Guest Post: An Illustrated Definition of Mormon Literature

I’ve been busy these past few days, so I decided to pass my monthly post on to someone with a little more time. You might recognize her as Enid Gardner, the star MIA Maniac of the webcomic The Garden of EnidAside from being an expert in all things weirdly Mormon, she’s also (to my surprise) a Mormon lit enthusiast. 

Below are Enid’s thoughts on the definition of Mormon literature–something we’ve all argued back and forth over the years. In some ways there’s nothing new here, and I’m not necessarily sure I agree with everything she says, but I like how she tries to narrow the field by focusing on overt content and community membership (broadly defined) and investment.  Like her, I’m uncomfortable with labeling something “Mormon” that isn’t overtly so.

But, I don’t want to get ahead of her and steal her fire. Here she is:

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55 Responses to Guest Post: An Illustrated Definition of Mormon Literature

  1. Wm says:

    Enid has a pretty awesome t-shirt collection.

    How does one determine if a work is invested in shaping the Mormon community?

    • Scott Hales says:

      I can’t speak for Enid, but I think one way to think about it is to examine its functional quality or what it is doing to change up or reiterate the cultural or aesthetic direction of Mormon creative expression.

      Of course, there are a lot of ways to be invested in something. I also think it is possible to invoke Mormons and Mormonism without being invested in it or way or another–although it could be that this is not often the case.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    So Enid must be irritated by today’s DN review of Quist’s new book.

    • Katya says:

      I clicked over to the DN to see what the review was like and I laughed out loud when I saw the title. Certain types of negative reviews are a better recommendation than most positive reviews. :)

      • Th. says:

        .

        There is certainly something to that.

      • Andrew H. says:

        While I did not agree with the review at all, the reviewer, Sharron Haddock, is about the only one there who says anything substantial about the work she is reviewing. At least she gives an opinion. Almost all of the rest are just plot summaries, parental content warnings, and maybe a word or two like “exciting”.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    We can happily disagree with whether things like Brandon Sanderson or Orson Scott Card’s non-overt works qualify as Mormon literature. I think they do when they speak to our self-definition not only as a community, but as a people of mind and philosophy and shared hope—not just as a collection of particular social practices.

    More importantly, I think the conversation about where that line is drawn is useful in shaping exactly the nature of that question, its extent, and our individual answers to it.

    Since you’re part of the academy and I’m just a pop commentator I guess that means I’m out-voted—as I have been for most of twenty years. Okay. But if and until AML asks me to stop I will continue to offer an opinion with malice of forethought and an utter lack of scruple or crisis of conscience.

    Because I still think the argument is worth having—especially if it spurs thoughtful and creative responses like this one that help extend the state of Mormon art. I’d love to see more (academically) qualified critical commentary here than I have in recent years.

    • Wm says:

      Certainly there is more of a Mormon cultural community (as in: Mormons who share a common culture and participate in conversations and events that express/extend that common culture) that has been created out of the works of OSC, Brandon Sanderson and Stephenie Meyer than of most other writings by Mormons.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I think it all depends on the specific purpose and the question that’s being asked. Certainly works that are invested in shaping Mormon self-definition cll up some different questions, compared to those that aren’t. Likewise, it’s a legitimate observation that the Mormonism of Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is largely peripheral. (Not a statement I can agree or disagree with, not having read the book; but I can agree that it’s a statement worth making.)

      Which isn’t to say that the Mormon elements in Edgar Mint aren’t worth looking at. But it would be from a different perspective and a different set of assumptions than something like Saturday’s Warrior, which (questions of quality aside) assuredly is very much about questions of Mormon identity. I also think it’s worthwhile to look for the non-explicit underpinnings of works like Brandon Sanderson’s and David Farland’s fantasy with no *overt* Mormon elements, but deep resonances with Mormon belief — even if it’s not really about Mormon self-definition (though I suppose that could be argued). It’s just a different question.

      I also am still attracted to the notion that (aside from practical considerations like figuring out who is eligible for the AML and Whitney Awards), labels of “Mormonness” might be better disconnected from specific works of literature and attached instead to the act of reading/criticism. But that’s just my bias…

    • Scott Hales says:

      I’m at a disadvantage because I’ve never read Brandon Sanderson and only a bit of Orson Scott Card. I’m not opposed to calling these writers “Mormon” writers because they are, in fact, Mormon writers. Like Enid, though, I resist the idea of labeling any writing from a Mormon as “Mormon” because I’m not convinced that the non-Mormon works by Sanderson or OSC could only have been produced by a Mormon. I say that because all of us have had the experience of watching a film or reading a book and being convinced that the writer or filmmaker was a Mormon–only to learn that that was not the case. (I’m thinking specifically of many of my friends in the pre-wikipedia days of the late-1990s who were convinced that George Lucas had been raised a Mormon.)

      Also, I’ve read interviews with a number of Mormon writers who resist the notion that their non-overt works are Mormon simply by affiliation. I used to think this was a cop-out–but I see the wisdom in it.

      I’m also suspicious of the idea of uniquely Mormon themes because I think we tend to over-generalize when we invoke that attribute in Mormon literature. I agree that we can uncover “connections” between a non-overt work and Mormonism, but we should exercise some caution when we assign that connection to Mormonism–especially if we see similar things happening in works by non-Mormon authors.

      Also, on a side note, I don’t think being in the academy stacks cards in anyone’s favor here any more than years of dedicated participation on AML forums.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    A couple of comments/queries, for general consideration:

    - By this set of criteria, would Eric James Stone’s “Leviathan” count as “Mormon literature”? It’s explicitly Mormon, and even specifically Mormon (as opposed to generic), but I’m not sure it’s about Mormon community definition.

    Which raises a larger question: Do works written without at least one eye on the Mormon audience qualify as invested Mormon literature, by this definition? Note that I’m not asking whether such works would need to be written *primarily* for a Mormon audience, but at least partly for one — as opposed to being written for a larger audience that might happen to include Mormons, but has no message explicitly for them.

    - In her comments about Edgar Mint, Enid I think suggests that in order to qualify as Mormon literature, a work must be distinctly Mormon (as opposed to generically Mormon). But must it be *uniquely* Mormon? In other words, does it qualify as Mormon lit if it’s explicitly Mormon, and addresses important themes (such as the question of accepting others), but does it from a framework that doesn’t attach those unique qualities of Mormon life and belief that make us different from other Christians (and others in general)? My inclination is to think that a work doesn’t need to be uniquely Mormon in order to so qualify, if it addresses issues that tie into Mormon self-identity (unique or not); but I’d be interested in what others have to say…

    • Scott Parkin says:

      The way I read Scott Hales’ definition, “Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” would not count as Mo-Lit because the story itself is not about shaping either the Mormon community or expanding our self-understanding. It’s certainly a collision of cultures (religious vs. a-religious) and the intersection of individual belief vs. global politics, but other than a Mormon standing firm in his belief (and a convert alien standing firm in its), it isn’t about Mormonism per se.

      This is where the Edgar Mint thing comes in. Arguably, Leviathan could substitute Catholic last rites or eucharist (or a Bar Mitzvah) and nothing changes. It’s the generic of personal spiritual exercise vs. the political good of the global community, rather than anything invested in the fate of Mormonism itself (since the threatened annihilation is of Humanity in general, rather than Mormons in particular).

      Or at least that’s what it seems like to me; only Br. Hales knows for sure.

      Stephen Peck’s The Scholar of Moab seems to qualify (at least according to Enid’s t-shirt) because POV is a Mormon talking to Mormons (if not exclusively) about what it means to be Mormon—and offering some thoughts on bits of doctrine now and again (evolution, nature of spirits, etc.). Presumably the cultural references, while interesting and entertaining, are not focused on capturing essential Mormonism; they’re merely familiar and comforting(?) scenery.

      Which makes Peck’s short story, “Avec, Who Is Distributed,” a little more challenging. While the setting and situation are exaggerated, the core question of proxy ordinances is distinctly Mormon, and the logistical challenges suggest a real issue of interest to current and future Mormons (similar to last rites for Catholics, but specific to us). The issue of what constitutes a living being in need of saving ordinances seems like a generic, rather than specifically Mormon, concern.

      It’s an interesting line that I find just a tad too restrictive, but that I can still understand (and fairly closely aligned with the venerable Cracroft’s stance, I think).

      I will always bristle at the idea of “just getting by on so-called Mormon themes” because I think it entirely discounts real attempts by many Mormon authors to address and grapple with very Mormon questions as if that effort were apathetic or some sort of dodge. Speaking only from my own experience, I won’t engage a Mormon theme casually; such things are too important to me as a believing individual. I know others feel differently.

      For me the obvious question is, “Therefore…what?” Is this a call to reform the AML blog (and, broadly, the AML itself) to focus on a more narrow content definition? A call for more authors to write within a particular framework? A public declaration of where one critic draws his own lines as a point of information and/or professional self-definition? Part of an effort to engage conversation around how and why lines should be drawn?

      All interesting questions. And all worthy of discussion here, in my opinion.

      (…still hoping Enid is intended as humorous agent rather than as a statement that some of us are too dense to understand simple concepts unless delivered as a comic book…)

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        It sounds like you’re assuming that Enid is Scott in other guise. I had assumed that Enid is a genuinely (biologically) different person…

        • Scott Parkin says:

          True. My bad. Terrible oversight.

          Sorry for being such a lazy reader, Sr. Gardner. Sadly, I don’t have the access rights to edit the post to correct that.

          I think the broad comment still applies if we change all the “Br. Hales” references to “Sr. Gardner.” I’m curious to know if I got the broad concept right in my attempt to interpret the Mo-Lit relevance of the named titles under this definitional model.

      • Scott Hales says:

        A couple thoughts:

        1) Again, I can’t speak for Enid, but I wonder if a work can project Mormonism into the future and NOT be invested in it in one way or another. Unfortunately, while it is one my reading list–in fact, I almost started it the other day–I haven’t read “Leviathan.” Stone, however, is one of the few Mormon science fiction writers whose work genuinely interest me.

        2) I wonder if we are moving in the wrong direction by reading “invested” as a overly-narrowing term. As I mention above, I think it is possible to invoke Mormonism and not be “invested” in it, but I think it is more common to see investment (broadly understood) when invocation occurs. I think where this definition gets narrow is its insistence on overt content. What exactly is Mormon content? Angela Hallstrom’s short story “Thanksgiving” has, for me, overt Mormon content–but as my non-Mormon students pointed out–the story never explicitly uses the term Mormon. So, does that mean it’s not Mormon? I don’t necessarily think so, but I can see how it could create a gray area.

        3) Scott P. writes: “For me the obvious question is, “Therefore…what?” Is this a call to reform the AML blog (and, broadly, the AML itself) to focus on a more narrow content definition? A call for more authors to write within a particular framework? A public declaration of where one critic draws his own lines as a point of information and/or professional self-definition? Part of an effort to engage conversation around how and why lines should be drawn?”

        I think the answer to all of these questions is possible “yes”–although I have my own reservations about limiting the scope of AML–despite my occasional frustration with the broadness of its scope.

        4) Also, I imagine Enid would object to the notion of comics equaling simplicity. It is just another form of communication.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          On 4)—

          Which is a terrible—and utterly unintended—consequence of my mistake in skimming your introduction and going straight to the graphic essay.

          The fact is that I erroneously read the graphic essay as your ideas offered through an agent, not as an independent guest post by Enid Gardner, and as such I invested that (wonderfully interesting and well-delivered) essay with the ghosts of arguments past between you and me.

          Thus my response made assumptions that were not fair to make, for which I am profoundly sorry. I meant no disrespect to Sr. Gardner or her chosen form of delivery. Frankly, I’ve been a big fan of graphic story telling for years (my library of both traditional comics and modern graphic stories is not insubstantial).

          My snark was unbecoming in any case, and especially painful to me in light of my misguided assumptions, because it now puts me on the record with an idea that is almost precisely the opposite of what I actually believe.

          Thus underscoring the importance of reading *all* the words before shooting off your mouth. I know better than that.

    • Scott Hales says:

      As I indicate in an earlier comment, I think we walk a shaky line if we start talking about something being “uniquely” Mormon–especially since Mormonism is such an amalgamation of different historical and cultural phenomena.

      I like the idea of Mormon literature being tied to efforts to self-identify–and this may be what Enid is getting at. One of Cracroft’s shortcomings was his insistence on Mormon “essences” as crucial to the Mormonness of a work of literature. While I’m sympathetic to the idea, I think Mormon expression, belief, and being is such a subjective, personal, and also diverse thing that it’s hard to really pin down any essences. A collection of (and “investment” in) shared practices, ideas, and experiences might be a better way to get at what “Mormonness” is.

      At the same time, I think it is fair to say that Mormonism has its own language–and works that fail to capture that language sound “off”–even if slightly. Cracroft accused The Backslider of not speaking the language of Mormonism, but the more I read that novel–or anything by Peterson–the more I disagree with Cracroft. His criticism of the novel’s “Mormonness” really only reflects a) his personal notions of Mormonness (i.e. the extent to which he personally was willing to take Mormon expression) and b) his unwillingness to acknowledge the merits of Peterson’s critique of Mormon culture.

      The trick is being able to talk about a “Mormon” voice without slipping into talk about “essences” and some kind of transcendental “Mormonness.”

      • Scott Parkin says:

        This is where I tend to get sideways to most of these definitional (restrictive?) discussions. I get that organizations and forums dedicated to Mormon letters should narrow the focus to those works (as Enid suggests) invested with essential Mormonism, or (as I suggested) works that directly address our self-definition as Mormons. Honestly, I couldn’t agree more.

        The question then shifts to what it means to be invested. In my mind there is very little that is truly, uniquely Mormon other than the cultural foibles of the Intermountain West (which I view as trivial, not definitional). Even proxy ordinances are not unique to us, nor are the ideas of potential godhood, priesthood power, eternal families, communal identity or any of the other trapping that we claim make us peculiar and unique. We don’t even have any special claim on pioneer heritage.

        So I always struggle with what constitutes essential Mormonism when we start blocking off authors or titles in our discussions of Mormon literature.

        As a largely unknown author, I can say with certainty that every tale I write is invested with my own distinctly Mormon viewpoints. When I wrote a YA fantasy novel set in ancient China involving dragons, I carefully considered my own beliefs in how the powers of heaven are organized as I constructed a mythos for them—the only kind of mythos I could create that resonated as true(ish) to me as a storyteller. Mormon cosmology was absolutely absent in the result, but many of the choices I made in constructing a fanciful magical stewardship system were directly informed by my Mormon mind.

        I would never claim that such a work was Mormon literature because it does not make specifically Mormon experience a core of the story being told. But it does seem fair to me that a discussion of Mormon literature can fairly (and appropriately) deconstruct how a publicly Mormon author’s own Mormonism is reflected in a broadly imaginative tale.

        Not as a author’s claim on honor from the community or the academy, but as a reflection of the Mormon critical mind. In other words, the Mormon literature in such a discussion is the criticism itself rather than the original text.

        It’s a difficult line.

        But as one author who is deeply invested in Mormonism as a source of wisdom and philosophy in story as well as culture and community, I appreciate it when people notice that in my own work. Because I do it on purpose—investing my stories with a deep, thematic Mormonism that resonates with my own identity as a Mormon.

        One of my more satisfying recent moments was when my small writing group (Mormons all) noted that my fantasy (horror?) novelette dealing with the last days of the Anasazi seemed to be “channeling the spirit of Terryl Givens.” It was an observation that was both true (in the broad sense; sadly I have read little of Br. Givens work) and useful in deconstructing the second-level themes of the story. That the plot structure itself intentionally reflected my own personal odyssey of frustration with unanswered prayer despite strict observance of form is a bit of personal Mormonism that remains my little secret.

        In other words, no overt Mormon content; symbolically (if passively) Mormon content in that any story of American Indian spirituality has some resonance to broad Mormon culture; thematically Mormon content that was obvious to Mormon readers; and structurally Mormon content known only to me. Not Mormon literature by any reasonable definition, but a story that practically begs for a Mormon critical deconstruction for all the ways it’s Mormon without being overtly so.

        But only if this community gives its members permission to do so. Otherwise, that direct and specific Mormon content (not just getting by with so-called Mormon themes) is likely lost to those most equipped to appreciate it. That seems like a shame to me. Focus on a class of stories does not need to imply exclusion of other types.

        A conversation that should never end, though it rages on into its second century as a useful exercise in communal self-definition.

        • Th. says:

          .

          The question then shifts to what it means to be invested. In my mind there is very little that is truly, uniquely Mormon other than the cultural foibles of the Intermountain West (which I view as trivial, not definitional). Even proxy ordinances are not unique to us, nor are the ideas of potential godhood, priesthood power, eternal families, communal identity or any of the other trapping that we claim make us peculiar and unique. We don’t even have any special claim on pioneer heritage.

          So I always struggle with what constitutes essential Mormonism when we start blocking off authors or titles in our discussions of Mormon literature.

          I think this is the best explanation yet of what Enid’s getting at—that talking explicitly about Mormons is the only way to be sure we’re talking about a Mormon literature.

          • Wm says:

            I think uniqueness matters less than intent (where stated) and reception.

          • Scott Hales says:

            “that talking explicitly about Mormons is the only way to be sure we’re talking about a Mormon literature.”

            I like the way this is put.

          • Scott Parkin says:

            So to me there’s a distinction between the marketing label or bookshelf on which a work is placed, and whether the critical discussion should be properly limited only to items on that shelf—at least partially because “Mormon” is a way of reading as well as a way (or subject, or target, or wellspring) of writing. And there are many ways that Mormon mind is expressed—not all of it explicit.

            Like you, the label “Mormon literature” implies to me that the work is at least about Mormons in a direct, explicit, and presumably inside-out way. Cool. Love it. But “Mormon letters” strikes me as encompassing more than just works of Mormon literature. The category just seems like a focus to me, not a limit.

    • Scott Hales says:

      “By this set of criteria, would Eric James Stone’s ‘Leviathan’ count as “Mormon literature”? It’s explicitly Mormon, and even specifically Mormon (as opposed to generic), but I’m not sure it’s about Mormon community definition.”

      I finished “Leviathan” this morning, and if a this story is not about Mormon community definition, I don’t know what is. In Enid’s definition of Mormon literature, she states that it is “invested in shaping the past, present, and future of the Mormon community.” When you look at a story like “Leviathan,” you see all sorts of interesting things happening to shape the way we think about the evolution (and continued evolution) of the Mormon people: the parallels with the Book of Mormon, the history of Mormon/Christian martyrs, swales naming themselves after historical figures (thus finding a place for themselves in–or connecting themselves with–the “golden age” of Mormon past, the ethics of missionary work to other cultures and lands, the adaptation of Mormon culture, doctrine, and policies to new circumstances. All these issues scream investment in the Mormon community. True, you could swap out Mormonism for Catholicism–but not without changing significant aspects of the story. For example, Leviathan is a literal god with body, parts, and passions–an understanding of God that resonates deeply with Mormons, but probably not as much with Catholics. This story grew out of an understanding of Mormonism, the Mormon community, and Mormon scripture–and I imagine a different context would have given it a very different direction.

      What I appreciated most about “Leviathan” is the way it speaks to current issues of Mormon expansion into lands outside the US–and, in many ways, it does it better than most Mormon stories that try to address these issues through realism. As I’ve written about before, Mormon missionary fiction tends to focus on the missionary rather than missionary work–foregrounding his (usually his) spiritual development (or decline) at the expense of the ethics of his (and, by extension, the church’s) interventions into different cultures that may be incompatible to one degree or another with the American way of doing Mormonism. Leviathan reverses this formula, forcing us to ask if Malan has made the right move in challenging swale culture’s sexual attitudes. For me, this move forces us to ask one of the most important questions of twenty-first century Mormon community building–especially as the church continues to grow faster outside the US than inside.

  5. Very fun discussion. My take is maybe too simple. Historically, American literary attempts have largely ignored or denigrated what happened in the “primitive West.” We have a big job to include the “truth” about our culture. My feeling is that no one out there knows much about it yet. My new novel SLEEPING IN TOMBSTONE includes a discussion of the Book of Mormon, which might have been dog eared in some old hotel.

  6. Jonathan Langford says:

    An interesting sidenote: One of the persistent themes of Orson Scott Card’s address at last month’s LTUE (and an earlier day’s panel for which he Skyped in, due to weather problems at the Atlanta airport) was that while he seldom consciously addresses Mormon themes in his stories, on reflection afterwards he often finds that they have been permeated with Mormon ideas, beliefs, and experience. He has explicitly credited critic Michael Collings for drawing his attention to some of those elements in his own works.

    Which should not surprise us. Study of authors shows that in *many* cases, important elements became embedded in their work only subconsciously. Nor, I think, should we expect that the “best” authors are necessarily those who are most self-conscious in this respect, though I grant you that literary training has a tendency to make one more self-aware in that respect both as readers and as writers. Possibly to one’s detriment as a writer; Card, I believe, would certainly argue so.

    Which is one way that I suppose “investment” is a better term than (say) “intention.” Investments can be intentional or not.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Which is why Card is successful and I’m not (that, and the fact that his talent is large and mine is small). I do a lot of things with malice of forethought that he says he does subconsciously. Arguably, as he’s become more conscious of those elements over the years, he’s become increasingly less entertaining if more thematically dense.

      Ultimately, I’m a structuralist who tends to think of stories in formal terms rather than the more open, freeform way that popular author do. I just have to hope that intending some of the structure and thematic content is not an insurmountable roadblock to broader success.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        Card once again commented that he was relieved to find that he was subconsciously Mormon, as well as consciously Mormon. Personally, I’ve wondered if my own non-explicitly-Mormon creative writing might reveal just how much of a heretic I am. If I ever get that far, I suppose I’ll find out…

  7. Wm says:

    Overtness is overrated (although often welcome). Romanian writers who wanted to get past the Ceausescu censors couldn’t be overt.

    I’m not saying that Mormon SF&F authors are in the same situation, but I think, especially, when it comes to analyzing Mormon cultural responses to assimilation that limiting Mormon literature to works with overt Mormon elements is needlessly limited.

    That being said, I do think the framework of looking at certain works as works that are invested in shaping the Mormon community is a good one.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think setting limits is practical in that it can keep things manageable and focused. I’m in favor of setting limits…although I think, in practice, we should be more inclusive than exclusive. I’d be more than happy to welcome a book like Edgar Mint into the Mormon lit fold, but I get a sense that it does not really feel like it belongs there. At the end of the book, Mormonism is an after thought. The opposite is true for The Lonely Polygamist.

  8. Lucinda W. says:

    I had a long post typed up but it started to sound kind of rant-ish, so I’m just going to say that there’s more to Mormon literature (as per Enid’s definition) than American Mormon literature. Mormon literature is NOT exclusively American any more than Mormonism is.
    Something to consider.

  9. Sarah Reed says:

    So, basically Enid believes MoLit should be by, for, and about Mormons?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Essentially, though even then she seems to hedge that it also has to be invested in Mormonism rather than merely by, for, and about Mormons.

      (Which both permits wiggle-room in the category and invites diverse opinion—and attendant arguments—on how to define “invested.”)

      I like that basic definition for determining which shelf/section in the library or bookstore such works should be grouped in.

      I tend to differ by believing that MoLit should be by, for *or* about Mormons for purposes of broad criticism (though I accept that academic critics will prefer the narrower definition).

      In a couple of nutshells.

      • Sarah Reed says:

        Fwiw, I prefer “by, for, or about” myself. I would have a hard time accepting that Halldór Laxness’ “Paradise Reclaimed” doesn’t count as MoLit because it’s not by or (primarily) for a Mormon audience. Similarly, it seems clear to me that many, inside and outside the church, consider OSC and Stephanie Meyer as writers of MoLit, even if those works aren’t about or (primarily) for Mormons.

        I’m also wondering if “investment” in a Mormon community is an aesthetic consideration that has more to do with what counts as literature than the intended audience. Would Enid count something like Charly?

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          I think that investment in Mormonism, Mormon identity, etc., is not primarily an aesthetic judgment but rather a judgment of (a) rhetorical purpose, and/or (b) community function.

          All kinds of literature are worth discussing from a Mormon perspective — even works that aren’t primarily by, for, *or* about Mormons. (In that case, as Scott suggests, the Mormon element is brought to the enterprise by the critic: as legitimate as any other critical approach nowadays).

          That said, I think there are some questions that are particularly interesting to ask about literature that is invested in Mormonism — that makes a place for itself in the conversation about what Mormon identity is or should be. At the same time, there are also particularly interesting questions to be asked about works that don’t fit that criterion — such as how Mormon worldview is/can be framed in works that aren’t engaging explicitly with Mormonism. For me, such questions are equally interesting.

          I’ve said it before: I don’t think Mormon literature is a zero-sum game, where one type of writing takes away mental or literal market share from other types. I will not add that in my view, the same is true of Mormon literary criticism. By everything I have seen, *any kind of discussion about Mormon literature serves to turn up the heat in general on discussions of Mormon literature.*

          Which isn’t to say that I dislike Enid’s contribution. If nothing else, it’s led to a great conversation. I also think her/his/whoever’s notion of investment is a valuable addition to the conversation — not necessarily as a way of disqualifying potential works of Mormon literature, but as a way of defining one area of interest within the broad landscape of Mormon literature(s).

          • Jonathan Langford says:

            Excuse me; I meant to say, “I will NOW add that in my view, the same is true of Mormon literary criticism.”

        • Th. says:

          .

          Is Laxness’s book good? How “Mormon” do his Mormons feel?

          • Sarah Reed says:

            I liked it a lot and I thought the Mormons feel like Mormons. Although, from what little I’ve read about it by Mormons, they were largely dissatisfied with it, and this ran the spectrum from the Icelandic-American community in Spanish Fork to cultural/literary critics like Bruce W. Jorgenson. George Tate gave what he called an apologia for the book I think an AML meeting (at least it was published in Dialogue). He talks about Laxness’ intersecting of humor, satire, melancholy, and pathos, that the story sits balanced between comic and tragic. That kind of ambiguity is uncomfortable.

  10. Th. says:

    .

    To me, the advantage to this “intestment” criteria is that it provides something to talk about. A work of literature that can’t be talked about in that term probably isn’t useful to talk about as “Mormon” literature anyway. Which may be part of the reason the Mormon readings of “Twilight” dried up so quickly.

    I am leery of making “investment” binary though. Then you see things like that DN review I mentioned before that includes the (now excised) claim that Quist’s novel (and, perhaps, author) is essentially aMormon. We need to make sure we’re keeping discussion of books separate from discussion of writers separate, and that our claims regarding the book are rigorously based in the book’s actual words.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      And to (at least part of) Jonathan’s point, as Mormons we should rightly be especially invested in both writing and criticizing works that are specifically and explicitly by, about, and for us. Arguably all such discussion is ultimately useful to the greater Mormon community, though I do accept that we owe special attention to tales of our own experience.

      I just tend to knee-jerk against (what seem to me like) suggestions that spending time or thought on other ways of writing (or reading) Mormonly is somehow betraying or diminishing the importance of the more explicit forms.

      • Th. says:

        .

        Honestly, it’s the knee-jerk that concerns me. I worry how every conversation about any aspect of Mormon letters always ends up being about whether or not science fiction is getting sufficient respect.

        It is! It is! It’s gotten as much or more attention than probably any other niche in Mormon letters. It should stop worrying. This is not a zero-sum game. Science fiction is not damaged by us talking about something else for a while.

        Sometimes, here on the AML blog, science fiction seems like the guy at the party who goes from conversation to conversation, interrupting the speakers in order to tell about when the same thing happened to them only it was waaay crazier.

        It’s okay to let the other guy talk for a while, science fiction. Someone else’s cool story doesn’t diminish you.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Partly, I think it’s a matter of rhetoric, particularly with respect to how questions are framed. Any statement that starts “Mormon literature is…” (even with qualifiers) seems to suggest who gets invited to the party at all, though usually I don’t think that’s the intent.

          That said, it’s certainly true (given the nature of the conversation and who is taking part) that as of now, sf&f is being talked about in the Mormon literary world, and will continue to be. It’s high time for people such as myself to let go of reactions developed 20+ years ago, back when we were still treated like gate-crashers.

          • Scott Hales says:

            “It’s high time for people such as myself to let go of reactions developed 20+ years ago, back when we were still treated like gate-crashers.”

            I like this idea since I think it is unfair to direct knee-jerk reactions to those who weren’t around twenty years ago. I know I am guilty of criticizing Mormon science fiction, but my critique–at least as it has evolved as I have gained more familiarity with Mormon sf/f–is less about the genre itself than about certain directions it takes. (Incidentally, I criticize Mormon historical fiction in a similar way.) When Monsters and Mormons came out, I was (and still am) a huge advocate for it because it collects stories, poems, and comics that reflect how I have come to understand what makes works of literature “Mormon.”

            Still, as a critic, I tend to prefer working with novels and stories that depict contemporary Mormon life–although, as my upcoming AML presentation will show, I’m actually most excited about the new “New” stuff–which is largely post-genre in that it is genre-bending/blending. My personal preferences are not a sleight against anyone else’s preferences. My views on future directions of Mormon literature, likewise, are not meant as personal sleights against those who have fought hard for their views. If fact, I think former “gate-crashers” should consider their own hurtful past experiences with the “establishment” when handling the sincere dissent of new “gate-crashers.” Rather than driving them away–or shutting them down–let’s “prove contraries”–let’s explore out different approaches–and let truths about Mormon literature manifest themselves.

            This conversation has probably already run its course, but I hope something good will come of it.

        • Wm says:

          SF&F has been the dominant mode of expression by Mormon writers for three decades now. Any conversation that doesn’t include it and yet is trying to capture what Mormon literature is doing post-1980 seems deficient to me. Like it’s ignoring the elephant in the room. It’s not the niche — it’s the dominant form. When literary critics and anthologists ignore that fact, they suggest that they are still in the mode that SF&F has had to deal with in academia for years, which is that for all of its importance in modern culture — not just in the marketplace for selling books, but also in the marketplace of ideas — most academics simply just don’t want to deal with it.

          Now, I happen to think that the dedicated efforts to write about Mormon literature as Mormon literature are so few in number that I support whatever limits make the work possible. People should to do whatever they are interested in and feel equipped to deal with. For example, Scott H’s dissertation doesn’t deal with science fiction (aside from a couple of mentions). It would be interesting to have included it because modern SF&F has strong resonances with utopian fiction. It would have also turned it into a much larger, time-consuming project.

          Those may seem like two contradictory paragraphs, but that’s because I both agree with and disagree with you. Yes, bringing up SF&F is often a form of Mo-lit conversation-jacking, and to often gets stuck in the re-hashing of the same old conversations American SF&F has in relation to American literature. But also: if you’re active in the field of Mo-lit conversations and the conversation turns to SF&F, then you should understand why that happens. And even engage with it if it’s a particular blind spot that you have.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          I don’t recall claiming that anyone’s acclaim was somehow a dismissal of my own particular area of interest, though I can’t say the reverse has been true—at least in this forum.

          And since I don’t recall bringing up sf in this conversation except as descriptive of the kinds of stories I’m working on, I’ll take it that the speaker is what you want to hear less of. (Saw your tweet, too.) My goal was never to either attack or defend a particular genre; only to encourage generic diversity in the topics, titles, and authors in the discussion.

          Message received. Having been kneed, this jerk will now retire for a while. You want my April posting slot, Th.?

          • Th. says:

            .

            Oh, cmon, Scott. Just because I’m tired of us ending up in the same spot every time doesn’t mean I don’t value what you have to say. I do. That’s why I stepped outside before screaming.

            How about this: Instead of defending science fiction generally (or even by specific proxy) (or engaging in defense at all), why not bring up a precise example (which might, incidentally, also be “science fiction”) that you feel meets another set of criteria (such as Enid’s for “Mormon literature”) and demonstrate how it fits into that camp?

            Absolutely works fit into different literary categories. So let’s stop thinking about the genre divide and when we’re talking about other means of categorization. Whether or not “Leviathan” fits into Enid’s category (which I think it does) is irrelevant to whether or not it also fits into the category called “science fiction.”

            And Enid did not push away science fiction in her post. Best I can tell she welcomed it. The only thing I can see that’s SFy in her post is the panel that says “future” and has some planets in it. If that does in fact reference science fiction, then I welcome it.

            At this point, I should also throw out a mea culpa. Jonathan brought up “Leviathan” and Scott said he hadn’t read it and I immediately assumed people were feeling that science fiction was being ghettoized again. That wasn’t fair. Just because Scott hasn’t read it (or hardly anything in the genre) doesn’t mean anyone is saying it’s less valuable. That was my own knee-jerk and I apologize.

            Incidentally, I have a post tomorrow on AMV that I hope will have some new vocabulary for us.

            And I think it’s high time we education Dr Hales. He’s done with his dissertation now. Let’s get him a reading list. (I’ll open that discussion this week too.)

            • Scott Parkin says:

              I already felt that I had contributed too much to this particular conversation and that I was drowning out other voices. I felt especially bad after so dreadfully misreading the intro in the first place.

              Other than that, I have gone to a lot of effort not to specifically defend or push sf as a genre other than to suggest that it’s also worth considering under the larger rubric of Mormon letters (as are Romance and Mystery, btw, which get precious little coverage in this forum). I could have sworn that I kept my thoughts generic to genre while responding to other peoples’ comments.

              Which makes it puzzling that you should accuse me of being jealous of anyone else’s success, regardless of genre. I believe in promoting Mormon thought in a wide variety of forms, genres, methods, approaches, and pointing it out wherever I see it. As AML awards coordinator for four years, I was quite proud to recognize only a single sf title (Tathea, by Anne Perry, which I personally didn’t like at all and would not have recognized had the decision been mine to make).

              While guilty of a great many things, I have never complained about time spent talking about any other subject, genre, author, form, or critical method other than to say that my own preferences lie elsewhere.

              That has nothing to do with sf, and never did. The fact that you seem to read my words as if they’re all some sort of genre-based defensiveness stands completely at odds with my own intentions. Which proves my ineffectiveness.

              My thin skin in this forum has to do with my lack of academic credentials dooming me to the role of clever monkey who says the cutest things but has no right to his own opinions. The fact is that it wears after a while.

              No malice, just fatigue at being so ineffective and misunderstood after so many years of broad-spectrum, populist cheerleading for Mormon letters as a broader, more inclusive whole.

              • Th. says:

                .

                ScottP—-I don’t have any academy credentials either.

                I guess my question is who specifically is pushing sf out of the scope of Mormon letters? I just don’t see it happening although, as you point out, I can’t make the same claim of other genres.

              • Scott Parkin says:

                For my last comment on the post I’m moving to the top of a new thread. My tendency to wax verbose is exaggerated in uncomfortable ways by the narrow margins down here.

            • Scott Hales says:

              I welcome a reading list, for the record.

              I’d planned to write a sf chapter in the dissertation, but it didn’t fit within the schedule. I’ll probably add one when I prepare it for publication. As Wm points out…you can’t write comprehensively about Mormon lit without writing about it. Still, the way I shaped my project, most Mormon sf novels (as opposed to short fiction, which was outside the scope of my project) didn’t seem to fit. I’m hoping, however, that a reading list will simply prove that my preliminary research was inadequate.

  11. Jonathan Langford says:

    Personally, I value all the perspectives that are being expressed here. And I don’t want anyone to pipe down, or go away, or whatever.

    On a more trivial note: I’m realizing that I probably need to start saying “ScottP” and “ScottH” in my comments. There’s potential for confusion.

  12. Scott Parkin says:

    An omnibus reply to a couple of threads (and last word on the post)—

    Th., I haven’t once said in response to Enid’s post that anyone is pushing sf out of anything. Yet you have singled me out and continue to hammer me to defend a claim I didn’t make. I said long ago that sf had won the market wars and further sniveling on the matter was pointless. Thus the aggression must be based on something other than these words.

    To the broader point, I am primarily an sf writer (though I have also published literary, slice-of-life, essay, review, and memoir both in and out of the Mormon market), so my responses tend to be colored by that lens—not because I’m actively defending it, but because I’m inherently steeped in it. That staining is so innate to the way I think about literature that (try though I do) I may not be able to scrub it entirely from my comments on any subject.

    (Note, I use the word “stain” here the way a woodworker does, as a descriptive for generally colored, not as blemished.)

    That’s an accident, not an argument. I’m also stained by my whiteness, my maleness, my Mormonness, my formal education (and lack of credentials), my recent poverty, my age, my nationality (as one poster rightly pointed out; Mo-Lit should not be viewed as an exclusively American phenomenon), and a great many other factors. I try to cop gladly to the gaps in my perception so that I can be educated on how to see through more complete and expansive eyes (I’m getting a crash-course in modern sexual politics from my college-aged daughter right now).

    So when I use examples from my own writing to argue for a broad Mormon criticism comfortable with interpreting thematic or symbolic Mormonism out of non-overt works as a useful service to a broad and diverse Mormon populace, those examples tend to be sf or fantasy. My argument would not change one iota if sf didn’t exist at all, or if I wrote Romance or nature adventures.

    I agree: Mormon literature should be fully invested in Mormon life, experience, and community or it should be called something else. I believe Mormon criticism can and should embrace and prefer the study of Mormon literature, but I believe it also needs to permit interpretive analysis of non-overt works that nonetheless reflect Mormon thought—specifically when written by publicly Mormon authors.

    That’s it. No mention of sf; no defense of sf. Inside my head I’m not talking about sf in any way, shape, or form (though I obviously think it’s also part of the broad category of non-overt stories).

    Remember, it was Enid who mentioned a specific author and title that didn’t count, not me. My knee-jerk is to the idea that Edgar Mint doesn’t deserve either our Mormon time or our Mormon attention because it’s not sufficiently invested in Mormonism.

    I agree that it probably doesn’t qualify as Mormon literature based on the investment criterion. I disagree with the notion that it may therefore not be a worthy subject of Mormon criticism (or discussion in this forum), because the publicly Mormon author has made choices and used conventions in the telling that should be of particular interest to Mormons precisely because the story was not written for us, yet still appropriates our trivial cultural expressions from an insider perspective. Was that structure intended as a bridge? As a rebuke? As an ambivalence? Were Mormon sensibilities considered at all; and regardless, do those sensibilities matter? To me that entire approach is a rich topic of interest to specifically Mormon readers. In this case, the Mormon literature is the criticism itself, not the novel it discusses.

    Even then, I wasn’t sure if that’s what Enid was suggesting, so I asked the question—therefore…what? Since Enid has chosen not to respond (though Dr./Br. Hales has) I think the question remains open.

    My knee-jerk is to the narrowing of the discussion to exclude works like Edgar Mint (among others). Not to some alleged sleight to sf. So I don’t accept or appreciate the aggressive and continuous effort to stuff my general question and argument into that particular canister. Enid rejects merely thematic Mormon content, yet you happily convert my general commentary into a thematically sf argument with apparent ease and comfort.

    I can’t offer anything of value to a discussion that operates under those rules. As one of the premier voices of the new, new Mormon literature (I think that’s how Dr. Hales described it), your willful re-characterization carries more literary and critical weight than my original intent and taints it with something I neither intended nor find useful. Since I can’t stop you from doing that, I lose. Therefore, my time is better spent doing other things.

    ===

    Dr. Hales (the stain of serving a German mission makes me want to address you as they would to recognize your various identities: Herr Doktor Brueder Hales—Hr. Dr. Br. Hales), I appreciate your response on Leviathan.

    I honestly don’t understand what’s meant by investment, here. That’s why I ask. Because the model Enid offers—and example she gives—that if you can substitute Catholic for Mormon and it still works then it’s not invested in Mormonism, seems to apply here. I want to understand her model sufficiently well to apply it fairly as a filter for interpretation before I argue further about the usefulness of the model, and I’m just not seeing it yet.

    At least partly because you say Leviathan is a literal God with body, parts, and passions, and that makes it specifically and uniquely Mormon. To me that’s certainly a response to the Catholic definition, but not quite a Mormon definition. As I understand our theology, God is more than just body, parts, passions, and power; God is specifically morally advanced and thus fundamentally incapable of the kind of sexual predation and casual victimization described among the swale. God is a title one aspires to and (morally) develops toward, not a genetics and lifespan that one inherits.

    Which makes it feel to me like an inversion of a Catholic god, not a representation of a Mormon one. Which begs the essential Mormon investment. Which begs its categorization as Mormon literature. Which illustrates my desire for Mormon criticism to encompass a more expansive subject matter than the fixed category of Mormon literature defined by that investment.

    I happen to agree that it’s a very Mormon story, and daringly so in a genre best known for a firmly anti-religious stance. That it uses a more conventional vehicle to describe god-ishness as genetically/technologically advanced (see anything by Arthur C. Clarke) only enables it to be appreciated by both general and specifically Mormon audiences, though I think that appreciation may take slightly different forms, and for substantially different reasons.

    Which still leaves me unsure of exactly how Enid’s characterizations apply as a broad descriptor, because I can argue this one both ways, which limits its usefulness to me as a model. The only way I know to test a model is to discuss (argue about) specific titles over time so I can triangulate. Not as an effort to condemn or deny the model, but as a means of understanding it.

    On new-gen gate crashers and locking anyone out of discussions…sure.

    I hope you can understand my sense of frustration there, because I feel like the one being told to shut up and go away by the new-gen gate crashers, not the other way around. I’ve worked for a long time to keep the gate a little wider open so it’s not necessary to crash them. To now be characterized as the roadblock because I think a more expansive conversation is more useful than a more restricted one just feels wrong to me.

    But the broader point is well taken, which is why I’ll be bowing out for a while and working on other projects so as to help free up others to offer their thoughts. I have no interest in making the larger conversation stale.

  13. Jonathan Langford says:

    Moderator note: I’ve realized, well in retrospect, that in allowing this post in its current form I neglected the rule about no anonymous posting on AML (except under unusual circumstances, with prior knowledge and approval of the moderator). I also think the discussion shows some of the reasons why that rule is in place. Mea culpa, for not catching this out the door.

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