Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two

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.”

Continue reading “Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part Two”

Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part One

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.

Continue reading “Is There a Distinctive Mormon Literary Esthetic? Part One”

Marilynne Robinson on beauty

In “Freedom of Thought”, the first essay in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson laments the marginilization of the sacred and the retreat from beauty that she sees a key elements of modern American life. And she indicts both the social sciences (the models for understanding the world anthropology, psychology and especially economics have given us) and religion in this lament.

She goes on to write:

If we think we have done this voiding of content for the sake of other people, those to whom we suspect God may have given a somewhat lesser brilliance than our own, we are presumptuous and also irreverent. William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for this translation of the Bible, who provided much of the beautiful language in what is called by us the King James Bible, wrote, he said, in the language a plow-boy could understand. He wrote to the comprehension of the profoundly poor, those who would be, and would have lived among, the utterly unlettered. And he created one of the undoubted masterpieces of the English language. Now we seem to feel beauty is an affectation of some sort. And this notion is as influential in the churches as it is anywhere. The Bible, Christianity, should have inoculated us against this kind of disrespect for ourselves and one another. Clearly it has not. (6)

I’m not sure how (and how well) this can be done in the modern world. But beauty that is without affectation, that does not presume, that is not sentimental — that seems like something to seek for. In fact, it seems like our 13th Article of Faith rather expects it of us.

A response to Rosalynde Welch’s critique of thematic Mormon literary criticism, part 1

Much of the response to Rosalynde’s Patheos column “Oxymormon: LDS Literary Fiction and the Problem of Genre” focused on a defense of genre. For example, several of the comments in the discussion of the piece at By Common Consent specifically reacted to the term “trashy genre fiction”, which Rosalynde used in the subhed to her piece. Many interesting and valid points were made, including Russell Arben Fox’s observation that we should look to Mormon culture for great genre writers rather than for Shakespeares*, but very little of what has been said thus far actually addresses the heart of her main contention, which is that there are major disadvantages to focusing on thematic Mormon literary criticism. In particular, she writes: “By emphasizing the religious themes of the literature at the expense of its textual form–its engagement with the rules of science fiction, or the conventions of the romance novel, or whatever — one can end up in the curious position of having developed a ‘Mormon aesthetic’ that has everything to do with Mormonism and nothing at all to do with art.”

This is a fair charge. Indeed the genre-ecumenicalism of the “literary” wing of Mormon literature as typified by the AML Awards and the fiction and poetry published in Dialogue and Irreantum expresses itself most often in a thematic way. That is, although any achievement of craftmanship by a Mormon writer has a shot of being published or awarded or reviewed or written about critically, it is much more likely to be so if it contains themes that have strong tie-ins to the Mormon worldview. There is a limit, of course, to the genre-ecumenicalism of this wing of the field — romance and thriller, for example, rarely get attention. Most of the genre works that do are mystery and, especially, speculative fiction. And part of the reason why is because of the ease in which the work’s themes can be tied in to Mormonism in a rich way. Continue reading “A response to Rosalynde Welch’s critique of thematic Mormon literary criticism, part 1”

Why the inherent subjectivity of art is a good thing

The following is from a rejection I received  a short short story I wrote for a contest:

“Among judges’ general comments are:

Undeveloped characters, clever dialogue, weak plot, preachy tone, rhythmic prose, well-presented conflict, predictable resolution, nicely-established scene, unbelievable narrator, argumentative style, lyrical voice, little action, problematic point of view, entertaining.”

I wasn’t expecting to get any feedback on the story so it was a nice surprise to receive it. It was also initially a bit confusing. The messages seemed decidedly mixed; the list of phrases like some schizophrenic Zagat’s review. But then as I thought about it, I was quite delighted. I can’t begin to read the tea-leaves of these various responses. There’s just not enough to go on. Yet, I think that from various points of view, they are all quite valid (except for “predictable resolution” — that one I seem to bristle at, which, of course, may mean that it’s the one that is most valid). And I think several of them are quite invalid. So much depends on what one is expecting from a short short story; on how much experience one has reading short short stories; on how much one is in love with modern American literary discourse; on one’s attitude towards Mormonism; one what one values in relation to prose, plot, characterization, etc.

And I think is a very good thing. You know, as authors we tend to get tetchy when someone criticizes our work in certain ways — and tend to blow critics off as just not getting it or as being mean (because of some defect in their character). And as readers, we tend to get irritated when critics seem to invalidate our personal readings of a work or when we feel that by attacking a work they are attacking an author we hold dear in our hearts.

That’s all (usually) nonsense.

But so also is the notion of critics being able to establish some objective reading of a work that is definitive, that is absolute.

The simple truth is this: ones experience with a work of art relies on an entire fabric of personal histories, emotions, attitudes, personalities, educations, ideologies and aesthetic preferences. No matter how authoritative one tries to speak, all commentary on art begins with an I. And the more art I experience, and the more I write about art, and the more criticism and theory I read, the more I realize that what matters is the willingness to engage soulfully with works of art; the desire to situate oneself in conversation with works of art and the fields they are embedded in;  and the ability to conduct that conversation with civility, precision, poetry, elegance, honesty, and self-awareness. A myriad of ways how one can go about it, yes. Better ways than others, of course. Better immune from dispute, no way.

What this means is that authors and readers who cut themselves off from criticism are missing part of the conversation. And critics who seek to control the conversation are boors. We should all be authors, readers and critics and swirl between those identities and among the conversation of works with enthusiasm and elan. And if in doing so we send or receive mixed messages. Well, that’s all part of the fun.

Possibly productive themes for Mormon criticism

I have been thinking lately about what I’d do if I had more time to engage in Mormon literary criticism. This is, of course, a spectacularly unproductive way of going about things. But it’s all I have time and energy for at the moment. And at the very least, it’s about the only thing I have going at the moment (most of my non-AMV but Mormon arts-related efforts are in writing creating fiction with a modest goal of producing 3k words per month*). Terryl Givens provided the field with some interesting formulations for Mormon criticism via his paradoxes. But his was more of a cultural studies/sociological approach, and I’m thinking more here in terms of straight up dealing with works of narrative art (both those currently out there and as themes for those who are looking to create more).

I have no idea if these would be productive avenues to pursue. Nor am I as well versed in the doctrinal and philosophical arguments — both those specific to Mormonism and those regarding the wider strains of Western/Christian thought — as I’d like to be. This list simply comes out of reading a fair amount of Mormon (mostly literary) fiction. I also note that there may already be fantastic articles and presentations out there that deal with some of these issues. Feel free to reference them in the comments**. Continue reading “Possibly productive themes for Mormon criticism”