AML and Student Participation

At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I’d like to start off this post by trumpeting a few great things about AML:

First, AML’s mission is pretty darn noble. Writing about AML, Gae Lyn Henderson says our mission is “to promote high-quality writing by, for, and about Mormons.” As an organizational goal, that works for me. What’s more, virtually every member of the Church I know—from high-minded academics to casual readers—would support this endeavor.

Second, AML produces a mighty fine journal. The works that appear in Irreantum are thoughtful, artistic, and good. In an era where Mormon literature often shows up as either pro-Mormon propaganda or anti-Mormon propaganda, Irreantum offers a platform for Mormon voices that are moderate, faithful, healthy, and appropriately critical.

Third, AML offers members of the Church a fairly safe aesthetic and critical venue.  As a friend told me recently, AML feels comfortable. For some reason, other organizations whose missions are very similar to AML’s have sometimes become objects of fear and scorn. These other organizations have, for whatever reasons, developed reputations that cause many mainstream members of the Church to shun or avoid them. AML hasn’t. In fact, most mainstream members of the Church have no negative feelings towards AML at all. (Granted, this is largely because they haven’t heard of us, but more on that later).

Fourth, AML maintains a fantastic blog. Chances are, you know this already. It’s why you’re reading this in the first place. But if you need more proof, check out Dan Wells’ post on art and morality or Jack Harrell’s post on writing that is implicitly philosophical. Good stuff.

So, all of this begs a question—a question that’s been plaguing me since I first became involved in AML two years ago:

Why aren’t there more of us?

With so many virtues, why is it that AML’s membership is relatively small and has been for years?

Is it that a serious examination of Mormon letters still clashes with certain cultural factors? Is it that our goals are incompatible with mass participation?  Is it that we’re facing difficult organizational issues? Could it be a combination of all of these things and more?

I don’t have any clear answers to this, but I do have an idea about how to expand AML (assuming that’s what we want). Forgive me if the ideas I’m about to offer are pedestrian and old hat. Also, bear with me if I’m approaching this topic with too much naivety. If I am, I welcome hearing about it in the comments.

What I’m about to share I’ve been kicking around for a while, but these ideas were really driven home last week when I bought a used car from a man in Lehi, Utah.  He graduated with a degree in English from BYU. As we talked about his experiences at BYU and how he ended up selling used cars for a living, he told me he missed the literary discussions and the focus on critical thinking he received as part of his education. He expressed longing for a venue which could fill that void. I told him about AML. He’d never heard of us. I told him about Irreantum. He seemed delighted.

At BYU, not a stone’s throw from where the AML conference is held each year, there are roughly 900 English majors. At BYU-Idaho, there are about 700. Add to this the 80 or so English graduate students who attend BYU, and there are currently, at these two universities alone, nearly 1700 students, all of whom are at least somewhat interested in literature and Mormonism. And each year, there are new students—an endless fountain of fresh, young minds.

Beyond this, there are the countless English graduates like the man who sold me my 2002 Dodge Caravan.  And there are Mormon students of literature at plenty of other universities, including those in the Mormon Studies program at UVU.

Is it possible to tap into this student and alumni population?

What if all of the professors involved in AML offered extra credit to students who presented at the AML conference? What if these same professors offered extra credit to students who submitted work to the Irreantum contests? (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that as a professor, I abhor extra credit. But I love AML and see plenty of value in getting students involved in it.)

What if the English departments at BYU and BYU-Idaho took a larger role in bringing students to the conference? At BYU-Idaho, we highly advertise the National Undergraduate Literature Conference and sponsor about 30 students’ attendance each year. Would the BYU and BYU-Idaho English departments be willing to do the same for the AML conference if we asked? Would we want them to? What if all afternoon sessions of AML were dedicated entirely to student presentations? What if Irreantum published an issue dedicated entirely to student work? What if among its officers AML had a Student President and a Student Vice President in charge of managing student involvement in AML? Would any of these things allow us to recruit students into AML more regularly? And to retain them?

When I was an English major at BYU, I’d never heard of AML or Irreantum. True, this could have been due to my own cluelessness, but I wonder if the key to AML’s future doesn’t lie in the thousands of students that many of us associate with on a daily basis.

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35 Responses to AML and Student Participation

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    All great ideas, Josh. Let me throw something out there, based on my experience with my own daughter, a UVU student. She loves literature, but decided in the end to major in Art Ed. She has no interest in reading LDS literature, so discussions about Mormon lit go nowhere with her. She carries the same stereotypes about Mormon lit, even though she lives w. me. Now part of that may be because she sometimes has a hard time valuing the things her mother values (this is diminishing as we both age), but there is a stand-offishness many mainstream Mormons take to Mormon lit. Sure, we have those who love the romances and mysteries, but most Mormons (certainly outside the Mormon corridor) don’t read Mormon stories bc there is an expectation that quality will be lesser. I think this remains a huge problem for the AML. I’ve long been curious about English students at the church schools. Do you see them as open to reading Mormon literary fiction? Curious? Or is there still disdainful snickering that accompanies the suggestion of reading it?

    I agree that it’d be great to promote AML among students. That might build a future. But there are also thousands of us who are long-since graduated who may be reachable. How do we get to them and spark an interest?

  2. James Goldberg says:

    I think part of the problem is still in rhetorical positioning for AML. Is the organization supposed to be a gateway to LDS literary work for active LDS readers, a networking and support group for literary-minded LDS writers, or an academic organization studying writing for, by, or about anyone with a past or present religious or cultural association with any Joseph Smith-inspired church?

    Because AML is maybe the only organization devoted to literary Mormon writing, I think we expect it to be all three, but I’m not sure it can be all three at once.

    I think originally, and perhaps also now, AML is more oriented towards critics. The idea of the annual meetings and the broad definition of Mormon literature lend themselves best to those who want to pave the way for Mormon lit as a respected academic field. The style of the critical work also favors the academic, and academic considerations seem to be the primary driver behind the broad definition of Mormonism and the positioning as a peer-reviewed journal. Many of the blog posts here are pretty clearly in an academic (or at least casually academic) register and probably appeal mostly to those looking to critically study literature.

    At the same time, AML has provided and does provide a networking and support group for writers. The old AML email list seemed to focus on writer-to-writer talk more than academic work. Many of the blog posts now are aimed at practicing writers. AML used to have writers’ conferences, and I think part of the group that hangs out at the annual meeting is writers–some of whom are more interested in talking with other writers in the halls than in any of the sessions. :)

    I think we’d like AML to provide a bridge for LDS readers who like literature in general–like the guy who sold you the car–into Mormon literature specifically. But I don’t think AML is very good at that. In theory, Irreantum could be a valuable publication you could share with the lit-minded people in your ward, but I don’t see that happening, because Irreantum doesn’t really focus on being safely accessible to people who are active Mormons and read literature. I feel safe about the writing in the last issue, for example, but I’m not going to pass a journal with that art to members of my elders’ quorum or order an extra copy with my grandma. And that guy who majored in English before working in tax prep? I’d love to have him in a short story club (book clubs are too ambitious for me), but I’m not going to recommend he take a precious Saturday to go to the AML Annual meeting.

    You may be successful in recruiting student to get involved in AML, but I think only the ones interested in going in in Mormon literary criticism are likely to stick. The literary writers may also stay, or duck in and out depending on how many friends they’re finding through AML.

    Let me be clear: I don’t think AML’s mission is a bad thing. Having an academic forum for the discussion of MoLit is great, and the work AML does for literary writers is extremely helpful.

    But I think we misunderstand AML’s mission when we try to make it a mass movement. It’s small because it’s a niche thing.

    We just need other organizations to fill those other niches. And yes, let’s all push the group that can effectively evangelize Mormon literature.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      More organizations? How about a committee? ;)

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      James,

      I agree that Mormon literary criticism is the heart of AML as it has existed in the past and one of its key missions going forward. I’d go further and say that in my opinion it’s the *most* critical part of AML’s mission, at least in part because if AML doesn’t do that, I don’t see anyone else stepping up to fill that gap — and also because there’s a breadth to the notion of studying Mormon literature that extends beyond a single domain (i.e., literary fiction), giving it in my view a broader cultural importance.

      Where I think your analysis — and AML’s traditional “take” on Mormon literary criticism — falls short is in focusing narrowly on fiction by, for, and about Mormons, and mostly on literature that in some way depicts the explicitly Mormon experience. But Mormon literary criticism also does — or should — include bringing gospel perspectives into the study of literary criticism as a whole. I would argue that a lot of LDS English majors who aren’t particularly interested in Mormon literature as such (see Lisa’s comment) may very well have an interest in talking about how the gospel ties into their love of literature as a whole. That was certainly the case for me.

      Looking back on my experience as an English major at BYU (undergraduate and master’s program), one of the things I consider most scandalous was the way that very few professors brought the gospel into their discussions of literature, and particularly of *why* literature was important and worth studying. As (mostly, I think) believing Mormons who had chosen to make literature a major part of their life work, I found it odd that we as students seldom if ever heard the reasons *why* they cared about literature — including how they felt that interest connected to gospel values.

      As a child growing up, I was deeply conflicted over my love of literature. One of the significant elements of coming of age for me was coming to a private reconciliation of that love of literature with gospel values. I see evidence all around me that this is a common experience for many Mormon literarily minded youth. I don’t know how AML as an organization could sponsor that discussion (I had ideas once for how BYU could do that, but no one yet has asked me to reform the English department), but I can’t help but see it as another potential source of relevance and interest for those who *don’t* especially care about Mormon literature (particularly Mormon literary fiction) — if we could somehow tap into it.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        I would argue that a lot of LDS English majors who aren’t particularly interested in Mormon literature as such (see Lisa’s comment) may very well have an interest in talking about how the gospel ties into their love of literature as a whole. That was certainly the case for me.

        This is not in any way meant to belittle what you sought, Jonathan, so I hope this comes out as neutrally as I mean it.

        I would have run far and fast from such a class. I got over reading everything through a gospel-tinted lens when I was about 14 (Gone With the Wind was the culprit there). I also was sooooo over reading everything through a “this is what the author meant” lens by the time I was halfway through my first required lit classes. How do you know what the author meant if he’s not here to tell us?

        What I AM interested in is inhabiting the skins of these people. I also wanted to understand the culture/politics/money scale (i.e., how much is that in TODAY’S dollars?) of the time period in which the author wrote so I could get a better handle on being in the skins of the characters. I wanted to understand how other people thought and why.

        Now, if I read something that felt overtly Mormon-ish, I get excited, but I wasn’t (and am not) interested in starting out reading anything through a what-can-this-teach-us-about-the-gospel/how-does-this-apply-to-our-lives-as-LDSaints lens.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Moriah,

          I don’t think a class is necessarily the way to do this either. What I’m talking about is more along the lines of informal discussion — people sharing their individual reasons and thinking — and certainly not anything that could be taken as a move toward establishing definitive answers to those questions.

          Admittedly, not everyone who (a) enjoys reading and talking about literature and (b) is LDS will be interested in exploring how the two intersect. But we shouldn’t confine that area of intersection to literature that is explicitly Mormon — or Mormon in any sense.

          One of the great virtues of literature, in my opinion, is that it provides a way for hearts of the children (ourselves, living in modern times) to turn to their fathers (those who have gone before and/or live in circumstances different from ourselves). It sounds to me like that’s part of the appeal of literature to you. I acknowledge, however, that thinking about it in this way isn’t something that necessarily would interest others.

          My thought for the BYU English Department (that I never shared with anyone) was to set up a monthly talk where faculty members would take turns talking about why they had become English professors and what they hoped to accomplish (through teaching, research, etc.) that made it worth doing for them. My theory was that doing this would automatically bring in a connection with gospel values for believers who considered their lives in Mormon terms — but in a natural and unforced way that would invite sharing of multiple different personal answers. Informally, I think that something very like that tends to happen over time in venues like the AML blog, but I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it.

          Maybe it’s just me, but I’m capable of being interested in why something is important to someone else — for example, why romance literature might be valuable to someone like yourself — even if it’s not something that is directly important to me. This is particularly true if/when it connects to other shared values. This is a big part of where my interest and involvement with AML came from, years before I ever thought that I might write Mormon literature myself.

  3. Thank you, Josh. The upcoming AML conference (April 21st) should provide great opportunities to experiment with several of your ideas. We will surely have some student sessions, and some of my own students have asked if they could present essays about their international missionary experiences. Maybe. If the essays are good enough, maybe. And any of us who teaches creative writing should encourage our students to write something even better than “good enough.”

  4. C. M. Malm says:

    I confess that, like Lisa’s daughter, I’m not that interested in stories about Mormons. And I don’t think it’s just a question of quality. My fleeting experiences with “Mormon Lit” have mostly been either thinly disguised faith-promoting propaganda or thinly disguised faith-questioning propaganda, neither of which hold any appeal for me. Then there’s also the fact that I’m not particularly interested in contemporary fiction, period. I want fiction that takes me to a different place, either in time or place or culture.

    But I am interested in talking with other Mormon writers. I’m interested in reading their work if it meets my other criteria for what’s interesting to me. I initially connected with AML as a useful source of info about such works.

  5. Julie Nichols says:

    Well, here’s a sad thing. A couple of sad things. First of all, Josh, you completely ignore UVU–the largest institution of higher ed in the state, right over the hill from BYU and full, full, full of LDS kids. That’s where the AML meeting is held–how can you ignore/forget us? But even sadder, the effort to start Mormon Studies or Mormon lit classes here is (as it is for Lisa’s daughter) almost a moot question. Boyd Petersen has taught a Mormon lit class for years, and every time we get a salary line that might go to him, it’s voted away to someone else because we have quite vehement voices in the Department of English and Lit who say, in exactly these words, “Mormon lit is a joke.” Gene England gave a fervent talk a year or two before he died, when he was officially the “Writer in Residence” at UVU, about how UVU (then UVSC) was the best possible place to begin a center for Mormon Studies…but it never happened. (Well, Brian Birch is heading an excellent Center for Religious Studies. But it’s not Mormon Studies.) I continue to be amazed that we (UVU) have the largest Institute in the Church, the largest student population in the state, a substantial percentage of which is LDS, and yet there’s no Mormon Studies or Mormon lit program at all. I’d much rather see one start than sit around talking about why it hasn’t happened. But–as with our English Club, which has a different mission and which you’d think would be smokin’ hot among writer wannabes and lit aficionados–the interest, the energy, the spirit for it just doesn’t seem to be as pervasive as you and I might like. I have to conclude the time’s just not right. People are doing other things. Students are busy keeping their heads above water, with classes, work, family. I think the car salesman who says he misses the literary discussions is giving lip service only. Life gets in the way. We don’t covenant in the temple to support AML or a Mormon Studies program at our university…both fall under Julie Beck’s list of “nice-to-do’s” but neither “essential” nor “necessary.” We do what we can. I think it’s great that AML exists. I think it’s great the English Club exists. But I don’t go to all the meetings of either one; I advertise them both and contribute as I’m able. Keep at it, don’t quit, but I think James is right–AML’s a niche organization. Be glad to be in the niche, but don’t expect a whole lot of others to fit it.

    • Josh says:

      Julie,

      Did you miss this sentence in my post? “And there are Mormon students of literature at plenty of other universities, including those in the Mormon Studies program at UVU.” True, I didn’t pay enough attention to UVU in my post (as I also didn’t with Utah State or the University of Utah or SLCC or plenty of other institutions), but I also didn’t ignore/forget it.

      Also, I was under the impression that UVU did have a Mormon Studies program. Am I wrong? Is this (http://www.uvu.edu/religiousstudies/mormonstudies/) not what I think it is? How robust is this Mormon Studies thing at UVU? (Your comment makes me think it’s not as robust as I’d hoped/anticipated.)

      Finally, your obviously right that supporting AML is not a requirement of the faith. My post here simply explores why AML is a fairly small group and examines a few ways we might recruit more voices into the conversation–if we even want that.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Josh

      • James Goldberg says:

        Josh,

        To clarify: I totally agree that more people ought to be turned on to Mormon literature. And I totally believe it’s possible.

        I don’t believe it’s possible, though, to couple the academic posture AML takes with the rhetorical positioning needed to reach the everyday thoughtful Mormon.

        I once wished AML would change: now I think AML ought to do more or less what AML does, and someone else should take on the mission of drawing the LDS mainstream into LDS literature.

      • Julie Nichols says:

        Yep, I missed that sentence. Reading too fast. But I wasn’t being critical when I said AML’s not a requirement–I was agreeing with you about why it’s small. People are busy; they do the “essentials.” So…AML and peripherals like it get put on a back burner. Many good and true points made, in your post and others,’ about this. I myself am not the trailblazer Moriah calls for, but I appreciate what’s being said.

        • Moriah Jovan says:

          I don’t want to be misunderstood: I’m not *calling for* a trailblazer. That’s up to other people to do what they will and I wish them luck in that.

          What I’m saying is that associations and programs and suchlike can only do so much without there being some concrete body of work behind it. All sizzle, no steak, yanno? I don’t think a call to arms amongst people who a) think MoLit’s a joke, b) want to roll in Grate Litrachoor for a while, and c) are probably totally unaware Mormonism even HAS culture other than what’s at the back of everybody’s refrigerators, is going to be an effective way to BUILD the body of work on which associations and programs can be built.

          The FIRST thing that needs to happen is for the outliers (Pugmire, Stone, Woodbury[s], Wells, Udall, Martindale, etc.,) who already have a track record of uniquely MORMON literature (even if we don’t call it that) to be given a reason to gather and chat in a very Dorothy-Parker-like way. If you want the children, you have to make it cool. And Dorothy Parker is cool.

    • Wm Morris says:

      Mormon culture is our best chance to save our youth. Assimilation has taken its toll and will only get worse and those things that made it easy to assimilate become less effective. Those who lust after the fleshpots of American culture; who yearn for literary respectability; who dismiss native materials do so at their own peril and especially at the peril of the youth they are charged with educating.

      We think that the Church is enough. But the Church can only go so far in its modern form because of the strictures of late capitalism and modern democracy. There is still a need for culture that exist around and among and aside from the faith as is.

      The retreating into isolationism only works in a few cases and a few locations (and I would argue never truly works). The only viable road to safety is to yoke orthopraxis with cultural pride and expression and create an engine with which to enact acts of piracy and subterfuge and illusion against the culture. Outmaneuver the co-opters; make foolish the naysayers; jujitsu the haters; lure the curious; forge bonds with the friendly.

      I’m stating things over-dramatically, of course. But I think the basic gist is valid.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        William,

        Overstatement or not, I think you may be onto something here. And it’s something that helps me understand (for the first time, maybe) your preference for the term “radical middle” to describe the kind of cultural production you’re calling for.

        Art as propaganda lacks sophistication. Art as imitation of the larger culture lacks distinctive identity. Art as private expression lacks cultural importance. Art as a retreat into isolation is fragile and ultimately lacks the power to compete. Art as subversion, on the other hand — as witness the history of African American art — is capable of both sophistication and distinctive identity, has exciting cultural (as opposed to purely private) importance, and possesses the capability to take on the larger culture and win, if by winning we mean being heard, respected, and imitated. (Which of course brings its own dangers of being coopted, but Mormon letters should be so lucky.)

        Youth go where the excitement is, where they can feel that they’re making a difference. Youth want a revolution, even if it’s such a poor revolution as signaled by the “Who are these children coming down?” of my youth. Perhaps the problem in Mormon letters is that we who are trying to promote it haven’t been extreme enough in our claims or revolutionary enough in our rhetoric. (Though a little more institutional support from places like BYU would be helpful, too.) Maybe what we need is not to imitate Shakespeare and Milton and Tolkien but to dethrone them. Moderation has built up for us a respectable body of individual works (that continues to grow), but hasn’t brought us the energy to take Mormon letters to the next level.

      • James Goldberg says:

        Yes, William. Yes.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I think Wm has the potential to be the long promised “trailblazer” Moriah may or may not be calling for. That or the fulfillment of the Orson F. Whitney’s prophesy about the Chosen One, sprung from the loins of Joseph of Egypt, who will one day bring balance to Mormon literature and herald Mormon literature into a new age.

          Or maybe I have nothing to contribute to this conversation that hasn’t already been said.

        • Wm Morris says:

          I’m flattered, Scott, but there are very few instances where someone who tries to be both an artist and a critic (not to mention an editor and popularizer) reaches any heights or blazes any trails. My goal has always been to throw stuff out into the zeitgeist and hope that someone better equipped and more dogged gets a whiff and pursues the prey.

      • Wm Morris says:

        Not to split the conversation, but I decided that it would be useful if I explained myself rather than just speaking manifesto speak. I have made an attempt to do so: http://www.motleyvision.org/2011/mormon-culture-important-future-of-mormonism/

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    Here’s what I see as the problem, and I said as much at Sunstone (only more bluntly): Any movement needs a trailblazer. One person. Then two. Maybe three. Programs? Associations? A movement cannot be created by a committee created to create it. It needs a couple-three people who are willing to step out of line and do their own thing, and then others to follow when they either lose their fear or notice that it’s happening.

    Of course MoLit is a joke (or, more precisely, as C.M. Malm said, “thinly disguised faith-promoting propaganda”) because one big player dominates it and it serves a particular type of audience and everybody in that arrangement likes it that way.

    The outliers are so scattered as to be invisible, and so scattered as to feel that they’re alone and thus, assume there is no market for what they have to offer. If you live in, say, Kansas City, Missouri *koff* and you don’t know ONE Mormon in real life who writes, and you know the Big Boy* isn’t going to publish what you have, and you know that New York won’t either, what do you do? You either don’t write it, or you write it because you are compelled and then you put it under your bed when you’re done.

    Unless… You swallow your fear and put it out there anyway. And THEN you find like-minded individuals. And you get together. And you make things happen. And, yeah, you and your newfound compatriots are over here in your tiny little corner of the internet, but you’re working and you’re patient and you’re getting good attention from people who are Mormons, but also you’re getting good attention from nonMormons who are taking you seriously.

    In my opinion, what MoLit needs are more people who are sitting down and writing what they think is missing instead of sitting down and wondering where all the good stuff is, spending time on associations and programs.** The time it takes to bemoan the state of MoLit and gather a committee could have been used to write an equivalent number of words of actual MoLit.

    Of course, if one is willing to write it but not willing to put it out there, that’s a whole ‘nother problem, innit?

    *I didn’t set out to write MoLit. I will deny to my last breath that I write MoLit, so my entire comment could be construed as a huge non sequitur.

    **If Eugene England couldn’t do it, well… :/

  7. Scott Hales says:

    I think this post has had some great back and forth with a lot of good ideas placed on the table. Now I think everyone should make like Nephi and go and do. That’s the point of Josh’s post, right?

  8. Darlene says:

    Fantastic discussion.

    So, at the end of all this, what do you who are still here think are the most valuable benefits of AML? Because we’ve been struggling for a long time, and we’re beginning to evaluate whether there really is a “market” for what we have to offer. And, while discussions about mission are really important, more important right now is the fact that we find fewer and fewer people who are interested enough to want to sacrifice time to serve on the AML board and actually get things done. We’ve postponed discussions about mission and future and all that until we feel we’ve got a future (including a pool of interested potential leadership with ideas, time, energy and health that will keep them involved over the several years necessary to incorporate changes). So, while I adore AML and credit it for enabling me to begin to see myself as a writer (and there you go–another proof that it’s writers who are probably the most interested), it’s getting harder and harder for me to imagine it as the thriving organization I’ve dreamed it could be.

    When I first joined AML, it was because I had wanted a place other than Sunstone (sorry, Stephen) where I could have the kinds of discussions that Jonathan talked about. For one thing, I was confused about why so many writers, academics, and passionate fiction-lovers leave the church. For another, I wondered why there was so little LDS fiction that felt nourishing to me in the way that great literature does. And, finally, as someone hoping to write a better LDS literature, I sought support among others who were already in the trenches, and appreciated AML’s effort to publicize and reward the efforts of others who were trying to do the same thing.

    Like many of you, it was the early days of the List which made me first fall in love with AML. We have tried, with this blog, to replicate some of the biggest benefits of that list. I loved, back then, getting to hear opinions and writings from people like Richard Dutcher, Marvin Payne, Bruce Jorgensen, Ed Snow, Harlowe Clark, and many of you who are still here. It made me feel there was an LDS writing community that was seeking for greater truth and depth in their work, and critics who appreciate that goal. I began writing because I saw the people on the List as my potential audience, mentors and cheerleaders. And also because I felt they were creating, through criticism, the kind of environment where quality could be rewarded—if not by the book-buying mainstream of the church, then at least by people whose minds I respected. I had been one of those English majors, like your friend, who never heard of AML while I was at BYU, and I feel that if I had heard of it back then, I would have been overjoyed to join even then. I was sure, like you, that there were many more like me out there—wannabe writers, people in ward book clubs who liked more challenging books, critics who wanted to both elevate the level of LDS writing and make active members who also write/read/criticize feel they have a comfortable community in which to explore challenging ideas.

    That’s a lot of different potential missions right there, but back then I felt that we were accomplishing them. We were just beginning to get better at reaching out to genres other than literary fiction. I loved hearing from Rachel Nunes, Marianne Hales Harding, Brandon Sanderson, Rick Walton, and the music people, too—Marvin and Sam Payne, Steven Kapp Perry—and the film people. It seemed we could be lots of things at once, as long as we could keep the community vibrant and continue to recruit leadership.

    Ah, that’s the problem. Warm bodies to do the work. Honestly, I haven’t lost my dream of AML as a flourishing organization. In fact, with the internet and Mormon Studies programs appearing around the world, I think that our potential is bigger than ever. But our resources are smaller than ever. People are just too busy. LDS professors, the ideal people for leadership because they have connections and know how to put on an academic conference, are stretched way too thin (bishop?) and get, if anything, only criticism from their departments for wasting time on LDS stuff. We have been blessed to have some absolutely fantastic people lead the AML, but it’s beginning to feel like we have tapped out everyone.

    We have discussed de-centralizing (having meetings by Skype, etc.), and that is still a possibility, but only if we continue to have enough people willing to do the actual work. We continue to explore options and evaluate what is really necessary. For example, how valuable is our annual conference? The awards? Irreantum? Who else might want to edit Irreantum when our current editors have burned out (and, believe me, burnout is real). Although I loved the writers’ conference, we discontinued it because the work involved in putting it together didn’t seem to be worth the results—and because we felt that was a niche that was already being covered by other local writers’ conferences (LDStorymakers in particular). We are beginning to wonder what other things may not be worth the work.

    Yes, Josh, we have tried to reach students. We even had a student chapter at BYU for a time and had problems because of the transient nature of students–the leadership graduated, and there weren’t people who wanted to take their places. (A large part of the problem, too, was the lack of support from BYU as an institution, so that it was difficult to get professors to justify using their time to try to nurse the chapter along. Professors are just busy, busy, overworked and underpaid people.)

    I would really appreciate comments from you who care: what do you see as a benefit or potential benefit from AML that you could get nowhere else? What does it supply that LDStorymakers, Sunstone, MSH and MHA don’t? What would be worth spending your own resources (time, money) on?

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      I think Darlene’s comment needs to be its own post. It’s going to get lost in the shuffle.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Very good summary, Darlene. And yes, I would like to second Moriah’s suggestion that you put this up as a post of its own. (hint, hint)

      With respect to your question: The benefits I see coming from AML that don’t come anywhere else (in no particular order) include the following:

      - A sponsored venue for presentation/publication of Mormon literary criticism that can “count” on a graduate student or junior professor’s resume (i.e., the conference and cosponsored sessions at other conferences–but this purpose would be better served if we could get publication of the Annual back on track). Sunstone does some of this, but that isn’t its major focus.

      - Discussion and interchange on Mormon literary topics. The only other real place I see this happening is a few other blogs (at present, only A Motley Vision and Scott Hales’s blog come to mind), all of which are private endeavors and likely to have a limited shelf-life.

      - Promotion of Mormon fiction with literary value, through reviews (online and print) and the AML awards. The Whitneys do some of this, but with a less literary focus. I like having both.

      - Publication of literary Mormon fiction with Irreantum. Not my own preferred cup of tea, but occasional story publication in Sunstone et al. aside, Irreantum is the only place where I see enough of this being published (especially in short form) to really foster an ongoing community.

      - An umbrella where people of like mind can find out about topics and projects related to Mormon literature. AML is a central gathering place. I suspect that many other ventures such as AMV and Zarahemla would be far less healthy if they didn’t have AML as a recruiting ground. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of service that often leaves the original organization (AML) without any benefit.

      I can say with absolute certainty that my own published novel (No Going Back) would never have been written, let alone published, without the existence of AML. It was AML-list that made me think about the issues from a writerly perspective to begin with, AML that made me feel that there was importance in trying to write a novel that didn’t yet exist in Mormon literature, AML that provided what I saw as much of my potential audience, and AML that led to the creation of Zarahemla Books. And yeah, much of that interaction was over AML-List, but the list would not have had the power to attract and hold my interest without the depth that came from the existence of the larger organization. (The same, I would argue, is true of the blog today.)

      And I would emphasize again that while there are bits and pieces of these things I’ve mentioned in other places, nowhere else is *dedicated* to these — or, in my view, possesses enough critical mass to keep them going longterm, at least not without some body like AML also existing. Of course, that leaves unanswered the question of whether AML as an organization has enough critical mass to keep going… But yes, I would deeply mourn the passing of AML — though I agree that if the organization is going to persist, we need to find a way to broaden the leadership pool.

      • Wm Morris says:

        Dude, limited shelf life? AMV is three times the age of Dawning of a Brighter Day. {wink}

      • Scott Hales says:

        Yeah, Jonathan, as long as you keep commenting, I’ll keep posting. I don’t plan on killing The Low-Tech World anytime soon. I’m coming up on my one-year anniversary of Mormon lit-only content. {uh…double wink} Let’s not sound the funeral bells yet.

  9. Laura Craner says:

    This is a fairly nuanced discussion at this point, but I’m going to add my non-nuanced two cents anyway.

    I’m not currently an AML member. I was before but I’m not now. I have a little guilt about that because the AML is such a noble cause and I discovered it during a time of my life when I really needed it. BUT I was living outside Utah by then. And other than my Irreantum subscription there were no benefits to being a member. (It didn’t get me into a writer’s group or hold conferences that I could attend.) For me the biggest drawback to the AML is the fact that it doesn’t/can’t have chapters. (Maybe there’s one out in CA somewhere?? I think Theric mentioned it once?) I’ve toyed around with the idea of trying to start a chapter where I live but don’t know what good that would do.

    And as for the problem with filling leadership roles, I’m pretty sure I’m not experienced enough as a writer or an organizer to do any work for the AML. The AML has a big and somewhat intimidating reputation. . . I don’t know. I feel like I would have nothing to offer it and I’m betting there are others who feel the same way. I have no clout and I feel the AML only wants people with clout. From what I’ve seen over the last few years, it seems like the AML does a good job of steadying and promoting accomplished LDS writers/thinkers but I don’t see a lot of ways that it encourages the folks just starting out. That could just be me and my limited experience, though. Segullah and the Whitney folks just come off as much more approachable. And fun. The AML doesn’t appear to be having much fun.

    I did a little pre-publication reading for Irreantum for a while and it was an awkward experience. Nobody ever told me what they were looking for or what I was supposed to be doing. There was no training and I felt like an idiot because I needed a little more hand holding through the process. There was no firm or predictable schedule so any reading/editing I did do had to be fit in on the sly and it was very stressful. That said, I learned a lot and feel like I would benefit from spending more time doing work with the folks at Irreantum (and AML) but I’m not sure how to fit it into my life and make it a less stressful experience.

    Maybe this is all a misconception on my part and the AML is very different than I perceive it to be, but if you want to sell the AML to students/ younger writers you might want to think about how to show that membership has obvious benefits (like networking opportunities with publishers? Maybe like a speed dating event between manuscripts and publishers?), how it is just as encouraging to the beginning writer as it is to the established writer, and be willing to spend time and energy training and teaching people.

  10. Darlene says:

    I’m really grateful for both of your posts, Jonathan and Laura. Yours made me laugh a little, Laura, because I am one of the least-”clout”-ed people I know. But I remember feeling that way, and being so flattered when Marilyn Brown asked me to come on staff to do secretarial work (and what kind of clout did that require? Really, they just needed a warm body). But the very fact that I felt so flattered shows that I also was intimidated by the entity that was AML, and felt unworthy.

    I don’t really know how to fix that problem; I think it maybe was a natural accessory to the high academic level of the criticism we were publishing in the Annuals then, and also (for me, anyway) it was those very celebrities whose names I mentioned whose participation made me think the organization was well, full of clout–but also which made me want to strive to be a part of it. We have made efforts to reach out to a broader community, but with mixed success. We really do depend on academics to provide the backbone of, at least, the continuity of the organization.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of just letting people start up chapters. If you were to start one up where you live, Laura, what do you think would be the benefit? Do you see yourself meeting with others for, say, book discussions?

    “Benefits of Membership” is something we’ve discussed often. You’ve got some great ideas, and we had lots, too, but all of them involved things to be done in the future. Since we are low on resources, it seems more important to focus right now on what we already do and how we can sustain the bare minimum of that. When we start talking about “what value can we add to the product to make people want to buy,” it brings up the question of what’s the point? It’s like a ridiculous cycle: “How can we get more people involved?” “Add content!” “But we need more people/resources in order to do anything more than we’re already doing!” It’s not our job to create more stuff to desire, just to get the word out about what we already have. (Of course, had we world enough and time, I’d love to see all sorts of things. An AML imprint, anyone?)

    • Katya says:

      “Since we are low on resources, it seems more important to focus right now on what we already do and how we can sustain the bare minimum of that.”

      I disagree. I think that one of the problems endemic to AML is that the organization is extremely resistant to innovation, with the excuse that “we don’t have enough people to do what we’re already doing.” However, this mindset also discourages younger participants who want to innovate and who have the energy to do so.

      So, why not let Laura (or anyone) organize a regional chapter of AML? I’m sure she understands that she’d have to do most of the work on her own, but she might have enough motivation and passion to go to great lengths to make it work. And if it fails, then it fails, but at least you tried something new and maybe got more people invested in the organization, as a whole.

  11. James Goldberg says:

    Has there been a blog post recently outlining what work AML needs done? It might be easier to apply for positions (or encourage friends to apply for positions) if there were assignment descriptions with specific duties and workloads listed. For instances, do you need slush piles readers for Irreantum? Session chairs to recruit presenters and then moderate sessions at the conference? Do you need additional blog posters? Grant writers? What?

    I served on the board for a while because Eric caught me at a conference and asked me to, then resigned when I thought I was moving out of state. I had tried to replace myself first, but I found it was a tough sell for three reasons:
    1) Board member at AML is a fairly open-ended commitment.
    2) Board member does not have a clear job code other than to come to meetings, which makes people suspicious it will either be unproductive or overwhelming.
    3) AML Board meetings are not exactly exciting places for the average new recruit.

    I will go on record now and say that I would be willing to volunteer either for some slush pile reading for Irreantum or to be a session chair at the Annual Meeting if those are things you want people for and could use me for.

    It might be easier for me to volunteer and recruit volunteers, though, if I knew exactly what introductory-level responsibilities you were looking to fill.

    • Wm Morris says:

      I’m sure it’s not feasible with current levels of staffing (the total is 41! Although the minimum number is 22, which was four less than the staffing at the time I created the proposal. I do realize that things have gone down since then), and I know several of you have already seen it, but I did put together a proposal for restructuring the AML.

      That proposal also assumed that the mission and core activities of the AML remain the same. It could be scaled down quite a bit, but the reason I point to it again is that I agree on the need for clearly defined areas of responsibility. I also color-coded certain positions that either required living along the Wasatch Front or could be done remotely, and even then, I erred on the side of being conservative.

      All of which is to say that James is quite correct. I’d also point out that Dialogue (which, granted, has a larger subscriber base and broader focus) has done a good job of recruiting staff and board members that are in their late twenties to late thirties.

  12. Darlene says:

    William, that link is not working for me (the AML restructuring proposal). (And, yes, I have a copy that you sent me.)

  13. Emily M. says:

    I attended the AML writing conference a few years ago at which the Segullah staff presented. I wasn’t on staff at the time. I got valuable insight on writing from Tessa Santiago, and was able to revise my essay well enough that Segullah published it. I also got great feedback on a poem I was writing from … um… was it Michael Collings? Does that sound right? It was a small conference, yes, but very valuable to me as a beginning-intermediate writer with good instincts but needing direction.

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