Sujfan Stevens and a Few Thoughts on Mormon Art

(Cross posted on Bycommonconsent.com)

We should have known that anyone who could write a melodic, lyrical ballad about a serial killer (John Wayne Gacy) still had some secrets and mysteries to explore. In fact, he announced just that in the final lines of the John Wayne Gacy song:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him

Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid.

In his Salt Lake City concert, Sufjan Stevens talked about a dream he had had the night before. He had attended a “by invitation only” Prince concert—featuring all of the original band members. Except it wasn’t quite a concert. It was in a trailer, not a theater. And it was somebody dressed up to look like Prince, but not actually Prince. And he was doing karaoke. Badly. Nonetheless, in the dream, Sufjan and his friends were enthralled, raving about how good the performance was, deceived by their own expectations and convincing themselves that they really had seen Prince.

The dream says something about any creative artist’s fears: that we’ll produce ersatz art, imitations of imitations; that we’ll do bad karaoke instead of good, original music; that our audiences, blinded by their easily satisfied needs and wants, will tell us we’re brilliant; that they won’t know the difference between what we’ve done and what we had hoped we’d do—that our audience will be worse than we are, duped by a suggestion rather than the real thing. (Sufjan, or his set designer, played with this idea a bit, having the singers perform the first song behind a nearly transparent curtain—but we in the audience didn’t realize we were seeing through a veil until it was lifted.)

Artists risk. It’s part of the game. We risk offending people as we explore our musical/literary/what-have-you/intimate possibilities; we risk disappointing ourselves as we attempt something new, lifting not just a sheer veil but a few floorboards, and revealing secrets we might not want to show, though we realize we probably must. We gaze into the mirror like Blake before the tiger, asking, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”

Sufjan’s new “Get Real, Get Right” asks straight out: Have you forsaken, have you mistaken me for someone else?

I have been listening to Sufjan for the past couple of years, introduced to him by a friend who thought I needed to expand my musical horizons. I came to love the ballads, the unpretentious, deceptively simple songs, many of them Christian—“Come Thou Font” and “Abraham,” for example. One youtube video shows Sufjan sitting on a stool, wearing a straw hat and holding a banjo. He says, “Is it far enough away yet?” as a sound check, and then strokes his banjo strings and sings “For the Widows in Paradise” like a serenade to angels.

That particular line—“Is it far enough away yet?” could be the offset to what he is doing now, as he performs long, autobiographical songs that are anything but far away from the artist himself. The banjo still comes out—but only once or twice, a sort of assurance that he really is the artist we came to see, not somebody pretending to be Sufjan. But he is a new version of himself, changing, testing his boundaries, daring to try new sounds, thanking his audience for listening to his raw experiments in interiority, approaching his artistry like a bold lover—but indeed a lover, not a rapist. He explores his life and thoughts and draws inspiration from a schizophrenic prophet—Royal Robertson, a sign maker who cavorted with space aliens and had various visions, all recorded in peculiar art—which Sujan uses throughout the show. The music comprises unrestrained, sometimes unearthly expressions of intimate thoughts—with back-up singers and dancers, lights, some heavy metal, and unexpected harmonies. It’s brave and unsettling. Definitely not easy or familiar.

In Mormon art, and even in Mormon culture, I suspect we perpetually and unconsciously do metaphorical sound checks, asking, “Is it far enough away yet?” as we create something our parents wouldn’t be embarrassed to read, see, or hear. We tend to keep our floorboards pretty firmly nailed down—though, as my bishop/husband knows, the boards are lifted in some private settings. Which is part of the point. Though our secrets and pain may be devouring us, we do not tend to make public confession.

Well, some of us don’t. Artists DO reveal personal things through their various media. It’s part of their job. They strip away veneers and masks, they raise veils, so that we aren’t deceived by a pretense. Somewhere in their art, we should recognize something about ourselves and our connection to them or to the drumbeat or the guitar chords. We might hear a character pose a question we’ve been thinking about, too, or—even better—one we haven’t thought about at all yet, but which suddenly becomes hugely important. The art may seem self-indulgent, even narcissistic, but even such exhibitionism can be revelatory. How many self-portraits did Rembrandt leave us, and how many aspects of his personality and character did they suggest? Artists might paint their parents on crosses (My Name is Asher Lev), talk about their affairs (Updike—in just about everything he wrote), or reveal their doubts (A Grief Observed), etc.

I remember someone telling me she was surprised by a story I had written. (Oh yes, I hit controversy in my fiction, and much of it is painfully autobiographical.) The reason it surprised and actually bothered her was, as she put it, “because I know you.”

Excuse me? You know me? Look beneath the floorboards. You know what I choose to reveal. And all I know of you is what you choose to reveal. None of us will ever completely know another—not in this life, and probably not in eternity. We will have expectations of each other, and be guided by our own sign making—the semiotics of conformity (exactly the opposite of what Sufjan’s sign maker sought). How do we dress? How do we speak? How do we sermonize? How and what do we sing? We yearn for the familiar, but the familiar will merely keep us pleasantly comfortable, not urge us to press on towards new frontiers or to plumb new depths or take on new challenges, even in our most important relationships. And if our art is to be a reflection of who we are and are becoming, individually or communally, we must be primed to get uncomfortable, to allow ourselves and others to “sing a new song.”

I had expected a much different concert than what Sufjan Stevens presented. I believe his artistic evolution is continuing. I suspect that his new album, The Age of Adz, hints at a synthesis just around the corner, when “The Dress Looks Nice on You” will merge with “Vesuvius” and form something both familiar and surprising—a virgin bride walking delicately on the edge of a volcano. The volcano, with its unpredictable steam and bursts of magma, and the innocent bride will both be creations of the same mind.

But I could be dead wrong in my hopeful suspicion. I have learned not only that my expectations might be unfulfilled, but that they might be dangerous—even lethal. If I try to shackle a dynamic soul within the confines of what I expect or want them to be, my efforts to control will become a threat, not a support. And I will cease to grow if I refuse to adjust to some new bend in the plan, or at least acknowledge it, even if I “grieve it on its way.”* I have learned this as missionaries I got to know in their very structured contexts have come home and started living beyond the frameworks I had held them in; as my children have grown into teenagers and adults with the inevitable angst and rebellion such growth includes; as my marriage has matured and my husband and I have moved beyond the sludge of resentment or resistance and into something more unpredictable and interesting than our earlier dreams might have granted. Even as we settle into routines and companionships, life still gets uncomfortable and messy, and growth can be dissonant, cacophonous. But what a magnificent mess! The cacophony itself suggests possibilities we haven’t considered before.

One of the great doctrines of Mormonism is the dynamic nature of all humans and even of godliness. I believe that the knowledge and power of God are expanding as the Church itself expands globally and into the incomprehensible Heavens. I believe that eventually, we will not only sing but shout as we join with past generations in repeating “Hosanna!” We will do it in every way available to us, clapping hands, ringing bells, flashing lights, dancing, painting, jangling tambourines. In ALL our ways (including ways we have not yet considered or discovered), we will acknowledge Him, the Creator and author of creativity, moving beyond our habits and expectations, and allowing others to do the same.

(Note: There is a whole different discussion on when the violation of expectation also violates personal ethics, but I won’t go there for now.)

* “Grieve it on its way” is from Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”

 

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46 Responses to Sujfan Stevens and a Few Thoughts on Mormon Art

  1. Interesting. I like your pairing of life settling into routines with life getting messy. Familiarity perhaps allows us to collapse out of artificial form into something rougher and less contrived?

    You said something about approaching art like a bold lover but not as a rapist. Can you expand on that? What, in your view, does "approaching art like a rapist" look like?

  2. Margaret says:

    Thanks for the question, Jonathan. I am fascinated by an artist’s growth, but there are lines I won’t cross to join the artist on his/her evolution. If one of my friends (or someone else)moved into in-your-face material for shock value, I would have no interest in seeing/reading it. In fact, that would probably feel more like selling out than evolving. The obvious example is the photographer (Serrano) who did images of Christ which seemed calculated to offend. I’m not sure I even want to mention the title, but it starts with "Piss" and then names the Savior. I have no interest in having my own sacred spaces assaulted by someone’s calculated experimentation. That would be a rape. However, I loved _The Passion of the Christ_, which others found to be overly violent. I simply have lines I won’t cross, and I recognize when my response to art moves from "This is interesting" to "This is offensive." And vulgarity is my pet peeve. It is an excuse for kitsch and immature art, an easy path to what real artists work relentlessly for. It is the fake Prince on Karaoke.
    Of course, the obvious problem here centers in subjectivity. Others are offended at things which do not offend me, and I have to allow them that. I think Brady Udall’s self-selected audience will choose to read him and will have a wonderful journey. But somebody who heard he was a Mormon and read him on that singular recommendation could feel "raped" by the description of Rusty’s post-injury bath, for example, which I found deeply moving.
    I do make room for my students to choose not to read anything which violates their personal standards, though it saddens me when I have to give them lesser literature (as I see it) than what their classmates are reading. I do it, but it’s sad.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    One of the reasons we want people’s real names for the bylines in Mormons & Monsters is because it’s time for us as artists to own up to our culture, our art, our heritage, our faith, our contradictions, our words, our selves.

    Time to stop hiding.

  4. Wait, Th–what’s your name?
    Fully agreed, btw. I find the culture of pseudonyms dangerous. I use my real name when I blog or comment. Of course, I’m careful, because I know that a google search will find everything I’ve said and where I’ve said it online, but that’s a positive, I think. Pseudonyms open a way for someone who would normally be very kind to slyly sneak in a very unkind comment, thinking no one will ever know. Bad form.
    I wonder how many of us would be tempted to use a pseudonym for a work we KNOW will be provocative and controversial. I think I would be tempted. Actually, I have a novel on my computer right now, and as I think of publishing it in another four years, I find myself tempted to be someone else.
    Anyone else share that temptation?

  5. I thought for a while about publishing [i]No Going Back[/i] under a pseudonym, mostly because I didn’t want the headaches I thought I might get from my father-in-law knowing about it. Thinking about it now, I realize that would have been a horrible idea for a great many reasons. (And my father-in-law wound up not caring about it, or at least not bothering us if he does care.)

    Pseudonyms have a place. But it’s a fairly limited one — except in cases where it’s a pen name rather than a true pseudonym, which I think are a different animal entirely.

    (Wasn’t there a Sugar Beet article a few years back about the death of Name Withheld, victim of so many horrible events chronicled in various [i]Ensign[/i] articles?)

  6. Margaret says:

    Jonathan, I find that fascinating. And I’d love to read the article about the death of Name Withheld.

    In my first foray into LDS fiction about race issues, I published a story called "Outsiders" in _Dialogue_. It had some swearing in it, and it was about that very controversial subject, the priesthood restriction. I was nervous, so I used only my initials–and not even the recognizable ones. I published it under M.J. Young (J. for Jean). I saw Eugene England in the store later on. He had recognized the piece and chided me for not using my full name, saying, "You can’t hide from who you are!"

    Well, when the story was published later in _Bright Angels and Familiars_, I did use my whole name. But Gene’s history should give us something to consider. He was so uncensored that he himself felt he went too far, and it cost him dearly. Ultimately, it cost all of us dearly, because we lost him. I really wonder if Gene would still be with us if he had been treated more charitably. In no way am I saying that he brought his suffering on himself, only that his occasional lack of diplomacy came at a great price.

  7. Katya says:

    [quote]Pseudonyms open a way for someone who would normally be very kind to slyly sneak in a very unkind comment, thinking no one will ever know.[/quote]

    They can also allow people to pour out their hearts in ways they may not be willing or able to do under their legal names.

    I’m all about greater openness as an end goal, but if pseudonyms allow someone to share a story of pain or abuse that couldn’t otherwise share at a particular point in time, I support that.

  8. Margaret says:

    Katya–in those cases, I absolutely agree. Thank you!

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]Pseudonyms open a way for someone who would normally be very kind to slyly sneak in a very unkind comment, thinking no one will ever know. Bad form.[/b]

    Ah, yes, I get lots of those on my blog chastising me for my book. Funny all the ISPs are from Utah…

    [b]I wonder how many of us would be tempted to use a pseudonym for a work we KNOW will be provocative and controversial.[/b]

    I started out with my pseudonym (Moriah Jovan) for that reason, but I can’t maintain two personae, so everybody who’s interested in my pen name work ends up finding out my real name anyway. But I’m still glad I have that and my real name because I can write under one and run B10 under the other. It keeps my art firmly where it needs to be, which is out of the way of commerce, which has already killed one of my beloved hobbies dead. At this point, *I* am just *me*, but I answer to a myriad of names.

    And in point of fact, Moriah Jovan has become my BRAND, so whether people know my real name or not (or whether I like the name or not–which I don’t), I would still use it to write under so as not to split my audience.

    [b]I think I would be tempted. Actually, I have a novel on my computer right now, and as I think of publishing it in another four years, I find myself tempted to be someone else.[/b]

    Why?

    [b]Ultimately, it cost all of us dearly, because we lost him. I really wonder if Gene would still be with us if he had been treated more charitably. In no way am I saying that he brought his suffering on himself, only that his occasional lack of diplomacy came at a great price.[/b]

    I googled after you said this because the way you worded this made it sound like he took his own life. So now I don’t understand what you mean. He died of brain cancer. How would he still be with us regardless of what he did or didn’t do?

  10. Margaret says:

    The Gene England story is complex and beautiful and heartwrenching. He was under tremendous stress for much of his career at BYU, and was ultimately forcefully encouraged to retire. He then went to UVU. Those of us who knew him also knew what he had gone through, so when he complained of "depression," we figured he had a right to be depressed. We didn’t suggest anything as drastic as a brain scan. It’s hard to keep from thinking that without the stress, or with our earlier recognition that his headaches were not merely a result of the stress, he might have been spared that early death.

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    Ah, okay. My grandfather died from a brain tumor, too, which is why I asked. Nobody caught his headaches as anything other than…headaches. He was a stake president at the time, worked for the FBI, and was under a lot of family stress at the time (two of my aunts had run away from home at 17 and 16, respectively, to get married).

  12. Th. says:

    .

    Like Moriah, I’m rather heavily branded. But my identity’s no secret. Click on me and you will know me.

  13. Scott Parkin says:

    <brief digression before the fact>

    What is Margaret’s text at the top of this page called? Is it a post? An article? A blog? A story? An entry?

    I suppose it doesn’t really matter, but it’s important to me to use the correct word. I’ve tended to refer to these essays as posts, but that may reflect my pre-blog retrograde thinking where anything written to a usenet group was a post to the thread. My primary concern is that I don’t want to diminish the value or content of the material by using a term also applied to lolcat quips–unless that’s proper etiquette.

    Just curious.

    </preemptive digression>

    The challenge of a piece like this is that there are at least six different ideas, concepts, and/or angles of approach, as well as the dozen tangential conversations that leap to mind.

    As a non-artist I’m always loathe to enter discussions of art because I honestly don’t know what it is. I don’t create art, I write stuff. Yes, I work to refine my content to the best of my (limited) ability, but I have neither exceptional technique nor exceptional insight, and as such I can’t claim the title of artist.

    On the pragmatic idea of owning up to what you write, it does get harder the more personal the subject matter gets. I have relatively few limits on what I will or won’t share about myself, but the limits I do have tend to revolve around two core areas.

    The first is subjects or ideas that are sufficiently controversial that I am simply unwilling to deal with the noise that will accompany it, or the bile of uncharitable judgment that inevitably follows. The challenge with those kinds of topics is that it takes a very long time to address the individual subtleties that underpin those ideas, and it does require the charity of those involved n the conversation.

    Because it’s so easy to be misunderstood, it becomes difficult to engage the issue. Which is why I admire people like you (Margaret) and Jonathon and others who address difficult subjects. It’s a commitment to not only make the initial statement through story or essay, but to continue to litigate the same points over and over again across a wide variety of venues and a large number of micro-communities.

    It’s a commitment to either follow through over the long haul, or accept that people will draw simple (and most likely incorrect) conclusions about you as an individual. My problem is that while I’m not especially concerned about being agreed with, it is important to me to be understood and hated for good and valid reasons; I hate it when I’m hated over a simple misconception.

    For most of us that means not engaging the conversation, though, rather than engaging under a false identity.

    The second is when revealing something personal about myself requires me to reveal something equally personal about someone else. Few of us gain insight in isolation, and while it’s fair to put my own personal experience out to public judgment, it’s not fair for me to put someone else’s out there. Nor is the implied (or direct) judgment of those other players in my experience fair.

    I’ve published a couple of stories and essays under pseudonyms for precisely that reason–because in exploring my own difficult or painful experience I have no interest in either accusing other participants, or opening old wounds–even if I believe that doing so will lead to greater healing. I’m happy to pick at my own scars, but it seems deeply uncharitable to pick at other peoples’, and if I do it only seems respectful to do it in private.

    I think it has to be a line drawn individually by each teller, and that it serves relatively little purpose to tell others where their lines should be, or to chastise them for crossing your own. In this case, I’m not sure there can be a community standard, except where covenants or personal promises are concerned.

    I tend to prefer stories of personal struggle because I’m looking for new ideas and insights into my own. But this is where my own fickleness comes through, because I also get quickly bored by similar sets of insights. It’s why I have a hard time reading Terry Tempest Williams; I recognize the artistry of her presentation, but for me her idea went stale more than a decade ago and precious little has changed in that basic idea–for me.

    I don’t doubt that the flaw is in me, but it’s not a flaw I see compelling reason to remedy at this point. For me as a single reader her argument has not been sufficiently compelling to draw me to her viewpoint, or to invite me to further investigation of those arguments.

    What’s interesting to me is that I tend to agree with nearly all of her high points while being unmoved by many of her evidences. I love nature and preservation at the same time that I have little interest in spending a lot of time immersed in nature itself. I am a technological man who likes to spend brief moments in nature–and always with a ready escape hatch (Toyota Prius–both eco-friendly and geek-mobile at the same time).

    No doubt art, but I’m simply not part of the audience for that art even though the underlying concepts themselves are both precious and important to me. More power to those who are moved by both elements in that equation; I can’t join you there.

    Per the conversation on authenticity, the whole thing feels deeply subjective–and necessarily so. The problem is that it involves subjectivity on both sides of the equation–many an artist who perceives themselves as a gentle lover is perceived by their partner (reader? customer? target? consumer?) as either a rapist or a masturbator.

    Difficult stuff. Interesting exploration.

  14. Scott,

    First, I share your question about posts, articles, whatever. And I still tend to call the following discussions threads. Ah, well.

    I’m nervous about limiting terms like "artist" to those with exceptional technique and/or insight. It feel like it’s subject to much the same set of problems as "authentic" — and from many of the same sources: that is, a Romantic sensibility that (at its worst) can be used to excuse artists from being decent human beings on the grounds that they’re exceptional in other ways. I don’t say that you’re trying to do that; just expressing my discomfort with your expressed criteria — and thinking that if you aren’t an artist, I doubt I can claim to be one either. Maybe my discomfort is largely based in self-interest on that score…

    Of those who read/view/listen to art, there are I think relatively few who actually want new ideas and insights. That sounds horribly condescending, but it’s not meant to be so. Many of us — myself included a lot of the time — want reenactments of things we’ve seen or conceived before, with only a minimum of novelty. (Apropos of which, I recall Brian Attebery’s thesis that one of the distinguishing marks of modern fantasy as a genre was that archetype was the surface level and realism was the deep structure, reversing the way of things in most traditional literary genres. I like that idea, though I’m not entirely sure I understand it.)

    Why do we believe that the new is better than the previously loved, in art? For that matter, why do we believe that the authentic is superior to the artificial? I suspect that the reasons in both cases are largely extra-artistic in origin.

  15. Wm Morris says:

    The correct usage, as in the usage by those who pioneered the form, is that what Margaret does above is a blog post and everything below it is a comment on that blog post.

    The key differences between blogging and a usenet group or forum is that the stream of content is tethered to individual blog posts and comments are all appendages in a way that they aren’t with web forums and usenet groups — and that’s literal, meaning how things are arranged in the SQL database that most blog platforms use to store content in. In addition, most blog platforms don’t have comment threading. But then some do. But even so the use of the word "thread" as a noun referring to an entire conversation doesn’t get used in the blog world.

    However, some bloggers call a blog post a "blog" As in "here’s my latest blog." Us oldtimers scoff at such usage, but it’s fairly prevalent.

    But then it gets trickier because some people will refer to the blog post as the OP (Original Post or Original Poster) which then suggests that the comments can be considered posts as well.

    It gets confusing. To wit:

    If I post a tweet about this comment that I am now leaving on this blog post will somebody then grab the tweet and post it as a status update to their Facebook feed?

  16. William,

    There are times when I hate you. Which I hope you know I mean in the nicest possible way…

  17. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]Many of us — myself included a lot of the time — want reenactments of things we’ve seen or conceived before, with only a minimum of novelty.[/b]

    That’s what genre fiction is for. And that’s why genre fiction (especially romance) gets slammed.

    [b]…one of the distinguishing marks of modern fantasy as a genre was that archetype was the surface level and realism was the deep structure, reversing the way of things in most traditional literary genres.[/b]

    To ME, this means that the architecture of the story is based on reality and the archetype is the decor (symbolism) that covers up the studs and concrete.

  18. Scott Parkin says:

    Jonathan–

    I suppose my concept of "artist" as a reserved term is the idea of a juried and/or critically accepted craftsman. Maybe it’s the proof of my weak ego, but I believe that to simply declare oneself an artist is a bit presumptuous; there ought to be a qualification process of some sort.

    For writing the minimum baseline is publication. For me the legitimate qualifier is publication in a national market venue before I am willing to call myself a craftsman, and some sort of market or industry recognition before I call myself an artist.

    Maybe I shouldn’t hold out the term as a favored definition, but I do. I am quite well aware that I’m in the distinct minority on that one.

    I feel like there should be a distinction between the norm and the exceptional. For me that difference is what I think of as art. In my own case the fact is that I’m not a particularly innovative writer or imaginative storyteller. My stuff is solid quality, but does not rise above; I don’t appeal to the guardians of the academy either as technician or philosopher.

    Which makes me a craftsman, but not an artist.

    FWIW.

  19. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    "To ME, this means that the architecture of the story is based on reality and the archetype is the decor (symbolism) that covers up the studs and concrete."

    Which isn’t a bad explanation of how speculative fiction (not just modern fantasy) works. It really is about reality, but it is couched in terms and tropes (and archetypes) that allow it to discuss and explore aspects of reality in such a way as to provide subtle insights without being overtly offensive (or at least not in a way that those who might be offended can easily recognize).

    I don’t know if the same approach applies to other types of genre fiction in quite the same way, however.

  20. I like Kathleen’s expansion on Moriah’s interpretation.

    I’m reminded of Dave Wolverton’s two-book series, Serpent Catch and Path of the Hero, where different aspects of humanity were embodied within different varieties of humans, from "pure" humans with a genetically coded language to the Pwi (Neanderthals) whose reasoning was dominated by chemically coded emotional imprinting in response to specific events. It’s all about variations in humanity.

  21. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    As a less-than-impressive example of how this aspect of speculative fiction (meaning science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so on) is used, more or less, may I offer the movie, SIGNS, starring Mel Gibson?

    Ostensibly, SIGNS was a science fiction movie, but to those who are versed in science fiction, it was a very poor one (especially in the logic of the science). Most science fiction movies are probably considered, even by science fiction fans, to be more works of craft–because they focus on the special effects over everything else including plot, much less characterization–than works of art. And this one didn’t even have much in the way of special effects.

    It was instead, IMO, a very cleverly disguised religious movie. I was flabbergasted to see how very religious it was, and realized that using the tropes of science fiction might have been the only way Shyamalan was able to get such a religious movie produced.

    I suspect that at least a few, if not all, of those who gave the go-ahead and financed the movie didn’t even notice the religiosity. Speculative fiction does things like that quite well.

  22. Moriah Jovan says:

    Kathleen, it’s interesting you should mention that SIGNS was cleverly disguised as a religious movie, as I didn’t think it was disguised at all. It was (to me, ignorant of science fiction and its tropes) totally in my face. I liked that about it.

    That said, we went to the NY premiere of AIRBENDER and Shyamalan spoke before the film started. He seemed to me to be a somewhat spiritual person in general.

  23. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I think religious people didn’t have any problems in seeing that it’s a religious movie, but those who aren’t particularly religious (aka "the world of Hollywood") were more likely to just see the "science fiction" of the movie, and not really "get" the religion.

    I suspect that most of the movers and shakers behind getting it produced may not have even seen the thing, or at least not all the way through. They just put their money behind it because of the crop circles and aliens and such–because it looked like the kind of movie that would bring in box office.

    And I think one reason it did poorly at the box office was because it wasn’t very well done science fiction. Also, there may have been those who didn’t like that the religion was totally in their faces, and their "word of mouth" hurt it as well.

    Of course, these are all probably gross assumptions on my part, but I still submit that they may have been factors in how the movie got produced and in how it was eventually received.

  24. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]but those who aren’t particularly religious[/b]

    This may be an aside, but you hit on something I’m still a little…discomfited by. I got an interesting reaction I got from a beta reader of [i]Magdalene[/i] (my book that’s coming out in April) who isn’t particularly religious (but at least she did get the allegory, which is more than I can say for a couple of others). She said she didn’t understand why the Mormon people in my book served so much; she said she needed some more justification for all the hours they spend working in the church and serving others. She couldn’t relate at all.

    Of all the things a nonmember could have questioned, and it was one I didn’t even think about. It’s just…what we do. I’m not sure what to do about that. If anything.

    /hijack

  25. That’s interesting, Moriah. One of the few readers of No Going Back lacking an LDS background, an atheist friend of ours (originally from England, but has lived more the 20 years in the U.S., in case any of that makes a difference) commented that the book made clear that being a Mormon isn’t just a Sunday thing. I’d taken that as suggesting that the book did a good job of showing what it’s like to be Mormon, and that may be true. However, thinking about the reaction of your reader, it makes me wonder if simple religious commitment is so alien for some readers that it’s something they can’t really identify with. I know it’s not confined to Mormons — I think the Baptists on my father’s side of my family may spend as much time and focus on church service as most LDS do — but it’s an interesting insight.

    I’m reminded of a friend of mine — active LDS — who dated another LDS friend for several years while they were both in graduate school in southern California. Eventually they got married (in the temple). Non-LDS fellow graduate students simply assumed they’d been living together the whole time. Again, not something that’s exclusively LDS — but again, it shows how some people’s "reality" can be utterly different from other people’s reality, in ways that we as Mormons may not always even think about.

    Bringing this back to the question of authenticity: this is one of the reasons why I think authenticity as an artistic judgment has a lot to do with perceptions about what kind of behavior is typical of a particular group. Fiction that featured active unmarried Mormons living together without any signs of angst or internal conflict would not, I suppose, strike most of us who are LDS as authentic. On the other hand, dating for multiple years without having sex probably would strike my fellow graduate students in southern California as either inauthentic or deeply eccentric.

  26. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]…it shows how some people’s "reality" can be utterly different from other people’s reality, in ways that we as Mormons may not always even think about.[/b]

    Yes. Which is why I think of architecture/rough-in (hidden reality) and decor (surface story) as particularly genre. After all, this book is genre (women’s fiction or family saga or romance, take your pick), but the architecture is ripped straight out of the New Testament and a couple of myths. It’s an allegory of the Atonement, with, necessarily, service and (ultimately) sacrifice being THE core theme.

    I use the outsider’s 1st-person POV to point this out, but only once, and Cassie (ex-prostitute XX protag) simply accepts it (which now I’m wondering if she should or if she should continue to ponder) (First date, early in the book; Cassie asks Mitch why he doesn’t resign his position as bishop since he’s been at it so long):

    [quote]"Can’t you just say no?"

    "I could…but I wouldn’t. I would do whatever I was asked to do."

    "Why?"

    "Because that’s part of what the faithful do; they serve. They sacrifice. They give their time and their talent and their money to keep everything running."

    "Your church is rich; why don’t they pay you?"

    "Sacrifice. Emotional investment. Obedience. Love. I don’t know. Pick a reason, any reason."

    I couldn’t pick a reason. I didn’t have reasons like that; they were foreign to me. I didn’t know people who thought in such terms as sacrifice and love and emotional investment. [i]Obedience.[/i] Good God.[/quote]

    I thought that was sufficient. Perhaps it wasn’t. On the other hand, many nonmembers have read it and this was the only comment upon that facet of our culture, so either it didn’t need explaining to the others or they just accepted it as peculiar to these people.

    [b]Fiction that featured active unmarried Mormons living together without any signs of angst or internal conflict would not, I suppose, strike most of us who are LDS as authentic.[/b]

    Th. had a post (can’t find it right now) about a book he read written by a nonmember about members. In it, the member went "to temple," and then went home to have coffee. Such little things that can betray a person’s authenticity or lack thereof–after all, who’d have thought there’s such a huge betrayal in the absence of a "the," right?

    So when we talk about AUTHENTIC, Th.’s review of that book is what I think of as a prime example.

    [b]On the other hand, dating for multiple years without having sex probably would strike my fellow graduate students in southern California as either inauthentic or deeply eccentric.[/b]

    NOT if you explain it well enough in the text (which is why I’m having such angst over the service/sacrifice thing–I feel I didn’t explain it well enough).

    But again, this is why I believe that our stories write themselves. Culturally, we may consider ourselves peculiar or eccentric, as you said, but I’ve slowly learned over the last couple of years, through reader reactions to my books, that we’re EXOTIC. We don’t need to dress up our culture in sci-fi/fantasy clothes (I’m looking at YOU, [i]Battlestar Galactica[/i]) like our writers have been doing for eons. We just have to tell our stories in our context, explain it well enough, and people will come with us just for the sake of a peek into a world they don’t know and don’t understand.

    I’ve said it before, but I can’t repeat it enough because this is so profound to me: I TRULY now believe there is no Great Mormon Novel. What there is is the Great Mormon Genre. As much as I hated the book, I think Shannon Hale’s [i]Actor and the Housewife[/i] was a start–a weak one, but a start nonetheless.

  27. Scott Parkin says:

    "We don’t need to dress up our culture in sci-fi/fantasy clothes…"

    We don’t *need* to do anything, but some of us enjoy the structures and tropes of science fiction or fantasy, not out of embarrassment or unwillingness to address issues head-on, but because we simply prefer that mode of storytelling and feel more at home with those conventions.

    But there’s a second idea there that I think is worth exploring. There’s a significant difference between exploring the culture and exploring the underlying ideas of Mormonism, and that distinction is more relevant to how I choose a storytelling genre than affinity to a particular expressive model.

    Specifically, if I want to explore the experience of a person dealing with the pressure to conform in a Mormon ward–along with all the specific conditions and details entailed by LDS cultural context of that pressure–then I will tell the story in a realistic setting.

    But if I want to explore the idea of social conformity as a general concept, then the specific cultural details of a Mormon ward may interfere with that by being too specific and limiting. Because a specific context is required for a narrative exploration, the use of aliens or fantastic settings permits a non-relevant framework for that exploration.

    To pick a more specific example, Jonathan Langford’s novel _No Going Backwards_ explores the specific challenges an individual Mormon teen dealing with same-sex attraction faces at the point of collision between his two major communities–church and school. It’s specific to that collision, and both details and situations arise out of that context.

    On the other hand, Ursula K. LeGuin’s _The Left Hand of Darkness_ abstracts any specific cultural response by creating an entirely different species where gender and gender roles are more fluid in order to explore the idea of attraction and role outside locally relevant specifics.

    Though Jonathan’s novel certainly explores the broader question of human attraction, its specific context in a Mormon ward and a non-Mormon community focus that exploration on one example rather than the generic concept.

    Science fiction and fantasy have legitimate uses both as architecture and decor. The mythopoeic (as opposed to the realistic) can be a different architectural foundation. That most people use is as decor to a realistic foundation (dress-up) does not mean the form itself is limited in that way.

    While I love the idea of a great Mormon genre as a means of exploring Mormon thought in the specific context of Mormon culture, I think one can also explore Mormon thought in the abstract using other genres, and that such an activity also has value. They’re not exclusive, in my view.

    On a side note, I think this is actually different than the Deseret School/Missionary School concept; it’s not about audience as much as it is about the nature of the underlying exploration.

  28. Moriah Jovan says:

    Grrr. Platform ate my comment TWICE, so hopefully third time’s a charm. I would’ve given up, but, Scott, I didn’t want to leave the impression that I meant offense because I didn’t.

    [b]I think one can also explore Mormon thought in the abstract using other genres, and that such an activity also has value. They’re not exclusive, in my view.[/b]

    No, they’re not. Actually, scifi/fantasy is the predominant means of doing so. It’s being done. Over and over and over again. What I’m asking is where is this:

    [b]While I love the idea of a great Mormon genre as a means of exploring Mormon thought in the specific context of Mormon culture[/b]

    in the national market? Nowhere. Or else I’m not looking in the right places.

    My comments come from my impression that a large percentage of the LDS writers who write for the national market do it in scifi/fantasy. (The rest–LDS writers who write in the national market in other genres–stay far, far away from the church in any respect.) Thus, we have almost nothing in the national market that exposes us as a culture without the elaborate decor (save [i]Actor and the Housewife[/i]).

    I hope I’m wrong about that and simply have a mistaken impression, but the preponderance of LDS scifi/fantasy authors to any other genre is interesting to me. Why? Why scifi/fantasy? What is so attractive to LDS authors about [i]that[/i] genre? Or is it that it’s really only the scifi/fantasy authors who find a place to slot their work in the national market?

    I don’t know. That’s my impression of the situation as a whole, but I can’t believe that at least a few works here and there aren’t written to deliberately disguise an exploration of faith/culture. Perhaps what I’m looking/hoping for just isn’t going to happen.

  29. Scott Parkin says:

    [[once again, sorry for the tome; it's a big subject in my view]]

    I’m not sure there is a national market for stories that directly explore LDS culture; most people just don’t think or care enough about us to justify using up a slot.

    Part of that is our own fault–people are so leery of being proselyted that they just steer clear altogether. Likewise, as a community we’ve been so critical of those works that have been released that we’ve made LDS fiction a dangerous commodity for the unwary. We complain so bitterly that those stories are not authentic or representative enough, and in the process subdivide our own buying power. Richard Dutcher demonstrated that in spectacular fashion.

    You suggested that our culture is actually quite exotic, but I’m not sure general wisdom agrees. Our doctrines are exotic, but our culture is reputed to be staid to the point of boring. True or not, that’s the perception. Even then if we play to exoticism then we’re picking at the edge cases rather that going at the more generic middle.

    I’m not disagreeing about the limited markets for explicitly LDS fiction. They’re all small and regional right now. In fact, as I was lamenting in an email to a friend last week, even BYU seems to be pulling away from its own limited support of Mormon literary studies with fewer classes and almost no strong sponsors. Thirty years ago there was a vigorous and active academic literary debate and a set of active participants (Cracroft, Jorgensen, England, others) who taught classes, challenged the academy, and carved out a unique space for both defining and studying Mormon literature as a form.

    Even fifteen years ago there was evidence of a succeeding generation (Parkinson, Austin, Burton, others), but they mostly moved on to other areas of focus, and the Mormon literary discussion has largely petered out and returned to the realm of curiosity rather than legitimate cultural study.

    If our regional academic institutions can’t be bothered to recognize LDS cultural fiction as worthy of investigation, then how can we expect national market publishers to devote resource is a rapidly declining print book market?

    You argue that we’re exotic and interesting, and I agree. But Mormons do not buy as a bloc, and as such we do not demand the attention of suppliers or retailers. Our buying power is not unified, and our numbers are not large enough for a subset of our community to appeal as a target market.

    The entire publishing industry is moving to micro-segmentations of genre and small market penetration at the print level. The blockbuster novel is becoming less common, having been replaced by the self-help book or the political memoir. Even Dan Brown thudded pretty miserably with his last, and we haven’t heard meaningful noise from Grisham or even King in most of a decade.

    I hope I’m wrong, but right now is a very hard time to create a new national market category except as an accident of synchronicity (Twilight, et al), and even those burn out with the second movie (anyone remember Chris Paolini any more?) within about five years.

    I think Mormons were drawn to science fiction and fantasy markets for two primary reasons–a form oriented specifically around metaphorical explorations, and rapidly growing national market where new writers could expect to break in relatively easily.

    If you look, I think you’ll notice that the LDS writers who chose sf did so in order to tell mostly straight genre stories that appealed to large audiences. It was only after they had created reputations and built some market power that they tried to introduce explicit Mormon elements into their fiction–essentially burning the capital they earned as "regular" sf authors in an effort to introduce something of their own cultural viewpoint into their works.

    That’s certainly how it worked with Card, Larson (Battlestar Galactica), Wolverton, and more recently Hale (as well as Anne Perry in mystery). They established as straight genre writers, and stretched the genre to include their unique viewpoint. None of them established as Mormon authors writing Mormon stories. Even Brandon Sanderson makes a clean separation between his LDS self and his national market persona.

    Those who tried to reach to the national market from an explicitly LDS storytelling standpoint have largely failed. Heimerdinger and Dutcher come to mind, but I’m sure there have been others. I’m not convinced it was a lack talent, but rather it was a lack of national interest in the stories that did them in. Those few massively popular regional writers never really gained solid footing in the national market (Gerald Lund, Lee Nelson, others) and never established any kind of meaningful presences.

    If science fiction and fantasy has gained unusual notice with the LDS community it’s precisely because those authors established as successful genre writers then turned attention to LDS themes from their established positions. They have both the notice and the market power to do something that has not been done successfully elsewhere.

    I don’t think that inhibits the ability of anyone to publish straight LDS stories; the market itself is the inhibitor. There aren’t enough buyers who will buy a story *because* it’s LDS, but there are quite a few people who will buy an LDS story because they trust an author who has already established a reputation as a national market pro in fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, or historical.

    From my perspective sf writers are not stealing "straight" LDS writers’ press or market space; they’re trying to create a broader market space by burning up their own accumulated reputation and industry capital by introducing straight LDS stories in the national market from their genre perches–precisely with the hope that those straight writers will be able to take advantage of that and establish an independent genre. They’re trying to plant the idea at all, not plant it as a genre-specific market space.

    I may be wrong, but I suspect that if those national market sf writers stop trying to poke their Mormonness into the market through their genre positions, then the LDS genre will vanish entirely from the national market except as political exposes designed to show why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism would destroy America if he were ever elected.

    With a declining academic interest in LDS literary studies, our ability to establish a national market presence with straight cultural exploration is diminished; there’s no underlying buzz about the real value of explicitly LDS stories to draw literary readers and critical writers–secondary avenues of exposure–leaving only the rare breakout as our inroad.

    Big genre has been so micro-segmented (RWA gives out more than two dozen category awards now) that the definition of national market exposure has transformed. Access the national readers is easier than ever before, but the venues for reaching those readers are smaller and more segmented, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the established regional literature of traditional Mormon publishing.

    On a more general genre note, sf markets are drying up rapidly as well. Where there used to be dozens of print magazines there are now only three or four. There are fewer sf publishers, and fewer sf imprints, and less than a third as many titles as there were twenty years ago. The whole industry is changing and our approach has to change with it.

    The great Mormon genre strikes me as a regional phenomena. There simply aren’t enough buyers within our community and there’s not enough interest outside our community to establish it at the national level right now–at least not in the traditionally understood concept of market segmentation. We can leverage micro-segmentation and epubs, but it will (most likely) require years of unrequited devotion before a generic genre emerges, if ever.

    I hate to be a downer, but that’s what it looks like to me.

  30. Wm Morris says:

    Excellent analysis, Scott. But I don’t see it as a downer. Rather I see it as an opportunity to let go of worry about canon formation and the Great Mormon Novel and winning validation from the NY publishing houses and just get to work on projects that we are passionate about.

  31. (Responding to William): That works so long as we also give up on the idea of making a living from writing. Which maybe most of us need to do anyway in the new/evolving publishing reality, even if it weren’t for the marginality of writing for the Mormon market (or any other specific market).

    One of the implications of the Internet is the importance of content creation by people doing it on a purely volunteer basis — and that such content then exists in more or less direct competition to content from those who are trying to make a living out of it. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of a culture where there’s also more leisure time, as well as universal access to immediate communication. (And if that doesn’t sound like a science fiction premise, I don’t know what does.) I don’t doubt that there will continue to be those who make a living off creative writing, but it may be that the most interesting stuff will come increasingly from those who simply don’t bother worrying about that. Literary art as an amateur endeavor — which frankly it has been throughout far more of literary history than we often acknowledge, embedded as we are in the culture of a market economy. Could we be evolving toward a post-market culture? And if so, will that prove more consistent with gospel values, particularly as regards production of art? I think it’s possible.

  32. Wm Morris says:

    " That works so long as we also give up on the idea of making a living from writing."

    Other than Orson Scott Card, is there a single LDS author of any literary significance who has made a living off of his or her writing alone? And even OSC supplements his income with teaching and workshop gigs.

  33. Scott Parkin says:

    William, I don’t see it as a downer either. It *is* a change over prior expectation, though and it will require new thinking and responsiveness on the parts or readers, writers, publishers, and critics.

    That was part of my point about the decline of print publishing, even in a wildly successful genre category like sf. The fact that there are only three or four print sf magazines any more doesn’t take into account that there are now dozens on online venues. There are actually more places to publish, but fewer large and juried (and well-paying) venues.

    Jonathan, I think your point underpins this, but I’m not quite as bearish on the opportunities for cash reward in the new media as you appear to be. It is a shift from a functional patronage system with the publisher as patron, but there are tremendous micro-financing opportunities for the small businessman who happens to be an author.

    It’s an interesting problem, and is one of the Megatrends of a couple of years ago–that each individual is becoming their own brand and business, and they will need to find and manage more of their own services (retirement savings, healthcare, professional development, etc.) as large business cuts more of those services in a competitive marketplace.

    The service doesn’t go away, but its management and application changes radically. The same is true of author brand development in new media. It’s almost like e-media is the incubator for traditional media; they use self-generated (and self-motivated) effort to establish a micro-segment as the cost of entry to the big table, and thus pick from pre-proven properties.

    But that practice feels like a temporary transition state to me. Not unlike the iTunes revolution, the e-pubs revolution might well cut the traditional publisher completely out of the equation and move to a more media-driven author brand creation than a retail established creation.

    In other words, a huge amount of future literature will start out as vanity (or pseudo vanity) e-pub.

    It will be interesting to see. I think the e-revolution (e-volution?) will turn out to be more extensive and transformative than people realize. A lot of big institutions will start to fail ugly over the next decade or so, and the mayhem will be extraordinary.

    But yes, that means less cash in hand and more work on the business of writing for authors, and not all authors will make the turn. But that also strikes me as the only real option to create the great Mormon genre.

    But here’s the other challenge–the critical establishment needs to catch up and switch over. We already see the decline of Mormon literary academia, but those minds and their expertise are still out there and still capable of creating the critical conversation that can bring Mo-lit to peoples’ attention. It’s part of what blogs like this (and AMV, and others) are trying to do–establish the conversation elsewhere and create a critical jury to give people some chance against the vast, undifferentiated stew of available titles.

    In other words, the genre needs some kind of arbiter–or at least established and trusted communities. Blogs do it as the micro-genre level, but they don’t aggregate large numbers of titles. The AML Review Archives is actually a really interesting start, but it requires some content refinement and a weighted scoring algorithm to help people pick qualified titles of interest. Businesses like NetFlix or iTunes have already made the turn in terms of broad, algorithmic, behavior-based affinity recommendations that can then be supplemented by trusted blog communities with reviews and responses.

    Maybe my current unemployment is messing with my head (or the fact that I’m reading 1984 for the first time), but it feels like the democratization brought about by technology may be the deconstruction of the march toward efficiency and consolidation of the last hundred years.

    That deconstruction may be our best hope.

  34. Wm Morris says:

    Incidentally, we’ve bandied about the notion of gatekeeping and affinity recommendations quite a bit at AMV. The most recent examples are here:

    http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/the-difficulties-faced-by-an-online-mormon-lit-bookstore/

    http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/the-concept-of-an-online-mormon-lit-bookstore/

  35. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]But yes, that means less cash in hand and more work on the business of writing for authors, and not all authors will make the turn. But that also strikes me as the only real option to create the great Mormon genre.[/b]

    I apologize. This concept is my starting place for any discussion of this type and I forget that it’s not others’.

    Actually, my starting place is: "Who’s stopping you?"

    Random thoughts:

    1. I actually do believe that the market is out there amongst the nation of nonmembers for our stories, as long as we tell them natively (heh, authentically).

    2. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: We need to define us before someone else does (and has, and will).

    3. We must cease to think of it as MO-LIT because that carries with it the baggage of a) need for validation from members and b) that it is targeted at members. Members were NEVER my target audience and still aren’t and never will be. WE know what we are, and there are plenty of authors who define us TO US via Deseret Book et al, so I feel no need to reinvent the 16th incarnation of the wheel. Thus, when the term "Mo-Lit" is applied, I don’t feel that my work falls into that category and my vision of the Great Mormon Genre doesn’t either. It’s a concept that ranges across genres of work that is bought by a national audience–HOWEVER THAT AUDIENCE IS REACHED.

    4. Traditional publishers aren’t part of my paradigm, so, again, I tend to forget that it is part of others’. Traditional publishers (being accepted by agents and getting publishing contracts) don’t even make a blip in my peripheral vision. People come to me and say, "I have this idea…" and my response is standard: "Okay, what’s stopping you?" When you boil it down, the most common answer is "Nothing." What, you don’t have a pen and some paper? Oh, wait. What? "I’m scared." Which leads to…

    5. …A lot of "our" stories that want to be told never will be told because of fear (of church/member repercussion, of agent/publisher rejection, of ridicule, insertfearofchoicehere). We cannot be afraid.

    [b]We already see the decline of Mormon literary academia, but those minds and their expertise are still out there and still capable of creating the critical conversation that can bring Mo-lit to peoples’ attention.[/b]

    6. I’m not thinking about Mormons-as-the-market. I’m thinking of everyone else.

    In my vision, the Great Mormon Genre won’t, in fact, exist as a bona fide genre. It’ll be an ephemeral thing that encompasses the collective of work that goes out into the national marketplace (by hook or by crook, by blog or tweet or self-publishing, regardless of *actual* genre) telling our stories explicitly with our jargon, our culture, our *think* as the baseline and expecting the reader to come along for the ride. The Great Mormon Genre will be a subsubsection of a wiki somewhere *ahemKatyaahem*.

    At least, that’s my hope. Our fiction needs to take its place amongst the other fiction-of-culture and not be shelved or categorized as anything other than its commercial genre.

  36. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    "Other than Orson Scott Card, is there a single LDS author of any literary significance who has made a living off of his or her writing alone? And even OSC supplements his income with teaching and workshop gigs."

    Anne Perry, David Farland, Brandon Sanderson, at the very least, and possibly Brandon Mull and James Dashner, as well. All have sold well, are selling well, and will probably continue to sell well in the future.

    If Stephenie Meyer needed to make a living, she could, I expect. Her non-Twilight novel, THE HOST, was on the NY Best Seller list for just over 52 weeks, without all the brouhaha associated with the Twilight Saga.

  37. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Kristine Kathryn Rusch is posting on her blog, starting with:

    http://kriswrites.com/2010/10/21/the-business-rusch-changing-times-overview/

    a series of articles about how the publishing business is changing, and, among other things, how electronic publishing may actually save publishing as an industry, that I have found very insightful. I recommend that anyone who is interested in the subject make a point of reading what she has to say.

  38. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Forgot to mention Lynn Kurland, who, while she may not be making a living at her writing (because she doesn’t need to), is also a steady seller in her genre.

    And, of course, Shannon Hale and Jessica Day George, who are getting there.

  39. Wm Morris says:

    Notice I said of literary merit. I am very aware of all the genre authors out there who are making a living through writing.

    Some of the authors you list may get there, but none of them have yet with perhaps the exception of Anne Perry, but she has only made one semi-foray in to Mormon-themed literature. I’m a fan of genre fiction, of course, but I don’t know how far those authors get us in terms of explaining Mormonism through the medium of literature. David Farland deserves major props for his latest historical novel and the first two Runelords novels, but he lacks the deep track record and literariness of some of OSC’s work. And Shannon Hale gets some love for The Actor and the Housewife (albeit that’s very much a mixed love).

    Of the literary fiction writers almost all of them also teach.

  40. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    My apologies. I don’t believe there is anyone anywhere who writes what some consider to be of "literary merit" and who make a living at it. After all, isn’t that part of the definition of "literary merit," that it is above prostituting Art by being commercial?

  41. Wm Morris says:

    The specific context of this discussion has been the explicit use of Mormon materials in fiction, which is where my comment came above came in.

    I have championed many of the genre authors you listed, but their careers are not comparable to what we were discussing. Literary merit has nothing to do with commercial sales or not — or at least not in the way I define it. It does, though, have to do with tying in to a certain literary tradition, which may includes aspects of style, plot, characterization, etc. The point being that we don’t yet have a Roth, Updike, Robinson, Nabokov. Now, of course, some of those authors fell back on academic careers, but they have been able to live off more of their sales and have had a higher rate of production than any of the Mormon writers of literary fiction that our culture has produced so far.

    I am not interested in rehashing the literary vs. genre debate. As I think I have made clear over the years, I rail at the literary snobs for looking down on genre fiction and over-valuing certain tired ways of writing literary fiction and the genre writers/readers for either being reverse snobs when it come to literary work or for not learning from the craftsmanship that is often a hallmark of literary fiction writers and not trying harder at style and characterization. My only point is that there are no Mormon authors, with the exception of Orson Scott Card, who have produced a significant body of work that has major literary value and overtly uses Mormonism. Which means that if the field for works that explicitly deal with Mormon materials is going to continue to develop, then all of us are going to have to come with plans to create work that goes beyond writing the Great Mormon Novel, having its genius validated by a NY Publisher, and then selling a hundred thousand copies of it.

  42. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    You know, what you actually said was "literary significance" which is not the same, to me, at least, as "literary merit." When you began to insist on "literary merit," you brought in the "literary vs genre" argument.

    This is turning into a "definition of terms" discussion, so I’m done.

  43. Moriah Jovan says:

    My idea of the Great Mormon Genre is analogous to the Southern Gothic movement. Many voices, many stories, many styles, one commonality: The culture of the American South–

    –and shelved alphabetically in the "fiction" section regardless what other elements we may now call genre, and it certainly isn’t shelved in a "Southern Gothic" section.

  44. Wm Morris says:

    Good point. Literary significance is a better term for what I was talking about, and I totally stand by that point. Whether or not we should be aiming for literary significance is a different discussion — in general, I’d say, probably not.

    —-

    I think the Southern Gothic notion is interesting, but as a model it reminds me too much Mormon literature as subset of Western Regionalism, which is an important and valuable part of our literary history but not necessarily where I think we should go.

  45. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]…as a model it reminds me too much Mormon literature as subset of Western Regionalism[/b]

    Heh. I thought Scott would be the first one to say "regionalism."

    Actually, it doesn’t have to be. Just because when people say "Mormon" the first thing they think is Utah (or polygamy), all you have to have is a book (or two) where the action doesn’t take place in Utah or anywhere else in the Jello Belt. (Navel gazing alert: Mine are set in Missouri–northern and southern, Pennsylvania, and New York City–and as YOU know, my M&M submission is set in Louisiana.) Any claims of regionalism versus culture can be knocked out of the park with stories of Us Others and, better, overseas. Anywhere overseas.

    (And as an aside: I think it’s time we stopped letting our manuscripts disintegrate in the Great Manuscript Box Under the Bed. There’s just really no point to it anymore.)

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