Mormon LitCrit: It’s Time to Start Criticizing Each Other

by Scott Hales

Moderator’s Note: Dawning of a Brighter Day welcomes guest blog posts such as this on topics related to Mormon literature and literary criticism. For more information, email Jonathan Langford, AML blog coordinator, at jonathan AT motleyvision DOT org.

Creative writers like to talk about how no one ever reads their work — and they are mostly right — but I guarantee they have more readers than the literary critic. Literary critics have been around almost as long as creative writers, but they’ve never been able to garner the same kind of celebrity. Introduce yourself as a novelist or poet, and people are immediately impressed, even if they haven’t read a book since fifth grade. Say you’re a literary critic, though, and they either think they’ve misheard you (“I’m sorry. Could you say that again?”) or you’ve sneezed (“God bless you!”).

I bring this up because the other day I spent the better part of a seven minute conversation trying to explain to a guy at church how I spend the majority of my work week. As a Ph.D. student studying English, I do a lot. When I’m not taking classes about nineteenth-century American women writers or psychoanalytic theory, I’m teaching freshman composition or trying to read and write intelligently about the increasingly more obscure contemporary American novel. You try explaining that at a ward dinner party and eyes glaze over pretty quickly, especially when you get to the part about writing intelligently about novels. Their obvious lack of interest makes it all too clear: Novel writing is sexy. Writing about novels — or any kind of literature, for that matter — is not.

In fact, for some people, literary criticism is loathsome and perverse. For example, in his essay “Disliking Books at an Early Age,” critic Gerald Graff notes that literary criticism is frequently “suspected of coming between readers […] and the primary experience of literature itself.” Such suspicion, he supposes, oozes from the assumption that “leaving [readers] alone with the literary texts themselves, uncontaminated by the interpretations and theories of professional critics, would enable [them] to get on the closest possible terms with those texts.”

Interestingly, though, as a student shackled with the task of reading and interpreting literature, Graff discovered that “being alone with the texts only left [him] feeling bored and helpless.” And how could he not be: without exposure to literary criticism and its conventions, Graff was unable to learn the “language” necessary to become a voice in the critical conversation. In a sense, his teachers were asking him to survive in murky, shark-infested waters without a single swimming lesson.

So, literary criticism is important. Not only does it teach us the language of criticism and interpretation, but it also exposes us to critical conversations about what texts are and mean, how they succeed and fail, and why they are important. Moreover, it helps us move beyond simplistic discussions of a text’s relative worth or value; it shows us, in other words, that more can be said about a text than whether it is “good” or “bad.” If we let it, literary criticism can help us not only sound smarter, but be smarter.

Of course, as a literary critic (or, more accurately, a critic-in-training) who studies Mormon literature, I’ve noticed that we Mormons don’t have the longest tradition of literary criticism. To be sure, we have some lovely essays written by Orson F. Whitney, Eugene England, and various others that theorize Mormon literature, but that body of work remains relatively small and decentralized — or, worse, unpublished and unavailable. Efforts have been made in the past, of course, to remedy this — the most significant being, perhaps, Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson’s Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature (Signature, 1996) — yet these efforts take the serious reader and student of Mormon literature only so far. While their general approach to Mormon literature is helpful, especially for younger Mormon critics learning the language of the trade, they offer little more than a broad discussion of recent trends — extended status updates on the current state of Mormon letters.

Things need to change — and by so saying, I recognize A) that I run the risk of sounding like an obnoxiously green missionary, reeking of cheap wool and MTC eau de naïveté, who shows up to his first area thinking he already knows everything there is to know about the Work, and B) that I’m probably preaching to the proverbial choir.

Nevertheless, in order for Mormon literature to be read and studied well — that is, in order for it to be taken seriously by both Mormons and non-Mormons (and everyone in between) — it needs to be shared, discussed, and taught in light of ongoing critical conversations that focus on texts individually rather than collectively. In order for this to happen, though, the artists and literary critics need to leave a record of this conversation in a physically accessible format that gives the conversation the credibility it needs to prosper in an academic setting. Otherwise, the language of Mormon literary studies will never be fully articulated, and every aspiring Mormon critic who comes along — at least those who want to do more than generalize — will be yoked with the task of starting the critical conversation up essentially from scratch, rather than building progressively upon it.

What I have in mind, ultimately, are book-length studies of the short stories and novels of Douglas Thayer; critical essays that approach The Backslider, The Evening and the Morning, and Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth from a variety of cultural perspectives; and even postcolonial readings of On the Road to Heaven and Lacanian takes on The Lonely Polygamist. (I don’t want to write — or read — that last one, by the way, but someone might.) The range of critical approaches is limitless. Indeed, out of all of this, something like a distinctive Mormon literary theory or critical approach might be born.

But I’m getting a little carried away. Right now we need to focus on building upon the excellent foundation established by Eugene England and his contemporaries, the generation of Mormon scholars before my own. They’ve given us the rudiments of a critical language; our job now is to enrich it, publish it, and make it accessible to readers of Mormon literature — and the critics who will someday take our place, build upon our foundation.

Mormons, I know we’re not supposed to criticize each other, but the time has come for us to be more critical. For the past thirty years — indeed, for the past 181 years — creative Mormon writers have been producing a rich Mormon literature that’s not being read enough. While more literary criticism isn’t going to attract millions of readers — that kind of thing only happens in my dreams — it will attracts some, I believe, as it builds credibility around Mormon literature and validates it in the eyes of the larger literary and academic community. More importantly, I believe it will inspire Mormon and non-Mormon scholars to look at these texts, learn their language, and engage the critical conversation.

If nothing else, critics, think of it this way: if more people are reading Mormon literature and taking it seriously, you’ve got a better chance of someone reading your astute (though decidedly un-sexy) literary criticism. It won’t give you a readership of millions, but it just might up your street cred (ever-so-slightly) at the next ward mixer.

Scott Hales is a Ph.D. student with research interests in contemporary American and Mormon fiction in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati. When he is not spending time with his family, teaching early morning seminary, or doing something related to his degree (reading, writing, researching, attending and teaching class, tutoring, grading, power-napping, etc.), he is updating his blog, “The Low-Tech World” (http://low-techworld.blogspot.com/), which has recently featured his reviews of several contemporary Mormon novels.
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12 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: It’s Time to Start Criticizing Each Other

  1. Wm Morris says:

    “In order for this to happen, though, the artists and literary critics need to leave a record of this conversation in a physically accessible format that gives the conversation the credibility it needs to prosper in an academic setting.”

    Actually, these days the physical format precludes some of us from engaging with Mormon literary criticism as much as we’d like to. Note also that you’re much more likely to get conversation on this topic (and probably even readership) from posting to a blog than a letter to the editor to Irreantum or Dialogue

    Also: granted I’m a dilettante and I hopped off the PhD track, but the conversation doesn’t need credibility so much as active conversants.

    Also also: I think engagement with Mormon literary realism is important and undervalued, but let’s not forget the speculative fiction and YA fields where there is a lot to work with and a lot of work that needs to be done and where a Mormon critical approach could possibly have some actual impact on the field.

    All that said, I love that you are directly engaging with texts on your blog. There needs to be more of that (and I need to do more of that personally).

  2. Scott H. says:

    I’m glad that you bring up blogs in your comment, because they really are among the best and most accessible ways to carry on critical conversations in a field as small as Mormon literature–and it was with some reservation that I left them out of my post. I No doubt, Mormon literary studies would be on the other side of dead right now without the Bloggernacle framework.

    Still, at least in academia, blogs continue to carry a stigma. The information they provide–at least, in most cases–has not gone through the peer review process that academia values so much, so the conversation is deemed (perhaps unfairly) less credible. I think this is beginning to change, but peer reviewed journals still seem to be running the show–even if they have a smaller audience than the blog.

    Ideally, blogs and journals can work together. There’s no reason why the ideas and conversations that occur in blogs cannot be articulated more formally into journal articles. Also, there’s no reason why there can’t be something like a peer-reviewed blog. I’m sure this hybrid already exists somewhere.

    As you correctly point out, though, Mormon literature needs all the voices it can get–whether in journals or in blogs.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    Also, I think you’ll agree that rare is the journal article or dissertation that is written in a vacuum of conversation. Yet what conversation are you getting in Cincinnati? I’m guessing not scads. And so blogs meet that need. And so I don’t feel bad when, say, my review of Bound on Earth proves anemic (I was going to link to it when I commented on your review earlier this week, but then I decided there was nothing there) — it’s still part of a conversation that will someday lead somewhere. (Incidentally, in my own defense, I think some of my reviews are actually quite good.)

    Something I fully expected William to say is a repetition of his long standing complaint that the AML conference presentations aren’t easily available and that, therefore, critics may be repeating themselves simply because they don’t know what’s already been done. We need some sort of easily accessible compendium of What’s Out There but I wouldn’t even know where to start. And besides — I’ve decided to go sexy and produce on the creative side rather than the critical for a while.

    Note this though: I commend your post and rahrah you onward. Don’t be a stranger. I’m excited to see what you do.

    • Scott H. says:

      Truth be told, I’ve been tempted to go sexy, too, but I think my criticism is better than my fiction…which isn’t saying much.

      Again, I think blogs are great for keeping the conversation alive, especially since conversations aren’t happening in Cincinnati–or anywhere, really, from what I understand, except online and at conferences. I’ve also found that many of them, particularly A Motley Vision, are incredibly useful for scholars. It has become one of my go-to places.

      I guess, in some ways, it’s coming out that they are a lot of different ways to have conversations on Mormon literature. The conversations I refer to in my post are those that occur through published journal articles, and these conversations are slow-going and span decades. Obviously, when you go to write a journal article, you are expected not only to say something new and original about a text, but also provide an overview of what has already been said (that is, the existing conversation) about the text. This is no problem when you go to write a paper on, say, Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” which, according to the MLA International Bibliography, has had about 20 essays written about it since its publication in 2001. A nice peer-reviewed critical conversation is there at your disposal.

      This, of course, is not true for any Mormon novel (unless you count “Twilight,” which, by the way, beats the pants off of “The Corrections” when it comes to an existing body of criticism), including novels that have been around for thirty years. While book reviews and blog posts make it so that there is rarely a vacuum of conversation on any one Mormon text, such sources tend to provide only so much, and a lot of it really only skims the surface of the texts.

      What I hope my post expresses is that Mormon critics need to produce more criticism that engages the literature deeply–an then take measures to ensure that that criticism is published and accessible so that we don’t end up starting over and repeating ourselves every time we go to write about Mormon literature. And, despite the fact that I see great value in blogs and the conversations that go on there (I mean, I write a blog too), I think we need to enrich the conversation going on in scholarly journals, because it’s there that these deep conversations tend to occur. At least, that’s how I see it.

      One final thought: I think BYU’s Mormon Literature Database–which Gideon Burton runs, I think–has done a good job of staying current. I have found it very useful because it not only lists what Mormon literary texts are out there, but also what scholarship has been done on them. It’s the best place I have found to familiarize myself with the current published conversation.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    It’s a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, we need a critical mass for the critical conversation. On the other hand — let’s be crass about this for a minute — publication in peer-reviewed venues is the only thing that counts toward tenure, and hence the possibility that someone, sometime, may actually get paid for conducting Mormon literary criticism. Although there are also some advantages to the existing situation, where amateurs like myself and William can enter the conversation. Mostly, I’d just like to see more of it.

    And yes, there needs to be a sense of history as well, and an opportunity for what we write to enter the larger critical conversation. I know that I’m personally somewhat peeved that the essay I wrote about Mormon elements in Angels in America for Irreantum a few years ago seems never to have connected to the critical conversation about the play, since I felt that it was saying some important things that hadn’t been stated previously. Ah, well.

    On another topic: I’ve long felt that what we need isn’t a Mormon approach to literary criticism, but rather LDS scholars who bring their own personal faith into a full range of critical approaches. (This, as I recall, was the subject of a debate between Ben Parkinson and myself back on AML-List some years ago.)

    In the meantime, what I’m trying to accomplish is to make this blog into a central gathering place for the critical conversation (along with my other large goal of making it a common meeting ground for Mormon letters as a whole). The way I see it, anyone who has some kind of serious critical project related to Mormon literature should have an opportunity to share it here. This may or may not be the place where the full discussion takes place, but it should be where we can at least find out about such things.

  5. The daunting thing about all of this is the peer-review requirement which appears to leave amateurs completely out of the picture, as far as “serious criticism” goes.

    If you are calling for criticism that can be taken “seriously,” I fear that you are not preaching to the choir in my case, anyway, but to the vermin who lurk in the chapel corners and who snatch up whatever crumbs may fall close. I don’t even know how to “criticize” in ways that might be taken “seriously.”

    I can give editorial-ish feedback on writers’ manuscripts, but that doesn’t count, I’m sure. Without going for a PhD, how in the world does one even begin to learn the things that we need to know in order to “criticize” seriously?

  6. Jonathan Langford says:

    Kathleen,

    That’s part of why I was saying that peer-reviewed publication is only one part of the problem. If the goal is to make Mormon literary studies academically respectable, then peer reviewed publication is where it needs to happen. But a lot of the best and most insightful criticism — and the part that means to most to the community of Mormon readers and writers — won’t necessarily happen in those venues. There’s room for (and need of) and entire spectrum.

    There is, I think, much that can be learned in this respect from the larger sf&f community. A sizable body of credentialed scholars and published scholarship has now developed in that field. But even still, much of the best stuff doesn’t come from academics, but rather from perceptive readers (and writers) who share their perceptions with others. That, I think, is a model that Mormon literary study could profitably imitate. I think we’re better off for a community that includes scholars and non-scholars both, engaged in thoughtful discussion. However, I think it’s also true (as Scott points out) that we need both (a) more publication of critical works in accredited venues, and (b) a better way of recording the conversation.

    • Scott H. says:

      Well put, Jonathan.

    • Wm Morris says:

      What are the peer-reviewed literary journals you think we should be aiming for, Scott? The Mormon journals may be peer-reviewed (Dialogue has always been and I believe Irreantum now is), but they aren’t going to get you very far when it comes to tenure review or help us gain much ground in terms of respectability (and, of course, I think respectability is a sucker’s game for minority literatures).

      I ask that question not to be snotty, but because I really don’t know. So I agree with Jonathan that very best thing we could be doing right now (in addition to, as Th. note above, making all of the AML annuals available online) is sharing our projects and other pieces of Mormon-related criticism that we run across available on one location, and especially in a way that’s curated and is a critical project in and of itself. The problem with the Mormon Literature Database is that it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin and what is of more or less value to critics.

      I tried to get started on that with my Critic’s Corner at AMV but only managed to do it one time (and have stop doing my weekly poetry or short story features there as well).

      Kent has listed all the article in the AML annuals he has (or has been able to track down): 1978-1994 and 1995-2004. That doesn’t help with access to the individual articles, but at least it’s a start.

      • Scott H. says:

        I don’t necessarily have any specific journals in mind, and I’m less concerned about tenure reviews than actually getting articles written and out there. Dialogue, Irreantum, and Sunstone are all places to start–and I think Dialogue and BYU Studies show up on MLA International Bibliography database searches. Ideally, it would be nice to see articles about Mormon literature appear in journals that aren’t catered toward Mormons.

        These journals, of course, don’t have to be top journals, but I do think we should shoot for journals that digitize their issues for research databases like the MLA Bibliography, Academic Search Complete, JSTOR, etc. That way, our scholarship can be accessed by scholars with similar research interests.

        Of course, I haven’t had much success with getting non-Mormon journals interested in my Mormon lit papers. That said, I still think it’s worth shooting for. Most non-Mormons I have talked to about Mormon literature are interested in the idea of it, if not the literature itself. Most are also surprised that it even exists.

        Obviously, what my post calls for is a project that is going to take decades to pursue–I mean, the time it takes to publish an article in a literary journal is incredibly slow. As Mormon scholars, though, we need to try to build up our critical tradition as best we can and in every way we can. That means pursuing not only the formal and informal online critical conversations, but also the kind of conversations that take place in peer-reviewed journals. I think we risk stagnation if we focus our attention on a single critical venue.

  7. Scott H. says:

    Kathleen wrote: “The daunting thing about all of this is the peer-review requirement which appears to leave amateurs completely out of the picture, as far as ‘serious criticism’ goes.”

    This is a fair point, although I don’t think “amateur” status or degrees has anything to do with the ability to produce serious criticism. My admittedly limited experience with peer-reviewed literary journals has been that they don’t ask about credentials until after they’ve accepted your article for publication. Amateur and professional critics, if that distinction can even be made, can be equal participants in the conversation. Plenty of excellent “independent scholars” (i.e. so-called amateurs) abound.

    Also, as to how one learns to criticize seriously without going for advanced degrees, I think the answer is the same for how one learns to write fiction well. Writers don’t learn their craft in MFA programs and workshops; rather, they learn to write through the act of writing, through practice, and through always reading good writing. I’ve never heard a writer say you need a MFA program to learn to write well.

    The same is true with criticism, I think. I’ve never taken a class on how to write criticism, although I took a helpful researching class as an undergraduate; rather, I’ve learned it through reading criticism and books about criticism or critical approaches. Also, writing it, always a process of trial and error, has taught me a great deal. Even the feedback I’ve received from the peer review process–that is, the feedback I’ve received on manuscripts I’ve submitted to journals–has helped me hone my writing.

    All of this experience, I believe, could be gained independent of a degree program.

  8. Wm Morris says:

    A few more random comments:

    1. It’s been a couple of years, but as I recall, my last reaction to reading Tending the Garden (which I’ve read three or four times) was that it comes across as rather dated. Which isn’t to say that it’s not valuable, but that I find it less useful as an iconic collection of use to Mormon literature as, say, Harvest (the poetry anthology), or the special Mormon literary criticism edition of Dialogue, or the collection of essays related to the Mormon literaturstreit that Gideon Burton curated.

    2. I think that literary criticism is important because it extends the lives of stories and provides another avenue for creating conversation. I don’t know that it makes us smarter in any substantial way, but it can help us deepen our engagement with narrative and especially in this context, narratives that try to tell us something about Mormon identity (identities). It’s part of what keeps the field a field instead of just a bibliography of works written by LDS authors (or works with Mormon characters or themes).

    3. In my opinion, one of the key projects of Mormon literature and literary criticism these days is to counteract/balance and deepen and problematize Mormon cultural formation via self-help discourse, political discourse, and historical discourse.

    4. In my opinion, one of the other key projects of Mormon literature and literary criticism (and I would extend this to all narrative art and criticism/review of narrative art) is to subvert and infiltrate and criticize and steal from American culture (high, low and even middlebrow).

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