Interview with Michael Austin

Below is an interview with Michael Austin, coeditor with Mark T. Decker of Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen, published in 2010 by Utah State University Press. Mike is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. A long-time contributor to the Mormon literary/critical scene, he received an award from the Association for Mormon Letters in 1995 for his essay, “How to Be a Mormo-American; Or, The Function of Mormon Criticism at the Present Time.”

1. Where did the idea come from for Peculiar Portrayals? How did the project get off the ground, and how did you wind up publishing with Utah State University Press?

The idea for Peculiar Portrayals came from my co-editor, Mark Decker, who approached me with it in the spring of 2007. I was hesitant at first, not because I didn’t love the idea (which I did) but because I was in the middle of two other book projects, and I didn’t think I would have the time. But Mark was insistent. He really had a vision for the project, and I was happy to let him drive. We roughed out the idea for the book on a Sunday afternoon in May while preparing a post-Sacrament Meeting Mother’s Day dinner for our wives.

We decided from the very beginning that we wanted to do a volume on “Mormons in popular culture,” which is not quite the same as “Mormon popular culture” or “Mormon literature.” When we crafted the call for papers, then, we very intentionally excluded two groups of texts: 1) texts by Mormons for Mormons — left, right, or center — which did not have a significant impact on the larger culture; and 2) pop culture phenomena involving people who happened to be Mormon but who did not represent Mormons specifically in their work — the Twilight saga was the example of this second group that kept popping up as we were working on the book. Both of these, of course, are perfectly legitimate subjects for all kinds of scholarly inquiry, but they fell outside the scope of what we wanted to do in this volume.

When we had identified potential contributors, Mark wrote a sample essay and we started shopping it around to publishers with this essay and a one-page synopsis of all of the other contributions. We only sent it to peer-reviewed academic presses because we wanted to make sure that our contributors would receive academic credit — consideration for tenure and promotion — for their work.

We anticipated that it would take at least a year to secure a publisher — it usually does in the academic world — and that we would not get a contract until the volume was complete, so, when John Alley at the Utah State University Press offered us an advance contract within a week of receiving the proposal, we jumped for joy a few times and accepted it. It is much easier to motivate ones contributors, and oneself, to work on a volume that already has a publisher. And Utah State University Press had exactly the title list and the scholarly reputation that we were looking for.

2. What was the source of the essays you and Mark Decker included in the volume, and what kind of selection and review process did they go through?

Soon after we decided to do the volume, we put out a general call for papers. We sent this through a variety of academic channels (including the AML-List) and to people that we knew to be working in Mormon cultural studies generally. And then, when we had a good set of proposals, we put together a working Table of Contents and crafted the proposal for the press. Once the essays came in, we reviewed them carefully, suggested revisions to the authors, and, in some cases, rejected them and cut them from the volume. Then we sent the whole volume to Utah State, who commissioned two more external reviews, both of which made excellent suggestions for revision, including the addition of one more essay, which we solicited, that was not part of the original proposal.

Since we did not commission essays on specific topics, we could only accept or reject what people chose to write about. We could shape the volume somewhat through this selection process, but we couldn’t really direct its contents. But this was consistent with what we wanted the volume to be. We did not want to decide the kind of scholarship that got done; rather, we wanted to showcase the kinds of things that people were already doing. And we were very pleased with both the quality and the diversity of what eventually came to us.

3. What do you think this volume contributes to the body of published Mormon literary criticism?

We designed Peculiar Portrayals to occupy a niche that very few other books now occupy. In the first place, as I have already said, it is a scholarly volume — one marketed to university libraries and to scholars in literary and cultural studies. It is not marketed primarily to the Mormon audience (though we are certainly gratified that some in that audience have found it useful). When soliciting contributions, we wanted to appeal to non-Mormon scholars whose work intersected some element of the Mormon world — which we did with contributors such as Juliet Wells, whose work on Andrew Black’s Pride and Prejudice forms part of a longer study of film adaptions of Austen novels, and Kevin Kolkmeyer, whose only connection to “Mormon literature” was the experience of teaching Under the Banner of Heaven in a New York City community college.

Furthermore, the volume is not literary criticism per se, but cultural studies. About half of the essays treat traditional literary texts; the rest treat film and television, both specifically (as in Big Love) and generally (as in “Reality TV”). And even the more traditional literary texts in the volume — works such as Angels in America, Under the Banner of Heaven, and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint — were chosen because of their significance to the larger (non-Mormon) culture. It was very important to us that the book not be pigeonholed as “Mormons writing to Mormons about Mormons.” We were trying to treat Mormonism as both a dynamic cultural force and as a fertile topic for cultural studies — something that could be profitably studied by scholars from any background.

4. Years ago, you contributed a series of posts to AML-List describing different critical approaches and suggesting ways they could be applied to Mormon literary studies. What do you think are some of the most promising critical approaches that haven’t yet been applied to Mormon literature?

Actually, I no longer see much value in the whole idea of “critical approaches” to literature. At best, this is an apprenticeship concept — the kind of thing that we talk about when we are naming, and learning to use, our tools. It has been years since I thought of anything that I wrote in terms of this or that critical approach (historicist, feminist, deconstructive, etc.), though I still acknowledge that some of the tools that I use come from these very loosely defined schools.

Basically, the job of a critic is to figure out what stuff means. “Stuff” can mean books, films, cultural movements, historical phenomena, and all of the other things that we called “texts” back in the old days. To be honest, this is not a terribly important job — nothing like finding a cure for AIDS or building affordable low-income housing — but it is a job with some value to the academic world — and, when it is done well (which it usually isn’t), to the larger culture as well.

Mormon literature of all kinds counts as stuff that needs to be interpreted, and there is value in doing just that. But literature by and about Mormons can provide a lot of material for interpreting bigger stuff — stuff like the role of Mormonism in the American experience, the place of religion in American culture, and even the global experience of Mormonism and religion in general. In my opinion, Mormon literary scholars still have a long way to go to catch up with Mormon historians in trying to answer some of these “big questions,” though there have certainly been some very promising starts in the work of scholars like Terryl Givens, Megan Sanborn Jones, and others.

5. Much of the most active discussion related to Mormon literature seems to take place in less formal electronic venues, including blogs such as this one, often involving readers or writers as much or more than trained academics. What kind of value (if any) do you see to this kind of less formally academic discussion, and how do you see it relating to more formal literary criticism of the type featured in Peculiar Portrayals?

Technology is a two-edged sword — and has been since the stone ax. The great advantage of the Internet is that it connects people together across distances that used to be unbridgable. But the great downside is that it gives people the opportunity to spend most of their time reading, viewing, and interacting with other people without ever leaving their basic world view. This is not just true of the Mormon blog world, of course; as the world shrinks, so does the need to interact with other people who don’t share most of our values and beliefs.

All of this is a way of saying that electronic discussions can be a very valuable thing when they bring people from a variety of backgrounds together to talk about something that they have in common, but they can also limit the effectiveness of the discussion by containing it to a few like-minded people who don’t really have any need to go elsewhere. My completely unsupported sense of the current situation — and I am very open to the possibility that I am wrong — is that a lot of very smart people are having great discussions about Mormon literature and culture on the various blogsites, but that the same tools that have made these discussions possible have also made them less visible to the larger culture.

One of the major objectives of Peculiar Portrayals is to overcome the tendency that Mormons sometimes have to make most of our best points to ourselves. We were trying — hopefully with some success — to increase the visibility of Mormon topics within the larger literary and cultural studies establishments.

6. Within Mormon literary circles, you’re perhaps best known for your formulation of the notion of Mormo-American identity as a legitimate framework for investigation of literature, based on the three propositions that “(1) the story and theology of Mormonism form a unique, compelling, and largely misrepresented part of the larger narrative of the American experience; (2) current conventions of literary theory and criticism are well suited for those wishing to tell unique, compelling, and largely misrepresented stories; and (3) the most important thing that Mormon literary critics can do in this environment is to use the tools of our profession to construct a space, within the larger cultural context of literary studies, for honest discussion of Mormon literature and the values that construct and stem from it.” How has your thinking about this changed or evolved since your 1994 essay, “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time”?

“The Function of Mormon Criticism at the Present Time” is very much an apprenticeship essay. It was the first actual article that I ever wrote about anything. I was in the first year of a Ph.D. program in English and was just starting to learn my way around the shop. At the time, I had read a few primary texts in Mormon literature and precious little else, but I was sure that, as a fully vested first-year Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California and Santa Barbara, I had all the wisdom necessary to become something like the founding dean of Mormon literary studies. Consequently, I realize now, I kind of sounded like a schmuck.

It is also very much a product of the culture wars of the early- and mid-1990s. English departments at that time were saturated with identity politics, and the cultural right was busily mocking them for it. There is some of that mockery in my article, and some genuine assertions as well, that make very little sense nearly twenty years later when the world is a different place.

Nonetheless, the major assertions of the article — which you identify very well in your question — are things that I still believe today, just as strongly as I did back then. They have guided everything that I have done in Mormon studies since then, including my work in Peculiar Portrayals. There are a lot of things I would say differently if I were to write that article today — both the overall tone and the critical vocabulary would change dramatically. But the core of the argument would not change at all.

7. There’s a common perception that writing and publishing related to Mormon literature has little to no value in terms of academic advancement at universities, and indeed that it may even have a negative value in some cases. What’s your experience been in that regard, and what kinds of stories (positive or negative) have you heard from others?

I have a much different perspective on that question now that I am a university provost (at a Catholic university even) and have primary responsibility for making tenure and promotion decisions. None of this is theoretical for me anymore; I deal with these kinds of questions all the time.

Academic freedom is taken very seriously at most colleges and universities. Those who choose to study Mormon literature, culture, history, theology, etc. are not going to be discriminated against because of the topic of their research — as long as they are in disciplines that can make a reasonable case for studying such things in the first place. But the publication and presentation venues for this research are extremely important. Someone who writes about Mormon literature (or anything else, really) for small, non-peer-reviewed, regional journals and magazines is simply not going to be taken seriously by the larger academic community.

On the other hand, someone who places articles in the top refereed journals in his or her field, or who publishes books with major academic presses, is going to be taken very seriously — even if their subject happens to be Mormon literature. Just as an example: Mark Decker is going through the tenure and promotion process this year at Bloomsburg State University in Pennsylvania, and he has found that Peculiar Portrayals has been nothing but an advantage for him. I found much the same thing with my Mormon-themed publications when I went up for tenure some years ago.

Now is an excellent time to approach academic publishers with Mormon-themed projects. Mormon books have the reputation of selling very well, and, as academic presses continue to lose their subsidies, they have actually started to worry about how well their books sell. Most of the major academic presses in the US and the UK have published Mormon-themed works in at least some of their disciplines. I doubt seriously that a well-written, rigorous, scholarly treatment of a Mormon literary topic would have much trouble landing with a solid academic publisher. This is where talking to ourselves in silos really hurts us. Lots of Mormon literary criticism is getting done, but not nearly enough of it is getting done in the right places, and Mormon literary critics still do not enjoy the critical mass of scholarly production that Mormon historians have enjoyed for years.

8. What projects do you currently have in the works related to Mormon literary criticism, and where do you expect your interests in this area to lead you in the future?

In the immediate future — this summer — I will be working on two reference articles on Mormon literature, one for the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism that Terryl Givens is editing, and one for Praeger’s Mormons and American Popular Culture, which is being put together by Mike Hunter at BYU. I am also starting to rough out chapters for a book tentatively titled The Mormon Diaspora at Mid-Century. I am interested in taking a look at a number of writers between 1935 and 1965 — Vardis Fisher, Maurine Whipple, Virginia Sorensen, and the rest of that bunch — who wrote mainstream novels that managed to construct a recognizably, but not religiously Mormon identity — so that it becomes possible, and even common, to refer to Virginia Sorensen as both a Mormon and an Anglican and to Vardis Fisher as both a Mormon and an atheist. I am interested in the way that this literature shows the development of the Mormon world view as a cultural identity separate, in some degree, from the religious forces that created it.

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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One Response to Interview with Michael Austin

  1. Linda Tate says:

    Mike Austin is — as always — insightful, articulate, forthright. What a refreshing interview! As someone who has watched his professional progress over the years, I have to say how gratifying it is to see his reflection on the ground he’s covered over those years. Well done, Jonathan, for interviewing Mike — and well done, Mike, on your thoughtful responses to Jonathan’s excellent questions!

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