Title: The Agitated Heart
Author: Scott Bronson
Publisher: ArcPoint Media, Orem, UT
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 201 (but only about 40,000 words)
Price: $12.99 from Amazon.com
Also available as an ebook
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford. (Electronic review copy received from the publisher.)
This is a story that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read. Fifteen years at least, since I first started hearing about it under its original title “The Whipping Boy.” It’s good, people told me. The best unpublished story in Mormon literature. It’s a mystery why no publisher has ever picked it up.
Thanks to Scott Parkin’s ArcPoint Media and to Scott Bronson’s own persistence, that long wait is now over. And I have to say: the story pretty much lives up to its hype — with some quibbles that I’ll get to later.
(And now I have to stop and say that there will indeed be spoilers. Because I can’t possibly review this story the way I want to do without referencing the ending. Not that the ending is a particular surprise; it’s foreshadowed for essentially the entire story, and if hearing about the ending puts you off, you probably aren’t someone who should read this book. Just saying.)
In my last installment, I mentioned my skepticism about a Mormon literary esthetic. I’ll start this round by explaining in more detail my reasons for that skepticism.
Differing values are relatively easy to come by. Differing stylistic preferences likewise. What group doesn’t vary within itself — often widely — in the personal styles of its members? Within my own immediate family, there are those who are melodramatic and those who are reserved; those who crave excitement and those who prefer contemplation; those with a taste for the subtle and those who like the blatant. (But no one who likes rap.)
A distinctive group esthetic is a rather taller order to fill. A distinctive esthetic, it seems to me, extends beyond differing preferences to become almost a different symbolic language, where words and phrases and characters and stories mean something different to those inside the group than they can ever possibly mean to those outside the group. Outsiders, by and large, don’t “get it.”
I feel pretty confident in asserting, without further evidence, that I find myself in a relatively small number of people who wake up on a Saturday morning thinking about questions of Mormon literary criticism. Possibly almost as small a number as those who might read the fruits of such questioning. (But only possibly.) Still, it is the nature of the essayist to find oneself compelled to write. And so…
Throughout most of Mormonism’s literary history (such as it is), there has I think been little evidence of Mormons taking pleasure in or valuing a different kind of literary experience than what is valued in larger (mostly American) culture. Home literature, missionary fiction, lost generation fiction, faithful Mormon realism — all find close corollaries and even direct models in the larger writing universe.
Ever since Scott Hales announced his plans to edit a new anthology of Mormon literary criticism, I’ve been thinking off and on about my own past grapplings with Mormon literature and where I’d want to take them — had I world enough, time, money, and the requisite academic chops. What follows isn’t that essay, but comes about as close as I can manage at present. Consider this my submission!
Why do or should we — as readers, writers, and/or literary critics — care about whether a text is Mormon? Potential reasons are legion, as varied as readers themselves. Among the most typical and (it seems to me) important are the following:
To understand Mormonism better — as a culture, religion, historical movement, or what have you
To investigate specific elements of Mormon experience, thought, and culture through literary works
To explore the purpose(s) and role(s) of literature in Mormon experience and worldview
To articulate ways that literature has influenced Mormonism
As a test case to investigate the interrelationships of literature and religion, literature and identity, literature and culture, and a host of other potential intersections
To understand better particular literary works that incorporate manifestly Mormon elements
To assert our own membership (or non-membership) in the Mormon community
To explore what it means to be Mormon and a reader, Mormon and a writer, or Mormon and a critic
To seek out and encourage literature we think is worthwhile, in whatever particular relationship to Mormonism we endorse: celebratory, investigatory, critical, or other1
Title: Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Short Story Collection
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 219
Binding: Trade Paperback
Also available as an ebook
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.
Steve Peck is an alien. A kind of geeky-looking one (wholly appropriate for a professor of evolutionary biology), friendly, congenial, but an alien nonetheless. Thatâ€™s the only explanation I can come up with for how, in this set of 16 stories, he so consistently manages to provide such startlingly different, yet at the same time deeply insightful, perspectives on the culture and religion he has adopted for his own.
Which is about the only thing these stories â€” which range from short to long, humor to pathos, realism to postmodernly zany, contemporary to historical to science fiction â€” have in common. Eight of them have been previously published, in venues ranging from Irreantum to Covenant to the Everyday Mormon Writer contest. Yet the effect is not incoherent. Rather, it provides a sense of the range of Peckâ€™s work, which includes something that will, I guarantee, appeal to pretty much everyone with the slightest interest in reading fiction about the Mormon experience: highbrow or lowbrow, literary or popular, funny or serious, light or thought-provoking. Itâ€™s pretty much all here. And while not every story is equally polished, each provides something interesting and (hereâ€™s that word again) different.
I think this accurately captures what we all want:
AÂ novel about active Mormons written by an active Mormon is placed before a national audience where it makes a notably broadÂ impact on discourse.
That first half has precedent:Â Heaven Knows Why!, Saints,Â The Actor and the Housewife, a number of other big-house and indie titles—the second half, I can’t really think of anything that qualifies. But my memory is short and I’ve missed obvious exceptions to sweepingÂ judgments before, so please note my errors below. (At any rate, certainly no such novel has sold in Da Vinci Code numbers.)
But even were there a dozen such novels, we would still feel like the race is yet being run. The latest person to near the finish line is Mette Ivie Anderson with her novel The Bishop’s Wife.
In the posts I’ve posted am posting will post on this novel, I harbor an undercurrent of hope that she will win. Even though I have my complaints and uncertainties regarding minor aspects of the book, I think this is a terrific novel in terms of representing What Am Mormon. Besides, unlike much of the competition, Harrison’s novel is backed up by a serious marketing campaign.
If The Bishop’s Wife is a hit, what sort of conversations might you have with the folks at the rec center? more →
Now that the busyness of Christmas has passed and the final performance in the 2nd Annual #MormonPoetrySlam has posted (see the event archive here), itâ€™s time to determine the winner of the Audience Choice Award. For your consideration and reviewing pleasure, here are the eighteen entries, listed in order of appearance (you may need to hit “Read next page” at the bottom of the Storify to review all of eighteen).
Recently, I had the privilege of publishing a review of Steven Peckâ€™s The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell in the second issue of the Neal A. Maxwell Instituteâ€™s Mormon Studies Review. In the same issue, Michael Austin, a veteran of Mormon literary studies, published a piece entitled Among Mormon literary scholars, Austin is best known for his essay â€œThe Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time,â€ which he published as a doctoral student in the mid-1990s. At the time, Austin was writing in response to the Cracroft-Jorgensen debate of the early-1990s, and his essay sought to give critics a much-needed new way to think about and order the study of Mormon fiction. It was an important essay in the development of Mormon literary theory, and it remains a touchstone of our evolving understanding of the definition of Mormon literature.
Austinâ€™s latest essay seems deliberately less-ambitious, representing an effort to update scholars outside the field on the state of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies. While much of the first third of the essay reiterates information Eugene England established in his landmark 1995 essay â€œMormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,â€ Austin also includes valuable information about the study of Mormonism in American literary history and literary studies of Mormon sacred texts, particularly the Book of Mormon. His analysis of these latter two fields is where this essay excels most. Having recently published Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient Worldâ€™s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, 2014) and the essay collection Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen (Utah State UP, 2010), which he co-edited with Mark Decker, Austin writes from a deeply informed position and offers great insight for those who wish to begin work in these branches of Mormon literary studies.