Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene

When Magdalene was nominated to be considered by the Whitney committee for the 2011 awards, Jennie Hansen, a well-known LDS reviewer and writer, posted a review on Goodreads that caused quite a stir in our little LDS writing community. Her review was short and to the point. She wrote:

“Disjointed, sloppy writing. Lacks real knowledge of Mormons and leadership in the Church. Too much vulgarity for vulgarities sake makes this story crude and amateurish.”  If you are interested, you may read and/or comment on this review here. Continue reading “Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene”

Mormon literaturstreit: the response to the response, I

Wm discusses the first section in Richard Cracroft’s AML presidential address responding to Bruce Jorgensen’s critique of Cracroft’s criticism of the poetry anthology Harvest.

Note: this is post three of an ongoing series on the Mormon literaturstreit.

Part I: opening salvo
Part II: the response

A year after Bruce Jorgensen responded to Richard Cracroft’s criticism of the poetry collection Harvest in an Association for Mormon Letters (AML) presidential address, Cracroft responded to the response in his AML presidential address. [1. Quite convenient that they were elected AML president in successive years.]  In my previous post, I asked: “Can Cracroft come up with a better definition/critical approach for Mormon literature?”

Not exactly. But he is forced to explain in more details what he means, which furthers the conversation. He begins by pulling out a key line from Jorgensen’s address–“Essentialism is the problem”–and saying, essentially, “Nuh-uh! We’re the problem”. He writes:

In my review of Harvest, I assert that which is apparent to any right-thinking, red-blooded, and sanctified Latter-day Saint who reads the poems sequentially, attentively, and–big gulp here–spiritually and essentially, that a surprisingly large number of the poems written by Mormon poets and included in the “New Direction” section of Harvest selected by Dennis Clark are skillfully executed poems grounded in the “earth-bound humanism” (Cracroft 1990, 122) of our contemporary secular society, but reflecting little or no essential Mormonism. It seems to me, as I state in my review, that such poems, mislabeled Mormon, lack, ignore, repress, or replace the Mormon “essence” so essential to distinguishing a work of Mormon letters from a work that is merely Western or American or Protestant or Jewish.

These two sentences summarize the entire approach of the address/essay, which puts the responsibility for deciding what is Mormon in the hands of the (some? certain?) Mormon people and then shows how literary critics don’t really count as the Mormon people because they (we) are tainted by secular humanism. That’s a blunt way of putting it, but Cracroft lays it all out rather bluntly and, in some sections, cleverly. Note, for example, how he uses the language of social justice in his appeal to essentialism. The poems aren’t just not Mormon–they “lack, ignore, repress, or replace the Mormon “‘essence'”. But also note how the reasoning is ultimately circular: works of literature are Mormon because they have a Mormon essence, which is the same as saying that they are Mormon because they are Mormon. Continue reading “Mormon literaturstreit: the response to the response, I”

Brandon Sanderson and magic systems

I don’t mean to harp on Brandon Sanderson, but while writing my previous post on Rosalynde Welch’s critique of thematic-focused Mormon criticism, the following thought occurred to me:

How do you explain Sanderson’s interest in the robust, rules-based magic systems that have become his raison d’être ? Is a Mormon explanation warranted? Is it sufficient?

I can see at least four explanations — all of them likely valid in varying amounts:

Mormonism as doctrine: in Mormon doctrine spirit is matter more refined and miracles are simply higher order physics. Magic that has rules as physics does and even some cases use physical materials ties very well in to Mormon doctrine.

Mormonism as community: Sanderson has been influenced by the work of Orson Scott Card (the Alvin books, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, etc.) and David Farland (Runelords) and their penchant for rigorous magic systems.

Trends in literature: Sanderson came of age at the tail end of the fuzzy, soft magics found in the derivative post-Tolkien fantasy (Eddings, Brooks) and so, he, like other writers of his generation is both acutely aware of the flaws in soft magic and has the need to differentiate his work from his predecessors (this is oversimplifying the whole magic in fantasy debate/history, but it’s roughly enough true to serve my purpose here).

Trends in pop culture: Sanderson is a known player of role-playing games, including the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons. He’s also an inveterate collector of Magic: The Gathering cards. Clearly, someone who grows up with the precise rules and game mechanics and character stats of RPGs is going to be attracted to hard magic systems.

This is a straightforward example, but I think it illustrates well how neither an overemphasis on Mormon themes nor an elision of Mormon themes are likely to be useful in literary criticism of work by Mormon authors. Mormon literary criticism is a hybrid form — just like Mormon literature. Try as we might, when it comes to artistic or creative expression, we are in the world and of the world and yet not quite. We should rightly focus on the not quite — but not at the expense of all the rest.

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”

Brandon Sanderson’s preoccupation with deification

Brandon Sanderson‘s preoccupation with deification has been mentioned in passing in at least two Writing Excuses episodes ( [transcript]; [transcript]). The way it manifests itself in his work is not necessarily uniquely Mormon, but certainly Sanderson’s Mormon-ness is a likely culprit for the source of the preoccupation.

I mention this because I think his work deserves closer examination. And what I’d like to see is less the reading of his works through the lens of Mormon culture, doctrine and history (such as has been done with Stephenie Meyer’s work) and more a through study of this preoccupation as a dialogue across his work and then a situating of that work in relation to notions of power (and especially super power) in fantasy. That is, it’d be relatively easy to do some basic deliniation of how the LDS doctrine of deification translates in to the themes realized in the Mistborn Trilogy and Warbreaker (and to a lesser extent Elantris and The Way of Kings). What could be much more interesting is what the texts themselves do that’s different from or similar to the general field of epic fantasy. This would be a different type of search for Mormon exceptionalism that would focus on the work itself rather than perceptions of Mormon underpinnings/the search for LDS traces.

This is a half-baked thought, to be sure. But it’s one of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately as a way to think about what Mormon literary criticism could/should do.

The warping effect of the resistance to theory

I can’t claim to understand all of what I have read thus far in the Paul de Man essay collection The Resistance to Theory (“Hypogram and Inscription” is particularly obtuse to me). Nor do I have a strong enough background in philosophy and literary theory to properly contextualize or situate his arguments. But in the grand Mormon tradition of prooftexting, I’m going to lift a passage from the title essay because I think it explains a lot about literary criticism in general and Mormon literary criticism, in particular. Ostensibly, the essay was supposed to address the teaching of literature and especially of theory and especially in relation to the theoretical turn that literary studies took in the 1970s (and even more in the 1980s), but de Man broadens the scope to take a look at why there has been so much resistance to theory. It is a defense of sorts, and he points out that much of the resistance to it is “based on crude misunderstandings,” and yet it’s not fully a defense of the excesses of theory. He writes:

It may well be, however, that the development of literary theory is itself overdetermined by complications inherent in its very project and unsettling with regard to its status as a scientific discipline. Resistance may be a built-in constituent of its discourse, in a manner that would be inconceivable in the natural sciences and unmentionable in the social sciences. It may well be, in other words, that the polemical opposition, the systemic non-understanding and misrepresentation, the unsubstantial but eternally recurrent objections, are the displaced symptoms of a resistance inherent in the theoretical enterprise itself. To claim that this would be sufficient reason not to envisage doing literary theory would be like rejecting anatomy because it has failed to cure mortality. The real debate of literary theory is not with its polemical opponents but rather with its methodological assumptions and possibilities. Rather than asking why literary theory is threatening, we should perhaps ask why it has such difficulty going about its business and why it lapses so readily either into the language of self-justification and self-defense or else into the overcompensation of a programmatically euphoric utopianism. (13)

I wonder if one of the major tensions in the Mormon literary world, even when the theory being done isn’t on an academic level, but rather consists of readerly or writerly reactions to the issues of the field (including that pesky Shakespeares and Miltons quote), is that we get hung up on self-justification or overcompensation, and, yes, programmatic utopias. We seem to expend quite a bit of energy slipping around in the mires of what the boundaries are, of what the futures are, of what the major figures are and what they mean, of what “should be done.” These are natural debates to involve ourselves in and seem to be especially endemic to minority /minor literatures and, as de Man explains, are simply inherent to the field.

Or to put it another way: it’s hard to define and evaluate Mormon literature because it’s, well, literature.

But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean that it’s invalid (in both senses of the word). And perhaps we need to be about our business more and worry less about the justifications and the overcompensations.

Angel Chaparro on his dissertation on Phyllis Barber

Ángel Chaparro Sainz recently received summa cum laude marks for his dissertation “Contemporary Mormon Literature: Phyllis Barber’s Writing” from University of the Basque Country (Universidad del País Vasco – Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea) in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He was kind of to answer some questions about his dissertation and Mormon literary studies in general.

How did you first come in to contact with Mormon literature?

At college. When I began my postgraduate studies, you had to follow three different steps. First one was going back to class. One year taking some new lectures, getting ready a few essays and getting good marks. Then you had to write like a little dissertation, a first attempt. People usually took advantage of it to write a chapter, or a couple sections of their future dissertation. Third step was writing the dissertation. In the first step, I took a lecture on Western American literature. There, the professor who was to become my advisor gave us to read a short story by Phyllis Barber and he told us a little bit about Mormon history. He also pointed out that nobody was researching the Mormons in Europe. Most of my fellow students were interested in Chicanos, Basque-Americans and so on. Me too, but I wanted to do something about rock lyrics from a literary perspective. I was not brave enough to propose that topic though and when I was desperately looking for a topic for the second step, I went upstairs and I told that professor that I was thinking about researching Phyllis Barber and the Mormons.

Why did you decide to do your dissertation on the work of Phyllis Barber? What about her work led you to decide that it was a viable project?

I say in my introduction to the dissertation that it was “by accident” that it was Barber whom I came to know first. And it’s plain truth. That first short story I read was “Mormon Levis”. I thought it was a pretty good piece of fiction, and some of the inner motivations of the story were a mystery to me. I began reading the rest of her fiction and I did not stop discovering new things and new mysteries that I wanted to resolve. But my conviction came after the decision. In that sense, it was a good love story, a real love story. It was not “love at first sight”. I had to work hard on that relationship, reading and rereading, making questions and leaving them unanswered. I found a literary body which was complex and compelling. Her fiction led me to so many different paths, paths in which my own involvement was as important as understanding what she was saying. When I was done reading all her work I realized I had taken the right decision, but the decision had already been taken anyway. Now I know I took one of the best ways to understand Mormonism and Mormon literature. In my dissertation, I talk about the idea of the “middle way” as a moral stance, both personal and universal, in which the risks taken gave more value to Phyllis Barber’s literature. That was the main reason why I thought hers was the best work to make this project viable, as you said. Continue reading “Angel Chaparro on his dissertation on Phyllis Barber”