Report from the 2014 Association for Mormon Letters Conference: Part Two

Mormon Tea

Mormon Literature

If you missed my first post reporting on the AML conference, read it here.

So, continuing with the Saturday sessions…

Teaching Mormon Literature

The first was a panel discussion about teaching Mormon literature. Moderated by John Bennion, the panel consisted of Margaret Blair YoungScott HalesShelah Miner, and Boyd J. Petersen. These folks are big names in Mormon literature and the study of it. Each talked about the challenges inherent in teaching Mormon Literature. They all concurred that the first hurdle is the perception that what they want to teach as drama or literature is “inappropriate” because it doesn’t bear the “approving” stamp of being published by The-Publisher-Whose-Name-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned, the dominant publisher of works popular with the average Mormon.

The next hurdle was teaching students to value the literature that makes them think about their world view in more expansive ways than those works by Mormon authors that are more popular because of their entertainment and perceived-worthiness value.

As an example of the difficulty of doing this, John Bennion told of one student of his who was majoring in French literature and read all sorts of “inappropriate” things, but was reluctant to read a literary Mormon work because she said, “Mormon writers should know better.” (Here I roll my eyes and appeal to Enid.)

Shelah Miner, who reviews Mormon works on her blog, said that she was all set to teach a Mormon literature class at a local college, but the class failed to carry because all but two students dropped out after reviewing her syllabus and discovering that what they thought was Mormon literature wasn’t what was going to be taught. They wanted to read the more popular fluff.

Scott Hales, who teaches at the University of Cincinnati, reported that he’s had success teaching Mormon literature along with other world literature in classes of predominantly non-member students. This encouraged the idea that our Mormon literature audience may be able to break the boundaries of merely reaching those within the Church membership.

Margaret Blair Young spoke about her students having difficulty engaging with works that pitted them against ideas or knowledge they didn’t think they were supposed to believe in as Mormons (e.g., evolution).

I applaud these professors for attempting to nurture an audience for Mormon literature in the university classrooms. As difficult as it is, it’s important to keep trying so that in the future (one hopes), more people will appreciate serious Mormon literature.

Promoting Mormon Literature

I was especially keen on hearing what was said on this panel discussion. The panel included Stephen Carter, James Goldberg, and Shelah Miner. Stephen Carter is the current editor of Sunstone magazine, which thoughtfully explores Mormonism. James Goldberg is a playwright and author. And I have mentioned Shelah Miner above.

Stephan began by talking about the history of Sunstone in the context of promoting Mormon drama, fiction, and poetry. Sunstone has done a great job of promoting Mormon letters, much more than I realized. I was pleased to hear that Sunstone can be subscribed to on, or downloaded to, electronic devices now.

James Goldberg talked about the idea of using the Internet to promote Mormon letters more. He, along with Scott Hales, have hosted online contests of Mormon shorts or 1,000 words or less with the hope that a person reading these shorter works will want to read the longer works by the same or different authors. It’s a great idea! I am convinced that in the promotion of Mormon literature, the Internet is the Way.

One of the conference participants expressed the desire for at least one place on the Web that reviewed Mormon literature. Shelah Miner mentioned that she does just that on her blog and at segullah.com. You also have the A Motley Vision, Dawning of a Brighter Day, and The Low-Tech World blogs that highlight Mormon literature. In fact, Shelah read and reviewed all forty entries for the 2013 Whitney awards in one week (was what I understood). She really does book it!

The Take-Away

One thing that surprised me (Stephen, Scott, or anyone feel free to comment) is that just because one reads Sunstone (or by association, Dialogue) doesn’t mean that one reads the creative works in it.

Upon reflection, I guess that’s a no-brainer. It’s just that it seems that readership would be able to appreciate the works of Mormon writers and playwrights more easily than the average Mormon, and in turn, promote them.

So where are the 25,000 or so members that can appreciate serious Mormon fiction and drama then? They walk among us. Jerry Argetsinger mentioned that often members of the Church are wary when recommending certain works, because you don’t know how the recipient will react and don’t want to cause a rift. I don’t know what the solution for this is, but I suspect there are people like me walking around unawares of me, folks I can’t discern because neither s/he nor I has a sign that proclaims, “MoLit rocks!”

But the answer must lie in using social media effectively to promote quality works. Perhaps, just like we sometimes feel anxious about sharing the Book of Mormon with non-members, we need to get over the anxiety of sharing great Mormon literature with our friends and family.

I didn’t get to ask Stephen and the other publishers in the room whether having a website that promotes Mormon short stories in e-book format would be a good idea? Kind of like Amazon Singles. You could have a web page that has previously published works and new short works mixed together. You could let the author set the price, or the publisher could set the prices. At any rate, it’d be a kind of a one-stop shop for serious Mormon short fiction. What do you think?

OK, so we’re going to have a Part Three. I’ll talk about New Mormon Fiction and Gay Mormon Fiction in the next post.

Read, write, execute!

Featured photo credit: Leslie Seaton, Flickr

Author: Michael Andrew Ellis

I write literary fiction at the confluence of Mormonism, Hmong culture, and the human condition. Here on my blog I write about Mormon arts and letters, Hmong history and culture, classic and contemporary literature, existentialism, and my journey as a writer.

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