Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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

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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Tom Nysetvold on the Mormon Texts Project 2.0

4.10.14 | | 2 comments

Tom Nysetvold has taken on the yeoman work of starting back up the Mormon Texts Project. He was kind enough to answer some questions about it.

Why did you decide to resurrect the Mormon Texts Project?

I somehow ran in to and read some books on Project Gutenberg (notably Joseph Smith as Scientist by Widtsoe) that had been done by the Mormon Texts Project (MTP). They led me to Ben Crowder’s MTP website, and I was very impressed with what he was doing. I got in touch with him and found out he’d recently suspended the project for lack of time to run it.
I thought it was a shame that many important Church books still weren’t (and aren’t) available, and I’ve long been interested in the ideals of open source projects, Creative Commons, etc., so I decided to do a couple of books to figure out the Project Gutenberg process and see if it was something I was interested in doing on a larger scale. I had a lot of fun doing The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt’s An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, so I decided to try and get other people involved in the same type of work, and I contacted Ben and got his permission to use the Mormon Texts Project name. A few friends and I started working, and we’re now up to ten books released on Project Gutenberg (PG) this year (seven that were previously unavailable and three that were available only on the old MTP website). At this point, 31 church books are available on PG (23 of which were produced by MTP) out of roughly 45,000 books total. I think those numbers show that as a global religion with a rich heritage, we have a long way to go before that heritage is appropriately accessible. more

Science fiction “invested” in Mormonism:
FIVE FICTIONS

4.2.14 | | 28 comments

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Once again, Dr Hales’s “ignorance” of science fiction has lost him some ethos among the AML crowd and so, now that he’s done dissertation-writing, I think it’s high time we get him some reading.

So here’s the challenge: using Enid’s definition of Mormon literature, suggest five science-fictions that meet your interpretation of her criteria.

Enid Seems to Allow for Science Fiction

In the comments section, I will ask that you either provide your own list of five science-fictions Scott should read or helpful commentary on others’ lists. Ideally, by the end of the comments section we’ll have consensus on what he should read. Although, pause for hilarious laughter, I don’t think we’ll really be able to do that.

Theric’s Five Suggestions for Science Fiction Invested in Mormonism more

A Review of L.T. Downing’s Get That Gold

2.16.14 | | 3 comments

Get That Gold is a tale of the LDS Restoration, aimed at middle-grade readers (and for families to read together, according to the author.)

I started this story with some trepidation. I always feel that way about books written by writers in this LDS community. I once read something that Angela Hallstrom wrote about how, as a writer of LDS fiction, she didn’t feel she could be a reviewer of LDS fiction. The two were becoming less compatible for her.

I have determined to be both a writer and a reviewer because I feel that I have a kind of duty, if that makes sense. I love LDS fiction. I actually read it, and I read it growing up. Therefore, I am a legitimate part of the audience, and as a writer, I can provide good feedback and some relevant insights about books I read, mingled with real constructive criticism as someone who works hard at the craft myself.

The problem is, this means sometimes I’ll be reviewing the story  of someone who has reviewed mine. There can be a feeling, in this small community of “tit for tat,” etc, whether people mean that or not. So I’m just going to state up front, right now:  all of you people in this community who are reading my stories? And writing reviews of them? I expect your honesty, and I can handle it. If you did not like something about my story, say so. So that I can improve. If you found dialog disingenuous or forced. If you disliked a character. If you felt my plot fell apart, or my pacing was off. (Mark Penny pointed this out about Lightning Tree, and gave me only three stars because of it. See? I really can handle it.)

Not to say I don’t believe my stories are awesome. I think they are. And those of you who have appreciated and reviewed them, thank you for taking the time to write a review! It really helps motivate us as writers to get feedback not just from our audience but from our peers who are among that audience.

OK. Disclaimers aside. I’m going to say the stuff I’m dreading up front, like ripping off a bandaid.

I enjoyed both Island of the Stone Boy and Get That Gold, but I felt both could have benefited from another round of editing. Not sentence structure or grammar; I think Downing is flawless there. More for story flow, descriptions and dialog. Particularly when description and dialog mixed, I felt jarred a lot. There were some tag echoes, a bit too much description of character movement/action in the middle of dialog, and some of the character descriptions and actions were hard to picture in my head.

OK. I got that out of the way. Moving on:

Get That Gold is eminently worth your time. I loved this story, and I know my kids will love it, and I fully plan on reading it to them as a bedtime story for the next several nights. I was deeply touched by this story. I loved the depiction of Joseph, especially. I was moved to tears at times. I loved the depiction of Emma. I loved Joseph’s family. I can tell that Downing put a great deal of time and effort into her research, and as a reader I trust that. I really enjoyed being transported into the setting and time period of the restoration. Above all, I felt the excitement, the deep and spiritual profundity, of Joseph and his retrieval of the Gold Plates.

There is a slapstick feel about Downing’s fiction at times. Her humor runs to the bad-guys-being-silly-and-getting-hurt sort of thing. While I am not the biggest fan of slapstick, I know this will make my kids laugh a whole lot as I read it to them. As an adult, I probably need to loosen up and enjoy it more, too.

I know that this story has been waiting for a while to be published; that one of the big 3 LDS publishers finally turned it down several years ago because they felt the fiction made light of the sacredness of the Joseph Smith story. I felt the opposite. I felt, after reading this, excited to re-read Joseph Smith History in my scriptures, and the testimony of the witnesses. I felt excited to read the Book of Mormon. I think that this story is a jewel, to be honest. As I read it to my children, I expect it will engage them in the story of the Restoration, and help them to be interested in Joseph Smith as person. I find this to be a vital part of my own testimony and am grateful someone has taken the time to write a story that will help young people see the excitement, the danger, the fun and funny in such an important story.

Replacing Irreantum: Readership

12.5.13 | | 20 comments

This post brings to an end my analysis of the barriers involved in replacing Irreantum, the now defunct literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters.

Other installments: Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions |Financial Models | Starting Up | Readership

READERSHIP

This series began by me thinking through the issues related to replacing a small, now defunct Mormon-themed literary journal (Irreantum). Looking at all the challenges (and choices) involved, it’s easy to see why very few are willing to take them on. But if there’s a reason to do it, then it’s for this — the readership. That’s true of any publication, but I think it’s especially true for the Mormon readership. In my experience, although the readership may be small, the actual readers are delighted to find something on the page that they can relate to. It’s important, rewarding work, and if a replacement could come about that expanded the readership that Irreantum had developed, that would be a great gift to the Mormon people.

And yet, I don’t want to downplay the concerns. Mormon publications have a mixed track record. There are no unqualified successes and the trail has been hard sledding the past few years for outlets that focus on fiction (Dialogue and Sunstone seem to be doing okay, but neither focuses primarily on creative work). Literature has long been in last place in terms of attention from the Mormon Studies crowd. And what readership there is seems to me to be fragmented along several axes in relation to content appropriateness; genre-literary; types of narrative art (fiction, essay, poetry, film, theater); socio-cultural experiences (Mormon corridor – diaspora); cultural aspirations (deseret school – missionary school); etc. more