I was startled recently to find myself described (in response to my review of Alan Williams’s novel Ockham’s Razor) as acting like a gatekeeper for Mormon literature. Partly this was because I had seen my comments mostly as definitional rather than exclusionary: Ockham’s Razor is a book of type X, as opposed to type Y. Mostly, though, I think it’s because calling me a gatekeeper seems to imply a level of power I don’t see myself as having.
The question of who gets to define Mormon literature, and what is good and bad within it, is an area where it seems to me that this kind of conflicted perspective is common. We here at A Motley Vision don’t see ourselves as a center of power and authority in the discussion of Mormon literature: rather, simply as a place where some of us get to hang out, shoot the breeze, talk about things that interest us (and that usually have nothing to do with our day jobs), and spout opinions that generally encounter as much disagreement as agreement from other posters (as witness the reaction to that same review). But to others, we are a bastion of The Establishment in Mormon literature — or so I suddenly perceive or guess. It is (would be) to laugh, if it were not also such a sad commentary on the state of Mormon letters.
We used to run into the same thing at AML-List, which was sometimes characterized by others as a kind of monolithic and elitist Mormon literary establishment, intent on imposing its taste and values on the entire field. As list moderator for several years, this perspective seemed ludicrous to me, partly because I was so often forcefully reminded of just how diverse opinions on the list really were.
The other thing I saw as moderator was just how easy it was for people on any side of a particular argument to feel beleaguered, misunderstood, ignored, or even silenced — while at the same time their own actions led to similar perceptions by those with whom they were disagreeing. Each side was seen as the power holder by the other(s). And then people would leave the list or lurk without commenting and then talk (elsewhere or on the list itself) about “the AML-List mindset,” usually based (so far as I could tell) on two or three people who happened to agree with each other in some particular online discussion.
Of course, the only power we typically possessed on AML-List — or possess here at A Motley Vision — is the power of our own comments. Most of us didn’t and don’t run bookstores or publishing houses, teach classes on Mormon literature, or exercise any other variety of power that extends beyond our own (thin) wallets and keyboards. Apparently, that personal power strikes some people as a rather larger thing than it seems from the author’s side of the keyboard, where you hope (often in vain) for comments as evidence that someone has actually read what you wrote.
The same thing has happened with AML the organization (a very different body from AML-List), which people from outside sometimes see as some kind of statutory body upholding a specific canonical vision of Mormon literature. Those on the inside, in contrast, see the organization as both pretty powerless (how can any group possessing the kind of institutional power its critics suggest be constantly scrambling just to get the renewal notices out?) and highly diverse, staffed by an “aristocracy” of the willing.
I’m sure that similar perceptions of gatekeeping power are held by some with respect to Irreantum, the Whitney Awards, Chris Bigelow and Zarahemla Books, the editors and book-buyers at Deseret Book (stores and publisher), Gideon Burton and the Mormon Literature and Creative Arts Database, the LDS Publisher blog sites, and basically anyone else who writes, teaches, talks, or makes decisions that touch on Mormon literature in any setting, no matter how limited. Heck, I see the editors of BYU Magazine as literary gatekeepers just because they cut Richard Cracroft’s positive mention of No Going Back (though I’m assured that positive mention by Richard Cracroft does not, in fact, translate into mega-sales. Alas).
The simple fact of the matter is that there just isn’t that much power anywhere in the Mormon literary world. Fantasies that it does exist Somewhere Else are, I suspect, based in a wish that there might be something more to the community of Mormon letters than there really is — coupled with a full awareness that wherever such power might reside, it sure as heck ain’t here.
Part of the problem is one of scale, where market is defined in terms of “small,” “tiny,” and “tinier,” while “large” (or even “reasonable”) practically speaking don’t exist. Case in point: Dave Farland (a friend of mine) was complaining recently about the fact that Deseret Bookstores probably won’t restock his Whitney Award-winning novel In the Company of Angels, due in part to a whispering campaign by some who feel the book is too critical of some early Church leaders. My response (more or less) was along the lines of commenting that at least his book was there for a while, as opposed to No Going Back, which has never had any presence in LDS bookstores (and has now been removed from the shelves of the BYU Bookstore) and which has sold to date only about 200 copies. And then I was complaining about that to Johnny Townsend, a nationally published short story writer who decided to go the self-publishing route, who responded that from where he was sitting, 200 sales sounded pretty good. It made me feel rather small.
What it comes down to is that in a market so small, all of us really are literary gatekeepers, whether we feel particularly empowered or not. This is particularly hard to see when whatever power we may possess consists of something we created and have maintained purely on our own iniative, in some area where no one else seemed interested, where we’ve put in long hours without much in the way of praise or external rewards. All too often, it seems like those asking for a piece of our (laughably small) pie are quite thoroughly competent to bake their own, thank you. It can be quite startling to realize that some people think of us as “the big boys.”
So what’s the solution? Better understanding and a measure of charity and forbearance all around, I suppose. A recognition that there is no “them” in Mormon literature, and that each of us, no matter much of an outsider we may feel, actually embodies a perceptible portion of the communal gatekeeping power. And perhaps a hope that someday our small efforts might make way/prepare the ground for — possibly even metamorphose into — something larger.