Mette vs Elna

12.19.14 | | 6 comments

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I will be walking down a sidewalk thinking of other things when I remember when Elna Baker said:

I try not to [read what Mormons are saying about me]. . . . Never before in history has there been a time where things increase, where we get more and more aware, where what you create is open to criticism that you have access to. . . . . for the most part I’ve noticed that the reactions are positive, but then as you scroll down and stumble upon reactions that are really strongly negative and . . . you can’t stop it.

And now I want you to compare this to what Mettie Ivie Anderson recently said:

. . . I have rough drafts of several other books in the series, and have planned in my head an arc for Linda’s development as a character up to a certain point. I wanted to get that set in place before the first book came out because I don’t want media attention, and in particular the comments of other Mormons around me, to influence the story I have in mind for her.

I find the similarities and differences here quite striking. Your thoughts?

elna&mette

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Mormon literary criticism’s chicken and egg problem

12.18.14 | | 8 comments

After Scott Hales post here at AMV responding to Michael Austin’s survey of the current state of Mormon literary criticism at the Mormon Studies Review, the two scholars engaged in a back and forth Q&A at the Maxwell Institute’s blog, which mainly functioned as a way for Austin to respond to Hales’ critique of the focus of Austin’s survey. What his responses show is that his primary concern, and why he is focused on peer-reviewed publications, is that for him traditional scholarship is the best measure of Mormonism’s influence on the broader field as well as a signpost of Mormon cultural impact on/penetration in the broader culture and that too much of the current Mormon cultural production (literature and literary criticism) is inwardly focused.

Hales pushes back a little on that emphasis, specifically pointing out the lack of institutional support (especially from BYU) for Mormon literary criticism.

Austin responds with: “This is sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. I have long felt (and I said this in my 1995 article too) that institutional support will follow more peer-reviewed publications”.

I think he is absolutely correct in the case of Mormon literary criticism.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The gains made in the study of non-canonical literatures — Hispanic, Jewish, Greek, LGBT, women’s writing, etc. — at academic institutions came out of direct activism and focus on the community and specific academic resources investment (often hard fought to get) in those fields. Works became canonical and publishing opportunities opened up specifically as a result of that inward focus.

To give an example, and one that he’s probably uncomfortable with, but the pivot that Gideon Burton made towards Mormon literature studies that was unsupported (actively discouraged) by BYU and led to him having to pivot back away from is similar to pivots that were sometimes (but, admittedly, not always) supported in the 1970s/80s, as English professors whose Ph.D. may have been in Renaissance literature or early Modernism began to develop an interest in minority literatures. I don’t have a full accounting of that at my finger tips. And I know that it led to tensions and wars among faculty and between faculty and administration, etc. But it also led to a certain measure of institutional support and then when that proved successful to specific hiring for positions as well as fundraising to support the lecture series, publications, endowed chairs, joint appointments, conference travel, curriculum development, etc. that generate the kind of activity that leads to peer-reviewed essays and book deals with top university presses, etc.

Right now much of the work being done in Mormon literature studies is amateur. It’s very difficult to generate non-amateur scholarly work without some form of support.

I understand that BYU et. al. are loathe to support what is viewed as a fledgling field without much currency in the academic market. But I think if they took a hard look at how cultural studies fields have been legitimized over the past four decades, they’d find that just sitting around waiting for the national figures to appear before they through some weight behind them (and BYU sure is happy to do so when that happens) is a sure way to always be the bridesmaid and never the bride.

Now, I recognize that times have changed in academic and that some of the gains that minority literatures/cultural studies made have since been clawed back, but in that messy process, some gains were permanently made and the larger conversation was changed and most importantly a larger body of work was created as a result.

Attention Whitney Nominators

12.17.14 | | no comments

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The Whitneys are an awards program for novels written by LDS authors. Elder Orson F. Whitney, an early apostle in the LDS church, prophesied “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” It is our hope to be a part of that journey toward excellence by honoring the LDS writers also working toward that goal.

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Who’s a Whitney nominator? Well, anyone. You can be if you want to. Go nominate something now. Feels good, doesn’t it? Now if that novel receives four more nominations, it will get attention paid it by the official judges. It’s a cool system, very open and egalitarian.

Books are available to be nominated from January One to December Thirty-one the year of its release. Which is an inherent unfairness since As You Are has had three hundred sixty-five days to be nominated since its official release date and The Bishop’s Wife will only have two.

To make fair, this post is designed to celebrate Decemberish releases and suggest to nominators that these books deserve attention from the Whitney committee. (So only mention in the comments books likely deserving of such attention.)

Here are three to get us started. I’ll periodically update this post to include your suggestions:

Nov 22:  Eve: In the Beginning by H. B. Moore [Heather’s books always get attention. This deals with our primary myth so if it’s good at all it will deserve that attention.]

Dec 5: City Of Brick And Shadow by Tim Wirkus [I’m about fifty pages into this novel starring American missionaries in South America. I’ll be writing more about this book later, but I am incredibly excited about it. Wonderfully written and doing everything the way I want things done in a nationally published Mormon novel.]

Dec. 30: The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison [I’ve mentioned this one before.]

Still Dawning?: A Response to Michael Austin

12.8.14 | | 30 comments

Recently, I had the privilege of publishing a review of Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell in the second issue of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Mormon Studies Review. In the same issue, Michael Austin, a veteran of Mormon literary studies, published a piece entitled “The Brief History and Perpetually Exciting Future of Mormon Literary Studies.” Among Mormon literary scholars, Austin is best known for his essay “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time,” which he published as a doctoral student in the mid-1990s. At the time, Austin was writing in response to the Cracroft-Jorgensen debate of the early-1990s, and his essay sought to give critics a much-needed new way to think about and order the study of Mormon fiction. It was an important essay in the development of Mormon literary theory, and it remains a touchstone of our evolving understanding of the definition of Mormon literature.

Austin’s latest essay seems deliberately less-ambitious, representing an effort to update scholars outside the field on the state of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies. While much of the first third of the essay reiterates information Eugene England established in his landmark 1995 essay “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” Austin also includes valuable information about the study of Mormonism in American literary history and literary studies of Mormon sacred texts, particularly the Book of Mormon. His analysis of these latter two fields is where this essay excels most. Having recently published Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, 2014) and the essay collection Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen (Utah State UP, 2010), which he co-edited with Mark Decker, Austin writes from a deeply informed position and offers great insight for those who wish to begin work in these branches of Mormon literary studies.

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On the Mormon Vision of Language: “Thou Hast the Words of Eternal Life”

12.7.14 | | no comments

After spending some time in the Books of Moses and Mormon over the past several weeks, in this installment I turn to an episode from Christ’s life and explore what it can teach us about life-giving language.

Per usual, your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

(Direct link to the audio file.)

(All posts in this series. // All audio files from this series.)

Gender in The Bishop’s Wife
(divorced of context)

12.5.14 | | 6 comments

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bishrevThe Bishop’s Wife has a lot to say about male/female relations (and a lot about marriage in particular) and about the different roles of men and women in this particular Mormon community (from which we are free to extrapolate). I’m not ready to draw many conclusions regarding just what the novel is saying—that will be done better as more people read and begin debating motwaaw—meaning being, of course, ultimately, a very personal thing—but I want to provide some out-of-context quotations for your preliminary consideration.

Brethren, please check your privilege before proceeding.

Note: As I said last time, I will correct obvious errors, marking them with [molaq] and mark likely errors I can’t correct with [sic]. I will note location with chapter numbers and, if necessary for purposes of this post or to prevent spoilers, disguise characters and events via substitutions enclosed in brackets or through the omission of quotation marks. Sometimes I add comments in italics after the chapter number. more

On the Mormon Vision of Language: More Powerful Effect

11.30.14 | | 4 comments

Following the path I started last week in my meditation on Korihor’s curse, this week I explore Alma’s efforts to try the virtue of words.

Your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

(Direct link to the audio file.)

(All posts in this series. // All audio files from this series.)