Mormon LitCrit: Do We Need New Mormon Literary Theory?

“There is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it has mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once, deluding itself, too, in wanting to look at the text without touching it, without laying a hand on the ‘object,’ without risking—which is the only chance of entering into the game, by getting a few fingers caught—in the addition of some new thread.”—Jacques Derrida, Plato’s Pharmacy

In literary studies, the word “theory” usually functions in one of two ways. First, it suggests a collective of ideas that have contributed—whether we realize it or not—to how we think about the world. For students, this is the kind of theory that either makes them groan or get all intellectually giddy inside. It goes by names like “poststructuralist” or “queer” or “feminist” or “postcolonial.” Rarely does anyone feel lukewarm about this kind of theory.1

The other kind of theory has to do with making an informed guess about how something functions or ought to function.2 This is like the kind of theory TV shows like Lost inspire, but on an arguably more sophisticated level.3 Scholars sometimes associate this kind of theory with methodology—which can make things confusing when the methodology goes by the same name as the collective of ideas.4

Mormon literary studies, of course, have already produced both types of theory.5 Our friends at Ships of Hagoth, in fact, have linked the best-known examples of these texts to their website, which itself is a kind of Mormon theory mill-in-the-making, but others exist buried deep in the digital archives of Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies, and blogs like this one, A Motley Vision, and probably even By Common Consent, Feminist Mormon Housewives, and Times and Seasons.6 The undigitized archives of Irreantum also likely contain theory, as do books like Tending the Garden and Marden J. Clark’s Liberating Form, which I recently picked up at Deseret Industries for two dollars.

As theory, these texts either contribute to the way we think about the world—particularly the Mormon world—or suggest ways to A) read and interpret Mormon literature7 or B) use Mormonism to read and interpret the world and its culture.8 Embedded in this project, I would add, are also attempts to define “Mormonism” and “Mormon literature.”9 Again, to a certain extent, we see this sort of thing happening—along with the application of non-Mormon theory to Mormon literature—in places like A Motley Vision, Ships of Hagoth, and here, although I occasionally sense we feel some hostility toward theory—or, at least, the idea of it.10

What I really want to get at today, though, is not so much how we feel about theory and the myriad critical methodologies currently used and abused in literary analysis, but rather our relationship with our own theory. Admittedly, I haven’t read the whole of the Mormon theory canon, although I’ve read or skimmed much of the deliberately literary-centric stuff. Nor have I been the best about applying it to my own criticism of Mormon literature in any meaningful way. The same, I expect, is true for most of us who consider ourselves critics. We’ve read the essays, maybe quoted from them, but haven’t really applied them to anyone’s satisfaction.

Why is that? First, while I think we’re doing a lot of great informal criticism online,11 I don’t think we’re doing much to polish it up and take it to the next levels—whatever the “next levels” might be.12 Second, I wonder if we aren’t due for a new batch of Mormon literary theory —new ideas and methodologies to replace or update those proposed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.13 I mean, it may be that we’re not using what we already have because what we already have does not speak to our times, our Mormonism, and even our Mormon literature anymore. Obviously, Orson F. Whitney’s “Home Literature,” with its fusion of literature and evangelism, seems a little outdated, but what about Richard Cracroft’s Mantic/Sophic approach outlined in “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice”? It’s an excellent, foundational essay with interesting ideas, but does it take us in a direction we want to go in 2012?

More importantly—possibly—does it give a non-Mormon critic who is interested in doing scholarship on Mormon literature an adequate inroad? Or does it come off as too insular, too much like a Mormon talking to other Mormons?

Having never been a non-Mormon scholar, I can’t say. But I do think we ought to be keeping our Gentile brothers and sisters in mind as we pave the way for the next twenty years of Mormon literary studies. Personally, I think we owe a nice, up-to-date body of literary theory to anyone who wants to write about Mormon literature—something these scholars can work with as they keep Mormon literary studies alive.14

Finally, to stir things up a bit, I’d like to end with my thoughts on the future of Mormon literary theory:


  1. Mormon literary theory should not try to be totalizing in its approach to theorizing Mormon literature.16
  2. Mormon literary theory, as well as the criticism it fosters, should encourage the development of other Mormon literary theories.
  3. Mormon literary theory should enrich our understanding of old and new Mormon literary texts.
  4. Mormon literary theory should not limit Mormon literary criticism to the tiresome task of uncovering of the good, the virtuous, the transcendent, the beautiful, the true, etc.17
  5. Mormon literary theory should not be based on essentialist notions about Mormon identity.18
  6. Mormon literary theory should be aware of and make creative use of Mormon history and thought.
  7. Mormon literary theory should not presume to have the Final Answer for the world’s epistemological debates.19
  8. Mormon literary theory will inevitably be influenced by ideas outside of Mormonism.
  9. Mormon literary theory should be as much for Mormon as non-Mormon critics of Mormon literature.
  10. Mormon literary theory, as a largely secular endeavor, should not be grounded necessarily in revealed truth.20

I list these commandments here as an invitation to debate them, of course, but also as an incentive and a plea to pick up individual Mormon creative works and begin the process of Mormon literary criticism. Let’s read, let’s write, let’s theorize, let’s interpret. And, while we do so, let’s not forget these words from Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction”:

“Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of genius, are not times of development, are times possibly even, a little, of dulness. The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory, too, is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter without the former, I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion, formulation, these things are fertilizing when they are frank and sincere.



[1] I should take that back. Plenty of people love this kind of theory. You can recognize them by their hair shirts and cilices.

[2] I’ll note here that Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction has helped me think through these distinctions. In my experience, the word “theory” is often tossed around without much effort to clarify its ambiguity. You’ll see in this post that I eventually give up trying as well.

[3] As a devotee of American cultural studies with anti-elitist predilections, I’m already arguing with myself about this statement.

[4] To add a little more confusion to the mix, this kind of theory can also be considered the other kind of theory if it comes from France or proves even the slightest bit influential.

[5] I debated calling the fusion of both kinds of theory “t(t)heory,” but I didn’t want people thinking I was trying to be pretentious.

[6] I say “probably” because I’m not an avid reader of any of these blogs, but I’m familiar enough with them to know that theoretical writing happens on them that could be applied to literary analysis.

[7] I’m tempted to add the words “and culture” here, but I’ll refrain (and likely regret it later).

[8] Some even do both.

[9] See Michael Austin’s “How to Be a Mormo-American; Or, the Function of Mormon Criticism at the Present Time” for what is likely the best-known and most thorough attempt.

[10] Here’s I’m assuming that we ought to, which is probably a questionable enough assumption for another post. My belief, however, which is forming as I write this, is that theory is an inevitable part of criticism—that even when we don’t think we’re using it, we’re using it, because we have acquired it unconsciously—maybe in high school or college or on “the streets”—and have become so used to it that it’s now second nature. Think about it: how much of your own analytic acts are founded in the close reading strategies of formalism, the New Criticism of the 1930s and 40s? That New Critical methodology is informed by a body of theory. Anyway…feel free to object to this assumption. I’m sure there is at least one “born critic” out there.

[11] I had a student this past quarter quote an interview from A Motley Vision in her term paper on Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving.”

[12] Personally, I would like to see more literary criticism in Irreantum, Dialogue, BYU Studies, Sunstone, and the rest. I’m sure the editors would as well.

[13] It seems to me James Goldberg’s “Wrestling with God: Invoking Scriptural Mythos and Language in LDS Literary Works” (Irreantum13.1, 71-82) is already a fine addition to this new batch of theory.

[14] I could, out of respect for Kevin Costner, insert a nice “If you build it [i.e. Mormon literary theory], they will come.” But I don’t want to alienate anyone with a reference to a PG rated film.

[15] I’m still shopping around for a catchy name for this new body of theory. Please send suggestions to scotthales80 at gmail dot com. I’ve never been very good at coining literary terms.

[16] I see Mormon literary theory taking the shopping mall rather than the Wal-Mart approach to hermeneutics.

[17] I would also ban food or agricultural metaphors from future Mormon literary theory.

[18] Nor should it get caught up on trying to define “Mormon.” Call it “Mormon” and be done!

[19] Mormon literary theory, after all, is not Mormon doctrine. Conflate the two at your own risk.

[20] At the same time, of course, Mormon literary theories can originate in revealed truth. There’s possibly no way even to avoid it.

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33 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Do We Need New Mormon Literary Theory?

  1. Wm says:

    Agreed on “Wrestling with God”.

    Mostly agreed on the ten commandments.

    One thing that I think we do need to account for, esp. with certain works, is situation of and reception of an individual work within the fields of Utah Mormon culture, Mormon publishing, institutional LDS discourse, and the broader streams of American literary culture.

    • Scott Hales says:

      Feel free to share your disagreements with the 10 Commandments. I’d like to hear your thoughts on them.

      • Wm says:

        Okay, let’s start with #4:

        I know that you’re responding to certain specific strains of Mormon literary criticism, but I would strike the word “tiresome”. I think the problem is less the attempt and more that the attempts need to bring a more fully developed aesthetic theory to the table. I also think that there is value in making aesthetic-moral judgments about a work of art.

        I do agree with your footnote, though. That’s why I felt like Slowly Flowering was an apt name for my paper.

      • Wm says:

        Re #1:

        I recognize that non-totalizing theories are no longer in fashion, but I wouldn’t ban them outright. The attempts to create such theories sometimes end up being interesting and creating regimes that we can then deconstruct/react to/bounce off of.

        I’d like to see some audacity creep into Mormon literary criticism.

    • Dennis says:

      Okay, so what’s the real reference for “Wrestling with God”? My copy of “(Irreantum 12.1, 71-82)” contains part of Lon Young’s story “The man and his wife.” If either you, Wm, or you, Scott, could supply it, I would be much obliged.

      • Scott Hales says:

        My bad. It’s Volume 13.1.

        • Dennis says:

          Okay, I should have checked that. And I’ll read the article, as soon as I find my copy of it. And, in the same, if not a jugular, vein, I have roughed in my first approximation at “in verse #18,” a post I had to re-write to accomodate your challenge.

  2. Kristine says:

    Should Mormon theory help us understand non-Mormon literature? That is, are there specifically Mormon ideas through which we might think productively about other methods of criticism or other literatures?

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think the short answer to this question is “yes.” And I think most of us–in informal ways–apply Mormon theory (or Mormon ideas) to the non-Mormon texts we come across. (Most of us probably have a story, for instance, of someone using, say, “The Princess Bride” or “Star Wars” to articulate gospel principles, which is a way to apply Mormon ideas to other texts.) Whether or not this is being done productively in any formal way, I don’t know, although I vaguely remember coming across a blog called something like “The Mormon Review” that was designed to encourage the kind of intellectual exchange you’re referring to. “Ships of Hagoth,” also, has examples of similar attempts on their site.

      What I would like to do at some point in my life–and this is only somewhat related–is take a look through American fiction between 1850 and 1900 and look for ways non-Mormon authors overtly or covertly engaged the “Mormon Question,” which was a major part of the national dialogue at the time. I would like to investigate, for example, whether or not Hawthorne had Mormonism in the back of his mind in 1852 when he referred to a cluster of branches as a “[p]erfectly inextricable knot of polygamy” in “The Blithedale Romance.” I think that is a largely uninvestigated area in literary and Mormon studies, and a potential meeting ground of Mormon ideas and non-Mormon texts.

      Of course, not’s not quite the kind of application we’re talking about, but it is not too off topic. One question we might ask is whether or not the application of Mormon ideas to seemingly unrelated non-Mormon texts would likely be received by non-Mormon scholars. Personally, I think that the application of feminist theory and queer theory to seemingly unrelated texts shows that the application of Mormon texts is likewise possible.

      Also, one question we should ask is what “specifically Mormon ideas” could be applied productively to Mormon texts?

      • C. M. Malm says:

        I guess the sort of theory that interests me most here is specifically theory that uses the Mormon worldview to analyze non-Mormon texts…something that I think a lot of us do (subconsciously, at least) anyway. It always fascinates me to find what I think of as uniquely Mormon ideas in the writing of non-Mormon authors (I’m thinking particularly of the example of progression to godhood in Patricia McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy). I also find myself wondering whether Mormon ideas have permeated American culture in ways that neither Mormons or non-Mormons are fully aware of (in this case I’m thinking particularly of The Magic of Recluse by L.E. Modesitt, a non-Mormon writer who has lived much of his life in Utah; I would have sworn, when I initially read the book, that the author must be Mormon).

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Kristine raises an interesting question. For the most part, Scott, you seem to be talking about theorizing Mormon literature. But what about theoretical approach(es) to literature in general that are informed by Mormon ideas?

    And by the way, I agree completely on the need not to conflate Mormon literary theory with Mormon doctrine. Some of the uglier encounters I’ve witnessed within the Mormon literary community (particularly in the BYU English department) were based on assumptions that certain critical theories were inherently better aligned with gospel truth than others. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” cannot and should not translate to “one true literary theory.”

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Perhaps the most basic question any Mormon literary theory of type I’m talking about can ask is: “What role does literature play in the quest to achieve our divine nature?” Inevitably, it seems to me, a Mormon approach to this question would wind up both embracing and rejecting many of the ideas that have been advanced over the centuries as part of the defense of poetry. (And different Mormons would inevitably also have different answers to this question — not seeking for canonicity here!)

  4. Tyler says:

    Several things, Scott:

    First, here’s a link to the online version of Tending the Garden, y’know, just in case somebody can’t track down a copy at their local D.I.

    Second, in your footnotes you suggest that the next level for much of the informal Mormon lit crit that takes place online is for it to be polished and published in the Mormon lit mags. But what about beyond that? How and where can Mormon literary critics/theorists add Mormon criticism and theories to broader literary conversations (especially since these periodicals have a relatively small audience of mostly Mormon readers)? And by extension, as Kristine brings up, what might Mormon literary critics/theorists uniquely add to those conversations?

    Third, the definite article on your list of commandments seems to work against the first item on that list. “The Ten Commandments of Mormon Literary Theory” feels much more totalizing and prescriptive to me than just “Ten Commandments of Mormon Literary Theory,” which leaves room for expansion and debate. Just an observation.

    Fourth, a question that came to mind as I’ve thought about your post: should Mormon lit crit/theory be tied to the Mormon lifeworld and make use of uniquely Mormon metaphors (as Cracroft suggests it ought to)?

    Fifth, you state in commandment five that Mormon literary theory should avoid essentializing notions of Mormon identity, then you qualify that idea in your footnotes by suggesting that that doesn’t mean we should get “caught up on trying to define ‘Mormon.’” Then you emphatically say, “Call it ‘Mormon’ and be done!” But earlier in your post you wonder over whether earlier versions of Mormon lit crit/theory should be updated because the Mormonism of early critics isn’t necessarily the same as “our Mormonism.” So who’s definition of Mormoness does “our Mormonism,” does your “call it ‘Mormon’” privilege?

    • Scott Hales says:

      Ah…what’s a little theory without a few inconsistencies and contradictions!

      You make a lot of good point, Tyler.

      First, thanks for the link to “Tending the Garden.” I had forgotten that it is online–which is funny since I spent five minutes looking–unsuccessfully–for my copy.

      Second, I don’t think we should be limited to Mormon journals, although you’re right to point out that they are a good place to start. When I wrote the post, I had in mind conferences and journals–published by Mormons and non-Mormons. I’ve had a lot of positive experiences with presenting Mormon papers at non-Mormon conferences, but I’m yet to publishing anything about Mormon literature in a non-Mormon journal. It’s a goal I have for the next couple of years. I hesitate, however, to name journals as the “next step” only because I think we need to investigate all options.

      Third…ah…grammatical technicality–but I see your point. When I revise it for future use I’ll consider revising the offending “the.” I can see you look at writing with a poet’s eye for superfluous definite articles.

      Fourth, good question. Any takers?

      Fifth, it’s not really my intention to privilege one “Mormonism” over another, but rather to suggest that we ought to keep it open–and up-to-date. That’s really what I mean, I think, with a phrase like “our Mormonism”–especially in respect to how Cracroft tries to define it narrowly in his essay.

      Also, I see the attempt to define “Mormon” as one of those discussions that never seems to find any sort of conclusion. I feel it distracts from more important debates. It’s another problem I have with the Cracroft-Jorgensen debate. I prefer to keep definitions as open as possible.

      • Wm says:

        Re #5

        Tyler makes a good point. I mostly agree with your restating of point #5 here in the comments. But at the same time, I do think that we can’t escape from the fact that, unlike many other ethnic identities, there is a core institution and set of practices that constitute a “strong” Mormon identity. Now, of course, I recognize and generally supportion the notion that the term Mormon shouldn’t and can’t be applied only to the LDS Church. And my knee-jerk reaction is to support not-essentializing.

        But I also think it’s possible that some theoretical work may need to account for such essentializing and even engage in it because the work or works or theories in question are engaged with that question.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I think maybe the way to get around the identity problem is to think of “experience” rather than “identity,” which I think comes close to meaning the same thing without having to work around the problems with essentialism. I also think we shouldn’t discredit the power of self-identification–the act of declaring oneself Mormon–as a determining factor for what is “Mormon,” even if that opens up additional problems.

          Our dilemma, I guess, is that the whole notion of Mormon literature orbits around a the idea that there is, in fact, a group of people called “Mormons” who write literature. Rejecting essentialism forces us to think about the group and group cohesion without using terms like “identity” in any way that suggests core attributes. Frankly, I’m at a point now where I’m okay if such-and-such or so-and-so wants to be declared “Mormon” even if I disagree personally (and privately) with that declaration. I don’t, in other words, see much use for being an identity snob in the sphere of academic inquiry.

          Also, our dilemma is that Mormon doctrine asserts that some essential, innate traits exist. Which is among the reasons why I’m still not wholly satisfied with any of the ideas I’ve put forth in this comment.

  5. Mark Penny says:

    This is a long discussion and I’d like to read every line, but my workout is calling and I have a class two hours from now, so I’ll toss in my two penneth and go (to come back later when I can revel). Forgive me if I’m repeating something someone else has said.

    As a Mormon poet/storyteller/thinker/blogger/would-be novelist and so on, whether I’m writing for Zion or Babylon, so to speak, I feel the need for something like a theory to guide my use of language, my choice of subjects and themes, and my development of images. This sentence from Double Lyric: Divisiveness and Communal Creativity in Recent English Poetry by Merle E. Brown struck me as applying to the dilemma Mormon writers often face, especial, forgive me, Mormon secular intellectuals:

    What at first seems to be irresoluteness may turn out to be a divisiveness that results from the refusal to falsify by simplification.

    The context, if I’m reading the book right, is the tendency of poets like Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, Jon Silkin, Thom Gunn and Charles Tomlinson (mostly unknown to me until I picked up this book at the library) to infuse their work with at least to points of view. The specifics of that duality, or double lyricism, as Brown calls it, differ, I think, from ours, but the fact is that any devout Mormon thinker whose sources are not limited to the ward library is caught between the desire, hope, faith and love which make his or her religion so appealing and the perceptible realities (and theories thereof) which make belief feel like a liability. We walk between devotion and doubt. The beautiful thing is that the result is tension, which is what every good guitar string needs to produce music.

    I’m looking for (and looking to provide) a way of dealing with that tension that is true to both sides of the road, that lets me build Zion without blinders.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Double Lyric: Divisiveness and Communal Creativity in Recent English Poetry


      two points of view

    • Wm says:

      So are you saying that we are a People of Paradox, Mark?


      And that makes me think that another commandement should be:

      Mormon literary theory should take into account the experience of bi-/multi-culturalism that many/most of the practitioners of Mormon narrative art experience.

      • Mark Penny says:

        It’s not a given. Kachow.

        Yes, but only for French-speaking saints. (Let’s see who gets that little shibboleth.)

        Speaking of shibboleths, I think a crucial issue is what makes literature Mormon. I may be carrying coals to Newcastle here, but I do think there’s a difference between being a Mormon artist of any kind (in the sense of a Mormon who happens to do art and whose art is no more strongly influenced by the fact of the artist’s being a Mormon than, say, the work of a dentist might be affected by the fact that the dentist is a Mormon) and doing art that is demonstrably Mormon in some way. In the case of Orson Scott Card, for example, we can say that, yes, the artist is Mormon and that, yes, certain of his works are demonstrably Mormon, but we doubt we would say that all of his works are Mormon. The same could be said of me. Now that I think of it, nothing I’ve published on WIZ or in the June issue of Sunstone or submitted to Dialogue, Abandoned Towers or Analog is demonstrably Mormon. If you didn’t know the artist was Mormon, you probably wouldn’t even think to look for signs of Mormonism in those pieces. Should those poems be studied as Mormon art?

        What about Twilight? Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism may have put constraints on certain aspects of the language and action, there may be certain boundaries and detours characteristic of Mormon “secular” authors (and these may be worth studying in themselves), but if you weren’t told Sister Meyer was LDS, you wouldn’t think to look for Mormon connections in the books—and they wouldn’t jump out at you if they existed. Of course, if I read the issue of Sunstone dedicated to Mormonism’s second-most famous literary product, I might see it differently, but I did read all the books and I didn’t see a single peculiarity that would mark them “A Mormon made this.”

        • Mark Penny says:

          Dang it, William. I was going to read through the rest of the discussion over lunch, but you called me out and now I have to finish grading student compositions. I’d curse you, but I’m a Mormon artist. We don’t do that, do we?

          Is this a Mormon comment?

        • Mark Penny says:

          I doubt we would

  6. Mark Penny says:

    Despite William the Squirrel’s running across the screen while I was eating lunch and trying to catch up on this discussion, I have caught up—sort of.

    Can we change “commandments of” to “suggestions for”? Can we also assume, as I think someone suggested up top, that there could be any number of theories that engage Mormon literature? Can we also assume, as most of us probably already do, that there are and will be various, diverse and even divergent schools of Mormon literature? And can we go further and assume, with a nod to James Goldberg’s upcoming Four Centuries of Mormon Literature competition (which I intend to win handily in all categories—if I can stop watching squirrels), that further along in this century and the next, there will probably be Mormon sects (feminist and queer come to mind) which will have much in common with “mainstream” Mormonism despite divergence on certain principles or traditions (there’s some fodder for the 22C section of the competition) and will probably seek to be included in the exchange?

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    I agree that essentialism is fraught with problems. However, one problem with rejecting it is that in a practical way, it’s hard — or perhaps impossible — to address the question of whether a work of literature accurately reflects Mormon experience without resorting to some kind of essentialism. And a Mormon literary criticism/theory that doesn’t provide tools for talking about that question is a pretty flabby one, in my view — and one that won’t seem terribly relevant to most Mormon readers, since this is (I think) the first question such readers ask of Mormon literature: Does I agree that this accurately reflect who I am as a Mormon, and/or who my fellow ward/family members/pioneer forebears are as Mormons?

    I like the notion of multiple Mormon identities, and I think some variation on that is probably necessary for the serious student of Mormon literature. On the other hand, such an approach could easily be seen as an act of hostile appropriation by those who feel that “Mormon” properly belongs only to those who accept certain core doctrines, practices, and membership requirements. We should be cautious about any theory of Mormon literature that has the potential of alienating most real live Mormons.

  8. I’m wondering why we need to try to put together an AML annual meeting when there are “papers” and/or “presentations” (with attending discussion) like this on the AML blog.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I can see where you’re coming from on this one, although I think the annual meeting provides an important opportunity for scholars to meet and discuss Mormon literature face to face. Plus, I’d hate to lose the only professional conference I know of specifically dedicated to Mormon literature.

  9. Wm says:

    Plus some of us aren’t able to attend the annual meetings.

  10. Stephen Carter says:

    An issue of Sunstone is in the works that will feature some kick-posterior fiction and an essay or two on Mormon lit. If you’re feeling up to it, Scott, grease those cogitative cogs and send me a fresh new Mo Lit theory that will set the BYUI English department abuzz for months.

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