Once I Was a Beehive

8.18.15 | | 14 comments

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I left Utah just as the Mormon-movie craze was collapsing into a heap of half-baked, opportunistic, unfunny, quote-unquote comedies. No longer in Utah, Mormon movies became harder to see, and I haven’t often felt the effort was worth it.

I know, I know. Me of all people! I should know better than to be dismissive! But I’m still having my standoff with Netflix and they’re not in local theaters or my public library and I’m a little too cheap to spend twenty bucks on a movie I might not like. So I just haven’t seen many. Never mind that I am watching movies, I’m not watching many “Mormon” movies.

The only recent Mormon flicks (last five years?) I’ve seen are Freetown and Once I Was a Beehive.

The trailer for that latter film worried me immensely. An essay by one of the filmmakers made me much more hopeful. But hey—I’m in California. What’m I gonna do?

But I couldn’t just forget about it because I was particularly interested in this film. Not because I’d just been to Girls Camp myself for the first time (though maybe that) but because I find stories about girls between the ages of, say 15 and 25 to be particularly compelling right now, both to read and to write. So I wanted it to be good. I wanted to hear it was good and to feel obliged to see it. And then I wanted to like it. Which seemed like a lot of unlikely steps.

Happily, even before I read anything about it, Excel provided me with a password-protected link to let me watch the film online. And I’m relieved to report that notwithstanding its flaws (which I will not ignore), this movie is more

Things Rich and Strange: Mormonism through the Lens of Steve Peck, a Sympathetic Alien

8.14.15 | | 3 comments

Title: Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Short Story Collection
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 219
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 9780988323346
Price: $14.95
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Steve Peck is an alien. A kind of geeky-looking one (wholly appropriate for a professor of evolutionary biology), friendly, congenial, but an alien nonetheless. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how, in this set of 16 stories, he so consistently manages to provide such startlingly different, yet at the same time deeply insightful, perspectives on the culture and religion he has adopted for his own.

Which is about the only thing these stories — which range from short to long, humor to pathos, realism to postmodernly zany, contemporary to historical to science fiction — have in common. Eight of them have been previously published, in venues ranging from Irreantum to Covenant to the Everyday Mormon Writer contest. Yet the effect is not incoherent. Rather, it provides a sense of the range of Peck’s work, which includes something that will, I guarantee, appeal to pretty much everyone with the slightest interest in reading fiction about the Mormon experience: highbrow or lowbrow, literary or popular, funny or serious, light or thought-provoking. It’s pretty much all here. And while not every story is equally polished, each provides something interesting and (here’s that word again) different.

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CFP: Announcing a New Anthology of Essays on Mormon Literature

7.28.15 | | 6 comments

596219Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson’s Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature. As the first anthology of Mormon literary criticism, it was an important step forward in the development of Mormon literary studies and served a generation of scholars well.

Unfortunately, while the essays in Tending the Garden remain useful, the volume itself has become outdated. Over the last two decades, Mormon literature and literary studies have evolved in surprising ways, thanks in part to the ongoing efforts of the Association for Mormon Letters and the rise of the internet. Indeed, as foretold by Lavina Fielding Anderson in her preface to Tending the Garden, the internet has allowed discussions of Mormon literature to extend beyond the borders of the Wasatch Front, introducing fresh insights and enabling a more global understanding of Mormon literature. Moreover, it has allowed scholars, authors, and enthusiasts of Mormon literature from around the world to feel a sense of community and engage actively in the ongoing development of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies.

In light of recent anthologies of short Mormon fiction, Mormon poetry, and Mormon drama, I am putting together a new anthology of Mormon literary theory and criticism to be published by Peculiar Pages. The first part of the anthology will collect essays from the last twenty years about theoretical and practical approaches to writing and analyzing Mormon literature, while the second part will collect essays from the same time period about specific Mormon texts or literary trends.

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Mormon fiction writers and the spectre of excommunication

7.15.15 | | 21 comments

I recently had a Twitter conversation with Mette Ivie Harrison about an experience where at an author appearance in Logan she met an LDS author who was afraid to be honest about their Mormonism in the current climate because of the possibility of excommunication. I’m not going to repeat the particulars of the conversation because I don’t think it’s fair to transport the context of a Twitter conversation with its character limit constraints to the longer form of blogging. So instead I’m going to start with an observation and then a claim based off of that observation.

The Observation

Most Mormon fiction writers who leave the LDS Church do so because they become alienated from it. That’s not a good thing or (I hope) an inevitable thing. It also often leads to active members of the Church dismissing their work, which is often (but not always) unfortunate, especially since I think Mormons should seek to develop a better of understanding of the Mormon experience when it doesn’t match up with their own.

But for this post I want to stick with the formal relationship of an author with the LDS Church. The reason for that is that over my 17+ years of interacting with the Mormon literature community, I’ve periodically seen a conventional wisdom expressed in various ways that the great Mormon novelist will inevitably be excommunicated. Or more generally: LDS writers can’t write candidly about the Mormon experience because then they’d be excommunicated.

The Claim

I’m going to make a claim about this fear and then complicate it. The claim is this: Mormon fiction writers don’t need to worry about excommunication because of the content of their fiction*.

Complication 1: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about excommunication if their fiction exists alongside with affiliation with other activities/groups that could lead to excommunication. That is, it’s possible that fiction could be used a data point in showing that the writer is actively working against the LDS Church, but if the concerns are limited to what is represented in the fiction then all current evidence suggests that

Complication 2: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about excommunication if their fiction isn’t well-wrought fiction. That is, if you’re writing polemics against the LDS Church or crossing hard boundaries (certain depictions of the temple or LDS Church leaders) then, yeah, that could be a problem. But that’s not good fiction. And that’s not honest fiction either.

Complication 3: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about fellow members reporting their fiction to LDS Church authorities. My understanding is that this happens (or happened — I have no idea if it’s ongoing) to Orson Scott Card quite a bit. If one is a believing, active LDS in good standing, then this won’t be an issue. If one is not, then it could be because it could precipitate declarations of honesty on the part of the author that could lead to disfellowship and potentially excommunication.

Complication 4: Mormon fiction writers who specifically write for the LDS market** need to worry about their relationship with the LDS Church. I believe that hypocrisy is deadly for writers of all stripes and active LDS who become disaffiliated*** from the Church should stop writing for the LDS market. I recognize that that’s a harsh stance with difficult social and economic consequences and deserves a longer treatment (which I may attempt at some point).

Complication 5: All of the above is in relation to Mormon fiction writers who specifically write about Mormonism and/or target the active LDS audience. I’m trying to think of a scenario where writers who don’t write Mormon content could find themselves in a situation where their fiction impacts their Church membership. I suppose Mormon writers of erotica could be at risk for excommunication. I don’t know how much of a risk, although I imagine it would largely depend on what kind and how out they were as an erotica writer.

So except for Complications 4 and 5, I don’t see how the Mormon writer of fiction with doubts, fears, stances that differ from the LDS Church, etc. is in a different position from any other member with doubts, fears, differing stances, etc. And 4 and 5 relate to specific marketing categories an author has a choice to engage in or not. In other words, excommunication shouldn’t be a worry for LDS writers vis a vis their fiction.

But all the above is specifically only about the content of the author’s fiction in relationship with the Church. When it comes to the act of writing fiction itself, a different dynamic may be in play. Because while excommunication is something that either happens or doesn’t, there is a complex matrix of personal, familial, and social relationships and beliefs that impact the Mormon writer when they go to write fiction. That’s what I’ll be exploring in my follow-up post: Self Censorship and the Mormon Author.

For now, I’m interested in discussing:

1. Any complications I have missed
2. Any complications I have I downplayed too much
3. Why the fear of excommunication persists among Mormon authors even though none have been excommunicated for their fiction****

*For non-LDS readers, excommunication is a formal process by which members of the LDS Church may be restricted from some aspects of Church membership or lose their membership in the LDS Church. It is generally reserved for acts like adultery, murder, felony crimes, etc., but there have been a few instances when members of the Church have been disciplined for what they have said. Largely, that is because they have specifically arrayed themselves against the Church, but they’re also complicated cases with, naturally, differing views on the ultimate reasons for the excommunication as well as a variety of dynamics and individualized situations and information that often is not public. For more, see Church Disciplinary Councils at LDS.org.

**This is where the LDS vs. Mormon terminology is useful (even though I dislike dogmatic usages of the two terms in opposition to each other) in that by LDS market I mean the publishers and retail outlets that specifically market to faithful, active members of the LDS Church. The Mormon market, in my view, includes the LDS Market but also brings in any and all publishers, retailers and audiences who are interested in work about the Mormon experience.

***I am not going to attempt to delineate what level/type of disaffiliation should trigger a voluntary removal from the LDS market. That’s a matter of individual conscience.

****As Andrew Hall reminded me on Twitter, Brian Evenson did lose his position at BYU because of concerns over his fiction and Neil LaBute was disfellowshipped for his portrayal of Mormons and violence in his fiction. Both eventually became disaffiliated from the LDS Church.

“If it be a true seed, or a good seed”: A Brief Note on Narrative Ethics

7.8.15 | | 2 comments

(My thoughts in this post may not break new ground in narrative studies or be foreign to readers of AMV. I share them, however, as part of my continued project to elaborate a uniquely Mormon vision of language by exploring what uniquely Mormon texts—LDS scripture, in particular—can teach about the value and work of words.)

In Alma’s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: “we will compare the word unto a seed.” He continues by outlining some criteria for the seed’s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.

My focus in this brief note is on Alma’s statement about the seed’s health—“if it be a true seed, or a good seed”—and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics. 

The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes “good” over “true,” a priority supported by the fact that he uses “good” not “true” through the rest of the discourse. Alma’s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truth—their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative aren’t “Is it true?” or “How true is it?” but “Is it good?” or “What good does it do or encourage its audience to do?”

The prioritization of a narrative’s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (including—maybe especially—Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.

Thoughts?

A brief look at Heaven Knows Why!

7.2.15 | | 3 comments

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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.

Guest Post on Creation by Sam Barrett

6.29.15 | | one comment

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE: This is the written version of a talk given by Sam Barrett in sacrament meeting February 2014 as part of the Berkeley Ward’s arts Sunday. The assigned topic was “What CREATING teaches me about the CREATOR.” Sam works in advertising and is also a composer under the name Samson Y Hiss. His stuff is fun and creepy and weird—circus-hell music, you might say. (Worth mentioning: He agreed to let me post this here after seeing the word “grotesque” on the AMV about page.)

Samson Y Hiss is currently raising money on Indiegogo to record his music with real musicians on real instruments. I highly recommend checking the project out and supporting it. I have a cd of his work in the car and it certainly makes late-night drives more nightmarey. (The photos here are taken from the Indiegogo page.)

By means of introduction, if I remember correctly, the talk is structured around his day-to-day thinking about the topic as he prepared. You know. In case you find an all-caps MONDAY confusing.

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MONDAY

In the mid 40’s at midnight in Manhattan, a young man named Thelonious Monk was working as a pianist at a nightclub. Much of his style was developed during this time as he participated in “cutting competitions” which featured many leading jazz soloists. While engaged in one of these sessions he fell upon an old song he’d written years ago at the age of 19 back in North Carolina. Returning to the song nearly 13 years later as a superior musician he embellished upon the tune greatly almost to the point of rewriting it completely. This new tune would become known as Round Midnight. A song a number of jazz artists including Cootie Williams would reinterpret for years to come. Round Midnight became the most recorded jazz standard composed by a jazz musician. It appears in over 1000 albums.

He sold candy and newspapers on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit, and sold vegetables to make money. He also studied qualitative analysis, and conducted chemical experiments on the train until an accident prevented further work of that kind. Moving to Newark, New Jersey Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor with the automatic repeater and other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention that first gained him notice was the phonograph in 1877. The accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at large as to appear almost magical. It recorded on tinfoil around a grooved cylinder. And despite its limited sound quality and that the recordings could be played only a few times, the phonograph made Thomas Edison a celebrity. And he became known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park” New Jersey.

Creators come in many forms. They are musicians, painters, sculptors, inventors, scientists, philosophers. They are actors, writers, directors, designers, builders, preachers. They are moms, dads, grandpas, grandmas; even crazy uncles. As sons and daughters of God creativity is an all of us no matter our profession or position. more

On the Possible in Mormon Styles

6.19.15 | | 10 comments
Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve gotten into the, perhaps bad, habit of looking for a Mormon parallel to interesting works I come across. I know I’m not alone in doing this—after the first online dating site how long did it take before we had a Mormon one?

My most recent foray into potential Mormon parallels came when I purchased a copy of Raymond Queneau’s fascinating book Exercises in Style, which consists of 99 versions of the same mundane story told in a stunning variety of ways. For me this book has highlighted the similarity of much of today’s literature, especially so-called genre fiction. Contemporary fiction seems focused on a narrow range of styles—either first person or third person omniscient, narrative told in chronological order. [There are, of course, plenty of exceptions. But elements like this seem to dominate.]

Cover of "Exercises in Style"

Cover of Exercises in Style

In his book, Queneau doesn’t really invent new styles. Instead, the styles reflect what already exists; the way people talk or write or portray stories. Styles in the book include things like Metaphorically, Retrograde, Dream, Word Game, Narrative, Anagrams, Onomatopoeia, Logical Analysis, Official Letter, Past, Present, Reported Speech etc.

For example, the “Notation” style (first in the book) is told this way:

On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.

Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

To me this concept is brilliant. For authors and readers alike it breaks down the customary approach to literature and promotes creativity. It also simply helps us to understand what style is and the breadth of its possibilities.

So, would it be possible to produce a Mormon Exercises in Style? I know many of our fellow Church members who would say no — that Mormons have no style, or that all of Mormon writing and discourse uses the same style. But this seems demonstrably false to me. If nothing else we see stylistic differences in different situations: testimonies have stylistic differences when compared to lessons or talks or interviews. And different authors have their own styles—who doubts that President Monson’s familiar use of a kind of passive past tense near the emotional and spiritual climax of his stories (“Hugs were shared; tears were shed…”) constitutes an important element of the Monsonian style?

I don’t know if there are enough identifiable Mormon styles for a book like Queneau’s. But I think the effort of telling the same story in a series of Mormon styles would at least help those who wrote the stories, and likely would enlighten readers about the customary ways Mormons communicate with each other.

Since I’m not at all confident about my own ability to mimic a variety of Mormon styles (I’m not even sure I have the ability to do just one!), I’d like to suggest open this idea up to the online Mormon world (the bloggernacle or whatever you would like to call it) and ask for submissions, which would then be published here on AMV and perhaps improved by the suggestions of our readers and visitors.

In order to do this, we will need a couple of things:

First, we need a mundane story. Make that a mundane Mormon story. I hope to write a post in the next week asking for suggestions about what should be included in this story. Somehow, without being dramatic, I think it will need to include elements of a typical Mormon life — perhaps what happens in Church, at least in part. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

Second, we will need a list of possible styles in which the story can be rendered. I’ve mentioned some possibilities above, and I’m including those and a few more below.

[Note that some of these could be subdivided — travelog testimonies may be stylistically different, for example — while others may not actually be clear styles, and still others may not work to tell a story at all. To get started, lets list possibilities regardless of these issues.]:

  • testimony
  • church lesson (as delivered)
  • sacrament meeting talk
  • priesthood leader interview
  • Monsonian
  • lesson manual
  • handbook
  • bloggernacle post
  • mormon.org profile

I don’t know if this will work or not. To me it seems like it might be fun and perhaps useful. What do you think?