A Way to Think about “Faithful Realism”

“Faithful Realism” is a term Richard Cracroft coined for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992) to describe the works of “Mormon writers [who] are both faithful Latter-day Saints and skilled writers.” Several years later, in his introduction to Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature (1997), Eugene England “adopted” the term “to characterize” all of Mormon literature since 1960, developing Cracroft’s somewhat rudimentary definition to embrace all works that “are realistic and even critical about Mormon experience but profoundly faithful to the vision and concerns of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” (xxiii-xxiv, xxxiii).

I dislike the term “Faithful Realism” for a number of reasons. For one, like Edward Geary’s notion of “Mormondom’s Lost Generation,” it suggests that these works take a single identifiable stance towards Mormonism and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In reality, works of “Faithful Realism,” like the works of the “Lost Generation,” tend to be more nuanced towards Mormonism than these terms give them credit for. Besides, in my opinion, efforts to identify a Mormon literary work’s level of “testimony” ultimately speak more to our discomfort with dissident voices and very little about the literary work itself. What are we trying to prove or claim, after all, when we say this book is “faithful” and that book is “lost”? Are we simply trying to claim some sort of cultural credibility for our world view or approach to “essential” Mormonism? Or is it somehow simply a soft censor—a passive way to police what “is” and “is not” real Mormon literature?

Part of my problem with the term also has to do with the fact that Cracroft and England use it to refer to two different understandings of Mormon literature, which causes confusion when we wrongly assume that Cracroft and England were always on the same page when it came to Mormon literature. As is apparent in his “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice,” Cracroft believed that real Mormon literature was that which was true to the “essence” of faithful Mormon belief. England’s writings about Mormon literature, however, reveal that he was open to stretching the boundaries of that “essence” to welcome more works into the fold.1 I’m not sure this important distinction has ever been fully articulated.

Despite my dislike of the term, I think it has a kind of value—especially when we consider its historical context. As Armand L. Mauss recounts in The Angel and the Beehive (1994), the late 20th century saw a drift towards social conservatism in Mormonism that closely associated “faithful” Mormon practice with “conformity, unquestioning obedience, and a proof-texting approach to religion” as well as “austere religious styles, fleeing from ambiguity to the seeming safety of the most conservative extremes in doctrine, gender roles, health practices, and other observances” (167). Mauss specifically connects this drift to the rise of Correlation and an attitude of “retrenchment” among leaders who wished to see more distinct identity markers between Mormons and the rest of the world (see 80-81, 167).2

To a certain extent, I see Cracroft’s desire to identify a faithful “essence” in Mormon literary works as an attempt to reconcile his efforts in promoting Mormon literature with retrenchment ideals. I’m not suggesting, to be sure, that Cracroft meant to promote a literature of conformity or austerity as authentically Mormon; however, I am suggesting that he privileged a literature that would not unsettle the Mormon retrenchment and its adherents’ notion of “faithful” Mormon identity. Eugene England, on the other hand, sought something more expansive. He seems to have understood that writers like Levi S. Peterson, Linda Sillitoe, Douglas Thayer, and even Orson Scott Card were engaged in a project of resisting definitions of “faithful” Mormonism, particularly when these definitions needlessly marginalized those whose experiences in the Church seemed to fall outside of emerging retrenchment ideals. For him, the “Faithful” in “Faithful Realism” seemed to present an opportunity for deconstruction rather than an unambiguous affirmation of belief.

My point is this: “Faithful Realism” is a problematic term because it misleads us into thinking that works so classified can ultimately be boiled down to simple testimonials of Mormonism’s truth. Following England, we should think of the “Faithful” in “Faithful Realism” not in these terms, but rather as a challenge to assumptions about Mormonism and Mormon identity. For us, “Faithful Realism” should be less a statement about what these works are or where they stand in relation to Mormonism, and more an invitation to explore what it is about Mormonism they try to reimagine and define.

Notes:

[1] To illustrate: Cracroft and England were divided in their responses to Levi S. Peterson’s The Backslider, which England praised as a landmark in Mormon fiction and Cracroft dismissed as “theologically non-Mormon.” In “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice,” Cracroft criticizes England’s “enthusiastic” review of the novel in BYU Studies for being “Sophic,” suggesting that England’s response to the novel stemmed more from his secular education than his Mormon sensibilities.

[2] Matthew Bowman also provides an overview of this era in The Mormon People (2012) (see 184-215).

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

13 Responses to A Way to Think about “Faithful Realism”

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Projects like this essay and Wm’s Mo-Lit Guide strike me as exceedingly important at this stage. We need to, if you will, certify our vocabulary in order to move forward.

  2. Tyler says:

    So would you suggest an alternative to “faithful realism,” Scott?

    • Scott Hales says:

      At this point, no. But not because I haven’t tried.

      Coming up with categories is difficult business–especially when you’re trying to find a term that doesn’t leave anyone out. I like the elegance of “Home Literature,” and I might be willing to call what England calls “Faithful Realism” something like “New Home Literature” because I think it has a lot in common with the Mormon writing from one hundred years earlier.

      • Wm says:

        Including a belated-ness in relation to the main streams of the primary literary movements — although that gap has, perhaps, closed in the past 5-8 years (or at least gotten more complicated, but part of that is how narrative fiction itself has changed in how it sees itself).

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    I don’t think Cracroft was trying to align promotion of Mormon literature with retrenchment ideals, precisely. Rather, I think he was trying to reflect his sense that if Mormonism’s truth claims are accurate, then Mormon literature should in some sense be distinctively different–and should hold up different ideals–from what is accepted as representing the best in modern literature in general. I don’t think Cracroft cared about soothing Mormon sensibilities and presenting the gospel in strictly familiar terms; rather, he wanted to make sure that Mormon literature didn’t back away from, softpedal, or ignore what is distinctive in how Mormonism makes sense of the world.

    Drawing a parallel here… A few months ago, I read The God Who Weeps, by Terryl and Fiona Givens. This isn’t a book that I think anyone could fairly characterize as simply recycling familiar views of the gospel. At the same time, it’s aggressively (in the Givenses’ urbane way) about what is distinctive about Mormonism’s beliefs.

  4. Wm says:

    I find the term useful to describe a certain approach to literature, but one that perhaps falls between England and Cracroft. When I use it, I basically mean works of fiction that:

    a) clearly are part of the tradition of literary realism (and by that I really mean American 19-20th century realism)

    b) can be read as treating the core faith claims of the LDS Church as being valid (or at least worthy of consideration as being possibly valid) — and that can come from the standpoint of the implied author, narrator and/or main character(s) treating those claims as true/valid.

    This also includes works that are about those who have doubts out or are actively transitioning away from that because a large part of their effect derives from their stance in relation to those core faith claims.

    And, to be honest, I’m not sure you can get around those faith claims. One of the peculiar things about Mormon American literature and culture as opposed to other hyphenated-American literatures is that there are some very clear/precise distinctions that can be made in relation to engagement with the LDS Church. Certainly, Mormon literature is more than that. But when I think of faithful realism, I think of works that are specifically positioned in relation to the LDS Church. I also find that this body of work is a fruitful area for narrative generation, in particular, because it is involved in a tension that standard works of American literary realism don’t have access to.

    But, as Scott notes, this is also why it is a mistake to use a designation of genre/sub-genre as representative of an entire cultural time period. Not every work of literary realism about Mormons published from the late 1960s through the early 2000s is faithful realism. And some work that is non-realism is more highly engaged with faithful realism than it is with the other genres it is in dialogue with (or stealing from). Some of my own fiction falls into that category.

  5. James says:

    Most modern Mormon literary fiction is ideologically dependent on either the LDS Church or the MLA. The two have overlapping values and concerns in many areas, of course, but I think you can still tell in many cases which institution the story draws its central values and assumptions from.

    And though each story’s relationship to those two institutions will be unique, I think those relationships are worth talking about and that clear camps are worth identifying.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Modern Language Association? I ask because although what you say makes sense, I’ve never heard MLA used in quite this way before.

      • James says:

        Yes.

        I could say “university” as the institution or talk about a certain unifying subset of in vogue liberal intellectual values that influence many literary Mormon writers, but I think the Modern Language Association, as the central ideological institution for English Departments, is the immediate focal point of influence.

        It would be interesting to look at main recurring themes at the Modern Language Association conventions over a given decade and main recurring themes in Mormon Lit during the same period to see what correlation there is.

  6. dennis clark says:

    This discussion has been ongoing for as long as the Association for Mormon Letters has been around, and it was in the context of that Association that Cracroft and England first explored the concept of “faithful realism.” They were on opposite sides of the question. I think you’re right, Scott, to tie it in to Cracroft’s “attempt to reconcile his efforts in promoting Mormon literature with retrenchment ideals,” and I think England resisted that because he took a big tent approach.

    I always favored a genetic approach: if it was fathered by a Mormon, it was Mormon lit — which made room for Joyce Eliason and Judith Freeman as well as for Dean Hughes and Margaret Young. No one considers Philip Roth to be only a Jewish-American author, but it seems to me that he must be looked at as a Jewish-American author — to ignore his religious heritage would be to ignore a large element of what makes him an American author.

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>