Douglas H. Thayer: In Memoriam

On October 17, 2017, my teacher, my mentor, and my friend, Doug Thayer, passed away. In the area of Mormon literature—literature by, for, and about Mormons—Doug was a big deal. Mormon literary critics call him the “Mormon Hemingway” for his spare style of declarative sentences building the story period by period, as well as his interest in the natural world around him and a Mormon’s place in it. He was a master of the coming-of-age story. One of his main themes was that of innocence being cast out into the world and of necessity facing the realities of everyday existence. Many times, a young man who had grown up in the sheltered life of Utah Valley, and who was thus rather innocent and naive, would be forced to confront the evil, pain, and suffering of the World for the first time, and would have to learn to deal with it with what faith and light he had. If you have ever wondered what Mormon Literature has to offer, then Doug’s work is among the best. Continue reading “Douglas H. Thayer: In Memoriam”

What Happened at the 2015 AML Conference?

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. Continue reading “What Happened at the 2015 AML Conference?”

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

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”

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

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

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

This past Friday and Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend the 2014 Association for Mormon Letters conference at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. It was my first time attending the conference. The wonderful experience I had made me regret not attending before now. (Next year, it’s scheduled to be held in Hawaii! Wonder if I can swing that one?)

I will go into more detail about certain aspects of the conference below and in the next post, but I want to mention quickly the presentations that I attended and was most interested in.

Friday evening, we were treated to a panel discussion about New Mormon Theater. Afterward, a group of actors presented a Reader’s Theater: “A Second Birth” by Ariel Mitchell. It was a powerful play about contemporary Afghan society and the practice of poorer families holding out one of their daughters publicly as male so that s/he may get income from a part-time job to help support the family. It wasn’t an overtly Mormon play, but some of the family dynamics (gender roles, inter-generational strife, interpretations of the predominant religion, and acceptance or rejection thereof) certainly could apply to how Mormonism often plays out in daily life.

The next day, I attended panel discussions about teaching Mormon literature and promoting new Mormon fiction, as well as presentations about new Mormon fiction and gay Mormon fiction, respectively. It was all very enlightening and instructive. I soon realized that there is much of Mormon drama and literature that I haven’t read or seen yet, and have to catch up on, but so much happening. It was also an honor to be in the same room with so many of the Mormon writers and playwrights that I had known of and admired from afar. I felt very much at home in a group who knew of and validated many of the “faith-crisis” issues some members in the Church struggle with, and yet have found reasons to stay in.

Mormon Drama

One of the overall themes of the conference was set up during the panel discussion about New Mormon Theater Friday evening. It’s evident that Mormon theater and Mormon literature both share the same challenges: How do you cultivate an audience, whether Mormon or not, that can appreciate serious Mormon drama and fiction? And, assuming some of that audience already exists somewhere, how do you reach them?

Eric Samuelsen, one of the preeminent Mormon playwrights of the moment, spoke about how not much has changed in Mormon theater since the 1980s. He said that the same opportunities await Mormon playwrights as awaited them thirty years ago. The reason for the situation stagnating like it has is that during the same period a cultural war has been waged within Mormonism over the proper image to be presented to the world. Accordingly, plays (or other works) that make you think, challenge your assumptions, and perhaps make you uncomfortable are avoided by the more “pious” Mormons. Samuelson says that we must somehow cultivate an audience and make them trust us that what we’re presenting is a thoughtful, and in the end, faithful, view of Mormonism.

J. Scott Bronson, an actor and a playwright as well, whose play Stones I must read soon, spoke next of the Church’s proscription against presenting God or Jesus as saying anything other than what’s in the scriptures in film or literature, or on the stage. If you do this, then most Mormons will avoid your play or, if they see it, will not like it. Bronson has had some success with Mormon audiences outside Utah, but along the Mormon corridor, Church members generally take exception to a Jesus who speaks to you. Bronson said that he’s gotten away with it in some circles by explaining that the Divine speaks to you in your language. I totally agree. If you want to engage with the divine speaking the language of the scriptures, then read the scriptures. If you’re portraying someone who has a spiritual experience that includes words in the mouth of divine beings, then those words must be applicable to the scene and the petitioner’s situation. I can’t wait to read his play.

In support of his position on this, I told him afterward that the “Cowboy Jesus” in Levi S. Peterson’s The Backslider changed my life and my view of what Mormon literature can be. The main character, Frank Windham, has a vision of the Cowboy Jesus while relieving himself in a urinal. This Jesus is a cowboy and he smokes, rolls his own cigarettes, in fact. Describing the scene like this, I’m not doing it justice, but the full effect of the scene comes from Frank’s previously feeling that there is no hope for him, no salvation, and then his seeing a Cowboy Jesus who reaches out to him on a truly personal and empathetic level and tells him to just keep trying, that everything will work out, that it’s not all works, there’s some grace in the mix. Anyway, this scene would certainly offend most Mormons, but I was in tears when I finished reading it because that Jesus resonated with me. That Jesus was approachable. That Jesus understood the human.

Jerry Argetsinger, who directed the Hill Cumorah Pageant for a number of years, also spoke about the history of the Pageant. The pageant had its best run between 1987 and 1997. During that time, it was presented as a story with scenery and staging appropriate for the scenes depicted. For example, King Noah’s court was decked out with gaudy riches and dancing girls. Very “worldly.” At its height, the Pageant had nearly 75,000 non-members in the audience. After a change in the approach to the Pageant during the 90s, the number of non-members attending dropped considerably. Instead of a missionary tool, the Pageant had become a Mormon family-oriented tourist attraction. Sad.

Argetsinger also echoed Samuelsen’s frustrations with the average Mormon not wanting to engage with “thoughtful” drama or literature. Doug Thayer, one of the pioneers of serious Mormon fiction in attendance, quoted Eugene England as saying that only one-half of one percent of the membership of the Church would be interested in serious drama and fiction. That equates to roughly 25, 000 people. So the question becomes, then, how do you reach those people?

Mormon Literature

These questions about the state of Mormon letters and the distribution of its quality works continued into the sessions I attended on Saturday, but this post is already too long, so I will continue the discussion in my next post.

Read, write, execute!

Featured photo credit: Ed Frazier, Flickr