The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part V

This is the final post in a five part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part four, “Maintaining Rhetorical Balance”, I cite Karl Keller’s suggestion that Mormonism’s lack or denial of a serious literary heritage stems from three delusions: 1) our Puritanism, 2) our paranoia, and 3) our apocalypticism. Adding these delusions to the Mormon culture industry’s commodification of Latter-day Saint culture and theology, I suggest that these positions are symptomatic of a general failure to engage the world (which is ultimately our means to exaltation) and Mormon theology and thus to bear what Eugene England calls the “difficult burden” of “describ[ing] a unique set of revealed truths and historical and continually vital religious experiences and to do so both truly and artistically.” I conclude by asserting that only by seeing language as experience and by moving to capture the truths of human experience in language can writers strike a spiritually real rhetorical stance, maintaining integrity of character and experience even as they move beyond the familiar, the convenient, and the comfortable to engage readers in lives and universes beyond the limits of their own.

Since the underlying concern of this series has been with the ways in which Mormons–especially Mormon critics–read or misread Latter-day Saint literature, culture, and theology, I turn now to the “or” of my tragically long title, “An Ethics of Latter-day Saint Reading” and attempt to infer some conclusions about where I think the Mormon reader/critic stands in relation to our letters. (After reading William’s series on the distinction between the terms Mormon and LDS, I’m not sure what my usage here says about me and my particular terminological inclinations. But I sure am self-conscious about them now. Thanks for that, Wm”¦)

V. Assuming Responsibility

The ethical implications and textu(r)ally redemptive possibilities of the rhetorics people use to explore human experience and to communicate with and to persuade others center in the acts of reading, a series of unique performances that exist only in the intersection between writer, reader, and text and that flow from the ethos of each transactional party. This ethos, as Booth has it, emerges not only in a person’s moral integrity, but it’s further expressed in the patterns or “habits of choice” we fall into in every domain of our lives.1 The way we read, then, as the way we habitually choose to live is a complex extension and expression of our character. Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part V”

LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part two)

In part one, I discussed the terms LDS and Mormon and why various sectors of the field of LDS/Mormon culture choose to self-identify with one term or the other or use both — either interchangeably or to mean different things. I also drew some very blurred, porous lines between LDS fiction and Mormon fiction.

I thing the best place to begin part two is with a brief, hastily sketched and probably wrong in places history of how Mormon fiction has been defined. Not the whole thing. But the field as it has developed to where it is at today. For a full history of Mormon literature up until the mid-90s, see Eugene England’s “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects.”

The field of Mormon fiction as we know it today really begins to take form in the 1970s. In the early ’70s, Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert created the anthology A Believing People and taught the first course in Mormon literature at BYU. In 1976, the Association for Mormon Letters was formed. Since that time the AML and the Mormon literature courses taught at BYU have been the main producers of work that is about the field of Mormon literature (along with contributions from Dialogue and Sunstone — often written by authors who are also involved in the AML). The AML defined Mormon literature (and thus by extension Mormon fiction) as literature by, for and/or about Mormons.

The AML has always taken a big tent approach to things, considering everything from works published by Deseret Book to Signature to national publishers and works by authors who are active LDS to non-LDS to Jack Mormons to cultural Mormons to those whose religious tradition comes from any one of the off-shoots of Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry (Community of Christ, for example). However, it has also placed a priority on literary works (although the young adult and speculative fiction genres have always had a strong presence among the people involved and the awards handed out and papers presented by the AML).

There has been some dissent from this big-tent approach over the years. Most notably, Richard Crafcroft, who has pushed for a more LDS-oriented approach to Mormon literature. And, in fact, his main statement on the subject is an AML paper called “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature.” Note the use of “LDS” in the title. But note also that Cracroft expressed his opinions within the AML community. Continue reading “LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part two)”

Silver linings, hurricanes, and umbrellas–a question

In writing a recent book review on my other blog a question occurred to me that I wanted to bring up here. Why is it that so many LDS books seem to focus on the silver lining and gloss over the storm cloud?

I often feel that LDS books–especially memoirs and biographies–would benefit from a little more time in the rumblings of the rain cloud. It makes me wonder, what is it about us that makes us so intent on playing Pollyanna? It seems like we lose some of the truth of our experiences when we refuse to talk about problems in the present tense. When we only admit our foibles after we’ve overcome them and they are instructive to us, we lose the benefits of the process. Without the process what felt like Truth to the writer degrades into mere truisms for the reader.

Of course, there are a few LDS books that spend too much time in the muck of things–The Backslider, even though I appreciated it as an artistic piece, felt that way to me. It is as if as Latter-day Saints we can only write in binary oppositions. I don’t think “there must be opposition in all things” necessarily means only black and white.

So, my question to you all, what books have you found that live in that magical spot between lost in the hurricane and refusing to admit it’s raining even while holding the umbrella? I could use some recommendations!


The great and greatly censored Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a letter to the Soviet government dated March 28, 1930. In it he expressed his frustration with how his work had been treated (it was routinely savaged by reviewers and the media and his plays were often in rehearsal for years or were accepted, but then never stage dby theater companies) and asked for employment at the Moscow Arts Theatre as an assistant director.

This was not his first communication with the government; however, this one led (a month later) to a phone call from Stalin in which the dictator told him to reapply to the Moscow Arts Theatre (where was accepted for a job he had previously been denied).

I won’t go through all the trials of Bulgakov’s life and literary career. But I do want to quote a line from his letter to the government (from Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov – A Life in Letters and Diaries by J.A.E. Curtis):

“Am I thinkable in the USSR?” Continue reading “Thinkable”

Virginia Sorenson: the Book Club edition?

Here’s how it all went down:

I had just graduated with a bachelor’s in English from USU and was pregnant with my first baby. I wasn’t going to be “one of those women” who just lets her education go for home and hearth (whatever that means! Thank you liberal/feminist education!) so I joined the ward book club and suggested a truly literary work, Virginia Sorenson’s A Little Lower than the Angels. I had come across it on an online course reading list from BYU. It was a little risky since I hadn’t read it, but, hey, you can trust those BYU professors, right?

Continue reading “Virginia Sorenson: the Book Club edition?”

LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part 1)

In one of the very early AMV posts, I wrote:

“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.

Since then I and my co-bloggers (and commenters) have used the term LDS on this blog 918 times; we have used Mormon 1,240 times (according to a Google site search). I haven’t analyzed my co-bloggers posts, but I tend to use the two terms almost-but-not-always interchangeably.

Others, however, don’t. One of the most interesting things to come out of the brouhaha over Angel Falling Softly over at LDS Publisher was the idea that LDS fiction is a genre unto itself. I’ll be honest: this label had never really occurred to me. Certainly, I was aware that Deseret Book and Covenant have certain standards (and sometimes double standards) when it comes to what they publish and sell, but it never occurred me to that the term “LDS fiction” applied only to works that would find their way on to the shelves of DB and Seagull. Continue reading “LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part 1)”

The Mother and Writing: an interview with Angela Hallstrom and Darlene Young

Since the Spring of 2004 Segullah, a literary journal for LDS women, has been inspiring creativity and candid conversations in LDS circles. Kathryn Lynard Soper, the founder and heart and soul of Segullah, has successfully guided the journal through its beginning years and made it a major influence in the world of Mormon letters. She has found a number of talented writers to contribute–two of whom, Darlene Young and Angela Hallstrom, agreed to tell us more about Segullah’s new book, The Mother in Me, and about Segullah in general.

Darlene, tell me about the new book from Segullah. What was the inspiration for The Mother in Me? How does this book differ from other anthologies aimed at mothers?

DY: Young motherhood is hard–physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually draining like no other work can be. Priesthood leaders see our struggle and, with all good intention, try to help us by telling us stories about their own angel mothers and wives. “See?” they seem to be saying, “What you do does not go unnoticed! We honor you for it.” But, sometimes, the real effect that their stories have on us is to make us even more unhappy, because there is nothing like motherhood for revealing one’s weaknesses to oneself. Continue reading “The Mother and Writing: an interview with Angela Hallstrom and Darlene Young”

The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part IV

This is the fourth post in a five or six part series that explores the ethics of Latter-day Saint literature and criticism. In part three, “The (In)Convenience of Mormon Letters”, I briefly examine a New Testament narrative–Satan’s temptations of Christ–first of all, to underscore the dangers a consumer-based outlook on Mormon theology poses to Mormon culture and on the essential relationship between self and other, individual and community, and, second, to suggest a way to transcend this paradox, namely by inconveniently pushing at the boundaries of established or misinterpreted cultural conventions (of action, knowledge, language, etc.) and thus expanding the limits of personal and communal understanding and potential.

As I conclude, “This vision of doctrinal expansion and spiritual cooperation as acts of theological creativity ties very closely to Mormonism’s cultural and artistic development because the depth and breadth of our theological and experiential perspective and the vigor with which we explore, express, and develop it in our lives, our writing, and our reading (often an unconscious act) determines the vitality and the efficacy of our community’s literary testimony. Because of my belief in this vision, I sense that Mormon literature and criticism haven’t yet grown past the awkwardness of adolescence into a full and necessary articulation of their essential greatness, a mature literary and critical character founded in Mormonism’s theological complexity and prophesied, promised, and hoped for by LDS prophets, seers, writers, and critics alike.”

IV. Maintaining Rhetorical Balance

Karl Keller insists that Mormon culture’s literary immaturity arises from three distinct delusions, conventions we cling to that keep us from fully experiencing words and with which we have historically “denied ourselves a literature.”1 Continue reading “The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part IV”

A look at Irreantum 9.1

It’s good to see the Association for Mormon Letters working to get caught up with publication of its literary journal Irreantum. I always find it a bit puzzling and sad when a new issue is published and is not mentioned in the Bloggernacle, on the AML-List, etc. So I’m going to take a stab at a quick, subjective review of Volume 9, Number 1 (which I guess would be the spring 2007 issue).

Short Stories

I admit it. The major reason I keep my AML membership (and I did let it lapse for a while because I was unhappy about the delays with Irreantum and the lack of AML Annuals — which are very important to me because I’m not able to attend the yearly conference) is because I want access to short stories written for the Mormon market. I would be very happy if every issue, regardless of theme/focus, published 5-7 short stories.

This issue features four — the winners of the 2006 Irreantum Fiction Contest* (there was a tie for third place). I enjoyed them. I wish that there wasn’t such a bias towards your standard American literary realism short story. But I can’t really complain — two out of the four stories knocked my socks off, and I think that’s a pretty good ratio (the other two were just okay).

“Light of the New Day” by Darin Cozzens is the first place winner. It’s easy to see why. About a middle-age unmarried man who lives with his ancient, irascible, well-meaning-but-controlling mother on a farm, it is a polished, complete story with a couple of amazing images and all those small details and moments that literary readers enjoy. It’s a very good story that has some interesting things to say about the Mormon experience. Very anthology worthy. But it doesn’t really break any new ground in terms of Mormon literature — or rather it doesn’t do anything with form or content that really surprised me. And yet,  I really like it. Continue reading “A look at Irreantum 9.1”

Intermission: Indulge me my other passion?

I know, I know. You were expecting another “tragic tell” from the new guy. But I thought I’d give the heavy going a break for a week and come up for a breather as I reappraise and revise the concluding sections of my series and get my family packed and ready to move to Idaho (don’t you go too far though; you’re obviously anxious for Part IV–coming next week).

And I thought, hey, since I’ve got a captive audience *uhm-hmm* I’ll riff off of and indulge AMV’s readers (or at least myself) with one of my recent poems, originally published on my personal blog.

So without further ado… Continue reading “Intermission: Indulge me my other passion?”