LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part two)

10.21.08 | | 10 comments

In part one, I discussed the terms LDS and Mormon and why various sectors of the field of LDS/Mormon culture choose to self-identify with one term or the other or use both — either interchangeably or to mean different things. I also drew some very blurred, porous lines between LDS fiction and Mormon fiction.

I thing the best place to begin part two is with a brief, hastily sketched and probably wrong in places history of how Mormon fiction has been defined. Not the whole thing. But the field as it has developed to where it is at today. For a full history of Mormon literature up until the mid-90s, see Eugene England’s “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects.”

The field of Mormon fiction as we know it today really begins to take form in the 1970s. In the early ’70s, Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert created the anthology A Believing People and taught the first course in Mormon literature at BYU. In 1976, the Association for Mormon Letters was formed. Since that time the AML and the Mormon literature courses taught at BYU have been the main producers of work that is about the field of Mormon literature (along with contributions from Dialogue and Sunstone — often written by authors who are also involved in the AML). The AML defined Mormon literature (and thus by extension Mormon fiction) as literature by, for and/or about Mormons.

The AML has always taken a big tent approach to things, considering everything from works published by Deseret Book to Signature to national publishers and works by authors who are active LDS to non-LDS to Jack Mormons to cultural Mormons to those whose religious tradition comes from any one of the off-shoots of Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry (Community of Christ, for example). However, it has also placed a priority on literary works (although the young adult and speculative fiction genres have always had a strong presence among the people involved and the awards handed out and papers presented by the AML).

There has been some dissent from this big-tent approach over the years. Most notably, Richard Crafcroft, who has pushed for a more LDS-oriented approach to Mormon literature. And, in fact, his main statement on the subject is an AML paper called “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice: Stemming the Sophic Tide in LDS Literature.” Note the use of “LDS” in the title. But note also that Cracroft expressed his opinions within the AML community.

But since the AML encompasses everything that could be construed as Mormon fiction, the term isn’t a problem, right?

Clearly it was.

Although the AML made some nods towards what is now called the LDS fiction (and what is really an outgrowth of the home literature movement — or so says Eugene England), the authors and readers in this market obviously didn’t feel that they were being served well enough by the AML. And it was a market and a movement that had grown very quickly during the 1990s and earlier part of this decade as Deseret Book and Covenant (which have since merged) embraced the model of the Christian market and amped up their publication of Mormon genre fiction, especially romance, historical and thriller/mystery.

The readers of LDS fiction had, for the most part, never been involved with the AML crowd. But now there was a critical mass of authors. And in late 2004 or early 2005 they started LDStorymakers. A pun, yes. But also a conscious use of the term LDS instead of Mormon.

Now to be fair, I have no idea if frustrations with the AML had anything to with the formation of LDStorymakers. And in fact, it started out more as a publishing cooperative and simply a support group for authors who wanted to break into LDS fiction. And to be fair to the AML, it hadn’t completely ignored this market. Works of LDS fiction were reviewed on the AML-List. Irreantum (when it was under the editorship of Chris Bigelow [and for a while Benson Parkinson]) featured publishing news about and sometimes interviews with these authors and even devoted an entire issue to LDS romance. It was very much a literary mag and tried to include the whole field. And the AML held a yearly writers conference that featured presenters and attendees from the LDS fiction crowd.

But with a few exceptions participation in the AML wasn’t always a positive thing for LDS fiction authors (and readers). In particular, discussions on the AML-List could get rather intense (and were often dominated by the Mormon fiction crowd) and AML-List reviews of their titles weren’t always positive (not that they should or shouldn’t be — but there was generally a clear preference towards literary fiction).  And that’s when LDS fiction was even dealt with in those venues. Often it was completely ignored. And LDS ficiton authors also weren’t winning AML awards unless they wrote young adult fiction. They were all novel writers and pretty much had no shot at the novel award and didn’t write work that was elegibile for any of the other categories. Except for the special romance issue, their work wasn’t getting published in Irreantum (and they wouldn’t really be writing for it anyway because they were all novel writers). What’s more, the AML has had a difficult time in the ’00s holding on to involvement from its academic members and made a conscious turn in 2005-06 towards a more insistently literary, academic tone.

In 2005, LDStorymakers started its own writers conference, effectively killing off the AML’s writers conference (although the two lived in tandem for a few years). In 2007, the Whitney Awards were born. The Whitneys were genre focused (with specific categories for the main genres published) and Covenant author-dominated (not a criticism — Covenant publishes the majority of the LDS fiction), although in a bit of a surprise (but not really because it was the right decision in both cases) Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven won the best novel award from both the Whitneys and the AML (and I think Bound On Earth could duplicate that feat this year because it is both Mormon fiction and LDS fiction [even though I’m not entirely comfortable making that split]).

In addition, LDS fiction authors have been quick to embrace the basic tools of internet marketing — in particular, blogs and personal Web sites. This has had the effect of developing a community of writers and readers with similar tastes and interest. What that means is that LDS fiction is definitely a field of practice, ideas, works and personalities and that it is a much more conscious field of practice than it has ever been.

Now I want to emphasize that I’m not pointing fingers or moaning about disunity or anything here. The way the field and market has developed is perfectly understandable. And there’s nothing wrong with competition. And we really are talking about (in general) two different communities. And there is a decent amount of overlap and dual participation and commonality to be found among the Mormon fiction and LDS fiction camps.

But here’s where we get back to terminology. For the AML, Mormon fiction (or Mormon literature, or Mormon letters) makes sense. It is an all-encompassing definition. Mormon fiction is anything written by, for our about Mormons (of all stripes). That includes every single thing written by any of the authors in LDStorymakers (even if a lot of that work isn’t paid attention to by the AML per se). It’s all part of the field, and it’s all of interest because it all deals in some way with the Mormon experience. And as Katherine points out, it’s a term that makes sense. She quotes Randy Astle and Gideon Burton in a recent issue of BYU Studies:

“In this history, as is conventional in academic studies, I have used ‘Latter-day Saint’ or ‘LDS’ to refer specifically to the Church or its members, while reserving ‘Mormon’ to refer more broadly to the culture; hence the preference for the term ‘Mormon cinema,’ even though most Latter-day Saints refer to the movement as ‘LDS cinema’.” (Randy Astle with Gideon O. Burton, “A History of Mormon Cinema,” BYU Studies, 2007, vol. 46, No. 2, p. 15)

For the proponents of LDS fiction that’s not good enough. They want the field (or at least a field) to be defined much more narrowly so it lines up with their tastes, and, in particular, that the works of fiction match certain content guidelines and boundaries of plot and character in terms of their relationship to LDS doctrine and practice (as typified by what Deseret Book/Covenant publishes). So for them to take on the LDS term is a definitional move. And a pretty good one. It aligns with their ideology just as much as the broader Mormon fiction does for the AML crowd.

Visualize it this way: the LDS fiction crowd has drawn a circle around the work published by DB/Covnenant (and like work by a few other publishers). The lines of this circle are fairly thick and its borders are fairly actively patrolled. It’s a fairly well-provisioned stockade in the middle of a huge war camp located in a meadow. And its soldiers sometimes make a few excursions outside its walls because of concerns about the loyalty and/or actions of the soldiers in the camp.

The AML has drawn a circle that encompasses the entire field including the stockade. It’s the big teeming war camp in a meadow filled with divisions and brigades and mercenaries and spies and includes the woods outside the meadow (which contains a few deserters). And all fighting under the banner of Mormon. And it displays most of its activity outside of the stockade although there are some comings and goings, particularly among certain brigades and the stockade. And some of the brigades are better trained than others and some are better provisioned than others. And there’s a lot of switching tents and shifting of personnel and officers and sharing supplies and yes, even some brawling when tempers flare over certain issues. And those outside the stockade think that, of course, the stockade is part of the war camp. It’s located in the war camp (even if some of them never even bother to visit or even look at the stockade). And those inside the stockade think, yeah, this is a war camp, but we don’t know if we can really trust everybody outside of the stockade. We’re not sure if some of those folks will really fight on our side if it comes to war. And they don’t wear the LDS Special Forces insignia. And they don’t always use the correct military jargon and sometimes forget the passwords. Heck, we don’t even know if they’re posting sentries. And we’re fairly well secured here with a decent amount of provisions so we don’t really need to visit the rest of the camp that often (or at all).

And here’s the thing: all of those locations in the field can be fine places to be. And I think there are good arguments for the field to be configured the way it is now. But I also think that there is room for improvement.

This has gotten really long so I think I’ll end here. Part 3 will talk about where to go from here and what that means for the terms Mormon fiction and LDS fiction.

10 comments: “LDS fiction; Mormon fiction (part two)

  1. Th.

    .

    I agree with you on pretty much every point — the way the field is split and the way the groups treat each other, et cetera. My beef is that it seems like I am being forced to choose. I’m not interested in picking a banner. It doesn’t seem very . . . Ziony.

  2. Wm Morris

    Who says anything about choosing? Others may think you’ve made the choice. But I’m staking my claim right here in the radical middle. And I’m not budging (even though I still need to figure out exactly what that means).

    But more on that in part 3 where I solve everything for everybody and we all go home happy.

  3. Gideon Burton

    I’m pleased to see this overview and theorizing, though the divisions to me seem more formative than descriptive (steering us someplace rather than reflecting divisions people have held closely to). My fear is not how Mormons/LDS divide their literary identities, but how either populist or literary camps may give themselves over so readily to established genres and marketing. Yes, look at the Christian fiction market and see if those genres, book chains, and accompanying literary and media culture is where we want to go (a topic I addressed at the 2000 AML conference)

  4. William Morris Post author

    “My fear is not how Mormons/LDS divide their literary identities, but how either populist or literary camps may give themselves over so readily to established genres and marketing.”

    I pretty much agree. And that paper of yours is excellent — it definitely influenced my thinking about the market a lot. Pity it’s not easily available.

    I think this issue deserves some further exploration. I have over the years here at AMV tried to come up with some alternative models in terms of genres/projects/marketing. But I’m not sure any of those can really gain traction because the economic models just aren’t there. Mormons are still very small scale. And even the alternative Christian models (and a revision of your paper might be interesting to take account some of the counter-models in the Christian market that have arisen over the past few years) aren’t doing that hot.

    In terms of the Mormon/LDS divide (and if you’ll note, I’ve hedged quite a bit about the form it takes — however, I think from a definitional point of view, it’s clear that people are signaling something with which term they use), I agree that I don’t this is something that most people have held closely to. And yet, the descriptions that I am sure about — the stuff that’s publicly available — definitely do indicate a divide. Although I prefer my messy extended metaphor above to simple divisions. And that’s really part of my point: LDS/Mormon isn’t a binary. It’s a very odd definitional situation that we find ourselves in, but it is one that has had an impact on the field.

  5. Eric Russell

    Nothing to add here, but just wanted to say that this is all well put, William. Good post.

  6. Jonathan Langford

    Sadly, William, I’m afraid your post gives AML more importance than it actually has in the realm of Mormon letters (the big field, that is…).

    I think it’s important to remember that the AML, in its inception, was essentially a place for those faculty members who were interested in Mormon literature to talk about it in the way that literature professors talk about literature. (At least, that’s my perception.) The organization only started to grow with Ben Parkinson’s founding of AML-List, in ways that I believe were entirely accidental and not always welcomed. It’s also my perception that this marked the beginning of a shift toward a more writer-oriented organization–and, so far as I know, the first time science fiction and fantasy were ever welcomed within the organization.

    I’m not speaking against that broader direction for the organization. In fact, I’ve been one of its active proponents, over the years. But we have to recognize that the “big tent” idea was itself quite foreign to AML as it was originally founded.

    I think it makes sense from several perspectives that the Covenant/DB authors (the ones you’re calling LDS authors) haven’t been an integral part of AML. There’s a fairly natural alliance between literature professors and “literary” fiction. There’s also, I think, a sense that those who are publishing with Covenant/DB already *have* the support of an active community, simply by virtue of being published by Mormon publishing powerhouses. In a sense, AML is (I think) meant to provide a substitute for what the publishers could offer. If you publish with DB, you get a paycheck. If you publish with one of the Mormon literary presses, pretty much the most you can hope to get is a few good reviews and pats on the back from people you respect. AML, to the degree it’s about writers, is a place that can happen–and where people who might want to read books that aren’t in the local Seagull Book, might actually find out about them.

    I guess that part of what I’m saying is that the dichotomy you’re presenting between LDS and Mormon in terms of self-perception, standards, and orthodoxy may be accurate–but it also runs into the whole cash-versus-kudos cultural problem.

    What I think would be really interesting is to talk about what members of these different groups think literature is *for*. I suspect we’d be startled at the differences that arise, and how they do (or don’t) align with the type of fiction people prefer to read and write. But I’m not sure exactly how to explain what I mean, so I suppose I ought to stop there…

  7. Luisa Perkins

    I’ve been in the stockade and out in the camp, and I feel this is a pretty accurate assessment of the way things are. And I agree with Th. It doesn’t feel very Zion-y.

  8. Wm Morris

    Oh, I don’t know. Do we really think that Zion is going to be some glossy fascist-corporate style society of conformity — Star Trek or 1984? Or if you prefer organic — some hippie commune?

    I’m not saying things will be exactly the same. But being pure of heart probably doesn’t mean the removal of preference. Jonathan just posted a message to the AML-List that touches on this rather well, imo.

  9. Luisa Perkins

    Thanks for that link, Wm. Jonathan’s point is a good one (though I would quibble with his assessment of horror fans).

    My personal vision of Zion is neither glossy nor hippie-ish. And I certainly don’t believe that being pure of heart = lacking in individual preference. But Zion won’t include any of the antipathy, resentment, or envy that I have witnessed and experienced on either side of the stockade fence.

    Bring on the radical middle.

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