Category Archives: Authoring

Mormon fiction writers and the spectre of excommunication

7.15.15 | | 21 comments

I recently had a Twitter conversation with Mette Ivie Harrison about an experience where at an author appearance in Logan she met an LDS author who was afraid to be honest about their Mormonism in the current climate because of the possibility of excommunication. I’m not going to repeat the particulars of the conversation because I don’t think it’s fair to transport the context of a Twitter conversation with its character limit constraints to the longer form of blogging. So instead I’m going to start with an observation and then a claim based off of that observation.

The Observation

Most Mormon fiction writers who leave the LDS Church do so because they become alienated from it. That’s not a good thing or (I hope) an inevitable thing. It also often leads to active members of the Church dismissing their work, which is often (but not always) unfortunate, especially since I think Mormons should seek to develop a better of understanding of the Mormon experience when it doesn’t match up with their own.

But for this post I want to stick with the formal relationship of an author with the LDS Church. The reason for that is that over my 17+ years of interacting with the Mormon literature community, I’ve periodically seen a conventional wisdom expressed in various ways that the great Mormon novelist will inevitably be excommunicated. Or more generally: LDS writers can’t write candidly about the Mormon experience because then they’d be excommunicated.

The Claim

I’m going to make a claim about this fear and then complicate it. The claim is this: Mormon fiction writers don’t need to worry about excommunication because of the content of their fiction*.

Complication 1: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about excommunication if their fiction exists alongside with affiliation with other activities/groups that could lead to excommunication. That is, it’s possible that fiction could be used a data point in showing that the writer is actively working against the LDS Church, but if the concerns are limited to what is represented in the fiction then all current evidence suggests that

Complication 2: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about excommunication if their fiction isn’t well-wrought fiction. That is, if you’re writing polemics against the LDS Church or crossing hard boundaries (certain depictions of the temple or LDS Church leaders) then, yeah, that could be a problem. But that’s not good fiction. And that’s not honest fiction either.

Complication 3: Mormon fiction writers may need to worry about fellow members reporting their fiction to LDS Church authorities. My understanding is that this happens (or happened — I have no idea if it’s ongoing) to Orson Scott Card quite a bit. If one is a believing, active LDS in good standing, then this won’t be an issue. If one is not, then it could be because it could precipitate declarations of honesty on the part of the author that could lead to disfellowship and potentially excommunication.

Complication 4: Mormon fiction writers who specifically write for the LDS market** need to worry about their relationship with the LDS Church. I believe that hypocrisy is deadly for writers of all stripes and active LDS who become disaffiliated*** from the Church should stop writing for the LDS market. I recognize that that’s a harsh stance with difficult social and economic consequences and deserves a longer treatment (which I may attempt at some point).

Complication 5: All of the above is in relation to Mormon fiction writers who specifically write about Mormonism and/or target the active LDS audience. I’m trying to think of a scenario where writers who don’t write Mormon content could find themselves in a situation where their fiction impacts their Church membership. I suppose Mormon writers of erotica could be at risk for excommunication. I don’t know how much of a risk, although I imagine it would largely depend on what kind and how out they were as an erotica writer.

So except for Complications 4 and 5, I don’t see how the Mormon writer of fiction with doubts, fears, stances that differ from the LDS Church, etc. is in a different position from any other member with doubts, fears, differing stances, etc. And 4 and 5 relate to specific marketing categories an author has a choice to engage in or not. In other words, excommunication shouldn’t be a worry for LDS writers vis a vis their fiction.

But all the above is specifically only about the content of the author’s fiction in relationship with the Church. When it comes to the act of writing fiction itself, a different dynamic may be in play. Because while excommunication is something that either happens or doesn’t, there is a complex matrix of personal, familial, and social relationships and beliefs that impact the Mormon writer when they go to write fiction. That’s what I’ll be exploring in my follow-up post: Self Censorship and the Mormon Author.

For now, I’m interested in discussing:

1. Any complications I have missed
2. Any complications I have I downplayed too much
3. Why the fear of excommunication persists among Mormon authors even though none have been excommunicated for their fiction****

*For non-LDS readers, excommunication is a formal process by which members of the LDS Church may be restricted from some aspects of Church membership or lose their membership in the LDS Church. It is generally reserved for acts like adultery, murder, felony crimes, etc., but there have been a few instances when members of the Church have been disciplined for what they have said. Largely, that is because they have specifically arrayed themselves against the Church, but they’re also complicated cases with, naturally, differing views on the ultimate reasons for the excommunication as well as a variety of dynamics and individualized situations and information that often is not public. For more, see Church Disciplinary Councils at LDS.org.

**This is where the LDS vs. Mormon terminology is useful (even though I dislike dogmatic usages of the two terms in opposition to each other) in that by LDS market I mean the publishers and retail outlets that specifically market to faithful, active members of the LDS Church. The Mormon market, in my view, includes the LDS Market but also brings in any and all publishers, retailers and audiences who are interested in work about the Mormon experience.

***I am not going to attempt to delineate what level/type of disaffiliation should trigger a voluntary removal from the LDS market. That’s a matter of individual conscience.

****As Andrew Hall reminded me on Twitter, Brian Evenson did lose his position at BYU because of concerns over his fiction and Neil LaBute was disfellowshipped for his portrayal of Mormons and violence in his fiction. Both eventually became disaffiliated from the LDS Church.

On the Possible in Mormon Styles

6.19.15 | | 10 comments
Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve gotten into the, perhaps bad, habit of looking for a Mormon parallel to interesting works I come across. I know I’m not alone in doing this—after the first online dating site how long did it take before we had a Mormon one?

My most recent foray into potential Mormon parallels came when I purchased a copy of Raymond Queneau’s fascinating book Exercises in Style, which consists of 99 versions of the same mundane story told in a stunning variety of ways. For me this book has highlighted the similarity of much of today’s literature, especially so-called genre fiction. Contemporary fiction seems focused on a narrow range of styles—either first person or third person omniscient, narrative told in chronological order. [There are, of course, plenty of exceptions. But elements like this seem to dominate.]

Cover of "Exercises in Style"

Cover of Exercises in Style

In his book, Queneau doesn’t really invent new styles. Instead, the styles reflect what already exists; the way people talk or write or portray stories. Styles in the book include things like Metaphorically, Retrograde, Dream, Word Game, Narrative, Anagrams, Onomatopoeia, Logical Analysis, Official Letter, Past, Present, Reported Speech etc.

For example, the “Notation” style (first in the book) is told this way:

On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.

Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

To me this concept is brilliant. For authors and readers alike it breaks down the customary approach to literature and promotes creativity. It also simply helps us to understand what style is and the breadth of its possibilities.

So, would it be possible to produce a Mormon Exercises in Style? I know many of our fellow Church members who would say no — that Mormons have no style, or that all of Mormon writing and discourse uses the same style. But this seems demonstrably false to me. If nothing else we see stylistic differences in different situations: testimonies have stylistic differences when compared to lessons or talks or interviews. And different authors have their own styles—who doubts that President Monson’s familiar use of a kind of passive past tense near the emotional and spiritual climax of his stories (“Hugs were shared; tears were shed…”) constitutes an important element of the Monsonian style?

I don’t know if there are enough identifiable Mormon styles for a book like Queneau’s. But I think the effort of telling the same story in a series of Mormon styles would at least help those who wrote the stories, and likely would enlighten readers about the customary ways Mormons communicate with each other.

Since I’m not at all confident about my own ability to mimic a variety of Mormon styles (I’m not even sure I have the ability to do just one!), I’d like to suggest open this idea up to the online Mormon world (the bloggernacle or whatever you would like to call it) and ask for submissions, which would then be published here on AMV and perhaps improved by the suggestions of our readers and visitors.

In order to do this, we will need a couple of things:

First, we need a mundane story. Make that a mundane Mormon story. I hope to write a post in the next week asking for suggestions about what should be included in this story. Somehow, without being dramatic, I think it will need to include elements of a typical Mormon life — perhaps what happens in Church, at least in part. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

Second, we will need a list of possible styles in which the story can be rendered. I’ve mentioned some possibilities above, and I’m including those and a few more below.

[Note that some of these could be subdivided — travelog testimonies may be stylistically different, for example — while others may not actually be clear styles, and still others may not work to tell a story at all. To get started, lets list possibilities regardless of these issues.]:

  • testimony
  • church lesson (as delivered)
  • sacrament meeting talk
  • priesthood leader interview
  • Monsonian
  • lesson manual
  • handbook
  • bloggernacle post
  • mormon.org profile

I don’t know if this will work or not. To me it seems like it might be fun and perhaps useful. What do you think?

Artists of the Restoration part IV: Restorationist Manifesto

4.8.15 | | 7 comments

This series spun out of a post that I wrote that expressed a desire to build Zion through creative effort. Previously, I wrote about Mormon history and then situated that and Mormon cultural activity within the core Western aesthetic streams of Romanticism and Modernism/Postmodernism. I put you through all of that because I wanted to lay the proper groundwork for a manifesto (of sorts) that outlines a set of practices or set of elements or layers that I think will help Mormon artists situate themselves as Restorationist. I don’t suggest any specific aesthetic techniques or socio-political stances. I can’t help you escape Romanticism, Modernism or Postmodernism (although I may write about that more later). There is no Zion apart for us to flock to in order to escape assimilation. For Mormon artists, what we have is our personal activities and relationships and the community and rituals and ordinances of the modern LDS Church.   

Please note that the following is specifically for those who consider themselves active LDS. And it’s simply my opinion. But I hope that it’s a way of thinking that other Mormon artists will find useful. more

Artists of the Restoration Part III: MODERNISM & POSTMODERNISM

3.23.15 | | 10 comments

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. With this series, I’m approaching the same topic from a different angle.

READ PART I: THE LDS CHURCH — RESTORATION/SEPARATION &ACCOMMODATION/ASSIMILATION

READ PART II: WESTERN CULTURE — STUCK IN ROMANTICISM

PART III: WESTERN CULTURE — MODERNISM/POSTMODERNISM

At the turn of the 20th century, artists from a variety of disciplines sought to break free from the grip of Romanticism. They saw that realism was as much of an artificiality as what it was reacting against, and they saw that the original things that Romanticism had reacted against—cold rationalism, industrialization—had only gotten worse. What’s more Darwin and Nietzsche had showed (in very different ways that God really was dead; Freud that everybody was all messed up inside from repressing things (and because of our parents); and popular culture that Romanticism could take on virulent, sentimental, wildly successful, lucrative forms (the penny dreadful/dime novel, light opera, advertising, Beaux-Arts architecture, etc.). more

Artists of the Restoration Part II: Stuck in Romanticism

3.5.15 | | 3 comments

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. I’d like to approach this topic from a different angle.

I sometimes rant against the main aesthetic and sociopolitical -isms of our age. I do so knowing full well that I am as caught in them as we all are and that the only way out is to build a substrate of faith and good works, protected by a continual renewing of covenants so that there’s something there when all else gets stripped away by the tragedies of mortality or the tumults of doubt or the relentless winds of daily life. But that knowledge does not stop me from squirming around in the grasp of the dominant discourses. What follows is a tentative bit of thinking resulting from such squirming in relation to some thoughts on what it might mean to be a restorationist artist.

I began with a reductive history of the LDS Church. Now I do the same to Western culture.

READ PART I: THE LDS CHURCH – RESTORATION/SEPARATION &ACCOMMODATION/ASSIMILATION

PART II: WESTERN CULTURE

ROMANTICISM

Previous and then parallel to the Restoration/Separation and Accommodation/Assimilation history of the Church runs a different process: the aesthetic response of artist to the ideas of the Enlightenment. Romanticism and its offspring modernism and postmodernism (more on them later) are the only dominant aesthetic discourses that Mormons have ever known. To understand them is to understand how the particulars of Mormon art play out.

Thousands of pages have been written on Romanticism so this is going to be an incredibly reductive summary, but the narrative goes something like this: more

Artists of the Restoration Part I: A Brief, Culture-Centric History of the LDS Church

3.2.15 | | 10 comments

Previously, I wrote about why I’m more interested in active LDS artists who are seeking to build Zion. I’d like to approach this topic from a different angle.

I sometimes rant against the main aesthetic and sociopolitical -isms of our age. I do so knowing full well that I am as caught in them as we all are and that the only way out is to build a substrate of faith and good works, protected by a continual renewing of covenants so that there’s something there when all else gets stripped away by the tragedies of mortality or the tumults of doubt or the relentless winds of daily life. But that knowledge does not stop me from squirming around in the grasp of the dominant discourses. What follows is a tentative bit of thinking resulting from such squirming in relation to some thoughts on what it might mean to be a restorationist artist. To begin: two (necessarily) reductive histories of cultural currents — one of the Church and the other of Western aesthetics.

PART I: THE LDS CHURCH

RESTORATION/SEPARATION

The restorationist era of the Church obviously begins with Joseph Smith. I think we can acknowledge that much of the thinking that goes into Joseph’s restorationist project was to be found elsewhere in the world while still believing that divine revelation was involved. We don’t believe in creation ex nihilo — why should we believe in it when it comes to metaphysics? In addition, if the Restoration as an idea was going to get any purchase at all, it would need to be different enough to be compelling but not so alien as to be incomprehensible. And, of course, it would need to happen in stages, in continuing revelation. Restoration brings with it the sense of something new that was old. A refreshing. A renewal. All the best from the past and the present and whatever our prophet can see of the future.  more

Paying for [another’s] plagiarism

1.14.15 | | 8 comments

.

I assume you all remember Rachel Nunes’s 2014 epic collision with a plagiarist. I recently was in touch with her for an update:

Most of the major details of who committed this crime and her resultant barmy attempts to coverup-slash-intimidate the truth have been public for a few months now. What’s not as widely known is what it takes to go beyond public shaming. In other words: the legal system. How did you find a lawyer and what is your lawyer’s usual specialty?

I found my attorney through another attorney who contacted me on Goodreads. She was helping me get the books off Goodreads and was watching for negative reviews put out by Rushton under her aliases. She was also instrumental in tracking down my copyright. Clinton Duke works at her law firm, and she recommended him. His specialty is copyright, patents, and litigation.

But unfortunately, he estimates 30,00 to 120,000 more to resolve the entire case, and I don’t have that kind of money. So at this point, I’m considering using him more as a consultant, which would still cost thousands, but would help me control the costs a little better because right now they are threatening to bury me. I’ve put out queries about other options, but no attorney has stepped up to the plate to do this at reduce cost (and really, why should they?) because they don’t expect to ever receive money from Rushton. (They are completely okay with me going into debt for it, though, lol.) Honestly, I’m not sure where to go at this point, but I am absolutely proceeding. We are entering discovery and I am working now with a few people to come up with a plan. I have an appointment with another attorney in a week to get his take on the case.

I wish I knew how to find more support from people or from law enforcement, but unless she starts shooting at me or I commit suicide or something, people have other more pressing things to support and think about. Again, I don’t blame anyone. I’m very grateful for the handful of authors I know who have been supportive, and others I don’t know who have come forward. I am way short of what I will need to finish this case, and I think it says something very telling about the current legal system where good folks have to mortgage their entire future to stop something that is supposedly against the law to begin with.

For me it’s never over. For instance, I spent countless hours this past week gather stuff for the case, and on Wednesday when I received another three thousand dollar bill from the attorney, it kind of ruined the whole season, you know? The impact on my family continues.

But my motto is upward and onward, so I’m focusing on that, but I will be very grateful when it’s all behind me.

Rachel

To help Rachel with her ongoing expenses, click here.

EDIT: READ INTO COMMENTS FOR MORE INFORMATION AND UPDATES

Marilynne Robinson on writing about faith

10.13.14 | | 7 comments

This 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.