Category Archives: Criticism

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

On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: <br />An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 2)

1.15.15 | | 7 comments

ICYMI: In part one of this letter, I address BYU-Idaho’s mission as a Church-sponsored university and place learning and reading within a gospel context; in the second half I walk through a reading of an essay titled “Medical Student” using the principles I outline in my opening discussion. (To encourage engagement with “Medical Student,” . The link will die at the end of this week. If you find this post after 1.17.2015 and would like to read the essay, email me at tyler [at] motleyvision [dot] org.)


I’ve shared this statement especially because it addresses the concern some students have that despite the fact that active Latter-day Saints try not to profane the Lord’s name or to otherwise use foul language, they felt they had compromised their moral standing by reading essays that contain profanity. I hope Pres. Young’s words clarify the idea that the inclusion of such stories in BYU-Idaho’s curriculum isn’t intended to condone the behavior in those stories or to force students into compromising their standards for the sake of a grade. To paraphrase him: “Shall BYU-Idaho practice evil? No; neither has BYU-Idaho told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.” more

On Reading within the Context of Gospel Values: <br />An Open Letter to Young Mormons (Part 1)

1.13.15 | | 7 comments

I’ve taught first-year writing at BYU-Idaho since 2010. The curriculum for the course I teach includes a student essay titled “Medical Student” by Margaret Parker. The essay is a well-written, day-in-the-life narrative profiling one aspect of the intense life lived by a med student named JD; this intensity is conveyed through the narrative’s fast-pacing and through some mild profanity. Because this life experience is likely completely foreign to BYU-Idaho’s student base, “Medical Student” appears on the reading list as part of a course unit called “Thinking about the Other.” The unit claims the following objectives:

This unit invites you to reflect on the question—who are they?—insofar as it can be answered by examining the beliefs, values, and experiences of other individuals whose perceptions of “reality” differ from your own. The assumption underlying this unit is that before you can engage in constructive communication about academic, social, and political issues, you must be able to understand and accurately report the experiences and positions of others.

At the end of this unit, you should be able to conduct effective primary research, such as observing and interviewing, to understand and accurately communicate the experiences and positions of someone whose perceptions differ from your own.

Within this context, “Medical Student” is meant to stretch students’ thinking about the people with whom we share this world, especially those who don’t share Latter-day Saint values. Some students (not a lot) struggle to get past the essay’s profanity and have approached me with their concerns. Which is fair enough: if they don’t want to read the essay, that’s their prerogative. One semester, though, a student had major concerns about it, which prompted her/him to worry about the school’s spiritual standing. The response escalated beyond anything I had previously experienced (I won’t go into details) and it prompted me to pray and think deeply about such concerns and how I might best address them with future students to encourage them to look at their education within the context of gospel values. The following letter grew out of that experience. I’m sharing it here because it explores a way of looking through the lens of Mormonism when we read texts that come from outside the Mormon literary tradition. more

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.