The Missing Mormon Literary Renaissance

November 11, 2013 | 96 comments
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Mark Oppenheimer wants to know why there are no great Mormon writers. More specifically:

In the United States, Jews, blacks and South Asians, while they have produced no Milton or Shakespeare — who has, lately? — have all had literary renaissances. Mormons are more likely to produce work that gets shelved in niche sections of the bookstore. And as it turns out, Mormon authors themselves wonder if their culture militates against more highbrow writing. They have a range of possible explanations.

2013-11-11 The Big SleepNow, before we get to the question of why there are no great Mormon writers, I have to at least address the assumption that genre fiction cannot be great art. I don’t want to refight the whole high-brow vs. pop-art war, but I’m going to at least plant my flag and say that I believe that some popular works of “genre” fiction, whether we’re talking J. K. Rowling or Raymond Chandler, are great works of art without any qualification, caveat, shame, or apology. The presence of or aspiration for commercial success does not preclude artistic success. Ask Charles Dickens. Ask Mark Twain. Ask the Beatles.

So the assumption that genre works must not be “real” art is highly suspect. This is especially true when the genre categories seem to be established precisely to maintain that illusion after the fact. Who thinks of Herman Hesse as a science fiction writer? And yet his novel The Glass Bead Game, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, gets the following trailer on Amazon:

In the remote Kingdom of Castalia, the scholars of the Twenty Third century play the Glass Bead Game. The elaborately coded game is a fusion of all human knowledge – of maths, music, philosophy, science, and art. Intrigued as a school boy, Joseph Knecht becomes consumed with mastering the game as an adult. As Knecht fulfils his life-long quest he must contend with unexpected dilemmas and the longing for a life beyond the ivory tower.

A story set hundreds of years in the future? Set in a world designed to suit the themes of a particular story? Featuring a young protagonist on a clearly defined quest? How is this not science fiction? How are Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), or The Road (Cormac McCarthy) not science fiction? They all are, but you will not find most of them shelved in the science fiction area at the store because appearances, after all, must be preserved. You will find Dune (Frank Herbert), Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card), and The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin), however, so clearly the boundary is both arbitrary and suspect.

2013-11-11 Kurt Vonnegut

Do we place Ishiguro and Atwood next to Milton and Shakespeare? Of course we probably do not, but as Oppenheimer observes, such genius may came only sporadically across the centuries. In any case these judgments are best left to the future. At a more realistic scope, I would contend that to write off genre fiction is a fatal error. The literary future, I believe, relies increasingly on the rejuvenation of literature with the vitality and audacity of science fiction.

In that brave new world Mormons, led by Orson Scott Card, are actually not doing too badly.

I even read Breaking Dawn. You know, for *science*.

I even read Breaking Dawn. You know, for *science*.

However, I do think that Oppenheimer raises some legitimate points. The prevalence and commercial success of Mormon genre writers (lets add Stephanie Meyer and Brandon Sanderson to the mix) is not exactly an artistic renaissance. For one thing, there does not seem to be any kind of a conversation going on between these writers who, instead, each seem to be primarily interested in interacting with the non-Mormon concerns of their respective niches. Brandon Sanderson doesn’t just write fantasy, which could be a very broad category, but rather a very, very specific kind of epic, sword-and-sorcerer fantasy that purposefully exiles itself from broad relevance. (This is something that Sanderson has written about himself.) For another, as much as I will defend the artistic legitimacy of genre fiction in principle, I’m not going to try and spin Twilight. (And yes: I have actually read it.)

Half of Oppenheimer’s points rely firmly on the equivalence of genre-fiction with non-art. First he points out that since Mormons don’t like to write sex scenes, they will naturally be shunted into YA and genre fiction. He also recapitulates the traditional explanations for why Mormons write so much sci-fi and fantasy, including  both the theological argument (““We believe that God created a lot of different worlds…It’s natural for us to think that a lot more might be out there.” - Rachel Ann Nunes) and the Card-as-trailblazer argument (“If you are a bookish young Mormon, your church role models work in genre fiction: major figures like Mr. Card and Ms. Meyer… Unsurprisingly, the heavily Mormon state of Utah has become an incubator.”) We’ve already covered that angle.

The other half of his argument relies on the role of tragedy in great art. Here he cites popular Mormon author Shannon Hale, who says: “I think Mormons tend to have hope and believe in goodness and triumph, and those portrayals can ring false in a literary world.” It’s true that, like an absence of graphic depictions of sex, a stubbornly optimistic outlook can fail to be perceived as serious art, but in this case it is more than just a question of prevailing social expectations.

Mormonism (as a culture) does have a penchant for ruthless optimism. This is something I’ve written about before, and I think that it’s largely unique to Mormonism because Mormonism places so much emphasis on how we are perceived by outsiders. Partially because of persecution, a trait we share with other minorities, but also because we are evangelists. And that combination–historical persecution and current evangelism–is a rather unique pressure for Mormonism. The result is that we tend to shade the truth. We’ve seen this play out historically with white-washed versions of Church history. It also plays out individually when, for example, we tend to drastically overstate our sense of certainty in religious dogma by reciting “I know…” (rather than “I believe,” or “I affirm,” or any number of less-stark alternatives) in our monthly testimony meetings. Whether it’s a facade for our neighbors, our investigators, or ourselves we feel a pressure to demonstrate that truth of the Gospel by a misguided attempt to signal that we are happy customers.

This isn’t good for art.

2013-11-11 People of ParadoxIt’s not good because the world is full of pain and confusion and suffering and no true stories can be written that do not draw also from those darker waters. It’s not good because there’s also a sense of dishonesty that goes along it. It’s not about intentional deception but rather about careful self-censorship. This can be very wise from a practical standpoint–the reluctance to talk about past transgressions is sensible in most contexts, for example–but it’s a bad habit for budding artists. And it’s not good because great art is usually about what we lack and not about what we have. As Terryl Givens observed in People of Paradox, Mormon emphasis on certainty, completeness, and sufficiency undercuts the sense of mystery, doubt, and yearning that motivates so much great art. (I hope it’s obvious that my treatment of Mormonism is primarily cultural rather than theological, but in case it’s not I’ll just go ahead and say that here. )

But there is a positive side to Mormon culture as well. You can count me as one of those who believes that there really is something about Mormonism (both the doctrine and the culture) that predisposes us towards speculative fiction. For me, the key ingredient is the atheological nature of Mormonism which encourages and even requires speculative and imaginative engagement with meaningful questions in a context that explicitly eschews contrived and orthodox responses.

In any case, however,there’s a happy trend as we look toward the future. On the one hand, there’s a growing awareness of the legitimacy of science fiction as a way of telling great stories and of making great art. And for whatever reason science fiction is something that comes naturally to Mormons. On the other hand, as the Church as an institution rolls back the tendency to whitewash our own stories there will continue to be a corresponding growth of confidence among members that there is room for honest doubt and questions alongside earnest faith. The pressure to not rock the boat will diminish, creating more space for faithful Mormons to make art within our community.

Maybe Oppenheimer is correct to say that Mormons haven’t had a literary renaissance. But the sentiment should be modified. It should read: Mormons haven’t had a literary renaissance yet.

96 Responses to The Missing Mormon Literary Renaissance

  1. Kent Larsen on November 11, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Well put. My reading of the situation is basically the same as what you describe.

    And I too thought that Oppenheimer’s article was weak — its like reporting a stereotype.

  2. Adam G. on November 11, 2013 at 8:52 am

    *Mormonism (as a culture) does have a penchant for ruthless optimism*

    True, but that could make for some sick art if Mormons *recognized* that their optimism was ruthless. Great phrase, by the way. “This is the best of all possible worlds, or else” is a great, great hook.

  3. Dave on November 11, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Perhaps our hopes and expectations are unrealistic. Who wouldn’t rather read Tolkien than Faulkner?

  4. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 9:49 am

    I’d much prefer to read Tolkien *and* Faulkner. The idea that one has to choose between the two is a false dichotomy propagated by both sides of the literary/genre debate. As a sidenote: genre won.

    A minor quibble: epic fantasy and sword and sorcery are two different sub-genres of fantasy. And Sanderson also writes urban fantasy.

    A major quibble: I think your not reading Sanderson closely or widely enough, Nathaniel, if you’re not seeing direct engagement with Mormon themes and concerns in his work. Three key examples…

    Elantris features a character who is a missionary zealot. His character arc has direct parallels to the Mormon experience.

    The Mistborn trilogy features a character who is searching for religion. The form that search takes and his appraisals of the various religions he remembers is very Mormon-inspired. More importantly, the trilogy ends in one of the most Mormon moments in genre fiction ever — one that directly comes out of our peculiar approach to the classic spirit vs. matter divide.

    Finally, Warbreaker is, in part, a direct (with a twist, of course) meditation on the notion of being able to partake of the fruit of tree of life and live forever in one’s sins. On the other hand, it also gives (and this take some reading between the lines) some sense of how eternal beings could have quite a lot of power and still preserve their individuality.

    This is not to say that Sanderson reaches literary greatness.

    1. His prose is too transparent. Sidenote: one of the more pernicious things propagated by the two deans of modern LDS writers — OSC and David Farland — is their emphasis on transparent prose. This is especially tragic because OSC has the chops (or had the chops) to write poetic prose. Funnily enough, some of Sanderson’s best prose is found in his middle grade series Alcatraz vs. the Librarians, which also shows that he is acquainted with postmodern play in fiction and simply chooses to write in the idioms that he writes in. I’d love to see him at some point take some of that metafictional awareness and humor and deploy it in a work of adult fiction.

    2. He needs to get better at writing women characters (which is something that I suspect he knows). Although, of course, since when have male literary greats all been amazing in their ability to write women characters?

    3. His mechanistic approach to worldbuilding/magic systems while providing more interesting, complex explorations than his detractors say (if you really break down his work, it’s clear that for all his magic rules, their essence is not video-game-like, but rather are always in service to the larger story), does throw up some barriers to what he can accomplish in his work.

  5. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Also: Vonnegut and Atwood need/needed to get over themselves. Atwood, especially, clearly doesn’t read much in the genre and so her view of what science fiction can accomplish/has accomplished is the ’30s-50s preserved in amber with no understanding of all the polished, cut precious and semi-precious stones that have been mined since the new wave of SF&F that started in the ’60s.

  6. Nathaniel Givens on November 11, 2013 at 10:04 am

    True, but that could make for some sick art if Mormons *recognized* that their optimism was ruthless. Great phrase, by the way. “This is the best of all possible worlds, or else” is a great, great hook.

    Thanks, Adam. I’ve been mulling over these ideas as well, but I’m a long way from venturing forth to hazard my own work to public scrutiny. It’s so much easier to comment than create…

  7. Nathaniel Givens on November 11, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Wm-

    A minor quibble: epic fantasy and sword and sorcery are two different sub-genres of fantasy.

    You are correct. I should have looked into that more carefully. I took one term as defined by Sanderson (“epic”) and another defined by Jim Butcher (“sword and sorcerer”) and combined the two without looking into their broader use. (I may even have mis-remembered Butcher’s exct term.) That was careless.

    As far as urban fantasy goes, I thought Steelheart was the only one, and Sanderson himself called that a stark departure from his usual work.

    A major quibble: I think your not reading Sanderson closely or widely enough, Nathaniel, if you’re not seeing direct engagement with Mormon themes and concerns in his work.

    No, I understand that he uses Mormon themes. Picking out Mormon themes in the work of Mormons is a fun hobby of mine while reading genre fiction. What I meant is that he doesn’t seem to be responding to other Mormons doing the same thing. To my mind, “literary renaissance” implies not just a large volume of high-quality art, but also a community of writers who are interacting with each other. Sanderson is not in any way that I can identify interacting with Card or Meyers (or other Mormon writers). He’s taking Mormon themes, yes, but then packaging them for his specific, insular audience.

    That’s the part I feel is missing, and I think the primary reason for it is the self-exile of the epic fantasy genre-ghetto, which aspires for insularity in ways that not all of speculative fiction does. (Or at least, Sanderson has so far embraced it’s insularity and non-accessibility with the sole exception of Steelheart.)

  8. dangermom on November 11, 2013 at 10:15 am

    George Handley makes some interesting points in his new post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/homewaters/2013/11/the-quest-for-great-mormon-literature.html

  9. Jettboy on November 11, 2013 at 10:15 am

    As I said with my own response:

    “Although artists should stretch the talent given to them, Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares are not going to exist. That dream needs to be retired. This is not because Mormons are incapable of great literature, but because the expectations are ridiculous. The New York Times article said it best while ignoring the implications, “In the United States, Jews, blacks and South Asians, while they have produced no Milton or Shakespeare — who has, lately? — have all had literary renaissances.” The nearest to the two contemporary “Bards” in prestige is Homer who lived about a thousand years before them. By that reckoning, time is on the Mormon side.

    This fascination with literary perfection has been going on since the foundation of the United States. How many American Miltons and Shakespeares are there? The closest that exist are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, and the latter is undoubtedly a genre author. The beloved early American writer James Fenimore Cooper was dismissed by his English contemporaries as too common. He is seen by some modern literary critics as a type of Tom Clancy of his day. Despite this, his prose is better than almost any current writer simply because of the Romantic style of the time. Interesting enough, his prose was heavily criticized by Mark Twain who is the only American author best worthy of the “Bard” mantle. The proclamation of Orson F. Whitney is a distinctive American desire for cultural recognition among more established traditions.”

    http://www.millennialstar.org/unrealistic-expectations-of-mormon-miltons-and-shakespeares/#comments

    I like what you said that there isn’t a conversation going on that creates this Renaissance, but there is one happening in history. Call it the second Mormon history Camelot, different as it might be from the first one. It might be literary fiction is just not a Mormon collective talent. There is no reason that Mormon work couldn’t be epic, and perhaps that is why genre fiction is so often used. We have a sense of the “big picture” and therefore petty concerns of literary fiction isn’t as suited for sensibilities. We might be trying to copy the world while a larger vision is something that should be a better fit. Instead of writing To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps Winds of War is a better literary direction.

  10. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 10:22 am

    I disagree, Nathaniel. The ending of the Mistborn trilogy seems to me to be in dialogue with OSC’s treatment of spirit/matter in the later books of the original Ender series. His magic systems are in dialogue with David Farland’s work (specifically the Runelords) and are a refinement of them (which makes sense since Farland was a teacher of his). And I could be wrong but I think that Legion overtly or not is in dialogue with Dan Wells’s work.

    Also: the Alcatraz books are urban fantasy (specifically secret history); Legion is urban fantasy/psychological thriller; the Rithmatist is steampunk/alternate history.

  11. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Also: there is/was a Mormon literary renaissance. It started in the 1960s. It has taken a different form than earlier ones in part because it’s later in the history of literature and America. It is largely unrecognized in part because Mormon literature/Mormon studies has not been widely adopted by the Academy and where it has, the focus has been on history rather than literature.

  12. Jonathan Green on November 11, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Nathaniel, there’s something a bit jarring about how you contrast literature with some Mormon tendency to “shade the truth.” But literature is nothing if not a shaded version of a fiction that may have little or nothing to do with truth, so that extra practice in applying shading should only be a good thing for literary pursuits. I reject the idea that Mormons skew their representations while other people report distilled versions of objective truth – everyone interprets new facts based on existing experience, every representation is projected through one perspective. Holding up literary novels as a counterpoint to non-truthful Mormon storytelling seems like a particularly bad choice: Novels can give us insight and understanding and empathy and entertainment and vicarious emotional engagement, but not truth.

    A good amount of Oppenheimer’s article could be turned around to ask a different question: Not what’s wrong with Mormons that we can’t write decent novels, but what’s wrong with the institution of the literary novel as it currently exists so that Mormon writers don’t find it a useful art form? I’m also suspicious of how familiar Oppenheimer is with your average Barnes and Noble. It’s contemporary literary fiction that’s the real (and unprofitable) niche; YA and genre fiction are among the few healthy markets in publishing.

  13. Thomas225 on November 11, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Correlation or top down suffocating control killed this cat. Correlation or top down suffocating control of the message also spawned the drive to write all the hidden histories the controllers don’t like and were actually trying to bury through correlation.

  14. Nathaniel Givens on November 11, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Wm-

    I probably need to read more of Sanderson’s writing, then. I took him at his word when he said that his writing was all “epic fantasy” except for Steelheart. I’ve only actually read Way of Kings and Steelheart myself.

  15. Nathaniel Givens on November 11, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Jonathan Green-

    I reject the idea that Mormons skew their representations while other people report distilled versions of objective truth – everyone interprets new facts based on existing experience, every representation is projected through one perspective.

    It’s not a question of truth vs. non-truth. We’re talking about fiction after all, so such a dichotomy wouldn’t make sense. It’s rather a question of the particular way in which Mormons self-censor to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative. That’s not more or less true than any other storytelling, but it’s a particular bias that does not lend itself towards great art.

    As I wrote (paraphrasing Terryl Givens): “Mormon emphasis on certainty, completeness, and sufficiency undercuts the sense of mystery, doubt, and yearning that motivates so much great art.” It’s not that we’re shading the truth (such an accusation makes no sense in the context of fiction writing) but how we’re shading the truth.

  16. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 10:57 am

    I will admit that that certainty/sufficiency is a concern for me when I sit down to revise my Mormon-themed fiction. I generally resist it and by the same token also try to resist the modern literary oppression towards ambiguity and inertness. It’s a painful and rewarding artistic approach to take in my experience because it creates a tension that is productive when it works or clumsy/leaden when it doesn’t.

    And what I hope is that when people read my fiction that they do so with an understanding that the story itself is not sufficient to explain either my own worldview or that of Mormonism, rather it’s a look at one particular aspect that I find interesting (shameless plug: see my story in the soon to be released fall issue of Dialogue for an example of what I mean).

  17. Jettboy on November 11, 2013 at 10:58 am

    What Brandon Sanderson writes is epic fantasy, but so much more than that. One of the reasons I love him over so much other fantasy is that he is NOT ” sword-and-sorcerer fantasy” any more than 2001: A Space Odyssey is Flash Gordon. His own creations do not exist in the same world as J.R.R. Tolkien, or even remain for long in their own. It is refreshing. By the way, you should read “Servant of a Dark God” by John Brown that I think is in dialogue with Orson Scott Card’s Red Prophet series. All of them seem to be discussing the metaphysics (not just the theology) of Mormonism.

    http://www.millennialstar.org/the-mormonism-in-brandon-sanderson-novels/

  18. Tom Johnson on November 11, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Check out Brady Udall’s works. I think he’s the best Mormon writer out there right now, and he doesn’t write genre fiction.

  19. Jettboy on November 11, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Actually, Brady Udall is an example of why Mormons don’t write genre fiction. All the concerns that are quoted in New York Times are fulfilled in his work. Non-Mormons might read him, but I don’t know of very many Mormons that do, or don’t end up offended and stop reading.

  20. Mtnmarty on November 11, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Dave,

    I’ll reach for the Faulkner before Tolkien with pleasure. I mean compare the 2 quotes below. Its like life versus a picture of life. Life wins.

    “Because there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers know because it makes them both:—touch and touch of that which is the citadel of the central I-Am’s private own: not spirit, soul; the liquorish and ungirdled mind is anyone’s to take in any any darkened hallway of this earthly tenement. But let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too.?”

    “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

  21. Jettboy on November 11, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Mtnmarty, give me like for like quotes and you have an argument. As it stands, they have nothing in common in theme, length or any similarity to actually compare.

  22. Luisa Perkins on November 11, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Another quibble: books don’t win the Nobel Prize. Authors win for their body of work–even though they might have produced books that are outstanding within that body.

  23. Mtnmarty on November 11, 2013 at 11:49 am

    The comparisons in the piece are unfair to the point of ridiculous, how many blacks and South Asians are there compared to Mormons? And Jews, who can be compared to the Jews in the literary space?

    But from all my reading of mormon blogs, I don’t think the mormon mind has a very nuanced or well developed picture of sin. Its all a mile wide and an inch deep. Its like every teenage awakening makes one Don fetchin’ Juan.

    What I wouldn’t pay for a Mormon Tolstoy to tell the story of an LDS Anna Karenina or a Nabokov to give us an LDS Humbert Humbert. You get just a hint of it in the Executioner’s Song – its all Jew does jack Mormon. Now a mormon Faulker that is just way too much to even hope for. How about a mormon Julien Sorel, that’s at least imaginable. And an LDS Middlemarch seems downright possible as does an LDS DH Lawrence. The most I can dream for in practical terms is a Cervantes. That’s greatest we can aspire to and if we are really, really lucky we’ll get our Shakespeare.

    What genre does Walter Kirn write?

  24. Mtnmarty on November 11, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Jettboy,

    Yes, but those were taken from the first hits I got on both of them. Could one even get a Faulkner quote like the one from Tolkien. I thought Dave’s point was that Tolkien is more fun because the theme’s are more attractive and the prose more pleasurable.

    I agree they aren’t comparable and that’s the point. Harold Bloom says it pretty well when he says all the great writing needs to be strange in a new way.

    One great LDS theme would be the contrast between “ordinary” english and LDS english and how characters would change registers in different situations. Its linguistic paradise (or is it paradisical?).

  25. Mtnmarty on November 11, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Nathaniel,

    I just wish there was more science in the science fiction. Speculative fiction is the more accurate term and all the fantasy, etc. fiction isn’t very science based.

  26. J Watson on November 11, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Compelling topic. A few non-ordered responses, then my own thoughts.
    That we could actually be arguing Tolkien as being on the same level as Faulkner is telling.
    That we have to preface the whole discussion with an argument for legitimizing genre fiction is telling.
    That a writer who is both talented and serious, i. e., Udall, is not widely read among us, and if he is, he’s quickly discarded because he’s offensive or twiddling his literary thumbs by writing about “the petty concerns of literary fiction” is telling.

    Now, I reject the idea that we aren’t at least showing signs of a burgeoning Mormon literary renaissance.
    While she isn’t currently active, Terry Tempest Williams, among other themes, often writes of Mormon-related issues.
    Udall, as mentioned, is highly celebrated. To say nothing of his novels, his short short, “Wig,” is among the very best of that form, and garnered first prize in the prestigious Story Contest.
    Pat Madden’s essays have received wide acclaim.
    Lance Larson’s poetry has been published widely, earning him many awards.
    Matt Babcock’s essay was one of last year’s notable essays, listed in Best American Essays 2012.
    Braden Hepner’s forthcoming novel, as I have mentioned here before, is the most elegantly written novel by a Mormon author I have ever read. The disparity between the quality of his prose and the quality of Card’s or Sanderson’s is roughly equivalent to that gulf of misery and endless woe between, say, Faulkner and Tolkien.
    Consider Josh Foster, writer of widely published stories and essays, who just completed the ridiculously selective Stegner Fellowship.

    Are we there yet? No. But we’re making progress. We’ll make it faster if we can put to bed the well-intended but ultimately misguided attempt to legitimize the playthings of genre. Perhaps that argument will be won someday. But it won’t be won by us. In the meantime, the more we can convince upcoming writers to attempt serious literature, the better off we’ll be.

  27. Eric on November 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    The assumption of the NY Times piece is that literary fiction must be depressing and full of sex, which is not true any more than genre fiction must be free of those things. The funny thing is, most contemporary fiction is mediocre, by definition. I don’t think the hand-wringing is called for at all. Great writing will endure, and mediocrity will fade. It may very well be that a hundred years from now, some of the “great writers” will be Mormons. Or they won’t be. But who cares? Flaubert, Tolstoy, Joyce, Bellow… the good stuff that knocks your socks off, how often does that come along, really?

  28. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    How much genre fiction have you read J Watson? Granted, most Mormon writers aren’t on the cutting edge of genre (although OSC was back in the day with his early short stories), but if you can with a straight face use the term serious literature as something that doesn’t include genre, then you don’t know the field.

    As for Udall not being widely read among us — it all depends on what someone means by us and widely. One would, expect, for example, that Udall wouldn’t be widely read among the Mormons Jettboy know; whereas, he is among those I know. That he is not widely read among all American Mormons is self-evident: very few fiction authors are.

  29. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    Eric:

    I wholeheartedly agree — however, the main venues that publish literary fiction certainly seem to bend more towards the depressing and full of sex. I haven’t read The New Yorker more than sporadically in awhile, but certainly circa 1996-2004, there was a lot of depressing fiction going on.

    Of course, I wouldn’t mind a little more depression and sex (the presence of it if not in-depth portrayal) in Mormon fiction.

  30. J Watson on November 11, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    With a face at least as straight as the faces of nearly every other professor of English literature in America, I CAN say that serious literature needn’t include genre. That is not to say the canon has never included something genre-oriented, but that those cases are wildly few and far between.
    How much of it have I read? Honestly, not a lot, only about a dozen years’ worth. But, and I mean this in the gentlest way, when I became a man I put away childish things. Okay, so that’s getting a bit snarky. But I stand by my point. Why don’t I read genre anymore? Simple: it’s not as good. It really isn’t. This argument only gets as much play here because of the sympathetic crowd. Elsewhere, the argument’s dismissed as somewhat quaint but essentially irrelevant. Perhaps that’s unjust, but, as I said, we are not the ones who will win the argument, if it is indeed one that could be won. First, let’s get our Miltons and Shakespeares. Then, let’s play with our lasers in genre forts of our making until who knows what star is headed our way to wreck our fun.
    Could genre ever be as good as literary fiction? Sure, but it almost never is.
    Don’t get me wrong. I loved fantasy as a young reader. Those books taught me to love reading. They’re doing the same for my kids now. I’m grateful for what they offer to the Young Adults for whom they are written.

  31. Allen on November 11, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Of course, Shakespeare was out to put bums on seats in the theatre. In other words, he wrote plays to make money.

  32. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    I’ve read as much of the canon as any English major (and then some). There’s a whole lot of genre fiction that is just as good as modern literary fiction and some that is even better than a lot of what made it into the 20th century canon. And that’s not even accounting for the fact the much of the best mainstream literary fiction (and weird literary fiction) of the last 20 years has been clearly informed by (and in some cases embraced by) the genre community, a process that has accelerated in the past decade.

  33. Allen on November 11, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

    As Vladimir Nabokov pointed out, Dostoevsky’s novels were shapedby mystery and sentimental stories. The Brothers karamazov, for instance, is basically a murder mystery. Still, I bet that few are going to dismiss him as a mere genre writer.

    The quote at the top is From Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The master and Margarita,” one of the greatest novels ever written.it combines two types of genre novels- urban fantasy and historical fiction. HMMMM.

  34. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Agree, Allen. The Master and Margarita is my favorite 20th century novel and, imo, a model for Mormon fiction.

  35. J Watson on November 11, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    Allen, The Brothers Karamazov is basically a murder mystery. Thank you for this delight. The Book of Mormon, for that matter, is basically a spy novel. In other words, no, no it isn’t.

    Wm, I’ll take you at your word that you have read as much of the canon as “any English major,” if you’ll allow that your position for one so well read is decidedly in the minority.

  36. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    I’ve met a lot more genre folks who are well-read in the canon than I have canon folks who are well-read in genre (or know anything about it beyond caricature and maybe Le Guin and Bradbury). And many of the best authors of short fiction right now–Karen Russell, George Saunders, Karen Joy Fowler, Kij Johnson–play in genre spaces.

  37. Allen on November 11, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    J Watson, why isn’t the BK a murmder mystery, because it deals with serious themes? If so, that is entirely the point.

    “Wm, I’ll take you at your word that you have read as much of the canon as “any English major,” if you’ll allow that your position for one so well read is decidedly in the minority.”

    it is a nice minority, with such luminaries as W. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene.

  38. J Watson on November 11, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Ok, Watson, you knew what would happen if you fell in with this generation of LARPers.
    Fine, ad hominem attacks are unfair. Nor is it fair that I misquoted Christ, but only just a little.
    It was a joke. Don’t dock my hit points.

    I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree. I just happen to prefer stories whose conflicts are realistic, whose characters are real humans on earth, and whose concerns are those of this life. Those of you who love elves and martians can remain comforted by the close-knit community common to most groups of the socially ostracized.

    Really, I AM just joking. I fully admit that I am a nerd as well. (I just don’t dress up as one and battle in the park.)

  39. Allen on November 11, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    “Agree, Allen. The Master and Margarita is my favorite 20th century novel and, imo, a model for Mormon fiction.”

    Wm, I’m glad that I’m not the only one here who thinks so. Bulgakov is my favourite author. One of the members that my companion and I baptised lent me a copy of ‘A Dog’s Heart” and all of his short stories. I was hooked from that point on (and boy did my Russian improve). “White Guard” is about war, families, and the officer ethos, but beyond all that it deals with topics such as God and salvation. He definitely has a lot to say for Mormon writers, IMHO.

  40. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Btw, one easy way to dive in to current SF&F that has a more literary bent is to read Clarkesworld: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/ (which is free online). Some of what you find there (just like literary fiction in specialized journals) requires some familiarity with the field, but much of it does not, and much of it plays with form/genre/language/etc.

  41. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Ah, I wish I could read it in Russian (for those who are interested in the novel, I recommend the Pevear and Volokhonsky) translation. But then again: I get to read Kafka in the original.

    tM&M has been embraced by American academics for its transgressiveness and sense of play, but I’ve also read some excellent criticism of it that shows how it fits into Bulgakov’s belief in Russian Orthodoxy. I think that’s important because the Pilate chapters are just as important as the Woland chapters (and the two are connected, of course).

  42. Wm on November 11, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    “I just happen to prefer stories whose conflicts are realistic, whose characters are real humans on earth, and whose concerns are those of this life.”

    Yeah, that totally proves that you don’t know genre fiction. Because guess what? Once you get past the video-game-esque wish fulfillment adolescent work in the genre (the mirror of the emo stuff in lit fic), you’ll find that SF&F is metaphor and language and form in slightly different ways than Faulkner is, but with just as much intensity, realism and characterization. Science fiction is never about the future: it’s always about the concerns of the present.

  43. Allen on November 11, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    J Watson, you are welcome to your prefernces, but consider what Somerset Maugham had to say. There is a place in literature for genre writing.

    “There is also today a fear of incident. The result is this spate of drab stories in which nothing happens. I think Chekhov is perhaps responsible for this too; on one occasion he wrote: “People do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.” But people do go to the North Pole, and if they don’t fall of icebergs they undergo experiences as perilous; and there is no reason why an author should not write as good stories about them as about people who eat cabbage soup. But obviously it isn’t enough that they should go to their offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup. Chekhov certainly never thought it was. In order to make a story at all they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives; when they eat their cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance. Cabbage soup then becomes a symbol of the satisfaction of a domestic life or the anguish of a frustrated one. To eat it may thus be as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg . But it is just as unusual. The simple reason for Chekhov’s statement is that he believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe; namely, that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.”

  44. Adam G. on November 11, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    This thread contains some really drab prose. Let us argue about genre fiction in limericks, please.

  45. Mtnmarty on November 11, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Is JG Ballard genre fiction. I mean everything has a genre, right?

    By the way, I don’t know where people get off thinking mormons are optimistic. To most people the statement “wickedness never was happiness” is about as pessimistically depressing as it gets and to mormons “I’m OK, you’re OK” is reciprocally depressing.

  46. Mtnmarty on November 11, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    There once was a book from nantucket
    With a plot so bad that it sucked it
    The mormons it seems
    write genre by reams
    So happy the critics all chucked it

  47. Allen on November 11, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    “This thread contains some really drab prose. Let us argue about genre fiction in limericks, please.”

    Ok.

    There was an old woman of Ghent,
    Reading books of a literary bent,
    All others consigned to the fire,
    But flames rising higher and higher,
    Mean none of her tenants now pay any rent.

  48. Clark on November 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    This isn’t good for art.

    It’s not good because the world is full of pain and confusion and suffering and no true stories can be written that do not draw also from those darker waters. It’s not good because there’s also a sense of dishonesty that goes along it.

    Hmm. So art can’t be optimistic? I think that’s a common view of art but if true then art itself has cut itself off from a large part of the human experience.

  49. Adam G. on November 11, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    You’ve heeded my simple request.
    You’ve limericked at my behest.
    The results, I avow,
    are much full of wow.
    Or so I will argue if pressed.

  50. Nathaniel Givens on November 11, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Clark-

    Hmm. So art can’t be optimistic?

    From the original post. In fact, from the section you quoted:

    It’s not good because the world is full of pain and confusion and suffering and no true stories can be written that do not draw also from those darker waters.

    also (adverb): in addition; too
    a brilliant linguist, he was also interested in botany”
    synonyms: too, as well, besides, in addition, additionally, furthermore, further, moreover, into the bargain, on top (of that), what’s more, to boot, equally;
    (From Google search for “define:also”).

    Now, who can distill the heartache of responding to a quote by reiterating the OP into a limerick for me? :-)

  51. Nathaniel Givens on November 11, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    There once was a comment online
    that struck me as rather malign.
    The point it had missed–
    all logic dismissed–
    and so my response was unkind.

  52. Jaime on November 11, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    A book full of blood, sex, and tears
    No Mormon will touch, it appears
    …except every night
    in the saga of -ites
    that is our belov’d scriptures so dear

  53. Clark on November 11, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    But Nathaniel that’s still a dodge. Why does the *same work* have to draw from both waters? Put an other way why can’t there be an uplifting optimistic piece that doesn’t partake of the horrible in life? Its like saying Blake’s Songs of Innocence only become art when combined with Songs of Experience.

  54. Th. on November 11, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    .

    I’m pretty happy, overall, with this discussion, but I would like to emphasize what’s been hinted at: Mormon smartypants aren’t aware of our ongoing literary renaissance because they’re so focused on what’s happening in history and sociology, etc. Literature is happening! Look around! It’s pretty darn good!

  55. Nathaniel Givens on November 11, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    But Nathaniel that’s still a dodge. Why does the *same work* have to draw from both waters?

    If you can’t draw from the breadth of human experience you can’t make great art. This doesn’t mean that every single work has to contain every single emotion. It does mean that if, over a large body of work, there’s systematic bias to avoid entire swathes of important human experience, the artistic breath of that body of work will be severely curtailed.

    Is this not fairly self-evident?

  56. Nathaniel Givens on November 11, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Also, Mormon and NYT best-selling “genre” author Larry Correia has a decidedly less restrained response that I found thoroughly enjoyable to read.

    http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/fisking-the-nyt-it-isnt-just-me-my-whole-religion-cant-be-real-writers/

  57. Tim on November 11, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Yuck. I dislike Correia’s approach just as much as I dislike the “I turn my nose up at Tolkien” approach. Most bestseller stuff is dreck–including most of the sci-fi and fantasy I liked as a kid. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s quality. Like pop music, 99% of it will be entirely forgotten in 20 years. But Tolkien (and to a lesser extent, a handful of other fantasy authors) are quality writers–they not only have real characters and great plots, but they also write quality prose. And they’ll be remembered for a long time. Tolkien’s popularity, long after the publication of his masterpiece, is evidence of that.

  58. Kent Larsen on November 11, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Really, Nate? I thought Correia’s comments were putrid. Instead of addressing the actual issue, he dived into anti-intellectual and anti-liberal diatribes reminiscent of the worst of Glenn Beck. He didn’t seem (at least as far as I could stand to read) to address Mormon literature at all!!!

  59. Scott Hales on November 11, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    I don’t have much to contribute to this conversation that hasn’t already been said. That’s one of the downsides of showing up late. However, I am glad to see Mormon literature getting so much attention…

    I should say that Mormons have experienced a number of literary renaissances, including the one were in right now. (If what is being produced right now in Mormon lit does not constitute a renaissance, we might consider lowering our expectations.) One often-overlooked renaissance, though, is the one that happened a little over one hundred years ago–which may have been the most important–which I hope the forthcoming edition of Nephi Anderson’s Dorian will demonstrate.

    Let’s keep this conversation going. We have great Mormon literature happening in all genres, including literary fiction. There’s no need to talk about the future when there’s so much in the present to talk about that’s not being said.

  60. Cameron N on November 12, 2013 at 3:16 am

    Completely disagree with this: It also plays out individually when, for example, we tend to drastically overstate our sense of certainty in religious dogma by reciting “I know…” I know that may seem quaint and nit-picky, but I find this complaint a bit tired and untrue. As Paul said, now we ‘know in part’ and ‘see through a glass, darkly.’ Partial knowledge doesn’t prevent the experience of discovering the polishing of the glass or make it less exciting. Plenty of LDS artists embrace mystery, pain, confusion, etc. It could surely be better but I find a lot of great work out there. Please note I’m talking more visual arts as that is my primary interest.

    mormonartist.net

  61. Eric on November 12, 2013 at 6:19 am

    Dang, I should have stayed on the thread yesterday. Would have been fun.
    #29 Wm — good point, I thought of that as well, but that seems to have more to do with current taste than anything else. I think some writers are working themselves into a corner with graphic sex and violence. Where do you go from there? In some cases it’s the same problem I can have with genre. Can you do this without a spaceship or elves or rape or murder? For that matter, my favorite genre novelist is Anthony Trollope, he of the steady stream of political drawing room novels, which are compelling, plot-driven, and light on the sex and violence.
    #30 J Watson, thank you for taking the heat and saying this first (in this thread anyway), and I agree. Canon, the stuff that endured, is, of course, subjective (and changes over time), and does include stuff that was popular and stuff that was obscure in its own time, but it is there to be enjoyed and it’s part of the great conversation of human experience. And by the way, it’s written primarily for grown ups, not for the poor students who are often fed meat before milk. But my experience was similar to yours, J Watson, reading kid stuff and then, one day, growing up. And it may be that we’re missing out on a vast amount of great new science fiction and fantasy and horror and techno-thrillers and spy-thrillers, etc. etc. that are nuanced and brilliant and should be/will be added to the canon, and it may be that we’re reading too much dreck from the wanna-bes among the literary set (Lethem comes to mind). BUT I will take my chances with a balanced literary diet, and keep the junk food to a minimum.

  62. Andrew H. on November 12, 2013 at 6:25 am

    The NYT piece says, “The novelist Brian Evenson said he was forced out of Brigham Young University for writing fiction that displeased church leaders, and in 2002 he was excommunicated.” As I understand it, Evenson asked to have his name removed from the Church, he was not excommunicated. He often describes himself as an “excommunicated Mormon” or “self-excommunicated”. But it seems to me that resigning your membership is a different thing than being excommunicated.

    Deseret News, Aug. 12 2006. “Evenson asked to be excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he says, “not because of a profound disagreement with the doctrines of the church or because of moral differences” but because he felt he couldn’t be both a writer and a Mormon. If he remained a member, he says, he found himself “too consciously weighing the church’s opinion” of what he was writing. Being a member also limited “the way in which I processed emotion in my work,” he says.
    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/645192575/Ex-LDS-author-says-art-church-clash.html?pg=all

  63. Nathaniel Givens on November 12, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Kent,

    Really, Nate?

    Well, I didn’t say I agreed with everything he said–and I don’t!–but I still did find it a fun read not in spite of his intemperance and absolutism but because of it. What can I say? I can appreciate an energetic rant.

  64. Jonathan Green on November 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Nathaniel, I enjoyed reading Correia’s response. Thanks for the link.

    I still think that saying Mormon writers skew their stories to the positive is a huge oversimplification. I can see where a case could be made for preferring closure and finding meaning over doubt and arbitrariness (but I vigorously disagree that yearning and mystery aren’t elements of Mormonism; we’re the ones with actual secret rituals). And I still don’t see that preferring closure and meaning preclude the writing of “great literature” (which is a category crying out for critique and historicization in these discussions).

  65. Wm on November 12, 2013 at 10:41 am

    For those looking to overcome their genre prejudices, here is a list. I’m not including Le Guin, Dick, Lem, Bradbury or Gene Wolfe because they’ve already achieved acceptable status by the academy. No promises, of course — tastes and prior reading experiences vary. And one has to be open to the fact that the successes may be different from what one is accustomed to finding in literary fiction (which, of course, is a construct of the 20th century). The works below have more in common with literary fiction and there are some great SF&F works out there that are less engaged with literary tropes/discourse, but whatever.

    Also: some of these may have some sex and violence (although not the extreme grimdark stuff that is a currently popular sub-genre of epic fantasy). I have also avoided works that are a long series or that require a lot of prior knowledge of the field.

    Finally: Terry Pratchett is awesome and a literary giant, but you kind of need to have read a lot of lesser fantasy and a lot of his Discworld novels before how awesome he is quite kicks in. (hmm, so maybe I should suggest Good Omens, which is the standalone that is the best introduction to his work).

    Newer stuff:

    Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
    The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
    A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar
    What I Didn’t See: Stories, Karen Joy Fowler
    Sharps, K.J. Parker
    City of Saints & Madmen, Jeff Vandermeer
    A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
    Eifelheim, Michael Flynn
    Moscow But Dreaming, Ekaterina Sedia
    The City & the City, China Miéville

    Older stuff:

    Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
    Hyperion, Dan Simmons
    War for the Oaks, Emma Bull
    Little, Big, Jon Crowley
    Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler
    Dune (but more importantly Dune Messiah), Frank Herbert

  66. Mtnmarty on November 12, 2013 at 10:53 am

    He wrote “Let’s put it this way. I live in a new 4,500 square foot house on a mountainside across from a ski resort paid for by my *genre* writing.”

    I liked the energy but in the service of mammon? Its like the worst stereotype of a materialistic mormon I’ve ever read.

    To me, the interesting question is whether there is anything other than social approbation or disapprobation that makes something “highbrow” and if there is, what have mormons done that is highbrow and why.

    Larry seem definitely in the money comes from happy customers and the customer is always right crowd. But in that case, he’s just in the wrong conversation. The NYT piece is about “highbrow”.

    Some posters here use “good writing”, Nathaniel uses “great art” and “real art” and makes some very good points.

    Its interesting to me how the perception of art varies by medium. LDS opinion on music versus painting versus film versus landscape design versus drama, etc.

    I’m curious who people here think the arbiters of what highbrow is are in the LDS community in particular fields?

  67. Adam G. on November 12, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Good recommendations. I’d also put a plug in for Powers. Here’s a list:

    The Stress of Her Regard (though not quite as good as the next three)
    Last Call
    Declare
    Anubis Gate

  68. Tim on November 12, 2013 at 11:28 am

    My recommendations are George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (which I hesitate to recommend because there is quite a bit of sex and language, and because it’s a bit of a fad nowadays) and Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice series. They’re not high-brow literature, but they are well-written, with compelling characters and interesting plot lines. I’ve read quite a bit of fantasy, but those two series really stand out, and are two of the three that I enjoy rereading every couple of years.

    I appreciate the other recommendations. Here’s hoping my small-town library carries some of them…

  69. Wm on November 12, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Powers is on my to-read list, Adam. I’ll take your comment as another witness that I should move him further up that list.

    Tim: I enjoy both series (although the jury is still out on aSoIaF), but I wouldn’t say that either Game of Thrones or the Assassin’s Apprentice series are likely to fit the bill of hardcore literary fiction fans. However, literary authors could learn a lot about characterization from the Fool in Hobb’s series.

    Also: one of the better depictions/explorations of faith and religion in modern fiction is Bujold’s Chalion series.

  70. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Jaime, you have made a significant point. The Book of Mormon is absolutely a tragedy, with the tragedy of the Jaredites thrown in. It starts with the tragedy of Judah in 600 BC, and describes or refers to a succession of tragedies along the way, including the one from which Mosiah I escaped, the tragedy of the Zeniffites, and the tragedy of those who were destroyed just before the visit of Christ. The writings of Nephi, Mormon and Moroni are suffused with awareness of these tragedies. Their optimism is centered in Christ.

    I recall discussions similar to this blog decades ago, when the question was not whether Mormons would produce enduring world class literature, but whether they could even receive readers and recognition outside our own community. Denigrating Card, Sanderson, Hales and Meyer as “genre” writers fails to acknowledge that they have achieved something that Mormons were still aspiring to but had not yet accomplished thirty years ago. And that gives me reason to feel optimistic about the development of all the arts among the Latter-day Saints.

  71. Bambi on November 12, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    You missed some Mormon authors like Becca Fitzpatrick (NY Times Bestseller)and lots of memoirists.

    Also, what about all the ex-Mo writing–does that count as part of a Mormon literary renaissance?

  72. Scott Hales on November 12, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    “Also, what about all the ex-Mo writing–does that count as part of a Mormon literary renaissance?”

    I don’t see why not–especially if it is engaging directly with Mormonism.

  73. Tim on November 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Wm–You’re right, of course. They’re not highbrow literature–they’re just well-written fantasy. I do think Lord of the Rings is hardcore literary fiction, but obviously quite a few hardcore literary fiction fans disagree with me.

    Tolkien had this to say about the critics of his masterpiece (and remember, Tolkien himself was a professor of English at Oxford, although he cared more about linguistics and language than literature):

    “Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

    Tolkien was a master of the English language. His prose flows like poetry. He wasn’t a master of English literature criticism. I doubt he engaged in much literary criticism–the sort of trivial analysis of literature that drives more than a few English majors to other fields.

    I’d rather have a Mormon Coleridge, Tolkien, or Tennyson than a Mormon James Joyce. I’d rather have someone who produces excellent, interesting works that the mainstream public can enjoy (Shakespeare in his day, anybody?) than someone who produces excellent but difficult and often dull works that only some English majors and professors enjoy.

    Quite frankly, although OSC is certainly no Tolkien, and certainly doesn’t write hardcore literary fiction, I’d much rather have Ender’s Game than a Mormon Ulysses. After all, Ender’s Game is as accessible to the general public as Shakespeare’s plays were in his day. And because everyday non-English-major people actually read it, there’s a much greater likelihood that it will make an actual impact on the world.

  74. Nathaniel Givens on November 13, 2013 at 12:09 am

    Jonathan Green-

    I can see where a case could be made for preferring closure and finding meaning over doubt and arbitrariness (but I vigorously disagree that yearning and mystery aren’t elements of Mormonism; we’re the ones with actual secret rituals).

    Right, we’ve got secret rituals. We’re sort of supposed to keep our mouths shut about the good stuff. This is the kind of pattern of self-censorhip that I’m talking about. A clear division between what we’re supposed to talk about and what we’re not is big part of our culture, and I think that’s probably inhibiting the development of talent to some degree.

  75. Nathaniel Givens on November 13, 2013 at 12:18 am

    Wm-

    Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

    Oh good heavens, no! No, no, no, no!!! That was one of the absolute worst train wrecks I’ve had the misfortune of enduring to the end.

    Which just goes to show one peril of the attempt to spread the good genre word: expectations differ dramatically and there are lots of paths to great writing. I would hesitate to recommend any but a very select few novels without knowing what people are looking for.

    I mean, I find The Dresden Files (14 books and counting) incredibly powerful as a body of work, but the craftsmanship is quite poor from a literary standpoint. If you’re looking for great prose: steer clear. And since literary fiction puts a premium on the actual mechanics of good prose (and why shouldn’t it!) I would never recommend these books as an example to someone coming from that position, although I do think they have powerful strengths if viewed from other perspectives, and may constitute great art within alternative but defensible paradigms.

    I also found “Jonathan Strange” incredibly tedious and self-involved. Most of the rest I haven’t read. “Hyperion” is the only one I can really approve of, and it has a pretty terrible ending. (Not to mention a very, very hamfisted sequel.)

    There again, though, my bias is coming out. I really, really care about realistic characterization and react very negatively to stories where it seems transparent that the author is just having the characters do whatever needs to be done to get from Point A to Point B and damn the internal motivations! (This is especially true of “Ancillary Justice,” and here’s my complete review.)

    I also like a lot of Ian M. Banks, but I think his sci-fi is too inaccessible for most outside of the genre. (I liked The Algebraist.) Vernor Vinge also comes to mind, with “A Fire on the Deep” or “A Deepness in the Sky”… I forget which I preferred.)

    The one I’ve seen that I’d recommend to pretty much anyone is Bujold: Paladin of Souls is a pretty good combination of good storytelling, intellectual depth, and accessibility.

    Another thing to consider, however, is the short-story tradition. A really good overview of some of the literary merits of sci would be The Secret History of Science Fiction.

  76. Adam G. on November 13, 2013 at 2:09 am

    “I also found “Jonathan Strange” incredibly tedious and self-involved.”

    Can’t be said often enough. If any work of fiction was ever an incitement to violence, this work was that work. After reading the first few umpteen bajillion pages I wanted to punch someone. However, a number of people I respect are warm on it and I’m something of a philistine in private life, so who knows. It certainly belongs on a list of possible books that would appeal to someone who thinks most genre fiction is dreck.

    I really do suggest that you give Eifelheim and Anubis Gate a try, though.

  77. Hedgehog on November 13, 2013 at 3:22 am

    Well, I enjoyed Jonathan Strange. I loved that alternate magical european history.
    I also like much of the work of Connie Willis, Trudi Canavan, Robin McKinley, and Alexander McCall Smith.

    On lds authors, has anyone mentioned Anne Perry – a huge body of work.

  78. Kent Larsen on November 13, 2013 at 9:41 am

    In #66, Mtnmarty wrote:

    He [Larry Correia] wrote “Let’s put it this way. I live in a new 4,500 square foot house on a mountainside across from a ski resort paid for by my *genre* writing.”

    I liked the energy but in the service of mammon? Its like the worst stereotype of a materialistic mormon I’ve ever read.

    Yes, I found that particularly disturbing. Correia’s definition of good literature is apparently how well it sells — which is, of course, one of the principle issues in the whole tired “literary fiction” vs. “genre fiction” debate.

    To me, the interesting question is whether there is anything other than social approbation or disapprobation that makes something “highbrow” and if there is, what have mormons done that is highbrow and why.

    Larry seem definitely in the money comes from happy customers and the customer is always right crowd. But in that case, he’s just in the wrong conversation. The NYT piece is about “highbrow”.

    Some posters here use “good writing”, Nathaniel uses “great art” and “real art” and makes some very good points.

    And all this leads to what is perhaps the elephant in the room: “What makes something ‘great art’?” “How do we evaluate literature?”

    IMO, the whole issue boils down to this question. Nate and Wm and others above hint at a rough consensus about what constitutes good or great literature, but I think even they will agree that the consensus is very far from reaching any kind of unity. And if you add in personal tastes, its hard to see how anyone agrees on anything.

    On A Motley Vision Wm has tried to deal with this question from an LDS perspective, and suggested a Mormon theory of literature called the “Radical Middle.” As far as I’ve seen this is the only really thought-out theory of literature from a Mormon perspective.

    Regardless the problem is at least in part one of definition — and given that there is no widely accepted theory of literature (although there is certainly consensus on many elements), I think it possible that whatever Mormon literary geniuses arise may not be recognized in our current paradigm, and unlikely that there will be any consensus even if/when they do.

  79. Jonathan Green on November 13, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Nathaniel, are you conceding the point that mystery might play a role in Mormon life?

    I also don’t find it convincing that Mormon reluctance to discuss temple worship is harming the development of Mormon writers. Another way to look at it is that it gives Mormon writers a sense for another aspect of language – the speakable versus the unspeakable – that could be used to enrich their writing in ways that non-Mormon writers might not have as developed a sense for. Take a look at modern studies of censorship; one response is silence or banality, while another is to create texts that operates on multiple levels simultaneously.

  80. Mtnmarty on November 13, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Kent,

    Good comments. There are a few other oddities about this whole conversation. One is why use the term Renaissance? What Mormon literature is being reborn? Or are Mormons supposed to be rebirthing literary fiction for everyone? Or is it just a word that is associated with great art? I really don’t know why its there.

    The second is that Mark Oppenheimer is using quotes from other people – LDS people. He may be misquoting them and strongly (rather than lightly) putting his agenda on the piece, but he may just have asked himself, what do mormon writers think about highbrow versus genre and straightforwardly reporting what he heard. I mean even a NYT writer could just be curious or lazy rather than devious, right?

  81. Mtnmarty on November 13, 2013 at 11:17 am

    In some of Nathaniel’s commentary on writing he states a preference for “realistic” characterization. That’s seems to me a very tough nut to crack. How do we ever know realistic from “things that make sense to me” or “the way I fool myself about meaning” or “the roles I’m comfortable understanding”.

    It seems to me that we have the paradox that we all have the particularities of culture and personality, but we have tremendous access to and interaction with other cultures and personalities.

    What I’m looking for in the cultural realm are people who are willing to take it all on: the global, the scientific, the historical and tell us how to live with all that knowledge – who can see the mind of God and live?

    Imagine a realistic novel with the following characters: Pope Francis, Louis Farrakhan, Billy Graham, David Koresh, Gordon Hinckley, Pat Robertson, Dalai Lama, Rulon Allred, Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, and yourself.

    Who can tell us what realistic portrayals of these people would be? In general, artists don’t do universal, but that also of necessity means they don’t do realistic because reality is inherently universal.

  82. Kent Larsen on November 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    “The second is that Mark Oppenheimer is using quotes from other people – LDS people. He may be misquoting them”

    Shannon Hale hinted that he had, or at least had taken what she said out of context. I think that kind of thing happens all the time.

  83. Wm on November 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Based on your review of Ancillary Justice, Nathaniel, I have to come to three conclusions:

    1. It’s definitely not to your taste.
    2. Your worldview may have got in the way of your ability to read the sci-fi aspects charitably (which is fine — it happens to all of us. I recently bounced off a Correia novel because of it). There may be major worldbuilding failures there, but I don’t see them as any more lazy and hand-waved than most sci-fi, and they are intentionally minimal. But we’ll see (or at least I will) with the next book.
    3. Either you missed or dismissed some key aspects of the plot behind the plot.

    As for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — I find it hilarious and affecting, and I’m not sure why one would consider it self-involved. Is it just because it has footnotes and uses prose that approximates 19th century fiction? I, honestly, don’t have patience for readers who aren’t willing to show some patience with more difficult forms of structure/prose in fiction.

    But for anyone looking for a more rollicking form of 19th century literary ventriloquism in SF&F form, I suggest Brust’s Khaavren Romances, which channel Dumas.

  84. Mtnmarty on November 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    WM,
    You wrote “But for anyone looking for a more rollicking form of 19th century literary ventriloquism in SF&F form…”

    Not being familiar with the genre, “what century are morals\worldview\characterizations from?”

    Does the 19th century prose highlight the differences in worldview or does it instead show the continuities in our current outlook with those of the 19th century.

    Artistically, why the ventriloquism? Nostalgia? Respect? Challenge?

  85. Wm on November 13, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Yes to all three. The degree to which those are annoying varies on the reader, but especially on the skill of the writer.

    If I had to identify what’s happening in the better books, it’s more a form of genre hybridization: asking what if you melded historical fiction with SF&F? Some of it operates to highlight differences in worldview (some of it clumsily). Some of it is engaging in post-colonialist theory. Some if it simply is an outgrowth of Tolkien fantasy — wanting to stretching beyond faux-Medievalism.

    The Brust series is interesting because it’s an offshoot of his main project, the Vlad Taltos series which is noir science fiction with fantasy trappings. Or perhaps noir fantasy with science fictional underpinnings. I would recommend it to those who are looking for fun reads with good characterization and solid prose and fun with plot structure. The series should be read in publication order rather than strict chronological order, especially since the first few novels are a little too comfortable with American culture’s romance with organized crime, but that gets complicated by Brust quite a lot as the books progress.

    Anyway, what the Khaavren Romances do is add background to the Vlad Taltos world; pay tribute to Dumas; and make fun of the whole notion of writing historical fiction (and historical discourse, in general). The prose is quite turgid and easy for readers to bounce off of, but I enjoyed them and was surprised how by defamaliarizing characters through prose, Brust can still nevertheless show characterization and build empathy in the reader. Reading them (and a ton of 19th century fiction in college) made me much less rigid in my expectations for prose in relation to character development. Plus Brust uses humor well.

  86. Nathaniel Givens on November 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Wm-

    3. Either you missed or dismissed some key aspects of the plot behind the plot.

    I’m curious to know you’re take, but I’m also extremely skeptical of defending a work based on extra-textual speculation. What actually happened in the book is that the protagonist went on a 20-year odyssey with no planning whatsoever to find a silly MacGuffin that wouldn’t help accomplish anything, then sidetracked to rescue someone she didn’t like for no reason, then jumped off a bridge to save the person she didn’t like for no reason, then promptly got herself arrested when her idiotic “plan” fell about about 5% into its execution, then the end everything worked out anyway so that there could be a sequel.

    If the “story behind the story” is going to be some musing about how “We all do things in life we can’t really explain and don’t understand why” I might have to put my fist in a wall. I can make literally anything sound profound given a 30-second head start. But it’s a game that got old when I was still in high school.

    I’m no willing to help Leckie out that much. There’s got to be something in the text that indicates to talent, depth, artistry or something. Otherwise, I may as well slice up her book and play magnetic poetry with it and then call her a genius if I like the results.

  87. Wm on November 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    This is a major spoiler, but:
    *
    *
    *
    *
    It’s not fully spelled out but I read it that Breq was a weapon that Anaander Minaai fired at herselves. And that the only reason she could be that weapon is because as the AI One Esk Nineteen she had a little bit of an extra quirk (the singing) that made her, perhaps, capable of being able to act without her ship and the other ancillaries. I didn’t take it as completely orchestrated, but rather one of a host of miniplots that Minaai set in motion hoping one would come back around and land correctly.

    In regards to Seivarden: Breq feels compelled to keep him close because of their prior relationship and her obsession with the crimes she has been ordered to commit. So it’s both a punishment of Seivarden and also a sense of obligation all mixed up together, which gives us some insight to the relationships that AIs develop with humans.

    And for all of the first part of the novel (actually the whole novel, but especially in the first part), Breq isn’t exactly sure of her own motives because she is only part of what she is (Justice of Toren).

  88. Nathaniel Givens on November 13, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Wm-

    Well, if that’s what I’m missing than I’m not missing anything. If your protagonist is an inanimate object (which has been my criticism all along) then you’ve done something seriously, seriously wrong. It’s one of those sci-fi stories that is based on an interesting concept in desperate, desperate need of a story. (You know, the kind with people in it.)

  89. Wm on November 13, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    AIs aren’t exactly inanimate objects, especially ancillaries (which used to be people), and there’s ambiguity to how much Breq/One Esk is operating out of her own agency and how much out of tampered programming — that’s part of the point of the story. I found it quite interesting.

    Of course, YMM(Does)V.

  90. Nathaniel Givens on November 14, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Wm-

    AIs aren’t exactly inanimate objects

    I wasn’t commenting on the technology of AIs. I was commenting on my original critique of Leckie’s writing, most notably the fact that Breq/One Esk’s actions are never remotely explained as proceeding from a reasonable internal motivation. The most charitable explanation you can possibly have is that she’s so traumatized that she spends the entire book lashing out in incompetent and irrational rage. Since the book never actually explores this angle, however, it is horribly executed if that was the goal. In postulating that her nonsensical actions are because she’s being manipulated by the scenes, the fundamental critique is not really being addressed.

  91. Mtnmarty on November 14, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Nathaniel,

    Apart from the book isn’t the whole issue with life today that we are aware that we are mostly an inanimate object? That’s why the old stories are just stories and not myths for so many of us.

  92. Nathaniel Givens on November 15, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Apart from the book isn’t the whole issue with life today that we are aware that we are mostly an inanimate object?

    Decidedly not. I am a believer in libertarian free will. But that’s a conversation for another day.

  93. Mtnmarty on November 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Nathaniel,

    Its always a good day when we discuss the scope of free will! ( I left you scope for some free will with “mostly”.)

    First up for that other day. Do people take drugs to free up their will or constrain it and why do drugs change our behavior?

  94. Nathaniel Givens on November 15, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Another time, Mtnmarty. I promise I’ll address this directly, but not today.

  95. Edward on November 16, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    A Mormon wrote the “Freedom from Conscience” series. I suppose books dealing with an outsider girl who becomes a vigilante serial killer are niche market though. For those curious, the book does involve an inactive Mormon psychology teacher who introduces her to killing and later she marries both his active brother and also her female best friend without him knowing. She turns into a feminist Mormon.

  96. p on November 22, 2013 at 11:39 am

    The benchmark for the evolution/maturity of Mormon fiction isn’t Shakespeare or Milton, it’s Proust.

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