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?
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!