True love, progression and narrative art

In his Sunday morning session address from the April General Conference, President Uchtdorf spoke about love. Titled “You Are My Hands,” it was a great talk delivered wonderfully, which is what we have come to expect from him. I want to call out one line in the talk that, paradoxically, affirmed for me the importance of well-crafted narrative art.

Pres. Uchtdorf said:

True love requires action. We can speak of love all day long–we can write notes or poems that proclaim it, sing songs that praise it, and preach sermons that encourage it–but until we manifest that love in action, our words are nothing but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

Now that would seem, at first glance, to cast aside the whole notion of expressing love through words. Love without action is dead. Which is why it caught my attention. But notice the verbs used: proclaim, praise, preach. All good methods of discourse, but all intended to drive a didactic response — to provoke action or, in the case of the receiver of the proclamations, reaction.

That’s not how narrative art works. Not exactly. And the more I thought about this talk, the more I wondered why love was important. I feel it is. I know it’s important in my life, that life would be dismal without it, but why? Continue reading “True love, progression and narrative art”

A sampling of Mormon literary criticism from Dialogue’s archives

To celebrate the liberation of Dialogue’s archives from the clumsy format they were previously in*, I thought I’d pull out a few pieces of Mormon literary criticism for AMV readers to download and peruse. There’s some excellent stuff there, and the virtue of the PDF format is that one has the piece in a self-contained easily opened, read and referenced format. And don’t forget that even if you can’t subscribe, there’s always the option to donate $5 or $10 as a show of appreciation for making the archives available. So here’s a few cool pieces that I’ve found so far (please note that the links are to PDF downloads of the article):

This is just a small sampling of the riches available. I’m particularly looking forward to reading some of the original reviews of works that are now considered part of the Mormon canon (such as it is).

One more thought: what do you think of adding work like what I’ve linked to above to AMV’s Friday Feature rotation?

*Of course, now articles and full editions are dumped in to PDF files, but hey, at least the PDFs are searchable (and the search engine is much faster and more intuitive than what was found in the UofU archive solution), and really it’s the best we could hope for considering the limitations involved.

The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical

Previous Posts: Part I: Origins | Part II: The Middle 

So now that I’ve explored the origins of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon arts and culture, and teased out some of the issues related to the middle, it’s time to get radical. In the first post, I mentioned a radical movement in British Islam and noted the adjectives (creative, positive, revolutionary …) that were being used in describing this Radical Middle Way for Islam. What those adjectives indicate to me is that radical is meant to show that the middle is a dynamic place to be; it has energy; it’s in motion. It’s rising.

Now, radical is generally not the most welcome term among American Mormons. It smacks to much of the Left and/or of the political fringe. This is why it’s important to confine the term the radical middle to Mormon arts and culture and emphasize that there is room for artists, critics and readers with a multitude of political leanings (assuming, of course, that their politics isn’t the sole thing driving their artistic activity). Indeed, I think by pairing radical and middle and applying it to Mormon arts, England and anyone else who invokes the term is reinscribing its’ meaning, appropriating the adjective for our own use and changing it in the process. I’m a fan of such appropriation by an ethnic group/sub-culture. But what do we really mean by radical and how does it play out in Mormon arts and culture? The short answers are: nobody has really said much, and it doesn’t really. So unlike with the middle where I was able to explore it in depth in a descriptive way, I’m going to have to get speculative and prescriptive with the radical. But first…

Radical history and doctrine

Whatever our position in American society now (that is the tenuous semi-mainstreamed stability achieved through the embrace of the meritocracy and of alliance with conservative politics [allowing, of course, for the few liberals and crunchy cons and libertarians]), it must not be forgotten that we have radical roots. From the restorationist claims of Joseph Smith to the communitarian projects of Brigham Young, and, yes, the scandalousness of polygamy — whether you believe all that to be a concatenation of American (not forgetting the European streams of thought behind them) influences (with a touch of native genius) or the opening of the heavens and streaming of restored truths, the radical, as in the challenge to the status quo, roots of Mormonism run deep. And are the wellspring of latter-day Mormon art. Continue reading “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical”

The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Middle

The middle is an appealing place to be albeit a difficult place to define and defend. And it brings with it its own dangers. By very definition it relies on other operative ideologies and is thus too often reactive. By inclination, as I mention in the first post, it tends to be wish-washy and self-conscious (or even anxiogenic), often producing thousands of words on what it isn’t or is, seeking to write itself a space, to carve out its outer limits and vigorously defend what falls in to that space. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of the middle, but is merely an attempt to define some important strands that are woven into the concept.

Between the poles

If we take our cues from England’s essay “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left!,” the middle is the place between two poles of Mormon narrative art. In most specific terms, it is the works that fall between the two 1990s Mormon short story anthologies Turning Hearts: Short Stories on Family Life (Bookcraft) and In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions (Signature). It is represented by the works England selected for his own, earlier anthology Bright Angels & Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories (Signature). Now England does make some larger philosophical claims for what this middle is, in particular linking it to the idea of ethical fiction, but in terms of defining the middle, well, the middle is in between these two poles — between the right and the left. Continue reading “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Middle”

The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: Origins

Several months ago Theric asked me to define the radical middle — this term that I and others at AMV have been throwing around. More recently, Association for Mormon Letters President Boyd Petersen invoked the same phrase in his inaugural post on The Dawning of a Brighter Day. I’m hesitant to write manifestos or get in to long drawn out debates over what counts or doesn’t (c.f. the what-counts-as-indie debates of the ’80s and ’90s), but if we’re going to use a label we should be willing to engage it and so I’m going to do just that in three posts over three days: origins, the middle and the radical.

It all starts with Eugene England

As far as I know, the first use of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon narrative art is in Eugene England’s Dialogue essay/review “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction,” which was published in Fall 1999. Continue reading “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: Origins”

Why I haven’t posted about The Actor and the Housewife

I kinda owe Shannon Hale an apology. I read The Actor and the Housewife: A Novel several months ago and then didn’t write a post about it.

That’s actually not why I owe her an apology. I wouldn’t presume to suggest that I should say something about everything even slightly Mormon related that hits the public eye. Rather, it’s that I did post a few comments here and there expressing major discontent with the novel. Those criticism are valid (in brief, they are that she pulls the punches when it comes to the unique Mormon content (I think she could have pushed things about 15-25% more without losing the national audience), she totally martyrs the husband (who is not The Actor, by the way) and doesn’t make him as interesting as he should/could be (and actually shows hints of being), and she totally muddles up the ending. Continue reading “Why I haven’t posted about The Actor and the Housewife”

Episode vs. Narrative and the false choice of Huck or Ames

The Wall St. Journal has attempted to cause a minor literary ruckus with an opinion piece by Lee Siegel titled “The End of the Episode.”Siegel, borrowing his intellectual argument from British philosopher Galen Strawson, argues that the narrative — “straightforward storytelling style connects events together in one continuous thruline whose fundamental purpose is to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life” — personality of our current fiction says bad or deficient things about our personalities. That narrative “is an insult to the endless possibilities of existence” and that there’s too much of a focus in narrative on the narrative way of seeing things as the only way for there to be good in life.

By contrast:

Episodics do seem to have a firmer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. Rather than experiencing life as a continuous thread of related experiences, Episodics consider their “self” to be in a state of continuous flux. What happened to them a year ago happened to a different person than the person they are now–the past has no bearing on present experience. (“I actually said that? I couldn’t have!”) In this view, Episodics are sober, disenchanted beings, alive to the principle of ceaseless change that drives human existence.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the episodic has not left American life, but simply relocated from the novel to films, television series, manga/comics, fan fiction and roleplaying games. Let’s also set aside for a moment the snarky response that it is precisely the episodic approach to life, the misadventures of picaresque-esque bankers, traders, politicians, etc. that got us in to the current financial mess. There are several problems with setting up this dichotomy and even more so with the literary criticism that is sloppily used to bolster it. The few that I see right away: Continue reading “Episode vs. Narrative and the false choice of Huck or Ames”

Literary critics and pride, part II

Yesterday I raised the issue of literary critics (especially those who also write fiction) and pride, in the process laying out  how the main ways that critics engage with works and authors sometimes (often?) do so out of pride. The subsequent discussion has been excellent, with several commenters offering some good solutions to the problem of injecting too much pride and even enmity in to ones criticism/reviews. As promised, I sketched out some prescriptions to the problem on the bus this morning and am now attempting to create some coherence out of them on my lunch break. Sorry they are so Beatitudenous: Continue reading “Literary critics and pride, part II”

Literary critics (who write fiction) and pride

Pride was the theme of my ward’s sacrament meeting last Sunday. As you might expect Pres. Ezra Taft Benson’s landmark talk on pride was quoted by all four speakers. The talks were quite good and there there was a nice flow to the meeting. In particular, the two adult speakers did a good job of referring to the previous speakers and adapting their talks to what was said before. As a result, the residual effects of the meeting have stuck with me and I have found myself thinking about literary critics/reviewers — especially those who write fiction themselves — and pride. (Or in other words, I’ve been thinking about myself.)

This line of thinking also comes out of some of the high profile author meltdowns of late (one of note is detailed at Gawker) over bad (or even simply mixed) reviews. Look. Writing fiction is a tough business. It’s a lonely often emotionally wrenching and exhausting enterprise; the sweat equity is rarely worth it; the criticism generally outweighs the acclaim and the acclaim is, in the end, fleeting and not very emotionally satisfying long term.  Which means that healthy egos and thin skins are not all that unusual. And the thing gets messier when fiction authors write criticism (or literary critics try their hand at fiction) because envy — the companion of pride — often comes in to play. And even if the critic/author isn’t reviewing out of a place of envy, that’s often what the perception is and when that is how the review/piece of criticism is responded to (and it’s remarkable how many ways writers can hint that a bad review is because its author is just jealous) then pride gets wounded on both sides and the rhetoric often escalates. Continue reading “Literary critics (who write fiction) and pride”

James Wood on religion and fiction’s “not quite”

I recently read The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood. I enjoyed it quite a bit even as I disagreed with some of his emphases and tone. In fact I would recommend it over his more recent book How Fiction Works (which I discussed last year).

In particular, I like that he focuses heavily on actual examples pulled from works of literature by great authors. Yes, sometimes the prose swelters, sometimes things are dismissed with a casual tone that doesn’t convince and the continual hammering insistence on realism sometimes get tiring, but on the whole it was a good reading experience. He’s especially good with the author’s he loves, writing mash notes to their work that are lovely and specific and do what good literary criticism does: makes you want to read (or re-read) the author’s work.

And in returning to the foreword, I found an interesting passage that relates to the whole issue of agency and fiction which I raised last week. After quoting Thomas Mann’s assertion that fiction is “always a matter of the ‘not quite'”, he writes: Continue reading “James Wood on religion and fiction’s “not quite””