In Defense of Grumpiness: A Review of “Brothers,” “Quietly,” and A Roof Overhead

Update 18 Aug 2012: In the comments, Mahonri Stewart responds to my critiques of his piece. In the interest of fairness, I encourage anyone who reads this review to also take a look at his comments. I happen to agree with his argument that my use of the term “blood libel” is excessive and unfair. It fits the character of the grumpy narrator of this review but is too exaggerated and charged to be helpful in discussing the structure of the play.

On A Motley Vision in May and again in July, I took issue with three works others had praised: Levi Peterson’s “Brothers,” Todd Robert Petersen’s “Quietly,” and Mahonri Stewart’s A Roof Overhead. Many readers were surprised by my sudden grumpiness. Some asked if I held a problematic aesthetic that shut out a variety of Mormon voices. Some pointed out that other readers hadn’t complained about the issues I brought up, or diplomatically suggested our differences were simple matters of personal taste.

Looking back on those brief exchanges, I’ve felt a little like a self-appointed referee who walks into the middle of a pick-up game of basketball. Others aren’t bothered if a writer sneaks a quick elbow or double-dribbles because at least he’s playing the literary Mormon game. So when I blow my whistle and start to crack open a rulebook, of course people are going to use the lack of blood to show there’s been no foul, or else wonder whether too much whistling is going to cramp the players’ style. And hey, if it’s a pickup game—they’re right. I should shut up and get off the playground.

But I don’t think most of us want Mormon Literature to be a playground game. I think we want to take craft seriously and take our role in society seriously—and that means we have to acknowledge that there are about a million things that can go wrong aesthetically or ethically with a piece. So unless Mormon writers are gods, there ought to be at least a few things in every story that we can and should call out and comment on.

Playing referee for literature is complicated, of course, by the absence of absolute rules. There’s no single way to write effectively or ethically—and it’s a mistake to criticize an author for failing to write a kind of story he or she never set out to write in the first place. But even in the absence of absolutes, I think literature has plenty of conditional rules which can be articulated and used to evaluate a work. For instance: if the story expects us to sympathize with a character, the story must give the audience some grounds for sympathy. Or: if the story wants to excite us with its action, we ought to have some understanding of what’s at stake.

Using these conditional rules, critics can reach some dual-possibility conclusions. For instance, a story with an unlikable protagonist either a) meant to create a difficult reader-protagonist relationship, or else b) failed to garner sympathy for its protagonist.

The conditional rule I’d like to focus in this review is as follows: If a work wants to be treated as realistic fiction, it ought to be generally realistic.

I cannot say for sure whether the three stories in question a) failed to consistently signal a strategy other than realism or else b) effectively signaled a literary strategy of realism, but failed to deliver what they’d promised. But I think I can effectively argue that all three of the stories fail to follow this fairly basic conditional rule.

To return to my basketball metaphor, I will say that you can’t suit up as a Chicago Bull and then play like a Harlem Globetrotter. Both playing styles are legitimate modes of audience engagement, but they just don’t work according to the same expectations and rules.

Take the following examples as evidence. Since this is a post-game analysis rather than a preview, I will assume reader familiarity with the works in question.

 Levi Peterson sneaks an elbow in “Brothers”

In “Brothers,” Levi Peterson chooses two protagonists who, as Scott Hales has argued, are representatives for the tension between radical free agency and obedience to authority in Mormon thought. But Peterson sends some mixed signals as to what his literary strategy for handling them is: does the story want to use satirical hyperbole to poke fun at the extremes the ideologies can be taken to, or does it want to use contemporary realism to show readers how these competing emphases divide real families? I don’t think a writer can have it both ways: we don’t weep when Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff, and we don’t laugh out loud when Lear’s greedy daughters ruin him.

If we choose to treat “Brothers” as satirical hyperbole, the opening sequences support our reading. But once the brothers leave Salt Lake City, the early tonal levity disappears and the bulk of the piece would fail because it simply isn’t funny.

The more generous option is to read the story as realistic fiction. While the opening sequences are certainly playful, they don’t demand that the reader take a satirical view of the characters—we can see the former Mormon Mitch, for instance, as a witty person rather than a caricature of radical freedom. And through the bulk of the story, which is focused on the brothers’ trip and the comeback climb itself, a reading as realistic fiction gives us permission to care about the feelings and future of the brothers. Reading the piece as realistic fiction, we can be moved by the risks the characters take for each other at the conclusion, rather than treating their behavior as absurd and laughable.

But individual passages of the story don’t hold up well as realistic fiction, because Peterson assigns thoughts and actions to the devout Mormon brother, Bernie, which are not fair representations of what a real devout Mormon would typically think or do. This is a craft problem—Peterson has failed to sketch his character well. But it’s also an ethical problem—if readers pick up the signals to treat the story as realistic fiction, Peterson has also perpetuated unfair stereotypes about religious Mormons.

My main critique of “Brothers” is not that it takes jabs at the perceived foibles of religious Mormons. In fact, if Mitch didn’t take a few jabs at Mormonism, at least in his thoughts, Peterson would have failed to plausibly portray his character. But in several instances, Peterson cheats by taking jabs at Mormonism in the point of view of an omniscient narrator or even from Bernie’s point of view. This point of view problem is why I say Levi Peterson is “sneaking elbows”—he gives an unfair degree of credibility to unfair stereotypes by making them objective truth or part of the internal lives of the religious rather than a freedom-loving brother’s critiques of his rule-oriented brother’s lifestyle.

I will offer two representative examples, one from the semi-satirical opening sequences and one from the clearly realistic comeback climb narrative.

In my first example, Mitch and Jan have just arrived in Salt Lake City so that Bernie can leave to accompany Mitch on a climb. We appear to start this paragraph in Mitch’s point of view as we are told that “Bernie and Carol took them in, Carol with more enthusiasm with Bernie. Obviously, Jan and Carol had already struck up a warm friendship over the phone.” Because of the word “obviously,” we can tell we’re not in the perspective of the omniscient narrator, who wouldn’t be having the experience of perception and surmise that word implies. While it is possible that we’re in Bernie’s perspective and he’s paying attention to his own reactions and the women’s relationship rather than to his brother, the focus and sentiments sound more like Mitch’s perspective.

But because Peterson has previously switched point of view within a paragraph, we can’t be sure which point of view we’re in a few sentences later when Bernie assures Jan he’ll take care of Mitch and then falls “into a sullen resignation because, being a total Mormon, he knew he’d have to honor his promise.” Is it Mitch, Bernie, or the narrator who both thinks of Bernie as a “total Mormon” and is positive he’ll keep promises? This is particularly difficult to determine since the next two sentences are clearly not in Mitch’s perspective:

As for Carol, she had been on a spiritual high for days, marveling over the prospect of Bernie being the instrumentality by which his lapsed brother might be induced to rejoin the church and marry his gentile girlfriend and of course convert her [...] Glowing with good will, she had let Bernie have sex every night during the past week, a frequency unheard of since the early years of their marriage.

With a simple “probably” inserted after the first “she” in each sentence, we could remain in Mitch’s perspective, and read this as his condescending suppositions about how the couple was responding to his visit after so many years. But as it stands, we can’t reasonably read these lines as coming from Mitch’s mind, since they narrate as direct statements of fact events he would not have been present for.

So are we in the point of view of an omniscient narrator? If so, the reader is required to believe that Carol is actually the sort of person who is sexually aroused by missionary work, and that such behavior is sufficiently typical of religious Mormon women not to necessitate further explanation. We are also required to accept that phrases like “gentile girlfriend” and “let Bernie have sex” are appropriate to the voice of the omniscient narrator of the story.

Are we in Bernie’s or Carol’s point of view, then? If so, we have to believe that these events are true, though perhaps not as representative, though we do still have to believe that Bernie (or Carol?) would choose to describe Jan, in all sincerity, as Mitch’s “gentile girlfriend” and that Bernie (or Carol?) sees Carol as doling out sex judiciously as a reward without much personal romantic investment.

The craft problem here is twofold. The first problem is that we simply don’t know whose attitudes we’re getting. The second problem is that those attitudes are likely poor representation of actual Mormon usage—the use of the term “gentile,” for instance, makes Peterson sound tone deaf to contemporary Mormon speech. I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard someone use it to refer to another living person without a significant hint of jest or self-parody. If the story is a parody, of course, the spirit of parody is fine. But since we’ve determined the bulk of the story demands to be read as realistic fiction rather than farce or parody, “gentile” is out of place.

In addition to the craft problem, there’s a serious ethical problem. Peterson’s use of “gentile” does play to prevailing stereotypes of Mormons as intensely clannish, and his description of the sexual relationship does play to prevailing stereotypes about Mormon men as sexually repressed and Mormon women as sexually frigid. Now, some negative stereotypes can be confirmed by realistic, typical information. But if a story is reaching into unrepresentative character choices or atypical language use in order to play into negative stereotypes, we have both a right and an obligation to be upset.

That said, the problem in this early section may not be that Peterson intended to sneak an elbow. The problem may be that he was writing an understated satire in the earlier passages of the story, later changed his mind and finished the story with realistic characters we are expected to care about, and then wasn’t getting paid enough to bother revising to make his strategy consistent.

The text makes that theory difficult to accept, however, because the pair of moments Scott Hales identifies in his BYU Studies review as the rhetorical climax of the story (well into the second, somber portion of the narrative) feature Peterson sneaking an elbow again.

The pair of moments involves a juxtaposition of two views of the afterlife, one from each of the protagonists. The second, from Mitch’s thoughts about temple sealings, strikes me as a fair articulation of a real world argument against a rule-oriented view of religious life:

Could God be so mean, so punctilious and worried about protocol, that he wouldn’t let people associate with each other in eternity even if they wanted to unless they had knuckled under to the church and gone through all the ceremonies and made all the vows and kept all the commandments, all four or five thousand of them?

But the earlier, contrasting perspective, from Bernie’s thoughts as he looks over the “stark, unadorned landscape” does not strike me as a typically Mormon way of articulating the value of rules:

It didn’t help to be in the presence of a morose, uncommunicative fugitive from righteous living like Mitch. It struck Bernie that this must be a foretaste of the telestial kingdom, that unhappy place where the unvaliant among Mormons and the wicked among the gentiles will dwell throughout all eternity.

While this is close doctrinally to how a religious Mormon might view eternity (though the merely “unvaliant” Saints should be assigned to the terrestrial rather than telestial kingdom), the phrasing and tone bear the marks of authorial interference and parody. To have a religious late-20th century Latter-day Saint think the words “the unvaliant among Mormons and the wicked among the gentiles” suggests that the author is either attempting to realistically present the thoughts and language of his character’s culture but is tone deaf, or else is intentionally distorting the phrasing to make the character’s ideological position sound more dated, narrow-minded, and even vindictive than it would sound in an organic, realistic articulation.

Once again, Peterson’s projection of improbable thoughts or action onto his character plays to outside stereotypes of Mormons as backward, self-righteous, and condemnatory. It is not a craft problem to argue that Mormonism is backward—but a careful craftsman would earn those images through language that is recognizably organic to real Latter-day Saints, rather than by planting Mitch’s or the narrator’s condescension into Bernie’s language.

Peterson’s project of playing with the tensions between radical freedom and adherence to authority in the context of the relationship between estranged stepbrothers is interesting. But the point of view fraud, where Bernie’s perspective is appropriated and distorted to drive home Mitch’s points, undermines the strength of the story.

It wouldn’t be difficult to fix—Peterson could simply move the unrepresentative language into Mitch’s perspective where it belongs. Alternatively, Peterson could abandon his demands on our sympathy, extend his hyperbole beyond the realm of realism, and allow us to laugh at a satire of the apostate schmuck and the orthodox schlemiel.

But writers who sneak elbows are unlikely to change if no one blows a whistle on them. We need to stop accepting stories like “Brothers” on the writer’s reputation and start holding them accountable for their craft and ethics.

Todd Robert Petersen double-dribbles—when he bothers to dribble—in “Quietly”

Todd Robert Petersen’s story “Quietly” has been praised in various reviews largely for its project: to give us, in a work of fiction, emotional insight into the lives of Latter-day Saints in Africa. Since I’ve had African LDS brothers and sisters in wards where I’ve lived in Ohio and Germany, as well as African acquaintances who were not LDS, I was intrigued when I first heard of this piece. I think it’s safe to say that the reviewers and I were all more interested in “Quietly” because of its connection to contemporary LDS experience in Africa than we would have been had the story been set in a fictional religious context and a fictional country. The frame of realistic fiction is core to the promotional strategy of “Quietly.”

Which is why I was disappointed when “Quietly” had all the commitment to research-based realism of Disney’s Pocahontas.

I have chosen the basketball metaphors of double-dribbling and traveling to describe the failures in realism in this story. In this metaphor the ball is the story and the real world is the court. For a story like “Quietly” that purports to give us insight into the real world, we expect the story and the world to correspond regularly in various specific, realistic details. Instead, “Quietly” sometimes draws on two unrelated real world referents without explaining their connection, and at other times ignores an obligation to investigate plausible real-world realities at all.

Let’s start at the beginning of the story. The protagonist, John, is sent “west to Kigali” (the capital of Rwanda) to dedicate the grave of a member who’s been killed by Hutus at a time when the white American missionary branch president is “afraid to venture outside the cities, even with the U.N. troops on patrol.” Where does this place us in real world time and space? The U.N. mission to Rwanda took place from 1993-96, well before the establishment of the first LDS branch in Rwanda in 2008. So apparently we’re in a fictional chronology, where there was a church presence in Rwanda at the time of the genocide and U.N. mission. Where are we geographically? The text tells us we are in a city (hence the branch president’s fear to venture out), that the city is in Rwanda (U.N. troops are there and not in bordering countries), and that we are somewhere east of Kigali. Unfortunately, there are no cities over 50,000 inhabitants east of Kigali but still within Rwanda’s borders. So apparently we’re also in a fictional city.

And the geography gets worse. The murdered member is newly baptized after meeting missionaries in Pretoria (which the story doesn’t mention is in South Africa, several countries away), but we are also told that he and his wife were saving for a journey to the temple in Johannesburg (also in South Africa). The text of “Quietly” does not help us understand how this couple had come to Pretoria in the first place, why they decided to return home during a genocidal civil war to be baptized, and why a couple who had just come from Pretoria back to their village was in enough financial difficulty to need to be identified as people who were saving to make essentially the same journey they had just made. To add to this all, we are told that John is Zimbabwean, but never told how he came to Rwanda or why he chose to stay during the civil war rather than returning to his homeland. None of this movement across southern Africa is impossible, of course, but it’s sufficiently improbable to necessitate some explanation or justification in a realistic work.

All of this double-dribbling and drawing on various recognizable events and city names without any consideration as to how they fit together is largely a craft problem—sloppy writing that reduces the value of the story upon investigation. They are only ethical problems in the general sense that a writer has a moral obligation to try to understand the people he or she writes about.

But the story doesn’t just double-dribble, creating a loose collage of mismatched real-world references. It also does some travelling, creating elements of the story world without paying attention to the real world baseline at all. And here, the ethical problems become prominent.

Take, for example, John’s response to the instructions on how to give a graveside dedicatory prayer:

A prayer. That was all there was to it. He thought there might have been more, something not in the book, because white prayers still seemed dead to him. For John, spirit had always flown more freely in the breeze than in a book.

If Petersen gave a specific prior religious context for John that drew on a real-world set of beliefs from a specific African group where breeze carries more spiritual weight than prayers or religious texts, I wouldn’t mind this. If Petersen showed that this mentality is a personal preference for John as an individual, fine. But since Petersen treats prayer and books as “white” forms of spirituality and the breeze as a “black” African mode of experiencing the divine, I find this passage troubling and offensive. Why? Because in the real world, most Sub-Saharan Africans are devout Christians—who pray far more frequently and intensely than average white Europeans and North Americans. In the real world, a randomly selected Rwandan today is roughly 100 times more likely to be a Seventh Day Adventist than a practitioner of pre-Christian local religions.

By presenting his work as realistic fiction, Petersen gains an unearned degree of credibility as an interpreter of African culture to his readers, and he uses that credibility to give them an exoticized, Pocahontas-style view of African religion without giving them any information as to what is typical for the real Africa. Reviewers have celebrated “Quietly” for engaging with a diverse global Mormon experience, but actually we should be upset with the story for paving over a realistic Mormon experience with outdated clichés.

I do not blame readers who felt like “Quietly” was an accurate and engaging depiction of LDS life in Africa. Petersen played to many of the images of Africa that would be familiar to American readers: ethnic genocide, poverty, the ghosts of colonialism—all he’s missing is a corrupt dictator and AIDS! But I do find fault with Petersen for making readers believe he’s kept them in touch with the court floor of the real world when he’s largely been running around with the ball in his hands, sometimes drawing at random from the map of half a continent and sometimes from a mental shelf of clichés.

We don’t really want ethically problematic texts that bury their subjects under our pre-existing stereotypes. We don’t need stories that tell us what a person who’s paid very little attention to another region thinks about the plight of imaginary church members there.  But that’s exactly what we’re going to keep getting if we don’t insist on more careful grounding of stories in a realistic context.

Mahonri Stewart commits a flagrant foul in A Roof Overhead

In my previous comments on A Roof Overhead (as performed at the Little Brown Theater this April), I mentioned feeling discomfort with the extreme defensiveness of the Mormon characters. The real problem with the play, though, is not that it depicts Mormon defensiveness (a real enough problem), but that it treats an extreme degree of defensiveness as inherently justified in ways that severely strain realism.

The craft problem here starts with the play’s premise. The site of investigation is interesting: much like Peterson’s use of stand-ins for freedom and obedience, Stewart creates an LDS family, the Fieldings, as representatives of Mormonism and a young woman named Sam with evangelical roots and a fierce acquired atheism as a stand-in for secular liberalism. But unlike Peterson’s “Brothers,” A Roof Overhead offers us little justification for the underlying emotional investment needed to turn potential disengagement into active conflict. Yes, the Fieldings and Sam disagree—but why can’t they have a truce of selective silence and criticize in private, like most neighbors do?

We are left without narrative justification as to why it’s OK for the Fieldings to demand explanations from their tenant for her perceptions of their faith—and then correct, castigate, and even threaten her when they find her views offensive. Maybe the Fieldings are the socially inept, domineering sort of people who think it’s acceptable to tell a paying tenant to get out of the house for having said something dismissive. But instead of giving us indications that the Fieldings are atypically manipulative, the play seems to set itself in a world where their actions are implicitly justified.

This becomes particularly clear in the climax of the play. The older Fielding daughter’s boyfriend arrives with news that Sam has published an exposé on her landlords’ religious fanaticism in a local atheist weekly newspaper, and he confronts her over this gross act of betrayal against the family that has sheltered her (albeit at $500/month). During the subsequent shouting match over Sam’s treachery, the phone rings—with further news that the Fieldings’ teenage daughter, Abish, has been killed by atheist peers after taunting (inspired by Sam’s editorial) got out of hand.

None of the characters express surprise that teenaged hooligans actually read the local atheist newspaper or even disbelief that the article should have led to a death. No one mentions surprise that American intellectual atheists are suddenly involved in religious violence. It’s simply taken for granted that Sam’s positioning of Mormons as backward and oppressive in a specialized local venue is the sort of thing that leads to anti-Mormon violence.

If the Fieldings were Muslim and the violence came from self-described patriots rather than budding atheist intellectuals, I could accept it as plausible. If the play were set in a future with a different cultural dynamic, OK.

But I am unaware of any case in which American atheist intellectuals’ real-world disdain for Mormonism has motivated real-world violence.

If a viewer disengages with the play at the climax because the killing stretches credulity past the breaking point, this is a craft problem. Stewart has done a poor job sketching the world and lost his informed audience in the process.

But whenever a viewer stays emotionally invested in the climax, this is a serious ethical problem. By treating this highly improbable violence as plausible and ordinary, Stewart has issued a blood libel against American intellectual atheists, falsely assigning a lethal weight to their minority attitudes and perspectives.

A Roof Overhead purports to use a fictional narrative to shed light on real world tensions—and that goal is good. But cheating on realism as the play does is more likely to feed paranoia than to produce insight. It’s an unjustified attack, a flagrant foul. On behalf of maligned atheists, we have a moral obligation to call out work like this.

Conclusion: Get Better

I have been blunt in my criticisms of Peterson’s, Petersen’s, and Stewart’s works. But implicit in that criticism is one high piece of praise—these three are all engaging enough as storytellers to win admirers for works that fail an informed test for basic realism. Each of these writers has chosen sites of investigation that interest readers and has created characters and actions many readers find compelling. All three clearly have usable storytelling skills.

But if they live off those instincts alone, using their talent to avoid cleaning up their game, they are likely to produce other careless works that fail for some readers and mislead others. And because they are engaging storytellers, that would be a tragic waste.

So for a moment I will turn from self-appointed referee to self-appointed coach, offering unsolicited advice to Levi Peterson, Todd Robert Petersen, Mahonri Stewart, and to the rest of us, who likely share many of their bad habits.

In order to improve:

Levi Peterson needs to work on his weak side, depicting flawed faithful characters realistically from their own perspectives, and then he won’t need to sneak elbows.

Todd Robert Petersen needs to get a feel for the floor by immersing himself in research before he shoots. In other words: each critique of a society should be preceded by about a hundred questions about how that society works.

Mahonri Stewart should learn how to stand his ground so he can give a good, clean push—meaning he should work on justifying his conflicts carefully and plausibly so the conflict is fair when it comes. He might also benefit from investing his characters more deeply in simple, everyday things, so he can use those as stakes and doesn’t have to sacrifice a virgin for his climax the next time around.

We can do better. We should do better. We must do better if we want our literature to matter in the real world. I suspect we will only get better, though, if critics make wise, clear, and qualified calls on writers’ mistakes, and if writers can be open enough to listen.

Postscript: The Mote and the Beam

I have now described, to the best of my abilities, the motes in three of my contemporaries’ eyes. So what’s the beam in mine?

Is my critique correct and constructive, or do I have a distorted view of craft?

How do my own contemporary realistic works, such as Prodigal Son (available here and here) hold up?

What useful conditional rules do my recent non-realistic works need to be called out for violating? (I believe “The Maulana Azad Memorial Lampost of Panipatnam” and “Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg” are the only ones available free online, but many of you may be familiar with my recent Sunstone essay or with my Clive Japhta piece in Dialogue.)

I will feel much better about being so blunt if others are willing to call out my work in equal plainness. I have judged, so let me be judged!

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43 Responses to In Defense of Grumpiness: A Review of “Brothers,” “Quietly,” and A Roof Overhead

  1. Wm says:

    I like the basketball metaphor — we all need to work on our game.

    It has been awhile since I have read “Quietly” (and I haven’t read “Brothers” and only know “A Roof Overhead” from reviews) so I can’t add much substance to this conversation, but I don’t know that all of the lapses in realism in “Quietly” are all that dissimilar to lapses made in other works of literary fiction. I find that whole question of realism a difficult one to negotiate because haziness about it is one thing that bugs me about creative nonfiction.

    • What I see in “Quietly” is that the sloppy realism corresponds with actively harmful, primitivizing stereotypes of African life. I find the particularly disturbing because it positions itself as critiquing white/Western arrogance when the story itself is a product of white/Western arrogance and racial stereotyping.

      It’s one thing to let some lapses in realism go in the name of the suspension of disbelief fiction requires. But we need to be careful about which lapses we give a pass to. The lapses in these stories aren’t inconsequential details–they change the way we see the groups the characters supposedly represent.

      So maybe a more precise version of my rule is: “realistic fiction that uses characters as stand-ins for antagonistic groups has an urgent ethical responsibility to be fair in its representations.”

    • It also occurs to me that I’m willing to forgive lapses in realism in direct proportion to the number of solid, specific accurate details I get. If an author nails a recognizably Navajo sense of humor (which is not part of the stock American image of Navajos), for instance, I’d forgive any geographical error.

      But I’m hard-pressed to point to something in “Quietly” that isn’t drawn from stock images. Are there specific points in the story that are true of the real world but not skimmed from the top layer of American cultural awareness?

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    A difficult question to engage for a couple of reasons. I suppose the underlying question is whose yardstick do we use for measurement, and against which standard?

    I’m not sure it’s fair to expect authors to be fair, regardless of whether they offer stories as realistic or otherwise. They are arguing a viewpoint and slant the narrative to support it—sometimes subtly, often less so. They may even try to be fair to the other side (not a well-known attribute of any of these three authors, imo), but will ultimately fail because they honestly believe one side is righter.

    The structure of these stories themselves demand it. These are arguments offering opposing sides of a position; comparative analyses designed to suggest a more correct stance. No one reads Levi Peterson expecting to find superlative spirituality in an institutional Mormon who exists only to show the limits of the institution. I don’t expect him to be fair, and to date he’s never violated that expectation.

    These stories make no pretense of arguing equally admirable viewpoints. Identifying the mechanisms of that inherent inequality is useful in deconstructing the argument, but doesn’t necessarily prove that they are violating the integrity of the story itself. If it violates its own rules that’s a different problem, but pretending to be fair while delivering a screed is a long and storied tradition in story.

    Contrast those with the short stories you linked at the bottom of the post that present a single viewpoint as a single viewpoint, and it becomes difficult to compare the two. Your short stories reveal the true viewpoint of a single character; the others attempt to compare and contrast opposing views. Different games that argue for different rules and different yardsticks.

    I prefer your stories because the mechanics don’t ask me to evaluate *both* the argument and the mechanisms of presentation; you ask me to evaluate only whether a single viewpoint is presented with style, interest, and clarity. I may decide whether I agree with Rosenberg or Unnamed Patient, but the text only asks me to understand their viewpoint.

    Different kinds of stories.

    Which seems more a matter of trust than anything else. The drift from satire to realism and back again is defensible (though certainly disorienting) as an aesthetic choice designed to expand the question; the wandering viewpoint does seem to be a flaw of basic craft. Weak craft jars as a violation of trust; weak argument is (arguably) a fair application of an unfair tactic that never pretends otherwise (the intentional foul that fools no one as being accidental).

    I prefer fair arguments, but I don’t expect them. Certainly not when types argue the relative goodness of the institutional Church.

    • So…maybe there’s a genre of stories in which the author signals that he’s going to use an unrealistic straw man as a foil for his protagonist?

      Whenever Levi Peterson is successfully signaling to his audience that his intention is to do so, I can buy his story as such (although the straight-up POV confusion is still craft-level sloppiness.

      The reason I argued against teaching “Brothers” to non-Mormon students, though, or including it in any developing canon of works, is that I don’t think those readers would know that Bernie is a lie and a straw man, not a realistic character (as opposed to a flawed but real character). This is the Merchant of Venice problem–the play is fine if audiences know Shylock is Shakespeare’s exaggeration. The play is ethically problematic is audiences believe Shylock is a realistic and typical Jew.

      I don’t think even the genre of overtly slanted polemic fiction redeems “Quietly,” though, because it betrays what it purports to love. Petersen seemed to think he’s speaking up for African Saints, when really he’s reducing them to inaccurate stereotypes. So as slanted polemic fiction, I think that story fails.

      “Prodigal Son” is a closer head-to-head comparison to these stories in that it’s interested in both its protagonists’ conflicting ideologies. If you’re interested in analysis but not in buying a complete set of plays at the moment, Scott, I can just email you a Prodigal Son pdf as a review copy. Let me know.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        I haven’t read any of the three (four) titles, so I can only speak to conceptual generalities, not specific points.

        I agree that weak research, inaccurate facts/contexts, simplified (stereotyped) characters, and strawman arguments all undermine the effectiveness of a story and create justified outs for readers. I wish authors would work to get the easy stuff right, both as a matter of professional (and Mormon cultural) pride and as a point of respect to readers (and subject matters).

        To me it has nothing to do with polemics and everything to do with viewpoint. A fair argument is always better in my view, but when you want to express a particular viewpoint you’re not required to be either fair or accurate, even in realistic fiction.

        I don’t read Levi Peterson any more precisely because he tends to be fundamentally unfair to the other side of his argument (and he’s made essentially the same argument using the same caricatured antagonists in each of the last five works I’ve read). I may be missing out on beautiful writing, vivid characters, and powerful insights, but I’m willing to pay that price to avoid those other flaws that leave me tired and annoyed rather than edified. Others overlook those flaws and find real value despite the unfair package. Different value judgments.

        I agree with (what I think is) your core premise. Until we can be more accurate in our research and fair in our arguments, we’re just kibitzing among ourselves; those flaws limit the size of the sandbox we play in and our effectiveness in reaching larger audiences. But in terms of morality, they still seem like venial sins of craft, not mortal offenses against ethics. To me.

        (And I would love to read “Prodigal Son.” Sadly, as an unemployed father of a daughter going to college this fall, my cash flow is severely limited at the moment. Most of my new reading these days comes from review copies and free downloads from Amazon.)

    • One more thought: this isn’t just about fair vs. stacked arguments. You could stack an argument by making the character who represents the side you’d like to advocate particularly sympathetic and making the other character realistically and plausibly unsympathetic.

      For example, Bernie could realistically and plausibly spend a lot of time thinking what a screw up Mitch is, not realizing as the audience does how much good is in his brother’s heart. That would be stacking within the realm of realism.

      What I most object to in “Brothers” in that instead of this realistic stacking, Peterson opted for point of view fraud. He couldn’t even let Bernie’s natural judgmental impulses stand for themselves–he had to warp the language.

      That’s shoddy writing. And we shouldn’t put up with it.

      I think this is particularly important to note because one of Scott Hales’ reason for teaching “Brothers” was that you simply have to deal with Peterson, because he’s a major figure in our proto-canon.

      My position is that no matter which prior critics admired Peterson’s other works, we need to yank a story like “Brothers” out of any canon of good art because of its craft-level problems. You can write polemic in a way that has structural integrity. But in this story, Peterson didn’t. The story structure is not sound and we shouldn’t be holding it up as polished writing.

  3. Scott Hales says:

    A few thoughts:

    1) I think you’re right about setting higher standards for Mormon literature.
    2) You assume that these works want to be treated as realistic works, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Peterson, as Scott points out, seldom shoots for realism, and I think it’s wrong to hold him to a strict standard for realism. His works are almost always satirical and absurdist and his characters are often caricatures.
    3) I think your critique touches nicely on possible stylistic and structural flaws, but it doesn’t address how these stories succeed on other levels. None of the creative writers you address are hacks, and their works raise many important questions and explore them with a great deal of nuance. “Quietly,” as you point out, is factually inaccurate on almost all accounts, but I think it explores transnational tensions between Mormonism in the US and Mormonism in Africa in an interesting way. Even the cultural and ethnic appropriation going on in the story reinforces the theme that there are real differences in the way Mormons of different races and nationalities experience Mormonism. But we’ve discussed this before.
    4) While I’m on the subject: do facts matter? Does it matter that there were no Mormons in Rwanda during the genocide if the story succeeds on other levels? Should we ask instead why Petersen decided to put a Mormon in the genocide? What does that historical/geographic setting bring to the story?
    5) You assume that Petersen is associating Africa with primitivism but I’m not sure that’s anywhere in the story–except perhaps in his dream. You assume that John’s separation of white prayers from prayers on the breeze sets up a binary between Christian and pre-Christian belief, but I think you could just as easily argue that John struggles between the staid nature of Mormon prayers and the rushing wind of African Pentecostal prayers. As you point out, Petersen doesn’t really give us much information on John’s past the know where he is coming from, but I think we need to be careful not to assume Petersen meant one thing when he could haven meant another.
    6) I think you are right about the Atheist newsletter scene in “A Roof Overhead,” which I also thought was a weakness in the play. I think the play has great potential for opening up a dialogue between non-Mormons and Mormons, but could use a rewrite that maybe finds a more realistic way of driving its themes home.
    7) I haven’t read your stories yet, but I’ll try to get around to them.
    8) I’d like to hear your opinion on S.P. Bailey’s “Millstone City”
    9) I’m not sure I agree with your reasons for why you would not teach “Brothers” to non-Mormon students. I think the classroom is the perfect place to discuss realistic and satirical characterizations of Mormon characters. (Also, I should point out that Bernie didn’t seem too far off from some Mormons I’ve come across. You don’t hear “gentile” without a hint of irony except on those rare occasions when you do. I like to think of Bernie as the kind of guy who would use the phrase “gentile.” It fits with his hardline, quasi-folkloric, too-long-in-”Zion” view of things.)
    10) I’m not sure craft-level problems are reason enough to keep works out of the canon.

    • Scott Hales says:

      Funny how it turned my eighth point into a smiley face sunglasses guy.

      • Scott, if you can edit your comment (I say “if,” because I don’t know whether you can or not), you can put a space between the 8 and the ) and get rid of the sunglasses smiley.

        If you don’t see an edit link, I can take care of it for you.

    • Wow, Scott–a numbered list! Thanks for the thorough engagement.

      A few responses:
      2) I tried not to assume that the stories are shooting for realism, but rather to argue that they must be. The end of “Brothers” requires us to care about the characters in a way satire can’t. The promotional strategy in “Quietly” is dependent on a frame as realistic fiction.
      3) The writer’s cultural blindness only reinforces the theme for people who know the writer is blind. Since this writer doesn’t signal that he’s blind, I see his cultural blindness as a liability rather than an asset. I think it’s bending-over-backwards generous to say that TRP was trying to show how American Saints do a poor job understanding Africans by himself doing a poor job understanding Africans.
      4) The chronology error wouldn’t matter if the attitudes were well-drawn. What a fiction writer really promises to do is to place us inside another person’s perceptions, and in the case of realistic fiction the perceptions ought to be a good approximation of their real-world referents. The time and geography errors in “Quietly” are symptoms of a lack of thorough invention, but the invention lapses only really offend me in the interior, human dimensions that should make fiction.
      5) Again, you are very generous. But I will defend my lack of charitable reading here by saying that readers make assumptions, and that Petersen has some obligation to know what his readers won’t know and to give them textual evidence he’s talking about different modes of Christian expression rather than white man vs. Pocahontas.
      6) I think the fix in A Roof Overhead could be as easy as making Sam a daughter’s friend who needed a place to stay (thus playing into the classic hospitality vs. security tension in Christian Lit) and then having the damage to the daughter be spiritual rather than physical. It would be realistic anguish for parents to believe that someone they’d helped physically had done spiritual damage. That also leaves room, though, for Sam to feel persecuted when the Fieldings are angry at her just for sharing what she thinks with their daughter.
      8) Haven’t read it yet. Will keep you posted.
      9) I think that’s fine if a teacher is talking about the mess of signals. But the mess is problematic: readers are used to picking them up, and it will mess with them even if they don’t notice or say so.
      10) To me, “canon” today means a small subset of works that we use as a entry points to the broader field of Mormon Lit. Using shoddy works as the entry points seems foolish to me in a field that wants respect. And even if a reader knows nothing about Mormonism, the POV tracking problems would get the story a form rejection at most magazines that pay their writers.

  4. Th. says:


    I’ve read all these stories except Mahonri’s, but none of them recently. I enjoyed “Brothers” (which made me praise it more than I really thought it deserved because I generally haven’t cared for LP’s work; but I think he may often draw a story unfairly—at least, a reader of his recent cousin-rape story found it much less likely than you found “Brothers”). The more I read LP, the more I think he’s interested in prodding readers. I don’t think he cares about realism or even satire. I think he’s just trying to get under people’s skin and amuse people exactly like himself. This may be unfair, but it’s where I’m leaning today.

    As for “Quietly”, I did not notice any of the problems you cite when I read it, but I will say that I abandoned my own African-Mormon story for exactly the reason’s you cite: and I was unwilling to do that. Still. I loved “Quietly” and I’m not willing to come out against it without rereading it.

    I also love your “Prodigal Son”. I could reread it with a desire to attack it, but I probably won’t. At least not immediately. Sorry.

    I do appreciate your willingness to say unpopular things in order to make us better. Perhaps we are still in the late 70s where we all buy Deseret’s novels because that’s all that’s available.

    Still. Greater American society is still lauding Jonathan Safron Foer, so clearly things could be worse.

    (_Have_ you read Millstone City?)

    • “Perhaps we are still in the late 70s where we all buy Deseret’s novels because that’s all that’s available.”

      Yes! This is a wonderful articulation of my concern. I think that’s where we’ve been in the LDS literary community since I’ve been around–and it makes a certain amount of sense. We don’t have much, so we are hungry to celebrate what we do have.

      In a way, I think my grumpy review is founded in a deep optimism: that we are just entering a period of maturing creative production in which we can afford to raise our standards. I think an era is ending: there are enough good Mormon writers now that we don’t just have to thank people for playing the game. We can be self-critical. We can do the tough work it takes to help each other get better.

      • Th. says:


        If we’re not constantly raising our standards, we’re subject to entropy. Which is why I don’t mind you knocking stories I liked. I would be delighted if you had taken apart one of my own.

    • Could it be that some of the appreciation for these stories, in spite of, or without recognition of, the writing problems, be due to the possibility that if a story works for a reader, that reader won’t notice the writing problems?

      I submit that every fiction writer has to deal with two aspects of fiction writing: wordsmithing and storytelling. If the wordsmithing is sloppy, as James has asserted, but the storytelling is strong, readers can still enjoy the story and ignore the sloppiness.

      If the story or its ending is sloppy (or doesn’t work), as James has also asserted, the reader may not be as satisfied by the experience.

      I also submit that stories that have done surprisingly well in the market (reached best-sellerdom and gained a huge following), in spite of sloppy writing (for which those who care about wordsmithing may complain loudly), have done so because the storytelling is powerful, gripping, and engaging.

      A great story can cover a multitude of writing sins, but I’m in favor of making sure the writing is as sin-free as possible. So thank you, James, for speaking up. (Point of view violation is a particular pet peeve of mine–ooh! how alliterative of me!)

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    I’ve been following the conversation with interest (and not just because I’m the moderator), but haven’t previously commented because I haven’t read any of the works in question. However, ruminating over both the original post and subsequent comments by various people, I see a couple of connections to the broader context of Mormon literature that I’d like to comment on.

    First, it seems to me that some of James’s comments — particularly about Levi Peterson’s story, and also to some extent about Todd Robert Peterson’s story — speak to a desire similar to one Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury expressed in her recent post: that is, to have fiction that is both realistic and at the same time accurately reflects the perspective of believing Mormons, as opposed to caricatures, grotesque figures, and/or those leaving the faith. Granted that this task is made more difficult by disagreement about what what a “believing Mormon” really looks like in fiction — a complexity that I think everyone acknowledges — still, there’s an (I think) perfectly reasonable desire to see literature that somehow reflects and explores the mainstream Mormon experience.

    Second is a sense that we need to get beyond celebrating that someone has simply written something (e.g., a story about the African Mormon experience) and go beyond it to critique how well that’s being done. In this sense, I think James is arguing that the literary community of Mormon letters has been guilty of our own version of the attitude of praising a work of art simply because it’s Mormon. While I’m a little bothered by some of his strictures (is it really true that satire and sympathetic characters can’t coexist?), it’s certainly a question we need to ask ourselves — and one that should be argued out in specific cases as well as generalities. I praise James for taking the conversation to that level.

    Thinking about my own novel, I see definite connections to both these points. One of my motivations was to try to describe the mindset of mainstream Mormon characters both sympathetically and realistically. And a lot of the “buzz” about No Going Back was definitely because it was among the first stories to explore the experience of a gay, believing Mormon characters — buzz that the novel may not have earned on purely literary merits. (As the book’s author, I have no real idea whether this was the case, but can only acknowledge the possibility.)

  6. Mahonri Stewart says:


    You have completely mischaracterized, distorted, and misrepresented my play. Like Scott, I feel that the play needed another draft, but I let it go on as is because I wanted to see what the reactions would be within a contained, Utah-based audience before I allowed it before a more secular audience, as it will be doing at the performance of the show at Arizona State University’s student run Binary Theater. What attracted to them to the piece was what you have left out (crucially!) from your analysis… the weight of love that I have personally invested into this play and ALL its characters.

    You have represented this as a play that justifies Mormons and condemns atheists. It does no such thing. Rather, it presents all as prejudiced and contradictory, sometimes extremely so, but also that “all are alike unto god,” and that the secular and religious people alike are beloved by Heavenly Parents and that Sam and the Fieldings, despite whatever errors they made along the way, are “good people.” I say that pretty explicitly in the play, I wasn’t trying for subtlety on that point. You have done “a poor job sketching” this play, James. I am all for critique, which has improved this play and many of my others, I’m game for all that. But this kind of unbalanced, misrepresenting tirade is hardly what I call “constructive.”

    But let’s get specific:

    – You said: “None of the characters express surprise that teenaged hooligans actually read the local atheist newspaper or even disbelief that the article should have led to a death. No one mentions surprise that American intellectual atheists are suddenly involved in religious violence. It’s simply taken for granted that Sam’s positioning of Mormons as backward and oppressive in a specialized local venue is the sort of thing that leads to anti-Mormon violence… But I am unaware of any case in which American atheist intellectuals’ real-world disdain for Mormonism has motivated real-world violence.”

    My concern in addressing this in the play wasn’t about has had happened, but my concern is about what those things that are happening may lead to… but before I get to that, let’s get the proper context of the play. The “violence” and “killing” you refer to is a car accident. Sure, a car accident fueled by alcohol, road rage, and the passion of prejudice, but it’s not what I would characterize as a “killing.” Abish’s death was an accident, these kids were not murderers, but rather underaged drinkers who let things get out of hand and were not exactly in their normal frame of mind. Nor were they normally “teenaged hooligans” as you term then. They were intellectual teenagers, who had given Abish a lot of grief for her religious convictions (this kind of bullying personally happened to me in school, so I know that even the most intellectual of people can have a mean streak).

    This is how Abish describe them earlier in the play: “They’re actually the really smart kids… Honors and AP students, the real competitive sort, you know. The kind of kids I usually really get along with, but… well, there’s this group of them that are pretty intense about what they believe. Always picking a verbal fight with those of us who are conspicuously religious, always throwing out taunts. That sort of thing.”

    What they were reading was not “a local atheist newspaper,” but rather the Freethinker, which has been a prominent atheist periodical since 1881 ( ). And the only reason they read it was because they had taken it from Abish, who had been given a copy by a friend when she discovered it was about Abish’s family. Again, from the play:

    They read Sam’s article. Jenny said Sam had given Abish a copy and she had been reading it at the party and the kids took it and were reading it out loud at the party to the group and laughing and taunting… and Abish got mad and there was a serious argument. Abish got in their face about it and started attacking their beliefs, too, when she left them after that, they didn’t leave it alone. They followed her, then they started chasing her.. she and Jenny got into the Honda, but, they got into another car and especially… well the kids had been drinking and that’s why Abish had gone away to read the article in the first place… the kids are saying that they didn’t mean it to escalate like it did, but once the cars were involved it got dangerous and… and…

    No… no, no, please, Heavenly Father, no…

    Abish is dead, Dad.”

    Also, note that both sides, Abish and the other teenagers, had escalated the argument.

    Let’s also note the context of what I’m really trying to say with instance here. Sam is not guilty of violence of any sort. She did not mean this to happen to somebody who in the play she actually really cares about and identifies with. Sam is guilty of what you are now accusing me of, and which I now accuse you of, being careless with her words and her writing. Feeling righteous in her cause, she condemns an entire group of people, which in Mitt’s Mormon moment, has plenty of correlation with how intellectuals have portrayed Mormons in print and the media (which you’ve written some very eloquant arguments against yourself on your blog). What she wrote was pretty typical of what I’ve come across in the news and from pretty heady intellectuals, even from previously affectionate people like Harold Bloom, and from some pretty major news and intellectual outlets. I do not believe that atheists are this sacred cow that I can’t criticize, nor that they need defense from me from the Mormon literary community, as you have implied. They have given plenty of literary shoves to our community throughout the past few decades. I feel plenty justified in this case to defend my beliefs in the play, without feeling like that overshadows my greater purpose of the work… which is a recognition of common bonds, despite these often contentious divides.

    So in all of that context is that scene to be understood (which is NOT the climax, by the way). I’m not criticizing particular acts of violence against Mormons by intellectuals… although, I have personally witnessed such acts. On my mission fellow missionaries were poisoned with hash cookies by “investigators” (which from the characterization I remember, may have even fit this mold of “intellectual”) and they would have died if their stomachs hadn’t been pumped after the elders called 911. I have to go to Church at the stake center here in Arizona because our chapel was torched by what the authorities are calling “arson.” So there is precedence for that kind of writing about severe actions against Mormons, although I still believe what you’re sketching is not actually what I’m writing.

    What I am criticizing in the secular community is the rise of the militant language creeping into some secular circles, such as that which can be found in _The God Delusion_. I think my critique here is very real in that sense, that the language I’ve heard from some atheistic circles and associates can be termed as hate speech against Mormons, Christians, Muslims, etc. And I believe that kind of language can certainly be dangerous and incite these kind of acts, even from the secular community, which you seem to think utterly incapable of such a horror. I think EVERY group is capable of such things, and I wrote this not as a current reflection, but as a preventative measure, to show that prejudice, even when expressed in what one may feel to be a valiant and good causes, can lead to dire consequences. And I don’t only portray this flaw in Sam, the atheist, but also Joel, who is just as militant as she is. Joel is Sam’s foil in the play and is meant to reflect the same flaws, just on different sides. And Joel doesn’t get the same redemption (at least not yet) that Sam gets at the end of the play. He’s still stuck in his prejudice, while Sam is able to let go of hers. In no way do I “justify” the Fieldings, as you have said. They are not justified in their own prejudice to Sam, and it was their sometimes very subtle attitudes that left Sam to feeling marginalized and alone in a house that could have been a home, and in that way led to the work that Sam wrote. Sam would have never written that piece if she had truly felt welcomed and more than just a source of income to the Fieldings.

    I also give the secular side their own foil to Abish, their own martyr in the play, whose death is caused by very similar means as Abish’s. The sword of irresponsible words cuts both ways in the play. Again, from the play:

    I left my faith for a reason. I had a friend– Tyler. He was a member of the congregation I attended. I loved him dearly, but he– well, he had different inclinations. Tyler was a homosexual. Our minister said that God could cure him, that God had never intended him to be that way, so God would open a way for him to be free! Tyler strived and strived, he believed so much– so much! I’ve never met anyone who loved Jesus like he did. Which made his failure to live up to these impossible odds all that much more devastating for him. After they found Tyler dead… I couldn’t handle it. And then my parents… they had the gall to warn me about the hell they believed Tyler was in. Not just because he was a homosexual… but because he had committed suicide. I couldn’t forgive my parents for that. It was faith like theirs, words like theirs that killed Tyler.”

    In that sense, I completely stand by the intent of what I wrote, although I may tweak how that is portrayed so that it is not as easy to misconstrue, as you have done.

    However, although the play does criticize these certain strains in our culture, the ending (and true climax) is meant to be redemptive. Sam does NOT become a Mormon, nor renounce her atheism, but she does change in her militant stance. She is brought into the literal and eternal family, despite her continued beliefs, and is meant to be a true reflection of my intent when she says:

    I have changed, Joel. I have changed so much. The world will never be the same for me, it can’t be. But what I’m telling you is that even before all of this, I was still a good person even then. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

    James, I must say that I have found your opposition to my”A Roof Overhead purports to use a fictional narrative to shed light on real world tensions—and that goal is good. But cheating on realism as the play does is more likely to feed paranoia than to produce insight. It’s an unjustified attack, a flagrant foul. On behalf of maligned atheists, we have a moral obligation to call out work like this… I have been blunt in my criticisms of Peterson’s, Petersen’s, and Stewart’s works. But implicit in that criticism is one high piece of praise—these three are all engaging enough as storytellers to win admirers for works that fail an informed test for basic realism.”

    To shout a call that to criticize and oppose my work is a “moral obligation” and that any “informed” person would not be an admirer of my work goes beyond professional critique and elevates you to a moral high ground which you have not earned in this essay. To compare my work to a “blood libel” is ridiculous and inflammatory. I have never had such a personal and offensive identifier labeled to my work, and to implicitly call into question not only this single work, but my entire repertoire is damaging both to my work and my reputation. To have this come from some one I once called a friend is extremely problematic and painful for me.

    The tone of this essay was in no ways constructive, nor do I see it as an appropriate approach to better a work. Some things you said may have had benefit, but the arrogant, insulting, derogatory, condescending and self important tone you took drowned out any positive I may have received from it.

    One of the reasons I usually don’t write in a overly critical tone in my reviews, etc. is because I know that I’m personally passive-aggressive, and that aggressive side can get pretty ugly and I very much prefer viewing life through my more gentler side. There’s flaws to this approach, but I much prefer it to the self righteous bullying you have just dished out. You wanted to know what I’m like when I’m pushed? Possibly after some bitter words, I usually walk away from the pusher, which in this case is a shame, considering the high opinion I had of you. But this was too personal of an attack of me and my work, far beyond the bounds of constructive criticism.

    • Th. says:


      I have a hard time reading Goldberg’s criticism as bullying. Surely you’re gotten useful criticism of your work in the past and used it to grow as an artist? If not, the hoorah! now you have the opportunity.

      I haven’t seen or read this play of yours so I really can’t pick sides, but I do have a question:

      The bits of your play you quote: are they typical of the play as a whole? They’re so expositional. I’m curious if the characters also interact or if they just talk about offstage interactions.

  7. Scott Hales says:

    A few more observations:

    1) I like how this conversation is focused on specific works and specific aspects of those works. We should do this more often. Jonathan once mentioned on my blog that he’d like to do something like a monthly book club on this blog where we all read the same thing and talk about it here at the end of the month. I think it’s a good idea.
    2) One of the problems with this conversation is that only a few of us have read of watched the works mentioned in the post. I think Mahonri has many good points and is justified in much of what he says about his own work, which I’ve seen, but since very few of us have actually seen it, we are forced to take James’ word or Mahonri’s word for it. In other words, we need more people who have an opinion of these works so that we can have a more nuanced conversation. Also, right now I’m wishing I had reviewed “A Roof Overhead” as I had intended to do back in April.
    3) I think we can all agree with James’ basic argument: that we need to hold Mormon works up to a higher standard. Like Mahonri and others, I disagree with some of James’ arguments about these works, but it’s through disagreement and the exchange of ideas that we come to know works better.
    4) As much as I have enjoyed my ongoing debate with James about “Quietly,” I think we need to be careful that we don’t turn the story into TRP’s “Added Upon.” In other words, I think if we’re going to discuss his works, we ought to move on to some of his better stories, like “Rift” or “Family History.” I’d like to hear James’ opinion on the stories in “Long After Dark” and the novel “Rift,” for example–especially “Rift” because of the way it brings in Jewish characters.
    5) Related to #4: I think this post raises some important questions about the role of the anthology is the creation of the canon. The only reason we’re talking about these stories is because Angela Hallstrom included them in “Dispensation.” I think one of the questions James is asking is “What kind of canon do we really want?”
    6) I think Mahonri’s comment also leads us to ask what kind of criticism and tone of criticism do we want. James’ post, which is in response to things I have written here and elsewhere, is an aesthetic critique of works that I have thematically critiqued. I think the distinction here is important because when we have talked about these works now and in the past we have been focused on very different things and have had very different standards for what we consider to be “successful.” So, I would argue that we have both made very good arguments on the same works that don’t necessarily discount each other.
    7) I think Mahonri’s strong response to James’ critique comes as a result of the fact that art tends to be personal and criticism impersonal. Conflicts like this are bound to happen on a blog like this one where critics and artists try to live together in peace.
    8) I just added this point to see the cool smiley face guy again. Thanks Kathleen for showing me how to avoid the little guy in the future.

  8. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Okay, now that I have calmed down a bit…

    First off, Scott, thank you. You’ve very much been a voice of reason and clarity in this discussion and some one who is capable of seeing both sides clearly.

    Secondly, James, sorry I came off so strong in my response. Of course, I believe a lot of the main point in what you’re saying about criticism is true, and we shouldn’t be afraid to voice what we think is wrong in a work.

    Although they should have been toned down, I do stand by most of my comments, though. I do so because I still think the tone you are using is insulting and such a style will tend to be more destructive than constructive, not to mention a little self serving since you are offering up your own work as the shining alternative in the essay. That kind of action inserts yourself too much into the narrative and sets yourself up as the rival, not as the impartial critic.

    The style you have employed here can be effective if you really do want to antagonize, create deeply contentious discussions, and prop up a flurry of dramatic conversation. But if you really see yourself as a “coach”… well, with this kind of feedback, your players will walk out of the locker room stressed, discouraged and lacking the confidence or self esteem to get their mind in the game. I’m thinking of the father in “The King’s Speech” whose insults towards his son makes the stuttering worse, not better.

    Of course, none of this changes the fact that I really do think of you as an extremely talented writer and a stellar person. But in this one instance I think you have been way off base in the tone and rhetoric of your analysis and hope that the discussion that has followed has been insightful to all involved.

    • Th. says:


      The style you have employed here can be effective if you really do want to antagonize, create deeply contentious discussions, and prop up a flurry of dramatic conversation.

      I wonder, Mahonri, if you could define “style” as used in this sentence. Or, ever better, “The style you have employed here.” I read James’s essay as very measured and specific and polite—with the presumed intent to not antagonize—to allow readers to focus on his specific points rather than extrapolate them into personal invective. Obviously you didn’t see it that way, but it’s not clear to me that the problem was “style” rather than choice of subject. I’m hoping you can parse the difference for me.

      (Note: I know tone is often lost on the internet, so I want to clarify that my tone in these last two posts is one of genuine curiosity and not antagonism.)

  9. Mahonri Stewart says:

    There’s a few things I’m objecting to here. James uses some very charged words to rally his point as the “moral obligation,” rather than his point of view. He very pointedly discusses me as some kind of dangerous writer to rally against to defend the poor atheists (which even on that point, he has even misconstrued my whole purpose of the play). Also, comparing my work to the “blood libel” that was employed against the Jews is hugely offensive, inaccurate and manipulative. He’s basically putting on the level of an anti-Semite with such accusations. I find nothing “measured” or “polite” about such rhetoric. But I’ve said all this and have already explained what I found wrong in his approach.

    As to your other questions:

    –”The bits of your play you quote: are they typical of the play as a whole? They’re so expositional. I’m curious if the characters also interact or if they just talk about offstage interactions.”

    No, Th., they’re not typical. In these instances, they’re describing action that happened off stage, but most of the action obviously happens between more naturalistic character interaction onstage. It’s mainly just coincidence that the expositional bits were clumped together here.

    – “I have a hard time reading Goldberg’s criticism as bullying. Surely you’re gotten useful criticism of your work in the past and used it to grow as an artist? If not, the hoorah! now you have the opportunity.”

    I’ve already answered this, but, yes, of course I’ve gotten very useful critique in the past. James himself gave me a lot of great feedback on past plays when we participated in New Play Project together. I’ve often been complimented on my ability to take critique and have gone through 12+ drafts of a play based on continuing critique of mentors and trusted associates. I believe very strongly in the usefulness of feedback. However, what I don’t appreciate is when critique is condescending or overtly offensive… it is THAT, not the critique itself that I found out of whack here. James’ feedback would have been much more effective, and I would have been much more receptive, if had been couched in less antagonistic terms.

  10. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Again, Th., this conversation is rather futile for those who have not read nor seen the play (which is a large majority of the AML), as Scott pointed out.

  11. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Here’s a viewpoint from Margaret Blair Young on the play to counteract James’. Margaret I feel better captures at least my thematic intent in writing the show, which is quite opposite to the “blood libel” accusations:

    • Th. says:


      Criticism of the play, sure, but perhaps not criticism of the criticism. We all write criticism for those who are not familiar with the subject, and read criticism on subjects we’re not familiar of. Were that not so, all we could write about is Hamlet and Harry Potter. And so I feel I can fairly judge James’s post.

      You suggest that he’s put you on the level of an anti-Semite, which is absurd. He’s accusing you of taking storytelling shortcuts, and suggesting those shortcuts result in failures of intent. Even Margaret’s review hints this might be true. If. she suggests, the audience does not buy the quirky (unrealistic?) aspects of your characters, they will have difficulty suspending their disbelief. Me, I love quirk. But I will admit that sometimes it is used in place of real development. Because I have not seen your play I can’t comment on whether this is the case, but both James and Margaret suggest this is the case.

      The most helpful part of your refutation was when you addressed James’s specific evidence. Your issue with the word “killer” given the nature of the death was particularly troubling, and a bit of rhetoric I think James should address. Some of the other examples seem interpretive in a way that suggests you’re arguing that the author’s interpretation of below-the-surface-of-the-play is inherently more valid than an audience member’s. Philosophically, I disagree with this, but that’s another discussion.

      • Scott Hales says:

        I’m don’t think it’s always correct to align quirky with unrealistic, and I think that Mahonri’s characters are as realistic as they can be in a play like “A Roof Overhead” and still accomplish the aims Mahonri seems to have with the play.

        As I think I have argued elsewhere, the play is more interested in ideas than characters. Mahonri is using the play to comment on certain cultural conflicts within America, and his characterization of Sam and the Fielding family take a backseat to those ideas. So, for example, he has a character who is a history grad student who will occasionally provide long-winded history lessons for his family. Sure, someone might actually do something like that, but really, Mahonri is using the character to establish information to support the claims he is trying to make in the play. This is not something I’ve seen Mahonri do in the plays he just published through Zarahemla, and I think that’s because neither of those plays are plays of ideas.

        Like James, I’m not a fan of the way Abish dies in the play, but I understand it as an extreme situation that Mahonri uses to drive his ideas home and lodge them securely in his audience. Maybe that’s bad art on an aesthetic level, but political art often places aesthetics secondary to theme or moral. Think about The Grapes of Wrath or Uncle Tom’s Cabin–both of which stretch the limits of realism to make a political argument.

        I will say this: when I went and saw the play, I left with a lot on my mind–very little of which had to do with aesthetics (although, as I’ve indicated, I did wish the death scene had gone differently). From the looks of it, the audience cared about the characters and many in the small audience seemed genuinely touched by the play. On the way home, my brother-in-law and I had a great talk about the issues addressed in the play, and I think we both took something away from it.

        That’s what political art shoots for and I think Mahonri accomplished it with “A Roof Overhead.” I’m interested to see what he does with it in Arizona.

        Also, I should say that while I think the play is successful political art, I don’t think it is so one-sided that it becomes overt propaganda. I think Mahonri gives a fair assessment of the plays balance and biases. Maybe it comes out more in favor of the Mormons…but Mahonri is a Mormon and we can’t fault his sympathies.

        Or can we? Political art always seems to have obvious sympathies, but are Mormon artists allowed to be biased without being accused of trying to share the gospel?

      • Mahonri Stewart says:


        Blood libels are equated with anti-semitism, historically, personally and literarily. By calling my work a blood libel, he’s insinuating that I do the same thing to atheists that those people perpetuating that story did to the Jews. How is that absurd to make that assumption in the context of what he’s saying? It’s a hyperbolic statement that does nothing but cast shame on me and invites people to see my work in a very extreme and negative way. If James meant something else by it, he has not clarified himself on that point, so I am left with that assumption.

        No, I don’t think think that the author’s interpretation is more valid than the audience’s, although I don’t think author’s intent should be ignored either, especially when one is actually talking about the author, as James has, and not merely about the work in its own context. James is talking just as much about authoring here as he is the work itself. James is bringing into question my intent. Considering the framing of the conversation, it’s something I feel like needed to be brought in and addressed, especially since there was not a lot of context a reader could infer besides James’ statements since the text was not currently available to them.

        I’m not a post-modernist, so I do bring more validity to the table when it comes to an author’s intent, but I’m also very happy to concede the validity of what an audience member brings to the table and their private interpretations.

        I have no problem with much of James’ actual criticism here, about taking short cuts or otherwise. That’s good feedback, whether I agree with it or not. So I haven’t addressed that aspect of his criticism. Nor am I calling into question anything negative that can be inferred from Margaret’s reviews. Again, what I’m saying has very little to do with that. But what I am calling into question is his extreme rhetoric and imbalanced presentation of the play and what I have interpreted as some very inflammatory and personal comments about me and my work. I stand by those comments of mine, because that’s exactly how this audience members has interpreted _his_ work.

        This was James’ request about his review:
        “I have now described, to the best of my abilities, the motes in three of my contemporaries’ eyes. So what’s the beam in mine?
        Is my critique correct and constructive, or do I have a distorted view of craft?”

        He also said:
        “Mahonri Stewart should learn how to stand his ground so he can give a good, clean push—”

        I have now obliged him with my opinion about whether his approach was constructive, and also obliged him with the “push” he requested.

      • Scott Hales says:

        I’ll let James respond to the “blood libel” portion of his criticism, but I should state that I think the last scene in the play is important for understanding the rest of the play and what Mahonri is actually saying about his atheist character.

        When I say the play, I didn’t get the sense that Mahonri was trying to issue a blood libel on anyone. The sense I got was that these tensions can become dangerous if we let them escalate–which they do. We see tensions escalate all the time to tragic consequences. In the end, all are to blame. This is what I think the play says and that’s the sense I got from watching it.

        Of course, I am also not an atheist and I concede the point that an atheist may read the play very differently than I do. I think it is such that both Mormons and Atheists could be offended by the way it represents them.

        • Mahonri Stewart says:

          A few atheists have read the play. One of them adored it, and especially loved the characters of Max and Daisy (she’s an ardent feminist and really appreciated that element of the play).

          One of them may not actually be an outright atheist now that I think of it, as he has Buddhist tendencies, but is one of my wonderful secular, gay friends who left the Church years ago. He said this in the comments section of Margaret’s review:

          “This play portrays a forward thinking possibly feminist Mormon family. That in and of itself might rub some orthodox Utah Mormons the wrong way. The play is VERY well written and I love the characters. I think everyone will get something different out of the play when they leave, and that shows good writing. Another good sign that it’s well written, I hate the ending and left upset like only a good story that rubs me the wrong way can.”

          My entire class of Dramatic Writing grad school peers read the play and most of them are irreligious. Their comments were very helpful and had nothing to do with blood libels or any other such rhetoric, but thought that the play explained the Church too much and got mired in the section that talked about blacks and the priesthood when Tyrell comes to dinner for the first time (which I edited down in the performed version because of their feedback). But they all generally had positive things to say, especially about the characters.

          As Scott mentions, one of the increasingly peculiar things about this particular play was that people had wildly different interpretations of it (which should make the post-modernist in you very happy, Th.). Some thought that it was anti-Mormon (one of the actresses mothers asked her why I hated Mormons so much), while others thought it was very pro-atheist, while (as we’ve seen) some thought it was tantamount to a blood libel against atheists. It was very bewildering for me as an author to know which audience feedback to listen to, as I was getting such extremely opposite responses.

          One of the things that caused this, I’m sure, is that I gave all of the characters flaws, sometimes pretty extreme ones… except maybe the Wiccan Ashera and the African-American Mormon Tyrell, who come off looking pretty rosy in the show. At least everyone seemed to like them and they were the least divisive figures. But they were the most minor characters, and the most central characters were what I considered to be very flawed. How people responded to those flaws was very interesting, as some people wanted a more rosy portrayal of whatever group they were rooting for.

          This is one of the bewildering things I’ve found in not just James’ critique of my work, but others he’s critiqued as well, including Levi Peterson in this review. James often seems defensive in how a community is portrayed, which I can certainly understand. But Sam is not meant to be representative of all atheists, just as the Fieldings are not meant to represent all Mormons. They’re individuals who have been influenced by their respective communities, but are not universal representations by any stretch of the imagination. They have their own personal flaws and strengths and their own unique set circumstances (Sam, for example, is very influenced by the death of her gay friend Tyler, as well as the problematic background of her family and her former Baptist faith, which she has long since rejected).

          James and I have a common interest in the Harlem Rennaissance (I took a wonderful class on it in college), which we both like to equate to the Mormon Arts world. Whether he recognizes it or not, I’ve often seen James as taking the W.E.B. Dubois side of communal art, where DuBois thought that the Harlem Renaissance should be used as a tool to build up the community, so art that ever critiqued the African-American community should not be encouraged. Then there were artists like Langston Hughes, who rejected this communal view and thought that art should be individualistic, even when it represented flaws within its characters.

          I tried to take the Langston Hughes approach in A Roof Overhead, and critiqued the monolithic approach to community (on both sides, Mormons and secularists alike), and then, rather, tried to celebrate the individual, flaws, strengths and all. Whether I was successful in that, I’m certainly open to criticism on those points. But I attempted to articulate that view in both of these snippets of the play:

          “ABISH (CONT’D)
          Oh, come on, Joel, don’t be so serious. See that is what’s wrong with you! So serious! So sober! Our little Eeyore… “Thanks for noticing me.”
          Look, you’re being offensive, you know?
          And that’s where you like to be, in everyone’s face, demanding attention…
          Ease off, Joel! Jeez, it’s like every conversation I have with you turns into this big downer!
          There are certain things that deserve respect… certain events…
          Yeah, yeah, you’ve told me all of this before. Heil History!
          Our worlds seem so big to us. But we’re really small. In history’s scope, we’re just…
          You think I’m small?
          We’re all small, and…
          I’m not small. I’m valuable.
          There are whole movements, whole revolutions… and we’re, yes, we’re small.
          Well, then “small” as I am, what does it matter if I listen to the establishment’s versions of history?”
          Enter DAISY from the basement door.
          Okay, what’s happening up here?
          Oh, were we bothering you, Mom? I didn’t think anyone could over hear our little conversation.
          Look, your father and I are showing somebody the basement apartment. Could we not scare her into thinking that she’d be living above a family of cage fighters?
          Sure, Mom, sure, you got it. I was going out anyway. I was just going to crawl into a hole somewhere and brood upon the fact that I don’t matter.
          Abish, really, that’s not all what I meant and you know it.
          You know, Joel, maybe you’re right… maybe these big battles and culture wars of yours are unstoppable forces that are just ready to swallow us whole. But, if that’s the case, don’t you think little people like us should just get out of the way and the let the storms, I don’t know, pass us by? Otherwise, well, man, we’re going to get crushed. ”

          And then this…

          I thought you were getting along with the family better…
          Abish…you’re so lucky to have such a loving, wonderful family. I’m serious about that. It’s a gift I didn’t have, but wanted so much. But they’re all so gullible. You, though… Abish, you’re… I have such high hopes for you.
          Look, Abish, out of your whole family, well, you know what they’re like…
          Not from your point of view. Enlighten me.
          Your family all have their good points, I really admire them, but come on… I see your frustration with them…
          That’s my business, not yours.
          You know, I’ve said enough. I’ll just go back downstairs…
          Wait. You can’t just leave it hanging like that.
          I shouldn’t have said anything…
          Look, you can do that to Naomi or Mom… they care about being kind and nice and whatever. Well, I’m not nice. And I don’t care whether you’re nice. So if you have something to whine about, well, just get it over with.
          There’s no reason to start getting offensive…
          Offensive? Oh, is the shy, little Molly Mormon offending the modern, sophisticated secularist?
          Stop being melodramatic. You know as well as I do that you don’t believe a word of the crap you’ve been fed.
          No, you just can’t understand why I believe it…
          Every little way you present yourself, every little rebellion, it’s all proof that you’re just straining to break out of the oppressive…
          Whatever problems I have with Mormon culture does not mean that I have troubles with the religion. I completely believe…
          Do you?
          Oh, so it’s this whole Holy Spirit thing, this Holy Ghost, Pentecostal flame that’s just burning through you to testify! Testify!
          Sam, for as long as you’ve been with us, you still don’t understand us at all. Jeez, you’re just…
          That’s how you know! Oh, you know! Suddenly the doubts and contradictions and hypocrisies… they’re just blown out of the water! All due to a happy feeling! A happy, naive, blissful-state-of-ignorance, feeling!
          Feeling? Feeling?! You think it just boils down to emotionalism, to, well, like, a kumbaya pep rally? Is that what you think we’re talking about?
          I come from the South, young lady, I know better. Oh, I saw the clapping and the singing and the yelling and the pitch fevered, erratic tongued celebration of…
          Whoa, if you think a Mormon meeting is anything like those, well, wow, then you haven’t slept through some of the boring talks I have.
          You don’t fool me. Isn’t that how all of you talk? Dreams, promptings, burnings, “spiritual” experiences… how is that supposed to show any sort of solid…?
          It’s not supposed to show any solid anything! That’s the point! It’s a completely personal experience!
          And so it doesn’t prove a single thing to anybody, but you…
          Exactly! There’s no one pushing you, no one forcing you… that’s what Joseph Smith’s First Vision is all about… away from the revivals and the yelling and the movements and arguments and… well, away from the whole world and it’s busy, screaming masses telling you to join this religion or that cause or this political party or that fraternity or this uprising… and away from that, you just step into that grove of trees by yourself… except you’re not by yourself, because you realize God is there with you… can see you, hear you, small as you are, despite the big backdrop of world events and even though you’re whispering that little prayer… and then God manifests himself!
          Oh, and so you’re a visionary, too, then? You’ve finally inherited that fire that your sister spouts off all the time? A little Joseph Smith, a miniature Joan of Arc?
          Oh, come on, Abish. You don’t go for that visionary insanity… lime disease, bi-polar mania, mass hallucination, sleep paralysis stuff… there is a rational explanation for each and every mental disease or physical hiccup passed off as a religious experience!
          Oh, you’re talking to the wrong person! I’ve never said I’ve had any experience like it!
          Then why have you been spouting off…
          Because I believe her. I believe those who have said they had those experiences. For I’ve discovered that is my gift of the Spirit. I have the gift of faith. I believe.
          Just take it on faith? Without any evidence? Even without the “personal” evidence you’ve just been running on about?
          Oh, it’s plenty personal.
          Come on! Abish, you’re a smart girl, don’t go for that kind of cop out…
          You believed once, didn’t you? In your Baptist days?
          I accepted once. Unthinking acceptance.
          That’s not the same. There’s plenty of Mormons like that. Just going with the religion because it’s culturally easy… never asking themselves the hard questions because they don’t even want to know the answers. The real Mormons haven’t zoned out, and they haven’t, like, fallen away or jumped ship… they are the ones asking the hard questions and are willing to take it when God gives them the hard answers… and then live by those answers.
          Abish, I’m your friend…
          Cool. Then leave my religion alone.
          I’m trying to help you!
          Why do you think I would need you?
          What if I need you, Abish? We’re connected, you and I. We’ve both felt that.
          Connected? Since when did you believe in any sort of connection? What do words like friend or family mean to those who see absolutely no meaning in life!
          They mean all the more to me because I don’t believe in all of that! When it’s gone, it’s gone! And I’ve already pushed too many away, Abish– I didn’t mean to push you away, too.
          I want you to leave this house.
          I’m afraid that’s not your decision. I have an agreement with your parents.
          That’s going to change.
          Abish, really…
          Me and God, well, I think we can figure out a way to force you out.
          I thought you said that God doesn’t talk to you.
          Oh, I never said that. He and I, well, we use a kind of sign language. He makes things very clear to me.
          Well, good luck with that, because I’m not planning on going anywhere.
          You know, Sam, no matter what I may lack which is so evident in the rest of my family, I’ve got an ability that they don’t.
          And what’s that?
          I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty.
          Abish, I love you, but, well, I’m supposed to be afraid of a 15 year old girl?
          16. Remember, I’m 16 now. And, lady, believe me when I say that I’m having a coming of age.”

  12. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Also, since I’m at it and it was brought up, here’s the ending that Scott referenced, as it currently stands (although it may change slightly for the AZ performance). I don’t mind sharing:
    NAOMI opens the door to reveal SAM. NAOMI just stands there in shocked silence for a moment.
    Hi, Naomi.
    Enter MAXWELL.
    Naomi, who’s at the…
    (sees SAM)
    No. No, you’re not welcome here, Sam.
    Please, Mr. Fielding, I’ve come to–
    I don’t care why you’ve come.
    I’ve been carrying this for over a year. Please, just hear me out.
    There’s no hearing it out!
    Enter DAISY, JOEL and ASHERA.
    Darling, what’s going…?
    They all stop.
    Sam. Sam, this is not a good idea.
    I need this…
    You talk about what you need? You dare come here and think that we care at all about what you need?
    Please, Mr. and Mrs. Fielding, I know what I did was…
    You killed my little sister!
    NAOMI slaps SAM. This shocks everyone, most especially NAOMI herself. NAOMI rushes into TYRELL’s arms and buries her head, crying.
    Sam, really, I think it’s time you left.
    Naomi, what was in the letter?
    (raising her head and looking at SAM)
    What letter?
    The letter you sent me. You sent me a letter before we found out about Abish’s death. I… I never read it.
    I had totally forgotten about writing that.
    What was in the letter?
    An apology.
    I apologized for being pushy with the Book of Mormon before I left. You had already told me that you weren’t interested so… so I apologized.
    What did you think I wrote?
    I… I don’t know what I was thinking.
    What is she still doing here?
    Mr. Fielding, I just want to say my peace, I want to make…
    Not today, not with us. If you want to make peace with God, that’s what you should do, but you can’t expect us to–
    I can’t make peace with God! I don’t believe in God!
    Then without God, Sam, you’ve got nothing to hold onto, because we’re not going to…
    DAISY who has been sitting silently this whole time, stands and speaks for the first time. Everyone looks to her.
    Daisy, this is asking too much…
    Seven times seventy, Max.
    I know, but… she… she was…
    She was our little girl.
    DAISY goes over to SAM and takes her by the hands.
    Daisy, you must believe me… I loved her. She was the last person I would have ever wanted to…
    (kindly, not belligerent or overbearing)
    I looked at Abish and what I saw was the future of the Church– the future of this family. She was everything I had so often wanted to be, but felt like I couldn’t be, because of my culture, because of my habits, because of my upbringing. She was a little wild, true, but she also so often was right. Saw things clearly, saw things honestly… she was authentic. And then, Sam, when people came along to try and tear down her faith, tear down our hope, I was very resentful, but I understood a little. They did so to keep their own beliefs intact, because they’re trying to make sense of it all, too. And because, in their own way, they love her, too. You did what you did defensively, like we so often do, and we’re often as cruel to you as you are cruel to us. But when you try and take our future, our children, and when I know your words are effecting them… that’s when it hits me the hardest. Because you’re taking away our progress. Joel, Naomi… Abish. They have so much more potential in them than I ever hoped for myself. They fly so high and I… sometimes I just marvel. But, if they’re shot down, if you don’t allow them to lift the rest of us up, to push us towards progress… then we’re left behind. Do you see this?
    I think so, Daisy.
    You’re going to eat dinner with us tonight.
    Now, Daisy…
    I don’t know if that’s…
    Eat with us. Finally eat with us at our table.
    SAM simply nods, effected.
    Mom, we’ve already had dinner.
    Then dessert. Maxwell, can you make some banana shakes?
    Please, Max, all of us need this.
    Mom, really, no, we can’t do this. She comes here with a little emotional manipulation, an atheistic hail Mary, and– and that’s it? She gets fast and free absolution for killing your daughter?
    No! I– I had my own things to make up to Abish. Bridges I had yet to build, apologies I wanted to make and– and I was robbed of that chance. The guilt I hold is not so easily erased, so why should hers be?
    I’m in as much pain as you are, Joel, but Mom is right– it wasn’t her fault.
    Yes, it was!
    Abish was killed by a bunch of drunk bullies…
    … who were spurred on by her words. Her words! Yes, free speech is a right, but it’s also a privilege. When words are purposely constructed to hurt, to make another person or group into a hiss, a curse, when words are used to shame without love, to break down without offering healing in its aftermath… then those words have been abused, they have been turned into a weapon.
    Tyrell, you mentioned love. Is this love?
    No, no! You don’t get to dictate when I feel what. You don’t get to manipulate me like that.
    I’m not trying to manipulate. But I’m not the monster you make me out to be either. You don’t get to use words without consequence either.
    Every movement has it’s leaders, and the fierce anti-Mormonism that exists today is led by the banners of ardent atheists and impassioned evangelicals alike, from the right and the left, from every side. You all may not see the big picture, but I do, and I see the side that Sam chose and what that movement is trying to do to us.
    Maybe you’re right. Or maybe I was. Maybe we’re as divided as we both thought, with no way of reconciliation, no common ground. But I hope we were both wrong. That’s why I’m here. Despite all that has happened, I hope that– that there can still be a kinship between us.
    Kinship? No, in this life and in the next, our kingdoms are going to be divided, Sam. God may be able to forgive you, I hope he does, but unless you change in more major ways than you’ve shown, we’ll need to be put in different rooms, because I’m not going to accept what you did to our family in the name of your cause.
    Joel, how can you say that? God’s grace, Christ’s atonement– isn’t that what the Gospel is all about?
    If a person repents. If a person accepts Grace and chooses to change. Sam hasn’t really changed, she just feels bad and she just wants us to tell her it’s okay to feel better.
    I have changed, Joel. I have changed so much. The world will never be the same for me, it can’t be. But what I’m telling you is that even before all of this, I was still a good person even then. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.
    Your article persuaded me otherwise.
    I was only stating my beliefs…
    But you were under our roof, living with our family! You dragged us into it!
    No, no, it wasn’t personal!
    Faith is always personal.
    Joel, Sam was Abish’s friend. She more than any of us would have welcomed Sam back.
    We can’t know that because Abish is dead. And I won’t so easily forget that. When Sam’s gone from the house, just give me a call and I’ll be right back.
    Back off, Naomi.
    Exit JOEL. NAOMI is about to go after him when ASHERA stops her.
    Give him a little space, Naomi. We can talk to him later.
    Is that how you feel about me, too, Mr. Fielding? Beyond hope?
    What I feel right now is very different than what I believe.
    And what do you believe?
    That God loves you just as much as my little girl.
    Can– can we pray, Papa? Maybe that will help.
    I think that’s a good idea.
    Do you mind if I say it, Max?
    Go ahead.
    I… I don’t know if I can do that.
    Don’t make it a sign of belief then, Sam. Just a sign of love.
    They all look to SAM and she nods. They gather in a circle and kneel. ASHERA initiates hand holding until they have linked themselves together.
    Dearest Father, we are grateful for thee; for our Mother; for our blessed Savior, thy precious son Jesus; and for the Holy Spirit. We have failed thee so often, but these words amongst the writings of thy prophets comfort us, these words that have haunted my memory ever since I heard them uttered by my littlest child:
    (it is evident that she has painstakingly committed this scripture to memory)
    “… and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” Our Abba, our… our Papa… let us so remember. In the name of thy Son, our brother, Jesus Christ, Amen.
    They all say “Amen,” except for SAM. Wordlessly, they all kneel there for a moment. Then SAM stands.
    I– sometimes I so wish I could still believe. But I can’t.
    Just as our experiences can’t lead us to anywhere but belief.
    Even when it would be easier not to believe.
    Especially then.
    Then where on earth does that leave us?
    Banana shakes?
    Banana shakes.
    Quietly, they all exit into the kitchen.
    THE END.

  13. Mahonri Stewart says:

    There. Phew. I now at least feel better that some of the context of the show is out there, let people react to it as they may.

  14. Thanks for the article James. I’ve been following you for a few years now, but your credibility with me has just hit a very solid wall. I really like your style of writing, and I agree with you on so many levels on so many topics. But the very premise of this article is contradictory, confusing and just plain wrong. Yes, basketball has very defined rules and referees have the ability and necessity to enforce those rules. Even in a pick up game there are clearly defined rules. I notice that you pare down the “rule” idea in art, but paring it down makes no sense to me either. Art can and has been defined by anybody and everybody differently. Art is probably the furthest thing from a defined game like basketball that I can think of. You can cite personal preference. You can cite aesthetic beauty and the aesthetics of the morals and inherent truths, but you cannot make that judgement in the way a referee would. This would be the “God complex” you mention at the beginning of the article. Not treating the plays as such, but your “rules” as the self appointed referee.
    By no means do I consider myself your self appointed referee by the way. I merely am pointing out my personal opinion. I’ve been in the minority many times before, and it’s possible that no one will agree with me on this, but I actually really liked this play. Yes, there is a part of the plot that I didn’t like and bugged me a bit. But I actually cried at the end, and I don’t do that very often. I produce and attend many plays every year, and this is the first one in quite a while that I was overwhelmed emotionally. The family in this play was similar to my own. The conflict was real to me because I saw it in my house growing up in high school. We actually had more than one atheist live with us. I can understand if you didn’t relate. I can understand if your intellectualism would lead you down another road than the characters in this story. But this is FICTION. This is not your life, and just because it didn’t happen to you or perhaps couldn’t have happened to you because of your personality does not preclude this situation from being a potentially realistic situation. Not that it needs to be completely realistic. Again, FICTION. James, come on. We don’t write stories about sitting on the couch and watching TV. We tell tales that are life-and-death situations and by very nature are fantastic. There is a certain amount of suspending our disbelief in absolutely every story ever told, bar none.

    Your conclusion that “It’s an unjustified attack, a flagrant foul. On behalf of maligned atheists, we have a moral obligation to call out work like this.” sounds like you’ve clearly defined a “rule” in this “game”. First off your conclusion to me is false. He didn’t attack atheists at all. There was no lumping atheists into a convenient group of hate. In fact the family forgave and found love in a situation that could have torn a religious family from an atheist girl they had grown to love. To me it’s a comment on love over religion or atheism. I’m really intrigued at how you formed this conclusion more specifically. Your article didn’t really explain this. Perhaps you could for my sake. I’d like to know how Mahonri maligned atheists. If Mahonri had called out and maligned atheists I would agree with you. Bigotry in any form should be called out. But you made the statement without without backing it up with examples from the play that make any sense. Therefore I must call you out on your unfounded bigotry of this play. If you were a referee perhaps you would have the god-like power to call a flagrant foul. But we’re not playing basketball James. This is art. Not just art. BEAUTIFUL AND MOVING ART… but that’s just how I felt. ;)

  15. Mahonri Stewart says:

    This conversation got personal, and James really said some things that upset me, but one thing I want to make clear is the high personal regard I still have for James. I still think he is one of Mormonism’s most unique and talented playwrights and have seen him be a very valiant, kind and good person. This one instance does not wipe out that opinion.

    James asked about his own work and whether it passed literary muster… my opinion has always been that it most certainly does. This is a review that I wrote quite some time ago about his play “Prodigal Son,” which is one of the works James asked to be put under scrutiny:

  16. Apologies for not responding sooner–I was on vacation and away from the internet.

    I definitely went out on a limb talking about “A Roof Overhead” because there isn’t a script we have publicly available. Mahonri has helped reduce that problem with my review by offering us several excerpts. Thank you, Mahonri.

    It seems we now have three distinct ways to interpret the play’s climax: my grumpy version, Mahonri’s artist’s version, and Scott’s in-between view of the moment as a typical rhetorical hyperbole. I hope that all this discussion makes people more likely to go see the next production so they can decide for themselves how right or wrong each of us is!

    As for the blood libel comment–Mahonri is right in calling it too extreme. The phrase was on my mind because Orson Scott Card used it to critique my workshop piece in his class last month–he liked the story, but he pointed out that one historical error would likely be taken as fact with negative consequences for a certain group. For me, it was quite helpful to be told there was a “blood libel” element to my story, so the phrase stuck in my mind. But because my review was largely critical without including affirming discussion of the play’s strength, “blood libel” was out of place when I used it.

  17. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Great response, James. I was wondering why you were being so silent during the discussion. Thanks for clarifying the blood libel comment.

    As long as all the pieces of the context are in place, I’m fine with people having their own interpretations and critiques. I did want to clarify my intentions, however. Thanks for giving me the opportunity.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Processed—to a point.

      I’m glad nobody’s car crashed in the heat of debate. Don’t forget to clean up the fruit stands.

      James’s approach was a fun idea and I’m pretty sure I would have taken it somewhat impersonally if it were my work under the whistle, but, especially in a tight-knit community like this, we should take personalities into account. What’s a ribbing to one is a beating to another. And, yes, one man’s/woman’s//woman’s/man’s apt analogy is another homo sapiens’ fighting words.

      I’ve had the pleasure of engaging five members of the MoLit community in the editing/critiquing process: my brother Jon, poetry editor of Wilderness Interface Zone; Stephen Carter, editor of Sunstone Magazine; James and Nicole Goldberg, editors of Everyday Mormon Writer; and Sarah Dunster, MoLit Web neighbour whom I’ve also critiqued. They’ve all spoken or written with candour about what they liked and didn’t like in my work and been gracious in the face of my willing- and unwillingness to make changes. At the moment, I’m mulling over Sarah’s very generous suggestions in a very recent Facebook exchange and looking forward to returning the favour with a piece she’s working on.

      One thing that excites me about being a member of this community is the potential to develop working relationships as fellow authors and as authors and critics that help us all (authors and critics alike) do better work. The Internet sure is handy in that regard. One thing we need for that to happen is a way of being frank without being insulting. And insulting is in the eye of the beholder.

  18. Wow. Coming into this post/conversation after all the confetti has settled, I can’t have much to say. But I will be coming back and reading post and comments in bite-size pieces because I’m sure it will improve my own writing :)

    Elbows. I agree that perspective change is an annoying thing to read and kind of inexcusable (if it’s actually happened in this case, I don’t know because I haven’t read the actual work.) It is also something I’m working on myself… consistency of voice and perspective. Actually, I only write from 1 character (or narrator) right now for that reason. I don’t feel I’m experienced enough to write a story with multiple perspectives yet… that’s advanced and tricky stuff.

  19. chanson says:

    None of the characters express surprise that teenaged hooligans actually read the local atheist newspaper or even disbelief that the article should have led to a death. No one mentions surprise that American intellectual atheists are suddenly involved in religious violence. It’s simply taken for granted that Sam’s positioning of Mormons as backward and oppressive in a specialized local venue is the sort of thing that leads to anti-Mormon violence.


    I find this particularly surprising in light of Stewart’s two posts on “A Motley Vision” criticizing Kushner’s “Angels in America” for getting Mormons wrong and for using them as straw-men to make an ideological point. (“And it often uses Mormon characters as straw men to knock down so that it can raise up the standard of its cause.”

    Given his criticism of Kushner, I would have expected Stewart to be doubly careful not to do this same thing to someone else. Why not make an effort in his own work to demonstrate how to do a portrayal of an unfamiliar other group right?

    • Chanson,

      As I’ve mentioned before, I think James’ review does the play a disservice in simplifying and flattening my portrayal of Sam, and totally misinterprets my intent. I tried desperately to make her a sympathetic and relatable character, and even made many changes to the script in its second production to address some of the issues that James brings up here. Don’t just take his word for it, or even mine, but read the AML Award citation (A Roof Overhead won the 2012 award for Drama, and Margaret Blair Young’s review ( for counterpoints to James’ point.

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