“For I am not Embarrassed by the Writings of Mormonism …”

May 4, 2012 | 26 comments
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In an interview on A Motley Vision, Scott Hales, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cincinnati and the brains behind the recent Mormon Lit Blitz, tells two stories of introducing Mormon literature to students. The first group was dismissive of the Mormon poetry that Scott chose and read to them. But the second group enjoyed the short stories they read.

What does it say that the first group was made up of Seminary students while the second group were non-Mormon university students?

Of course, its easy to see high school students as being dismissive of almost anything—there is something about that age that means students think they know everything. Nothing new.

But I don’t think that this attitude is unusual at all. I’ve read posts in the bloggernacle, presumably from folks that are much older than Scott’s high school students, that are just as dismissive of Mormon literature. Somehow all Mormon literature is bad, not worth reading and not in the same league as today’s literary fiction.

How do those who hold this view explain the non-Mormon university students?

I suppose what is really going on is something like what the Lord says about prophets in Matt 13:57—Mormon literature isn’t without honor, except among Mormons.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I don’t claim that Mormon literature is being evaluated for the Nobel Prize or the Pen Prize at the moment. But my somewhat educated judgment is that its within striking distance. Nor am I even claiming that having Mormon literature win one of these prizes is important (although it would probably yield some respect). I do think, however, that it is worthy of respect and often on par with what is taught in University literature courses. There isn’t any need to feel embarrassed by the best of Mormon literature.

Of course, if you want to be embarrassed by the offerings from Deseret Book, I won’t argue. I’ll just observe that we probably do need even the bad Mormon literature.

Can we show our own literature and culture some respect already?

 

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26 Responses to “For I am not Embarrassed by the Writings of Mormonism …”

  1. Researcher on May 4, 2012 at 9:58 am

    “Somehow all Mormon literature is bad, not worth reading and not in the same league as today’s literary fiction.”

    A mindset very much contradicted by the historical poetry and short stories that Ardis puts up on Keepapitchinin. Some of it is forgettable, some of it is amazing, and most of it is somewhere between those two extremes. All of it says something worth saying about Mormon culture.

  2. RecessionCone on May 4, 2012 at 10:11 am

    I think it says more about Mormon cultural priorities than anything else. We are just not very literary. The humanities aren’t very respected. We care more about sports, business, and American Idol than poetry.

  3. Louis Gardner on May 4, 2012 at 10:34 am

    I was just thinking about this today. By ‘Mormon’ literature do you mean specifically Deseret offerings, or by all authors who happen to be by the way ‘Mormon’? O.S. Card has some good books; S. Meyers, not so much.

    By way of Deseret, I was thinking what a lucrative deal. You already have an eager market for your products, esp. if you are a GA. So, why not write? The Church is a goldmine.

  4. Bob on May 4, 2012 at 10:41 am

    OP: Kent:
    I will name four of the bests Novels from the Golden Age of Mormon writing (IMO):
    “Children of God” (Fisher)
    “The Giant Joshua” (Whipple)
    “Children of the Covenant” (Scowcroft)
    “The Harvest Waits” (Pearson)
    How many of these have members read?

  5. Ben S. on May 4, 2012 at 10:44 am

    I’ve read a lot of Mormon books, and haven’t read any of those. OSC, yes. History and doctrine, yes. Novels or Literature with capital letters, not so much.

  6. rae keck on May 4, 2012 at 10:45 am

    the Church is a goldmine if you have the right name and connections. there is a big difference between pop soft writing and serious literature and a place for both.

  7. Ardis E. Parshall on May 4, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Perhaps some of the interest of the non-Mormon university students may have nothing at all to do with whether the literature samples are good or bad as measured by nearness to Puliter Prize-worthiness, but simply because it is the literature of a distinct and possibly little-known (in a literary sense) subgroup. I mean, I might be interested in a set of poems that was presented to me as “Jehovah’s Witnesses’ lit” or “autistic lit” or “poetry of retired astronauts” or anything of that kind — less for the quality of the literature as for what it might tell me about the worldview of such a group. High school students often aren’t mature enough to care about some other group’s worldview, and Mormons probably don’t often think there is more we can learn about ourselves as a group.

    But heck, yeah, why should non-Mormon university students have all the fun of discovering us? We should care just as much, and know ourselves better than anyone. Bring on the lit, both for its own quality, and for what it tells us about us!

  8. Jenn on May 4, 2012 at 10:51 am

    I’ll admit I haven’t even tried reading mormon literature for many years because my last few experiences left me lacking. This post makes me want to dive back into it, but I’ll be honest: I do generally think mormons are pretty weak in the creative arts. There are obvious exceptions (oh, orson scott card, I adore you), but I think you’d find in any very narrow niche of literature, where there is less competition and therefore lower standards, the overall quality is decreased.
    And, for the record, while Stephanie Meyer may happen to be LDS, I don’t consider her “mormon lit” because she has not written anything specifically for a mormon audience (yet… thankfully). Card has written both for the world at large and for mormons.

    We’ve always joked it’s the lack of drugs. Apparently you need at least some chemical influence to write really good music;) (just joking…. mostly. Wish I could think of a single musician I like who doesn’t at least dabble).

  9. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Jenn (8), I don’t quite know how to react to your last attempts to read Mormon literature without at least knowing what you read. It might also help to understand the circumstances under which you read it. There are many reasons why we connect with books, and many other reasons why we end up hating other books — and I dare say that most of them have nothing to do with the quality of the literature, however you may define that.

    I would encourage you and anyone else who hasn’t enjoyed the Mormon lit that they’ve read to try again — look for some work that is closer to what you do enjoy reading or to the kind of works that do impress you.

  10. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Ardis (7), I understand your point, but a couple of ideas lead me to disagree a little.

    First, I suspect that many college students taking an elective class would complain if the assigned works weren’t worth reading–if they didn’t somehow get ideas from them that they could discuss in class. Required courses are a little different, but IMO students take electives mostly because of interest in the content (unless the class has the reputation of being an ‘easy A’).

    Second, the required works have to communicate on some basic level or the students (or any reader) won’t get them and won’t be able to discuss them very well. If you read the interview I linked to, its clear that the students generally did much of the discussing and reacting to these texts. If the works weren’t good enough, and therefore couldn’t communicate their ideas well enough, they probably wouldn’t have even been selected for the course, let alone drawn discussion.

    Literature is about communication at its most basic. IMO, most of the failures in literature happen when they fail to communicate well and fail to reach the reader. It doesn’t sound to me like the works discussed in this class were failures.

  11. Bob on May 4, 2012 at 11:36 am

    OP: Kent,
    How does, (if it does), the value of no ‘R-Rated’ stuff play into the kind of reading Mormons undertake?

  12. Ardis E. Parshall on May 4, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Kent, we aren’t in any disagreement, as long as you don’t read into my comment anything that wasn’t there. Of course works have to communicate, and have to have some acceptable level of quality.

    My point is that literary fiction about death or a poem about childhood might be of acceptable but not stellar quality, yet have great interest to a mature audience because of an added “ethnic” element (what it says about Mormon attitudes toward death or childhood). The Mormon quality wouldn’t be enough on its own, but could enhance someone’s interest in marginal literature to the point of real enjoyment.

    A Mormon who isn’t as susceptible to being charmed by an ethnic quality because it’s his own unexamined worldview is left with only the marginal quality of the literature, comparing it to first-rate literature from the broader culture.

  13. Rachel Whipple on May 4, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    I love reading good Mormon poetry and stories. The problem for most people is finding them. The Provo City Library helpfully put LDS stickers on the spines of books by LDS authors, but many of those, especially in the genres of mystery, romance, and sci-fi are all but unreadable. (Yes, romance novels are fluff that follow a basic plot formula, but some are engaging and well written, with all the formalist hallmarks of resolved tension and organic unity, and some are awkward constructions with false characters and poor pacing.) They get published by houses like Covenant because there is an LDS audience for genre books that are both clean and have familiar inspirational elements of LDS life.

  14. palerobber on May 4, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    what Adris said.

    novelty lowers the bar.

  15. Melissa B. on May 4, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Clarification- Is Mormon Lit by Mormons about Mormons for Mormons, or just written by a Mormon?

    There are many Mormon authors I haven’t read, but I absolutely love (OSC, Brandon Sanderson – can’t write fast enough for me, Brandon Mull), but their books aren’t about Mormons or the Mormon experience.

    I agree with Rachel, many times it’s hard to know what you’re gonna get when you crack open the cover. It would be nice to have a website that reviewed books and gave you a heads up on whether a book contained “sex scenes”, “foul language”, etc…. My son is currently reading OSC “Enders Game” and is shocked by some of the language. He said, “this guy is Mormon?!!” Some of us are more conservative than others but I’m glad that they’re writing. There is something out there for everyone whether it’s “fluff” or the highest quality. I don’t think we should be embarrassed. Even the “bad Mormon literature” can open the door.

  16. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Bob (11), sorry, but off the top of my head, I don’t think I can answer. I’m not even sure if I know the answer (I’d have to think about it). At the least, it is the subject for a post of its own.

    Melisa B. (15), There isn’t any firm, widely accepted definition. On the widest end of the spectrum, some believe that any book written either by or for or about Mormons qualifies. On the narrow end, others believe that Mormon literature needs to be about the Mormon experience somehow.

    My own definition varies by context and need, but I tend to accept most works by or for or about Mormons as Mormon literature to some degree. Ask me tomorrow and you may get another answer.

    In this particular context, I think the works in the class Scott Hales taught are about the Mormon experience. They also have more literary qualities than works by Brandon Mull, for example.

    FWIW, these days it isn’t too surprising to see “Enders Game” on course curricula in both High School and College.

    As I understand it, the stories read in Hales’ course came from Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction.

    To be honest, if the foul language in “Ender’s Game” is a problem, I don’t know if Dispensation will be what you want — the “literary” end of the spectrum tends to frown on depictions that aren’t completely realistic — if a character in a story is the type that would curse, then he should curse. Gratuitous cursing isn’t required, but if it is realistic, it should be there.

  17. Scott Hales on May 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    You’re right, Kent, the stories from my course all came from Dispensation, which I selected because it’s a good sampling of contemporary Mormon literary fiction. I wanted stories that grappled with Mormonism as a lived experience, so I avoided fantasy stories or stories that delved too deeply into fringe doctrines.

    Like Kent, my definition of Mormon literature tends to vary. When I use the term, I generally have in mind fiction written by Mormons about the Mormon experience. I’m fairly open about including Mormon writing about non-Mormon experiences or fantasy situations as well, although I struggle with how to define Mormon literature written by people without strong or direct ties to the culture. Is their work simply faux-Mo lit? Maybe. I think it can be accepted into the Mormon literature fold if it is well-researched and free of tired stereotypes. I just learned today about the novel True Sisters by Sandra Dallas. I haven’t read it yet, but reviews seem to suggest that it is your typical, run-of-the-mill polygamy novel that doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. Broadly speaking, yes, it is a Mormon novel. But does it exude Mormonness? I don’t know. I’ll have to tell you when I get around to reading it.

  18. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Scott wrote:

    I think it can be accepted into the Mormon literature fold if it is well-researched and free of tired stereotypes.

    They are mentioned so much that their mention is almost a stereotype, but Wallace Stegner and Bernard DeVoto, among others, have captured Mormonism from time to time — at least the Mormonism of their times.

  19. Bob on May 4, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    @ Melissa B
    “Clarification- Is Mormon Lit by Mormons about Mormons for Mormons, or just written by a Mormon”?

    All the books I listed in #4 are written by Mormons about Mormons living in Mormon history. They are simi-Fiction novels with a lot of research in them.
    IMO, the Mormon Church must find it’s peace with writer Vardis Fisher, The Church’s greatest writer (again IMO). His book “Children of God” won the Harper prize (now the Pulitzer) for Fiction. He taught novel writing to Wallace Stegner at the UofU. One novel (10 vol.) he read over 2000 books in his research !
    Yet the Church ‘pans’ or ‘bans’ him. I would guess because his History of the Church is far from Faith-promoting. But there maybe another reason I do not know of.
    I still consider Wallace Stegner the best 1/2 Mormon writer_ever.

  20. Jonathan Langford on May 4, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Leaving aside for the moment broader descriptions of Mormon literature as “anything written by a Mormon” (useful in some discussions, but not so much in this one), there are at least 2 competing definitions of Mormon literature: (a) writing for the Mormon market, and (b) writing about the Mormon experience. And there’s a bigger divide between the two than we sometimes tend to think.

    A lot of what Deseret Book et al. publishes (talking about fiction, now) is work marketed to Mormons, but only superficially if at all about the Mormon experience. On the other hand, the kind of work that deals seriously with Mormon experience (like the stories in Dispensation) tends not to be found in standard Mormon outlets.

    There’s a lot of well-written literature about the Mormon experience out there, and more all the time. But you don’t find most of it in LDS bookstores. Go around someplace like the AML blog or A Motley Vision website, and they talk about it there.

  21. Jonathan Langford on May 4, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    And by the way, when I talk about stories about the Mormon experience, that isn’t code for “critical of the Church.” A lot of those stories are about people trying to figure out what it means to live by faith in a tough world — like my own novel about a gay Mormon teenager.

    And yes, obviously I have a personal investment in this question. But even if my book isn’t to your taste (gasp!), there’s probably something out there that is. Good stuff, that helps us understand ourselves better. Which I think is part of what Kent was saying.

  22. NewlyHousewife on May 5, 2012 at 12:05 am

    I think it’s due to the history the church has in regards to writers writing about anything to do with the faith. Go too far and you’ll be excommunicated, don’t go anywhere close and you’ll be put on the shelf with all the other author wannabes. The real discussion should be Christian Literature as a whole, Mormons aren’t unique in being cast aside by the arts.

    Personally, I tend to stay away from Mormon Literature simply because there’s just too many bad apples in the bucket for me to have time to scoop out the good ones. That and I love Khaled Hosseini.

  23. Bob on May 5, 2012 at 2:56 am

    @ NewlyHousewife,
    If you have an interest in Mormon Lit., then use the many good sites on the net to show you what is good by non- Mormon standards. There was a “Golden Age” od Mormon Lit.! It’s there! My four novels are a good start (#4).
    One of the keys to a these/any good novel, is that the main character(s) has a change of heart. Usually finds a new understanding of Mormonism that the Church does not like.

  24. Scott Hales on May 5, 2012 at 6:05 am

    Bob (23)keeps referring to Mormon literature of the 1930s and 1940s as a Golden Age, but I’m not sure I agree with that. Don’t get me wrong, I think those novels are good, but I don’t think they represent the best that has ever come from a Mormon writer. Mormons have writers today who are far superior to Vardis Fisher, a writer who was not nearly as good as his contemporary Virginia Sorensen.

    If you are interested in good Mormon fiction that is neither too edgy nor too squeaky clean, I recomend taking a look at Todd Robert Petersen’s “Rift,” Angela Hallstrom’s “Bound on Earth,” Douglas Thayer’s “The Conversion of Jeff Williams,” and Arianne Cope’s “The Coming of Elijah.” I also recommend talking a look at Nephi Anderson’s “Dorian,” which might be the first really good Mormon novel.

    Of course, you could also just get a copy of “Dispensation,” which would familiarize you with most of the good Mormon writers writing today. Or you could check out the works recently featured in the Mormon Lit blitz (www.mormonartist.net/blog/) or James and Nicole Goldberg’s new website “Everyday Mormon Writer” (www.everydaymormonwriter.com), both of which contain Mormon literature that runs 1000 words or less.

    My point, I guess, is that Mormon literature has come a long way since Vardis Fisher, the 1930s, and even Orson Scott Card.

  25. Kent Larsen on May 5, 2012 at 6:43 am

    The nice thing about “Everyday Mormon Writer” (http://www.everydaymormonwriter.com) is that you don’t have to invest much time at all to read something good. Everyone should be able to read 1000 words in just a few minutes.

  26. Bob on May 5, 2012 at 9:56 am

    @ Scott Hales,
    I would agree better novels may have been written after the ones I listed.
    But maybe better novels than Hemmeway’s, Stienbeck’s, and Mark Twain’s have also been written. But they are who we read to understand Americans and are a beginning of understanding American novels.
    I do believe there was a ‘Golden Age’ of Mormon novels, but it has become the ‘Forgotten Age’. I think any art form (music, art, writting) must have it’s ‘classics’.
    I am embarrassed to not have listed Virginia Sorensen, as I am 4th generation from the Sanpete Valley.