In one of the very early AMV posts, I wrote:
“Mormon artists” above refers to artists who seek to live a life of LDS orthodoxy. In keeping with the big tent definition of Mormon literature, A Motley Vision will, at other times, use the term “Mormon artists” in a broader sense to include those, for instance, who identify themselves as cultural Mormons but are not active LDS.
Since then I and my co-bloggers (and commenters) have used the term LDS on this blog 918 times; we have used Mormon 1,240 times (according to a Google site search). I haven’t analyzed my co-bloggers posts, but I tend to use the two terms almost-but-not-always interchangeably.
Others, however, don’t. One of the most interesting things to come out of the brouhaha over Angel Falling Softly over at LDS Publisher was the idea that LDS fiction is a genre unto itself. I’ll be honest: this label had never really occurred to me. Certainly, I was aware that Deseret Book and Covenant have certain standards (and sometimes double standards) when it comes to what they publish and sell, but it never occurred me to that the term “LDS fiction” applied only to works that would find their way on to the shelves of DB and Seagull.
As Kent Larsen points out in that post, the term is a bit problematic:
[J. Scott] Savage makes, I think, a very good point about the market for LDS Fiction. The problem is that the term seems very generic — LDS Fiction sounds like it is simply fiction by LDS Church members or that talks about LDS issues.
Instead, as used among those active in the market for Mormon materials, LDS Fiction is, as Bro. Savage makes clear, works that are carefully written so that no LDS Church member could be offended.
I agree with Kent. And yet, at the same time I think that the other point of view is entirely understandable. In fact, I’d say that when using the term LDS fiction as a genre term, it’s much more appropriate to use it in the way several of the commenters on the LDS Publisher post above use it than to use it as “simply fiction by LDS Church members.”
What’s fascinating is that a particular fuzzy usage that has gone on in the LDS Church over the past two decades has been extended to the realm of fiction selling and criticism (the same usage problems don’t exist, for example, in film). During the 1990s and into this century, the LDS Church distanced itself from the term “Mormon” (remember that prior to this “the Mormons” was added as a secondary identifier to the LDS Church’s [awesome] television commercials). I’ll assume that most readers know what I’m talking about and so won’t go into the whole history of this effort and instead get to the point: although the Church wasn’t super successful in getting journalists to use LDS Church instead of Mormon Church (even though the preference made its way into the AP Styleguide albeit with LDS Church as the second reference instead of the Church of Jesus Christ), it was successful in getting much of its American membership to identify as LDS instead of Mormon (or not so much as instead of, but as preferred to). And some of us, myself included, also got our non-member friends to use the term LDS instead of Mormon.
However, as it became clear that this was a losing battle (albeit with some gains), LDS Church PR professionals (while still expressing the initial preference) have moved to re-associate the term Mormon and make it exclusive to members of the LDS Church. This process was intensified in reponse to the news coverage of the Mormon fundamentalist groups over the past few years, culminating, of course, this past spring.
Those of us, then, who are both active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and active participants in the Mormon cultural sphere find that things can sometimes get a bit weird when the two things intersect (as they do and as they rightly should), especially when one is more in the middle of the field of Mormon culture. As I note above, my solution has been to be rather flexible in usage (although a thorough analysis of my posts might show that perhaps I haven’t been as flexible as I think). Others have not chosen that same route. And indeed, the philosophical divides among Mormons authors, readers and critics seem to be heightened or intensified by these two competing terms.
One can fairly clearly signal in which camp one stands by which of these two terms one privileges.
For example, although I say that I have been flexible, the tag line for A Motley Vision is “Mormon arts and culture.” And I suppose that I chose that as a direct reference to the Association for Mormon Letters and their definition of Mormon literature as anything written by, for or about Mormons — even though the primary focus of AMV has been work produced by believing LDS.
So the end result is that we have the Assocation for Mormon Letters vs. LDStorymakers (and the AML Awards vs. the Whitneys). And we have Dialogue a Journal of Mormon Thought. And Mormon Renaissance, Mormon Artists Group, Mormon Artist, Mormons and Film, and This Mormon Life. And then we have LDS Publisher, LDS Review, LDS Writers Blogck, Six LDS Writers and a Frog, the LDS Booksellers Association, etc. The only one that doesn’t quite fit, I’d say, is Towards an LDS Cinema (but again: cinema doesn’t quite have the same separateness that seems to have arisen in fiction). The list could go on — I just pulled these examples out of my Google reader — and I’m sure there are inconsistencies and exceptions. But once I began to think about these two terms in relation to each other and to the Mormon cultural sphere, it was a bit eerie how things lined up.
The point then, of part 1, is that because of the two terms for Mormons/LDS and because of the overlapping but not 100% the same definitions/usages, LDS/Mormon culture has a strange definitional situation that doesn’t not exist (or at least doesn’t exist quite so dualistically) as in other religio-ethnic-national cultures. Others have two or more schools/camps, but as far as I know, they can’t signal them in quite such a stark (meaning unadorned — meaning they have to append other signifiers or come up with their own terms/signals) way.
In part two, I will talk more about LDS fiction; Mormon fiction and why the divide is both useful and completely understandable and problematic and irritating and lame and what if anything should be done about it.
Also: I’m thinking of changing to a less tidy but more evocative tag line for AMV — “LDS/Mormon arts and culture from the radical middle.”
NOTE: My apologies for not linking to all of the blogs and sites mentioned above. I thought that all those links in a row would be distracting.