Author Archives: William Morris

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?

Mormon narrative art: interesting — not serious

10.2.14 | | 43 comments

I’ve been following with equal parts hope and concern, the conversations on Dawning of a Brighter Day (see here and here) that are attempting to revive the Association for Mormon Letters. I have written a guest blog that should be appearing in that space soon that lays out my thoughts on the foundational stuff for the AML — mission and board structure/purpose.

I have many other thoughts as well, but the primary one that I want to address is the tension between literary fiction writers/readers/critics and genre writers/readers/critics. There are other important tensions that impact the AML, but this is a foundational one. And one that has the potential to foul things up considerably. It has already cropped in the comments to Theric’s post and was a contributor (although not the driving factor) to the creation of LDStorymakers and also to the Whitney Awards.

I use the terms literary and genre in the previous paragraph. I don’t like those terms. And neither do some of the people who get labeled with them. They have their uses, but they can be quite limiting. And some of the best works of Mormon narrative art completely break down when trying to categorize using that division.

One way to get around the use of “literary” is to deploy the related term “serious literature”. Serious just isn’t a very useful descriptor. And it’s insulting. As in: if someone using that term doesn’t include certain works in it then that by extension means that those works aren’t “serious.”

All creative work is serious (even, often especially, if it is humorous).

So what I propose is that as we think about what narrative art should get attention from the new AML, we use the word interesting. Not actually use it as a term, a label. But rather that that’s a* key metric for what works get attention.

The nice thing about interesting is that it doesn’t exclude genres and audiences. There are many ways that a work can be interesting in a way that fits with the AML. For example: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is not very interesting in terms of sentence level prose or overt Mormon content or use of poetic imagery or plot structure or narrative voice (all qualities that many people would file under the umbrella “literary” or “serious”). And yet it has received attention from LDS literary critics because it is interesting in terms of thematics, plot, reception among readers, including LDS readers, and reception among national reviewers/critics.

Stories can be interesting in many different ways and interesting in different ways to different audiences. But, at least in my experience, not every story is interesting enough to write about, talk about, receive consideration for awards, etc. So using interesting as a metric doesn’t mean that every single work get the same amount of attention. It simply means that the works that the AML engage with need to have aspects that stand out, that are worthy of taking notice and considering further. And that’s regardless of how “literary” or “serious” they may or may not be.

*There’s another key metric. But that is covered in my guest post for the AML.

Vote in the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz

7.4.14 | | no comments

Voting in the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz contest ends at midnight Saturday, July 5. Please take a few minutes to vote. Here are the links you need:

Voting instructions for the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz

My voting method for the Mormon Lit Blitz (it makes the process easier and faster). Please note that this year you’re asked to provide 4 finalists rather than 5. And there are 12 finalists rather 13. And you email everydaymormonwriter At gmail Dot com. But the core methodology for selection still works.

And congratulations to the AMVers who are finalists this year:

“The Primary Temple Trip” by Laura Hilton Craner

and

“Living Scriptures” by Scott Hales

Outtakes from my Artistic Preaching interview

6.20.14 | | 4 comments

AMV turned 10 this month so Scott Hales interviewed me for his blog Artistic Preaching. I appreciate the publicity, but am sad about the questions and answers that hit the cutting room floor. So I have decided to publish the outtakes from our interview*:

SH: What advice do you have for young Mormon writers?

WM: You know the advice to show don’t tell? Ignore it. Or rather, show physical details and action and all that rather than just tell it, but make sure that you tell the reader how they are supposed to feel about each of the characters and their actions. You really need to drive home the correct interpretation of the dramatic situation to the reader; otherwise, you risk being misinterpreted. And no Mormon writer should ever be misinterpreted.

And remember: the bad guys have facial hair. Always and without exception.

SH: Can Mormon artists write tragedy?

WM: No.

SH: What do you think about the use of Twitter by Mormons aka the Twitternacle?

WM: Twitter degrades discourse because it limits thoughts to 140 characters. We are a people whose main form of literature is the 20 minute talk. Our leaders used to preach for over an hour. We are going to lose our stamina for longer form work if we continue to indulge in the quick quips and shallow thoughts of tweets. If you are serious about creating Mormon art, you should definitely not engage with the Mormon arts people of the Twitternacle. Even if some people who are part of it are incredibly amusing and interesting.

SH: What issues do we not talk about enough as a community?

WM: Rated-R Movies. The Great Mormon Novel. The lack of an audience for Mormon literature. Why Mormon artists can’t write tragedy.

SH: Entertainment has the EGOT. Horse racing has the Triple Crown. Tennis has the Grand Slam. What’s the Mo-lit Grand Slam?

WM: There are so few awards that I think it’s hard to hinge it around them. I’m going to say that the Mo-lit Grand Slam is getting a lit-fic story published in Dialogue or Sunstone, an historical fiction novel acquired by Covenant, a YA novel acquired by a national publisher, and a short story collection acquired by Zarahemla Books all in the same year.

SH: What’s with all the Mormon Science Fiction & Fantasy writers?

WM: There’s the “Mormons have weird doctrine and like to discuss it and so are used to the speculative form” theory. There’s the “there’s actual money in SF&F” theory. There’s the “critical mass of core writers which then snowballs across the community” theory. My theory is that sleep deprivation because of early morning seminary and/or other church activities and/or having children at a young age and/or going on a mission permanently changes members brains so that we are always in the slightly hallucinatory state that leads to wildly speculative daydreaming which then gets channeled into writing SF&F.

SH: What’s with all the Mormon YA writers?

WM: Well, duh. It’s because Mormons live in an arrested state of development and refuse to face the gritty, difficult, complex issues of adult life and so, naturally, they tend towards YA and middle grade novels both as writers and readers. Also: it’s where the money is.

SH: What’s with all the Mormon lit-fic writers who go apostate?

WM: They aren’t apostate. They’re sleeper agents among the artistic Demi-monde. You would think that they would have been triggered by the Romney campaign, but I have it on good authority that they are being reserved for a different project. It may or may not involve Neon Trees, Jabari Parker and Elder Uchtdorf.

SH: What’s the greatest threat to Mormon letters?

WM: The possibility of the Brethren clarifying once and for all the policy on caffeine, thus banning Diet Coke. Production of Mormon fiction would grind to a halt within just three or four hours.

SH: What’s your next project?

WM: A tragic, YA historical novel featuring Mormon sleeper agents and bad guys with facial hair that’s written as a series of tweets.

*Scott didn’t actually ask me these questions.

My personal favorite AMV posts at year 10

6.17.14 | | 6 comments

Back in 2009, I listed my personal favorite AMV posts — one for each of the co-bloggers. In honor of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the blog, I have updated that list. In some cases, items are the same as my post from 2009. In others, I have listed a new favorite. And the list has grown as new co-bloggers have come on board. William’s favorite post by each AMV blogger at this particular moment in time:

  1. Admin: Bradly Baird on the artifacts of LDS memory
  2. S.P. Bailey: The Things We Bring Home
  3. Tyler Chadwick: Thoughts Toward a More Thorough Treatment of Mormons, Mormonism, Literature, and Theory
  4. Kjerste Christensen: A Bibliography of Mormon Missionary Literature
  5. Harlow Clark: Gadianton The Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon, Introduction to Textual Variants Part IV
  6. Laura Craner: Mother versus Novelist (the MMA of mother-guilt, consecration, writing, children, and permission)
  7. Sarah Dunster: Addressing Issues on the Edge, and Ryan Rapier’s “The Reluctant Blogger.”
  8. Scott Hales: Twilight and the CleanFlicks Aesthetic
  9. Theric Jepson: The Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Arts
  10. Patricia Karamesines: The Rhetoric of Stealing God
  11. Jonathan Langford: Destiny, Demons, and Freewill in Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver Books
  12. Kent Larsen: Why we need Mormon Culture
  13. Anneke Majors: Minerva Red
  14. Katherine Morris: “Bread of Affliction” and Cultural Self-Consciousness
  15. William Morris: The Radical Middle in Mormon Art: The Radical
  16. Luisa Perkins: Book Review: Global Mom
  17. Eric Russell:  In Defense of the Critics
  18. Mahonri Stewart: Of Prophets and Artists: A Household of Faith Or A House Divided?
  19. Eric Thompson: Half Faked

Thanks for 10 great years of AMV!