Category Archives: Criticism

“If it be a true seed, or a good seed”: A Brief Note on Narrative Ethics

7.8.15 | | 2 comments

(My thoughts in this post may not break new ground in narrative studies or be foreign to readers of AMV. I share them, however, as part of my continued project to elaborate a uniquely Mormon vision of language by exploring what uniquely Mormon texts—LDS scripture, in particular—can teach about the value and work of words.)

In Alma’s discourse on faith, he spends a great deal of time elaborating his central conceit. After exploring the need for humility and dispelling the notion that to place faith in something is to know that thing completely, he calls his audience to make a place in their being where they could at least receive and consider the character of his words. Then he introduces his extended metaphor: “we will compare the word unto a seed.” He continues by outlining some criteria for the seed’s growth: it needs to be planted, it needs to be a healthy seed, and it needs to not be tinkered with but left to interact with the soil.

My focus in this brief note is on Alma’s statement about the seed’s health—“if it be a true seed, or a good seed”—and what his language (as I read it) can teach us about narrative ethics. 

The structure of the statement suggests that Alma felt compelled to modify the adjective he wanted to describe the seed. His rhetorical move prioritizes “good” over “true,” a priority supported by the fact that he uses “good” not “true” through the rest of the discourse. Alma’s revision of this condition suggests to me that there may be more value in privileging the goodness of words, the character of language, over their truth—their supposed correlation to reality. In this light, maybe the questions we should ask about a narrative aren’t “Is it true?” or “How true is it?” but “Is it good?” or “What good does it do or encourage its audience to do?”

The prioritization of a narrative’s goodness over its truth is an act of privileging narrative function and ethics over narrative content. Many people (including—maybe especially—Mormons) focus on the latter over the former; Alma suggests that we should flip that focus and attend to how words act upon us as individuals and social groups. He wants us, then, to see language and narrative as moral acts that can change us, our relationships, and the world.

Thoughts?

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?

“Woman of Another World, I Am with You”:
Reading the Divine Feminine in Mormonism

5.5.15 | | 2 comments

(Cross-posted here.)

It’s May, which means it’s time to celebrate (among other things) loyalty, Star Wars, nurses, Sally Ride, the end of the Middle Ages, and, of course, Mom.

“A Mother’s Love” by Lynde Mott
First Place, A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest

To that latter end, I’ve put myself to the task of reading and commenting on the poems featured in 2014’s A Mother Here Contest. You can read more about the contest via that link, but here’s how I see my project working: as an attempt (alongside and in conversation with the contest artworks) to “express the nearness of our Heavenly Mother” and to witness her presence in the cosmos (as coeval with Father) and in the intimate details of our lives.

As I mention, the project (which I’m hosting on FireinthePasture.org) will be two-fold:

1. I’ll post a recording of me reading one of the featured contest poems.

2. Alongside that reading, I’ll post a short audio comment (likely no more than four minutes long) in which I respond to the poem and explore what it says about the Mormon Divine Feminine.

My hope in taking this on is to expand the rich discourse that’s emerging re: Mother in Heaven and, in the process, to explore my own relationship with her. I’ve posted elsewhere about my experience talking about the Eternal Mother in a short sacrament meeting sermon. What I didn’t mention was how nervous I was when I stood to speak. I knew there was no silence officially mandated on the topic, but the cultural silence hung heavy in my ears and on my mind. As a result, just before I began speaking about her, my heart rapped hard on my sternum. When I introduced the idea that Mother stands beside Father as they carry out the work of eternity, though, I felt her presence and peace in a way I’ve never felt them before.

I’ve sensed that again as I’ve spent time the past week or so with the contest poems.

So: here goes—my first reading/commentary combo. A caveat, though: since May has 31 days and the contest only features 30 poems, what to do with the extra day? Rather than cut the month short, I found another poem to highlight: Emma Lou Thayne’s “Woman of Another World, I Am with You.” I think it provides a fruitful beginning to this month-long engagement with the “A Mother Here” poems.


Emma Lou Thayne’s “Woman of Another World, I Am with You”

Post 1/31 in my A Mother Here reading series. (I’m four days into the project now. Check out all posts in the series via the link embedded in the previous sentence.)

(Click/tap here to read the poem.)

Poem:


(Direct link to audio file.)

Commentary:


(Direct link to audio file.)


Advice for Mormon writers of historical fiction

4.16.15 | | 5 comments

As I revealed earlier in the year, I was a finalists judge for historical fiction for this year’s Whitney Awards. I’ll reveal my ballot after the awards are presented, but since that doesn’t happen until May, here’s some advice for Mormons who write or are considering writing historical fiction.

Keep in mind that I don’t write historical fiction myself and haven’t read deeply in the genre so my advice may not be worth much. But my exposure to it includes: reading all of the historical fiction nominees this year, reading the historical fiction finalists back in [[insert year]], other reading of Mormon historical fiction, other reading of historical fiction published in the past three decades, other reading of fantasy fiction that draws on historical fiction, reading of quite a few novels from the main eras that authors write historical fiction in (the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries), reading of nonfiction from/about those eras, and reading of several of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. Scott, along with Jane Porter, launched the genre of historical fiction. This is all to say that while it’s not one of my primary genres, I do have some familiarity with its tropes and forms and what it can do well. more

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