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:
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?