A few weeks ago, I helped judge the Irreantum contests in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. It’s the second year I’ve done so, and it’s been an absolute joy both times. Mormon literature is an eclectic thing. It’s quirky and serious and hopeful and playful, often all at once.
After this year’s contest winners were announced, those of us who produce Irreantum received a smattering of emails from some of the writers who didn’t win requesting a bit of feedback on their work. These emails were sincere and graceful, and it saddened me that I didn’t have the resources or the time to offer these writers a bit of heartfelt feedback and encouragement.
So I’d like to use this post as an opportunity to respond to the Irreantum contest entries as a group. Really, the weaknesses with the contest submissions weren’t that varying. By and large, the pieces that didn’t win had, in my estimation, one of three major problems. Here those problems are:
Good Ambiguity vs Bad Ambiguity
When we were in high school and college, we read a lot of Faulkner and Joyce and Eliot. And we didn’t understand these writers at all. We found their work to be obscure, inaccessible, and ambiguous. We loved literature, but we were confused by a lot of it, so some of us began to believe that serious literature was inaccessible, and we started writing works that were intentionally confusing. When we showed these works to our friends and they read them with bleary eyes and called our writing “deep,” we assumed we were on the right track.
A lot of the work in this year’s contest seemed to have been written with that sort of mindset (particularly the poetry). I often felt that writers were trying to confuse me on purpose. They wanted me, it seemed, to wander through a haze of murky language until I might (or might not) stumble upon their meaning.
But there’s a difference between good ambiguity and bad ambiguity in literature. I think it boils down to this: Bad ambiguity stems from the question, “What’s going on?” If your readers ever ask this, you need to sharpen things. Readers are only going to spend so much time with your story/poem, so don’t force them to spend this time trying to decipher your plot or decode your language. Good ambiguity, on the other hand, stems from the question, “What does it all mean?” You want readers to spend time processing the significance of the events or images in your work.
Here’s an example: When the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” lies dead in the dirt, there is no ambiguity concerning what just took place. The Misfit shot her, and she’s dead. But the story has force because there is ambiguity in what the grandmother’s death means. What brought it about? What were the grandmother’s fatal flaws? Is there redemption here? Readers don’t have to work very hard to figure out what’s happening. They do, however, have to work pretty hard to process what the events mean. That’s good ambiguity.
Social and Political Agendas
We at AML spend a lot of time lamenting the one-dimensional nature of popular LDS literature. If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you know what I mean. Popular Mormon literature is too simple, we say. It ignores hard questions, we say. It looks at the world through a lens and seems to value furthering an agenda more than honest stories, we say. I’m not sure I buy all of these arguments, but some writers, it seems, respond to these concerns by producing literature that mirrors the flaws of popular Mormon literature.
For example, a writer might be tired of one-dimensional stories about faith, so to “balance” things, this writer produces a one-dimensional story about doubt. A writer might be tired of how conservative rhetoric infiltrates Mormon culture, so in response, this writer will produce a story that aims to insert liberal rhetoric into Mormon culture. But will this writing, crafted with a precise agenda, be any less “shallow” than the literature so many of us spend our time decrying? I don’t think so.
Many of the works I read for this year’s contest showed the same flaws that I see in a lot of popular Mormon literature. They just committed these flaws while espousing an atypical social or political agenda.
But political or social agendas can’t drive art—no matter the position. Characters have to drive art. Otherwise, you produce propaganda. A poem is no place for a soapbox, and a story has no room for a sermon.
Literature that Ends vs Literature that Stops
I often tell my students that a work of literature should build to a choice that will change things forever (stories, especially, need to do this). That’s how you know when a story is about to end. Once a character makes some choice that will change everything, you’re winding things down.
A lot of the works I read in this contest lacked that kind of character choice. Characters suffered, yes. They noticed beauty, absolutely. They pondered ideas, thoroughly. But until a character makes some choice that will rock their world, I haven’t read a story. What Frank Kermode calls “the sense of an ending”—that feeling we get when things in a story are different and new and reborn—didn’t play out in front of me often enough. Sometimes I even turned a page, expecting a story to continue only to realize that the author had stopped writing.
“But wait,” I wanted to say. “This character hasn’t made any big choices yet. Stuff is happening to the character, not because of the character. This story hasn’t ended. It’s just stopped.”
Stories don’t end—not really—until a character make a new choice, a choice that character was incapable of making on page one.
So, there you have my two cents. I’d like to end this post by pointing out that these bits of criticism are the rambling thoughts of only one contest judge. I don’t presume to speak for the whole contest committee. Other judges may have felt differently about the literature from this year, but I stand by these things I’ve declared. When I judge the contest next year, I’ll be looking for these errors, and I’ll argue hard in favor of works that avoid them.