The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: Origins

1.19.10 | | 19 comments

Several months ago Theric asked me to define the radical middle — this term that I and others at AMV have been throwing around. More recently, Association for Mormon Letters President Boyd Petersen invoked the same phrase in his inaugural post on The Dawning of a Brighter Day. I’m hesitant to write manifestos or get in to long drawn out debates over what counts or doesn’t (c.f. the what-counts-as-indie debates of the ’80s and ’90s), but if we’re going to use a label we should be willing to engage it and so I’m going to do just that in three posts over three days: origins, the middle and the radical.

It all starts with Eugene England

As far as I know, the first use of the term radical middle in relation to Mormon narrative art is in Eugene England’s Dialogue essay/review “Danger on the Right! Danger on the Left! The Ethics of Recent Mormon Fiction,” which was published in Fall 1999.

In the essay, England challenges two anthologies of short Mormon fiction that had been published in the late ’90s (and, of course, champions his own anthology that had been published in the early ’90s). On page 30 he laments the fact Doug Thayer was not included in either the “right” or “left” anthology even though in England’s opinion his work would be a comfortable fit with both. He writes: “We are suffering, I fear, from a version of the old logical fallacy of the excluded middle, ripping Mormon literature apart to the remarkably similar extremes of right-wing and left-wing piety and cultural correctness and mutual exclusion.” Further down the page he adds: “…too many writers in what might be called the radical middle, who have no simplistic pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon agenda, but try to practice their craft with careful esthetic* skill and ethical insight, can’t seem to get themselves published to a Mormon audience. It’s a shame. I might even say, if I were an extremist, it’s a damn shame.”

An appropriation of a political term

I think it’s clear that England’s use of the term is meant to bring its political meaning in to the realm of Mormon letters — his use of right-wing and left-wing in the essay reinforces this. I don’t know if he further developed what he meant by using this term, although I think the essay itself as well as much of the rest of his oeuvre wonderfully illustrate (more or less) what it means to be in the middle in a radical way when it comes to Mormonism. I believe he also had radical center/radical middle political leanings as well. The radical middle (see the link to the Wikipedia in the previous sentence for a quick summary) has an interesting history in U.S. politics. It’s not necessarily something I subscribe to (although the term is squishy enough that it probably captures some of my admittedly waffling political beliefs), but I think that it’s important to understand not so much what it means, or what policies and political philosophies it encompasses, as why it is specifically deployed in order to understand it’s appeal to Eugene England and his descendants in Mormon letters.

Ross Perot’s Reform Party (at least its early years) and 1996 presidential run is an example of an eruption of the radical middle in to mainstream electoral politics. This is not to say that Ross Perot’s presidential platform equates the radical center in U.S. politics. It can be a difficult thing to define — see for example this list of political thinkers grappling with the idea of centrism/radical center/radical middle. But at its core is a sense of being in between, but in a way that’s energetic.

The radical middle, then, is most often an expression of frustration with two dominant parties/ways/philosophies. It is reactive (which brings with it the weaknesses of reactivity); it is amorphous; it is rather self-conscious and self-important. It is in flux and changes in relation to the two parties that it reacts against. It is always in danger of crystallizing its own orthodoxies and pieties. It is an often uneasy mix of populism and elitism and self-righteousness. It is accused of being wishy-washy and over-optimistic and idealistic by the left- and right-wing. It is anti-authoritarian and anti-Utopian.

All this may or may not transfer over when used in relation to the field of Mormon letters, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the political roots of the term. And as a sidenote, a sector of British Islam uses the term — see The Radical Middle Way — to articulate a fascinating form of modern-day cultural, theological and intellectual form of moderate Islam. The adjectives used on the page I link to — revolutionary, dynamic, proactive, relevant, young, open, creative, positive, inclusive — show, I think, the appeal of this way of defining a movement (we’ll get more in to this with my next two posts).

Irreantum and appropriateness

I can’t find any use of the term “radical middle” since England’s essay until the AMVers took it up, but I do want to point out another attempt to articulate that middle way that has been influential. When Chris Bigelow and Benson Parkinson first launched Irreantum in 2001, Parkinson posted an essay to the AML Website that he had previously written for the AML-List back in 1997 (which predates England’s radical middle essay). Titled the “Three Kinds of Appropriateness,” it briefly defines the qualities of over-safe, didactic fiction and angry, anti-institutional Church and pushing-the-content-envelope fiction (and labels them respectively as “completely appropriate” and “shockingly appropriate”) and charts a course between those two that without much exception defines fairly well the course that Irreantum (Ben is a co-founder of the magazine and influenced its original tone and parameters) has taken over its history as well as radical middle publishers like Zarahemla Books and Parables Publishing. It also influences the approach we take here at A Motley Vision and works that navigate it well are those that are most celebrated here (and by the Association for Mormon Letters). There are, of course, exceptions, but anything that gets too didactic (on either side of the spectrum) and that either elides reality too much or on the other hand gets too explicit or touches certain taboos (e.g. offensive stuff about the temple or general authorities) tends to be spurned or simply ignored.

As with any ideological space there are fluctuations in the boundaries over time and differences in opinion among individuals, but, generally, when it comes to the world of Mormon letters this middle way — which Ben Parkinson terms the the broadly appropriate — has been the aim of those working to legitimize Mormon narrative art.

The radical middle at present

I can’t speak for why Boyd chose to invoke the term radical middle in his post kicking off the new AML blog, but it also has had some currency here at AMV, and while I think it’s somewhat obvious why that’s the case, I’m going to explore the middle and the radical of the radical middle in the next two posts in the hopes that forcing me to articulate it and you all to discuss it will further the concept. More tomorrow.

* I’m not sure why England prefers esthetic over aesthetic.

19 comments: “The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: Origins

  1. Jonathan Langford

    William,

    Good, thought-provoking stuff here.

    Part of what the notion of a “radical middle” in Mormon literature invokes for me has to do with its stance toward religious belief. Literary works of the radical middle accept and depict real Mormon belief, without any need to either defend it or call it into question. You accept it as part of your character’s worldview and do your best to describe it honestly.

    Which is far from meaning that you’re neutral to it as an author. Is that even possible? Or desirable? Rather, I think it has to do with believing that depicting Mormons in a real way is sufficient cause in itself.

  2. Th.

    .

    Watch me, in the radical middle, fulfill the prophecies of self-righteousness.

    Building on what Jonathan said, IMO, we in the radical middle are comfortable with faith. We don’t believe the Church needs us to defend it, nor that we are required to repair it. We are more interested in engaging honestly with what is read and what is true — at least from our perspective.

  3. Wm Morris

    I find it interesting that both of you emphasize the relationship to the institution of the LDS Church and belief. As you will see in parts 2 and 3, I don’t deal much with questions of belief. I think both of you are correct in that most people who identify with the radical middle fall in to the category of active believers who don’t feel the need to be an apologist or a dissident. On the other hand, as this is primarily a cultural movement, for all that the LDS Church and Mormon belief is an important part of that, it seems to me that we’d do better to define the space in cultural terms.

    I also think this idea of engaging honestly is interesting. It’s not a word I would use. England uses ethically and esthetically (there’ll be a section on that tomorrow). I largely agree, but I wouldn’t close off other options and it also must be said that, of course, one is always going to define the work one is interested in as more honest, ethical and esthetic than works that aren’t considered to be part of the group/school/movement/pole/wing.

  4. Jonathan Langford

    William,

    I’m not sure what you mean by “define the space in cultural terms.” Can you go into more detail (without stealing your own thunder for tomorrow and the next day)?

    I agree that “honestly” is one of the value-judgment words. I really don’t see it, though, as a matter of authorial intent. Rather, I see it as the rhetorical stance that a work takes toward its characters’ Mormonness (with the author himself or herself at times serving as the Mormon in question, as in the case of some of the very Mormon works by OS Card that nonetheless have no Mormon characters). When I think in practical terms about the kinds of works I would describe as being in the radical middle (and how they are distinguished from those to either side), I would say that:
    a. They depict the beliefs, standards, and faith claims of Mormonism without taking a doubting or skeptical stance toward them.
    b. At the same time, they also show elements of doubt, life circumstance, etc., that may make faith difficult or for which the gospel does not present easy answers.

    (A) is what distinguishes such literature from literature of the “left,” so to speak, while (b) is what distinguishes such literature from literature on the “right.” Thinking about the real-life titles we’ve discussed over the years, and the real-life reactions of readers to those titles, it seems to me that this pretty much *is* what separates them. I don’t know that I’ve done it well enough here, but I even think that those who like all the different types of literature might agree with a self-description along those lines (which is, I think, one of the criteria of a truly useful categorization scheme).

  5. Wm Morris

    By defining the space in cultural terms, I mean that I’m specifically talking about cultural products and institutions and not as much about where they may or may not stand in relation to the institutional church.

    I think you A and B are useful in terms of faithful realism works — which are, of course, the dominant kind. I’m not sure that it applies to all types/modes. The radical middle has also found places for works that are more left and right (as you define them above). But yes, I think that for the most part that’s a useful definition.

  6. Patricia

    On the other hand, as this is primarily a cultural movement, for all that the LDS Church and Mormon belief is an important part of that, it seems to me that we’d do better to define the space in cultural terms.

    I’m interested in whether or not you see this cultural movement–or the necessity for this cultural movement–as a new cultural shift of some kind, an emergent narrative strain that’s on the rise and meets a need and serves a purpose not present heretofore in Mormon discourse. In other words, is the radical middle stance the “middle way” that emerges over and over again from the bipolar tensions many movements/philosophies/religions/human relations appear to exhibit in their beginning stages, or is it something altogether new in the Mormon cultural (and perhaps worldwide) environment?

  7. Eugene

    To define it in other than cultural terms, you’d first have to come up with a specific set of beliefs upon which the plot of a narrative could turn, and then see how many Mormons were actually willing to claim, defend or explain them.

    In The Path of Dreams, I went the guardian angel route that has our ancestors sneaking out of heaven to influence mortal events. It’s one of those folk doctrines that doesn’t arouse much debate even if not all Mormons buy into it. In Angel Falling Softly, I took up the “orthodox” interpretation of 2 Nephi 25:23, championing works over grace. Not only is this issue unresolved in theological Mormon circles, but it’s becoming more and more unresolved as time goes on.

    Almost all of the objections, though, focused not on the “appropriateness” of the doctrine, but on the “appropriateness” of the protagonist’s behavior, begging the question of what the point of the story would be if the protagonist had behaved “appropriately.” The real “radical middle” is about how imperfectly the “DB” audience (like it or not, they define the “mainstream”) will allow fictional Mormon characters to behave. For now, it’s “not very.”

  8. Wm Morris

    I don’t really know, Patricia. I do think it may be somewhat unique in its persistence and that that is due to the peculiar socio-economic conditions that were related to the Mormon diaspora and major growth in Mormonism.

    That is, it’s tied in to correlation, out-migration, the dramatic rise in college attendance post-WWII, and the rise of Mormo-American middle class. That we have things like the AML, Irreantum and Zarahemla Books (and even Dialogue) is somewhat remarkable considering BYU’s relative lack of support for Mormon literature publishing (certainly, there has been support in the form of the Mormon literature courses, faculty who help run the AML, etc. [although that support has been decidedly lukewarm as I understand it and much of the development of the radical middle in Mormon literature has been due to a bunch of heroic individual efforts rather than committed institutional support]).

    Eugene raises some very interesting points. Part of what makes the radical middle radical, certainly, is that it has stayed small, and I think that has to do with, as Eugene notes, questions of appropriateness combined with the fact that belief and activity are such a core part of Mormon/LDS identity so it’s easy to either see art as threatening to that or conversely to prioritize other discourses/worldviews/practices (including art) over it (and in some cases even seek to repudiate it).

    I’m kinda all over the place here, but I think grappling with how the LDS Church as an institution (with the caveat that there is definitely variation in individual wards and individual leaders) impacts art is an interesting project, but I don’t have strong ideas on how to account for that. Which is why I’m first just trying to establish some areas that, in my opinion, are characteristic of the radical middle.

    And for those who don’t know me and my work well, let me be clear: I try to take an overall ecumenical approach to Mormon art, but for me the sweet spot is art that is (as England terms it) aesthetic and ethical, that deals specifically with Mormonism (thematically and/or with setting and characters) and is created by an artist who is an active believer and participant in the creation of LDS community. I don’t like litmus tests and think the work itself should mostly be evaluated on its own. But I call the sweet spot what it is because in my experience that’s where I’m most likely to find narrative art that speaks to me in a powerful way.

  9. Patricia

    That we have things like the AML, Irreantum and Zarahemla Books (and even Dialogue) is somewhat remarkable considering BYU’s relative lack of support for Mormon literature publishing (certainly, there has been support in the form of the Mormon literature courses, faculty who help run the AML, etc. [although that support has been decidedly lukewarm as I understand it and much of the development of the radical middle in Mormon literature has been due to a bunch of heroic individual efforts rather than committed institutional support]).

    Wow, Wm. That’s an interesting thing to say. There’s more than a shadow of a suggestion that BYU might consider fostering writers of literature risky business and that “heroic individuals” have had to navigate on their lonesome the seas of that risk.

    I guess that thinking about it, I can see the tension fairly clearly. A poet, essayist, novelist, etc. does seem to bear the burden of proof in the Mormon institutional literary environment. Is s/he going to remain faithful and use her/his talents as covenanted or turn her/his powers of language on the institution? Etc.

    At the same time, BYU is hungry for writers of power to rise from its nest. I grew up in that very hungry environment and felt it all around.

    Your remarks also remind me of something both Arthur King and Leslie Norris said to me on separate occasions. They were speaking of the publishing environment at large, but it could apply to the LDS publishing landscape, too. “The best writers aren’t being published,” they said.

    Another possibly interesting detail: To my knowledge (admittedly, I don’t keep up), BYU Magazine has not published a review of my novel, even though Richard Cracroft told me he thought the book review-worthy. Its publication through Signature Books is apparently the hold-up. More evidence of tension.

  10. Moriah Jovan

    At the same time, BYU is hungry for writers of power to rise from its nest. I grew up in that very hungry environment and felt it all around.

    You can’t be powerful and not risk academic/social/religious consequences. No risk, no reward (one way or another).

    Fear of consequence will stifle risktaking and thus, the offerings will remain milquetoast.

  11. Patricia

    Fear of consequence will stifle risktaking and thus, the offerings will remain milquetoast.

    That’s one side of the coin. But also failure to respect others’ discomforts and fears might well muddy or taint waters rather than clear them. This problem of whether one’s writing creates prospects and opens (and keeps open) narrative pathways or whether it contracts the field of possibilities is exactly why the radical middle is worthy of exploration.

    No risk, no reward (one way or another).

    The best rewards I’ve ever received from risky journeys–artistic or otherwise–have involved the loss of my own baggage.

    For the record, my education at BYU was top-notch, a time of high adventure and discovery, a truly wild ride. As a writer, I was pretty well taken care of there. I’d choose to go that course again in a breath.

  12. Moriah Jovan

    But also failure to respect others’ discomforts and fears might well muddy or taint waters rather than clear them.

    But I don’t write to respect others’ discomforts or fears.

  13. Patricia

    Moriah, neither do I. My point is not that anybody should write to respect others’ discomforts or fears. It’s only that in the course of writing whatever a person writes for whatever reason he/she writes it, being conscious and respectful of what makes people uncomfortable or fearful might bring something needful to table that not only satisfies fearful hunger (as opposed to exascerbates it) but also opens up a conversation.

    I think it’s quite possible to respect readers’ fears, share with them some of the risks of reading challenging material via the way you write it (i.e., open up prospects), take your own risks, and write powerful work. It’s not the only way to write powerfully, but it’s a good one that can work in the radical middle.

  14. Moriah Jovan

    Well, I have to admit that the more it’s discussed, the more I’m entirely perplexed as to where/what this radical middle is or what it should be.

  15. Jonathan Langford

    A few (belated) points:

    - First: Patricia, I don’t know when you attended BYU, but I have been told by several people whose opinion I respect that BYU has gotten considerably more conservative over the past several decades. This has come from people I don’t consider terribly liberal. I think it’s been a time of retrenchment institutionally at BYU on a number of fronts.

    - Second: Going back to the point I was making earlier: I’m not sure how a particular stance toward Mormon beliefs correlates (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the notion of stance in relationship to the institutional Church. What makes a work faithful or not (as I was defining it) has little to do, for example, with whether it’s carried in DB, but rather to a particular rhetorical stance within the work itself.

    In short, I would define the radical middle primarily in thematic and rhetorical terms — things I can point to within a work itself, based on what the text talks about and how it talks about it. I don’t really see how that relates to describing a space in cultural terms. In fact, when I think about describing a space in cultural terms, it seems to me that such an approach would be closer to the notion of discussing relationship to the institutional Church, as opposed to the kind of thematic analysis I’m talking about.

    Let’s get specific here for a minute. One of the criticisms that has been made of The Giant Joshua, as I recall from old AML-List discussions, is that Clory’s supposed “testimony” is so strange and vague that it can’t really be called a testimony at all, but rather an attempt on the part of an unbelieving author to describe something she doesn’t really understand. Note, by the way, that I haven’t read the book, and so am agnostic on this point. However, whether or not I would agree with this judgment, it seems to me that this is the *kind* of criticism that could describe the stance of an author (or a work) toward elements of LDS faith.

    So William: How would this kind of critical approach relate to defining the radical middle (and the extremes between which it positions itself) in cultural terms, as you’re suggesting?

  16. Patricia

    Moriah,

    I think that’s what we’re trying to begin (or continue–however you want to look at it) to work out here. Personally, I think the radical middle can cut a pretty wide swath–wider than either pole in the bi-polar model Wm lays out in his post.

  17. Patricia

    I don’t know when you attended BYU, but I have been told by several people whose opinion I respect that BYU has gotten considerably more conservative over the past several decades. This has come from people I don’t consider terribly liberal. I think it’s been a time of retrenchment institutionally at BYU on a number of fronts.

    Where the radical middle is concerned, I don’t think it matters much whether or not BYU has become more conservative. BYU should do what it thinks it has to do. Folk of the radical middle should do what they think they have to do. Interesting things are bound to happen.

    After BYU, I attended a comparatively liberal school (UofA). Pressures to conform were as intense there as they were at BYU, perhaps more so, since professors didn’t hesitate to attack you personally in class or in comments on your papers or deny you access to resources if they deemed you unworthy. (My personal favorite: “Who are you to question Aristotle?”) Back then, the creative writing department had spun a narrative for themselves that placed them outside the need to know literary tradition or to bother much with questions of audience. The then head of the creative writing department told me that because I was a literature student, I couldn’t possibly be serious about writing. Hence: Where midrad folk are concerned, it probably doesn’t matter much whether they’re keeping company left or right. It’s an adventure either way. I did all right at that school, too, but it wasn’t easy and involved probably about as much standing up for myself for the amount of time I spent there as a comparable slice of time at BYU required.

  18. Jonathan Langford

    Patricia,

    I definitely hear what you’re saying about BYU not having a monopoly on pressure to conform, even if it’s in a different direction. My own post-BYU experience was at UC Riverside in a lit program. While it was a positive experience for me in many ways, I found at least as much of a tendency toward group-think there as at BYU — possibly more.

    Anywhere you are, a lot depends on the particular people you wind up working with and your relationship to them. Some of my friends found BYU’s creative writing program unpleasant because not many of the faculty at that time were interested in working with them on science fiction and fantasy (with Leslie Norris, to his credit, being one of the exceptions). It’s ironic that one of the areas where Mormon writers have made a significant difference is one where BYU has been reluctant at best to offer support and encouragement.

  19. Patricia

    Jonathan,

    It’s probably true that “a lot depends on the particular people you wind up with and your relationship to them.” (That “a lot” is comfortably broad in its applications.) But I think what I’m suggesting is that, as far as conformity is concerned, to someone operating in the radical middle (or trying to figure out how to), pressures to conform are so ubiquitous and to be expected and come from so many directions that they can’t really matter very much. Your remark about Mormon sci-fi writers succeeding in spite of lack of academic support and encouragement might provide a case on point.

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