Category Archives: Criticism

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?

Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene

9.9.14 | | 27 comments

When Magdalene was nominated to be considered by the Whitney committee for the 2011 awards, Jennie Hansen, a well-known LDS reviewer and writer, posted a review on Goodreads that caused quite a stir in our little LDS writing community. Her review was short and to the point. She wrote:

“Disjointed, sloppy writing. Lacks real knowledge of Mormons and leadership in the Church. Too much vulgarity for vulgarities sake makes this story crude and amateurish.”  If you are interested, you may read and/or comment on this review here. more

Just how dangerous is Shannon Hale?
(part two)

8.14.14 | | 2 comments

This image from the Mormon Artist interview with Shannon Hale. Click on over..

Yesterday, I talked about Shannon Hale’s apparent attempt to make a mainstream success of a novel staring a character who was not “white, male, able-bodied, straight, not too young . . . and not too old“—you know, what we all expect a protagonist to be here in these United States. We discussed the basics of the plot and posed this question:

Does Dangerous succeed at making us identify with Maisie Danger Brown, its home-schooled, geeky, one-armed, half-Paraguayan female protagonist?

Sure. Of course it does. Humans are humans, whatever, no problem. Maisie is fine and we, excepting Klansmen, like her as much as we would a white male two-armed protagonist.

But what’s interesting is how much the novel hedges its bets on our openmindedness—it seems to be a little lacking in confidence that the audience will accept her. more

Just how dangerous is Shannon Hale?

8.13.14 | | no comments

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NOTE: This is a work of cultural and literary criticism, and not a review. Please adjust your expectations accordingly.

This image from the Mormon Artist interview with Shannon Hale. Click on over..

From Shannon Hale’s website,

When I was in the rewrite stage of Dangerous several years ago, a Smart Person read the first 50 pages and immediately let me know her concerns. She said, “Your main character is unrelatable. You made her a home schooled, science geeky, one-armed, half-Paraguayan.” Until this person said all that I had never thought it. I mean, of course I knew knew those things about her, but I’d never strung together all those adjectives in my mind, maybe because the decisions about her character came about piece-by-piece while writing the story, not all at once. . .  more

Guest Post: D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints: An Irreantum Review

5.29.14 | | 3 comments

Before Irreantum folded, I’d recruited a few people to write book reviews for what I thought would be the last issue. Among the reviewers was Emily Harris Adams, winner of the 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz. Emily was given the assignment to review D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints, a Mormon steampunk novel that was originally serialized and published through Amazon. After Irreantum‘s no-more-ness became manifest, Emily contacted me and asked what to do with her complimentary (i.e. FREE!) review copy. I told her to keep it and forget about the review. Not wanting the book to go to waste, though, she wrote the review anyway and sent it to me to post on A Motley Vision.

So, in memory of Irreantum, I post Emily’s review…with hope that the journal will find a new beginning sometime soon.

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After reading City of the Saints, I couldn’t quite figure out a succinct way to describe the overarching, grand picture of what I had just mentally ingested. Not until I ran into Dave Butler himself.  When he asked me what I thought of his book, I said,

“It’s history cake, isn’t it?”

And it is. There’s an unabashed reveling in the historical yumminess.

This book isn’t history candy. If you are looking for something enjoyable but without density, a fun read that happens to take place in a historical setting, turn your handcart around because this is not the right place. This story is rich and indulgent but still substantive. In other words: cake.

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Alex Caldiero’s Performative Poesis:
Making, the Makar, and Mormonism

4.28.14 | | 9 comments

Earlier this month, I presented some of my research on Alex Caldiero’s sonosophy at the AML Conference. After I posted my presentation proposal here, Scott also posted his, and Th. expressed his hope that we would record our papers “for the internet since that’s the only way nonattendees can be assured of hearing them later.” Th.’s request solidified my intention to record my presentation and post it online. So I packed my Samson Go Mic (love that thing!) and my laptop and sound-captured my presentation using Audacity (in case you were wondering). When I listened to the presentation later, I realized I had left some stuff out the day of and made a few additions to the audio to make up for my neglect; I also made some minor cuts where there was too much empty air or where I commented on how slow the classroom’s computer was (O, so slow!). Then I combined the audio with my Prezi, screen-captured the presentation using Open Broadcaster Software, and uploaded the file to YouTube.

I mention my post-conference presentation-revision process and the digital tools I used to create the video I’m sharing because I wanted to show one way in which those tools can potentially augment (and disrupt) the historical modes of critical discussion that are favored in the humanities (i.e., sustained arguments made in writing). In his introduction to the BYU student-produced anthology, Writing about Literature in the Digital Age, Gideon Burton argues that we ought to welcome such disruptions because they can awaken us to the “ongoing vitality of literature as ‘equipment for living’ in the digital age.” They can help us see and experience and share and discuss literature differently, opening the mode of literary conversations to something (potentially) more dynamic and engaging than a monograph published in a print journal with a necessarily limited base of subscribers.

My thoughts on the state of academic publishing aside, I was both excited and disheartened to learn at the AML Conference that next year’s meeting might be held in Hawaii. The move excites me because it’s an attempt to break the Jell-O Belt’s hold on the Association (and the Association’s favor for the Jell-O Belt), to move its focus beyond the continental U.S. I just hope the attempt doesn’t, Humpty Dumpty-like break the Association. Which leads me to why the move disheartens me: as I mentioned in the post where I shared my AML proposal, my wife and I look forward to our annual pilgrimage to the AML Conference; but with the conference in Hawaii next year, we can’t afford to attend. Chalk it up to student loans coming due, a pending move, a mortgage, four kids, and so on. Whatever the case, I’m sad I won’t be able to be there. Yet, our impending conference-nonattendance has had me thinking about alternatives to the time- and geography-bound conference, about ways to approximate or augment the knowledge- and community-building aspects of such conferences, to potentially include more people on the program and in the conference discussions, to move MoLit’s critical culture beyond the ways critics have traditionally made their work public. Sharing my conference presentation online (in video and audio formats) is a gesture toward those alternatives, which I hope to address more later.

Your thoughts on such alternatives and on the content and form of my presentation (which at ~43 minutes is, I know, fairly long) are welcome in the comments.


Follow this link for the audio version.

(Cross-posted here.)

Culture and being in, but not of the world

4.23.14 | | 17 comments

As I was reading the comments to Scott H’s recent AML blog post Moving Culture, I had the following thought:

In modern Mormon American communities when the notion of “be in the world but not of it” is raised in relation to culture, it is almost always the “not of” that is emphasized rather than the “being in”. And so most Mormons draw their various lines (which, as I wrote almost 10 years ago, I don’t have a problem with as long as they are honest with themselves about those lines) for what they will and will not consume, enjoy the works that fall within their lines, and then (perhaps) look askance at those who draw their lines in different places than they do.

But the problem is that this method (which I will admit to employing myself quite often) is actually addressing neither the “being in” nor the “not of” because:

1. Any culture you avoid means that you are cutting yourself off from those parts of the world and thus are not being in it. Now, obviously, there are places (and in this case I mean cultural places as in: specific works/creators and/or communities that form around those works/creators) we should not be in. And there are places that some of us can be in without causing major damage to our souls while others can’t. But we are not called to cloister ourselves, and if we have no frames of cultural reference with which to approach others, we can’t really claim that we are in the world.

2. I think (and this is based on my reading of Christ’s ministry on Earth) that being not of the world is less about not partaking in things and more about how you approach your presence in and interaction with the world. “Not of” means that the world doesn’t override or distort your Mormon worldview (at least not too much — I also believe that no one is untainted by the world). And it means bringing your worldview into play in an active, interrogating, subversive, filtering, enveloping way.

What I think that adds up is that to be “in the world,” one must be engaged with culture, and to be “not of the world” is to act upon rather than be acted upon by culture. This is easier said than done.

Notes on How to Read a Poem

4.3.14 | | 3 comments

National Poetry Month 2014
(Poster design: Chip Kidd)
Click image for PDF copy of the poster.

I’m of two minds about National Poetry Month.

In one sense, I appreciate the effort (initiated by the Academy of American Poets and institutionalized in April 1996 by President Clinton’s administration) “to highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets; [to] introduce Americans to the pleasures and benefits of reading poetry; [to] bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways; [and to] make poetry an important part of our children’s education” (ref). Even if this official celebration of poets and poetry only happens one month out of twelve and even if people binge on poems during that month but never read another poem all year, at least poetry is being celebrated, right? I can’t complain about that.

In another sense, though, I see poetry as something worth engaging every day. If America can set aside one month a year to advocate for poetry as something that can enhance and enrich “the lives of all Americans” and that “affects every aspect of life in America today, including education, the economy, and community pride and development” (ref), we should be able to make a place (no matter how small) for poetry in our everyday lives, shouldn’t we? Of course, I say this as someone deeply invested in reading and writing and writing about and advocating for poetry. So I may be a little biased.

Whatever the case, and whatever your mind is about poetry and National Poetry Month (prominent poet and critic Richard Howard once called it “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” two contraptions that distanced us from the beauty and rhythms of the earth), I thought I’d share some reflections on how to read a poem, whenever and however often you read one.

The following essay appears as the prologue in my book, Field Notes on Language on Kinship. My ideas (in the essay and in the book) are informed to a great degree by Patricia’s thinking on language and were sparked by her gorgeous poem “Introduction to the Mysteries (or How to Read a Poem).” (Listen to Laura’s stunning performance of Patricia’s poem here.)

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Notes on How to Read a Poem

Some years ago during an undergraduate literature course, a classmate confessed the first time our reading assignment included some poems that “Interpreting poetry is not my forte.” The student’s confession still catches my ear. I hear her/him repeating it poetically in my mind, giving it a lyric ring that comes out more when I write the sentence as if writing a poem, splitting the line after syllable seven:

    Interpreting poetry
    is not my forte.

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