Towards a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective, Part II: Spec Lit and a Theory of Mormon Literature

In the second of three guest posts leading up to the launch of a proposed website dedicated to displaying and developing talent in Mormon speculative fiction, project instigator Mark Penny waxes analytical over the role of speculative fiction writer as disciple of Christ in the community of Zion. To participate in a discussion of the project, click here.

 

An Inclusive Introduction

Six months ago, Mormon LitCrit Scott Hales asked “Do we need a new Mormon literary theory?” Back then I was just starting out in the Bloggernacle, reading and commenting with neophyte abandon on blogs like Dawning of a Brighter Day and A Motley Vision and publishing a bit of poetry on Wilderness Interface Zone, all astir with enthusiasm for this community that discussed and produced introspective fiction about the Mormon experience, and thinking, “Yes! There should be theories!” Now, in the throes of planning and building a Mormon speculative fiction e-collective, I find great urgency in the question of what constitutes Mormon literature, especially in the speculative genres.

Let’s start with this idea of speculative fiction, which Collin’s English Dictionary defines as “a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.” An article on Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale points out that

Once the term went into popular use [apparently after Robert A. Heinlein's 1948 essay "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction"], editors, readers, academics and some writers developed a tendency to think of speculative fiction as an umbrella term covering everything from science fiction and fantasy to magical realism.

That works for me, but lest anyone obvious feel left out, Wikipedia claims Ms. Atwood elaborated somewhere that speculative fiction is

an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature as well as related static, motion, and virtual arts.

For the purposes of the e-Collective, let us say that speculative fiction includes all fiction “not highly invested in ‘realism’.”

A trickier issue is what constitutes Mormon literature. My instinct is to restrict it to literature created by a Mormon mind and focusing on explicitly Mormon values, themes, archetypes, scriptures, historical characters or events, and issues: literature of the people, by the people and for the people. But that would exclude C. Douglas Birkhead, author of “Baptisms for the Dead”, one of the more flatteringly Mormon contributions to Theric Jepson and Wm Henry Morris‘s Monsters and Mormons. You see, Birkhead isn’t Mormon (personal communication), although his mind appears to have been when he wrote the story and I am inclined to say that Mormon literature is no worse off for Birkhead’s story having stowed away in it. Innocuous cuckoos aside, I’m going to stick with my definition for the moment, excluding Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight (which seems to me to be no more Mormon than the dental work I got from my stake president) and including certain works by Orson Scott Card, stories, such as The Tales of Alvin Maker, the Homecoming Saga, Saints and The Folk of the Fringe, which explicitly tie in with Mormonism.

The 2012 Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest on Everyday Mormon Writer, which inspired the dream of a place where Mormon spec fic writers could share and discuss their work with each other and with the Mormon spec fic reading public, provides six models from which I would like to draw a few conclusions about what makes a piece Mormon speculative fiction. Let’s take a look.

 

Maurine Whipple, 16, Takes a Train North by Theric Jepson

Two authors share a train compartment and discuss literature. Not a very promising concept, but in the hands of a guy who styles himself and his blog with a slurring lithp, you just know there’s something impish going on. Sure enough, no sooner does the titular protagonist settle properly onto her bench than she falls (figuratively literally and literally figuratively) into the clutches of a Mephistophelean mentor, for seated across from her is none other than Nephi Anderson, 54, reading Mark Twain’s last scandalous opus and itching to free a young, questioning Eve from the blind faith and dreams-of-prince-charmings that make his best-known work (Added Upon) a perennial hit with “all the girls” in Eden. [Download Added Upon]

Maurine Whipple and Nephi Anderson never met or corresponded, for all we know, despite a twenty-year window of opportunity, and Whipple’s best-known work (The Giant Joshua) went to press eighteen years after Anderson’s death, so, technically (and in a broad sense), Jepson’s piece sneaks in as alternate history. However, what grabs me by the speculative fiction lapels is the Saki-esque under reality. If you’ve read any Saki, you’ll know what I mean. In Saki, things happen or are said or done that are normally inhibited by the laws of nature or the social mind of man. I like the term under reality for this approach in general. For Jepson’s piece, I offer the additional label Molit punk, because it’s alternate history about discussing Mormon literature on a train probably driven by steam.

 

Oaxaca by Anneke Garcia

A Relief Society president and her branch president discuss an upcoming potluck dinner–another less-than-tempting concept that blossoms into something more sinister. Houston-born Hermana Rodriguez and ex-Spanish-speaking missionary, President Buckley, are the yin and yang of the Oaxaca International Branch, which is spiritual home to white and Chicano refugees of politico-military upheaval in the soon to be former United States. Locally, there’s stress over the menu and music, but in the wider world, tables are turning as “trouble in Central America” turns a Gucci store into a cow graveyard and the US government prepares to “cede the capitol” of a country which turned out less “solid and invulnerable” than the Church.

For American readers, this is apocalyptic (even dystopian) science fiction, a future in which things fall apart to the dominant culture’s disadvantage. The background scenario of this piece seems to be based on an inconvenient conditional future truth in 3 Nephi 21, notably verse 11, in which

my people who are a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he go through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.

Aficionados will remember Orson Scott Card’s use of this concept in The Folk of the Fringe. For me, Garcia’s piece is a reminder that although the Church was restored in America, it is not an American church, even if the American branch president has the well-intentioned gall to request that the upcoming bi-cultural social “go easy on the Latin music.”

 

The Defection of Baby Mixo by Mark Penny

The straight son of gay Mormon parents announces he is leaving the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual LDS Church, in which he was raised, for the Original LDS Church, which is “circling the wagons” against alternative sexual relationships and activity. In this epistolary piece, faith, family and self submit to the judgment of conscience, “part of what Jesus will judge [us] by.” More glorified premise statement than proper narrative, this piece attempts to study the issue of Mormonism and sexual orientation with balanced compassionate irony, asking each side to see the other’s point of view and to see it as valid, even if the two cannot be reconciled.

Crucial to that agenda are the facts that the protagonist-narrator, through the miracle of “genetic scrambling” or “chromosome mixing”, is the genetic child of both fathers, that the LGBT LDS community makes every effort to provide male and female parenting through “home sharing” and fictive kinship, that the community has developed its own alternative sexual and Latter-day Saint identity (symbolized, somewhat clumsily in this version of the story, by migration to Mars), and that, though opposed to alternative sexuality, the protagonist is more inconvenienced than damaged by its presence in his past.

 

Waiting by Katherine Cowley

A pregnant mother of two rambunctious little boys struggles through a phone conversation with her visiting teacher. This sympathetic but mundane struggle is set against a backdrop of advanced communications technology which allows users to mask their reality, a presumably pre-Apocalyptic war, and palpably late-pre-Millenial psychological stress, all factors in a more epic struggle to own up to embarrassing circumstances, hope against hope, and wait in a state of activity and preparation for a rescue with no ETA.

Let’s face it, stories written in our time are always about our time, even if they’re set in the future or the past, just as stories written by human beings are always about human beings, even if their protagonists are dinosaurs or baby desk lamps. For me, though, Cowley’s piece, set in a future which could be very close, holds a jolt that the others in this discussion do not. Yes, it’s about us now, clinging to faith and demonstrating faithfulness day by day, but by seeming simultaneously so current and so around-the-corner, it startles us into the pinching realization that what we believe in, hope for and dread could very soon be coming very soon and the best preparation is a lighted lamp with a good supply of combustible commitment.

 

Release by Wm Morris

A twenty-second century human automaton discovers that his unaccountable compulsive behaviours and physical discomforts are key to his service as a deep-cover bishop in a politically dystopian society that makes religious devotion a biotechnologically traceable thought crime. It’s Mosiah 24 all over again.

This piece really got me thinking about the nature (and locus) of testimony and the often handicapping tradition of its oral transmission. Many a side-tracked testimony meeting would benefit from the biotech equivalent of a like button. The story also makes me wonder to what extent my supposed spiritual drive to spread the Gospel and serve my fellow sheep is hindered by both the proverbial veil and the psycho-social ban on imposing my religion on anybody else.

 

Avek, Who Is Distributed by Steven Peck

A human seventy tears his hair out over refusing baptism to a disembodied artificial intelligence. In a madcap, technopathic future Greg Bear would feel at home in, the Church baptizes anything that moves, thinks and can convince the Apostles it has a soul. That excludes Avek, who, as the title suggests, has no single fixed abode of any kind, for all he’s read the Book of Mormon more times than the combined population of the Church from Lehi to former star ship captain and first android apostle, Elder Janxvon. Naturally, it is the literally and figuratively broader-minded non-human protagonist who moltens the stones out of the mountain and comes up with a retrocontemplatively obvious solution.

From the author of titles like A Short Stay in Hell, The Scholar of Moab and 4C co-finalist “When the Bishop Started Killing Dogs” you expect a little quirkiness with every bite. In this case, to borrow a phrase from an Orc general (movie version), “the city is ripe with it”, but it’s not hard to see the forest in all these walking trees. Historically, blessings have been withheld from people who didn’t fit the mold, and while we can’t chuck policy just to be PC (it’s a theocracy, after all), we should also never become so attached to policy that we mistake it for eternal truth. Everybody wants to let the misfit in. All we need is a sanctionable way.

 

A Surprisingly Quick Conclusion

To sum up, then, Mormon speculative fiction might

  1. Exploit (and possibly distort) Mormon historical figures (or events) to explore a Mormon issue (“Whipple”).
  2. Explore the ramifications of a Mormon prophecy (“Oaxaca”).
  3. Depict a typically Mormon situation in a typically speculative fictional context (“Oaxaca”, “Waiting”).
  4. Explore a Mormon issue in a speculative fictional context (“Baby Mixo”, “Release”, “Avek”).
  5. Recast a Mormon scriptural incident or historical event in a speculative fictional context (“Release”).

No doubt there are other configurations to lay out, but these five make a good start. I look forward to input from the ‘Nacle.

 

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72 Responses to Towards a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective, Part II: Spec Lit and a Theory of Mormon Literature

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for both the commentary on specific texts (with summary for those of us who weren’t able to follow the contest) and the theoretical tie-together at the end. The latter does well when subjected by my quick “sniff test” of whether it accommodates titles and types of texts that I would want to include. For example, your category #4 would give me grounds to make an argument for including Card’s The Worthing Chronicle, which (to my mind) represents a speculative investigation of the ethics of godlike power (including the power to correct the results of human mistakes).

    I’m not sure where Card’s Lost Boys would fit in this typology, but I’m fairly sure it belongs as part of the discussion. Maybe a broader version of #3 is needed, in which the beliefs, faith experiences, and/or cultural practices of Mormon characters play an important part in a story with speculative fiction elements?

    • Wm says:

      Fully agreed on The Worthing Chronicles. And would add that the theory would need to account as well for the Mistborn trilogy and the Runelords books.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Like I say, “might” and “no doubt”. Although I am definitely working toward a set of restrictions, the Big Five up top are based solely on the six pieces in the post.

      It’s been about twenty years since I read “The Lost Boys”, so I’d be interested in your analysis vis a vis the post. I can’t think of anything particularly Mormon in the story, but there may be a few things.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        I’m basing this on the novel, which is explicitly about a Mormon kid in a Mormon family in a Mormon ward. One of the key events of the novel, in fact, is the father’s baptism of his son. Ultimately, it’s the son’s… unusual… interpretation of the Church’s teachings on helping others that leads to his death. And the redemptive ending (like much of the rest of the novel) happens within the specific dynamics of a Mormon ward. In fact, it’s one of the best depictions of the dynamic of a typical suburban modern Mormon ward that I’ve encountered in fiction, speculative or otherwise.

        I don’t remember how much of these specific Mormon elements was in the earlier short story.

  2. Wm says:

    I have recently decided to renounce the term speculative fiction and stick with the tried and true science fiction and fantasy (and simply take a=the more expansive view of what falls into those categories). I do so because that’s what those who are in the field do. So I agree with the “not trying to be realism” definition (even though I mistrust Atwood’s opinion on anything related to genre).

    The traditional AML/AMV definition of Mormon literature is any piece of narrative art that is written by, for and/or about Mormons. But while that inclusive definition is good for awards and reviews and criticism, it’s perhaps less usable on the editorial end. I might phrase it, then, as: any work that engages with Mormon themes, settings and/or characters in an overt and/or resonant way.

    But I like even better your specific taxonomy above in relation to trying to explain what you would be looking for for Lowly Seraphim.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Lowly Seraphim was originally going to be for science fiction and fantasy, but as I got into Monsters and Mormons, I realized I wanted to include other genres whose practitioners and readers would probably rather be called by their own names. That’s why I spent so much space on the definition of speculative fiction. I want that level of the sieve to fit everybody.

      I’m not a huge Atwood fan myself. Not that I particularly object to her stuff. I just don’t know it well enough to have an opinion. I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale and I think that’s it. It was okay. It neither put me off nor set me on fire. I used the Atwood definition because it worked.

      Details about Lowly Seraphim are plodding down the pipe. My third guest post will lay things out pretty plainly, I think. Let’s just say it’ll be a different kind of website from what I suspect you’re used to. Think Wattpad with a community focus.

  3. Wm says:

    Mark writes: “which seems to me to be no more Mormon than the dental work I got from my stake president”

    You clearly need to dig into AMV’s archives, and especially any of the posts by Tyler.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Speaking of, I noticed that his journal isn’t linked to under projects anymore. Is that because it’s gone stagnant?

      • Wm says:

        Yes. Although you can still get to it by clicking on the AMV Projects page. If any projects do come back on line, they will be added to the drop down menu.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Also: just noticed your original interview doens’t show up under that tag.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Mark seems to be making a set of clear distinctions here among works 1) written by a Mormon, 2) informed by a Mormon mind (the stake president’s dental work), and 3) containing overt or explicit Mormon elements (as opposed to exploring ideas of particular interest to Mormons).

      Thus, Mistborn or Runelords (or Worthing Chronicle) would fall out of the theoretical frame by Mark’s definition (as I understand it), because though they are both (fairly aggressively) informed by a Mormon concept of striving for godhood and explore a concept of special interest to Mormons, they contain nothing that is directly named/explicitly referenced as Mormon (and the word endowment is not good enough to qualify–it was part of the language long before Mormons gave it a specific religious/cultural meaning).

      Understanding the desire to create a specifically Mormonish version of sf&f, I nearly always end up on the outside of such categorizations because while my stuff is peppered with concept allusions and inside jokes (just wrote a scene set in ancient China involving a dragon wherein I all but quote that no unclean thing can enter into the presence of Qiulong—ultra Mormon in a thematic sense), I rarely make direct references to Mormon doctrine, practices, or cultural elements named as such.

      Feels like a sandbox hedged up to favor one set of writers and the kinds of stories they like to tell—and against stuff that I think is no less Mormon, just less overtly referential. Which seems fine as a self-identified subgenre, but seems unfair to me as a universal definition or broad theoretical framework.

      Or am I reading the definitions too narrowly?

      • Wm says:

        I suppose it depends on how one defines the verb “recast” in #5. I’d go with a rather liberal application of the meaning. But that’s just me.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          My impression was that Mark was defining his theory on the assumption of explicit (as opposed to implicit) Mormon reference—not unlike M&M.

          Clearly I’m somewhat ambivalent to a requirement of explicit reference. I tend to prefer a more expansive theory with explication aided by critical analysis.

          To each his own.

        • Mark Penny says:

          My thinking is still amniotic, but in general, I want fiction posted on the site to be pretty obviously Mormon, yeah, because I want to create a little corner where that kind of work gets encouraged. Having said that, not everything I write is obviously Mormon and not every Mormon writer writes obviously Mormon stuff. I expect that Mormon authors who never touch Mormonism in their work will find a place on Lowly Seraphim. Certainly I want to participate in increasing awareness of Mormon authorship. But I’ll get into all that in my next guest post.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I’m all for Mark’s explicit approach. I’m militant that way.

      • Anneke Garcia says:

        I just wanted to step in and say I would LOVE to read your ancient China story. Let me know if you need readers :)

        The four other stories I submitted for the 4C contest were all set in China, Japan or Chinatown and I’m really invested in trying to find good ways to include Asia in our Mormon stories.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Yeah. I keep inserting Haitians and Chinese with the odd Russian.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Anneke–

          The dragon story is a YA fantasy novel (not LDS) whose first (and a half) draft came in at just under 80k words. I’ve only spent a week in Beijing (none of it in 200-ish BC) and did most of my research on the Web. It’s also a first novel from someone who has written exclusively short(ish) fiction with only moderate success at the regional level and only a handful of sales at the national level.

          In other words, there are no guarantees on either quality or execution, and it’s pretty long.

          Still interested? If so, contact me at scott (at) parkinfamily (dot) org and we can chat. I’m looking to take a serious shot at being an actual writer this year, and this is the first larger project in the hopper (plan to write two more novels by first of July, and about a half-million words within a twelve month period).

          As you know, good readers are in strong demand, and I’m likely in need of some fairly serious help. But this time I’m serious about getting over the hump and taking a real shot at being a working novelist.

      • Lee Allred says:

        Have to side with Scott P. on this one.

        One of the standard Gospel tools in teaching among Gentiles is the use of allegory, parable, and metaphor — telling non-Gospel stories to teach Gospel truths. Mark’s otherwise well thought-out definition leaves such work (such as Runelords and Worthin Chronicles as Scott pointed out).

        Card, Wolverton, and others (myself included if I may), primarily deal in what could be described as the Gentile publishing market. I can’t speak for those other writers, but I know I consider my work is thoroughly Mormon, even if nothing in the text is specifically labeled such. That often lack of specificity is intentional on my part to get readers past labels and CTR rings and on to the Mormon heart of what I’m telling a story about.

        Yes, I do have specifically Mormon stories (“For the Strength of the Hills” and “Pirate Gold for Brother Brigham” for example), but others (“Our Gunther Likes to Dig” and “Forged Verbatim” for example) come from very Mormon places, even if their surface subjects — the Jewish Holocaust and the Crusades of the Middle Ages — suggest otherwise.

        All that being said, however, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an alternate circle in the sand defining what is and what isn’t Mormon SF. Mark’s working theory is as a good starting point as any and better than most others I’ve seen.

        *****

        One point I will firmly quibble on, though, is the term “a Mormon Speculative Fiction e-Collective.” The term sounds more hippy commune-y or Borg-y than Mormon-y, not to mention clunk-y.

        A _true_ Mormon SF litcrit term would be (*ahem!*):

        the Zions Cooperative Speculative-Fictiontile Institution (ZCSFI)!

        Put that in your Brigham Tea and smoke it!

        • Mark Penny says:

          I blow a raspberry in your general direction, monsieur.

          I doubt there will ever be universal agreement–or that the same person will forever hold the same view. That’s part of what makes the Internet and its concomitant Web so hip-hippety hip. As an electronic commune we can accommodate everybody and still keep our idiosyncratic Utopias.

          A lot of non-specifically Mormon product will be produced by Mormon minds and Lowly Seraphim will connect to it. But that particular little Camelot will host only work that screams “I’m a Mormon, yes I am!”

          Stay tuned for details, but feel free to rattle the scaffolding

        • Wm says:

          I don’t disagree with the value in the use of allegory (or cultural transmutation) by Mormon SF&F authors. But there are plenty of other places where such work can be submitted and published. Mark needs to have *some* editorial guidelines, and the emphasis on overt Mormon content makes the cooperative focused enough to give it some oomph.

          If Lee and Scott are feeling excluded, well, there’s an easy remedy to that: write something that fits the editorial guidelines. That’s what every author has to do for every publication anyway. Very few stories, for example, would be picked up by Analog, Asimov’s, The Magazine of F&SF, Apex *and* Strange Horizons.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Editors need to drive at whatever definition fires their own passions and pushes them to do the hard work of pursuing that interest—as do writers.

          Lowly Seraphim sounds like a great project, and I wish you all the best of luck in realizing it. I rarely write explicitly LDS sf because that’s not what fires my passion (though I hope my little vampire baptism story might find a place somewhere in the Mormon creative universe one of these days—vampires were explicitly verboten in M&M).

          Still, sf *does* fire my passion, so I offered a thought when we started offering theories of what constitutes an acceptably Mormon sf—with the direct implication of also defining what is *not* to be viewed as part of the canon.

          Speaking only for myself, that’s not so much a sense of feeling excluded as a mild disappointment and reinforcement that my aesthetic simply has no place in the broader M0-lit discussion. Though I still feel like the work I produce is no less Mo- (if not quite -lit) than these other feted stories.

        • Lee Allred says:

          Sorry, my bad. I read “the question of what constitutes Mormon literature, especially in the speculative genres” in the intro and thought that’s where the discussion was pointed.

          As editorial guidelines for a specific project or a on-going publication, Mark’s definitions are perfectly workable. Great, even. From a standpoint of using them for a working theory on the genre as a whole is where my disagreement would come in.

          I write on both sides of Mark’s lines, so I don’t feel excluded as far as that goes. Sorry if I gave that impression. At the moment though, I’m already busy for a couple nat. market anthologies which have asked me for stories, so I’m booked, but maybe after that I can write a ZCSFI-type story I’ve been kicking around in my head. :)

        • Scott Parkin says:

          What’s funny is that despite my stated ambivalence to explicitly Mormon stories, one of the novels I intend to write soon is a near-future, semi-utopic, modern reimagination of the United Order. With an alien (or two).

          Hard to get much more Mormon than that, though I have no intention of arguing religious doctrines, only exploring questions of social-political allegiances.

          Should annoy pretty much everyone. Which is fine, as long as they buy enough copies…

        • Wm says:

          Scott:

          Vampire stories weren’t verboten–just highly discouraged unless the author showed some awareness of the other vampire stories written by LDS authors and brought something new to the table. And that’s what the guidelines said. If you didn’t send us a vampire baptism story because you thought we’d reject without a moments thought, then I’m highly disappointed. Because that sounds like the kind of vampire story we would have considered.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          It’s a troublesome little story, because it is so thoroughly Mormon that there’s no place in the general market for it. And it’s a vampire, so there’s no place in the Mormon market for it.

          Mostly talking heads and a Mormon-ish reimagination of what a vampire is, with a distinctly Mormon existential ending. No sparklings or stakings or (onscreen) seducings; mostly a thought piece oriented around two conversations and an interrupted baptism.

          It was a fun exercise, but it appears to be doomed as one of those stories for which there might be a small audience of readers, but for which there are no evident buyers.

          Such is life (as it were…).

    • Mark Penny says:

      There’s a whole issue of Sunstone I wanted to consult, but the time was far spending. Suffice it to say, I’ve read the whole quadralogy and if I hadn’t been told Meyer was Mormon, I never would have guessed. But I am always ready to be disabused.

      • Mark Penny says:

        Okay. I’ve read Scott Hales’ introduction. The article’s long and I have miles to go before I wade into that forest, but it looks like the connection is aesthetic, as he puts it. In other words, a Mormon sensibility is at work. Maybe. But that only satisfies one of my three constitutional criteria: by the people (ie a Mormon mind). Are there any arguments for Twilight’s being of or for the people?

        • Anneke Garcia says:

          Twilight is of and for hormonal teenage girls.

          In other words, that’s an argument against.

        • Wm says:

          The argument of is that her work has provided fruitful exploration of issues related to agency, gender roles, abstinence/erotics and eternal families by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars.

          The argument for is that it is by far the most widely read novel by a Mormon American author by Mormon American females. Clearly it struck a chord.

          Note that I’m not defending it as a work of literature. I simply am suggesting that your comment about it having no more relevance to the field of Mormon culture than your dental work is off the mark.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Oh, yeah. Mormons certainly read and talk about the books. But if we didn’t know they were written by a Mormon, would we read and talk about them? By we, I mean those of us who aren’t hormonally inundated female teens or vampire wannabes. Would the books have come into the broader discussion if Meyer were Catholic or Protestant or agnostic or atheist?

        • Wm says:

          I don’t think you can separate out the context of the books from the content.

          Whether we dismiss it or not (and I’d say that dismissing it as “”hormonally inundated female teens” ” and “vampire wannabes” as absurdly reductive), the Twilight series is the dominant cultural phenomenon of 21st century American Mormonism so far. Nothing is gain by dismissing it nor by depriving it of whatever Mormonism it contains (which, again, is not to make any grand claims for its’ essential Mormon-ness — where that Mormon-ness lies and whether it is a positive, negative or mixed influence on Mormo-American culture is an open question [which the various posts about it on AMV and writing about it elsewhere show]).

        • Mark Penny says:

          How about this? There are at least three parameters: of, by and for. A piece of writing is Mormon literature if it places on one of them. That way, we can include both Meyer and Birkhead (by and for, respectively). Different authors, venues and critics can state specific configurations. For example, Lowly Seraphim insists on all three.

          Heck, we can even specify levels.

          Twilight: of 2, by 10, for 1.
          “Baptisms for the Dead”: of 10, by 1, for 10.

          Lowly Seraphim will “publish” of 10, by 10, for 10.

  4. Anneke Garcia says:

    #2 sounds really spooky when you write it out that way. :) One of my fears in sharing my story with my general audience of friends and family was that it would cause a really negative gut reaction by having the gall to “prophesy” such a politically-charged future. I didn’t get any negative feedback along those lines, but I have a feeling that the people most likely to dislike it are the same people most likely to be passive-aggressive about it, so I may never know.

    But thanks for picking up on that – that 3 Nephi scripture was a very blatant impetus for the story, and I often find myself wishing we could more easily extrapolate into our near futures in that way without it being taken the wrong way. To me, speculative fiction is the perfect vehicle for this, but I can also see it being really divisive for a general Mormon audience, especially in the current political environment in the US. And, truthfully, I can see myself reading a hypothetical story that extrapolates upon Mormon prophecy to say something contrary to my own political beliefs and feeling super bothered by its heavy-handedness.

    Also, little nitpick: ““it is not an American church;” well, yes and no. Of course that’s what I meant, but I also meant that the specific prophecies we do have about America as the promised land pertain, in my opinion, to a much broader definition of “America” than the norteamericanos like to give it. America is the promised land when “America” means the sense in which Mexicans use it.

    • Mark Penny says:

      I hear ya, and it’s quite possible that at some point there’ll be a heavy southern flavour to the Church general leadership sometime in the next couple of decades, but I see the Church becoming more and more regional, less and less centralized. The Handbooks make frequent reference to “local needs” and “local circumstances”, and now that I think of it, the new online flexible curriculum for youth classes fosters regionalism as well.

  5. Wm says:

    One thing to consider, Mark, is how you define Mormon. Do you see that term as including all dispensations (including the biblical ones)?

    • Mark Penny says:

      That’s a good question, Man-with-Vowelless-Given-Name.

      The Biblical bit is tricky. Off the cuff, I’d say there are two qualifiers there.

      If a Mormon author has produced obviously Mormon work, then his or her Bible-tinted work qualifies, because we can see that he or she is writing as a Mormon plumbing a Judeo-Christian resource adopted into Mormonism.

      If a Mormon author exploits Biblical content in an obviously Mormon fashion, the piece in question qualifies, because it plainly reflects the author’s religion.

      To my mind, there has to be something clearly Mormon about the piece itself or other work by the same author has to be so clearly Mormon that a less-than-obviously Mormon piece draws in some of that light.

      • Mark Penny says:

        And that may be my sticking-point with Meyer. Twilight was the first thing she published, I believe. Certainly it was the first of her work that I ever heard of. If she’d had other work that was more obviously Mormon, probing the same issues, I might have seen Twilight as drawing in some of that light.

        • Wm says:

          Twilight was her first novel. Meyer has specifically stated that “I put a lot of my basic beliefs into the story”.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Sure. But that’s biography, not bibliography.

          Like I say, a lot has been written about Twilight that I haven’t read. I might find my mind is opened to a world of Mormonness in the series that I was blindered to before. For now, though, it looks to me like all the fuss arises from the fact of the author’s being Mormon.

          In practical terms, the question is, if you were running a Mormon speculative fiction venue restricted to a combination of Mormon origin and Mormon content, would you publish something like Twilight? I wouldn’t. I might refer to it somehow if it were published elsewhere, because it has a Mormon origin, but without a lot of digging and debate, I wouldn’t find anything convincingly Mormon in it.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          I’m not a fan of Twilight (only read the first book), but as a would-be author it’s to my advantage to understand why it worked—and like Mark, I don’t see how Meyers’ Mormonness is specifically revealed in the text. We all put a lot of basic beliefs into our fiction, whether overtly or subconsciously. Its veiled Mormonness seems to have had little (or no) impact on the Twilight series’ initial success.

          As a matter of editorial caprice, if Lowly Seraphim chooses to demand a 10-10-10 on the of-by-for scale, then more power to it. My only struggle was with the broader question of how the larger community defines Mormon sf, not with the specific question of how this venue selects its stories.

        • Mark Penny says:

          I get that, Scott. I probably confused the issue by combining discussion of a theory of Mormon literature with the idea of a literary e-collective. It’s clear that there are degrees of glory in this game and I’m okay with that. Some sort of principles and parameters grid and scale might serve better than dogma.

          And I agree about trying to understand what makes a story a hit. That’s one reason I reread Rowling, Tolkien and Lewis year after year. I don’t know if I could muscle Twilight down that often, but I am contemplating picking up a cheap used set for occasional analysis.

        • Wm says:

          My objection isn’t your exclusion of such works from Lowly Seraphim. Quite the contrary — I think it makes for a more interesting project if overt Mormon elements are required. That’s exactly why we did Monsters & Mormons.

          My objection was with how you characterized the Mormon-ness of Meyer’s work in the face of a volume of evidence otherwise. It was a facile dismissal. That’s fine, but I’m going to push back against such things (even though it pains me to be seen as a defender of Twilight because for as much as I find it interesting from a cultural perspective and as much as I admire Meyer personally and even as much as I understand the appeal of a page turner, I value style very highly in fiction and found reading Twilight an unpleasant experience style-wise).

          Orson Scott Card gets reams of papers written about some of his works that in textual content terms has about as much overt Mormon-ness as the Twilight series. You may not get it. But don’t dismiss it, especially not when others in your peer group have taken the time to situate the work and developed some interesting critical work out of the series and its reception.

          Scott writes: “Its veiled Mormonness seems to have had little (or no) impact on the Twilight series’ initial success.”

          Some of the critical work suggests that it does, specifically in relation to the erotics of abstinence and the notion of eternal beings/families. You can disagree with it. But I think both you and Mark are making grand pronouncements about Twilight that aren’t warranted by the actual production and reception of the work. I’m not saying that sweeping pronouncements are bad — I’m simply saying that Twilight isn’t the best example to use for what it seems like it’s trying to be used for here.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Okay, Wm, I’ll bite.

          First, I make no claims at all about whether Twilight deserves either praise or condemnation for either its content or Mormonness. It didn’t appeal to me, so I didn’t read the rest of the series. That’s the only moral (or moralistic) judgment I can recall making on the work.

          Second, from the single volume I read, *I* saw little in the way of unique or explicit Mormonness—the eroticism of abstinence is so far from a uniquely Mormon value that at first blush (without consulting your learned peerage) I struggle to see it in those terms, and the idea of vampires as eternal beings so long predates any concept of Mormonism as to again beg either the explicit or unique Mormonness of the piece.

          Third, I don’t dispute in any way that she may have considered those things in her mind as part of her creative process. But I see very little (or nothing) in the way of *explicit* textual tags or references *in the single volume that I read* that identify it as Mormon sf according to Mark’s 10-10-10 rubric.

          Finally, I have made absolutely no “grand pronouncements” on anything here. Even in my own populist, plebian, and lowbrow efforts I write from a deeply Mormon mind—thus my disaffection with a Mormon literary movement fostered by you and Mark that works so hard to dismiss work that is not explicitly Mormon in content or convention.

          Do what you think is right for reasons that make sense to you. But in agreeing that *I* saw nothing explicitly Mormon in the first volume of the Twilight series is in no way either a condemnation or a grand pronouncement of any sort.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Point taken, Wm. I’ll have to read some of the stuff you’re referring to before saying anything more.

          My point, now, is that there are at least three parameters of Mormonness, each parameter can be scaled, and some stories don’t score well on one or more parameters.

          Also, yes, there is a division between an abstract discussion of theory and measurement and the concrete demarcation of a particular venue.

          I think something really important has been achieved in this lively debate. Thanks. Hopefully the debate will continue and something really workable can emerge.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Scott, is this why you were disgruntled?

          I’d say it’s demarcation, not dismissal. It’s become clear to me through all the cliff-edged head butting that Mormon literature comprises several sub-literatures, some more overtly Mormon than others. We should seek after all these things. I guess. But they fit in different categories.

          Just to be clear, Lowly Seraphim isn’t about putting down work that doesn’t fit. In fact, there will be room in the inn to talk about and even promote work that doesn’t belong on the site. But the site’s purpose in terms of “publishing” will be to make available more triple-ten Mormon literature.

          I’ll be clarifying all that in a couple of weeks.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          (back now from taking daughter back to college)

          There’s a fair conversation to be had about how implicit Mormon elements appeal to audiences even when there are few or no explicit Mormon references. It’s an argument I’ve been making for much of fifteen years since I first became involved with AML—that Mormon authors who don’t make explicit references may be writing no less deeply Mormon stories than their more overt counterparts (and as such, deserve some attention from critics of Mormon texts and associations oriented around Mormon letters).

          That appears to be (at least part of) Wm’s point about Twilight—that the author’s creative mind was so infused with Mormonness that the story was equally infused with it, if not in explicit or easily tagged ways, and that one (perhaps even the key) reason for the work’s broad success was the functional exoticism of those very Mormon ideas in a context (genre) where such ideas are rarely offered, and to an audience for whom such ideas are (arguably) radical and new.

          I agree with this broad idea so violently that it’s hard for me to overstate it—or to understand why I suddenly find myself accused of making essentially the opposite argument.

          I think it’s at least part of the reason for other Mormon authors’ appeal in the national markets—names already mentioned in this thread, such as Orson Scott Card, David Farland, Brandon Sanderson, and others. Mormon thought is interesting, even when it’s not overtly expressed as such. I might argue that this last set of authors use more easily tagged Mormon elements than Sister Meyers did, but that’s a matter of degree, not kind.

          But that wasn’t the conversation I believe I was participating in.

          I was discussing explicit Mormonness in context of the Lowly Seraphim project. In that context I expressed credulity at the idea that people initially bought Sister Meyers’ works on the basis of their explicit inherent Mormonness—which says nothing at all about the possible appeal (exotic or otherwise) of those works’ implicit Mormon ideas. I don’t believe most of Twilight’s initial audience knew there was anything Mormon about it. Thus they could not have used its (veiled) Mormonness as an explicit element of that choice.

          That’s hardly a grand pronouncement, and it precludes nothing of the presence, value, or appeal of implicit Mormon elements.

          So no, I wasn’t disgruntled when this conversation started, but I am now—as a result of that particular turn in it. Otherwise, I put my general malaise down to poor diet and extended holiday stress.

        • Wm says:

          I think that it’s still the wrong example to use within the context of the project at hand. And if you were always speaking within that context, then I completely missed that.

          And I completely agree with your discussion of implicit Mormon-ness in genre works published to a national audience. Very well phrased.

  6. Jonathan Langford says:

    I’m a great believer in the idea of examining work by Mormon sf&f writers to see what non-overt Mormon elements may have crept in. In fact, I even think it’s occasionally worthwhile (though a little risky) to do the same with non-Mormon sf&f writer. There’s a fantastic argument to be made for a Mormon reading of Patricia McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy, for example, as Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury and I have both argued at other times.

    For me, it’s a question of labels and purpose. For purposes of criticism, you can do a Mormon reading of pretty much anything — though how convincing that reading will be depends on the evidence. But the “given” of this conversation, it seems to me, is fiction on which one would stick a label of “Mormon speculative fiction.” For that specific purpose, I see the relevance of asking for a degree of explicit Mormonness character, theme, etc. — or of implicit Mormonness that is nonetheless so strong that a Mormon reader, looking at it, will say, “Wow, that was a pretty Mormon story.” For me, Card’s The Worthing Chronicle meets that standard. (I’m not sure what I think about Farland’s Runelords series.)

    The point is that while we may argue about where the line should be drawn, I do think there’s some logic in drawing the line — and in crafting a definition (loose though it may be) of “Mormon speculative fiction” that is somewhat narrower than “speculative fiction by a Mormon.” For me, that difference is that the speculative element needs a substantive Mormon tie-in. I don’t think that argument has been made for Twilight, or (for that matter) Tracy Hickman’s fantasy, or Dave Wolverton’s science fiction, or a great many other things that I find worthwhile for their own sake.

    Saying that something doesn’t fit within the label of “Mormon speculative fiction” doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of critical attention from a Mormon perspective. And vice versa. At least, that’s the way it seems to me.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Good answer.

      Twilight has been a big Mormon deal, no doubt about it, and there may be a lot more to it than I’ve had the wit to witness, but so far it just looks to me like a very successful series that happens to have been written by a Mormon who couldn’t help reflecting her Mormonism in the text, but through a filter which camouflaged the Mormonism so effectively that it really has to be looked for to be seen.

      That’s enough about Twilight.

      We definitely are tackling two questions at once in this big thread: the general question of what constitutes Mormon literature, in what ways and to what extent, and the specific question of what a particular venue expects in the texts it sponsors.

      I’m actually starting to think that Lowly Seraphim should loosen the requirements a little and replace them with indicators. Then readers and critics can decide what they want to read and talk about. So my good friend Scott Parkin can develop his presence there with stuff that isn’t obnoxiously Mormon but is written by a Mormon, and my other friend, Douglas Birkhead, can develop his presence with stuff that is obnoxiously Mormon but not written by a Mormon. How does that sound for inclusive?

      • Scott Parkin says:

        Speaking only for myself, I think you should publish whatever makes you happy, according to whatever rubric meets your individual goals. Coalescing a core readership requires a fair amount of predictability and specificity.

        Your job as a publisher is to meet the needs of a particular audience with stories that meet that audience on enough of its own terms to engage and entertain them. It’s not a publisher’s job to decide what is acceptably Mormon (in my view), but rather to decide what is acceptably publishable in their corner of the broader marketplace.

        Which is why I pushed back a little bit in the earlier discussion. What you believe as a publisher is your concern and you are solely responsible for it; what AML pushes, promotes, or endorses claims to support a larger (and hopefully somewhat more diverse) community. So when we start drawing lines in the AML blog, I start trying to push them further out toward more expansive rather than draw them in toward more restrictive.

        That’s an absolutely personal definition, and (like so much of what I think) appears to be somewhat at odds with that of the management. So be it; now I just need to decide if AML is an organization whose goals and directions are something I want to support, or if the move toward more restrictive definitions puts it outside my active interest.

        As a personal matter, I don’t believe my Mormonness is fairly or accurately evaluated (or understood) by how overtly I preach it in my fiction or my public presence. As an institutional matter, there have to be lines that define the organization’s boundaries of focus.

        As a writer, the decision to participate in Lowly Seraphim is a matter of audience development and personal aesthetic. It’s very clear that my personal approach to story is simply incompatible with your editorial rubric (or Wm’s, Theric’s, or James’). Cool. As Wm pointed out earlier in the conversation, I can either toe your line or seek publication elsewhere; complaining about the editorial standard of a publisher is a fruitless pursuit in the attempt to publish.

        Since I don’t generally write explicitly Mormon stories (for, about), I should seek other publishing venues for my stories. If I do write explicitly Mormon stuff, I should consider these. Since my goal is to become a working writer and hope of payment is a key (though not sole) motivator for which stories I choose to work on at any given moment, that effectively weights my efforts toward a more general market—though as Eric James Stone so clearly demonstrated just last year, it is quite possible to write about Mormons and expect both popular and critical success on the national level (though I don’t recall seeing a critical analysis—or even a general discussion—of his overtly Mormon work here).

        Offered not as an attempt at constraint, but as an (admittedly long-winded) attempt to set contexts for what I think should be separate discussions—the specific goals and guidelines of Lonely Seraphim vs. the conceptual restrictions for discussion of this blog’s sponsoring organization.

        • Mark Penny says:

          Part of the confusion is the understandable assumption that Lowly Seraphim will operate like other venues: as a publisher. It will actually be a community with various functions, including an e-zine and a fanzine, some of which will involve gatekeeping, but most of which will be left to the whims and creativity of authenticated users. So when I talk about including participants of all Mormon stripes, I mean giving people accounts to build presence with. You, Scott, might not have material to publish on the site, but you could use the site to develop your presence as a Mormon writer, nonetheless.

        • Mark Penny says:

          I’ll be elaborating a lot more in my next guest post, but I’ll let slip that the watchwords for Lowly Seraphim are Gathering, Presence and Community. First and foremost it is a place where people interested in Mormon speculative fiction (pretty well whatever that means to them) can gather to talk about that shared interest. The talk can include displaying their own work, discussing each other’s or other people’s work, mentoring, networking…whatever they can think of to do and the site can technologically and ethically accommodate. This sort of activity will build the presence of individual authors (and readers), of Mormon speculative fiction, and of the community.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Just to clarify: I completely agree with Scott that in terms of what represents suitable fodder for discussion by AML, we should use the broadest possible lens: By, For, and/or About (and even with the addition at times of Fruitfully Thought About in the Context Of, though I’d appreciate a shorter indicator than that). While specific endeavors such as Lowly Seraphim may profitably utilize a narrower focus than that, AML’s job is to function as a broad umbrella for every possible intersection of Mormonism and literature. In my opinion.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Adding to that: As AML blog moderator, I invited Mark to compose and post a “manifesto” for Lowly Seraphim, as part of my ongoing intention to make this blog a place where people can find out about — and talk about — a variety of projects from across the Mormon lit landscape. Nothing posted here (or for that matter in any AML blog post not designated as an official AML statement) should be taken as indicating policy or direction for the organization.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      In the By-For-About trifecta, it seems reasonable that “Mormon sf” pretty much needs to be at least either For or About, and arguably should be both. Where work By a Mormon author is also For and/or About, that just adds flavor to the stew.

      Which is not to say that conversation on, or critical analysis of, general market stuff By a Mormon author should be verboten, but rather that as a matter of institutional focus and community definition the By seems less relevant than the For and About.

      Seems like a fair restriction or boundary to me. Or at least a useful model in describing the distinction between Mormon sf and other sorts of sf for purposes of discussion here.

  7. ugh. Defining ain’t my bag, I’ll be honest. I don’t like definitions & find little use for them, other than to figure out which editors/publishers might want my stuff.

    But I really enjoyed the summary of what’s out there currently, and what seems to be forming in the ranks of LDS speculative writers. Gave me some ideas, too. So, thanks for this post, Mark.

  8. Mark Penny says:

    By the way, folks, the scaffolding may still be up, but Lowly Seraphim is open for business. You can nip over, sign up and start adding content right now.

    • Wm says:

      Question about that, Mark:

      On the about page, you can click on a “track” tab that reveals users IP addresses. Is that intentional? Because if it is, that would make think twice about participating. I know that website admins (or at least web hosts) can track that stuff, but it’s not necessarily something I’d want made manifest to the whole world.

  9. J. Scott Bronson says:

    Went over and looked at you Lowly Seraphim site. I readily admit to being fairly dim at times (most of the time more than likely), but I can make any sense out of it. What’s going on over there?

    And I know we’re past this part of the discussion, but I’ve been thinking it the whole time I was reading and skimming the above 66 comments: The unofficial mission statement of The Nauvoo Theatrical Society was this; All Mormon theater, all the time. We defined Mormon theater as anything written by a Mormon regardless of subject matter, and anything written about Mormonism, regardless of the writer’s religious or cultural association. It all depends on how many doors you want opened or closed.

    The YA Fantasy/SF novel I recently finished did not start out to have any mormonness to it, but, like Scott Card has said, it is impossible for any writer to hide their world view from their readers. I’d wager that most observing mormons would at least get an inkling that the writer probably knows a mormon or two. When I saw the mormonness creeping into the themes of the piece I figured, what the heck, and went ahead and made one of the secondary characters a Mormon. Her mormonness has little to do with the story, but it was fun having one in it any way.

    Okay. That’s all I had to say. Nothing special, just reiterating a couple of notions that others have already explicated more insightfully than I have. Thought maybe some might like to know that there are more than two or three people who think a certain way.

    ‘Bye now.

    • Mark Penny says:

      Two things are happening, Scott. First, it’s probably a very different type of site from what you’re used to. Second, it’s still under construction. Some doors don’t lead anywhere yet. Some things haven’t been put in the right closets.

      There will probably always be disagreements and misunderstandings about notions of Mormonness in literature. My main concern is how Lowly Seraphim handles the issue. A secondary concern, but still very important to me, is how other people handle the issue. If we can’t have consensus, at least we can have understanding.

      Thanks for checking out the site. I hope you’ll come back later when things are a little tidier.

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