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 â€œmen of Godâ€ 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 â€œout of the best books,â€ we will probably not be shopping at Deseret Bookâ€”not for fiction, anyway….I donâ€™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 donâ€™t see much fiction which is really GOODâ€”well-crafted, rich in detail and ambiguity, not just uplifting but life-changing….Are we too easily persuaded that sweet stories/poems are usually inspiredâ€”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 weâ€™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.