Creating New Historical Narratives; or, Why We Should Be Writing More Mormon Historical Fiction

PioneersMormons have a long history with the historical novel. Early in the twentieth century, for example, writers like Susa Young Gates and Nephi Anderson used the historical novel to create a romanticized version of the Mormon past for post-Manifesto readers who were unsure of what to do with their strange heritage. The nineteenth century, after all, had bequeathed the rising generation a problematic past marked by polygamy and militant isolationism, which was not exactly a past young Mormons—especially young upwardly-mobile Mormons—were eager to flaunt. Novels like Marcus King, Mormon (1900), John Stevens’ Courtship (1909), and John St. John (1917), therefore, provided new narratives that downplayed polygamy’s centrality in nineteenth-century Mormon life and emphasized the intensely violent persecutions and displacements of the Church’s early years. This gave turn-of-the-century Mormons a legacy of injustice that they could collectively embrace and identify with independent of any allegiance to a defunct marriage practice that the rest of the nation viewed as divisive criminal behavior.

The novelists of Mormondom’s Lost Generation also found the historical novel to be a useful genre. Largely disenchanted with contemporary Mormonism, they revisited the Nauvoo and pioneer eras as heroic episodes in American history—something for which Mormons and non-Mormons could feel a shared sense of pride. At the same time, however, these historical novels scandalized members of the Church by specializing in earthy representations of early Mormons and polygamy. In a sense, novels like Vardis Fisher’s The Children of God, Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, and Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels opened the closet doors wide and exposed the skeletons that the previous generation of Mormon historical novelists had tried so hard to keep hidden. They also offered a valid critique of the complacency and ongoing provincialism of mid-twentieth-century Mormonism.

The Mormon historical novel had another resurgence at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. In many ways, Gerald N. Lund’s hugely successful The Work and the Glory series was the catalyst, although popular historical novels from the 1970s and 1980s—like Charlie’s Monument and Lee Nelson’s Storm Testament series—likely contributed as well. These novels—particularly in the case of Lund’s work—represent a kind of correlation response to the genre. Much of Lund’s work is drawn directly—sometimes word-for-word—from official sources like The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History in the Fulness of Times, and Our Legacy. Like the historical novels from the previous turn-of-the-century, Lund’s novels also downplayed polygamy and kept a steady focus on the themes of persecution and displacement. In a sense, you can look at The Work and the Glory and its many imitators as attempts to breathe some life into the correlated account of Mormon history—while remaining faithful to that account and not committing the heresy of creative deviation. Indeed, if any feature characterizes this era of Mormon fiction, it is the exhaustive list of endnotes that follow each chapter, which assure readers that what they have been reading is grounded soundly in Truth. To me, these notes are a kind of apology to the reader, a contrite corrective to the lamentable use of fiction in the novel. I’d rather see a fiction that problematizes the historical record and our notion of what really happened.

In some ways, I think our current historical fiction is still stuck in the wagon ruts of Lund’s series. We are, in other words, still hanging on to the correlated version of Mormon history even though the past three decades of Mormon historical scholarship has made it abundantly clear that the Mormon past is much richer and more complex that the stories we get in our teaching manuals (and the novels based on them). In my opinion, we need to cultivate a Mormon historical novel that reaches beyond the rote narratives of our institutional memory and reinterprets our two-hundred year legacy anew for our generation. In fact, I think the historical novel, more so than any other genre, has the potential to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and mothers and bind generations together. Can there be a more Mormon aim? Can there be a more Mormon genre? Certainly, in an age when so many Latter-day Saints are becoming increasingly confused about conflicting versions of the Mormon past, a genre that seeks to makes sense and meaning out of the confusion is of far more worth, say, than a new five volume fantasy series or Mormon space saga.

Of course, I’ve recently purchased a copy of Sarah Dunster’s Lightning Tree, which I’m happy to report does not have endnotes at the end of every chapter. I haven’t read it yet, but what I know about it gives me hope for the Mormon historical novel. I like that Lightning Tree takes place outside the grasp of correlated history and focuses on characters who, like the majority of Saint who crossed the plains, do not fill the pages of Who’s Who in Mormon History. I’m also glad to see that Zarahemla Books is reissuing the Standing on the Promises series, which takes Lund’s popular formula and uses it to tell the largely forgotten and ignored story of black Mormons. More work along these lines remains.

Personally, I think the Lost Generation was right to focus their efforts on the historical novel. They saw a need for a new historical narrative within the Church and its people, and they provided a narrative. Sadly, I think they erred in their cynical approach, which ultimately alienated a large portion of their target readership, and failed to bring about the cultural correctives their work imagined.

We are again living at a time that needs new historical narratives–fresh, honest takes on the past. I continue to hope for better historical novels about the Mormon past, but I think we also need to improve our historical narratives in every artistic medium, especially film. What are we doing to tell the right historical narratives for right now?

And what are the right historical narratives?

 

This entry was posted in Mormon LitCrit and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

58 Responses to Creating New Historical Narratives; or, Why We Should Be Writing More Mormon Historical Fiction

  1. Wm says:

    David Farland’s In The Company of Angels is the best current model I’m aware of of how to do it right.

  2. Wm says:

    Also: the early post-Manifesto years as well as the post-WWII outmigration are both rich veins waiting to be mined.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Dean Hughes gets into 20th-century history. And though no poet, Hughes’s work is solid and worthy of attention. And although it’s contemporary with Lund’s work and heavily researched, it doesn’t droop into footnotery.

      • Wm says:

        I read one of his novels a long time ago and found it competent, but it didn’t grip me enough to seek out further titles. Are there any you would recommend?

        • Th. says:

          .

          I don’t feel qualified to answer that question as well as, say, Jessie C who writes for this blog. She’s a Hughes expert.

          • Scott Hales says:

            I’ve never been able to finish a Hughes novel, although I’ve heard him speak and read before. He seems to be a good bridge between the gap we sometimes see between Deseret-style books and books from smaller presses.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I agree with this completely. In fact, I wish more writers would tap into the possibilities of early twentieth-century Mormonism.

      Also, I hope to one day read the novelization of the life of Ernest Wilkinson. I think that story presents a lot of tragic possibilities.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    An assortment of thoughts:

    - This topic connects in interesting ways with Harlow’s post yesterday about new religious traditions and their relationship to their own past. Writing stories about our past is more than just fiction; it’s part of how we define ourselves.

    - I also agree that we need to be willing to take on the more problematic aspects of Mormon history — partly on the grounds that if we don’t, the world won’t be lacking in nonbelieving writers to tell those stories. The hope of simply ignoring them is ultimately futile. The prophecy that in the last days secret things would not remain hidden includes, I think, a caution to those who believe that ignoring uncomfortable history is a feasible strategy.

    - At the same time, I rather like the use of historical notes, particularly when writers are addressing history in ways that go against our traditional hagiography. Here’s why:

    You talk about the value of fiction to help modify Mormon readers’ understanding of our history. As such, you’re calling on fiction to enter the realm of historical discourse. But in a case like that, it becomes important to clarify what did and didn’t actually happen — particularly if what you’re putting out there is at variance with the history that readers already know.

    Think about it from the perspective of the reader. If I read a novel that has an early apostle acting in ways apostles don’t act in our standard historical narrative, what am I supposed to believe? That the fiction is right? That the fiction is wrong? That the fiction *might* be right, but that it makes a better story that way and so it doesn’t matter? But the last is a viable course only if you don’t actually care about the history but only about the story. And a goal of getting readers to become more historically educated makes sense only if you think they *should* care about the details of that history.

    You can assume that readers already know enough about history to know what is and isn’t made up, without being told by the author. However, given that one of the reasons you’re suggesting for writing historical fiction is educational, you can’t really make that assumption.

    My point is that far from using endnotes as a way to appeal to authority and/or apologize for the fictive aspects of the story, I think authorial use of such notes is actually part of engaging with existing notions of Mormon history in the ways you advocate. Historical notes allow authors like Young and Gray to challenge the historical preconceptions of faithful Mormons who might otherwise be inclined to set down the books or dismiss what they’re saying. In short, I see such notes as (potentially) a way of furthering the discourse.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I was kind of hoping that someone would take up the historical notes issue, since everyone but me seems to dislike them…

      • Scott Hales says:

        I’ll take you up on the matter, Jonathan, mostly because I don’t think I have more more to say on the genre issue.

        I sympathize with your idea of endnotes functioning as a clarifying element in the fiction, and I think readers (aside from those present, apparently) generally responded to Lund’s notes favorably because felt as if they learned something through them. In other words, the fiction sparked their curiosity about Mormon history, and the endnotes were a quick and easy way to satisfy that curiosity.

        I think my main problem is that endnotes–particularly in how they are used by Lund–take away from the experience of reading fiction. Some writers, of course, incorporate endnotes or footnotes in a way that compliments and even participates in the experience. Lund, however, seems to countermand the fictional quality of his narrative with the notes. He also seems to set them on a plane higher than the narrative, devaluing it in the minds of his readers. The Work and the Glory is great, it seems to say, but not as great as Church History in the Fulness of Times or Our Legacy.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      I think that Susanna Clarke provides an excellent model of using footnotes in fiction (which I prefer to endnotes, because they can be more nearly incorporated into the narrative) in her Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, even if the footnotes are also fictional. But then I’m the kind of reader who, in something like Joseph Smith : rough stone rolling reads the notes as he reads the narrative, and I hate to be flipping back and forth from the story to the notes. So here’s a vote for notes, with a strong preference for footnotes — which are much easier with a word-processor, but don’t make near as much sense in an e-book. Print rules!

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    One more thought that didn’t fit conveniently in my earlier set of comments:

    I agree with the value of Mormon historical fiction and second your desire for more of it. I think, though, that your sideswipe at Mormon sf&f (“far more worth… than a new five volume fantasy series or Mormon space saga”) is unnecessary and a bit offputting.

    Different genres have different virtues. Epic fantasy, I would argue (and have argued at great length elsewhere), has archetypal resonances that make it well-suited to helping readers in their own personal transitions and growth. Is that more or less valuable than coming to grips with LDS history? I think it’s a false comparison. Both have value — possibly even a necessary value, for different people at different stages of life.

    Different genres also have (to a great extent) different readers and writers — although I do know at least one writer (Dave Farland) who took time out of a successful sf&f writing career to write a (much less commercially successful) Mormon historical novel, simply because he felt the story was an important one that he wanted to tell. And I applaud him for that. I think, though, that general statements comparing the need for one genre to the need for another suggest a tradeoff that I don’t think is borne out by how readers and writers typically act.

    In short: reading and writing are not zero-sum games. Promoting one genre does not have to come at the expense of another genre. I think it’s important to be clear about that.

    • Scott Hales says:

      “I think, though, that your sideswipe at Mormon sf&f (“far more worth… than a new five volume fantasy series or Mormon space saga”) is unnecessary and a bit offputting.”

      I wouldn’t call the comment a “sideswipe,” which suggests a cowardly hit-and-run, but rather a valid (and necessary) critique of our efforts to create a Mormon literature. Of course, I recognize that my opinion is not a popular one, but I think it’s worth considering and not tossing aside as “unnecessary.”

      In some ways, my comment about Mormon fantasy and sci-fi asks a similar question to the one I end the post on: What are the right Mormon narratives for right now? To a certain extent, I’m willing to grant that an explicitly Mormon science fiction/fantasy story can be among the right narratives for right now, but I personally feel that speculative fiction provides too much distance between the reader and the Mormon world as it is and has been lived.

      Personally, I think we need to do a better job of telling honest stories about ourselves and our day–without feeling the need to pad that honesty with the conventions of science fiction. (Again, I know this is an unpopular stance, and I know I’m going to take crap for it, but it is how I feel on the subject.) I also think we’ve reached a historical moment when we need to stop feeding ourselves fantasy and start taking taking a few risks with our story about everyday Mormon life in the past and present.

      • Th. says:

        .

        Fwiw, I agree. Nothing against sf/f, but we need to engage directly with ourselves with larger audiences.

      • Wm says:

        Your terminology betrays what amounts to a personal preference, Scott. “Feeding ourselves fantasy”?

        That falls into the tired trope of seeing SF&F as pure escapism. Fantasy as a genre is not the same as “fantasy” as escapist reading experience. I would suggest that any genre of fiction can lead to escapism or timid engagement with Mormon materials. And any can lead to productive engagement with Mormon materials.

        It’s a first novel and not a perfect one, but Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, for example, is interesting (as Eric James Stone has recently noted here on this blog). Some of the most interesting explorations of gender, technology, politics, family, etc. can be found in SF&F.

        With LDS writers, John Brown’s Servant of a Dark God is a relevant engagement with issues of conversion and minority religion. As Jonathan has written, Dan Wells’ John Cleaver books speak in an interesting way to the teenage Mormon’s attempts to live within a more restrictive set of rules than their peers.

        Now that I’ve read the second book, I can help but read Shannon Hale’s two Princess Academy books as a commentary on how young women with strong values and sense of sisterhood and innocence — they’re such a Mia Maid class — can have a broader impact on a more jaded culture. As I have discussed, Matched has some interesting things to say about correlation, etc. etc.

        I understand that there are distinct advantages to using the tools of realism to more overtly engage with Mormon history and culture, but “too much distance”? How do you calculate that? For whom?

        I also think you have to consider risks for any particular work both within the genre itself and within Mormon culture (and across the them).

        And, of course, there is the matter of reception. Explicitly LDS Mormon fiction does not have a great track record in garnering a reading public.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I get that science fiction and fantasy are more than just escapist genres, and I think I’ve read enough of the genres to understand that.

          My criticism of the genres may come down to personal preference, but I’d like to think that there’s more to it than that. While sci-fi/fantasy isn’t my genre of choice, I generally like what I read of them–and I’m certainly not trying to start a genre war. Frankly, if you like writing in those genres, don’t let me stop you.

          My thought, however, is that we really don’t have–relatively speaking–a whole lot of writers who are writing Mormon fiction, so the writers who are writing are creating the legacy that will be passed on and remembered by the next generation–assuming, of course, that the legacy gets passed on. In constructing this legacy, we can go about it in a haphazard way and let everyone do their own thing, or we could pool our talents and create something transformative that can be built upon and passed down.

          Could this be done with science fiction and fantasy? Absolutely. Is now the right time to be telling those stories? That’s my question. This post is an argument in favor of historical fiction being the kind of narrative we need right now. Am I proposing an either/or situation, as Jonathan suggests? I think so–or at least I’m asking readers to consider that. Like I said, we don’t have many Mormon writers, so the work being produced is necessarily limited and our product, so to speak, must be a deliberate choice.

          In saying this, though, I don’t want to leave the impression that I think historical fiction is better than sf/f–even though I prefer one over the other. I think different situations call for different kinds of literature. When I look at the scene of contemporary Mormonism, and what I perceive to be growing cultural fissures among the membership, I see a need to draw everyone’s attention to a past wherein their doubts and conflicts have historically identifiable origins that can be worked out and remedied through fiction.

          Maybe sf/f can serve as a remedy, but I again worry that it would require readers to do too much leg work and draw too many ambiguous parallels between our current situation and a speculative one. I worry, in other words, that sf/f might address the current cultural scene too indirectly for what I perceive to be our current needs. I think many American Mormons are hungry for more direct storytelling.

          • Wm says:

            If Mormon Americans are more hungry for direct storytelling, they sure don’t seem to be showing it.

          • Wm says:

            (which I recognize is not your problem to solve, Scott — I’m just musing on yet again on the problem with finding an audience for overtly Mormon fiction)

          • Scott Hales says:

            Well, let’s call it my theory about American Mormons. It’s a hunger I expect to see more as the Church receives more media attention and information about Church history becomes more accessible via the internet and scholarly and popular books about the Church.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        As I suggest above, I don’t think it’s an either-or. I also feel the need to point out that this argument seems like a return to exclusionary rhetoric of earlier years in venues like AML that led to a lot of alienation within the Mormon literary world. It may seem today like sf&f is “the new acceptable,” but many of us have vivid memories of that not being the case. In fact, it’s still in many ways not the case today, as BYU’s lack of support for LTUE and The Leading Edge demonstrate.

        And we really don’t deserve that kind of treatment. I mentioned the example of Dave Farland, but he’s hardly the only successful sf&f writer to write LDS historical fiction. Orson Scott Card’s Saints is a noteworthy example. In these cases at least, you have Mormon historical fiction precisely because these writers were also writing sf&f — where they had arguably learned the narrative skills they applied to these works — and could afford to spend time on more commercially marginal projects

        The thing is, if you were to ask either Card or Farland if their sf&f is less important — or less Mormon — than their historical fiction, I suspect they would answer not.

        And part of me asks: Do we really have to play the “my genre is better than your genre” game? Yet again? Because to someone on the other side of that conversation, it feels like you’re blaming people for what they like to read and write. While that may play well to those who share your preference, it can do nothing but alienate those who like the kind of literature you identify as less worthy. If your goal is to work toward an inclusive, vibrant Mormon literature that includes those of us whose first love is sf&f, you really can’t afford that kind of divisive rhetoric.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I should say that my critique of Mormon sf/f is not meant to be a personal attack against those who write and read it–and those who have fought tirelessly for its acceptance. You also have to remember that I’m a relative newcomer to AML, so I’m not a veteran of the genre wars you refer to. Also, when it comes to support, I think we’re all in the same boat. No matter the genre, all Mormon literature has to fight for acceptance and support.

          At the same time, I don’t think that we should treat anything that we do (or write) as unassailable. If we all have the best interest of Mormon letters in mind, we should be able to question the direction of its future. And we should be able to turn up something productive from the dialogue that arises from disagreement. I think we should be allowed to raise issues and voice our opinions, even if they are unpopular and have been worked over before. Especially since we have new voices in the game.

          As I mention above, if you want to write sf/f–by all means, don’t let my commentary stop you. If you think I’m wrong, ignore me. As a loyal AML-er, though, who has a deep commitment to Mormon literature, I take issue with being called divisive. I think my contributions to our ongoing conversations have shown that I’m not trying to tear anything down.

          • Jonathan Langford says:

            Certainly Mormon sf&f isn’t unassailable. But it should be critiqued for what it does well and poorly — not because it isn’t another genre of work.

            One of the reasons I’ve been kind of blunt in my comments here is that there *is* a history of stigmatizing sf&f within the Mormon literary community. Whether intended as divisive or not, comments that historical fiction is “certainly… of far more worth” than other genres will inevitably be interpreted that way.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    I’m reading a book called Jews and Words right now which has me thinking about Mormons and words. Natch.

    I worry that we as a people are not doing a great job passing our literary culture on to our children, beyond the narrow bounds of correlated Church instruction. We need to engage with our past in meaningful ways.

    Nonfiction writers are getting into this, but the literary set need to engage as well. This means engaging with the history, the literature of the past, and our contemporaries.

    We need to create a river of literacy from our genesis to our future.

    We need to more fully engage with our own traditions.

  6. I think the genre preference game is putting the discussion out in left field, when Scott is putting forth an important call for this kind of fiction. So I’m not going to speak to that. But in the days of post _Rough Stone Rolling_, and the extended freedom we seem to have garnered in telling honest Mormon history, I think this kind of narrative is especially relevant, useful, and potentially powerful (but I’m a big Church History buff, so I eat up this kind of thing).

    I’m glad that Jonathan brought up Card’s _Saints_. I had a powerful experience with that book.

    I would say that Work and the Glory goes beyond correlated history, although perhaps not by much. Lund addresses polygamy in a way that surprised me, coming from a major Mormon publisher (Bookcraft wasn’t part of Deseret Book yet when those books first came out). Sure, TWATG didn’t deal with polyandry, lying to Emma, or young wives, but polygamy was a a huge part of that story when the series came to the Nauvoo era. John C. Bennett, Joseph’s polygamy, etc. were important parts of the narrative, and I think that should be recognized as a step in the right direction, especially coming from a conservative Mormon press. The series may have ducked the depth of some of the controversies, but it certainly at least confronted the subject, which I applaude, especially in its time and place.

    But I think Scott is right. The time is ripe for Mormon historical work again, and that of a more searching nature. For my part, I’ve already had three of my Church History plays produced (one published), and am currently working on a series of Church History novels (60+ pages into the first volume). :)

    Oh, and currently reading Lightning Tree. Loving it.

    • Scott Hales says:

      Saints isn’t a perfect novel, but I think it’s one of the best Mormon historical novels we have. What I like best about it is that Card draws attention to the fact that history is a slippery thing. At one point, O. Kirkham, his frame narrator, talks about there being “different kinds of truth” when we look at the historical record, meaning that what we take as “truth” is often the result of a genealogy of tellings and retellings, factual negotiations and renegotiations. I think this is a message that many Mormons raised on correlated history today need to hear–that’s it’s OK for there to be some ambiguity in the historical record–that ambiguity doesn’t need to shake faith.

      Also, I like that Saints tries to present people like Joseph Smith and Heber C. Kimball is a realistic manner, with flaws and shortcomings. It testifies to what good can happen through the weak things of the world–despite their weaknesses and flaws. Again, that’s another message we need today. All of us are flawed, including our leaders, but that does not mean that God cannot work through them and us.

      Of course, I think we need to be careful not to fetishize these long-forgotten or ignored or displaced aspects of Church history. I’d like to see our historical novelists try to incorporate these aspects of church history in a seamless, natural way. I don’t think we need to necessarily draw undo attention to them or go out of our way to highlight them–unless we are trying to use them to make some sort of commentary about some larger idea. This is what Card does with Brigham Young’s transfiguration in Saints–he uses it as a way to talk about the ambiguities of the Mormon historical text. In most cases, though, the uncorrelated aspects of Mormon history should fit snugly into our narratives.

  7. Wm says:

    This is me repeating myself, but I do think that this discussion points yet again to the fact that what is needed is:

    a) for Mormon writers to be aware of the histories and traditions in which they are writing and, especially, attempt works in a variety of genres (and, yes, credit to OSC, David Farland and Shannon Hale for doing this already).

    b) critics to focus in on individual works and tease out where they succeed and fall short (in relation to certain expectations and audiences).

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think I can agree to both of these points, even if doing so seems to contradict what I’ve stated above. (I don’t think it does, but I’m not against the possibility.)

      Also, I think magical realism offers a lot of possibilities for Mormon writers. Not only can it bridge the apparent gaps between genre, but it can also offers a way for Mormons, who tend to have a kind of magical world view, a way to present their worldviews more earnestly.

      • Wm says:

        Using the term magical realism is approaching things from a literary point of view*, but yes, I was just about to go on a whole rant about how the use of the fantastic can actually accomplish some of the things that you are wanting.

        In particular, Karen Joy Fowler has a set of stories about the assassination of Lincoln that (subtly) use speculative fiction techniques to say some interesting things about American society and history. And then, of course, her story “What I Didn’t See” is one of the best stories ever about gender dynamics, colonialist attitudes, science, American naiveté, etc.

        In Mormon literature specifically, Lee Allred’s alternate Mormon history novella “For the Strength of the Hills” is, in my book, the best Mormon historical fiction to be published so far. And Thom Duncan’s “The Glowing” is one of the few engagements with the First Vision that takes a literary (as opposed to mainly just a depiction) approach to the event — and it’s a work of science fiction. Those are just two examples that come to mind. Another, although it’s one I haven’t read, is what Moriah Jovan is doing with her Dunham saga, which is to add a volume of her family saga that takes reader back to its pre-Mormon days by telling stories of the ancestors of her latter-day Mormons, and that’s in the adventure romance genre.

        Now, let’s get back to what you actually wrote that sparked this whole genre discussion:

        “Certainly, in an age when so many Latter-day Saints are becoming increasingly confused about conflicting versions of the Mormon past, a genre that seeks to makes sense and meaning out of the confusion is of far more worth, say, than a new five volume fantasy series or Mormon space saga.”

        How do you see historical fiction as way to create sense and meaning out of that confusion in a way that other modes of fiction can’t? And is fiction really the best way to create sense and meaning, especially in relation to history?

        *And it’s a term that I find not useful outside the specific context of its coining. It’s also been used to de-genre-fy works of SF&F so that they become palatable to literary genre readers. So it kinda has a reverse stigma now among genre fans.

        • I think Card’s Alvin Maker series is a good example of what you’re discussing, Wm., with how speculative fiction can comment on historical fiction.

          • Wm says:

            Yes. Although that’s also a series that could use some interrogation — or rather the attention of a good critic. I tried to get Scott Hales to do it since I’m too lazy (and more of a gadfly than a critic), but he hasn’t fully committed to the notion yet. ;-)

          • Jonathan Langford says:

            I’ve long thought there’s a paper or three out there waiting to be written about the series both draws on and reconceptualizes our preexisting view of history in this set of books. Sadly, it looks like that’s a paper I’ll never have the time to write…

          • Scott Hales says:

            I might end up writing that paper…

            And a quick look through the MLA International Bibliography reveals that some work has already been done on the series, although not nearly as much as on Ender’s Game.

  8. Wm says:

    And just to show that I play for both sides, let me endorse this “rant onexclusion and genre pedantry

  9. Jonathan Langford says:

    I think everyone who has been writing here agrees on the notion that it would be great to have more good Mormon historical fiction. For those who aren’t interested by such fiction (either as writers or as readers), fine. They aren’t really part of the audience for this call to action.

    The real question is how to effectively encourage that kind of literary production. And that’s where I have a substantial difference of opinion. I don’t see a collective pool of LDS writers, working together to decide what their next projects will be. Rather, I see a number of individual writers (and would-be writers) making decisions that affect their livelihood. General calls for action will inevitably be read through the lens of how they impact those lives. Statements that “we need this, not this” will inevitably be seen as rebukes to those who have chosen otherwise.

    The reason we have a sizeable body of LDS science fiction and fantasy writers is that a number of talented individuals who happen to be LDS had the interest and made the choices that led to careers in that area. They didn’t get there because the Mormon literary establishment called for more sf&f. Far from it! But there *was* collective action and encouragement within our own small community. We created a magazine. We built a symposium. Established writers helped those who just getting started. We celebrated each other’s work.

    The same thing could be done with Mormon historical fiction. Already some of it is being done. There is a Whitney category for historical. AML has recognized works of historical fiction in its awards (more than sf&f, I believe). I’d love to get a regular blogger on historical fiction for the AML blog, to talk about the good things that are being done in that field, but have so far failed to find one.

    A final point:

    The Mormon market is not strong enough to support very many full-time writers. Most of the LDS writers who have succeeded in creating a full-time writing career have done so by writing for the national market. Certainly that’s true of all, or almost all, of the LDS sf&f writers, which is why you have professional writers like Card and Farland who can afford to write some historical fiction. They made a bigger pie.

    I think that’s likely to continue in the future. I think having more LDS writers succeed as writers in the national market, in whatever genre they prefer, will inevitably make a bigger pool of talent available with a desire to create Mormon stories — especially if we can do a good job of celebrating those stories. It’s not a zero-sum game. Increased literary production in one area doesn’t come at the expense of literary production in other fields.

  10. Scott Parkin says:

    I can’t comment dispassionately on the broader conversation, so I’m going to offer a couple of thoughts and go away. (See my Random Origins post on Facebook today for a discussion of the origins of “flogging a dead horse.”)

    Whenever the formulation is that we *should* be doing this *instead* of doing that in a storytelling context, my generic hackles go up and it becomes difficult for me not to summarily reject the argument. My own approach is to encourage the development of all arts and styles; find your passion and pursue it with gusto and clean conscience.

    For me, advocacy for more of one thing does not justify a call for the reduction of another. I may see less value in that other thing, but in the end it’s not about me; it’s about we.

    What the culture (collective, body, community, church, Church, etc.) should do to establish its collective identity and cultural foundation, and what the individual Mormon should do to express personal passion and viewpoint strike me as very different ideas that merit very different discussions.

    The culture as an entity needs a literary foundation. How should the culture encourage that? Institutional writing? Patronage? Bounties? AML does it by offering awards; Marilyn Brown does it by sponsoring a contest. LDS Storymakers runs a conference.

    If the culture wants something. then the culture (through its official as well as volunteer organizations) needs to step up and make the doing of that thing both generally and specifically acceptable—and rewarding. Until then, it’s just us ducks talking among ourselves—as individuals with our individual preferences and tastes (with the more than occasional honk, bite, and feather-flying-fracas).

    As one who writes both sf and general fiction, I realized a long time ago that I will forever live in the literary ghetto, and that the best I can hope for is a queasy, tentative, arm’s length tolerance from either the academy or the culture’s gatekeepers.

    It would be nice to be invited in to the feast and commune together, but until then I have learned to content myself here in the vestibule and to seek acceptance from other sources. I wish it were otherwise; sadly, it isn’t.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I’m always insisting that I don’t mean to privilege one genre over another in my posts, but I think I may be protesting too much!

      • Scott Parkin says:

        In this case the entire construction was an argument privileging Mormon historical drama’s intrinsic social/cultural value over other genres. “Far more worth than” is a pretty unambiguous statement.

        That sf happened to get the…privilege…of being used (twice!) as the lesser value side of the equation strikes me as likely random; on another day it might have been romance, or thriller, or sports stories (all novels that Dean Hughes has written, I believe). That it’s the same general argument used to privilege non-fiction over fiction seems a delicious irony to me.

        All it reveals is that we each have preferences. Cool. And we all tend to be sensitive when we think our own preferred forms or genres are dissed. Sad. But that’s the nature of literary discussion in a diverse community; no need to get offended (though I can’t help but be mildly bummed, anyhow).

        As one of the articles Theric linked suggests, sf already won the market war (over Mormon historical novels and others). So it’s a little weird to whine that sf writers get no respect (almost precisely as weird as when Romance writers do it—more than half of the modern book market).

        I would also like to see more serious(ish) Mormon history novels written that stick close to the known history. But until the Mormon book market (aka, publishers) asks for it (and pays for it), the bulk of better writers are unlikely to go there—especially when they then get blasted by the (blasted) Real Historians for getting things wrong.

        Enthusiasts can go with independent (epub) press, but there are few rewards in it beyond the privilege (that word again…) of seeing your work in print. At least right now.

        Perhaps they should do it out of a sense of cultural duty, but that’s not the way authors think, even if it is the way critics do.

        Just a thought.

        (And last of the day—horse dead now. Back to writing a [science fiction] story for the workshop I’m in the middle of right now in coastal Oregon.)

  11. Mark Penny says:

    The answer is a steampunk time travel novel in which a twenty-second century zealot goes back to prevent all the embarrassing historical and personal moments in our collective past. The working title is Timestitcher. Any takers?

    • Mark Penny says:

      Yeah. A group called Corrective Temporal Research. It could be a collaborative anthology. I could host it on Lowly Seraphim. Simultaneously embrace and apologize for the dark side of Mormon history. We could even have a speech writer go back and expunge all those embarrassing speculations and expressions of opinion.

  12. christineplouvier says:

    There are twelve overtly “religious” novels in my personal library, ranging from four to five stars in quality of writing and substance of subject. Five are Catholic (produced in 1939, 1941, 1949, 1956 and 1969, including two by the same author). Two are Muslim (1999 and 2007, one by each sex). One (1942), by a Protestant clergyman who changed denominations, takes place at the beginning of the Christian Era. One (1948) is by the daughter of Protestant missionaries, about Jews in China in the mid-nineteenth century. One (1943) deals with early twentieth-century Nonconformists and Anglicans, by a woman whose religious background I’ve been unable to determine. Next is the Chronicles of Narnia fantasy, considered as one “book”. Only one is Mormon (my own ambitious tome, a contemporary psychological romantic melodrama with a paranormal element).

    I’d been a Mormon for thirty years before I tried reading any LDS fiction, and I was so profoundly disappointed by the shallow substance and/or poor quality of writing by all but one of the several different authors that I tried, I gave it up for a bad job. (The best one of the lot was not one of the über-popular names.) I’ve previewed recent Amish fiction, but as yet I haven’t seen anything well enough written or compelling enough in content to wade through. Of the new kids on the faith-based literary block, the Muslims seem to have grappled as successfully as the Catholics and Protestants did with the gritty interface between religious belief and real behavior, and the two examples that I own have fewer glaring writing quality issues, too.

    • Th. says:

      .

      The problem I think is that how would someone new to Mormon literature really know what to examine first? A basic number of classic novels should be common knowledge among the membership, but such ain’t the case. I’ve talked about Added Upon in Sunday School and elders quorum a number of times, but it always feels self-indulgent because I have to explain what the book is first. I wish our common store of literary heritage went beyond the scriptures.

      • christineplouvier says:

        Admittedly, I had the recommendations of fiction-readers in my ward. Non-LDS who are unfamiliar with Mormon Lit generally don’t have that luxury. (I say “generally” because I have a non-Mormon friend who has consulted me about many such arcane things over the past 30 years.)

        Somebody said, “I like So-and-So’s stories, and I own all of them,” so I borrowed one, was underwhelmed, and borrowed a few more to give the writer another chance, which unfortunately justified my first impression. Then I went on to lather-rinse-and-repeat with other samples I got through interlibrary loan, by authors I gleaned from DB and Seagull catalogs. The better one I found online, when I was looking at the output of several tiny independent LDS publishers.

        I’d forgotten about Added Upon. It was the only piece of LDS fiction I can recall having seen on the shelf of the EQ “bookstore” in the broom closet of the second ward I lived in. I remember picking it up and flipping through it, but I didn’t buy it, probably because I was in the first couple of years of my membership of the Church, and was still in fact-absorption mode (I did buy a bunch of doctrinal works). Just now I looked at the first pages of it (vouchsafed by A Major Online Retailer), and although I was reared on literary fiction, much of it dating from the period when Added Upon was written (which is probably why I naturally write in a literary-lyric prose voice), the style seems ponderous, even to me.

        I was early in the process of writing my first novel when Jerry Johnston’s controversial article about the Great Mormon Novel came out, and while I vehemently disagreed with him, I was under no misapprehensions that what I was writing would ever achieve “critical acclaim.” (What was going on with my protagonist turned out to be along the lines of Dr. Joseph Cramer’s contemporaneous article, “Think Mormons don’t get depressed?”)

        Life is a messy mixture of body and spirit: an unstable, volatile concoction that is liable to blow up in one’s face, no matter how carefully handled. The angel that Mormon writers and readers (including agents and publishers) are really wrestling with, is the shade of Oscar Wilde, who said, “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life.”

        Ultimately, “great” is in the eye of the beholder, today or centuries later. Tolstoy, Joyce, Steinbeck and Greene et al. probably weren’t primarily motivated by the goal of achieving “greatness.” More likely, they were motivated by (a) the red-lined bills they were finding on the mat, and/or (b) having inadvertently stepped through a portal of the Parallel Universe, they couldn’t rest until they’d written down what they saw there. (I fall into the second category.)

  13. I am glad that you also believe in a lack of footnotes. I feel that footnotes & works cited pages have little place in most fiction. While I did do an exhaustive amount of research, I feel the story needs to be just that: a story. Footnotes kind of blur the line, IMO, and lead to people bearing their testimony of works of fiction (something that actually happened in my husband’s ward, growing up.) Everything you write here resonates so deeply with me, I don’t even have words.

  14. Theric, I think there is a place for telling a story (particularly ghost stories come to mind) as if they happened to you. Did you use footnotes??

    • Th. says:

      .

      Heavens no.

      In the original draft, I was telling an elaborate story about checking out the Deseret Book from the Church archives. Just oo crazy from the getgo.

      And whenever I tell a ghost story, I include an intro about reading of the local history and stumbling across this story I’m about to tell you. . . .

  15. whoops. That was me. Must have switched my fields up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>