Author Archives: William Morris

I find active LDS artists more interesting

2.17.15 | | 11 comments

I generally believe in big tent Mormon culture (how that relates to the LDS Church is complicated and outside the scope of this post, but you can find hints of it in many of my other writing over the years). To me being part of the radical middle includes being willing to engage with work by artists who are no longer Mormon, or never were Mormon but are writing about Mormons. I’m also interested in Mormon artists who don’t actively engage with their Mormonism in their work. I’m a homer like that.

But I’m most interested in active LDS artists who are focused on settings, characters and/or thematics that are overtly or strongly thematically Mormon.

Let me be clear: I do not think there should be a litmus test on membership. And I respect the decision of artists who wish to remain quiet about their status in relation to the LDS Church (and acknowledge that there could be many reasons for that quiet). But my interest level goes up when an artist signals (publicly or privately) that they are actively engaged with their local congregation, actively working under assumptions of belief, and are struggling with the demands of consecration.

Why is this?

In part, it’s selfishness on my part. I know what I struggle with and delight in, and I want to feel like there are others like me out there in the world. I’m curious about how artists navigate the strange pathways of being an active LDS artist who engages with Mormon elements. I’m not a big believer in Mormon exceptionalism or, for that matter, artists’ exceptionalism. At the same time, I feel like it’s a unique experience that shares similarities with all the ongoing issues related to artists, faith communities, etc., but has some particularities that aren’t found in quite the same alloy elsewhere. That interests me.

But there’s another part: I feel like I know the narratives, preoccupations, arcs of the artists who leave their community to embrace the dominant modes of modern artistic discourse, who “go cosmopolitan”. I also know the paths of the parochial Saint who either stays in the mode that is pleasing to the Mormon market or goes national/international by downplaying their Mormonism. Again: I have and will continue to engage with all of those types of artists. But I’m also losing patience with them. They engage but don’t satisfy. And while they don’t always quite get it right (for me — responses to art are subjective), there’s nothing more satisfying than an artist who has craft, belief, humility and brings that all to bear on work that’s directly engaged with Mormonism. There’s new ground to be explored here. New things to discover.

And finally there’s this — and the more I’m engaged in this, the more it becomes the big reason: I’m interested in building Zion. I’m interested in building Zion in cooperation with the LDS Church and all those who are willing to live in covenant. I recognize the potential (and historical and present) pitfalls and tensions and failings. I recognize where I fall short in so many ways as well as where giving up on that would make some things a lot easier and my art maybe even “better” (or more acceptable). I also recognize where my/our potential audience falls short.

And yet given all that: I don’t care. I’m past feeling self-conscious about all that. I’m looking for Zion moments, Zion movements, Zion people, Zion artists. Where are the artists who are trying to hone their devotion and their craft and their service and their vision and their Mormonism into something that they can place on the altar, into something that will build Zion? I think they’re fascinating. And I want to be among them.

Notes from a 2015 Whitney Awards finalists judge

2.11.15 | | 12 comments

The book covers for the 2015 finalists in the historical fiction category of the Whitney AwardsThe finalists for the 2015 Whitney Awards were announced on Monday. I had a particular interest in the announcement this year because I was a finalists judge. My last participation with the Whitney Awards was back in 2009 when I was a member of the voting academy. For that, you try and read the finalists for each category and you can vote for each category that you complete (there were a lot less categories back then). Being a finalists judge is different. You read every book that was nominated (and remember that it only takes 5 nominations to be part of the nomination pool). It was an interesting process. I’m not sure that I want to repeat it. Then again, I’m not sure if I’ll be asked back. And then again, a few days ago, I would have said never again, and I’ve already warmed back up to “not sure”.

I was asked to be a judge in the historical fiction category. The organizers ask what categories you’d be willing to judge. I told them any of them (yes, even romance). And I meant it. I’m fairly widely read in all of the genres, especially a lot of the foundational texts of the various genre categories. Because I’m not sure if I’m going to do it again, and because even if I do, there’s no telling what category I might get (and because I’m not going to spill all the beans), I feel comfortable sharing a few things about the process.

On the Historical Fiction Finalists

I read every page of all of the nominees, finished the final title 48 (or so) hours before the deadline to submit the ballot and completed my voting more than 24 hours before deadline. Of the five finalists, three overlap with my top five. I’d say that’s pretty good. After the winners are announced, I will post my top 5 and which one I’d pick as the winner. more

A quick thought on Boyd Petersen being named editor of Dialogue

1.29.15 | | 6 comments

While every fiction writer needs to have a strong internal drive to produce fiction, very few writers will finish and revise stories in a vacuum with no hope of reaching an audience. Literary markets create incentives to invest in the time and effort it takes to produce fiction.

Which is why I’m delighted that Boyd Jay Petersen has been named editor of Dialogue. There is no guarantee, of course, that he and his team will accept my work for publication. And I don’t know that I would have stopped if a different person had been named editor, but having a former president of the Association for Mormon Letters leading Dialogue, and, it specifically being Boyd, definitely amps up my interest in submitting and subscribing* to the journal.

I say amp up. I should say instead: maintain. Or: not diminish. Because Kristine L. Haglund’s editorship** is a key reason that I have continued to write Mormon fiction instead of focusing solely on mainstream SF&F/lit fic. Frankly, I still can’t believe that she published a 10,000 word, Mormon, near future, post-apocalyptic, second person POV story that I wrote. And I doubt that I would have written the straight up Mormon literary fiction story I wrote last fall without there being the slight possibility that Dialogue might be interested in it.

There’s no money in Mormon-themed short fiction. There is not much of an audience. But there is Dialogue‘s audience. Sure, much of the audience is more interested in the non-fiction. And yes, there’s also Sunstone. But when I’ve written Mormon fiction*** over the past few years, it’s been with Kristine and the Dialogue audience in mind. In fact, I don’t think that I would have even submitted to Dialogue if Kristine being appointed editor hadn’t caused me to take a closer look at the journal as a potential venue for my own work rather than just that place that publishes stuff by people I admire. Her editorship influenced my literary production.

So while I probably shouldn’t be creating competition for myself, I do hope that Boyd’s looming tenure will give a bit of a shot in the arm to all of you who write or desire to write Mormon short fiction and poetry. I’ve already decided that I need to write something this year so I have it ready to submit in 2016. I hadn’t planned on doing so. I’m delighted that I have now changed my mind.

*coincidentally, I actually subscribed for the first time a few days ago. I also gave them a $15 donation a couple of years ago because I discovered a PayPal account that had money it I had forgotten about and decided that that was the right place to redirect that discovery. I encourage you to not take after my bad example and become a more regular, active supporter than I have been.

**And that of fiction editor Heather Marx, which Kristine was gracious enough to remind of in the comments below.

***Or at least anything over 1,500 words. The Mormon Lit Blitz is awesome, but some stories require more words.

LDS.net poetry contest

1.6.15 | | 10 comments

LDS.net is hosting a poetry contest. Submissions “must be themed in Mormon culture, history, or beliefs fitting the tone and purpose of LDS.net”. There are cash prizes for first and second place and the top 15 poems will be published on LDS.net.

I asked for some clarification on the contest and here’s the deal:

  1.  There is no length requirement for the poems (although I would guess that your 20,000 line epic might not do well in the judging).
  2. Previously published poems are not eligible.
  3. LDS.net are asking for 6 months exclusive rights to the poems that they publish as well as the right to continue to publish the poem on their site. In my experience, that’s a very fair approach for a contest like this.

Since this is the first time LDS.net is doing this, I’m not entirely sure what they are looking for, but other than the Mormon Lit Blitz, there aren’t many venues that publish poetry that is on the devotional end of the spectrum and/or LDS-centric.

The deadline to submit is Jan. 31, 2015. For all the details, see the LDS.net poetry contest announcement.

Mormon literary criticism’s chicken and egg problem

12.18.14 | | 8 comments

After Scott Hales post here at AMV responding to Michael Austin’s survey of the current state of Mormon literary criticism at the Mormon Studies Review, the two scholars engaged in a back and forth Q&A at the Maxwell Institute’s blog, which mainly functioned as a way for Austin to respond to Hales’ critique of the focus of Austin’s survey. What his responses show is that his primary concern, and why he is focused on peer-reviewed publications, is that for him traditional scholarship is the best measure of Mormonism’s influence on the broader field as well as a signpost of Mormon cultural impact on/penetration in the broader culture and that too much of the current Mormon cultural production (literature and literary criticism) is inwardly focused.

Hales pushes back a little on that emphasis, specifically pointing out the lack of institutional support (especially from BYU) for Mormon literary criticism.

Austin responds with: “This is sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. I have long felt (and I said this in my 1995 article too) that institutional support will follow more peer-reviewed publications”.

I think he is absolutely correct in the case of Mormon literary criticism.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The gains made in the study of non-canonical literatures — Hispanic, Jewish, Greek, LGBT, women’s writing, etc. — at academic institutions came out of direct activism and focus on the community and specific academic resources investment (often hard fought to get) in those fields. Works became canonical and publishing opportunities opened up specifically as a result of that inward focus.

To give an example, and one that he’s probably uncomfortable with, but the pivot that Gideon Burton made towards Mormon literature studies that was unsupported (actively discouraged) by BYU and led to him having to pivot back away from is similar to pivots that were sometimes (but, admittedly, not always) supported in the 1970s/80s, as English professors whose Ph.D. may have been in Renaissance literature or early Modernism began to develop an interest in minority literatures. I don’t have a full accounting of that at my finger tips. And I know that it led to tensions and wars among faculty and between faculty and administration, etc. But it also led to a certain measure of institutional support and then when that proved successful to specific hiring for positions as well as fundraising to support the lecture series, publications, endowed chairs, joint appointments, conference travel, curriculum development, etc. that generate the kind of activity that leads to peer-reviewed essays and book deals with top university presses, etc.

Right now much of the work being done in Mormon literature studies is amateur. It’s very difficult to generate non-amateur scholarly work without some form of support.

I understand that BYU et. al. are loathe to support what is viewed as a fledgling field without much currency in the academic market. But I think if they took a hard look at how cultural studies fields have been legitimized over the past four decades, they’d find that just sitting around waiting for the national figures to appear before they through some weight behind them (and BYU sure is happy to do so when that happens) is a sure way to always be the bridesmaid and never the bride.

Now, I recognize that times have changed in academic and that some of the gains that minority literatures/cultural studies made have since been clawed back, but in that messy process, some gains were permanently made and the larger conversation was changed and most importantly a larger body of work was created as a result.

Update on the Alternate Mormon History anthology

11.20.14 | | one comment

Back in June, I did an interest gauge in an anthology of Mormon alternate history stories. I am happy with the response and have decided do it. Here’s where I’m at with the project:

  1.  I will not be putting out a call for submissions this year. I will likely do so next year and am fairly confident that that will happen, although the timing is still up in the air. It probably won’t happen the first 4 months of 2015 and might not happen until fall.
  2. Unless something changes, the anthology will be published by Peculiar Pages. (I don’t expect something to change).
  3. The anthology will offer token payments to contributors and will be confined to original short fiction (sorry poets and cartoonists and novelists and dramatists and short story writers with reprint hopes).
  4. I will be the acquiring editor for the anthology. Theric will be involved in the production process, and I may run some editorial decisions by him if I need a second opinion.
  5. Part of the reason for the delay is that I want to make sure that I have a dedicated fund from which to pay the contributors. I know it’s only token payments, but it’s important to me (and, in my opinion, to the field) that there be some form of renumeration even if it’s small.
  6. We did consider crowdfunding and that could happen if we decide to do a print version (which would likely also be an expanded version), but the idea here is to do something that has a 100% chance of success and is manageable.
  7. You may not want to start writing until you see the call for submissions. That said: I’m quite confident that I won’t be accepting stories over 9,000 words; that my preference will be for stories 4,000 – 6,000 words in length; and that I’ll be looking for killer concepts and plots, for sure, but also great prose. The short short pieces I mention in the interest gauge are also still on the table but are more nebulous in my head at the moment.

Any questions/thoughts? I may not have answers for you yet, but I’ll answer what I can.

Marilynne Robinson on writing about faith

10.13.14 | | 7 comments

This Religion News Service interview with the writer Marilynne Robinson is very much worth reading, saving, thinking and talking about. The following, for obvious reasons, are two excerpts that directly spoke to me, but I expect that the whole thing is going to churn around in my head for quite some time.

From her reply to a question about the language of faith as a source for writing:

We have anxiety about differences. We are different, anyway, so we might as well calm down about it. But one of the things that we have to do is understand that within the system that is anyone’s difference is incredibly enabling.

 

Her reply to a question about why there are so few good authors who write about faith:

Religion has been associated with narrow denominationalism, where people think if you explore religion in the language that your own tradition makes available to you, that you are making some assertion about the superiority of your tradition over the one next door. But there’s no reason to think that. We simply have different vocabularies that come out of different traditions. Anyone can explore the brilliance of their received vocabulary.

Amen.

Mormon narrative art: writers and critics

10.10.14 | | 11 comments

Some of the comments (across twitter, the blogs and Facebook–ah, the joys of online discussion in a social media world) about the Association for Mormon Letters deal with a core tension that has existed in the AML, and, of course, in the project of literature itself: the writer and the critic.

This is not a tension that the AML is going to solve. But I do think it has a decent chance of pulling in some of each crowd for the following reasons:

  1. Many of the most active personalities in the field are both writers and critics.
  2. There are not many other viable forums for writing — creative or critical — that focus on Mormon thought and the Mormon experience.
  3. Mormonism does not have a theology per se, but Mormons themselves are used to talking about various aspects of doctrine and interpreting them in different ways and telling stories that relate to them and our understanding of them. The project of literature, both writing fiction and writing criticism, is not all that different. And I would hope that both writers and critics experience that commonality as the go about their work and that they are both interested when their thoughts about Mormonism intersect with the work they write and read.
  4. Related to that, I don’t see how you can be engaged with the project of narrative art without being both a creative writer and a critic. No writing is truly autonomic. It all comes from engagement with particular concerns and forms and images and stories and those are shaped by other things that the author has read as much if not more than their direct lived experience.
  5. Writers and critics have overlapping needs/interests but not the exact same ones. They also have needs/interests that can be better met by other organizations. And, I hope, ones that can be best met by the AML. One of the things that we need to do moving forward is look at how the activities of the AML fit with that spectrum of needs. It seems to me that those projects where there is overlap between the two (messy) categories should be a priority. But that there should also be activities that speak more strongly to one or the other to help strengthen overall engagement with the AML.
  6. One concrete idea: while it’s nice to have a journal that includes both criticism and fiction, one or the other category (not to mention the various forms of fiction [film, drama, etc.]) tends to be lose out depending on the primary interest of the editor. It might make sense to split out the two projects so that there’s one publication for criticism and one for narrative art. Or perhaps one publication but rotating editors/themes.
  7. Note that by criticism, I include all reader reactions to narrative art, including formal and informal reviews as well as scholarship and reporting that deal with all the extra-textual stuff related to the production, distribution and reception of narrative art.

What am I missing? Or even more bluntly: am I completely wrong? Is there no way to attract both narrative artists and critics? What do you all find most interesting in the intersection between the two? What bores you?