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

Tree of Utah

Mormon Literature (continued)

The Law of Three: If you missed my first two posts reporting on the AML conference, read them here and here.

So, continuing on with the Saturday afternoon sessions I attended…

New Mormon Fiction

Scott Hales, who has just recently completed his dissertation on the history of the Mormon novel, spoke about the current offerings in Mormon literary fiction. A lot of great things are coming to pass! (Make sure to read his comments below, because he clarifies a few things. Thank you, Scott!)

Scott began his presentation with a review of the past periods of Mormon Literature. He called what I had known as the “Home Literature” period the “Utopian” period of Mormon literature, because of its aspiration to promote a Utopian vision of what Mormonism could do for the world.

The works of the time lean toward the didactic. Because I don’t particularly like obviously didactic works, I had discounted this period, but Scott’s interest in it and his praise for Nephi Anderson, in particular, has led me to give it a second chance. So Added Upon is on my reading list! Dorian too! Here’s a good list.

Scott mentioned the “Lost Generation” in passing. These writers strove to write works that tempered the propaganda and often set themselves against the moralistic stance of the Utopian period. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower Than the Angels. But there is still so much more to read from this period.

Scott covered the next period, Faithful Realism, in more detail. (Of course, it was nice to have one of the patriarchs of this period in the room with us: Douglas Thayer.) Much of the Mormon literature that I have read so far has come out of this period. Works by Thayer and Levi S. Peterson, among others. Many of the writers of this period sought to write realistic stories from within the center of the faith. They explored the dark as well as the light, but affirmed the faith, overall.

If I understand Scott’s analysis correctly, then one distinction between the Faithful Realism period and the current trend in Mormon Literature is that the former was governed by literary realism and traditional narrative structures, while the latter has adopted some postmodern narrative structures and play.

(Scott aptly noted that Mormon literary trends are generally 30 years or so behind American literary trends.)

I have long thought that the literature of the Faithful Realism period mirrors the world view of the authors. There is light and dark below, while above is an order to the “narrative.” There is “substance of things hoped for, … evidence of things not seen.” Conflict. Character development. Resonance.

Three Sheep Walking Away
Photo by Gabriel Pollard

Postmodern-type Mormon literary works (PoMoMoLit?), like Steven L. Peck’s The Scholar of Moab and A Short Stay in Hell, adopt instead fragmented narrative structures from which the reader must derive meaning. The reader is challenged to bring something to the table. Perhaps, s/he’s not certain what s/he’s getting into. Any substance is pieced together from the breadcrumbs of unseen things.

In a time of the Church’s history where many members are experiencing a faith crisis of one type or another, you might say that this narrative structure mirrors what’s happening in the LDS community. The world view of a correlated Church as touched upon during the Faithful Realism period is being replaced by one where readers must draw upon their scripture-study skills, as it were, and make meaning of the “broken vessels” to re-create and deepen their faith, or not.

I’m excited to see postmodern techniques introduced into Mormon literature. However, as Jack Harrell points out in his article “Mormon Writers Make Meaning” in the December 2012 issue of Sunstone, Mormon writers must not succumb to the absurdist-universe tendencies of American postmodernism. Each of us experiences a world of often subjective and fragmented hints at “true knowledge” that we make meaning of. I think this can be best represented in fiction using these postmodernist techniques.

A question arose (Scott, correct me if I misunderstood it) as to whether Scott was characterizing the Faithful Realism period a little inaccurately by casting it, per Nephi Anderson’s literary proscriptions, as being a choice between being earnest for the faith or merely playful (e.g., realistic serious v. the poking fun of Mormonism that we have seen so much of in film and other media, e.g., The Book of Mormon musical), with Faithful Realism being grouped in the earnest category. Bruce Jorgensen thought there should be more of a spectrum of possibilities than only the two categories. (Makes me wonder what the Faithful Realists would think of my characterization above.) Perhaps what Bruce was resisting was the idea that the only other category was that of poking fun at Mormonism, that it shouldn’t be a matter of either/or?

(Oh yeah, postmodernism hates binaries. ;^)

All in all, it was a wonderful survey of the possibilities in new Mormon fiction. Scott recommended several works I’ve added to my reading list, but one that he said exemplifies the current trend is the Monsters and Mormons anthology. Keep up the great work, Scott!

Gay Mormon Fiction

The last session I got to attend was Jerry Argetsinger’s discussion about what’s happening in gay Mormon fiction. (Yes, there is such a thing.)

Jerry teaches at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He is an active member of the Church who is openly gay (I hope I can say this), but who is married to his wife, Gail. They have two children together. From 1990 to 1997, Jerry directed the Hill Cumorah Pageant, an outside theater production performed on a hill near Palmyra, New York.

Jerry gave us a history of gay Mormon art and literature, telling us about works from the 1950s and 1960s. One of the earliest, in the early 60s as I recall, was a film, All Is Well (correction: Advise and Consent), that presented a politician who was Mormon, but whose skeleton in the closet was his having had a homosexual experience while in the service. Then Jerry told us about Richard Fullmer (Dick Vanden) and his writing of fiction that featured characters who happen to be Mormon.

Jerry also had the opportunity of meeting Tony Kushner and interviewing him. Jerry asked Tony about his decision to include a Mormon character in his play Angels in America. Tony said that he had known a young Mormon from a drama camp. She had given him a Book of Mormon. He read it three times. For the purposes of the play, he decided he needed a conservative religion to contrast with a more liberal religion, so he decided to portray a Mormon character.

Jerry said that gay writers, whether Mormon or not, often portray Mormons rather accurately. I was pleasantly surprised by this, considering that not a few may feel reason to be vindictive.

This review of the history led up to the anthology of gay Mormon fiction that Jerry edited. It’s titled Latter-Gay Saints and explores the broad spectrum of what it means to be gay and LDS. Jerry even dedicates the work to three of his local church leaders, who helped him during the process of compiling it. It’s now part of the conversation. Congratulations, Jerry!

Closing Thoughts

I was sorry that I couldn’t attend the final two lectures given by James Goldberg and Stephen Carter. They looked very interesting. James Goldberg is the author of The Five Books of Jesus. Besides being the editor of Sunstone, Stephen Carter is a comic book artist and an essayist. He has published iPlates and What of the Night?. Their presentations were titled “Why the Church is Boring but Our Covenants Are Not” and “A Brief History of Book of Mormon Comic Books: From 1891 to 2014,” respectively. You can sample an interesting phenomenon with beards here.

As for the sessions I did attend, it appears that Mormon writers and dramatists have their work cut out for them to grow an audience that can appreciate Mormon literary works that explore the full spectrum of Mormonism. Perhaps publishers and writers can work together to find these readers, whether they are Mormon or not. It’s worth the effort!

Read, write, execute!

Featured photo credit: Robert Montgomery, Flickr, “Tree of Utah”

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.

6 thoughts on “Report from the 2014 Association for Mormon Letters Conference: Part Three”

  1. Concerning Scott’s ideas about postmodern Mormon writing, I actually think that a good example of that is the From the Dust comic book, which puts fur (or scales) on Book of Mormon characters–an utterly unprecedented act–and then tells an orthodox story. Truly an act of play.

  2. Thanks for the excellent write-up of the whole conference, Mike.

    I think, for the most part, you’ve presented my argument well. I have a few points that I’d like to clear up, though.

    First, I characterize Home Literature as “post-utopian” literature, rather than “utopian” literature, because its “utopian” impulse or function–that which we usually characterize as “didactic,” “preachy,” or “propagandist”–is balanced out with efforts to appeal to broader (often mainstream) audiences and trends. Put another way, it is literature that tries to speak as much to “Zion” as to “Babylon”–creating a kind of middle voice.

    I think Bruce objected to me characterizing Faithful Realism as more or less a more literary and sophisticated continuation of Home Literature for the way it too has a strong utopian function that merely redirects impulse to other ends. In other words, I see Home Literature and Faithful Realism employing essentially the same strategies to accomplish different, but ultimately related goals.

    And this, by the way, is not a bad thing. (I think I erred in using the term “propaganda.” It was too loaded, but I worried that “didactic” would be worse and “utopian” too ambiguous.) One thing I think Mormon literary critics and readers need to get away from is the way we dismiss the idea of didacticism in literature. Most literature is “artistic preaching” in some sense, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think if more Mormon readers took the time to read Home Literature–and read it in tandem with Faithful Realism–they will be surprised by how similar they are.

    I think Bruce also objected to the simplistic way I characterized “Faithful Realism” as literature of internal critique. I think he’d like to grant Faithful Realism more variety of viewpoints. This is a fair point, I think, and I agree that post-1960s Mormon literature manifests this variety. My motivation for reigning in the scope of Faithful Realism is to give some structure to a rather ambiguous term. In my dissertation I argue that the term Faithful Realism should really only apply to works that are responding to the conservatism of correlation-era culture. And even then, I should make it clear that I think there are a variety of ways and means they do this.

    This brings me to the New Mormon Fiction, which I don’t see as the only other option available to Mormon writers–but one possibility among many that are currently taking traction. In bringing in earlier traditions, I’m only trying to draw comparisons to show how new writers are taking what seems to me to be a different strategy for telling Mormon stories. For some reason, that is, the realism that served previous generations of writers is proving itself inadequate in handling the upheavals of post-Internet Mormonism. Hence, the struggle Doug Thayer–one of the best Mormon writers we have–is having with his latest contemporary Mormon story. (Afterwards, he and I talked about his challenges with his new novel–and how it is hard to get a grasp on contemporary Mormon life.)

    There are probably other issues at stake in the question Bruce raised. I don’t think I’m saying that the Mormon writer can either go real or go absurd; rather, I think we are simply witnessing the end of realism (for now?) as a viable approach to telling contemporary Mormon stories–and the absurd or the ambiguous is the path that many Mormon writers are taking to recover from that loss. As I said in my presentation, I see Mormon works appearing today that are more interested in process, processes, and processing information than in professing truth (or truth-through-doubt).

    At any rate, those are my thoughts right now.

    1. Thank you for the clarification, Scott. Yes, it’s interesting how different literary periods surface. For example, American literature, in its post-postmodern phase seems to have swung back toward realism. Thanks, again. I would love to buy you a root beer, sometime, and chat. 🙂

  3. Thanks, this was great to hear.
    The first film that Argetsinger mentioned, which you called All is Well, is actually called Advise and Consent. A 1959 Pulitzer prize winning novel, and a 1962 film starring Henry Fonda.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *