A Mormon Writers Symposium

May 22, 2007 | 18 comments
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Thirty years ago this summer, President Spencer W. Kimball gave us his “Gospel Vision of the Arts”:

In our world, there have risen brilliant stars in drama, music, literature, sculpture, painting, science, and all the graces. For long years I have had a vision of members of the Church greatly increasing their already strong positions of excellence till the eyes of all the world will be upon us….Members of the Church should be peers or superiors to any others in natural ability, extended training, plus the Holy Spirit which should bring them light and truth. With hundreds of “men of God” and their associates so blessed, we have the base for an increasingly efficient and worthy corps of talent….We are proud of the artistic heritage that the Church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy. Such masterpieces should run for months in every movie center, cover every part of the globe in the tongues of the people, written by great artists, purified by the best critics.

President Kimball’s statement was drawn from a longer sermon he had given on education a decade earlier; and looming over his vision was the much older statement of Elder Orson Whitney, who prophesied over a cenury ago that we Mormons would yet have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” But it was this statement a generation ago that became, for a great many Mormon artists, a resounding call: a call to see their own talents as writers, filmmakers, painters and more as part of what they have to offer to the kingdom of God, and a call to strive for perfection as artists and as saints.

Thirty years on, it is hard to say what President Kimball would think his call had accomplished. Members of the church are far, far more present in numerous artistic fields–particularly as writers–than was the case in the 1970s. Yet Kimball’s vision was focused, at least in part, on the creation of something explicitly “Mormon”–and it is widely accepted by most serious readers that great many of the best Mormon authors do not write for or about Mormons at all. As Margaret Young reflected in a post a few months back:

Sadly, if we are to seek wisdom “out of the best books,” we will probably not be shopping at Deseret Book—not for fiction, anyway….I don’t see a promising arc in Mormon letters. I see a lot of “bite-your-lip” suspense, dramatizations within supposed Book of Mormon settings, romances, and pioneer-based historical fiction, but (with some notable exceptions) I don’t see much fiction which is really GOOD—well-crafted, rich in detail and ambiguity, not just uplifting but life-changing….Are we too easily persuaded that sweet stories/poems are usually inspired—especially if they make us feel good and certainly if they make us cry? Are we fearful of where the best fiction might lead us?…Are we, accustomed as we are to correlated lesson manuals, unwilling to plumb deep? Are we consciously contented with easy plots and predictable characters (not to mention predictable rhymes)? Are we lazy readers and therefore lazy writers? Is the problem inherent in the concept of Mormon literature itself? Does such a label invite the literary equivalent to what we’ve seen on the screen: a series of inside jokes, or situations relevant only to Mormons? (Will they get to the temple? Will he quit drinking coffee? Will they manage to camouflage the basketball net for the reception?)…I gratefully acknowledge fine Mormon authors and recognize that we have come quite a ways. But my office bookshelves have no books written by Mormons.

Margaret, like President Kimball before her (though obviously in very different ways), is looking for the sort of writing that transcends genre–the writing of a Shakespeare or a Goethe, a Saul Bellow or a Marilynne Robinson. So perhaps part of the problem is that “Mormon fiction” has itself become very much a genre, with its own stereotypes, plot gimmicks, and consumer-driven marketing. (“If you liked The Work and The Glory, then you’ll love [name any work of historical Mormon fiction here]!”) Yet it is wrong to point to the existence of genres as somehow inherently limiting, since it is in genre fiction of various types–science fiction, romance, horror, children’s fiction, fantasy–that Mormon authors (Orson Scott Card being the premier example) have had the most success…and, arguably, have done the most to move us closer to President Kimball’s vision, where readers worldwide can see and be moved by Mormon characters who live out stories that have our own story as its ultimate background.

Throughout this summer, Times and Seasons will be presenting an occasional series of interviews with published (and still publishing!) Mormon writers. The interviews will touch on what they think it means to be a Mormon author, and how they relate to the Mormon artistic world (both the real one and President Kimball’s envisioned one), but will also deal with the practicalities of being a Mormon author, of juggling callings and pitching book ideas and dealing with readers with contradictory standards and expectations in mind. This isn’t a pioneering effort, to be sure (Motley Vision has been doing this sort of thing for years, and there’s a whole collection of interviews in book form you can purchase, to say nothing of the stuff available on the Association for Mormon Letters website), but we thought it would be a good way to honor Kimball’s call, and in some small way perhaps inspire another generation of Mormon authors and artists.

Some of those to be interviewed are pioneers in the field of “Mormon fiction,” while others may be mostly unknown to anyone who does all their shopping at Deseret Books. Some of the likely participants include Shannon Hale, Stephanie Meyer, Benson Parkinson, Brandon Sanderson, and Douglas Thayer. (Send suggestions in, if you have any.) We’ll begin to tomorrow with Doug Thayer. Please feel free to add your comments about the authors and their responses to our questions, as well as discussing their and others’ writings (what you’ve liked, what you haven’t liked, what you’d like to see, etc.), and much more.

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18 Responses to A Mormon Writers Symposium

  1. Dallas Robbins on May 22, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    This is such an important issue – I look forward to the interviews.

  2. Emily M. on May 22, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    What about Donald Smurthwaite? I love Fine Old High Priests and The Boxmaker’s Son. They are what I want LDS fiction written for a Mormon audience to be–sincere without being sappy, nice polished writing. Great stuff. I would love to read what he has to say about writing the spiritual while avoiding triteness.

  3. onelowerlight on May 22, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    This reminds me a bit of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and how all of the innovators that saved the Foundation always came from the least likely sources. If you aren’t familiar with the series, here’s the basic concept: in a galaxy of several thousand inhabited worlds, ruled by a mostly benevolent empire that keeps the peace, a scientist develops a way of predicting the future based on statistical probabilities derived from historical and political data (psychohistory). He figures out that the way things are developing, the empire will collapse in a couple of generations and the whole galaxy will be thrown into thirty thousand years of chaos. But he also figures that if he establishes a colony, called the Foundation, and sets things up right, then in one thousand years the Foundation will grow to become the new empire, and restore peace to the galaxy. The series is about all of the crises that the Foundation meets with through those thousand years before peace is restored.

    The relevant part is that in all of the crises, its never the mainstream leadership of the Foundation that solves the problem and moves the Foundation towards the end goal. The mainstream is always doing incredibly stupid, blundering stuff that would end up destroying the Foundation, if they could have their way. It’s always the ones on the edge of the Foundation civilization that have the innovative ideas that end up saving the Foundation. When I think of Deseret book and the other mainstream sources for LDS arts and literature, it seems to echo, in some ways, this idea. I suppose that the true innovators and creative geniuses within the LDS community aren’t likely to come out of the major LDS publishers, just as the true leaders of the Foundation never came from the mainstream. After all, OSC came from Tor, a mainstream Sci Fi publisher (which wasn’t mainstream when OSC signed up with them).

    Although I am an aspiring writer, and I am LDS, I wouldn’t ever say that my work lies within the “Mormon” genre, and it’s not my ultimate goal to be published by Deseret Book, or any other mainstream LDS publisher. I’m not against submitting stuff to them, but I’m pretty indifferent as to whether I get a deal with them or not.

  4. William Morris on May 22, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    Benson Parkinson. Now there’s a name I have not heard in a long time — too long a time.

    I don’t care what you ask him as long as you harangue him into writing more fiction. His missionary novels aren’t blow your mind amazing, but they’re quite good and like Doug Thayer’s pre-mission novel “The Conversion of Jeff William” should be required reading at BYU.

    And it’s an outrage that the third novel in the trilogy was never published (or if it was, I haven’t heard about it, which would also be an outrage).

  5. amri on May 22, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    I like John Bennion. And Louise Plummer.

    Margaret Young was one of my writing instructors at BYU and I wrote this story about a Mormon girl who gets caught necking and I thought it was v. tense and v. serious. We had a little interview in her office and she said she just didn’t care, there wasn’t enough on the line to make her care. Necking! I still can’t believe I wrote that story, but I think that’s a major problem with Mormon fiction. Necking. And not putting anything real on the line.

    Thanks for doing these interviews. This is great.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on May 23, 2007 at 8:15 am

    Dallas. Amri, others–I’m glad the prospect of these interviews interests you. Going over the ones that have come in so far, I’m really intrigued by the range of views, going from those who have struggled with and are somewhat dubious about the whole “Mormon literature” thing to those that really don’t even think about it. Hopefully, some of the authors will participate in threads on their own work as well.

    Emily, Amri–thanks for the suggestions. I’m not familiar with Donald Smurthwaite, but Louise Plummer has been discussed as a possible participant as well. Thanks for the reminder of John Bennion’s work; perhaps we can reach out to him as well.

    Onelowerlight–great thoughts about the dynamics involved in publishing and developing new ideas; thanks!

    William–with any luck, Benson will have some news when his interview finally shows up…

  7. Melissa on May 23, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Have you considered interviewing Brian Evenson? He might be too controversial a figure for Times and Seasons, but he’s interesting. His new book _The Open Curtain_ certainly qualifies as Mormon fiction even if he doesn’t self identify as a Latter-day Saint. He’s currently Chair of the Literary Arts Council at Brown University.

  8. William Morris on May 23, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    I second (or third) John Bennion and Donald Smurthwaite.

    FWIW, Brian Evenson was interviewed by Irreantum a while back. A great interview. I believe that interview or a new one is also in Conversations with Mormon Authors.

  9. FoxyJ on May 23, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    I was going to suggest John Bennion and Louise Plummer as well. There are a number of LDS writers of young adult/children’s fiction that are all really cool, interesting people: Chris Crowe, Carol Lynch Williams, Ann Cannon, and Kristin Randle all come to mind. They all publish with mainstream presses and most of their books are not neccessarily “Mormon”, but certainly Mormon-inspired. And I know most of them in-person and I know they would make great interviewees :)

  10. Russell Arben Fox on May 23, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    FoxyJ, I’m going to have to ask my wife about some of those names–I’m unfamiliar with them, but she writes about and reviews a great deal of youth ficition, so she may be able to bring me up to speed.

    As for your personal contacts with them…hmm, we may take you up on that offer.

  11. Keith on May 23, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    You might consider Bruce Jorgensen. He’s written some fine stuff (though perhaps not as much as some) and he’s a good reader/thinker. I know he’s thought about the issues and he’s articulate. Here’s a link to a short story of his — on of my favorites (Sorry I don’t know how to make the link smaller):
    http://www.lds.org/portal/site/LDSOrg/menuitem.b12f9d18fae655bb69095bd3e44916a0/?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=6127d0640b96b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1

  12. Carolyn on May 24, 2007 at 10:31 am

    onelowerlight,

    I loved the Foundation series too.

    Your analogy reminded me that in the early 20th century many people in the classical music establishment were lamenting the fact that America had not yet produced a great musician/composer along the lines of say a J.S. Bach. Yet all the while that great musician was right under their nose in the person of Louis Armstrong, who influenced every other jazz musician who came after him and whose influence on the evolution of jazz swept the world.

    The musician they were looking for was right there but because he did not present in the form they were expecting they did not recognize him. (J.S. Bach by the way was also seriously under appreciated in his own life time.)

    I think it will be this way with the so-called “great” LDS writer/musican/artist. That person will probably not present in the expected way and so will not be recognized as such for a while.

  13. kristine N on May 29, 2007 at 12:10 am

    I read Inclination, a novella written by William Shunn that was nominated for the Hugo award for science fiction and was struck by some portions of the piece that are very heavily influenced by Mormonism. I don\’t know for sure that the author is LDS, but he was born in Utah and if he wasn\’t raised in the church at least, I\’d be very surprised. I thought it was a great story–it\’s set on a space station and the main character is a kid who is raised as a Machinist (essentially a religious fundamentalist in a religion with serious LDS undertones). He is forced by economic circumstances to go out into the world and make choices that are fairly analogous, I thought, to Word of Wisdom-type choices. I enjoyed the story and it\’s a pretty quick read for a novella. The ending was handled well and consistent with the characters, though not quite what I would have expected from and LDS author. I\’d be interested in what other people think of the story…

  14. Russell Arben Fox on May 29, 2007 at 8:46 am

    I’ve never read any of Bill Shunn’s fiction, Kristine, but I’ve read some of his online writings, and I know he’s fairly respected amongst various literary/sci-fi bloggers and writers. He was raised Mormon, but has long since left the church, including having gone through a serious anti-Mormon stage. He used to maintain a fair amount of critical stuff on the web, but I don’t know if he’s still into that scene or has moved on. Interesting to here that it pops up in his fiction nonetheless.

  15. Neal Kramer on June 1, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    I’m very pleased to see Benson Parkinson mentioned by William.

    His fiction is flawed in many ways. There are issues of style and narrative flow that tend to bog readers down. That said, Benson has done some things very well. In his two novels about missionary training and work, he works very hard to find a spiritual language that will allow him to explore and show the dynamics of spiritual experience in general and conversion in its specificity.

    I think he understands the psychology of becoming a missionary as well as any writer of Mormon fiction. He writes with testimony that is not faked or overtly didactic. Instead, he allows his testimony to be seen in the experiences of his characters.

    I personally wish there was a way to help Benson clean up the first two books and then get the third published.

    His fiction has not sold well, but it deserves a broader audience.

    I think young men preparing to go one missions should read all of Doiug Thayer’s stories and novels. As I said before, I strongly recommend Summer Fire.

    Neal Kramer

  16. William Morris on June 1, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    Neal:

    I think your comments on Benson’s novels are spot on.

    And one of these days I’ll start up my project on spiritual language/expression in Mormon fiction. It’s a topic that I find very interesting. Perhaps it might be easiest to start with a look at missionary fiction. Such a range — from Barry Monroe’s moment after the fireworks mishap to some of the moments in Bela Petco’s Nothing very important and other stories.

    Coke Newell’s forthcoming autobiographical novel is also very interesting in this regard — and quite different from what’s already out there (it will be published by Zarahemla Books — AMV will post details on it when it is released.).

  17. an observer on June 2, 2007 at 6:14 pm

    Any thoughts about Brady Udall? I’ve heard his name on occasion.

  18. Scott Harms on June 27, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Sir’s
    I’m trying to reach a fomer BYU Daily Universe/Monday Magazine writer – Don Smurthwaite.

    My name is Scott Harms, and I was a staff photographer with Don from 1976-77, and just thought I’d say HELLO.

    I can be reached at : slharms91730@yahoo.com

    Sincerely,

    Scott

WELCOME

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