Mormon Literature: A Sunny Outlook

11.11.13 | | 22 comments

By now everyone has read Mark Oppenheimer’s article on Mormon literature in the New York Times. Typical in its approach, it highlights Mormon successes in genre fiction and offers a few explanations for why these successes happen and why they aren’t more forthcoming in a Mormon-flavored “Realist literature for adults.” The reasons he puts forth seem to be as follows: Mormons are uncomfortable with realism, Mormons are afraid of “church disapproval,” and Mormons are culturally geared towards a “sunny outlook” that privileges uplifting narratives over realistic literature that presents sex, violence, and swearing without judgment and moralizing.

In his eloquent and insightful response to this article, George Handley rightly calls Oppenheimer out on these reasons, particularly the notion that literary greatness is some alchemic mixture of “great suffering,” book sales, and national recognition. Mormon writers, Handley suggest, have made great strides irrespective of these factors, and will likely keep doing so “before the rest of the world notices.” For him, rather, Mormons have “underachieved” in the realm of realistic Mormon literature—or “Great Mormon Literature”—as a result of a number of cultural flaws: their reliance on “triumphalist rhetoric,” a “thirst after quick and easy forms of [cultural] vindication,” and rather narrow ideas “about what constitutes a Mormon identity.” In making this argument, he seems to echo Samuel W. Taylor’s 46-year-old claim that Mormon literature is the captive of “positive-thinkers,” or public-relations-minded Mormons who police their people’s output for the sake of pleasing and appeasing public opinion. He also suggests—taking a cue, perhaps, from Nephi Anderson’s account of the artist in Zion—that Mormons need to do a better job of being a community that cares for (and about) its artists—including artists whose works are neither nationally recognized nor compatible with the ideology and aesthetics of “positive-thinking” Mormons.  

Overall, I agree with Handley’s assessment of the present state of Mormon literature (if not his conclusions) as much as I regret that Oppenheimer’s article was not more broadly informed about Mormon literature. (Setting aside the Terry Tempest Williams faux-pas, the problem of Oppenheimer’s article boils down to the issue of sources.)  Still, I challenge the assumption—apparent in both pieces—that Mormon literature is somehow underachieving. True, Mormons have not, as Oppenheimer suggests, produced a Milton, Milosz, or Munro—but they have produced an Anderson, Sorenson, Scowcroft, Peterson, Udall, and Peck. Is this not an achievement—indeed, an over-achievement compared to communities with similar backgrounds? Moreover, I wonder if the cultural flaws Handley identifies as Mormon literature’s chief stumbling blocks are not in reality the source of its strength—the resistance against which it pushes and hones its muscles. After all, were it not for the triumphalist rhetoric, the thirst for vindication, the narrow view of Mormon identity, and the “positive-thinkers” of Mormonism, Mormon writers could not not have written iconic and iconoclastic books like Dorian, The Evening and the Morning, The Backslider, and The Scholar of Moab. Nor could Mormon writers have filled the pages of Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, Fire in the Pasture, Monsters and Mormons, and Saints on Stage. The truth is, Mormon writers need these cultural flaws—these walls of resistance—to make the utopian critique that is so crucial to what’s Mormon about Mormon literature.

Personally, I am not worried about the past, present, or future of Mormon literature. Having spent the better part of the past three years with Mormon literature, I know its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Give it time. Let it temper in the refining fire of cultural flaws. It has done well for itself over the last one hundred and eighty-three years. And it will continue to do so as long as Mormon writers keep at it and don’t let the hand-wringers discourage them. Setbacks, like the recent demise of Irreantum, will slow the momentum at times, but they will not kill it. Like the Church itself, Mormon literature has survived assimilation, correlation, and a host of other paradigm shifts. If Mormonism and its cultural flaws can produce the likes of The Backslider and The Scholar of Moab in a period of twenty-five years, why should we not expect them to do the same, with even better results, in the seventeen years remaining till the bicentennial? And why should we not expect them to continue informing great Mormon literature for another two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years?

What I’ve read of Mormon literature, what I know about Mormonism and Mormon writers, gives me nothing but a “sunny outlook” on its future.

22 comments: “Mormon Literature: A Sunny Outlook

  1. Wm Morris

    I think I’ll take your word over anybody else’s, Scott (since you actually know the field).

    How dead is Irreantum? (also: has the last issue been sent out — I haven’t received it yet [I think I'm owed it--I have a note that I re-upped last Feb.]).

  2. Scott Hales Post author

    Thanks, Wm.

    I believe Irreantum is dead until someone wants to step in and revive it. I’m not privy to its financial situation, so I don’t know how much money–or a lack thereof–also contributed to its demise. I know it has been seriously understaffed over the last few years, and subscriptions were way down. I think a comeback is possible, but the community needs to rally around it. Basically, AML needs to come out with a plan–or at least a statement on what it plans to do with Irreantum. But the sense I get (and the Gordons may correct me) is that AML is in the middle of a transfer of power and somewhat stalled out. It needs something to boost morale and set a vision for the new century.

    I’d personally like to see Irreantum go digital. It will need an editor with time and vision. In my opinion, James and Nicole Goldberg would be ideal editors–and they have connections to build a dream team of editors, artists, and designers. I’d be happy to stay on and do book reviews and even critical essays.

    Contact Jack Harrell about the last issue. That’s what I did and had it within the week.

  3. Margaret Blair Young

    Yes, the last issue of Irreantum is the last issue. We are not letting the Association for Mormon Letters die, though. We will have a dynamite conference in 2014 and have plans for keeping it alive in the future. Hang in there with us!

  4. Wm Morris

    Thanks, Scott. It’d be nice if there was a little more communication. How are we supposed to help if we don’t know how or what or who?

  5. Wm Morris

    Margaret:

    That’s unfortunate, but understandable. Any chance the conference will be recorded and/or a proceedings published?

  6. Tyler

    The truth is, Mormon writers need these cultural flaws—these walls of resistance—to make the utopian critique that is so crucial to what’s Mormon about Mormon literature.

    Could you elaborate on this a little, Scott? What do you mean by Mormon writers’ utopian critique, specifically? Do you mean by this that they’re critiquing Mormonism’s utopian ideals or our utopian failures? That they’re using Mormonism’s utopian ideals and/or hopes and/or failures to critique the broader American culture? Or something else?

  7. Scott Hales Post author

    Tyler,

    When I talk about the utopian critique, I’m referring to the way Mormon literature tends to promote betterment or something-more-ideal than what currently exists–either in Mormonism or the broader world.

    Mormon writers may disagree with me on this point, but I don’t see much work–at least in Mormon fiction–that is content with simply being art. There seems to be a strong impulse–which I designate “utopian,” but other people have called it “didactic”–that wants to promote a better way of doing things, of being a community, or being a people. I’m in the process, elsewhere, of arguing that this has been been the case with Mormon fiction throughout the twentieth century. (Mormon novels in the twenty-first century pose some challenges to this view, but I think it’s safe to say that they are performing a kind of utopian work themselves.)

    What I’ve seen of Mormon drama, it makes the same utopian critique. Also, Mormon poetry in the nineteenth century certainly made it, although I can’t speak much to Mormon poetry since. That’s your realm of expertise.

  8. Th.

    .

    I think you nailed it here, Scott. Discussion of the arts always gets trapped in this paradox of it-can’t-be-popular yet it-must-be-popular. As long as those two criteria coexist, no new literature will ever be added to the canon.

    In other news, I don’t think Irreantum should be allowed to die. But this is not a place for the airing of grievances. Or for offers to help or suggestions or worries. (The only thing I will let slip is that the constant claiming of Irreantum’s demise was necessarily a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would not have begun a subscription among such moaning. As it is, paying up as a symbol of faith has just left me feeling robbed.)

  9. Andrew Hall

    The Evenson quote has been bugging me, I remember he was forced out of BYU, but I thought he left the Church on his own. So I poked around, and found that he had asked to have his name removed from the Church, he was not excommunicated. But he goes around in interviews and other pieces describing himself as an “excommunicated Mormon” or “self-excommunicated”. It seems to me that resigning your membership is a different thing than being excommunicated.

    Deseret News, Aug. 12 2006 (boy the DN would never publish something like this today). “Evenson asked to be excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he says, “not because of a profound disagreement with the doctrines of the church or because of moral differences” but because he felt he couldn’t be both a writer and a Mormon. If he remained a member, he says, he found himself “too consciously weighing the church’s opinion” of what he was writing. Being a member also limited “the way in which I processed emotion in my work,” he says.
    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/645192575/Ex-LDS-author-says-art-church-clash.html?pg=all

  10. Scott Hales Post author

    Oppenheimer’s treatment of Evenson bothered me too–mostly because it gives an exaggerated sense of the Church’s attention to or interest in policing Mormon literature. Kind of like a Twilight scholar I met once who suggested, amid a roomful of nodding heads, that Stephenie Meyer’s tithing money was the only reason she had not been excommunicated yet. If this were the case, much edgier and less financially successful Mormon authors, like Levi Peterson or Brady Udall, who probably don’t pay tithing anyway, would have been excommunicated a long time ago.

  11. Tyler

    There seems to be a strong impulse–which I designate “utopian,” but other people have called it “didactic”–that wants to promote a better way of doing things, of being a community, or being a people.

    So is your use of “utopian” to describe this impulse an attempt to move away from the negative connotations of the term “didactic”?

  12. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    Nothing to add but my agreement with you, Scott. This is a great summation of my estimation of that article. I do think, also, that the death of Irreantum is unwise, but I’m hopeful it will be either resurrected or replaced with something just as valuable.

  13. Scott Hales Post author

    Tyler–

    Yes, to a certain extent. That these works are interesting in instructing readers in better ways seems like a didactic impulse, but I think there’s more to it than simple instruction. I think the way they try or hope for better communities and better worlds is more utopian than didactic–although there is some overlap and dovetailing. Often, I think what earlier Mormon critics denounced as “didactic” was more complex than that term usually allows for in our culture.

    Lisa–

    Thanks! Like I say in the post–I think the end of Irreantum is only a minor setback. Something will step in to take its place. Probably something less dependent on money and paper.

  14. Sarah Reed

    I’m a MoLit newb, but it appears that there are two different problems, one of Mormon writers and the other of Mormon readers. It seems to me that there are plenty of Mormon writers producing good “realist literature for adults”, but we’ve constructed a Mormon readership that we believe only wants church-approved, G-rated happy ends.

  15. Th.

    .

    Yeah. Although I think the other readers are out there. Just the problem of matching them up remains unsolved.

  16. Mark Penny

    The question of great Mormon literature is definitely on my mind as I contemplate some of the pieces lying around in my workshop.

  17. Mark Penny

    When I read Robert Mckee’s description of positive and negative irony, I thought: that’s what’s needed in Mormon literature. How many of us are undoubting believers or unbelieving doubters? We oscillate. That’s the reality.

  18. Scott Hales

    Sarah,

    I think you’re right that that kind of mentality exists in Mormon culture: that we’re supposed to imbibe, in an ideal world, only G-rated content–or, at least, “appropriate” or “unoffending” PG or PG-13 content–and that we’re supposed to be apologetic when we don’t. We also feel we have to warn people when something might push the boundaries of appropriateness.

    I also think there exists a similar mentality that Mormon = safe–that it is synonymous with “clean”–and it can’t be any other way. So, the logic goes that its OK to see a movie or read a book that pushes the boundaries as long as the those pushing the boundaries are not Mormons. When Mormons are involved, a new “higher” standard emerges.

    A huge step, I think, in opening up an audience for Mormon literature would be for more Mormons to be okay with depictions of flawed Mormon characters. Personally, I think Mormon cinema has a lot of potential to do this cultural work for Mormon literature.

    Of course, as I seem to be suggesting in this post, it could be that Mormon Lit currently thrives on resisting this mentality and doing away with it could relieve cultural tensions that have had a positive effect on realistic Mormon literature for adults. That said, relieving those cultural tensions could move Mormon lit in a new exciting direction where new cultural tension replace the old ones.

    This is essentially what is happening with “Faithful Realism” as its campaign against the ultra-conservatism of post-1960s Mormonism no longer resonates in a twenty-first century where intellectuals are no longer routinely excommunicated, notions of Mormon identity are becoming pluralized, Mormon liberalism is getting out in the open (kind of), and blogs are providing soapbox space for institutional and cultural critique without ecclesiastical censure. So, what we’re seeing now are fewer Faithful Realist works (which seem a little quaint now) and more works like The Scholar of Moab, Byuck, and a lot of the short fiction of Wm and Steve Peck that seems to be dealing with a whole new set of cultural tensions. (For instance, Peck’s work seems to be wrestling with making sense of this overload of information we now have about Mormons and Mormonism. Wm’s work, on the other hand, seems to be keyed into the uncertainty about the future that this cultural shift has created. What happens, it seems to ask, now that 20th Century Mormonism’s illusion of stability is dissipating or evolving in the face of cyberculture and more institutional transparency?)

    Anyway, that’s me thinking out loud.

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