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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?