I teach first year writing online for BYU-Idaho (where, by institutional requirement, I go by “Bro. Chadwick”). One of my main goals for the course is to instill in my students a sense of responsibility for the ways they use language. To that end, several semesters ago I started an ongoing screencasting project in which I record my musings over what Mormonism can teach us about responsible, sustainable language use. I’ve titled the project “On the Mormon Vision of Language.” Each week I share a new video with my students; so far, most of the vids have me exploring ideas from Restoration scriptures—the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, particularly, though I’ve also drawn from the Doctrine & Covenants and the Bible. more
This Religion News Service interview with the writer Marilynne Robinson is very much worth reading, saving, thinking and talking about. The following, for obvious reasons, are two excerpts that directly spoke to me, but I expect that the whole thing is going to churn around in my head for quite some time.
From her reply to a question about the language of faith as a source for writing:
We have anxiety about differences. We are different, anyway, so we might as well calm down about it. But one of the things that we have to do is understand that within the system that is anyone’s difference is incredibly enabling.
Her reply to a question about why there are so few good authors who write about faith:
Religion has been associated with narrow denominationalism, where people think if you explore religion in the language that your own tradition makes available to you, that you are making some assertion about the superiority of your tradition over the one next door. But there’s no reason to think that. We simply have different vocabularies that come out of different traditions. Anyone can explore the brilliance of their received vocabulary.
Some of the comments (across twitter, the blogs and Facebook–ah, the joys of online discussion in a social media world) about the Association for Mormon Letters deal with a core tension that has existed in the AML, and, of course, in the project of literature itself: the writer and the critic.
This is not a tension that the AML is going to solve. But I do think it has a decent chance of pulling in some of each crowd for the following reasons:
- Many of the most active personalities in the field are both writers and critics.
- There are not many other viable forums for writing — creative or critical — that focus on Mormon thought and the Mormon experience.
- Mormonism does not have a theology per se, but Mormons themselves are used to talking about various aspects of doctrine and interpreting them in different ways and telling stories that relate to them and our understanding of them. The project of literature, both writing fiction and writing criticism, is not all that different. And I would hope that both writers and critics experience that commonality as the go about their work and that they are both interested when their thoughts about Mormonism intersect with the work they write and read.
- Related to that, I don’t see how you can be engaged with the project of narrative art without being both a creative writer and a critic. No writing is truly autonomic. It all comes from engagement with particular concerns and forms and images and stories and those are shaped by other things that the author has read as much if not more than their direct lived experience.
- Writers and critics have overlapping needs/interests but not the exact same ones. They also have needs/interests that can be better met by other organizations. And, I hope, ones that can be best met by the AML. One of the things that we need to do moving forward is look at how the activities of the AML fit with that spectrum of needs. It seems to me that those projects where there is overlap between the two (messy) categories should be a priority. But that there should also be activities that speak more strongly to one or the other to help strengthen overall engagement with the AML.
- One concrete idea: while it’s nice to have a journal that includes both criticism and fiction, one or the other category (not to mention the various forms of fiction [film, drama, etc.]) tends to be lose out depending on the primary interest of the editor. It might make sense to split out the two projects so that there’s one publication for criticism and one for narrative art. Or perhaps one publication but rotating editors/themes.
- Note that by criticism, I include all reader reactions to narrative art, including formal and informal reviews as well as scholarship and reporting that deal with all the extra-textual stuff related to the production, distribution and reception of narrative art.
What am I missing? Or even more bluntly: am I completely wrong? Is there no way to attract both narrative artists and critics? What do you all find most interesting in the intersection between the two? What bores you?
I suddenly thought to start tweeting #MoLit / #MormonLit stuff during #ldsconf. I wasn’t consistent in my hashtags and not all my examples were ideal and I tended to repeat some works too many times and I wasn’t above being self-promotional, but I wasn’t totally dissatisfied with the results.
I’m putting them here mostly to encourage others to do better.
Great Mormon novels about the poor to read in your book club the month #theHolland visits: Salvador / Blair Young Millstone City / Bailey
— Theric Jepson (@thmazing) October 4, 2014
I’ve been following with equal parts hope and concern, the conversations on Dawning of a Brighter Day (see here and here) that are attempting to revive the Association for Mormon Letters. I have written a guest blog that should be appearing in that space soon that lays out my thoughts on the foundational stuff for the AML — mission and board structure/purpose.
I have many other thoughts as well, but the primary one that I want to address is the tension between literary fiction writers/readers/critics and genre writers/readers/critics. There are other important tensions that impact the AML, but this is a foundational one. And one that has the potential to foul things up considerably. It has already cropped in the comments to Theric’s post and was a contributor (although not the driving factor) to the creation of LDStorymakers and also to the Whitney Awards.
I use the terms literary and genre in the previous paragraph. I don’t like those terms. And neither do some of the people who get labeled with them. They have their uses, but they can be quite limiting. And some of the best works of Mormon narrative art completely break down when trying to categorize using that division.
One way to get around the use of “literary” is to deploy the related term “serious literature”. Serious just isn’t a very useful descriptor. And it’s insulting. As in: if someone using that term doesn’t include certain works in it then that by extension means that those works aren’t “serious.”
All creative work is serious (even, often especially, if it is humorous).
So what I propose is that as we think about what narrative art should get attention from the new AML, we use the word interesting. Not actually use it as a term, a label. But rather that that’s a* key metric for what works get attention.
The nice thing about interesting is that it doesn’t exclude genres and audiences. There are many ways that a work can be interesting in a way that fits with the AML. For example: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is not very interesting in terms of sentence level prose or overt Mormon content or use of poetic imagery or plot structure or narrative voice (all qualities that many people would file under the umbrella “literary” or “serious”). And yet it has received attention from LDS literary critics because it is interesting in terms of thematics, plot, reception among readers, including LDS readers, and reception among national reviewers/critics.
Stories can be interesting in many different ways and interesting in different ways to different audiences. But, at least in my experience, not every story is interesting enough to write about, talk about, receive consideration for awards, etc. So using interesting as a metric doesn’t mean that every single work get the same amount of attention. It simply means that the works that the AML engage with need to have aspects that stand out, that are worthy of taking notice and considering further. And that’s regardless of how “literary” or “serious” they may or may not be.
*There’s another key metric. But that is covered in my guest post for the AML.
When Magdalene was nominated to be considered by the Whitney committee for the 2011 awards, Jennie Hansen, a well-known LDS reviewer and writer, posted a review on Goodreads that caused quite a stir in our little LDS writing community. Her review was short and to the point. She wrote:
“Disjointed, sloppy writing. Lacks real knowledge of Mormons and leadership in the Church. Too much vulgarity for vulgarities sake makes this story crude and amateurish.” If you are interested, you may read and/or comment on this review here. more
As I’ve been thinking about Tyler’s proposed online Mormon literature course(s), I’ve assembled my ideal schedule for a fifteen week reading course on the Mormon novel that could be shortened to ten weeks as needed. I’ve also included alternate texts that cover the same ground historically but focus on different themes and aesthetic approaches.
The schedule is a work in progress, but it seeks to cover as much ground as possible with works that–in my opinion–represent more or less what was happening (or not happening) in Mormon fiction at the time of their publication.
You’ll notice that I have generally left “genre” titles off the list. I did this not to be controversial, but rather to focus on a narrower understanding of the Mormon novel and show an evolution of approaches for portraying lived Mormon experiences. In some cases, I’ve also privileged more influential or historically significant books over better books from the same era as a way to give students a kind of fluency with texts that have had an impact on developments within the Mormon novel form. As a teacher, though, I’d encourage my students to read the alternate texts as well, either along with the primary texts or as an additional reading course.
Week One: Corianton by B. H. Roberts (serialized version)
Alternate: Hephzibah by Emmeline B. Wells
Week Two: Added Upon by Nephi Anderson
Alternate: John Stevens’ Courtship by Susa Young Gates
Week Three: Dorian by Nephi Anderson
Alternate: The Castle Builder or Piney Ridge Cottage by Nephi Anderson
Week Four: The Evening and the Morning by Virginia Sorensen
Alternate: The Giant Joshua by Maurine Whipple
Week Five: The Ordeal of Dudley Dean by Richard Scowcroft
Alternate: For Time and All Eternity by Paul Bailey
Week Six: Charley by Jack Weyland
Alternate: Charlie’s Monument by Blaine Yorgason
Week Seven: Summer Fire by Douglas Thayer
Alternate: Saints by Orson Scott Card
Week Eight: The Backslider by Levi S. Peterson
Week Nine: Sideways to the Sun by Linda Sillitoe
Alternate: Secrets Keep by Linda Sillitoe
Week Ten: And the Desert Shall Blossom by Phyllis Barber
Alternate: Pillar of Light by Gerald N. Lund
Week Eleven: Salvador by Margaret Blair Young
Alternate: Beyond the River by Michael Fillerup or Aspen Marooney by Levi S. Peterson
Week Twelve: The Angel of the Danube by Alan Rex Mitchell
Alternate: Falling toward Heaven by John Bennion
Week Thirteen: Rift by Robert Todd Petersen
Alternate: The Conversion of Jeff Williams by Douglas Thayer
Week Fourteen: Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom
Alternate: The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth or A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
Week Fifteen: The Scholar of Moab by Steven L. Peck
Alternate: Byuck by Theric Jepson