E Pluribus Plures: From Many, (also) Many

As an exercise, I made a quick (and necessarily incomplete) catalog of some of the communities I’ve participated in over the last week or so: Mormons, genealogy enthusiasts, writers, Mo-Lit enthusiasts, college students, role-playing gamers, gun enthusiasts, sf&f fandom, political commentators, community governors, word freaks, educators, language enthusiasts.

Sometimes it’s a challenge keeping those communities separate, especially when many of my friends are members of many of those communities. The lines blur—right up until they don’t.

A meander in two and two-halves parts on community, identity, and shapes of responsibility.

With Apologies…

I thought I was clever with the title of this post, but while doing a Web search to make sure I got the grammar right I discovered (unsurprisingly) that others beat me to it. It seems this phrase has already been used in a far-reaching discussion of immigrant identity in general, and Hispanic community in particular.

This is not about that.

While I suspect I may touch on similar themes and ideas, I am not educated to either the educational or social particulars of that conversation. Any similarities will be accidental rather than intentional.

Just to be clear.

Managing Many Melting Pots

I was at a writing workshop a couple of weeks ago with four instructors acting in the role of four editors for widely differing publications. Thirty class members had each submitted a story to a generic slushpile. Each of the editors read that same slush while applying both their personal preferences and the standards of their individual publications, and explained their thoughts and reasoning when considering each story to the class.

We all got copies of all the stories and read them in preparation for the workshop. The writers were a disparate lot. We all wrote science fiction or fantasy to some degree, but many identified their primary audiences as romance, mystery, alternate history, literary-academic, military, or erotica readers. Some were from Canada, others from Europe, most from the United States. Most were from the Pacific Northwest, others from the Midwest, the Deep South, or the Intermountain West. No New Englanders in the group.

We were unified by a common theme, but approached that theme from different foundations and with very different execution. The variety of stories was amazing.

It was interesting to see how the different editors responded. The first and second (magazine) editors nearly always disagreed at the level of story—one specialized in unusual or quirky stories; the other in broad market appeal. The third and fourth (anthology) editors were the same way—but diverged from the magazine editors in requiring a broader spectrum of stories across a wider range of types for their publications.

So it was pretty common for the first editor to dump a story after one page (too mundane—not for my readers); the second to dump it after three to five pages (good writing and hook; needs more setting); the third to read it half-way through before dumping it (loved it, but I already have one just like it from a Big Name Author, so I stopped reading—sorry); and the fourth one declaring it a buy (or at least a close second look).

One of my stories prompted one magazine editor to hold the manuscript between finger and thumb and hand it straight to the second editor while saying that I pushed every one of his negative buttons by the bottom of the first page. The second editor promptly said she loved both the idea and the writing. Another author’s story so enraged one of the anthology editors that she simply tossed the manuscript back with no comments at all while shaking her head as her complement explained the disconnect.

A single community of authors and editors unified by our enthusiasm for story in general and sf&f in particular. Yet we still diverged in fundamental ways to the point of functional (professional) incompatibility.

Hierarchies of Allegiance

I just served oatmeal to my five-year old. He doesn’t care what flavor (maple and brown sugar, cinnamon roll, apple, blueberry) or what bowl (glass, plastic, or ceramic; clear or opaque; large or small), or what size/shape of spoon.

But it *will* be served on the snowman pad (a specific pot holder with a Christmas design) or he *will not* even sit down at the table, no less eat it. He can accept a great deal of variety up to that point, but this one thing is not negotiable. Ever.

My mom was like that with technology, if in an inverted way. Her first introduction to (non-game) computer software was a spreadsheet (Lotus 123). She was organizing hourly schedules at the time to ensure that there were enough people to cover a variety of different roles in the organization she managed. It was the right tool for the job, so it was naturally the one she first learned on her brand new computer.

When the time came to write letters to her volunteers describing both their weekly schedules and their responsibilities, she just opened a new spreadsheet and wrote the letters there. It made sense—easy copy and paste, built-in font handling, existing familiarity (and comfort) with the tool.

But she quickly became frustrated with limited formatting options and graphic handling as she branched out into making recruiting fliers. She would call me and complain bitterly that the tool wasn’t meeting her needs. I told her to use a word processing package, and she politely demurred and went away muttering that I just didn’t understand what she was asking…

I thought it was cute, because I use hundreds of different applications depending on the task (four different word processors this morning alone; ten different applications open at once as I type). Mom used three—Minesweeper, Solitaire, and Lotus 123. If she couldn’t solve the problem with one of those, the problem would simply have to go unsolved.

I kind of admired her stubborn allegiance to that one tool. It met one primary need with optimal aplomb; she forced it to meet additional needs despite its obvious unsuitability. Her creativity in manipulating (wresting) the tool proved quite remarkable—and remarkably effective.

E Pluribus Unum: Managing Many Melting Pots (Reprise)

Most of us count ourselves members of many communities, and feel both affinity with the totality of the community and distinction from many of its individual members. It’s the nature of the beast; we are complex beings with complex interests, so we pursue multiple memberships in communities of interest.

Except when we don’t.

Sometimes we find a primary community and demand that it satisfy all our various interests. If the single community cannot meet those needs, we are disappointed—and sometimes feel deeply hurt at its failure to meet us on our own terms. We lobby within that community to make it see (and do) things our way so we are not required to seek other sources of social, intellectual, or spiritual sustenance.

Our little Mormon literary community is a clear example. Some of us see it as the center point; others as merely one of many communities. Some of us demand it bend to our tastes; others drop in for brief visits before moving on to other venues. But we all declare with relative certainty how things should be in our little community regardless of what others think.

Except when we don’t.

It’s not always necessary that the community bend to our will; it can both delight and disgust simultaneously. It’s an interesting balancing act that creates strong feelings of both community and alienation. When you mix in a religious foundation that encourages unity in purpose, doctrine, and broad behavioral norms, separating personal interest from communal identity can become a fraught, difficult task.

I won’t pretend to know the right answer. I’m a stubborn devotee of too many individual products, ideas, and communities that regularly tick me off to the point of rage to suggest simple pluralism as the answer. We are both many and one simultaneously. That tension is at once necessary and unrelenting.

Which is why it’s so useful (and interesting) to tell our various stories according to our various assumptions and aesthetics—and lobby for our individual takes on the question to our various communities. Not to create a single homogeneous melting pot of bland goo, but to spice our various communal dishes with those elements that individually define and enrich us.

Like my five-year old or a magazine editor who demands to be surprised and delighted within certain well-defined limits and conventions. An interesting (and frustrating) challenge. But also the reason we play the game.

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9 Responses to E Pluribus Plures: From Many, (also) Many

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Which is why, I think, it’s good that we spread ourselves thin. Success will come from fishing in many ponds.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I’m torn about this idea of spreading ourselves thin. I get the advantages of the many ponds strategy, but I wonder, considering the small number of Mormon literature enthusiasts out there, if concentrating our efforts more narrowly might result in a better product overall.

      The problem, though, is identifying what those concentrated efforts and that product should be. Inevitably, it would cut some people out and/or devalue the work of talented people–and limit growth in areas beyond the boundaries of the project. I’m not really keen on that cutting people out idea. It reminds me too much of middle school.

      Still, I like the idea of pursuing a common aim with more focus. But the many ponds might be the more ethical route.

  2. Lee Allred says:

    Jonathan’s earlier post on the future of the LTUE symposium, Scott Parkin’s post here on communities, and the end portion of Scott Hale’s post today over on A MOTLEY VISION where he talks about the benefits of face-to-face conversations all nicely dovetail.

    There’s a an oft-repeated phenomenon in the arts of “critical mass”: multiple breakouts in an artisitic field coming from the same local grouping of artists: the playwrights of Jacobethan London, Hemmingway’s “Lost Generation” Paris, Oxford’s “Inklings,” etc.

    Science fiction in particular has a history of local groups achieving critical mass: Heinlein’s “Manana Literary Society” in SoCal in the late 1930s, the “Futurians” of 1940s NYC that produced well over 50% of the SF editors of the 1950s and 1960s, the Moscow, Idaho “Moscow Mafia” of the 1980s (which morphed into the Eugene, Oregon area writers of the 1990s), and even our own little BYU/LTUE/TLE boomlet.

    Humans are social animals, even solitary introverted writers, A group of associating contemporaries can serve as teachers, mentors, cheering section, cautionary examples, or rivals, or all of these combined. Compliments and competition serves ably as carrot and stick for mulish writers.

    Face-to-face conferences and communities like LTUE and AML’s annual meeting are vital to achieving and maintaining a ‘critical mass’ in Mormon SF and Mormon Letters, and BYU seems intent on letting this phenomenon slip away. Twice. At the same time.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Which also raises (obliquely) the problem of micro-targeting and fragmentation—one of the (secondary) implications (I think) of Scott Hales’ comments.

      It’s one of the challenges of the Internet age—there’s a micro-community somewhere for every kind of fandom. Such micro-communities form, diverge, and disband with increasing frequency; it’s easier to start a new group than resolve a point of disagreement.

      The up-side is the ability for the marginal (exceptional?) artist and consumer to find and support each other in groups too small for large commercial interest. One can remain true to a unique vision and develop it to either market viability or exceptional obscurity.

      Then again, when it’s easy to flit, what happens to the core? Do we lose something vital when it becomes so easy to walk away that we 1) engage fewer conversations (disputes?), and 2) become sufficiently aloof from communal identity that we neither examine or question our own motives relative to communal values? Can the exceptional (new) develop to its greater potential without push-back, resistance, competition, and refinement?

      I think Lee is right that critical mass of creative/expressive drive creates a community that lives beyond the mandates of its originators, and that it’s to our advantage to both recognize and support such communities, even if they don’t reflect our own individual interests. Which seems to dovetail with Scott Hales’ observation that fragmentation often leads to dissipation rather than crystallization, and we owe it to ourselves to create that critical mass even if the effort feels artificial or contrived.

      (Delicately skipping over the fact that critical mass indicates an inevitable slide toward explosive—and highly destructive—release of energy in an essentially uncontrolled way that usually annihilates the matter that initiates it…)

      Yet another tension between enlightened self interest and responsibility to the community. Need there be an opposition in *all* things?

      (sigh…)

      • Wm says:

        This gets back to the same thing we’ve all been harping on, but I think the thing that most leads to engagement is creating works of art or criticism that strike a chord with people. We do need enough loose ties and/or gathering places and/or movement between fragmented groups that such works can spread.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          This seems a little tautological (success comes by being successful), but it also seems to assume that communities form in answer to the presence of the result, not to create the result—which seems like the opposite of the critical mass theory (the result comes as a product of the community).

          I gotta think about that for a bit.

          • Wm says:

            It is tautological, but I think it’s applicable to where we are at at this point in time in the development of Mormon culture.

            “communities form in answer to the presence of the result, not to create the result”

            I think they form in answer to the presence of certain results and end up creating more/other results. With the exception of Irreantum and a few novels and story collections here and there, I don’t think that we’ve created enough results or perhaps the right results.

          • Scott Parkin says:

            Heading to the top of a new thread…

  3. christineplouvier says:

    I’m reminded of the disdain expressed by the avant-garde for painter Andrew Wyeth (and for those who like his work).

    Speaking of social phenomena, I had been a member of a benevolent organization for many years when another long-time member began to be outspoken in promoting activities that were unlawful and/or potentially life-endangering. (This individual also paradoxically became exercised and condemnatory of things that were superficial and benign.) When I raised an objection, I was silenced by the group leader, who defended the validity of the other person’s positions with the statement that these were just “differences of opinion.” (I withdrew from that group.)

    As time passes, the inhabitants of any milieu run the risk of developing some form of groupthink and/or doublethink (such as pluralistic ignorance, social proof, or diffusion of responsibility/bystander effect, among others).

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