I’ve been listening to course lectures from a Theory of Literature course by Paul Fry of Yale University available through Apple’s iTunesU. If nothing else I hope that by carefully working through these lectures I can work through my inadequacy in discussing some aspects of literature. But I also hope that the course will help me organize what I’ve found in my “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon” series.
The course is fascinating and entertaining (at least to me)—I wish I had somehow managed to cover this material years ago. It has led me to ponder a bit about where Mormons are in terms of literary theory. We’ve explored the ideas of Mormon criticism and Mormon theory of literature here on AMV a little, but I’m not sure that, outside of the idea of Wm’s “radical middle,” we’ve come up with anything particularly unusual—although we’ve certainly argued, as Mormons tend to do, about the details of things like the role of evil in literature and the presence or absence of sex, profanity and violence in literature. We certainly haven’t outlined any theory of literature or even discussed what structure such a theory would need. I’m not even sure yet if anyone has talked much about literary theory from a Mormon viewpoint1.
In his introduction, Fry suggests that literary theory (like theory in many fields) boils down to answers or responses to a basic set of questions: What causes literature to be created? What is an author and what does an author do? What is literature? What is a reader and how does a reader read? These questions aren’t particularly surprising, of course. And it does seem likely to me that literary theory would be built on these questions.
Given that basic structure, I think that Mormon authors should (and perhaps have — let me know if you know where they have) ask what Mormonism brings to this structure. If there is a Mormon theory of literature, or a Mormon viewpoint about literary theory, what might be different?
[Before listening to Fry’s lectures, I don’t think I would have arrived at this question or attempted to answer it. However, I will be surprised if it hasn’t already occurred to other Mormons who have thought about literature. In retrospect it seems like an obvious question. If we don’t have something to add to the exploration of literature, then aren’t the already well-explored approaches to literature by non-Mormons sufficient?]
Part of this question lies in the distinction between what Mormons think and what religions in general think. The approach to literary theory as Fry describes it (as far as I’ve gotten in his lectures) is basically a-religious. Is it possible that religion has not seriously entered into the discussion of literary theory? Or have the religious who think about literary theory (there must be someone, shouldn’t there?) simply not found any place where religion makes a difference?
Of course, the obvious difference for the religious is the effect that God or the belief in a God might have on literature — and it isn’t hard to assume that religious thinkers would see the influence of God both on the author and on the reader in various ways. Religious thinkers have, of course, made claims about how reading might effect the reader — these concerns are, of course, the source for current concerns over “R-rated” materials.
Can Mormonism add anything different to the discussion about literary theory? I don’t know, but I suspect that we may be able to, simply because there are elements of Mormon theology that seem unique or unusual and which could bear on what authors and readers do and are effected by literature. Here is my short list of possibilities:
- Mormon ideas about the nature and role of God (God as a physical being, God as our Father) may yield different ways in which He might influence either how literature is created or how literature is consumed and the effect that these have on the author and reader.
- The Mormon belief in continuing revelation and regular inspiration from God in many facets of our lives suggests that His influence might be different or at least potentially stronger than what non-Mormon religious thinkers might see.
- Mormon teachings about the nature and role of Man (Child of God, Spirit + Body, God in embryo) might suggest a different understanding of what an author is and what a reader is and how their roles are fulfilled.
I know this is all very vague and uncertain. Perhaps this is more about my own need to think through these ideas and find some kind of structure that makes sense for a theory of literature. Or maybe these ideas are so obvious that no one else has bothered to spell them out where I can find them (or I haven’t looked far enough and this already exists somewhere). Regardless, I hope that our readers here will tell me where I’m off, or what I have left out of this analysis.
But, more important than my own learning is the question of whether or not there is anything different about how Mormonism might approach literary theory. When it comes right down to it, will Mormon thought, beliefs and views lead to any different way of thinking about literature?
- I haven’t done a literature search yet. Has any Mormon author explored anything along these lines anywhere? (other than as a short side piece or introduction in another work?). I’d love to know what BYU Studies or Dialogue or AML articles to read. ↩