Last Saturday, the Association for Mormon Letters (AML) held their annual conference at Utah Valley University. Unlike previous years, it was a one-day affair, instead of two, but despite its reduction in scale, it was a lot of fun and well worth the four hours. I’m sure that many will join with me in extending a heartfelt thanks to James and Nicole Goldberg for their efforts to organize the conference and bring it off so smoothly.
Last year I used three blog posts to report on the conference. I think I can get away with one this time.
The title of the conference was “Everything You Wanted to Know About Mormon Literature (but Were Afraid to Ask).” It lasted four hours total. Each hour had two sessions, so you had to choose between the two. The cumulative effect, unfortunately, is that you miss half the conference. Because I volunteered to introduce the debates, I was involved with them during the first two sessions of the conference, missing out on the two panels covering the topics of “The Mormon Lit Scene Today” and “Inventing Truth: The Art and Craft of the Personal Essay.” (Not that I minded. The debates were very fun. More below.) Then I attended the panel regarding “My Favorite Mormon Book and Why It Matters,” while the Poetry Slam was going on in the next room. Finally, all conference-goers came together in the library auditorium for the announcement of the awards. So what you have here is a review of half the conference. I invite anyone who participated in the panels I missed or the Poetry Slam to post a link to a review of those in the comments or say something about them in the comments below.
The first debate was between Stephen Carter and James Goldberg about what the role of the Mormon writer is in the Mormon community. (Let us assume here that the Mormon writer has a role or stewardship. Some in the audience mentioned that a writer should just write and let the consequence follow. Point taken.) I’m going to spend a little more time on this debate, since it seems to be the hot question at the moment. Stephen argued in support of the argument that the Mormon writer should be a voice of conscience or critique, while James didn’t argue against that role in particular so much as against the way such critiques often come out on the page. Instead, James argued for embracing the Mormon imagination in our works, critiquing less, or in a less one-sided way. I will talk about their positions in turn, as best I can from memory. There were many facets to this wonderful debate that I won’t capture in the review below, but I hope it’s a decent summary.
Stephen began his argument with a comparison of the Mormon writer with Jesus. Jesus saw things in the Jewish religion of his time that needed improvement, and he spoke in parables, delivered sermons, and otherwise intentionally piqued the Jews in an effort to get them to view the world and their religion in a new light. Stephen also talked about Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey in the context of the Mormon writer stepping outside the community, whether literally or imaginatively, so that s/he can bring back the elixir that will heal the community. When asked to cast his argument in one sentence, Stephen said that the Mormon writer should repent. By that, I understood that he meant that s/he should work though his or her own faulty visions of the world and then, in turn, help others to see the world and their community in a new light. He spoke a lot about empathy and how the experiential nature of fiction allows the reader to walk a while in another person’s shoes. I have long seen this as part of my role as a Mormon writer, and so I went into the debate expecting to be fully validated in my self-assurance as one of the gadflies. But then James presented his argument.
James recognized that Mormon writers certainly could play a role in helping their audience see truths about human experience in a new light, but what he has been dissatisfied with is the way it’s been done on the page. He said that too often the writer stands outside the community and makes his or her work take the stance of us versus THEM, when instead, the work ought to reflect US as a community. One of my favorite points in the debate was when James stands up on his Rameumpton-like chair and, raising his arms, says mockingly (I’m paraphrasing), “Oh Father, we thank thee that we are Mormon literary artists and that we see things more clearly and truly than our brothers and sisters, and that thou has called us to this vocation of pointing out the faults of these poor, benighted people, who hardly read anything worth reading at all.” (I confess I’m elaborating a bit, putting words in James’s mouth, but this is the gist of what he was saying.)
One of the examples James brought up was the film States of Grace by Richard Dutcher. The movie presents a missionary whose father has told him to return home with honor, or in a body bag. Later in the movie, the missionary falls to temptation and, because he knows he cannot return with honor, attempts suicide. Only his mother picks him up at the airport. James felt the movie missed a great opportunity to balance the father’s pride with a kind of repentant attitude that tells his son that he would rather have him alive than dead. James wanted the father to show up at the airport also and say something like, “Son, when I said what I did, I didn’t mean it that way.” The point is to show a character who says some hard things, but then is complex enough to also be different when it comes down to dealing with a particular situation. James seems to want to get past the stereotypical types of characters we Mormon writers may throw in there to get a rise out of the Mormon community.
I don’t recall James being afforded time to cast his argument in one sentence, but I would say that James would like the Mormon writer to embrace the Mormonism in his or her work with all its appeal to the wise, the questioning, and the simple folk. He would like to see us as a community of Mormon writers rise above the need to poke fun at Mormonism or the quirkiness of its culture and instead embrace it. He wants a more community-oriented literature. He said that any community will have issues. It’s the classic hedgehog dilemma. The story goes that somewhere up north, some hedgehogs needed to gather together to get warm, but the closer they got together, the more they poked each other with their quills. So they alternated between being cold and pricking each other. It’s a great analogy for how we all need each other, but the closer we get to each other, the more aware we are of each other’s weaknesses. In James’s argument, I heard echoes of the Restorationist Literature William Morris and Scott Hales seem to be calling for.
The second debate was between the Mormon playwright Eric Samuelsen and a BYU Mormon Lit professor, Gideon Burton, on the topic of whether Mormon writers should read Mormon Literature. Both participants found the question a little nebulous, and both agreed that Mormon writers should. But for the sake of argument, Eric took the position that writers should read anything and everything and even stuff that we Mormons are encouraged not to read. Gideon had mentioned that he could not see how reading anything and everything was feasible, and for that matter, he had his granddaughter to think of. He said that having critics who could guide you to what was considered the best works of whatever you are interested in is a benefit. One of the highlights of the debate was when Gideon said, seriously, but jokingly, in response to Eric’s argument in favor of reading “crap,” “I want to protect my granddaughter from the likes of you.” But it was all in good fun. I came away from this debate rather unchanged, though, since I do tend to read what I’m interested in anyway, and that does include Mormon works.
I spent the next hour listening to a panel discussion about “My Favorite Mormon Book and Why It Matters.” On the panel were Glenn Gordon, Lance Larsen, Melissa Leilani Larson, Shelah Miner, and Ardis E. Parshall. Here are the books:
- Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom, recommended by Melissa Leilani Larson for its depiction of family and the quality of the prose.
- The Way He Lived by Emily Wing Smith, a Young Adult novel recommended by Glenn Gordon.
- The Mormoness: The Trials of Mary Maverick by John Russell, a 19th-century work recommended by Ardis E. Parshall as a rather fair and accurate portrayal of the Mormons by a non-Mormon author.
- Love Letters of the Angel of Death by Jennifer Quist and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall, both recommended by Shelah Miner for their quality of prose and moving characters. In the case of the former, a happy marriage, and the latter, amazement at the character’s endurance.
- Goodbye to Poplar Haven: Recollections of a Utah Boyhood by Edward A. Geary, recommended by Lance Larsen for its quality of prose and its unique vision of Mormon life, especially how Geary uses dialogue and characters from different backgrounds to present opposing points of view.
The audience also recommended several books as well. I wasn’t able to jot them all down, but here are some titles: Gadianton (a play); LDSF, a collection of LDS Sci-Fi stories; Poplars Across the Moon; Honorable Release; Goodbye, I Love You; The Pictograph Murders; Death Coming Up the Hill (this won an award this year for best YA work); The World’s Strongest Librarian; The Lonely Polygamist; Monsters and Mormons; The Reluctant Blogger; I Cannot Tell a Lie; Raw Edges; Where Nothing Is Long Ago; and Wherever She Goes. It was enlightening to see how much Mormon Lit there is available.
Finally, for the last hour of the conference, we gathered in the UVU library auditorium for the awards. You can see a list of the awards for 2014 on the Association of Mormon Letters blog. After the presentation of the awards, a few of the winners read from their work. I was especially pleased that Steven L. Peck won for his short story “Two-Dog Dose.” If you haven’t read that one over at Dialogue, do so. It’s free! Congratulations to all the winners!
I hope that plans for next year’s conference being in Hawaii still hold. It will be awesome.
For those who attended, what else did you like about this year’s AML conference? For everyone who’s interested, what can you add to the discussion of the role of the Mormon writer in the Mormon community?
*Special thanks to Mormon Artist for allowing me to post a few of their photos from the conference.