Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature

Ever since Scott Hales announced his plans to edit a new anthology of Mormon literary criticism, I’ve been thinking off and on about my own past grapplings with Mormon literature and where I’d want to take them — had I world enough, time, money, and the requisite academic chops. What follows isn’t that essay, but comes about as close as I can manage at present. Consider this my submission!

Why do or should we — as readers, writers, and/or literary critics — care about whether a text is Mormon? Potential reasons are legion, as varied as readers themselves. Among the most typical and (it seems to me) important are the following:

  • To understand Mormonism better — as a culture, religion, historical movement, or what have you
  • To investigate specific elements of Mormon experience, thought, and culture through literary works
  • To explore the purpose(s) and role(s) of literature in Mormon experience and worldview
  • To articulate ways that literature has influenced Mormonism
  • As a test case to investigate the interrelationships of literature and religion, literature and identity, literature and culture, and a host of other potential intersections
  • To understand better particular literary works that incorporate manifestly Mormon elements
  • To assert our own membership (or non-membership) in the Mormon community
  • To explore what it means to be Mormon and a reader, Mormon and a writer, or Mormon and a critic
  • To seek out and encourage literature we think is worthwhile, in whatever particular relationship to Mormonism we endorse: celebratory, investigatory, critical, or other[1. The purposes listed here include many I have seen explicitly or (mostly) implicitly pursued via published essays, blog posts, discussions on the email discussion list once sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters, and a variety of other venues — plus a few I’ve not seen much of (such as the influence of literature on Mormonism) but that seem like logical and potentially interesting possibilities.]

Continue reading “Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature”

On subtlety, briefly

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Earlier this week Slate published an article which declared that subtlety sucks and it’s time for more heavy-handed art. I’m not going to address the nuances of this argument (besides, others are already kicking back), but I have been thinking about this, largely for work-in-progress reasons (which will be #2 in the following list). Continue reading “On subtlety, briefly”

A brief look at Heaven Knows Why!

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When Taylor’s novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier’s (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day’s drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the “improved” title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it “the best Mormon comic novel to date” and he says that it’s still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor‘s The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton’s Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who’s grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop’s daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist’s success just got greater and greater. And somehow—comedy!—it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Church hierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.

Miltons & Shakespeares: a new direction

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“We will yet have
Miltons and Shakespeares
of our own.”
Orson F. Whitney
Salt Lake City, Utah
June 3, 1888

“The Mormon Shakespeare
is Shakespeare.”
Terryl L. Givens
Oakland, California
March 29, 2014

Givens was speaking of the Mormon tradition of welcoming truth from all quarters, and specifically referencing something his wife had said earlier in the evening about the Lord recommending to the Saints the works of other wise men in the world. I imagine you can get the details and specific quotations I failed to jot down in their forthcoming book Crucible of Doubt.

Onto Shakespeare who, as Nick Hornby reminds me, wrote for money. Milton, meanwhile, held down a sequence of non-iambic jobs that kept him pretty busy.

Allow me now therefore to suggest a new way of looking at Whitney’s thought. He did, after all, preface his famous line by saying “They [the great writers of the past] cannot be reproduced.” So perhaps looking for a Mormon to “be” Milton or to “be” Shakespeare may be simply wrong wrong wrong.

Also, I’m a little tired of the Orson Scott Card model being promoted over the Darin Cozzens model, or the Angela Hallstrom model being promoted over the Heather B. Moore model. Why should writing that is designed to be commercial be valued greater or lesser than writing that exists without such concerns? Shakespeare and Milton were both great writers, both changed literature, both still matter today.

So maybe instead of stressing about the Whitney prophecy and instead of arguing over whose writing goals are more worthy, we can smile kindly and say, well, Shakespeare (or Milton), good luck out there. I’m glad someone’s writing Hamlet (or Paradise Lost) while I’m working on Lycidas (or Lear). Together we’re making a literature for our people. And it’s going to be awesome.

On becoming the George Clooney of Mormon Lit

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George Clooney, I’m told, uses his star power for good. That is, he makes a blockbuster—say, Ocean’s Thirteen—to keep his box-office mojo shiny, then spends that star capital on getting Burn After Reading made. Or The Perfect Storm so O Brother, Where Art Thou? can exist. The Coens, it would seem, owe megamovies a great debt.

Continue reading “On becoming the George Clooney of Mormon Lit”

AMV Mo-Lit Guide: Agency

The AMV Mo-Lit guide continues with an exploration of why agency is an important concept to Mormon literature and a list of key texts that explore the concept.

NOTE: this is an entry in the AMV Guide to Mormon Literature series. Click here for more details on the series.

In Mormon thought, agency (also called moral agency or free agency) is a crucial concept to solve two key issues:

A) why do bad things happen to good people if God is our loving, all-powerful Heavenly Father?

B) what is our purpose living in a fallen world?

The agency of mankind is a gift from God, but it also flows from the fact that Mormons believe that human beings existed as individual intelligences prior to receiving spirit bodies from our heavenly parents. The exercise of agency can lead to progression, that is the acquisition of the attributes of God, or to sin and pain (and without repentance, the stopping of progression e.g. damnation).

Although the Mormon concept of agency solves some issues of theodicy (why God allows bad things to happen to good people) it also raises others, especially how genetics, culture, material circumstances, history, the natural environment and coincidence affect an individual’s ability to freely act in the world. Another issue is the foreknowledge of God as well as his intervention in the world (miracles) and how those can constrain/impact the free exercise of agency.

For the Mormon artist, freedom from the basic dilemma of theodicy and original sin, the concept of agency presents a fruitful area for exploration of and experimentation with the various constraints and contradictions that remain.

KEY TEXTS:

1. The Worthing Chronicle by Orson Scott Card is about a civilization that doesn’t allow people to experience pain and what happens when that changes.

2. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which the author herself has explained is about choices, especially the way beings with great power (vampires) use (or abstain from using) their power to affect normal humans

3. The Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie is about a society where the government limits choices and also chooses (theoretically based on complex algorithms) major life decisions for its citizens, including marriage and occupation.

I welcome feedback on this entry. Anyone who provides it will be included in a list of co-conspirators which will be published in the final version of the guide. In particular, I’m interested in hearing a) what I get wrong or am missing from my brief discussion of why agency is an important concept to Mormon literature (keeping in mind, of course, that these entries are supposed to be brief) and b) what key texts I’m missing (note that I want these to be if not canonical at least fairly widely known texts that deal fairly explicitly with the concept). Overall comments about the format are also fine.

Theric interviews Courtney part one: powerful women, etc.

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Courtney Miller Santo saw her debut novel The Roots of the Olive Tree published last year by William Morrow. She teaches at the MFA program at the University of Memphis (of which she is an alumna). If you read the Mormon literary outlets, you’ve seen her work in Irreantum and Sunstone. In fact, she has a story in Sunstone‘s latest issue which is, I think, the most heartbreaking thing she’s written to date. But much like the painful moments in her novel, every painful aspect of humanity is balanced with a sense of growing freedom and peace. Based on what I’ve read of her work so far (the novel and at least three short stories), I suspect this balancing may be a hallmark of her work.

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Theric: I want to start with a question I usually save for later. I hope you don’t mind.

Courtney: I always eat dessert first, so it seems appropriate.

Theric: I’ve heard it said that every first novel is autobiographical. The connection between you and the clan from Kidron is easy: five generations of women, all together at once. How similar are Anna and her family to your own heritage of women?

Courtney: Like many Mormon women, I come from a long line of incredibly strong and stubborn matriarchs. In my case, they also happen to live long lives and live them well—that is to say there have been little physical or mental limitations placed on them as they age. Anna is in many ways a version of my own great-grandmother, Winnie White, who died in October at 104. I modeled the town Kidron on Corning, California, where she spent her childhood and her retirement. I’m also fascinated by family stories—and because our family is so large, I’ve been able to collect many of them. While in my direct matriarchal line, I haven’t had anyone shoot their husband, or be the sole survivor of an airplane crash, these moments in the Keller women’s lives come from stories I’ve collected from my own family over the years. However, these are all just story points.

Where the novel is most autobiographical is in its depiction of the relationship between mothers and daughters. I find that sometimes you don’t get the mother you need. As an adult I had conversations with all the women in my family that revealed that hard truth, but I also learned by talking to my grandmother about my mother, to my great grandmother about my grandmother, that we don’t truly know our mothers. What we know is the version they’ve presented to us that allows us them to be a parent.

So this book really traces my complex and evolving relationship with my mother. As an adult I feel that I know her as a person, but only because I’ve been able to listen to her mother, and her grandmother talk about her.

Theric: One of the strength of the book is the respect you give your older women. They’re not identical dowagers puttering around the house without distinction. Each is a real person. I’m not sure old women usually get this respect. I’m curious if other people have reacted similarly.

Courtney: I’ve had the most difficult time when people find these women unbelievable (and not because they are 112 and can still touch their toes). There are reviews where people have said—I don’t think women in their sixties could be attractive, or could fall in love. It makes me want to scream. I’ve watched women in their sixties do exactly that. My grandmother, at seventy, took up kayaking.

The one bit of advice I held onto from my writing program is to write the book you want to read that nobody has written yet. For me, what I wasn’t seeing in the fiction I read was a depiction of older women as anything but old. It seems they are in books to serve the purposes of the younger protagonists.

In this case, I wanted the reader to get a sense that each of these women is vibrant and interesting and not at all perfect. I made it a rule early on that none of the grandmothers were going to bake cookies or knit. I will say that at bookclubs, which are nearly always older women, they are thrilled with the depiction of women in the book. I’ve heard a dozen stories of amazing accomplishments of women who are in their sixties, seventies, and beyond.

The key for me when I wrote this book was a conversation I had with my own great-grandmother when I was in my twenties. She was putting cold cream on her face and talking to my reflection in the mirror. What she said as she pushed around the wrinkles on her face was something to the effect of you know I still think I’m twenty-five. I know I’m old, but every time I look in the mirror, I’m surprised that I’m an old woman. So for me, I wrote these women as if they were the people they became at twenty-five—only with a bit more life experience.

Theric: I’m glad you said that, because my experience is everyone feels that way as they age. We’re who we made ourselves to be when we were young—only seen through a different filter.

Two writers I imagine you haven’t been compared to much but who came to mind as I was reading Roots (do you have a preferred abbreviation?) are Stephen King and Orson Scott Card. I was actually reading The Green Mile simultaneously with your novel and I couldn’t help comparing their depictions of love and vigor in very old age—and of prison too, though that connection might seem a bit more surface. And Orson Scott Card has written that too much of modern fiction is about adolescents—that we need more books about adults.

This doesn’t really add up to a question, but two things I hope you’ll respond to: Which authors would you most like to be compared to? and how diverse do you find current fiction’s protagonists?

Courtney: I find the fact that you bring up Card and King quite flattering—I include The Stand and Ender’s Game in my list of top ten books of all time. I spent most of my teens and early twenties reading science fiction and fantasy and then I discovered the South Americans and eventually Aimee Bender and George Saunders. Having said that, I don’t believe I’m playing at the same game as these writers, but I do count them as influences and in some cases deep influences.

The two writers who I can’t barely mention in the same breath as my writing, but who I am chasing when I write are both Canadian—Carol Shields and Alice Munro. I’ve been reading Munro also since my early twenties and she strikes me as a writer who has managed to write the breadth of a woman’s life. She’s in her eighties and I felt as amazed by Dear Life as I did by Lives of Girls and Women when I read it at twenty-one. Shields wrote my favorite book—and one that I’ve read fifteen times, Unless. It is one of those books that speaks exactly of what it means to be a woman in today’s world and speaks about feminism without getting caught up in blaming men. It also has the best depiction of female friendship, I’ve ever read.

Your second question is so much harder—I work at a job that requires me to read lots of literary fiction. In that case, I find the protagonists dispiritingly similar in age, gender, political affiliation and moral center. The same is true for some of the lighter reading I do. Where I find diverse characters and the sort who I find interesting is often in crime fiction and detective fiction. It’s been said that the genius of these books is that you get to see a character at work. I find that tenet of the genre to be freeing in terms of character development.

I will say that in women’s contemporary fiction, it remains rare to find a novel that isn’t romance driven in some shape or form. My goal with Roots (and I totally abbreviate) was to create a story that had plenty of women, but none of them talking about men, or in actuality, lovers.

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In part two of this series, we’ll discuss difficulties in writing—both for ourselves and for our students—and the important of structure.

This link will be live starting tomorrow.

The link for part three goes live the day after.