In an accident of timing, I have the first AML blog slot after this year’s annual science fiction and fantasy symposium held in Provo, Utah (Life, the Universe, and Everything 32). And though my undeniably sf-nal heart and soul rejoiced in the entirety of the event, I will focus on a narrow slice of it here to explore a question of thematic Mormon content in distinctly non-Mormon stories.
The guest of honor for the event was Orson Scott Card. Though the big storm on the east coast grounded him there for two days and limited Card’s participation to only the last day (plus a tele-presence at one panel on Friday via Skype), he mentioned several times how much he appreciated the chance to talk about his sf work with an audience of (at least) cultural Mormons who had the tools to understand where he comes from.
Thematic Mormonism: Use of Symbol
At LTUE, Card consistently insisted that he never inserts Mormon symbols in his fiction, and that to do so is to kill both the interpretive value of the symbol and the entertainment value of the story. When the author consciously works the text to enable the symbol, the text becomes its own critical essay and loses value as honest exploration of character and viewpoint. His intentionally Mormon content is overt and up-front.
Which is not to say that he does not unconsciously insert Mormon symbols, themes, or structures—only that he does not plan them before the fact (and only slightly clarifies them when they’re pointed out or he sees them on re-reading). Card spends his time and effort telling a story about people, events, and motivations and lets the symbols attend to themselves. As such, the symbols remain pure and the narrative remains honest.
Several panels at LTUE featured author, critic, and adapter (Orson Scott Card, Dr. Michael R. Collings, and Aaron Johnston) and they spent jovial hours discussing how each had usefully informed and expanded their understanding. Over the years, Collings has described a number of Christ symbols in Card’s sf stories, and Card has been happily surprised to find that Collings was right—because they were so specifically resonant with his distinctly Mormon conscious worldview.
In fact, in one of the highlights of the event for me, Card said, “I consciously believe in Mormonism. I’m relieved to discover that I am also subconsciously Mormon.”
That those subconscious symbols were explicated from his science fiction works speaks to the value of thematic criticism of the works of Mormon authors even (and perhaps, especially) when they are writing un-Mormon content for non-Mormon audiences. That’s where the truest symbols emerge, the deep Mormonism of subconscious hope, vision, and worldview.
That Card has had variably rocky relationships with critics over the years speaks to the difference between discovering symbols out of the text and conforming the text to create symbols in support of a preconceived interpretation (we think Card believes xyz, therefore his novels must be constructed to support that premise).
Getting Out of the Way
Card mentioned that he wrote the novel Ender’s Game as fast as he could to set it up so that he could then write the book he really wanted—its sequel, Speaker for the Dead. That Ender’s Game has succeeded so much better than its sequel reinforces his idea that the best (most resonant) symbol is that which emerges naturally from the subconscious rather than that which is constructed in the conscious mind.
Which is not to say that story development is necessarily limited to the intuitive or organic—a key distinction that Card consistently makes when talking about his own creative process. He is a staunch researcher who carefully studies his subject matters and characters before committing their stories to the page. He relentlessly learns tools and technologies, contexts and drivers, relationships and associations and philosophies so that he can create real characters driven by real concerns in well-constructed plot frameworks that hold together. He builds entire event structures based on direct experience and personal observation.
And then he writes fast.
It’s a tendency I’ve noticed among very popular authors. They sometimes work for years getting ready to write a novel, but at the moment of truth they produce the actual text in months or weeks—or even days. And they trust what they have written so quickly, because they trust that their skills are good and so the details spun out in the heat of creative expression are real and true and honest. The well-planned story and its structure is right; the symbols will take care of themselves. Gestation can take a long time; delivery needs to be fast to minimize damage to that already formed story at the point of greatest stress.
Getting out of your own way is hard to do. Many never learn how.
Is is Mormon Enough?
I believe the tendency to reduce and exclude, to narrow definitions to simple, direct memes has its uses. In criticizing literature by Mormons or for Mormon audiences, Mormon critics must necessarily categorize and differentiate which shelves should carry which stories. Readers deserve to know how to approach the reading.
But I think we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss as irrelevant those works by self-described Mormon authors that are not told in culturally Mormon forms and terms. Because it is precisely these subconsciously Mormon tales that can reveal deep Mormonism to those audiences most capable of understanding those themes. Not better than more overt tales, but just as deserving of our thoughtful criticism. It would be a shame to institutionally dismiss what could be some of our most deeply Mormon works because that Mormonness was not obvious enough.
This is when a critic is most useful in helping both reader and storyteller read with eyes that see and understand with ears that hear, with faith and charity and an abundance of hope. Not just of things in the sky, but of things beneath the surface as well.