Discussion: Your take on the Four Centuries contest stories

James Goldberg’s Four Centuries of Mormon Stories contest was a fantastic opportunity to get a look at twelve excellent visions on Mormon short-short stories told from a wide variety of viewpoints and structures. Each story was posted online, and open discussions hosted on various blogs in the greater Mormon literosphere. Contest winners were selected by popular vote.

Not surprisingly, my vote only hit on one of the four winners; all of the twelve finalists were fine stories and I suspect they were mostly bunched up together. While I can’t complain about the winning selections, it did surprise me a little that my pick for number one didn’t place at all.

I think hearing peoples’ top four (or five or six) stories would be interesting, and a polite discussion around reasons would be enlightening in seeing how different readers responded to different things from their unique viewpoints.

James posted links to the finalist stories on Everyday Mormon Writer. Follow the links to read the full text; links to discussions appear at the bottom.

For review, here were the finalist stories:

* Waiting, by Katherine Cowley (3rd place tie). Discussion on Segullah.

* Avek, Who Is Distributed, by Steven Peck (1st place). Discussion on A Motley Vision.

* Release, by Wm Morris. Discussion on ericjamesstone.com.

* The Defection of Baby Mixo, by Mark Penny. Discussion on Mormon Midrashim.

* Oaxaca, by Anneke Garcia. Discussion on A Latter-day Voice.

* The ReActivator, by Wm Morris. Discussion on Modern Mormon Men.

* Something Practical, by Melody Burris (3rd place tie). Discussion on Everyday Mormon Writer Facebook page.

* When the Bishop Started Killing Dogs, by Steven Peck (2nd place). Discussion on Thmazing’s Thutopia.

* Maureen Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North, by Theric Jepson. Discussion on The Low Tech World.

* Numbers, by Melody Burris. Discussion on the Being LDS blog.

* Ruby’s Gift, by Emily Debenham. Discussion on Real Intent.

* Little Karl, by Melissa Leilani Larson. Discussion on Dawning of a Brighter Day.

While the discussions on each story are very interesting and enlightening, I think commenting on how and why folks ranked as they did is a somewhat different activity. Your views are greatly appreciated.

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20 Responses to Discussion: Your take on the Four Centuries contest stories

  1. Scott Parkin says:

    To kick it off, here are my top six, along with capsule comments on the story. Though it was not part of the contest, I did send these along with my vote.

    1. “Little Karl” by Melissa Leilani Larson
    A haunting, well-paced story that lives in the mind long after the text is read. Touches on a core separation between Mormons and the rest of the world that cannot be overcome. Powerful beyond its size.

    2. “Avek, Who Is Distributed” by Steven Peck
    This is the most sparkling idea I’ve read in a long time, delivered in a tight package with clean language. The underlying existential question is real and (I suspect) some variant of it will become real in the near future. I wanted to rank it first, but felt Little Karl had just a bit more depth if a bit less sparkle.

    3. “Something Practical” by Melody Burris
    A fun, clever story that epitomizes both the short form and the good humor of a kind of Mormon mom that I think is every bit as common as the harried, overwhelmed, quivering mass so popular in Mormon story.

    4. “Oaxaca” by Anneke Garcia
    A powerful idea and needed rebuke packaged in a clean tale that brings in many of the little spiritual-political games we play with each other. Charitably annoyed rather than condemningly angry in a way that is both cultural exploration and gentle chide. Nicely delivered story that allowed its premise to work without getting distracted in setup.

    5. “The Defection of Baby Mixo” by Mark Penny
    A fun punch-piece that cleverly slapped me in the face with my own expectations. I struggled to place it out of the top four, but felt that where Oaxaca had multiple comments, this story really only had one—which played out relatively early and offered nothing new as it went.

    6. “Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North” by Theric Jepson
    A clever, interesting story whose nuance is most certainly beyond my own experience. With little knowledge of Nephi Anderson outside of Added Upon, I could see the allusions and references, but I could not engage them at a personal level. Too much (missing) outside knowledge required, otherwise I have no doubt I would have ranked this higher. Without that outside knowledge, this was merely clever for me rather than profound.

  2. Wm says:

    I voted for my two stories and for:

    Avek, Who is Distributed and Waiting

    It was (and I’m not just being diplomatic here) a difficult vote. If I recall correctly, more difficult than my Mormon Lit Blitz vote. I think what it came down to for me (and this is part of why I voted for my own stories) was a desire to reward the stories that had lines that really hit me hard and that also created something new and authentically Mormon. Those criteria I think led me to over-value the 22nd century titles, but I had to have some sort of criteria because otherwise I would have just voted for everything.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    This previously appeared on Thutopia, but now I’m including the final ranking I decided upon.

    = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    3. “Little Karl” by Melissa Leilani Larson (19th century)
    The contest started with this blow to the amygdalae that left parents everywhere shivering. And its matter-of-fact mannerisms only deepen the awful reality.

    2. “Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North” by Theric Jepson (20th century)
    I know I know I know. This one is mine. And I’ve spent some time considering my motivations but I really do believe this is a pretty dang good story. And I’m pleased with how its metafictional elements caught people’s imagination. Which thing I never did suspect.

    1. “When the Bishop Started Killing Dogs” by Steven Peck (20th century)
    I was terribly happy when I got to host this story. Besides me being a Peck fan, I found this story hit all kinds of sweet spots. The one between individual necessity and community obligation. The one between easing the reader along and slapping the reader’s face. The one between nostalgic Americana and Deliverance. You know. Sweet spots.

    3. “The ReActivator” by Wm Morris (21st century)
    I think of all the stories in the contest, this is the one that I identified with the most clearly. This is a protagonist I understand—perhaps a little too well.

    5. “Oaxaca” by Anneke Garcia (21st century)
    This is the only story in my final five that takes place in the future. Make of that what you will. I like how this story plays with the Americentric assumptions of Mormon literature and reveals our common humanity at the same time.

    = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    What’s interesting to me know is that I THOUGHT I had ranked “Little Karl” first. I guess, as time passes, it has grown in my estimation.

  4. Mark Penny says:

    1. The Defection of Baby Mixo
    Because I was more excited about the concept of this story than of any of the others (though some came close) and because I felt the author, who could have used the money in his wallet (and the feather in his cap), needed all the support he could get.

    2. Release
    Because it had the second coolest concept. I kept thinking about it for days.

    3. Aveck, Who Is Distributed
    Because it was a perky, quirky story with a cool take on a historical issue. I shoved it as far down the list as I could because we Canadians vote strategically and I knew Peck would have lots of support and I really wanted to win because I really needed the money…and…and the feather…and…just a minute…and it’s not fair! He always wins!

    4. Waiting
    Because it was so recognizable in a weird set of clothes.

    I liked all the stories, frankly, and I reckoned any one of them but mine had a good chance of winning (although one of Peck’s was most likely, because he’s such a big name and everybody likes him and writes good stories…and…and…aaaargh!)

  5. Scott Hales says:

    My vote was as follows:

    1. “Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North”

    2. “Little Karl”

    3. “When the Bishop Started Killing Dogs”

    4. “Release”

  6. Scott Parkin says:

    I know I was really hard on Release[8] (and its companion, The ReActivator[11]), as well as When the Bishop Started Killing Dogs[10] because each hit a personal sore spot that left me feeling argumentative (in an “I simply disagree” way rather than a “I feel my assumptions usefully challenged” sort of way).

    I recognize those reactions as individually idiosyncratic and most certainly deeply unfair. But *for me* those reactions made the stories less penetrating or entertaining than the ones I placed higher. Like Theric’s story that I recognized to be allusive and richly layered, but whose depth *I* could not appreciate because of limitations in my own knowledge of either Nephi Anderson or Maureen Whipple.

    It’s a hazard of the flash/short-short form. Where you have very limited space to create character complexity and only enough time to leave one powerful impression, it essentially forces readers to evaluate their enjoyment on the basis of that one strong image. Clearly, brevity is not my thing, and is why I could not find a way to participate as an entrant in the contest.

    It’s where I actually struggled a lot with Release. It had (by far) the greatest concept density and complexity of any finalist (Train North second; Avec third), and (for me) the most intriguing speculation on how Mormon concepts might express in an entirely different context.

    While I loved every question asked and each idea explored, for me there were too many packed into too small a package, thus short-changing me as an individual reader with arguments made in shorthand. In this short-short form, *I* believe the story was too ambitious for its own good, and that ambition hurt its ultimate effectiveness for me by leaving too many necessary questions unanswered.

    For me it did not succeed on its own terms (or those of the very short form) as well as others did despite its superior concept density. I would love to see it expanded to 6-7k words (or longer) and give itself more scenes to develop its complex underlying arguments.

    One of my failings as a reader is that I know I often miss subtleties and nuance (and become inordinately proud of myself when I do notice them). As I stood on the wrong side of a very long-winded (or at least *I* was long-winded) argument in the discussion on ejs, I accepted that *I* just wasn’t seeing something. I recognized the fact of the transcendent moment, but was not personally moved by it because *I* did not accept the limited arguments made in the very limited space—or at least accept that the character accepted them.

    My individual Mormonism rebelled against the characters’ version—precisely because we each live a deeply private and individualized form of our common religion. I don’t have to accept your (the character’s) ideas, but I need to know why you do and believe your acceptance to be justified by the story.

    (Some day I’ll document Scott’s Seventeen Private Heresies—most of which really aren’t, but all of which have been points of intense disagreement on core assumption with some of my fellow Mormons. But not here.)

    Fair or not, that hurt both my appreciation of the elements and my enjoyment of the delivery. I can admire something I disagree with (as an editor, awards coordinator, and judge of many a contest I worked very hard to learn to separate the two), but in this case I admired others for succeeding on their terms more than I admired Release for succeeding on its.

    It’s why it’s always better to have more voters (judges). Theoretically it smooths out these kinds of personal idiosyncrasies.

  7. SteveP says:

    Actually, I didn’t vote. Somehow I got it in my head (many things appear there that have no bases in reality) that because I had entered, I couldn’t vote. In looking back I realize that was silly and obviously everyone else did. Sorry. I can tell you my top two as they remained with me long after reading them.

    The one that bowled me over most was Release. Absolutely stunningly written, I couldn’t let go of it. I kept going back to it to understand it, then got caught up in imagining the interplay between consciousness (I used to teach a class in consciousness philosophy) and the subconsciousness of faith. Such an intriguing concept. I thought this one would take it all.

    My second was “Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North” I love alternate histories (My BCC alternate history posts of late are the most unread BCC posts in history and I think my co-bloggers are about to vote me off the island). I loved the sense of mystery it created as Anderson was revealed as what I took to be the Mephistopheles character (for so I saw him, and maybe that says something my take in Mormon lit if Anderson so quickly fell into that characterization!). Loved the idea of those two meeting.

    All of the other stories refused to be ranked. I like them all without exception and found them different enough that I had trouble sorting them. These were wonderful stories from top to bottom.

    I really was surprised I won and had something akin to surviver’s guilt for having done so.

    We ought to put them into a volume or chapbook of some sort. I think it was so well managed and executed. Thanks once again to everyone involved.

  8. SteveP says:

    “basis in reality” (oh forget it, everyone knows I can’t spell, there is not point in pretending).

  9. Jonathon Penny says:

    For what it’s worth, I referred to “Release” in a sacrament meeting talk a little while ago. Oh, and I read a story from _Monsters and Mormons_ at a YM camp.

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