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”
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”
Today’s readings are:
“The Class That Wouldn’t Die” by Joe Vasicek
“Three Different Mormon Futures” by Eric James Stone
“Avek, Who is Distributed” Steven L. Peck
“Release” by Wm Morris
“Waiting” by Katherine Cowley
and, if we have time, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone (free audio)
Please feel free to have your own seminar in the comments to this post.
Other posts in series:
I’m a big fan of the Whitney Awards. I think they’ve filled a need with great success and have been managed professionally and sensibly. I’m always certain to nominate books I read that qualify and are deserving, and every year intend to actually act on my Academy membership and vote a category, but never quite succeed.
I do have two suggestions that I believe would further improve the Whitneys which I would like to humbly present publicly, in order to invite an open discussion of my suggestions’ merits.
Two Mormon books this year seem to be getting absolute purity of praise. A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck and Dispirited by Luisa M. Perkins both seem to have been more widely discussed online in their first few months than most Mormon books get in their first couple years, and both books have been loved by those readers. Which is great, I think we’ll all agree, especially when both books are doing very curious things for “Mormon books.”
A Short Stay is published by Strange Violin and Dispirited by Zarahemla—both publishers with a Mormon bent—even though A Short Stay begins with the Mormon hero learning that Zoroastrianism was the true religion and Dispirited never uses the M-word at all. So the fact that these books were published by whom they were published by, and that we’re discussing these books as “Mormon books,” is a pretty fascinating pair of facts up front. Then add in that they are both filled with information about spirits and postmortal realms. Suddenly the fact that these “Mormon books” have no explicitly Mormon content is not only odd but genuinely remarkable. Aren’t these the very topics for which religion even exists? What’s going on here?
Continue reading “Unpleasant afterlives: New fiction from Peck and Perkins”