Moving Culture

At this year’s Association for Mormon Letters conference I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on teaching Mormon literature with Margaret Blair Young, Shelah Miner, and Boyd Petersen. Among the items we discussed at length was the challenge of finding an audience for Mormon literature—particularly among actual living, breathing Latter-day Saints. I don’t remember every point we raised during the discussion, but the idea that has remained with me is that we need to do a better job of moving culture.

Currently, Mormon culture—at least in the United States—is not a great incubator for readers of the kind of Mormon literature I usually write about (i.e. “literary” Mormon literature, “realistic” Mormon literature, “serious” Mormon literature, “fringe” Mormon literature, etc.). Generally, a few Mormons will read what Deseret and Cedar Fort publish, but far fewer will pick up something by Zarahemla and Signature Books. We can debate reasons for why this is the case, but I think it probably comes down to the fact that most Mormons a) don’t have access to these books and b) would probably be put off by their realistic (or surrealistic) portrayals of flawed Mormons anyway.

This is where the idea of “moving culture” comes in. For the Mormon literature audience to grow, we need to be able to move culture physically to the potential reader and move the culture (that is, change it) in a way that helps potential readers better contextualize and appreciate what they see on the page.

Obviously, both types of moving will take monumental effort and probably centuries of dedicated service. In the meantime, here are three things I think we can start doing today:

Be Open

Talk about Mormon literature online. Share your experiences with good works of Mormon literature. Link to free works of Mormon literature online. Don’t shy away from endorsing good Mormon literature because you worry that its content might offend your Mormon friends and family. Lend out your Mormon literature and even (gasp!) make some of it available for free online.

Change the Conversation

Too often, the first thing we talk about when we talk about art and media in the church is “questionable” content: bad words, sex scenes, decapitations, etc. Unfortunately, doing so often distracts from the weightier matters of these works—and establishes critical standards that can prove spiritually harmful if applied to fallible Church leaders, incidents in Church history, and people and situations in general. (If it is unfair to judge people by the cockroach rule, why should we judge media by that standard?) I think doing what we can to shift the conversation from content to context will help move culture to a place more open to varieties of Mormon literature. I also think it will make us a more charitable people.

Embrace the Radical Middle

Cultural movers should not expect change overnight. Indeed, if Mormon history has taught us anything, it is that Mormons take change sluggishly and do not wear extremism well. As we talk about and write Mormon literature, let’s eschew the usual extreme approaches and radically shoot for the center, inviting our extremist friends and neighbors to meet us in the middle. Besides, as several people pointed out during the conference, the Church at present seems interested in moving the culture away from past extremisms, yet it continues to move slowly on this interest because of the apparent reluctance of many members to move with it. Perhaps our current cultural moment needs a new Home Literature that works in tandem with those messages from the Church that encourage a more open-minded, thoughtful, and charitable membership.

Thoughts? What else can be done to move culture?

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20 Responses to Moving Culture

  1. Wonderful post, Scott!

    As was mentioned in the conference, one of the hurdles we have is the mentality that Mormon literary writers cannot depict “sin” or “inappropriate things” because they “should know better.” As you said, the Church culture needs to change to recognize that we are, in fact, a church of flawed, imperfect people. That’s why we’re there. We members get too caught up in this image we’re trying to portray to the world. Stories that dash this image, or refuse to perpetuate it, have the potential of showing us members of the Church how to tackle some of the tough issues in life. If nothing else, they provide a vicarious experience we could not otherwise have in our ivory temple.

    • I’m remembering Brigham Young allowing “evil” to take place in the theatre because it was obviously “evil.” He loved “literature.” This was a great post, a great comment, Michael, and a reminder that all of us are trying to make this work!

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting thoughts. I agree that this is the biggest barrier we face in seeking to advance the cause of serious Mormon-themed literature. (Not the only worthwhile kind, but a kind that has yet to find much readership, as you point out.)

    Personally, I’ve had more success in making in-person recommendations (to friends, ward members, and family members) than anything I suspect I’ve ever posted online. For one thing, you can tailor recommendations to the tastes of those involved. Second, you can follow up one book with another one. Most important, these people already know and trust you, so there’s a much larger chance of getting them to read something.

    There are, I think, two distinct issues/challenges here:
    a. Getting Mormon literary fiction in the hands of those who might enjoy it (and motivating them to read it)
    b. Changing literary appetites so that more Mormons are willing to read and enjoy such fiction.

    The good news is that in my experience, there are more potential readers out there who fit the (a) model than I think we often realize. All we have to do is show them that there’s good Mormon literature out there, and make it so enticing to them that they’re willing to put their time into reading it. For many of these people, it’s not a matter of getting them to “make the switch” from Deseret and Cedar Fort, because they’re not reading much if any of that stuff. It’s not the kind of literature they like. (Though, again, we need to keep in mind that useful as “Deseret and Cedar Fort” may be as labels, not all of the books they publish fall under the easy/popular category. See, for example, the Standing on the Promises trilogy by Margaret Young and Darius Gray.)

    The bad news is that (b) involves much more than just getting past a discourse of avoiding questionable content. At a more basic level, most of the people I think might be offended by realistic content simply don’t enjoy realistic literature. It doesn’t do the things they go to literature for. In short, this isn’t just about getting people to be a little more open-minded; rather, it’s about changing literary tastes and habits wholesale. Which I’m not sure is really feasible, considering how much work it takes to develop tastes for certain kinds of literature in one’s children — and how often one fails.

    Put another way: while I embrace the notion of changing how we talk about art and literature within the Church to focus on meaning rather than cosmetics (for a variety of reasons), I think we’ll have more success in spreading the readership for serious/realistic Mormon literature by reaching those who are already inclined to it, rather than trying to persuade people to like something that isn’t to their tastes.

    • Lucinda W. says:

      (In relation to your last paragraph). Which goes to what I mention about reaching Mormons outside of the US, and especially Utah. Mainstream Mormons are notoriously intolerant to new ideas and anything that falls out of their historically perceived ideal.
      I realize these are broad assumptions, but considering that most Mormons who read DB/CF fall in the category, the generalizing goes without saying.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Which is why I’ve tended to argue to a more expansive criticism that builds bridges from what I see as fairly Balkanized islands defined by taste or subject matter.

      The difficulty is that (it seems to me) each island requires a rather specialized bridge to each other island that can encompass the unique aesthetics of both camps and show how they legitimately relate. Which requires more–and both more expansive and more charitable–readings *and* specifically Mormon comments than I think we’ve tended to offer.

  3. Lucinda W. says:

    One of the problems with Mormon literature is the way it’s centered in the Utah Mormon culture and history. There are now more members outside the United States than in, but what appeal do those works have to church members outside the US when they continually harp on the same themes and geography? None whatsoever in a contemporary light. Until writers strive for the same kind of global reach that the Church aims for, there will be little reason to talk of variety, tolerance, and moving the culture ahead. It’s an untapped market, to say the least.

    • Amen to that, Lucinda. I think Mormon literary writers could do more to explore how people experience Mormonism outside of Utah, even outside the US.

      Jonathan, I agree that one of the best approaches to spreading good Mormon Literature is to pass it along to people who we think might be interested. As for item b, I totally empathize with you about getting one’s own children to like literature. I’ve scored one out of two with my two children who can read. Have hopes for the third, but audio and video seem to be the rule anymore.

  4. Why does this sound so familiar to me?

    The “spread the word” sounds like missionary work, and I’m not convinced that potentially offensive literature is worth the effort.

    And the other suggestion sounds like “educating the reader” which I’ve heard many times before. As Orson Scott Card points out, the percentage of people who read for pleasure (as opposed to reading for work or for information and such) is such a small percentage that such readers already qualify as part of an “elite.”

    Here’s my suggestion: why not find out what Mormons like to read and then apply the superlative skills of “literature” to write better versions of that, instead of trying to “convert” them to things that they don’t read because they don’t enjoy them?

    I submit that this is a challenge worthy of any truly talented writer.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Amen, and amen.

    • Wm says:

      All readers have been educated. Different readers have been educated to different things and different types (genres/forms) of literature are good at different types of things. American Mormons should be omnivores* in the cultural arena (and political, social and economic). That more are not is an indictment less of our own culture per se** and more a condemnation of how much we have assimilated into the broader American culture on its own terms rather than our own***.

      *And by that I mean in terms of genre (so, yeah, the literary types are also under condemnation under my model) and art form.

      **Not that our own cultural production is blameless, especially infsofar as it repeats larger narratives with only a Mormon coating (and to be clear: I’m including in this the whole “disenchantment w/those provincial Mormons” fiction as well).

      ***On the other hand, I find that those instances where there is resistance to or subversion of the larger culture fascinating and valuable, and I include both what could be loosely termed as Orthodox and Liberal as well as literary and genre resistance in that.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Part of the problem is that almost anything can be “potentially offensive.” One of the longest conversations about books that I’ve ever had was with a sister of mine who was deeply bothered by Ender’s Game. Ultimately, we had to agree to disagree, acknowledging that the book I read and loved was at some level fundamentally different from the book she had read and loathed, even if we were seeing the same words on the page.

  5. @Kathleen

    I hope that what I say here doesn’t disintegrate the discussion into a flame war between popular fiction (be it Mormon or not) and literary fiction (be it Mormon or not), but I think Scott’s post is referring mainly to the latter. I understand there is some very good genre fiction being written by Mormons, and that’s great. You write what you love.

    It’s also true that readers who value literary fiction are few in number, an “elite” as you point out, and you can’t make people like what they don’t like, but I’m convinced that there may be Mormons out there willing to read Mormon literary fiction, if they knew where to find it. Those are the folks we’re trying to reach.

    As for your comment about the “offensiveness” of a work, I think that, as a writer to a Mormon audience even, it’s difficult to gauge what’s going to be offensive and what’s not. There are some obvious things, but sometimes a work with the potential to last demands that the writer deal with things that may make the average Mormon uncomfortable.

    This leads to the my next point. I respectfully disagree with the idea of just writing what Mormons like, if you are going to write literary fiction. Very few works of classical literature appealed to the popular audiences of their day. Take Moby Dick, for example. Melville was virtually unknown at his death because he published that book, yet it is indisputably a masterpiece, whether it has readers to read it or not. Literature is supposed to ask the tough questions, look at life as it is, and perhaps, though not required, help you get through the night.

    It may take a generation or two to grow an audience that appreciates the kind of Mormon fiction I think we have in mind here, and that’s fine. As a writer of literary fiction, I don’t think appealing (wholesale) to what most Mormon readers like (DB/CF) is the way to write fiction that in a hundred years will demonstrate what it’s really like to be a Mormon in the 21st century.

    That said, I hope we still be friends. :)

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I think there’s a little bit of a false dichotomy that creeps into these kinds of discussions that I also think is worth exploring.

      Literary value is not (necessarily) exclusive to audience engagement. I see Kathleen’s call for authors to consider reader resonance as part of their craft as a challenge to writers of literary fiction to recognize that a story that does not draw readers is like the tree falling with no one to hear.

      In other words it’s a call to expand craft, not abandon aesthetics or complexity. Or at least that’s how I read it. Controversy is not what makes it literary—at least not exclusively so.

      Yes, we need to educate readers to the real value, joy, and power inherent in more literary approaches. I just think we serve that process better by building the bridge and drawing audience across with (some) stories that recognize readers as participants to be engaged, not (only) patients to be repaired. More Zarahemla rather than more Covenant.

      For me, a broad spectrum approach where each does what they can according to the dictates of their own conscience will (over time, as Scott Hales suggests) create the most true and complete literature possible. Not every piece will appeal to every reader, but the corpus will be large, complex, and varied enough to draw readers at least partially on their own terms toward works of greater literary value.

      A worthy goal, no matter the method.

      (Trying desperately to return to lurker mode. Must…have…discipline…)

      • Scott,

        I like your reading of Kathleen’s comment. Thanks for the clarification. I also like your insistence on building bridges, and the idea of a broad spectrum of works readers may choose from.

        It would have been sad for Melville and Literature if Moby Dick had remained a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear, but its audience “found” it in the early twentieth century, a whole generation or so after Melville was dead. I guess my take is that you must write what you feel you need to write and those who will hear, will hear, even if you have to be rediscovered by an audience prepared for you a generation or two after you.

        (I hope I’m not setting myself up to be ignored. Smiley face.)

        • Scott Parkin says:

          I thought Moby Dick was a hoot if read as ambitious satire that split the difference between his travelogue/adventure tale foundations and his emerging sense of thematic complexity. It needs to be read with tongue in cheek; if read solely as profound observation, that inherent humor becomes confusing.

          Sadly, he’d already been slotted, and a skittish literary establishment (reader, critic, and publisher alike) weren’t ready for that big a shift. If I recall correctly, though Moby Dick was originally (reasonably) well received, his next book was aggressively panned and overshadowed it.

          In other words, I think Melville did his job and wrote a wonderfully engaging novel that created multiple access points that could appeal variably to a wide variety of reader tastes—travelogue, adventure tale, exotic situations and locales, humor, thematic depth.

          It was a brittle critical establishment that initially destroyed his reputation by being unwilling to allow him to cross genres (though to be fair, it was also a more open and experimental critical establishment that later re-discovered him).

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          Amen to that. Moby Dick is definitely geek humor mixed with seriousness. I suspect that the way it’s typically taught does it no favors for the (admittedly small) portion of readers who might otherwise be inclined to like it.

  6. .

    It’s true that offensiveness cannot really be planned for. I knew some of the Monsters & Mormons stories would be offensive, for example, but I never guessed that “Mormon Golem” would be one of the most upsetting. Blows my mind, to be frank. Even when I’ve had its offensiveness explained to me, I still can’t quite believe we’re reading the same comic. So if you can’t preplan, don’t plan at all.

    When I first got Byuck into publishable form, it was deemed crazy offensive. Since it actually hit print eight years later, I haven’t gotten a single complaint. Hard to guess who a fiction’s audience will end up being or what they will think of it when they sit down with it. So my motto is screw worrying about offending people. Write the best you can, put it out, then c’est la (*&&%in’ vie.

    Smiley face.

  7. Lucinda W. says:

    It’s not a question of writing what the masses want. It’s a question of writing what you love and finding the right audience for it. The problem is when the audience is always in the same circle. Then you can’t go past that.

    As for what is offensive or not, that depends on the reader and his/her experience. You can’t stop yourself from writing something you love because you’re worried it will be offensive. Write the best you can and find your readership.

  8. Jonathan Langford says:

    For me, the value of cultural education (“missionary work,” as Kathleen puts it) isn’t so much to try to convince people to like stuff they don’t like — a difficult endeavor at best — as to help us all become more tolerant of those whose tastes differ from ours. The best way I know of fostering that is for people to express why they like what they like — and (more importantly) for others to listen with interest and open-mindedness.

    I still remember Eric Samuelsen’s screeds in praise of The Simpsons as a program that promotes family values by showing real families with real family solidarity. It honestly had never occurred to me that anyone could have that reaction. I doubt that I’ll ever enjoy the program myself — if I thought families had to be like that, I would have committed to lifelong celibacy — but because Eric was so good at describing the value and good he saw in it, I now look more charitably on the program itself, and acknowledge that good people whose taste I respect can see something in it that I don’t.

    Which is part of the value of literary criticism, in my opinion. Not that all of our judgments should be positive. When we think that a particular work, or even an entire genre, suffers from specific problems of theme or craft, I think there’s value in pointing in out. But we need to do so with the explicit and knowledge that clearly, others are getting something from it that we don’t — and that when it comes to describing the positive value of a particular work or genre, the fans are on the high ground.

    All of which is part of why I think that yes, we do need to get a little more tolerance for supposedly “offensive” content. I’m tired of people suggesting that because they are offended in reading or viewing a particular work, that there is nothing good in it. At the same time, I also agree with Kathleen that trying to get others to like something they honestly don’t care for is probably a fool’s errand. Tolerance, yes; changing of tastes, not so much.

    Which is why the part of the project I’m most in favor of is trying to find ways of making people aware of works they might like: serious Mormon literature, science fiction, or whatnot. I’ve always loved matching people to books. That is, honestly, the best way (in my view) to promote the kind of books we like.

  9. Wm says:

    Scott’s post and the discussion here led me to the following thought:

    Culture and being in, but not of the world

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