Criticism: About that Whitney quote

So about that Orson F. Whitney quote…

No, not this one. Not the one that crops up almost everywhere.

This quote — the one that appears near the bottom of the right sidebar:

“Our literature must live and breathe for itself.”

The quote comes from the same source as the Shakespeares and Miltons one. It’s part of the section in Whitney’s foundational essay “Home Literature” where he most clearly defines how Mormon writers should go about creating a home literature:

“Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of “Mormon” literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no “sisters nine,” no “blue-eyed maid of heaven”; no invoking of mythical muses that “did never yet one mortal song inspire.” No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God’s supreme design.” (Orson Whitney. “Home Literature.” The Contributor: July 1988).

Setting aside the whole Holy Ghost question for a moment, it may seem that talk about muses is out of place in the world of (post)modern fiction, but how many times have you heard authors discuss the process of writing in terms that seem to hearken back to the idea of a muse? Sure, now we call it the subconscious, but authors continue to claim that their characters come from some ‘other’ place. You hear things like: “I thought the novel was going to be about James, but then the character of Tess grabbed me by the shoulders and yelled in my ear and forced me to completely changed the focus.” Or, “At first I didn’t know exactly what her story was so I had to get her to tell it to me.” Or, “Yeah, that was a weird twist for me too — David completely surprised me by doing that.” [Full disclosure: I made all those quotes up. They are based, however, on interviews I’ve heard/read over the years].

Now, granted this is just a way to explain the creative process, and in some cases is probably exaggerated to mystify the experience of writing for non-writers. At the same time, I know that for me writing a narrative, writing about characters, requires a sort of tugging on the subconscious, an inner staging that can’t be consciously blocked out beforehand.

Okay, so that’s all well and fine — the subconscious has a role in the creative process and you could describe that as a sort of ‘muse.’ The real question is: how involved is the Holy Ghost in the process?

I can’t answer that question, of course. Sure there are authors in the LDS market that claim that they were inspired to write a particular work. But there’s no real way to verify that. For even if readers feel the Holy Ghost when reading, viewing or listening to a particular work, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work itself has received some indelible stamp of the spirit — especially since not only is feeling the spirit a subjective, virtually indescribable experience, but it also varies by reader. Even those of us who claim some sort of orthodoxy, who have built a common ground of trust, of feeling the spirit in similar situations, don’t always respond with the same intensity [or even at all sometimes] to works of art.

Which I guess gets at the real difficulty here. What does it mean for the Holy Ghost to inspire a work? Is it some form of automatic writing where the writer only acts as a conduit? I’d doubt that any Mormon writers would claim that. Does it mean that God somehow wants a particular work to come forth? In my experience, God wants us to use our talents and can encourage us in a particular direction, but that doesn’t mean he sanctions the work for all time and all peoples. None of us are writing for the scriptural canon — no matter how inspired we feel our work to be. [Okay, so there’s some room for discussion on this point, but I don’t feel like going into it here].

No, I think that at most I can say that this about Whitney’s quote: Mormon artists should seek to live close to the spirit, to do those “Sunday School” things [prayer, service, scripture reading, temple attendance] that keep us in tune, and just as importantly, I think, Mormon artists should be obsessed with Mormon materials, with the stuff of our history, theology and culture. Assuming it is possible, and I remain hopeful that it is even though I think that it will take some time and will not be in abundance, originality, a literature that breathes for itself, will come from someone who can digest and interpret Mormon materials in a way that is informed by and refreshes but resists, even critiques Western, canonical [and pop, I think] culture.

CAVEAT: “Mormon artists” above refers to artists who seek to live a life of LDS orthodoxy. In keeping with the big tent definition of Mormon literature, A Motley Vision will, at other times, use the term “Mormon artists” in a broader sense to include those, for instance, who identify themselves as cultural Mormons but are not active LDS. I’m not sure how this Whitney quote would apply to them. But I’m open to comments that speak to that issue.

Film: Newsday on ‘Napoleon Dynamite’

The June 6 edition of Newsday features my favorite article so far on “Napoleon Dynamite,” the film from LDS director Jared Hess that was a hit at the Sundance Festival.

Here’s why:

1. Hess reveals for the first time (that I’ve read) that the character of Napoleon Dynamite is loosely (very loosely) based on a man he met on his mission.

From the article: “For Jared Hess, a 24-year-old filmmaker based in Salt Lake City, it began when he was serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He commenced his stint in Caracas, Venezuela, but finished up in Chicago after hernias forced him back to the States for surgery. It was while he was in Chicago that an elderly Italian-American man came up to him and introduced himself as Napoleon Dynamite.

In the next couple of years, this flamboyant senior from Chicago would morph in Hess’ imagination into a sullen, misfit high-schooler from Preston, Idaho” (Jan Stuart. “A dynamite muse.” Newsday: June 6, 2004).

When I was on my mission in Romania I met a guy who called himself Roberto Christo and claimed to have worked for Donald Trump back in the States. He spoke and dressed like a New Jersey Italian mobster — right down to the two track suit look [that’s right — a red and black tracksuit zipped down the sternum with an unzipped yellow and baby blue track suit jacket over the entire ensemble] and the big gold chain with cross dangling in the chest hair. I’ve thought about how I could work this character into a piece of fiction, but I only met the guy briefly so it’d be hard to get all the details right — so I like what Hess has done better. He’s taken the weird character from his mission and transposed him to a setting [Preston, Idaho -and- High School] that he knows really well.

2. It discusses the working relationship Hess has with his co-author and wife Jerusha. She says about working with her husband: “Jared needs someone, especially me, to get him to start writing. He can’t multitask. He’s jotting down note after note on random bits of paper, then I sit down and start putting things together. I’m the get-the-ball-rolling person. He listens, we fight about it, and we come up with a better arrangement.”

I like this because I’m always interested in hearing about other writers’ creative processes, but also because I think that, considering the building-Zion-together aspect of Mormonism, LDS writers would be eminently suited to doing interesting, unique collaborative projects. Of course, a husband-wife duo is quite different from what I’m thinking about — it’s a whole other dynamic. But this article brought that interest of mine back to mind.

Know of any really cool example of collaborative writing in Mormon fiction [non-fiction is different because it’s more of a normal practice]? Post a comment. I’m always looking for reading that matches up with my theoretical interests.

BY THE WAY: “Napoleon Dynamite” opens in New York this Friday.

News: Move over Matthew Barney — Brocka is in town

Hip, liberal NYC Mormons looking for the next post-Matthew Barney thrill may be interested in a rare opportunity to see a screening of Lino Brocka’s “Manila: in the Claws of Neon.” The GLBT publication The Empty Closet reports that the film will be shown June 30 at the Dryden Theater.

As LDS film has reported, Brocka was one of the first members baptized in the Philippines. He converted in his early twenties and served a mission but then left the faith. According to LDS film, “Brocka was not an active churchgoer later in life, but never held animosity toward the Church. It appears that Filipino church members eventually rejected Brocka’s films because of ‘R-rated’ content and GLBT themes.”

I can’t recommend this film because I haven’t seen it and know nothing about its content [which I know is important for many LDS filmgoers, including myself]. But what I thought was interesting is that the LDS context comes up in The Empty Closet article in a way that is frankly one of the more positive treatments of the faith I’ve run across in press coverage of LDS and GLBT issues — especially when it comes to the world of art.

The relevant paragraph:

“Interestingly enough, Brocka converted to Mormonism in his early twenties, making him one of the first two Philippine citizens baptized into the LDS faith. Subsequently he served as an LDS missionary in a Hawaiian leper colony, a formative experience that presented him with images of humanity at its most abject, something which would be reflected in much of Brocka’s later artistic production.” (“Manila: in the Claws of Neon by Lino Brocka premiers at Eastman Pride Month series.” The Empty Closet: June 3, 2004).

Okay so perhaps positive isn’t quite the right adjective, but I like the acknowledgement that his missionary service affected his art. And more importantly that it was his experiences with “abject humanity” that his mission provided that found its way into his art rather than, say, a story of personal liberation from the confines of Mormonism — the narrative that seems to often be deployed by American GLBT artists. Perhaps The Empty Closet was influenced by LDS film’s information on Brocka [Reporters do use Google, after all], or more likely, and this hopeful person that I am believe, this narrative of Brocka and his art in relation to his Mormonism is the one that’s generally accepted and isn’t just how “LDS insiders” view him.

More: See also this bio written by a Filipina for a Filipinos in history Web site.

News: Jay’s Journal and Deseret Book

The latest issue of Salt Lake City Weekly features a cover story on Jay’s Journal, a sensationalist cautionary tale that Motley Vision readers, or at least those that spent their teenage years somewhere along the Wasatch Front, may be familiar with. The article itself is your standard alt-weekly piece. So don’t take this as a whole-cloth endorsement of it, but the basic premise of the story — that Beatrice Sparks, the “editor” of Jay’s Journal fabricated, or at least exaggerated most of the sensational (much of it having to do with Satan worship and the occult) material that is included in the work — appears to be credible.

The book is based on the journals of Alden Barrett, a (disaffected) LDS kid from Pleasant Grove who committed suicide at the age of 16. Alden’s mother Marcella — who has remained active in the LDS Church — gave the journals to Sparks because she wanted other teenagers to learn from her son’s death, to help them stay on the straight and narrow. She was horrified, naturally, to find all the added material. Sparks claims that she pulled the occult material and other details from interviews with Alden’s friends and other sources — although she’s a bit hazy and unforthcoming on the documentation and the details. I have no way of verifying any of this, but my guess is that at the very least she exaggerated a lot of the material to suit her primary goal — trying to scare Utah teens straight.

I haven’t read the book. But I spent grades 7-9 in Provo public schools and I remember seeing kids reading it and hearing them discuss it. And I’m sure that this comes as a major shocker, but as far as I recall not one of them was interested in it as cautionary tale — they just liked the prurient parts. This is not to say that any of them went on to indulge in the occult — fears of such activities among the young have continually been shown to be overblown.

I could be wrong. Judging by the Amazon.com comments there are readers out there who respond to it in the way Sparks intended.

But this post isn’t really about the Sparks-Barrett dispute. What I found most interesting about the article is that it proffers another example of how Deseret Book’s stocking policy is playing out.

Alden’s brother Scott has published a rebuttal to “Jay’s Journal.” He reports:

“Today, Deseret Book sells Jay’s Journal online, but refused to sell Scott’s book because it contains some profanity, he said. No other publisher or distributor has expressed interest in Alden’s journal.” (Ben Diterle. “Teen Death Diary.” Salt Lake City Weekly: June 3, 2004). ASIDE: I cleaned up three typos in this quote. What does SLC Weekly not have copy editors?

So let me get this straight. Profanity — not good. Vivid, bloody depictions of occult acts — okay. Now let me be clear. I’m not criticizing the policy. I believe Sheri Dew when she said that the policy is in response to extensive market research — that it’s what their customers want. And if that’s the business model they feel the need to go with, I’m not going to fault them for that. Most companies have to be just as responsive to their customers. But what I do think this illustrates is that the policy is bound to lead to more moments of dissonance.

I think what puzzles me most is that it doesn’t seem to add up with other instances of application of the policy. In the first, a book by Anita Stansfield that had a frame that showed that acts were ‘bad’ weren’t carried by DB because the acts were referred to or depicted. In the second, a book by Richard Paul Evans had such a subtle depiction of a man spending a night with a woman he wasn’t married with — a depiction of emotional infidelity perhaps, but at least according to him, not one of adultry. How is the objections to these two books any different from “Jay’s Journal” which has a cautionary tale frame, but depicts “bad” (one might say even “evil”) acts? Again, I’ve read none of the books in question, but the press coverage so far has me confused.

It’s not clear if Deseret Book was actually contacted for the SLC Weekly story. If DB would care to clarify or further elucidate this situation, contact me.

NOTE: I’d prefer to link to AP, Salt Lake Tribune or Deseret News articles on Evans and Stansfield, but I ran into paid archives.

News: Romance mingles with Self-Help

A recent reported on “Whisperings,” a romance novel published by Covenant that tells the story of a grown woman trying to overcome the effects of childhood abuse. The author Cherrann Bailey drew on her experiences growing up in an abusive home to write the novel which features a female therapist who is having difficulty overcoming what the article describes as “emotional wounds.”

What’s interesting about the way this book is being marketed is that both Bailey and the Covenant spokesperson are positioning it as a way to reach LDS women who wouldn’t be inclined to pick up a self-help book on the subject.

Bailey says:

“I think a problem with the LDS environment is that a lot of people, especially women, think that seeking professional help is difficult or unnecessary…I don’t feel a woman would walk into an LDS bookstore and reach for a book about abuse. But I do feel she would pick up a novel. I wanted to give people a way to feel for a character and follow that character through a process of healing with hopes that they may relate to her; that they themselves can deal with their own situations and find some peace.” (Doug Fox. “Orem abuse victim confronts childhood trauma in new novel.” The Daily Herald, May 16, 2004.)

I’ll have more to say about all this when I review the romance issue of Irreantum. For now, let me just say that mixing the self-help and romance genres is an interesting development in the Mormon marketplace [and not a new one — as we’ll see in the Irreantum review] because it defuses to a certain extent the trope that romance novels are simply escapist fantasies for their readers.

SIDENOTE: Covenant says that they have sold 4,200 copies of the novel [as of May 16] and 1,200 of the book on tape. I know very little about how well fiction titles sell in the LDS market, but from what little I do know, those are decent sales figures. Anyone who knows more than I do care to comment?

Criticism: What is Mormon literature?

Now that the introductory material is out of the way, on to the business of blogging…

There are two questions wrapped up in the post title.

The first: What works and authers count as Mormon literature?

The answer to this question varies by audience, obviously. The tendency in Mormon letters has been to take a broad approach, thus, Mormon literature is anything written by Mormons (active LDS or otherwise) or any work that is about Mormons [generally meaning, at least when it comes to fiction, has at least one Mormon character ]. That works for me, for now, and so I expect A Motley Vision to range from Walter Kirn to Jack Weyland. But I have to admit that, for me, certain works and authors ‘count’ more than others. Why is that? And what elements make a work resonate more fully with me [and with others] as a Mormon reader — that arouse my ‘Mormon-ness’ as opposed to simply my ‘literary-dude-ness’?

The second: What type of literature is Mormon literature?

Typically Mormon literature has been regarded as a sub-set of Western regionalism. If you look at the non-LDS bookstore, non-BYU market, Mormon literature crops up in the form of titles published by the University of Illinois, Utah State and the University of Utah as just one part of a catalog of Western works. In addition to its own meetings, the Association of Mormon Letters usually sponsors a session at the annual Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association conference. The Weber State journal Weber Studies and the University of Utah’s Western Humanities Review focus on Western regional titles, including some Mormon works.

This is all fine. But Western regionalism isn’t a very telling category — especially as the field develops and titles come out that aren’t rooted in the Intermountain West. So is it an ethnic [Mormo-American], religious, Christian [certainly much of the Mormon publishing and book selling market is modeled after the Christian market], minor or even national literature?

I think that it’s a strange hybrid. That it is unique in the way that it seems to be caught between and interacts with an active, even dominant institutional LDS discourse , a rather provincial ‘home’ market and the field of American literature . And I think you could even argue that Mormon literature is still in such nascent form that any attempts to categorize it are premature. And yet, I can’t leave this topic alone. I intend to keep trying to tease out where it [or parts of it] seem to point in a specific direction, always with the understanding, of course, that I my perspective is biased because I desire for it to grow and gain in legitimacy as a field of its own, as Mormon literature.

About the site: My pretensions

My college coursework was in literary studies; I work in the field of public relations. This blog reflects both backgrounds. Thus, my interest in Mormon literature ranges from the content of the texts themselves to how they are created, edited, marketed, distributed, read, reviewed and, finally, canonized, taught, referenced or forgotten.

The subhead mentions film, theater, music and pop/folk culture. What I intended for that to indicate is that I’m interested in all forms of Mormon narrative art. What makes a work “Mormon” is a huge question that I’m not prepared to answer, but hope to explore in some form with this blog.What makes a work a “narrative” is another great question, but I don’t think I’m going to even touch that one.

I’m also interested in Mormon pop and folk culture so there may also be some forays into semiotics and material culture.

For all this I owe a huge debt to the AML-list, the e-mail discussion list of the Association of Mormon Letters. I spent six years on the list — four of those as an active poster. It allowed me to become familiar with the field and betray my obsessions with topics that will pop up here regularly. And for that — a special shout out goes to Ben Parkinson, Jonathan Langford and (currently) Jacob Proffitt for the thankless, time-consuming work of moderating the list.

About the name: A Motley Vision

A Motley Vision takes its name from “Love and the Light: An Idyll of the Westland” a rather didactic verse epic written by Orson F. Whitney. Published in 1918, the work was intended to combat the secularism and “Higher Criticism” which Whitney felt was creeping into Utah society. At one point the hero of the poem, a Harvard man who converts to the LDS Church, visits the Grand Canyon while traveling by train to Utah. Whitney launches into an extended description of the Canyon, drawing upon vivid imagery and wild Classical- and Christian-inspired metaphors to present a complex portrait of its sublime beauty. It’s the best passage in the entire work.

Several stanzas into the passage, the hero describes the Canyon at sunset:

Glorious and grotesque presentment,
Good and ill, a motley vision,
Half-alluring, half repelling;
Rainbow-hued, yet shorn of radiance,
Like to Lucifer the Fallen;
Beautiful, though sadly brilliant,
Blazing with satanic splendor
In the sunset’s dying glory;
All the hues of hell and heaven
In one blare of lurid blazoning,
In one master stroke commingled.

Hmmm. Perhaps I should have chosen “Blare of Lurid Blazoning” instead.