How to make Mormon literature great

February 14, 2010 | 54 comments
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scholarsGlenn Beck, the soapbox orator of cable television, has done more, save Sheri Dew only, for the greatness of Mormon literature, than any other person that ever lived.

One of the more irritating exercises of Mormon tribal self-loathing is the parlor game called Where, O Where is Great Mormon Literature? This inevitably leads to the discussion of what is and is not Mormon Literature, usually with the end result that Mormon Literature Worthy of the Name must involve adultery and/or drinking coffee within 100 miles of St. George (but not closer than 10 miles to I-15). The authors of Mormon Literature (worthy of the name) should have been excommunicated at least once, if at all possible. Also, the Golden Age of Mormon Literature occurred in 1957. Sorry, you missed it, but you can still find copies of the out-of-print classics at obscure bookstores everywhere.

What’s irritating about this is not just the tiresome discussion of what truly qualifies as Literature and who truly qualifies as Mormon, but that it overlooks entirely how ‘greatness’ in literature is constructed. Mormons can determine the boundaries of Mormonness, and just about any sequence of words on paper can be construed as literature, but literary greatness is largely out of our control, with the consequence that the Mormon literature that attracts the notice of book critics for the New York Times is most often the kind of Mormon literature that is comprehensible to them: exit narratives.

Which brings us to Glenn Beck. I’ve never watched his television program, but I gather that he says controversial things, and that I would likely disagree with his political views. Beck has, however, used his platform to promote books that he likes, so much so that he’s become something like the Oprah of thriller novels, and publishers are starting to notice. I have no idea if any of the Beck-promoted novelists are Mormons, or if there is any recognizably Mormon aesthetic in Beck’s selections, so what he has done so far for the greatness of Mormon literature might not amount to much at all—except he’s created a position for himself where he has the ability to do so, which is more than just about anyone else has done.

Which brings us to Sheri Dew. She has led Deseret Book for the past several years, including the expansion of its Shadow Mountain imprint into a force on the national market for midgrade novels. Shadow Mountain has launched the careers of a number of authors, its books are widely sold at retail centers and airports near you, and the books are in some respects recognizably Mormon products. Sheri Dew has both achieved a position of influence in the field of midgrade novels, and used it to promote (among other things) Mormon authors and books that incorporate some Mormon elements.

Which doesn’t mean that Shadow Mountain books are necessarily great. I often read midgrade books, but the ones from Shadow Mountain that I’ve looked at have suffered from the plague of wacky characters and situations that commonly afflicts midgrade novels, and which has the effect of sucking all the tension from the story and lowering the stakes to ground level. (If you want to know how it should be done, take a look at Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz series. I don’t love the wacky elements, but they turn out to be essential to the plot, not merely thrown in to keep the kiddies laughing.)

There are a lot of really good Mormon authors out there right now, and they’ve proved that there is serious money to be made from using Mormon elements in fiction. But the people who decide what constitutes greatness in literature aren’t Mormons, and often dismiss elements of the Mormon aesthetic, such as premarital chastity, as mere oddities or acute menaces to right-thinking hedonists everywhere. To make Mormon literature great, we need people who hold positions of influence in the world of books. Mormonism won’t have its Shakespeare until it has its Edmund Wilson and Maxwell Perkins. For now, we have Glen Beck and Sheri Dew.

54 Responses to How to make Mormon literature great

  1. Ugly Mahana on February 14, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    I really appreciated reading this. Thanks.

  2. Wilfried on February 14, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Sharp, Jonathan, painfully sharp. Thanks for this contribution.

  3. annegb on February 14, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    I believe the way to make it great is to take the “Mormon” out of it and recognize our humanness with honesty and without that awful editing out of any life from the story that Sheri Dew-led Deseret Books does.

    Where do you put Orson Scott Card in there?

  4. AllieJ on February 14, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Sheri Dew and those that help her have hurt Mormon Literature. A few years back, I’m thinking like five, they refused to allow Covenant/Seagull Books to have Deseret Books on the shelves. Some vague reference to not liking the way Deseret Books were being discounted or displayed in the Seagull stores. Although Sam’s Club and Costco were discounting and displaying “sacred” books in less than reverent stacks. Deseret Books also pulled most of Covenant’s books off their shelves. It was a masterfully designed method of starving the competition. Very cut throat and effective. We won’t sell your books and you can’t sell ours.

    Eventually, Covenant/Seagull cried, “Wolf” and sold out to Deseret Book. Thus began a monopoly. Few authors want to spend the considerable time necessary to create a manuscript that might not please CEO Sister Dew. Certainly there are independent publishers, etc. out there, but if Deseret Book won’t put an author on the shelves, sales are limited. Authors go elsewhere.

    So if you are describing great Mormon literature as those books that have Mormon elements written mostly for a Mormon audience, we probably aren’t getting the best authors. Or we are getting good authors that can’t afford to risk writing an edgy, creative plot, with real human characters. So these writers churn out historical fiction that has the right dates and places, but the mentality of the characters is not even remotely close to the society norms of the time. Or these authors give the readers romances as formulated as mainstream romances without the sex.

    Competition would breed a better product. There is very little competition in Mormon literature.

  5. Kent Larsen on February 14, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Jonathan, I don’t know where you are getting your information, but Sheri Dew has NO influence in the world of books. I’ve spent more than 20 years in book publishing here in New York City. She isn’t well known in book publishing, and few in the industry know much about Deseret Book. As far as I’ve seen, neither Dew nor Deseret Book has attracted much attention from the industry journals, like Publisher’s Weekly and American Bookseller.

    It is true that Fablehaven has attracted favorable attention, but its really the first time that Deseret Book has managed this. Last I checked, they don’t even have a sales force to call on bookstores! One of my long-time criticisms of Deseret Book is that they have never done the things necessary to sell to the national market, such as hiring a sales force or being represented by commission sales reps. They leave this to distributors. Without this, it is hard to see that Deseret Book is serious about the national market.

  6. Alison Moore Smith on February 14, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Nice post, Jonathan. I’m pretty liberal with my literary praise. It’s so subjective that I find many firm declarations of good or bad to be mostly just pompous blathering — often from people who couldn’t write a lick.

    I almost never read fiction of any kind — mostly business, technology, etc. — but make an exception for Scott Card. I read my first Card book in 1990 and have read most of his books since. (The short story version of Lost Boys is probably my favorite.)

    Recently I’ve read a bunch of Rick Evans, too. I met him a few years ago and he wrote the foreword for my book (nonfiction, to be sure!) — he is a genuinely good guy.

    Anyway, writing and publishing is tough and I give kudos to anyone who has the wherewithal to see such a project through to the end. Hooray for the Mormon authors out there!

  7. Clair on February 14, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    A religion that starts with the writings of Nephi, the speeches of Benjamin, the testimony of Moroni, The Vision, The Olive Leaf, Smith’s letter from Liberty Jail and the sermons of his last weeks has already made a contribution to the world of words.

    I don’t worry much whether Mormons write great fiction, or whether they are capable of it. The attention would be fluttering for a while, but the same would be true with a great Mormon chef, dancer or politician.

  8. Dave on February 14, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Mormon history finally gained traction with the general field of history when it made connections with the history of the West and with the history of American religion. Nobody (except some Mormons) really cares about Mormon history if it is nothing more than denominational history.

    Perhaps our view of “Mormon literature” needs to expand in a similar way (and this is coming from someone who hasn’t read much of it, so others may certainly chime in on this). One larger stream the Mormon raft can float in is the West. Wallace Stegner (who grew up in Salt Lake City but was not LDS) at times blended both Mormon and Western themes rather deftly and quite successfully. Another larger stream is the scenario of being part of a religious community but one that is an outsider, non-mainstream community. Think Witness or Chaim Potok’s novels. So “Mormon literature” doesn’t have to be about being Mormon. It probably can’t be successful (in the broader market or in the eyes of critics or posterity) until it is distinctly not-Mormon.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on February 14, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    A little on the grumpy side, Jonathan–I suppose there still may be folks who argue about the nature of Great Mormon Literature in the terms which you describe, but in my observation the success of folks like Stephenie Meyers and the general greying of Sunstone’s readership have mostly killed them off–but you make a strong point about how the “greatness” of Mormon literature is in part going to be dependent upon the existence people who are capable of persuasively labeling something Mormon as “great.” We’re probably getting closer to that, but we’re not there yet.

  10. Kent Larsen on February 14, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    More to your point, I wonder if you are not confusing sales and popularity with ‘great literature.’ I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to consider anything by Danielle Steel as ‘great literature.’

    I haven’t read the Fablehaven series or many other Deseret Book titles that have done reasonably well in the national market, but my impression is that they aren’t interested in publishing ‘great literature,’ but rather literature that sells well.

    Historically, few works of great literature were the dominant selling works of their time. They may sell well, but they aren’t usually the dominant selling works of their time. Instead, they gain a reputation and become important works over time. The important step comes when they are selected to be taught in college and high school.

    Some Mormon authors have made this transition (Orson Scott Card has, for example), but none because of the efforts of either Dew or Beck.

  11. mmiles on February 14, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Mormons won’t achieve literary greatness until they quit publishing through Mormon publishers.

  12. Kent Larsen on February 14, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    To complete the idea in (10), I’d suggest that what we may need is well-accepted literary critics, not popular pundits and myopic mormon market insiders.

  13. Bob on February 14, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    “Mormonism won’t have its Shakespeare until it has its Edmund Wilson and Maxwell Perkins.”
    Mormons have had their Vardis Fisher, Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto___, They just weren’t Mormon enough.

  14. Wm Morris on February 14, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Why we need not worry about the Great Mormon Novel

    ——

    To respond specifically to the content of the post — does mainstream American fiction even have Edmund Wilsons and Maxwell Perkinses anymore? The publishing world is stale, tottering and hysterical at the moment. The conditions for the dubbing of greatness are greatly reduced and increasingly insulated. The best way to ensure entry in to the canon for your hyphenated literature is to find people to fund a Studies department.

    Meanwhile Stephenie Meyer generates reams of cultural studies work. And everyone seems to have an opinion on Mormon fiction without having read much of it.

  15. Jonathan Green on February 14, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    Kent, go to a bookstore. Not a big one, but the kind you might find in a decent-sized airport. The midgrade section will carry multiple Shadow Mountain titles. That’s influence.

    Or consider James Dashner. Shadow Mountain’s publication of his work was a step up for him, and now he gets major display racks at Barnes & Noble for his books by Random House. So it’s not quite correct to say that the transition had nothing to do with Sheri Dew.

    I wouldn’t say that I’m confusing greatness and sales. Rather, I’m saying that sales is about the only thing an author can aim for, because literary recognition is not under his or her control. Personally, I wish Shadow Mountain would publish more midgrade novels that were more to my liking, for which I would anoint them as truly great works of art. No one would care, however. Now, if I had a daily talk show with millions of viewers, or if I wrote book reviews for the NY Times, things might be different.

    So, Kent, your comment #12 fits very well with what I’m saying, although I think a book-promoting pundit and a successful publisher are steps, of modest size but in the right direction.

  16. Jonathan Green on February 14, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Russell, click on William Morris’s link. He said it better than I did.

  17. Wm Morris on February 14, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    I wouldn’t say *better* — there is a certain élan to your approach in the post. Plus, in spite of my comments in #14, your point about influential editors is a good one. In this day and age, we should add agents as well. And then there’s the matter of the critics. Our best bet is to write something that would appeal to James Wood and somehow get it in to his hands, I think*.

    Also in regards to Shadow Mountain: my local (Hennepin County, Minnesota [which includes the city of Minneapolis]) library system seems to be convinced by the YA fantasy novels. Leven Thumps, Candy Shop, 13th Reality, Fablehaven have all been bought in multiple copies of each work in the series.

    *This is not a wholesale endorsement of James Wood as critic. Some of his stuff is great; in some cases, he’s just plain wrong (in particular his allergy to popular genres).

  18. Russell Arben Fox on February 15, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Jonathan, it seems to me that William is basically agreeing with me–sure, there may be whiny bloggers and commenters and frustrated would-be writers complaining here and there, but by and large, the whole “This-And-Only-This-Qualifies-As-A-Great-Mormon-Novel/Writer/Literature” debate is tired and no longer taken seriously by anyone actually doing any writing these days. None of which is to take away from your perceptive point about the need for a Mormon-friendly critical-and/or-commercial infrastructure to emerge, one beyond the echo chamber of a Deseret Books circular.

  19. Kent Larsen on February 15, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Jonathan (15), I’ll say it, it has little or nothing to do with Sheri Dew.

    Becase Deseret Book isn’t doing the selling themselves, I’m not sure how it can have much to do with Sheri Dew. It has more to do with whoever Deseret Book has hired to do their national distribution.

    It is true that Deseret Book has had some success in midgrade titles. I attribute this success more to the improving quality of the authors who approach Deseret Book. And that probably comes more from the quality of local writing programs and the influence of successful local writers like Shannon Hale and Kimberley Heuston. At most I can credit DB’s acquisitions editor for midgrade titles for this, not Dew.

    I suspect Fablehaven et al would have done better at other, more established publishers, but, since they have found success at DB, it will allow future DB midgrade titles to get better consideration by the market. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily spill over into other areas.

    Perhaps most troubling in all of this, is that this doesn’t do anything really for books with strong Mormon themes. I have strong doubts about the ability of DB to introduce Mormon themes in any substantial way into midgrade fiction simply through a few successes. I just don’t think DB has the ability to be the tail that wags the dog!

    Worse, this strategy has DB, the major player in the LDS market, focusing on success in the national market at the expense of the basics in the LDS market. So instead of developing sales, distribution and production in the areas where the potential LDS market is growing (i.e., Spanish and Portuguese – together more members than English speakers, IIRC) and developing products that reach the large portion of the LDS market that has been turned off by their products and stores. Why exactly does DB expect to find success among an even more diverse audience than the audience it already has, when a large and growing portion of that audience doesn’t like what they sell?

  20. Reed-O on February 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Jonathan Green, said:
    “Which brings us to Glenn Beck. I’ve never watched his television program, but I gather that he says controversial things, and that I would likely disagree with his political views.” …

    Perhaps anti-Beck readers who refuse to go there too, could discipline themselves long enough to watch a weeks worth of his TV programs. This would establish for readers a – “I personally know of what I speak” credibility about the sophistication of Beck’s views. Go there, don’t be so prudish. Try some forbidden fruit.

    Beck’s, “The One Thing” TV episodes may be viewed on the computer (down the left side of page), if cable is unavailable. http://www.foxnews.com/glennbeck/index.html

    If learned Mormon bloggers are really pained that no good Mormon literature exists, and think they are sophisticated enough to recognize real literature in the first place,” then write some for us! “Do it, damn it.”

  21. Kent Larsen on February 15, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Reed-O (20) wrote “If learned Mormon bloggers are really pained that no good Mormon literature exists, and think they are sophisticated enough to recognize real literature in the first place,” then write some for us! “Do it, damn it.””

    This is a pretty good point, one that should be taken along with William’s suggestion (14) that “everyone seems to have an opinion on Mormon fiction without having read much of it.”

    One of the problems in the Mormon market at the moment is that the mainstream bookstores (Deseret Book, Seagull Books, and traditional independents) don’t carry everything that is available. Because of the self-reinforcing beliefs in the LDS market about what will sell, much of what is good can’t be found in these stores. As Chris Bigelow of Zarahemla Books about his trials in getting Deseret Book et al to carry his titles! Ask him why he doesn’t bother with the LDS Booksellers Association!

    IMO, one of the major difficulties of the LDS market is that it is so set in its ideas of what will sell where that more than half the potential market can’t find anything that is appealing to read.

    And, given that Deseret Book controls the majority of the market, we know where the problem lies.

  22. Dallas Robbins on February 15, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    If Glenn Beck (who I don’t dislike) is to become the Edmund Wilson of Mormon Literature, please shoot me in the face right now!

  23. Ida Tarbell on February 15, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    William is right–if you want literary recognition, go establish a studies department at a university. It’s interesting to me that Mormons don’t look at the impact of 1960s and 70s identity politics on the literary canon in the American academy when the talk about gaining literary credibility for their own ethnic literature. (I’m not talking about sales–go ask Hawthorne why he was so angry at the damn mob of scribbling women who were selling so many more books than he was) In 1950, no African-American, Chicano, Queer, etc, etc literature and relatively little attention paid to women. In 2010, any reputable English department will at least have courses in these areas. Of course, it doesn’t take Glenn Beck to realize that Mormons are probably too conservative to occupy a provost’s office and demand the establishment of a Mormon Studies department…

  24. Rosalynde on February 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Great post, Jonathan. There might be a little straw in the entryway, as Russell points out, but one must put the front door somewhere.

    For obvious reasons I’m in favor of any and all proposals to elevate literary criticism—er, literary *critics*, to put a finer point on it—from the basement of the JKHB. But where to? Where do public intellectuals live these days? Louis Menand is at Harvard/New Yorker; he’s the only credible latter-day Edmund Wilson I can think of. Perhaps your point is that the public intellectual is extinct, and cable talk shows now do that ideological work.

    I would add to your final paragraph: it’s not just the peculiarities of LDS lifestyle that exclude Mormon letters from the prevailing construction of literature. I think it’s more systematically defined out by its affirmative relationship to genre. High literature subverts form (and is thus parasitic on it), but fiction by Mormon writers tends to perform genre. That takes it right out of literary fiction—ie great literature—from the beginning.

  25. Wm Morris on February 15, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    But what great performances of genre — from Meyer’s pop perfect erotics of abstinence to Orson Scott Card’s approaching Joseph Smith from various angles to Hale’s infuriating but still brave to Sanderson’s meditation on memory and creation (and minor but still delightful tweak of Harry Potter and spoof of post-modern play) and more.

    Mormonism infects genre as much as it performs it.

  26. Russell Arben Fox on February 15, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    William,

    …to Hale’s infuriating but still brave…

    Brave what? Characters? Love stories? You left out the noun, man!

  27. bbell on February 15, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    You mean Twilight did not solve all these questions about great LDS literature?

  28. Bill of Wasilla on February 15, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Your premise was provoking and your post fun to read, but, of course, there was nothing in it to support your premise and personally, when it comes to anything Mormon, I do not think Glenn Beck contributes anything positive, period.

    The decades are passing by and I am not getting it done, except in little, unconnected bits and pieces here and there, ranging anywhere from the random sentence to 200 rough pages, but it is still my goal to make a genuine contribution to Mormon literature, one that is neither blinded by bitterness and hatred or unquestioning fealty, but that does question and challenge and seek to place us within the human spectrum.

    I say “us” even though I have not been active for a long time and simply cannot rationalize much of what I was taught into peaceful coexistence with what I have seen of life, because my Mormon upbringing was so strong that the Church manifests itself in my life every day.

    Today I posted the second of five parts of a series dealing with the birth of my second granchild and even there, without ever stating the word, “Mormon,” it comes through. First, without distinction, in the first segment under the opening photo of baby Jobe.

    Then, in a way that the average reader will likely not pick up on but the Mormon reader will under the photo with Jobe’s little hand.

    You are invited to come and take a read. I would post a direct link but then it would get this caught up in the spam filter. If you come to this later, it is on this post:

    MONDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2010 AT 1:04AM

    Maybe some other readers here also have ambitions to produce Mormon literature.

    I hope a few of us succeed.

  29. Wm Morris on February 15, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Sorry Russell:

    infuriating but brave exploration of non-sexual female/male;Mormon/non-Mormon relationships…

  30. Kent Larsen on February 15, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Ida (23) wrote:

    “Of course, it doesn’t take Glenn Beck to realize that Mormons are probably too conservative to occupy a provost’s office and demand the establishment of a Mormon Studies department…”

    Um, actually there are two Mormon Studies programs (Utah State University and Claremont Graduate School in California) and many other places where mormon studies courses are taught.

    It turns out that it doesn’t require “occupying a provost’s office” or “demanding the establishment” of a department. It requires money to endow the program (along with belief at the institution that the subject is worthy — since its happened twice, I believe many institutions would go along with the idea if the money is available).

  31. Dallas Robbins on February 15, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    Jonathan wrote:
    “But the people who decide what constitutes greatness in literature aren’t Mormons, and often dismiss elements of the Mormon aesthetic, such as premarital chastity…”

    This statement seems weird to me. I would say that premarital chastity is not a Mormon aesthetic, but a doctrinal teaching. It seems to me that aesthetics is something different when it comes to literature and is not dependent on the actions of a character.

    IMHO, literature/fiction that is written to satisfy a theological correctnesss, is the worst kind of literature, and are usually Sunday School lessons disguised as storytelling – usually predictable and didactic.

    I should say there is nothing wrong with portraying characters who practice premarital chastity – because as we all know Mormons are perfect in that regards ;). But when characters are used only for making doctrinal points, the characters come off thin and one-dimensional.

    But then again, I think it is possible to have stories with a believable moral world. Take Jesus’ parables for example. They are filled with characters that are multi-dimensional and some of them contain a complexity representative of human nature, without excluding the moral quandaries they face.

  32. Angela Hallstrom on February 15, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    You make some good points, Jonathan, but I take issue with this statement: “Mormon Literature Worthy of the Name must involve adultery and/or drinking coffee within 100 miles of St. George (but not closer than 10 miles to I-15). The authors of Mormon Literature (worthy of the name) should have been excommunicated at least once, if at all possible.”

    As Russell and others have pointed out, this so-called definition of “Mormon Literature” IS tired. I’ve been involved with the Association for Mormon Letters for years now and currently edit Irreantum, the AML’s lit mag, and I can assure you that the writers and editors with whom I work aren’t interested in who is and isn’t drinking coffee. We’re just interested in good writing.

    Mormonism has a number of excellent writers out there, toiling away in relative obscurity–well, relative to Stephanie Meyer. I just edited an anthology of short fiction with Zarahemla Books called Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction that’s proof of this. The short stories in this collection by writers like Margaret Blair Young and Brady Udall and Doug Thayer and Todd Robert Petersen (to name only a few) can stand toe-to-toe with stories published by national publishing houses. In fact, many of these stories have been previously published in story collections by national publishing houses. We just don’t hear a lot about them because short fiction doesn’t get much attention and literary fiction can be a hard sell in the Mormon market. But excellent work by Mormon writers–with Mormon elements–is definitely out there.

    But somehow I doubt Glenn Beck will be plugging Dispensation any time soon . . .

  33. Bill on February 15, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    “But somehow I doubt Glenn Beck will be plugging Dispensation any time soon . . .”

    Maybe if you put “The Christmas Sweater” in there. . .

  34. Heather on February 15, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    This book probably wouldn’t qualify as great literature, but Elna Baker’s recent memoir “The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance” was really funny and about being a faithful mormon in New York, and it’s really popular right now. I keep seeing it everywhere. And I think exit literature keeps getting published because the writers are going for the big publishers. What worries me is that people like this blog (http://momonomo.wordpress.com/) are including sacred temple rites in their stories and trying to get them published. Doesn’t the church have like copyrights on things like personal interview questions and temple stuff? Just wondering.

  35. Jonathan Green on February 16, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Kent, your view that the CEO deserves no credit for having a successful imprint targeting the national market open under her watch is…interesting. These things just take their natural course far from the executive suite, I guess.

    Also, you mention that Fabelhaven, etc., could have done better at a national publisher. But what’s better than national distribution and hitting the bestseller charts? And isn’t this getting things backward? I assume the authors and their agents were not exactly hanging up the phone on Random House when they went with Shadow Mountain. It looks to me like the Shadow Mountain deals were a step up that enabled some of them to later move on to national publishers.

    Kent and Angela, you both bring up things that could strengthen the world of Mormon letters (a DB better attuned to the interests of Mormon readers, anthologies of Mormon authors). Those are both good things, but both, I think, are irrelevant to literary “greatness” because they are inward directed, while the authority to anoint literary works as great is not currently found within Mormonism.

    Mention of cultural studies departments is on the right track, because the key to recognition lies not in the writers but in the institutions of literature, but I don’t think it’s the right approach. Black writers and poets were enjoying critical acclaim before the establishment of university “Studies” programs.

    I like Rosalynde’s line about Mormon fiction performing genre…but I like WM’s line abut infecting genre even more. I will steal them both.

    Can public intellectuals influence perceptions of literature the way they once did? Beats me. Someone still picks the winners of the National Book Awards, though, so who influences them? WM suggests writing something that will appeal to James Wood. A more direct approach might be to send two missionaries to James Wood, along with a briefcase full of whatever constitutes a deal he can’t resist. In all seriousness, I think the problem of Mormon literary greatness has little to do with Mormon writers, and more to do with Mormon literary critics.

    Russell and Rosalynde and Kent and Angela object to the caricature of the “What is Mormon Literature” discussion. It was intended to sum up years of eye-rolling at pointless discussion of Shakespeareless Mormon Literature, rather than to fairly represent it. If you insist that we have moved beyond it, I am content to let it rest in peace.

  36. Kent Larsen on February 16, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Jonathan (35) wrote:

    “your view that the CEO deserves no credit for having a successful imprint targeting the national market open under her watch is…interesting.”

    Hmmm. Why do you assume that there was any “imprint targeting?” Or that it happened before DB had some success in midgrade books (when it would have been obvious to “target” that area)? I can’t claim to know what happens inside DB. But I don’t think that DB was out teaching and developing writers of midgrade literature, the fundamental steps to the success Mormon writers have had in that area. I can give Dew credit for recognizing that LDS authors had the ‘right stuff’ in this area.

    Jonathan also wrote:

    “But what’s better than national distribution and hitting the bestseller charts?”

    Um, selling more books, international translation deals, higher royalty rates, movie rights sales and a host of other things. But all this assumes a certain view of what is important and certain goals. I still think you are mixing up sales and popularity with critical acclaim and influence. I said it above and I’ll say it again here: Great literature isn’t necessarily best selling literature. You haven’t talked much about Stephenie Meyer, probably because you don’t think that her work is “great literature.” But the rest of your post and comments talk about how well books sell and how to achieve success nationally. There is a connection, of course, but it isn’t determinant.

    If you are talking about great literature, the metrics aren’t weeks on the bestseller lists or extent of national distribution. The metrics are more how much of the population knows about the book, whether they consider it an important work or just a fun read, how many schools (at all levels) have chosen to teach it as a work of literature, what kind of critical attention it is getting, etc.

    If you want to talk about great literature, let’s use the right metrics.

    Those are both good things, but both, I think, are irrelevant to literary “greatness” because they are inward directed, while the authority to anoint literary works as great is not currently found within Mormonism. …Mention of cultural studies departments is on the right track, because the key to recognition lies not in the writers but in the institutions of literature, but I don’t think it’s the right approach.

    This is, I think, an area where we mostly agree. The problem with your post, Jonathan, is that you essentially suggest that the right approach is through Glen Beck and Sheri Dew! In terms of great literature, I’m afraid that this approach is even farther from the “right approach” than university “studies” programs!

    Since you published this post, I’ve been mulling over what exactly the right approach is, or what such a strategy should be. I do think that university studies departments are helpful, but no sufficient. But I’m having trouble seeing how Beck helps recognition of great literature. I can see how book publishers might make a difference.

    Russell and Rosalynde and Kent and Angela object to the caricature of the “What is Mormon Literature” discussion. It was intended to sum up years of eye-rolling at pointless discussion of Shakespeareless Mormon Literature, rather than to fairly represent it. If you insist that we have moved beyond it, I am content to let it rest in peace.

    I don’t know about the others, but I would love to know when you last saw or read a discussion inline with your caricature. I suspect that it would have to involve only those who are wholly ignorant of the subject.

  37. Bob on February 16, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Well, I have read all comments and the OP. I still don’t know what is wanted___ A book, a writer, Mormon themes, sales, missonary tools?
    I think Mormons have had more than their share of these things(?)
    I will add to great Mormon novels “The Giant Joshua” (Whipple) and “The Harvest Waits” (Pearson)

    Is there a Great Baptist writer? Is there a Great JW book? Is another church out selling DB and Signature?

  38. Wm Morris on February 16, 2010 at 11:26 am

    As I discuss in the post linked to in #14, one of the major problems with Whitney’s quote is that it comes out of a nationalist late 19th century discourse. I don’t know how much Whitney was aware of other national literatures, but all of the intellectuals that felt any sort of insecurity over their cultural heritage (and my understanding is that was pretty much everybody who was not French, German or British) and even more importantly all those who were seeking legitimacy (either independence or a bigger role in the world) for their nation/people were making similar “prophecies” and claims. Of course, a primary difference was that their inspiration lay in the hands of their people and folk materials and not so much in the Holy Ghost. And yet folk spirit and holy spirit were both to perform the same task: to help the artist express the genius and excellence of the people by inspiring the artist to reach greater heights.

    By situating the quote in that context, I’m not looking to un-inspire people. Whitney’s writings on Mormon literature still stir me up — heck, the name A Motley Vision comes from a phrase in his poetry. I do think, however, that the quote is too often used as an easy cloak or mantle. Culture making is hard work — even populist culture making.

    To bring back things around to what Bob asks:

    The Whitney quote is a bit of a red herring because of its ties to nationalist discourse — the supposition that Mormons are an ethnies. Mormon 20th century history is a dual track of assimilation (to a fairly major extent in spite of there still being tensions) in to American culture and international expansion. Which then leads to the question — what are Mormons? What is the LDS People? An ethnies? A top-of-the-middle-tier world religion? An ethnic subset of Americanism?

    Are we LDS religionists, Mormo-Americans or a Mormon people? And thus is the better comparison Baptist or Jehovah’s Witness literature, Hispanic-American or Armenian-American or African-American literature? Or Romanian or Greek or Argentine literature?

    Or are we are own unique snowflake?

    I don’t know for sure. As a comparatist, though, I find it fun and interesting to bring in various models and see what sticks*. I need to do more of it, but right now creative writing and editing is more fun and more doable with the resources I have at hand.

    * One possible piece of low-hanging fruit would be to look at Eugene England’s historical periods of Mormon literature in light of the stages in immigrant assimilation and relation to American and home cultures, which have affected Asian-American and other more recent immigrant cultures and their narratives and in relation to 20th century assimilation in to American society by Mormons. The Lost Generation writers would, for example, be analogous to second generation immigrants who seek to assimilate as fully as possible and “lose” their accent.

  39. Jonathan Green on February 16, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Kent, I don’t think I’m assuming that Shadow Mountain is the DB imprint targeting the national market, but rather merely restating a fact that has been well known for the last decade (see, for example, here). I’m not sure why teaching writers would fall under their purview, rather than simply finding promising writers and publishing them, which is the kind of career development that publishers traditionally do for authors. Of course authors might do better with larger publishers–but the whole point is that they don’t have contracts with those publishers, and often can’t get them until they get national exposure through Shadow Mountain.

    Also, the only reason I didn’t mention S. Meyer in the post was that I thought repeating my usual praise of her books might seem monotone.

    You raise a serious question about the relationship between sales and the metrics of literary greatness. My answer is that I’ve become skeptical of the idea that greatness is something found inside of books. Books can be well crafted according to a variety of standards, and they can meet with commercial success. But greatness is appended to books by literary institutions: prize committees, editors, critics, scholars (a few decades or more after the fact), and others. I would argue that literary institutions do take notice of sales as one way, perhaps the primary way, of expanding the range of works that they will consider as literature. See Stephen King’s National Book Award, for example. Eight-figure sales numbers are one way, perhaps the only way, to get the literary world to take notice of something that had until then escaped its attention, and therefore Shadow Mountain and the inestimable S. Meyers are positive contributions to the prospects for greatness of Mormon literature. If Glenn Beck ends up with the same ability to influence sales as Oprah Winfrey, and if his influence were to include support for Mormon authors, Beck could potentially make the same kind of contribution. Not that he has to, or already has: but the potential is there.

    So, here’s a serious question: if we define “literary greatness” as “likelihood of winning a National Book Award for a work of fiction,” what Mormons have more influence over literary greatness than Beck and Dew? That should be a low enough bar, and I’m sure such people exist, but I don’t know who they are. I’m genuinely interested in possible answers (but no authors as such, please; that’s a cop-out).

  40. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Mormon literature (that is, fiction) needs to tell a story with a Mormon voice, that a Mormon would recognize as a true Mormon voice. To be great literature, it needs to also tell a story that can capture the imagination of a non-Mormon reader.

    My nomination for a book that fits these categories is Lost Boys, by Orson Scott Card. The fantasy element, while eventually critical in the story, is no more pronounced than it is in much other general literature. And it has certainly had a broad readership outside of the Mormon Corridor. It has a clear Mormon voice, as the main characters are an LDS family (in the original shorter story, it was explicitly Card’s family) who live faithful LDS lives. I am not a literary critic, so I would not venture to argue that it is “great” literature, but I think that it is good literature, and points us in the direction where we will find anything we can call great Mormon literature.

  41. Kent Larsen on February 16, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Jonathan (29) wrote:

    Kent, I don’t think I’m assuming that Shadow Mountain is the DB imprint targeting the national market, but rather merely restating a fact that has been well known for the last decade.

    I agree that Shadow Mountain has targeted the national market. The problem is that many other LDS publishers, and niche publishers in many other markets, have ALL claimed (and many have been successful) to be targeting the national market. It is so common that it is clearly not innovative at all.

    And even so, it doesn’t help your case. The targeting that would help your case is if Dew had decided that midgrade novels was the place for LDS authors to be and had managed to find success by targeting that segment of the national market.

    Merely targeting the national market is a ‘no-brainer.’ And being successful at it is common.

    I’m not sure why teaching writers would fall under their purview, rather than simply finding promising writers and publishing them.

    I didn’t say that it was. Teaching writers, along with promoting them to national publishers, is what actually gets them to the national market. Deseret Book didn’t do these things, and therefore didn’t contribute significantly to the success you are praising.

    The whole point is that they don’t have contracts with those publishers, and often can’t get them until they get national exposure through Shadow Mountain.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see Shadow Mountain as a stepping stone to national exposure. What convinces a national publisher to pick up an author from another publisher is either sales numbers or an assessment that the author’s future work will sell better for them. The fact that the previous publisher was Shadow Mountain is nearly irrelevant.

    In fact, I suggest you look for authors who have sold well at Deseret Book and then moved on to a national publisher. There aren’t many, and I doubt there are any where you can show that DB helped their career.

    I’ve become skeptical of the idea that greatness is something found inside of books.

    I too am skeptical. BUT, I don’t think I said greatness is based solely on what is found inside of books.

    As I said before, the issue is when they are added to some kind of literary canon.

    greatness is appended to books by literary institutions: prize committees, editors, critics, scholars (a few decades or more after the fact), and others. I would argue that literary institutions do take notice of sales as one way, perhaps the primary way, of expanding the range of works that they will consider as literature.

    Agreed. But only as a way they will consider the works as literature. Sales don’t make a book part of the canon. Most best sellers aren’t written as a literary efort. They are written as an entertainment effort (not that those are mutually exclusive.)

    Shadow Mountain and the inestimable S. Meyers are positive contributions to the prospects for greatness of Mormon literature. If Glenn Beck ends up with the same ability to influence sales as Oprah Winfrey, and if his influence were to include support for Mormon authors, Beck could potentially make the same kind of contribution. Not that he has to, or already has: but the potential is there.

    I’ll conceed some kind of potential with Beck. In the case of DB, you will need to convince me that DB actually made a significant difference in the sales of the midgrade readers, and then convince me that these works are meant to somehow be more than just entertainment.

    Does DB even submit the works of these authors to the literary prize committees that you mention? Have any of these books received literary attention? Or does DB think these books are merely entertainment?

    So, here’s a serious question: if we define “literary greatness” as “likelihood of winning a National Book Award for a work of fiction,” what Mormons have more influence over literary greatness than Beck and Dew? That should be a low enough bar, and I’m sure such people exist, but I don’t know who they are. I’m genuinely interested in possible answers (but no authors as such, please; that’s a cop-out).

    I am too interested.

    Off the top of my head, I would assume that Michael Austin is a possibility.

  42. Jonathan Langford on February 16, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Jonathan (a good name, by the way…),

    I think the basic problem I have with your argument is that I’m just not sure promoting LDS authors who include little to no Mormon content in their works actually does much, on a practical basis, to promote literature that captures Mormon experience in a way that is both accurate and universal (which I think is part of what you’re getting at with the notion of “great Mormon literature”). I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; I just think the two phenomena have little if anything to do with each other.

    It all depends on what the goal is. If the goal is to have Mormon writers create works that are accepted as “great” literature, then yeah, what’s needed is (a) works that engage with hot critical topics/movements, (b) editors and publishers with connections to literary circles, and (c) academics teaching classes and writing papers on Mormon literature. From that perspective, Sheri Dew is irrelevant, and Glenn Beck’s advocacy is likely to do more harm than good. And publication with Mormon presses, big or small, does no one any good at all in achieving that aim. On the other hand, like William, I’m unsure if that’s even a relevant (or useful) cultural goal anymore.

    If, on the other hand, the goal is to put LDS authors in a position to be read nationally, then yeah, Glenn Beck could be Mormonism’s Oprah Winfrey (though not, I think, our Edmund Wilson). On the other hand, it’s my perception that LDS authors of mainstream books (i.e., books that aren’t particularly Mormon in their content) are doing perfectly fine without anyone else’s help but their own.

    The only author I’ve seen who’s managed to leverage national success with non-LDS-focused writing into publication of stuff with more LDS content is Orson Scott Card–and even he takes a “stealth” approach with a lot of it. Which, by the way, I’m totally in favor of, since he does it well and it makes great stories. But I’m not sure that promoting the careers of LDS writers in non-LDS fields gets us any closer to success in describing Mormon experience in a way that non-Mormons will “get.” And I have to agree, too, that Shadow Mountain’s success in marketing YA books nationally (whether Sheri Dew can take credit for it or not) doesn’t really get us any closer to that goal either.

    I think we’re going to see success in Mormons writing about Mormonism for non-Mormons almost entirely due to the efforts of individual, talented LDS writers who (a) have an interest in writing that kind of thing, and (b) succeed in cracking the national market. We’ve had some minor successes along those lines already. And when that happens, I’ll stand up and cheer. But I don’t know there’s very much that we as a community can do to make that happen, aside from providing moral support.

  43. Kent Larsen on February 16, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Raymond (40), I agree with your assessment. Of the LDS writers that I know, Card is one of the best candidates for long-term inclusion in the literary canon.

  44. Kent Larsen on February 16, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Well put, Langford (42). You’ve largely said what I’ve been trying (ineptly) to say.

    I can’t resist pointing out that, except for Card’s books published with Deseret Book, his work is almost never found in LDS bookstores. What’s up with that?

  45. Jonathan Langford on February 16, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    In response to Kent (44):

    LDS bookstores, I’m increasingly convinced, are aimed at a demographic that is dissatisfied with the national market, or at the very least wants to do part of their book shopping in an environment that’s sheltered from some of the more problematic elements of nationally published fiction (e.g., language, behavior not consistent with LDS values, “Why does Brionne have two mommies?”). For example, I suspect a lot of people shop in LDS bookstores for books that will be “safe” to give to grandkids, etc. This means they don’t go there to buy books, for the most part, that they *could* find in national bookstores. They go to the national bookstore chains or Amazon.com for that.

    A lot of Scott Card’s fiction doesn’t fit that “safe” category. And he doesn’t need it to, because it’s selling perfectly well in the national markets. LDS readers who like mainstream sf&f will find Card there.

    And frankly, if I were Card, I would be perfectly happy with that. Having readers who know him from LDS venues and then went on to read some of his less “filtered” work could actually backfire on him. He may not even want a substantial “crossover” readership.

  46. Bob on February 16, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    #42: Or_ put the good writers to work writing the Sunday School Manuels. Wallace Stegner wrote Sunday School Manuels for the Church, along with two books on Mormon life. I also have Stegner’s book ” The American Novel”. All good reads.

  47. Kent Larsen on February 16, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    J. Langford (45), I think you are right. But it makes it quite difficult for those of us who want to identify LDS literature that isn’t “safe” the way an LDS bookstore is “safe.”

    We loose the affiliation for safety.

  48. annegb on February 16, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Angela, I was thinking of you as I read this! And the authors you cite, as well. Deseret Book would have destroyed your book.

  49. Rose Green on February 17, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I think people have different things in mind when they say, “WHERE oh WHERE is all the Great Mormon Literature??” 1) We want literary acclaim! We want the literary gods of New York to give us their Seal of Literary Approval! or 2) We want lots and lots of books about Mormons and Mormon culture, or 3) We want Mormons authors to be well-known and well-purchased on the national market, or 4) some combination of the above.

    With #1, sometimes it’s the exit novels that get that. But, exit novel or not–if you have #1, I don’t know how likely you are to get say, #3. And I don’t think it has anything to do with your religion. Extremely high-end literary works often *don’t* sell a lot of copies. Obviously there are exceptions, but there’s a reason agents and editors view themselves as either more literary or more commercial. However, there are always exceptions, such as Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and the Lord Death, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006 and which people seem to enjoy reading just for fun as well.

    As to #2, you are looking at a niche market, sort of like regional books. I think that as this market has grown (or more importantly, the number of people writing for this market has grown), it’s produced a rise in quality (more writers competing). DB’s sorta monopoly is a problematic stick in that river in some ways. Are there Great Books that fit within this framework? Sure. Is the general public going to flock to buy them? Maybe not. But they may have staying power within the LDS reader community.

    As to #3, there is ample evidence of this going on, at least in the MG/YA range. LDS authors published by both Shadow Mountain AND major NY houses are doing very well in sales. (And, I might add, professional reviews.) Fablehaven isn’t a fluke. I don’t think you need to view DB as some sort of starter house, but I do think that if you have several sales under your belt already to a place like DB, people might take you more seriously. Um, for example, Ally Condie (see http://www.publishersweekly.com/index.asp?layout=talkbackCommentsFull&talk_back_header_id=6635839&articleid=CA6710139). Or James Dashner, who went from Shadow Mountain to Delacorte with The Maze Runner. As far as I know, Ann Dee Ellis hasn’t done the DB->national market route, but her novels with Little, Brown have starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and VOYA. And Brandon Sanderson seems to be doing quite well in both adult and MG fantasy (which has the Urim and Thummim in it, despite being published by Scholastic…). There are many others.

    I realize the original post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but in all seriousness, I think that success in any of these categories is a good thing for LDS literature/books by LDS authors. It’s easy to get bogged down in one’s own corner of the literary universe and feel that that’s the only part that matters, but I think that strides are being made in all areas, and I’m glad!

  50. Rose Green on February 17, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Make that link to the Ally Condie article here: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6710139.html%29.html

  51. Seldom on February 17, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    We’re never going to make Mormon literature great when some of our best is so easily dismissed from within because it deals with adultery, mentions coffee, or has a setting near St. George. No one should be allowed to lament our lack of great literature until they read authors such as Maureen Whipple, Virginia Sorensen, and Levi Peterson.

  52. Bob on February 19, 2010 at 9:53 am

    http://www2.TCU.edu/depts/prs/amwest/w10849.html
    Here is a link of a multi-page paper at TCU, with write ups on all the old Mormon Novel and Novel writers. A very good read.
    I took it from the bottom of my printout, but could not get it to work(?)
    Maybe someone can make a workable link?

  53. Kent Larsen on February 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Bob (52), it looks like Texas Christian University Press removed those files from its website for some reason.

    The text is a chapter by Kenneth B. Hunsaker from the book “A Literary History of the American West.”

    I found it here:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20080412040740/www2.tcu.edu/depts/prs/amwest/html/wl0849.html

  54. Bob on February 19, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    #53: You have been added to my list of great people who have helped me this morning, (You are #86).
    I still say this is a good read for those who followed this post. A lot of these works can be found used for 2 or 3 bucks. I use Albis Books, they have a lot of used Mormon books.

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