Any time you form a group and attempt to facilitate discussions of interest to that group, one of the first questions is where to draw the lines to distinguish what we are/do from what other people are/do. What’s our communal identity? How do we differentiate? Beyond what we choose to embrace, what do we choose not to discuss?
Part I of an extended meander triggered by a misreading, supported by a misremembering, and reflecting an outsider’s view on a fundamental question of Mormon criticism that took the long way around to dovetail with the more traditional academic view.
Not Long Ago, At a Gathering Just Up the Street…
When I first engaged the AML nearly twenty years ago, it was after the heat had gone out of the Cracroft/Jorgenson debate over a proper definition of Mormon literature and criticism. One could still take a Mormon literature class at BYU, and AML was transitioning to a new generation of leadership.
The basis of the argument was over what fairly constituted Mormon literature—and thus, what the Mormon critical community should focus on (some debates never die—nor should they). See a review of their most relevant essays.
To radically simplify, Cracroft believed that Mormon critics should focus on explicitly Mormon work that directly testified of the hope and joy brought on by the atonement and restoration. This was essential Mormonism and what made us powerful and different from the broader world and its literature. Let others deal with modern structuralism and post-modernist theory in their work; those were noise (encroachments of Babylon) distracting from the relevant core of Mormon thought. He couched the argument in Mantic (spiritual) vs. Sophic (intellectual) terms.
Jorgenson essentially believed that the realistic (often messy) experience of real people grappling with Mormon thought was an essential part of the Mormon experience and a bridge to both the under-served within the broad Mormon community, and those from outside who may choose to engage. Literature was most useful when it cast a wider net that could bring the uniqueness of Mormon though to a more diverse audience—whether that attraction was on the basis of theme or technical construction, it was still a bridge. Meaning (and thus power) came with the reader.
Both argued for explicitly Mormon content—characters, conflicts, and contexts. Mormon literature was first and foremost for and about Mormons. Even when Benson Parkinson later offered the idea of Missionary School (by/about us, for others) vs. Deseret School (by us, for us) and allowed for a mix of Sophic or Mantic approach to either audience, the assumption remained that story would be based on a core of explicit Mormonness.
The only real question was where the lines defining authentic Mormon content should be drawn to determine inclusion in the canon (and thus, discussion by critics as both popularizers and explicators).
When I showed up to my first AML conference in 1996, it was an interesting time for the arts.
In many ways we were seeing the flourishing of Mormon arts called for by Spencer W. Kimball (The Gospel Vision of the Arts, Ensign, July 1977). The problem was that there were competing trends in the marketplace—a faithful home literature by and for Mormons that celebrated the restoration, a well-established Mormon realism movement that took a more critical look at modern life and faith, and an emerging army of general-market authors who happened to be Mormon (alongside an army of Mormon authors writing broad market tales for Mormon audiences).
Three distinctly different trends unified by a single thread: broad popular support. DB and Covenant were at war (with Cedar Fort hovering just outside the fray), and Signature was an active and vibrant alternative. We had Nelson, Lund, Sillitoe, Slover, Young, Samuelson, Perry, Nunes, Heimerdinger, Evenson, and Udall. There was an emerging film industry, and a thriving recording industry. Authors, dramatists, poets, painters, and performers aplenty.
Maybe not Miltons and Shakespeares just yet, but the supporting ecosystem was in place; it was clearly just a matter of time.
At that point the critical discussion was focused primarily on those specifically Mormon artists even though Orson Scott Card was arguably the best known and most broadly accomplished Mormon author going, and he was at the height of his career. Though I also wrote literary and slice of life fiction, I primarily identified as an sf author—as did Card.
So it was a point of enlightened self interest that I represent the powerful upcoming force in general-market popular fiction and help legitimize those Mormon artists within the Mormon literary community. To my mind we were just as Mormon and just as worthy of notice as anyone else. As the AML expanded to encompass the new populism, I found an easy fit.
Reality Distortion Field
The problem was that I came from a radically different set of assumptions, and had not been privy to the great debate over why my favored genre didn’t even qualify for consideration, no less inclusion in my cultural canon. I had been living in a reality distortion bubble powered by Orson Scott Card (and later, Dave Wolverton).
As Jonathan Langford mentioned in his response to this post by Eric James Stone, Card had very successfully demonstrated an enormous spectrum of story types and delivery vehicles available to a storyteller in Zion. It was possible to write a faithful work of overtly Mormon historical fiction in between a dark fantasy novel and a straight science fiction novel—all while formulating a theory of writing and offering both social and literary criticism within the Mormon culture.
For me the line between those things was very thin; the author’s mind was deeply Mormon and I could not help but read all his work through that lens—with his texts offering a rich and familiar Mormon thematic payload (though sometimes rooting it out was more challenging than others). The fact that I first met Card at BYU while attending my first organized sf gathering further cemented that connection. When he guest lectured in my English 218R class at BYU two years later (about the same time that his novel Ender’s Game was released), I no longer made any distinction at all between Card the Mormon and Card the sf author.
To me, everything he wrote was by us and for us (though not all of it exclusively so).
So it seemed perfectly reasonable to conflate works intended primarily for Mormon audiences, with works intended for all audiences (including us) when written by a Mormon. Even when the text was utterly devoid of overtly Mormon elements (or contained only incidentally Mormon elements). So I was happy to take that same approach when writing my own fiction. My aggressively Mormon mind cannot fail to create Mormon thought or express Mormon experience.
Even when the details of any given story fail to reference any overt Mormonness, I know that I never stop considering my own Mormon assumptions, boundaries, and worldviews when creating a story that matters on a personal level. Regardless of vehicle or intended audience. A story true to my own mind is necessarily informed (though not exclusively) by that inherent Mormonness.
Asking a Different Question
In the intervening two decades I’ve learned that many consider my assumptions to be at least silly, and at worst dangerous to a focused, bounded discussion of explicitly Mormon story intended (primarily) for Mormon audiences.
And though enlightened self interest dictates that I continue to view the stories of my own mind as necessarily Mormon at a fundamental (if not always explicit) level, I’m finally beginning to see why an organization like AML would be fully justified (and morally correct) in limiting the space devoted to some of those stories or authors.
It’s not as much a question of the story’s inherent Mormonness as it is whether the story directly contributes to expanding or refining the self-definition of the Mormon community. If the community doesn’t recognize it as specifically relevant, then letting even a popular Mormon author suck up all the air in the room is counter-productive to the mission of expanding (explicitly) Mormon letters.
As I consider Jonathan Langford’s taxonomy of the many ways a work can be Mormon, I find it especially useful in light of this idea of bounding the AML discussion—far more so (for me) than Sophic vs. Mantic or Deseret vs. Missionary school. It shifts the filter from a statement on inherent moral value to a simple, pragmatic evaluation of relevance to our charter.
A story that is only incidentally Mormon may be a curiosity of passing interest worthy of an equally passing note, but not a relevant topic of extended analysis. Likewise, it seems pragmatically necessary when discussing thematically or symbolically Mormon works to focus discussion on the specific ways that content can (and does) affect our self-definition (aka, identity)—especially when there are no evident culturally Mormon elements.
Which puts a specific burden on pop critics like me to make that explicit connection or else take it somewhere else. Not because it’s not worth discussing at all, but because we try to focus the discussion in this forum to that which expands our communal self-definition as Mormons rather than merely as litterateurs. Not just storytellers in Zion, but storytellers of Zion.
Note that Orson Scott Card will be the guest of honor at this year’s Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium held at the Provo Marriott, February 13-15. See here for more information.