A Community of (Mormon) Readers

The best conversations are the ones where you get a chance both to share your own views and to rethink them in response to what other people say. That’s the kind of experience I had with my recent AML blog post about LTUE, the ongoing science fiction and fantasy symposium formerly held at BYU, and its relationship to the Mormon sf&f community.

This post is me continuing the cycle by sharing some of those new thoughts, which aren’t so specific to sf&f. In fact, I think they have a lot to do with the community of Mormon letters in general, and AML in particular. Let’s see what you think.

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Anything that gets written and read is worth studying. That’s the basic premise behind a lot of current literary criticism. Even if it isn’t “high-quality” literature, the very fact that it’s written and read is enough to make it worth investigating, from a cultural studies perspective if nothing else. And for obvious reasons, literary scholars who are investigating a particular type of literature tend to form communities where they talk to each other (sometimes yell at each other), organize conferences and journals, and the like.

Writers of the same type of literature tend to form communities. At the very least, there are natural human reasons to keep an eye on what the competition is doing. In some fields and at some times, there’s more to it than that. A surprising amount of the literature we read and study today is the product of communities of writers who knew and interacted with each other in mutually supportive ways. The Inklings, T. S. Eliot’s friendship with Ezra Pound, and the quasi-incestuous relationships among many of the early British Romantic writers represent only a few of the most famous instances of this. To a surprising degree, it seems to me a great deal of literature is written in conscious response to a small circle of intended readers whom the writer often knows personally, as opposed to a large (paying) audience.

One of the things that used to strike me as unusual about sf&f writers was the degree to which they interacted as a larger-scale and (generally) mutually supportive community, back before that type of thing was common. One of the oldest and most important writer’s organizations is SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Since then, that kind of thing has become more common in other genres, but at one time sf&f stood out for the cohesiveness of its community of writers.

And then there are the lay readers of various types of literature — the fans. The very word fan (originally an abbreviation of fanatic, according to the Oxford Dictionaries website) suggests a general assumption that for regular readers to do anything more than read and maybe discuss with a few friends is unusual, and possibly even a tad questionable. Again, this is an area where sf&f has historically been exceptional. As far back as the era of the pulps, one of the distinguishing characteristics of sf&f readers has been their tendency to comment and argue publicly about the stories they were reading — and organize venues for doing so. Indeed, the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 was organized expressly as a venue for sf&f fans to get together — not, as one might expect, as a publicity event for the authors, though naturally there was an element of that as well. Indeed, yet another unusual thing about the sf&f community was the degree of overlap and mutual interaction between the fan community and the writers. Based on my reading, it would be fair to say that really they were a single community back then.

Which is part of my background when I think about what an sf&f community should be, and what a venue like LTUE should represent. Sf&f fans, in my mind, aren’t just enthusiastic readers and consumers, and venues like LTUE shouldn’t exist just to listen to the authors — or to become a better writer. Rather, the core (to my mind) is an active and intelligent conversation among the fans and writers.

With the advent of online communities, conversations among active fans have become much more common in genres other than sf&f, though I’d argue that few of them offer the broad range and interaction between writers and readers I’ve described above for sf&f. At the same time, with growing readerships and an ever-increasing pool of writers, I don’t think you get as much of this in sf&f as used to be the case even back in the 1980s when I first got involved in sf&f fandom. In this respect, the changes in LTUE that took me so much by surprise are perhaps a reflection of trends in the larger sf&f community — though the older type of interaction remains an ideal that I think many of us struggle to uphold.

There’s another dimension that seems particularly applicable to Mormon letters. Back in the day, sf&f was not considered “respectable” literature that was fit for serious literary study. If you wanted to talk seriously about sf&f, the only place you could do so was in the sf&f community. Indeed, the first group of serious academic sf&f scholars, including many whose work remains important, came out of that community.

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So what, you may ask, does this have to do with Mormon literature and the AML?

One of the things I liked best about AML-List back when I first became involved with it in the 1990s was that it seemed like the same type of community I saw in the sf&f world: one with a high quality of thought and discussion touching not just on literature but, through the lens of literature, on a variety of broader issues as well, that represented a meeting-place of scholars, writers, and intelligent lay readers. I think that’s what drew a lot of other people as well.

And yet, as I think of it, there really is a kind of perversity to the notion of a community of active lay readers, at least if historical precedents provide a yardstick. One of the points about the classic sf&f community is just how unusual it was —how seldom there has been anything like it.

Writers have a commercial interest in building mutually supportive communities. Ditto academic scholars, due to the need to publish in order to advance professionally. Not so the amateur reader. Where’s the motive for serious involvement?

Following the money provides other insights about the challenges facing the AML community. AML was originally founded by academic scholars, largely from BYU. Unfortunately, support for critical study of Mormon literature has decreased at BYU. It’s not an exaggeration to say that spending time studying Mormon literature is more likely to harm than help one’s BYU career. And so the field of Mormon literary scholarship is left largely to independent scholars such as Scott Hales, William Morris, and Harlow Clark, whose contributions are invaluable but who fall short of a critical mass capable of sustaining events such as the AML conference.

So what about the writers? AML’s leadership has historically included a mix of scholars and writers of literary Mormon-themed literature such as Levi Peterson and Margaret Young. Starting with the creation of Irreantum in 1999, that’s been an area of increasing focus for AML, both formally and informally through fostering a community where enterprises such as Zarahemla Books could flourish. Unfortunately, it remains impossible to make a living (or even to make money) from writing Mormon-themed literary fiction. So again, such contributions represent (at best) part-time efforts, with limited time and energy left over to support the broader community.

And AML has frankly failed to make itself relevant to other Mormon writers: both those publishing more popular Mormon-themed and/or Mormon-audienced fiction, and those writing for a national market. Indeed, I don’t think that’s ever been a major goal of AML’s (at least not since the dissolution of the AML writer’s conference). So perhaps failed is the wrong word.

In any event, the popular Mormon-themed/audienced writers have their own community, and it isn’t ours. And with the exception of the old Mormon sf&f community, so far as I can tell there is no distinctively Mormon community for nationally published writers. Nor, perhaps, is there a need for one, since they are fully integrated into the national communities of the various genres in which they publish.

Which brings us back to the question of a community of (lay) readers.

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One reason (I postulate) why most literary genres don’t attract the kind of active conversation among readers that I described for sf&f is that all there really is to talk about is the story. Most genres aren’t like sf&f, where part of the point is not merely to tell stories but also to provide a lens for contemplating (literally) life, the universe, and everything.

I suspect that if someone did a serious study of the matter (though how it would be carried out I don’t know), he/she would find that many of the books that generate the most vigorous discussion among non-academic readers are those that connect to some real-world topic in which readers have a strong extraliterary investment: say, autism, or politics. Or religion.

Viewed from that perspective, Mormon literature ought to have the potential for a vigorous and wide-ranging conversation among its readers. Unfortunately, that’s a fairly small group, numerically speaking — at least, if we limit it to those who read Mormon literary fiction, which is really the only group AML is well-situated to serve. Readers of more popular Mormon fiction (a) typically lack the critical apparatus to take part in our discussions, and (b) are more likely to find the books they enjoy insulted than analyzed intelligently and respectfully. (Richard Cracroft represents a much-missed bridge in this respect.)

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At this point, I’d really like to be able to pose a solution in the form of a call to action. Or at least a succinct and insightful statement of the problem. But even that escapes me.

In order to survive, the community has to grow. That much seems evident. AML needs more readers, or more writers, or more scholars — ideally a combination of all three.

Recruitment’s one possible answer. Probably the most rehearsed lament on this blog and the email list that preceded it is the notion that many potential readers who might enjoy serious Mormon fiction don’t know it exists. More insidiously, they may know it exists but not care enough to seek it out. In many cases, a good conversation might help to provide both information and motivation. (Can we say “chicken and egg”?) Which calls for participation and missionary work on all our parts: another well-rehearsed theme.

I wonder about the potential effects of a really serious recruitment drive of potential Mormon literary scholars, including those outside the regular Mormon centers of population. Again, an active conversation is perhaps the best attraction, especially if it has the potential to yield peer-reviewed publication. In this connection, loss of the AML Annual is a serious limitation. I know there are problems with getting the files from many years past, but might it not be worth simply resuming from whatever point we can start? Assuming, of course, that we can find the volunteers — but if we do want to recruit scholars, this (and maintenance of the AML conference) represent high priorities.

As for the writers… I think all of the serious Mormon literary writers are already part of the AML community, in one sense or another. The question remains whether enough of them will consider it worth their while to jump in and keep the more time-intensive efforts like Irreantum going. I will say (again) that for Mormon literary writers as well, places like the AML blog represent an important common watering whole for which there is at present no evident replacement.

The other thing that seems evident is that as things are now, all three groups — readers, writers, and scholars — contribute vitally to this community’s health. Narrowing AML’s focus has an evident attraction in light of the too-few-hands/too-much-work problem, but is likely to have a serious cost, not limited to the area(s) cut. I can’t speak for the scholars and writers, but as a reader, losing either the writers or the scholars would make this a less cool place to hang out.

So, no solutions. But at least a few thoughts, expressed in more than a few words. What are yours?

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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11 Responses to A Community of (Mormon) Readers

  1. In terms of selling more readers on literary Mormon work: I’m still not sure which works to use as an introduction to sell readers on the field. We need a clearer gateway to help people decide if they want to dive in.

    What if we put together a list of “Ten books you must check out before writing off Mormon Literature” or something similar?

    It might also help to have a summary of some of the fundamental cultural conversations Mormon Lit takes up. If people care about the questions, maybe they’ll be willing to look more at the literature.

    If we do make good gateway materials, we also need to position them prominently as such rather than letting them get lost in the archives.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      The notion of making the AML website a more user-friendly general gateway/resource site for Mormon literature (including Mormon criticism) is a great one, and something I’ve thought about myself from time to time. I’d love to help brainstorm what kind of stuff should be available, and maybe even how it could/should be accessed — but I’m not someone who could make that happen. In order to do that, we’d need someone with tech savvy that I don’t have, who’s able to put in more time than anyone we currently have working on maintaining the website.

    • Th. says:

      .

      What if we put together a list of “Ten books you must check out before writing off Mormon Literature” or something similar?

      I like the idea, but worry about it because people write off Mormon literature over different motivations. The exact reason one person would embrace Mormon literature upon reading The Backslider is more or less the same reason another person will never open another book after reading The Backslider.

      Maybe a better way would be to compare certain books to work outside.

      For instance:

      Do you like . . . Ernest Hemingway? Try . . . Doug Thayer!

      Do you like . . . Agatha Christie? Try . . . Josi Kilpack!

      That way people can find their own point of entry.

      • Good point–I totally agree that “the many faces of Mormon Lit” is a better approach then a generic top ten.

        I do worry that comparisons to recognizable literary figures will make Mormon Lit look like a cheap knock-off, though. Thayer is not Hemingway; Kilpatrick is not Christie…that frame might not help people see the strengths of Mormon Lit.

        Maybe it would be better to combine the questions with the authors. If Mormonism is the entry point, why not create a sort of topical guide of top Mormon Lit?

        • Th. says:

          .

          I agree with the argument against. I’m not supercomfortable with it for exactly that reason. Maybe a Venn Diagram would be better….

          A topical guide sounds feasible. How do you imagine it?

        • Maybe use paradoxes or questions like Scott did for his class.

          Example:

          How do you balance individual and family needs with the risks of selfless service?
          -See Eric Samuelsen’s short story “Miracle”, Richard Dutcher’s film “States of Grace”, Emily Debenham’s short-story story “Ruby’s Gift,” etc. etc.

  2. Gamila says:

    Another option is to start an internet meme where everyone in the Mormon lit community decides to post their top ten favorite Mormon novels on the same day. Someone could designate a month even and once a week there would be a meme on a different topic. Top ten favorite Mormon novels, top ten favorite Mormon authors, top ten mormon lit books you would recommend to non-LDS or LDS fic bashers, and so forth. These all may be too similar, but they are merely examples. Then you would get opinions from readers that like the more literary stuff and from those that like more commercial fiction, and those who like a little of both. The book blogging community seems to participate in these types of list carnivals alot. For instance the Top Ten Tuesday meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.
    Though, perhaps there would be a need to stylize the meme as something different than a top ten because it may be too imatative of the blog above. But it would be cool to create a similar type of community that responds to the same blogging prompt weekly or even monthly on Mormon literature topics.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I like the idea of multiple lists representing different individuals and groups. And links could be posted on the AML website, either to individual lists or to another central page that has links to other places. The point being that there’s no reason for AML *not* to act as a hub for this kind of community discussion — aside from the problem of finding someone with the energy and know-how to keep updating the AML website.

    • I like this idea. Could we maybe have a guest post from Gamila showing us what memes other groups have used and giving some suggestions about what we can do?

    • Th. says:

      .

      I think it’s a great idea, though I would say top five will keep us from ever having to stretch to fill the list.

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