather than a hyphen. Because of the racial basis of the now-lifted priesthood ban and other racial doctrines (folk or not), the Church, as an institution and a people, remains mired in racial (rather than, say, ethnic) discourse when it comes to African Americans. In other words, for black Americans, to be LDS is to be black and Mormon.

Much of the information contained in the essays is available in longer form elsewhere, but what makes this collection necessary, and a valuable addition to the homes of all Latter-day Saints, is that it packs a full picture of the issues surrounding blacks and Mormonism into an accessible, short (166 pages of text and notes) book. Most importantly, the emphasis is on the actual experience of black Mormons. The work is abundant with the experiences and observations of black Mormons drawn from interviews, surveys, personal experiences and historical documents.

The prose is very readable — informed and reflective of in-depth research, but not overly scholarly or theoretical. Moreover it is one of the best-edited collections I have ever read. In fact, there is actual cohesion among the eight essays. They refer to each other when necessary or appropriate. And the later writers even acknowledge the earlier essays when they repeat examples and anecdotes and draw on similar data sets and sources. It makes for a very pleasant reading experience. One gets a sense of a common narrative threading throughout the book — each essay one facet of the entire project.

The collection begins with an excellent survey by Bringhurst of the “Missouri Thesis” and other explanations put forth by Mormon historians on the priesthood ban. That thesis, a product of the “new Mormon history” school, posited that the ban came about because of the Mormon attempts to settle in Missouri. The Mormons who moved into Missouri, a slave state, were mainly from the abolitionist East and so the priesthood ban was a signal that the Mormons were proslavery and not a threat to the other Missourians. Bringhurst carefully lays out the various incarnations and rebuttals of the thesis. He also takes up the case of Elijah Abel, a 19th century black Mormon who received the priesthood. The case of Abel and othe early black members of the Church introduces a theme that threads throughout the book and is important to understand — this topic is full of ambiguities and lingering questions.

The second essay, by Alma Allred, seeks to correct folk beliefs about the reasons and doctrinal justification for the priesthood ban. Allred asserts: “Strictly speaking, there is no doctrine in the church that blacks are descendants of Cain. Neither is there a doctrine that Ham married a descendent of Cain” (34). He then goes on to back up his claims with close readings of LDS scripture and the words and actions of the prophet Joseph Smith. Even if one doesn’t agree with the way that Allred parses doctrine and policy (he sees a strong distinction between the two — for him the priesthood ban was a policy and never a doctrine), the evidence and arguments he musters sweep away the idea that canonical scripture supports the priesthood ban. Either it was a tragic mistake, the result of realpolitik and/or prejudice, by post-Joseph Smith Mormon leaders, or it was an inspired (and still tragic) policy revealed to post-JS leaders. But the whole curse-of-Cain trope is thoroughly discredited by Allred.

Taken together these first two essays provide a succinct introduction to the experiences of black saints and the various Mormon discourses related to blacks and the priesthood.

Other essays include personal reflections by two African American Latter-day Saint men on their pre-1978 revelation “religious hopes”; an analysis of case studies of two African American Latter-day Saint families by Jessie L. Embry; a look at how racial discourse and black LDS experience has changed (and not changed) since 1978 by Armand L. Mauss; a “sociological perspective” of African American Latter-day Saints by Cardell K. Jacobson; a report on the LDS African American community in Atlanta by Ken Driggs; and a personal essay that draws on the discourse of “whiteness theory” to interrogate white LDS concepts of race by Darron T. Smith.

If I have time, I will write up capsule reviews of each of these essays, and I also hope to discuss Smith’s essay in depth, but for now here’s the bottom line:

At $34.95 this collection is a little steep. And as I mention above much of what’s contained here can be found elsewhere. However, unless you have already read widely on this issue, this collection is a must — for those interested in Mormon studies, for LDS artists and for all (members and non-LDS) who want to know more about black Saints and the priesthood ban. One can only hope that the University of Illinois Press also comes out with an affordable trade paperback edition.

Even if you think the question is settled in your mind — whether you take the “misguided policy” or “we don’t know why” or “it was sad but necessary” view of the priesthood ban — you should still read this book. Yes, the essays fail to take up some questions and perspectives. And there are gaps in evidence and argument. And in some ways the essays are too measured. But on the whole, it’s a well-edited, relevant, needed work.

Black and Mormon is available in LDS bookstores, online and from the University of Illinois Press.

Elsewhere: Our Thoughts has posted a preliminary review. Mormanity has a that includes a lengthy excerpt. Mormon Wasp has also posted on the book and links to other resources on this issue.

ALSO: Major props to the Univ. of Illinois Press marketing team for reaching out to the Bloggernacle. As a pr flack, I was surprised by and yet approve of their efforts to use non-traditional marketing methods. This is exactly the type of title that one should pitch to bloggers.

Review: Under the Cottonwoods follow up

Now that Sunstone has put its earlier issues online, I thought I’d check for a review of Douglas Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods and other Mormon stories. Sure enough, a review by Roy R. Bird appears in the Summer 1977 issue. Sunstone doesn’t provide direct links to articles so you’ll have to scroll down to read it.

In his review, Bird picks up on some of the same things I did. For example: “[Thayer] candidly examines the conflict that inevitably arises between LDS cultural expectations and the challenges of individual experience.”

Like me he thought the ending of “Rabbit Hunt” was “overly dramatic.”

I’m not sure about what he admits is a “pretentious” comparison of the collection with James Joyce’s Dubliners. Yes, both are short story collections that exude a strong sense of place — Provo, Dublin — and what’s more a place that is at the center of a particular culture. But the stories in Dubliners add up to a broader portrait, I think.

I always find it a strange to see how others experience a work that I’ve read. Doubly so when it’s one that I’ve written about.

For what it’s worth, this is the best part of the review:

“Skillfully employing understatement, Thayer generally resists the temptation to make his characters’ epiphanies overtly didactic. Instead, like Joyce again, he maintains a deceptively calm narrative surface to his stories. This apparent calm, juxtaposed against the internal turmoil of his characters, enables Thayer to generate considerable intellectual energy in his stories.”

Source: Roy R. Bird. “Provo, Front and Center!” Sunstone. Issue 6: Summer 1977, page 41.

Review: Under the Cottonwoods and other Mormon stories

The short stories in Douglas Thayer’s collection Under the Cottonwoods and other Mormon stories are definitely Mormon — very Mormon, very male, very Provo. All (ten) of them feature male characters — many of them age 18-22– who live or grew up in Provo in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. I suppose one could fault Thayer for this narrow focus, but I would argue that the results testify to the power of concentrating one’s creative efforts on one slice of life, for collectively these stories powerfully capture an important aspect of Mormon culture — the joys and costs of the burden of expectations that Mormon men (especially young men) are expected by their families and wards to carry.

The list of expectations shows up in different forms throughout the stories, but the elements remain the same: mission, college, married in the temple, good job (hopefully in one of the professions), and kids.

In “The Clinic,” a young man comes back to Provo from Vietnam to find that those he left behind expect him to resume the his life track — enroll in college, begin dating — and are surprised when he shows no interest in either of those things. In “Greg,” a young man faces the realization that one moment of sexual sin will probably lead to him missing out on a mission and perhaps even college and tries to get up the courage to go to his bishop and confess. In “Testimony,” a father who has just ordained his son a priest worries about all the temptations — drugs, sex — that seem more prevalent than when he was growing up and hopes that his son gets up and bears his testimony as a sign that he is on the right track.

All of the stories feature straightforward, stripped down (but not overly sparse) Raymond Carver-like prose and are told in third person limited omniscient with liberal use of free indirect discourse. In addition, certain images and tropes carry across stories. These stories are about blood, guns, fathers, sons, fishing, death, being an example, clothes and cars. Several of the stories feature characters who are obsessed (some almost compulsively) about physical cleanliness (linked as it were to moral cleanliness) — they take showers and change their clothes more than once a day. In several of the stories we find fathers who don’t hold family prayers or bear their testimonies — who believe but aren’t demonstrative. Several of the fathers are also worried about how the world seems to pressing in on Provo, its temptations much more available, the innocence and cohesiveness of a homogenous way of Mormon life ebbing away.

These repeated themes and symbols combined with the style and point of view create an intense reading experience.

Not all the stories work. The shocking ending of “The Rabbit Hunt” is a bit heavy-handed, the irony too thick, the conclusion too blunt. “Zarahemla,” a story about a young father who realizes that it finally may be time to sell the small-town Utah stone house he inherited from his grandmother (pioneer and plural wife), lacks the power of the other stories — it’s nice and all, but the collection would be fine without it.

The best story of the lot is “Elder Thatcher.” The entire narrative takes place as the returned missionary of the title sits on the stand in sacrament meeting and thinks about his mission and what he’s going to say to the congregation, struggling with whether or not to give them the values-affirming, standard RM, welcome home talk that they all expect or do what a disaffected, bitter RM had challenged him earlier that day to do — to “not tell more lies” than he has to (77). The power of the story is that as Elder Thatcher, who went on his mission because that was what they (his family, his ward) had all expected of him, unsure of his testimony, recalls the reality of his mission — the homesickness, the doubts, the elders who tortured themselves with memories of home or who fought or who didn’t do work, the elders who had strong testimonies and worked hard, the members in Germany where he served, the feeling that his body was aging, that he was losing two years of his youth and vitality, the unresponsive people who answered the door and stared blankly at them when they said they were messengers of Christ — it becomes apparent that he has truly gained a testimony, a living testimony.

He realizes: “The gospel wasn’t sentimental; it was real, fact. He had seen it change individual converts, whole families, dozens of missionaries, and he had begun to see now what it had done to him and how it had made him new” (104).

Thayer is too good of a writer to actually dramatize Elder Thatcher’s talk, but we are left with the feeling that he is going to find a way to make all those people in the congregation — all of them and their expectations — realize that his mission wasn’t just another thing to check of the list, a nice thing to do, a thing that all Mormon young men from Provo should do.

It’s a great story. One of the best in Mormon literature.

And the entire collection is a true Mormon classic. Thayer manages to strike the right balance. These stories are respectful of Mormon culture and tradition and the desire of the older generation to see its young men stay close to the Church (especially outwardly i.e. the ‘list’ mentioned above). But they also dramatically illustrate how those expectations are not without cost for the young men upon whom they are placed.

Source: Douglas H. Thayer. Under the Cottonwoods and other Mormon stories. Frankson Books: Provo, 1977.

Review: LDS Review

“Your Entertainment. Your Standards.” is the tagline of the recently-launched (late April) group blog LDS Review. It’s an interesting discursive move on the part of the creators of the site. They are clearly targeting a specific audience — the orthodox, active LDS audience — and a specific market — products that show up on the shelves of LDS bookstores. They let us know that first by stating that the entertainment is “ours” (as opposed to “the worlds”), and then by telling us that the works they review are going to be selected and reviewed by LDS standards. This idea of Mormon-centric entertainment that conforms to certain standards seems to be one that motivates a large part of the LDS audience — judging by what works sell well and what stocking decisions Deseret Book and Seagull, the two largest booksellers, make.

In addition, I find it interesting that they’ve chosen to avoid the “Mormon” label and call the site “LDS Review” and use LDS as the primary identifying adjective in their reviews. I’ve noticed the same choice made in other places. Part of it is probably in response to the movement several years ago by the Church public relations people to use LDS as an identifier instead of Mormon. But I also think that the reason the practice has persisted is because it is, in part, a reactionary move in response to those who have broadened the term Mormon to include cultural or even disaffected LDS (i.e. not active and/or believing LDS).

Now I’m not saying that this type of calculation went into the naming of the site. Nor am I criticizing it. I merely am trying to show how the branding choices the sites creators made signal the demographic they are going for.

And for what it’s worth, here at A Motley Vision, I tend to use LDS when I’m talking about active, believing members, but my use of Mormon varies. Sometimes it is used in a big-tent sense; sometimes I use it even when I’m talking mainly about or to active LDS (recognizing, of course, that active LDS still encompasses a broad range of audiences not all of whom fit into the desiring LDS-oriented art with standards category).

LDS Review’s project is an ambitious one. Seven reviewers are going to review film, music and books that are oriented towards the Mormon market. There’s a need for this type of venture. The AML does great book and film reviews, but not music. Meridian Magazine has some reviews, but not many. If LDS Review can put together a track record of consistent updates and a substantial body of reviews, and they are able to garner traffic, I think that they can become an important voice in the LDS market.

One of the things that I like about their reviews is that while they are clearly focused on the orthodox LDS market, they aren’t afraid to criticize the works they review. There has been a tendency, in my opinion, to uncritically receive any work that appears in the market. As long as it fits in the “your entertainment, your standards” category, it gets rubberstamped as of good report for the Mormon-LDS audience.

One of the great things about their CD reviews is that in addition to offering a written assessment, the reviewers also give the works number grades in the categories of Production, Songwriting, Performance and Overall. To see what I mean, take a look Andrew’s review of Clay in His Hands by Jessie Clark.

I especially like the idea of a production category. Traditionally, one of the problems with some LDS products has been that they have very low production values. Anything that helps the Mormon audience become more picky about the production of LDS products is a very good thing. In fact, I’d like to see them add number grades and categories to the film and book reviews. Editing could be a category for both films and books. Cover art for DVD’s and books. Sound for films. Etc.

Although I would have liked to see them take a broader stance in relation to the Mormon market, I understand why LDS Review is doing what they do and hope they can sustain it. In fact, if I was Meridian Magazine [yes, Proctors, this means you], I would look at making LDS Review a content partner. As I mention above, Meridian’s weak point is its mediocre treatment of the world of LDS literature, music and film. Yes, they run some reviews and articles, but as has been pointed before [sorry, no source for this], Meridian’s book reviews are mainly Covenant authors reviewing books by other Covenant authors.

With more content and a stable of reviewers who, at least so far, seem to be in tune with the LDS audience — critical but faithful so-to-speak — Meridian Magazine could increase its appeal, especially, I think to younger readers. LDS Review still needs to prove it can put out a steady stream of reviews, but judging by the way the editorial face of the site has been put together, it’s on the right track.

Again, this is all said within the constraints of the project/ambitions the site’s creators have laid out. If I were to do a multi-authored, review-oriented blog, I would take a much different editorial approach.