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?

Posted in General, Mormon LitCrit | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

2013 AML Awards

Glenn Gordon and Margaret Blair Young posted these award citations on the AML Facebook page, I am copying them here.

The Association for Mormon Letters presents an award
In creative non-fiction to

Melissa Dalton-Bradford
For her memoir
Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family

Melissa Dalton-Bradford takes her reader on journeys to humor and heartbreak, across borders of multiple countries, beyond unthinkable edges of grief, and into several languages. The reader is rewarded by a new sense of the world and of humanity, as well as by Dalton-Bradford’s poetic word crafting. Her book is a gift to all who read it. Continue reading

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Introducing Joe Plicka, AML President-Elect

I wrote to Joe asking if he would like to introduce himself on the blog. He kindly sent this letter to be posted. I am excited for the coming year!

To tell you the truth, I’ve been putting off writing you back because I’m feeling a little strange and bashful about the whole thing. Here’s the basic story if you’re not already aware: I am a newer assistant professor at BYU – Hawaii (somehow my bio on the BYUH website says I’m an associate professor, which is a mistake). Awhile back Margaret Young contacted us about hosting the next AML conference here in Laie. We agreed to look into it, and I ended up being put out in front of the project for several reasons: 1) I’m the new guy, 2) I’m a Mormon, a writer, and teach the creative writing classes here, and 3) we in the department had talked about hosting some kind of an LDS writers workshop/conference in the same vein as some that were done years ago when Chris Crowe was teaching here, and this seemed like a good opportunity to make that happen. As an outsider to the organization, I can’t speculate on exactly why I was named president-elect of AML (it still makes me chuckle to say it out loud), but I’m operating on the assumption that it is just because I’m the on-site point person for the (possible, hopeful) conference in Hawaii and this is a way to make sure I do that job and integrate myself into the AML community (more on that later).  Continue reading

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This Month in Mormon Literature, April 2014

The AML Conference was held, awards were presented, and a new president announced. I hope this represents a new start after a difficult period for the AML. This month there are tons of Whitney finalist reviews, and lots of theatre reviews of new Mormon-authored plays.

AML Conference

The AML Conference was held last weekend in Orem. In lieu of any official announcements from the organization, here is what I can figure out what has happened, from tweets from participants Scott Hales (@TheLowTechWorld), Tyler Chadwick (@KingTawhiao) and Kjerste Christensen (@byu_librarian). I hope those involved will fill in the blanks of what I am missing.

Awards:

Lifetime Achievement: Dean Hughes

Smith-Pettit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters: Charlotte England

Novel: Sarah Eden for Longing for Home: A Proper Romance

Theater: Ariel Mitchell for A Second Birth Continue reading

Posted in This Week in Mormon Literature | 15 Comments

The Business Side of Writing: Taxes

It’s that time of year, though if you’re reading this column for advice, you’d better get hopping. The deadline looms. It often amazes me how scary some people find taxes. Granted, I’m not normal. I started filing my own separate return after I’d finished training as a lawyer, which requires a class in taxation, so I was a little overprepared to do my 1040EZ. Nowadays, I sometimes do my taxes and I sometimes have them done, but it’s *very* important that you know how to do them yourself. Many a time I’ve seen people rave about how great their tax prep professional is because “he just gave us a bunch of worksheets to fill out and then he was done.” If you aren’t laughing now, I hope you will be by the end of this post. So lets start with the basics. Continue reading

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AML Conference 2014 Schedule

Association for Mormon Letters Annual Conference 11 and 12 April, 2014

Venue: Utah Valley University Library

Friday evening: (note this will be held in lecture theater LA101)

6pm Welcome and opening panel: New Mormon Theater (Eric Samuelson, Jerry Argetsinger, Scott Bronson) Moderator: Margaret Young

7pm. Reader’s Theater: “A Second Birth” Ariel Mitchell

Follow-up discussion of the play.

Saturday 12 April:

9.00am. Registration (UVU Library Lecture Theater – ground floor)

9.15. Welcome

9.30. (Track 1)  Joseph and Kay Darowski  (Track 2) Panel Discussion:
The Joseph Smith Papers. What Are they Good For? Teaching Mormon Literature
Christopher C Smith Margaret Young, Scott Hales, Shelah Miner, Boyd Petersen
Adoption of Ecstatic Native American Practices in Early Mormon Ohio Moderator: John Bennion
10.30 (Track 1) ) Lisa Olsen Tait (Track 2) Panel Discussion
Three Forgotten Women Writers of the Home Literature Movement Promoting New Mormon Fiction
Boyd Petersen Stephen Carter, James Goldberg, Shelah Miner
Historical Mormon Interpretations of Eve
11.30am Keynote Address: Lecture Theater Dr Michael Hicks (BYU)
“Inventing ‘Mormon Music’”  
   
12.30 Award Luncheon (box lunch $12.00) Lakeview Room in Library
   
2pm. Lecture Theater Performance of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” composed by Darrell Brown, BYU Idaho With text based on the short story of the same name by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this is song cycle/musical drama for solo tenor voice and accompanied by a consort of piccolo/flute/bass flute, eb clarinet/bb clarinet/eb contralto clarinet, cello, and percussion (marimba, vibraphone, chimes, congas, and bass drum).
 
2.30pm. (Track 1) Scott Hales (Track 2) Tyler Chadwick
New Mormon Fiction “Alex’s Tongue: Making, the Makar, and Mormonism”
 
3.30pm (Track 1) Jerry Argetsinger (Track 2) Harlow Clark
Gay Mormon Fiction Scattered into Jagged Pieces: Troubled Mormon Marriage Memoirs of Phyllis Barber, Carol Lynn Pearson, and Florence Child Brown
 
4.30pm Combined: Lecture Theater James Goldberg: “Why the Church Is Boring But Our Covenants Are Not”
  Stephen Carter: “The History of Book of Mormon Comics”
5.30pm End of the Conference

 

 

 

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How to Write a Bad Book Review

There was one other Mormon girl in my grade at my high school. We were actually really close friends, but the way we publicly approached our membership in the Church was very different. My friend was the type who asked others not to swear in front of her, gave copies of the Book of Mormon to some of our teachers, and complained when we had to read The Grapes of Wrath in our junior-year English class. I think she objected to the general coarseness of the novel, and particularly to the final scene that involves a woman breastfeeding a man. I, on the other hand, kept silent and mostly thought that I didn’t like The Grapes of Wrath as much as I liked East of Eden. Both of us were widely-read, fairly intelligent young women and were both active members of the Church, but our standards for literature differed significantly. Continue reading

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YA Corner: Hearts of the Children…

He dreamed of walking…bare feet becoming pale with the dust of powder-soft dirt. In passing the tall milk barn, its shadow covered him and cooled him. He did not pause but kept moving forward on a path as familiar as his own reflection. Ahead there was a lengthy fence with a gate. He opened the rustic structure by holding and contracting the weathered wood with one hand and simultaneously lifting the loop of wire on the top post. Beyond the now freely swinging gate lay acres of the same dark green plant, two and a half feet tall, covered in smallish rounded leaves and smaller deep purple blossoms — alfalfa.

Urgent steps led him through the field. There was work to be done, but where were his shoes? He rubbed his forehead with a puzzled gesture. He noticed he also had no hat to give protection from the fierce sun. “I am completely unprepared; what is wrong with me?” he thought. He made to turn back for shoes and hat, but instead continued on with an unstoppable forward momentum. As he walked he veered in a direction that eventually took him away from the alfalfa and to the top of a ravine. A faint path wound its way down into dark and hazy brush below. Wild plants and sage barged into the path, brushing roughly against his legs and prickling his feet.

Continue reading

Posted in Funny Stuff, Personal Narratives, YA corner | Tagged , | 3 Comments

In Tents #39 Literal and Figurative Interpretation, or The Place is Called Gilgal Unto This Day

Here’s a paradox. I read scripture literally, and yet as I read letter by letter laterally through the word I keep seeing invitations to see the stories pointing toward something else. The writer of Exodus sees Moses as a new Noah being saved by a water-borne ark, while Peter sees the ark as a figure for the saving ordinance of baptism. Indeed, he even uses the word figure:

19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ
I Peter 3:19-21

The Book of Mormon uses a good deal of Exodus imagery in I Nephi—with Nephi as Moses, and I sometimes wonder if Laman and Lemuel didn’t taunt Nephi by saying, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to slay us like you slew Laban?” (See Exodus 3:14)

Joseph Smith defends his vision by invoking Paul’s defense of his vision before Agrippa, and the Book of Mormon repeatedly asks questions like, “is there not a type in this thing?” (Alma 37:45)

I read the scriptures figuratively, trying to understand the deeper meanings in parables and scriptural events. “So, do we know anyone else besides Joseph Smith who was thrown into a pit? Yes, Jeremiah, and Joseph, and Daniel. Jonah, yes, and John the Baptist and the Savior. Pay attention in your reading to recurring patterns and experiences. Notice how often prophets share the same experiences.”

And if I start paying attention to recurring motifs and phrases, I notice how the figures moving across the page insist on the historic nature of events, naming places

Wherefore the name of the place is called Gilgal unto this day.
(Joshua 5:10)

Continue reading

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in verse #39 : the lost leader

I raised the issue in my last post of the political and economic forces driving Romantic poetry, citing Roger Sales, who argues that in the Romantic authors we find apologists for the destruction of English rural life.[i]  Jonathan Langford, in a comment on that post, wrote that “while I’m willing to concede political implications of poetry (often unintended, and sometimes counter what was intended), I take a lot of convincing to see the political and/or economic as driving Romantic poetry.”[ii]  I’m not certain Sales is right — I’m still reading the book — but it seems to me that his main point goes more to the “unintended” element Langford notes, when he describes the pastoral as “deceptive and prescriptive. It offers a political interpretation of both past and present.…. provid[ing] sheep’s clothing for aristocratic wolves, or indeed for anybody who was on the side of the victors in the civil war which was fought for control of rural society.”[iii]  If you read Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” closely (and you can in that last post) you can’t help but see the link between the poet’s nostalgia for the past and the pastoral view of the world.  The poem is saturated in nostalgia.

As for the political and economic implications, I will respond here as I did to Jonathan’s comment:  note the injured tone of the poem below, and guess who wrote it, and about whom, and on what occasion:

The Lost Leader

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Continue reading

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