Therefore…what?

The final piece of the Mormon Lit Blitz went live today. Which leaves us a closed set of thirteen short reference points as a way to talk about Mormon Lit.

The question I am most interested in is: what are these pieces doing for their community of readers? In what ways can we safely say Mormons have benefited from these works?

My initial thought is that there are at least three functions these works have served:

1) Representation.

My mom likes Billy Collins poems one at a time, but has trouble making it through an entire book (or CD) at once. Why? Because as the collection goes on, she feels increasingly distant from the described life experience of the poet. He sorts of floats through his subtle reality–largely on his own, except for occasional references to the companionship of his wife or a serving of osso buco. The language is great, yes. There’s wit, and there’s beauty. But it gets old for my mom, whose life is teeming with relationships: with relatives she feels deeply connected to, with ward members whose lives have grown together with hers over the past eighteen years, with the bilingual children she works with, with a God who is extremely present in her life.

So Billy Collins is probably the superior writer–but Marilyn Nelson’s “In Bulk” gives my mom something the he can’t. And, for that matter, Jeanine Bee’s “Hearts of the Fathers” gives many of us something official church publications can’t–because even stories that highlight our religious values don’t necessarily tap into the zaniness of our lives the way she can.

Part of what any community, especially a marginalized or stigmatized community, wants out of stories is a chance to celebrate its own ways of life. The Lit Blitz has offered people that.

2) Concentration of Wisdom.

Every culture has a sort of amorphous heritage of wisdom and insights. But that wisdom can be difficult to access: perhaps because it’s decentralized, perhaps because it becomes cultural background noise and starts to sound cliche: I don’t know.

But careful use of language and literary structure can concentrate a community’s wisdom or insight and help it cut through the noise. Merrijane Rice’s “Stillborn” is a poem that does this for me. I mean, yes: I know the whole plan of salvation thing. I understand the concept that we’re all part of one body of Christ on both sides of the veil. But the careful structuring of evocative language in that piece makes the whole thing more moving and accessible to me in a way that is beyond what I could ever achieve by going through the old missionary flipcharts again. The poet, you could say, can bring old prophetic insights to new life in a reader’s soul.

It seems like many people had a similar experience with Emily Harris Adams’ “Second Coming.” Again, the structure of the piece helps surprise us with an idea that’s as old, at least, as Enoch.

Literature doesn’t have to be preachy to function as a conduit for communal wisdom.

3) Creation of Conversational Space.

I shared Wm Morris’s “The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop” on the Facebook Wall of a missionary I’d trained. We talked a little about music and language, and how it felt right to him in the story that rhythm was the common thread between both. The story gave me opportunities to talk with other people about how spiritual experience can feel: Wm’s story actually served, I guess, to remind me how much difficulty I have describing that longing after a strong spiritual event has passed. But by showing me the gap in my own language, he’s also encouraged me (in the literal sense of lending me courage) to try to talk about it anyway.

Jeanna Mason Stay’s “No Substitute for Chocolate” is another case in point. It got people talking about Mother’s Day gifts, for sure, but also led to broader debates about how to negotiate the challenges of community: how do we misunderstand what other people need, and what can people on both sides of a misunderstanding do to improve the relationship? When is it best simply to accept in gratitude, and when and how is it best to speak up?

Technically speaking, of course, we could have all these same conversations anyway. But we typically don’t. And if we do, it seems like starting them in the emotionally multidimensional realm of literature makes for richer conversational space than just, say, throwing a question up on a blog.

But enough of what I think! Am I right? Am I wrong? Am I missing essential categories entirely? I didn’t even get around to the other seven pieces yet: how do they serve these functions or show that there are other important functions literature can serve in a community?

We’ve blitzed, and it’s been a lot of fun. But what exactly have we just done?

And when we start voting tomorrow, what characteristics do you think people will be voting for? Which functions of Mormon Lit expressed in these thirteen pieces do you think readers feel the deepest need for?

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17 Responses to Therefore…what?

  1. Jonathon says:

    Good questions, James. I’ll tell you what I’m intrigued by, given the flood of material coming off Peculiar Pages–Fob, Fire, and Monsters–and the broader exposure through blogs, Wilderness Interface Zone, and other spaces where literature by Mormons is being circulated. This: the literariness of Mormon letters. By that I mean our tendency to gravitate toward certain genres, but I also mean an apparent (and I’m new to the playground of Mormon letters, but not to literature, so perhaps this explains it) trend toward the privileging of the literary over the Mormon. Stuff can be suggestive rather than saccharine, aporetic rather than apologetic, etc. In short: good times.

    • James Goldberg says:

      Yeah. I guess the conversation I’d like to have is: is the literary part helping actual Mormons, or are we just doing it to feel cool and compliment ourselves on our craftsmanship?

      And if literary writing is useful to Mormons: how? How are we seeing it in these thirteen pieces?

      • Jonathon says:

        I think it can help. At MSH in May I’ll be talking about how we might navigate our commitments to craft and creed, especially when those commitments are in tension with each other. But literariness, whatever that is, seems to me to serve profundity, efficacy, clarity, and reach within and without the community.

        I’m thinking about that playground tease about having a friend who’s a girl–”a GIRLfriend.” I don’t know about you, but I want to be known, if I’m known, as a writer who’s mormon, and not a MORMON writer. Again, within and without the community.

        Why? Because not all my ideas are mormon-centric. Heaven knows the majority of my influences aren’t mormon at all. I want access to the whole playground, I guess. But then, like Chaucer traveling abroad, I can accumulate all kinds of other stuff that is both useful and beautiful and bring it home. Stuff like zombies.

      • Scott Hales says:

        When it comes to enriching Mormon culture, I think it is always helpful when we we strive not just to tell stories, but to make art out of our stories.

      • Marianne Hales Harding says:

        Well, since the craftsmanship is what makes the pieces more powerful, I’d say it is very important. I think most Mormons could get on board with the idea that delivering truth in the most effective way has a powerful effect individually and as a group. If we are using art to bring truth forward then it isn’t frivolous at all. It’s very useful. Even if our truth is very, very small, testifying of truth is inherently useful.

      • James Goldberg says:

        I think I’d rather be a MORMON writer than a Mormon WRITER within the community.
        Two reasons for this:
        1) Some writers seem to be OK with compromising Mormon resonance to feel more literary. Which is sad to me.
        2) There are probably about a million writers who are better than me. But perhaps only about a hundred Mormon writers. So when I’m writing within the community, it’s my Mormonness more than my writerness that’s a unique value. I should still be a good writer, yes, but my Mormonness should take precedence if it’s the main reason I’m worth readers’ attention.

        Now, when I write outside the community it’s different. Faith may inform my work, but my Mormonism isn’t typically integral to understanding my work. I’m happy to be just a writer to the outside.

        But honestly, I’m not that useful on the outside. I’ve published a strong piece of Western Jewish fiction, sure, and some of my recent Sci-Fi is OK. But neither Jewish Lit nor Sci-Fi needs me. Whereas Mormon Lit–well, I think it needs all of us. Or rather: I think lots of living, breathing Mormons are caught in tensions today that good Lit can speak to productively.

        • Jonathon says:

          I agree with what you’ve said (except the part about Jewish Lit and Sci-Fi not needing you). About the tensions, I mean, and literature being a productive space for working through those tensions. But we are also humans, and so much of what we experience is generally tied to our humanness that writers of any persuasion or no persuasion at all are needed to cast about. I just don’t see how “literariness” is itself a problem or requires compromise of the sort you’re intimating here. Vulgarity? Sexuality? Violence? These things can be explored, productively, without looking or sounding like the usual treatments: sensational, or whatever.

          I’m glossing a lot here, so let me say this: I wouldn’t be the writer I am without my mormonness, but in my case, seeing some reductive and reflexive tendencies in my early years, noting that my commitment to faith was overwhelming my artistry, and thus diminishing, as Marianne suggests above, its efficacy and reach, I stopped for a long time, and just studied at the feet of masters. Now that I’m back into it, I think I’m way better than I was. And I think some of my stuff appeals to both LDS and non-LDS audiences for the same reasons. Most of my stuff is not recognizably LDS, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. Babel and my new zombie piece are, I think, examples. But perceptive mormon readers find things there that others won’t, and that’s okay.

          That said, I laughed to the point of tears several times reading Monsters, because there was so much that only a mormon would get. There’s a need for that, too.

          • I agree that there it’s not necessary for there to be a choice between craft and community. Writing better serves readers in the community better.

            But when we emphasize craft over community, I think sad things can happen. As Artistic Director of New Play Project, I read many plays that had solid dialogue and strong dramatic structure but seemed to feel that in order to fit into the tradition of artist-as-social-critic, they had to disrespect their community. Sad.

            Last semester, I had a student working on a long poem that was a dialogue between Jesus and Satan on the temple top. The central tension was: are human beings really worth saving? I thought he was doing cool stuff. So did he, until I had a faculty member visit for a day and work with my poets.

            I don’t know what the faculty member said, but what my student heard was that Mormon writing is almost inevitably didactic and therefore not literary. Luckily, my student came to my office with his discouragement instead of just giving up.

            At that point, I have a choice of emphasis. I can say: yeah, Mormon writing is often didactic, so go read Billy Collins or Gertrude Stein instead and then come up with something new. Or I can say: what you’re doing is important. And you can say it in a way that will help readers’ wrestle with the tension between man’s divine potential and nothingness that fascinates you in the Book of Moses.

            Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a tiny professor on one shoulder and my grandma on the other. And the professor wants me to do something that will fit nicely into a theory class or have a shot at the Paris Review. Whereas my grandma wants me to write something that will speak to our way of seeing the world, that will pass the wisdom of our tribe down among my cousins.

            I appreciate a lot of what professors taught me, but when I’m writing for the community–for my cousins–I need to know when to tell the professor to shut up. When craft means reaching my cousins better, I’m all for craft. But when emphasizing craft over community means doing something that’s nominally for my cousins but really for my professor, count me out.

            Am I insane to think this happens? That we sometimes use the excuse of craft to maximize sophistication instead of impact?

  2. Wm says:

    I don’t know that the adjective literary is all that useful for the purposes of this discussion. Literary captures such a wide range of Mormon experiences and attitudes and positioning in relation to the LDS Church. And I’d say that none of the Mormon Lit Blitz entries are aggressively literary either in form or in wanting to carve out a space outside of the Mormon mainstream.

    • Jonathon says:

      In this competition? Sure. But then the terms of the competition pre-selected mormony entries. Again, Fob, Fire, and Monsters are recent examples of stuff that pushes boundaries of both the mormon and the literary.

  3. Jeanine Bee says:

    As someone who hasn’t really read any Mormon lit since “Tennis Shoes among the Nephites,” I really enjoyed this contest. I think we’ve done a great thing. At the very least, this contest has helped to take away some the skepticism I’ve retained about Mormon media since the Mormon “Pride and Prejudice” movie.

    One of the reasons I haven’t really enjoyed Mormon lit (or Christian lit, for that matter) in the past is because I hadn’t read anything that resonated with me in such a way that I not only bought it, but I loaned it out to my friends and family, and read it again and again. I needed to find something that spoke to me on such a human level that I simply had to reread it. I wanted meaty truth, not melt-away marshmallows. And I really do believe that this contest brought out some of that meat. So not only has this contest introduced the world to some new authors, but it has introduced Mormon lit to some new readers. Maybe even reactivated some, like me.

    Also, I noticed that some of my non-member friends were reading and commenting these finalists. This contest may have been a small foray into the mainstream readership. Mormon lit need not be exclusive to Mormons, but can apply to humanity overall, and even introduce some to a culture and belief-system that they may not have understood before.

    • James Goldberg says:

      Jeanine,

      That last function–introducing Mormon culture/values/beliefs to others–is one I didn’t talk about in my post.

      I certainly think it would be cool if everyone who got a pass-along card also got to read “Hearts of the Fathers.” :)

      Which pieces would you say do a good job of making Mormonism accessible to others? How?

      • Jeanine Bee says:

        In particular, I had a few non-Mormon friends respond to “Stillborn,” and I know for certain that a few others read “In Bulk.” It’s interesting to me that many people who claim other beliefs (in religions or lack-thereof) agree with a lot of our doctrines when they don’t realize they’re being exposed to them (e.g. premortal life, spirit living after death, purpose in life, all found in “Stillborn”).

        • Merrijane says:

          Yes! On my mission I found that people believe whatever feels right to them no matter what their religions teach. Premortal life is a big one that a lot of people embrace. Families being together as a unit in the next life is another. Also, although I try to write as artfully as possible, I try not to sublimate my beliefs to my desire to impress. I don’t want to be preachy, but I cannot divorce what I believe from what I write. They go naturally together.

  4. Jonathon says:

    James, I see what you’re worried over. I guess my particular way of coming at this–deferring the creative aspect of that work (but not the theoretical, incidentally, just not about Mormon texts, etc, but highly informed by the tensions I was dealing with in grad school and beyond) until I was ready to do it well, and secondarily the fact that not everything I write is “LDS”–but that for me that doesn’t mean I’ve compromised values or standards or belief at all. In short, I don’t think it has to. Your student being told LDS is usually didactic is, well, has been true. But that doesn’t mean he ought to give it up by any means. But he ought not to do it the way others have if he hopes to reach a larger audience.

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