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.