Beyond the Definition of Mormon Literature

Note: This post is also part of a work in progress.

Twenty years ago, defining Mormon literature was a weightier matter, but I sense that it is no longer a major point of susceptibility in Mormon literature studies. Granted, Mormon critics cannot allow the definition debate to atrophy—doing so would be debilitating—but they also cannot let it impose upon the current weightier matters of Mormon literature studies, particularly the development of critical reading strategies and focused analyses of individual Mormon literary texts. In these two areas, I see Mormon literature studies’ greatest shortage; while they are certainly not the only weightier matters in the field, they are the two that I encounter most whenever I begin research on a Mormon novel or short story. In fact, I often find it frustrating that Mormons have such a rich body of imaginative works, extending back nearly two hundred years, but very few critical works that take the analysis of Mormon literature beyond the scope of the average book review. It is not as if Mormon literature studies lack the necessary infrastructure. The first generation of Mormon literature critics has already laid adequate groundwork to support more in-depth analyses of Mormon creative work. Moreover, journals like Sunstone, Dialogue, Irreantum, Exponent II, and BYU Studies, not to mention many non-Mormon journals focused on religion and literature, offer themselves as potential venues for Mormon literary criticism. Websites like A Motley Vision and Dawning of a Brighter Day, likewise, give Mormon literature critics space to exchange ideas and debate, and professional conferences, like the annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters, exist to encourage the production, discussion, and analysis of Mormon texts. Even the texts themselves, though hampered by popular misconceptions about the quality and sophistication of Mormon literature, exhibit an artistry and complexity that practically beg for more extended explication and engaging analysis. Clearly, the origin of this problem, this shortage, lies elsewhere. It is itself a weightier matter. 

I do not presume to have a definitive explanation for why longer, more focused analyses of individual Mormon literary texts are not happening. It could be lack of interest in Mormon literature, but that seems a partial explanation at best. Nor do I think the blame falls upon the editors of the journals where these critical works are most likely to find a home. In fact, an editor of a Mormon journal recently told me that works of Mormon literary criticism are rare only because so few are submitted. Could it be, then, that the problem is a lack of committed critics? This seems more likely. Literary criticism that seeks to engage texts beyond the scope of a book review can be a difficult, time consuming task, especially when the existing body of Mormon literary criticism about individual texts is so small. Critics who want to write about Levi Peterson’s The Backslider or an Orson Scott Card novel, to be sure, have a fair amount of existing criticism to build upon and engage, but such is not the case, say, for critics who want to explore David Clark’s The Death of a Disco Dancer, Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises, or a poem from Fire in the Pasture. These critics, in a sense, must work from scratch as they take upon themselves the daunting responsibility of getting the critical conversation going. Aiding them in this process, of course, are the conventional tools of literary analysis they learns in school, like close reading and critical theory, but reading strategies specifically honed for Mormon literary texts are comparatively few and not always readily accessible. Mormon literature studies can be a frustrating endeavor, especially for beginners and non-Mormon scholars looking for a way into the critical conversation.


4 thoughts on “Beyond the Definition of Mormon Literature”

  1. I try to answer that question in the rest of the essay. Mostly, I think we need to get conversations going and always try to encourage newcomers.

  2. I'm interested in your project, Scott, and have been, for the past several weeks, ruminating on the ideas you've posed in your other two posts on this topic. I'm working up what I hope is a more sophisticated response than this quick comment (one that incorporates ideas I've been pondering for several years now), but I've got a question for you. You mention developing “reading strategies specifically honed for Mormon literary texts.” My question (and you may address this in the rest of your essay, but I'm curious): do Mormon literary texts really require different reading strategies than do other literary texts? If so, why? What makes them fundamentally different than other texts that they require a different approach altogether? While texts with explicitly Mormon content may ask readers to learn something about Mormonism and its contexts in order to connect the dots (as it were), how is this any different than, say, the approach a new historicist would take to the text? What is so unique about specifically Mormon texts that they require specifically honed reading strategies?

    One other thing: I don't know how you feel about it, but the dearth of critical work on Mormon literature is exciting to me. It brings with it the thrill of looking out on an untouched field of snow. The way is open before us. Now how do we each make our mark?

    Just a few thoughts…

  3. Tyler,

    I don't think Mormon texts necessarily need unique reading strategies applied to them in order to make sense. I think current reading strategies and theory can be applied to Mormon texts just as they can to any other text out there. However, I think unique strategies can help create a inroad into Mormon literature, which may be difficult to find if the reader is unfamiliar with Mormonism or unfamiliar with Mormon literature. I see Mormon literary criticism as another way to assist readers in understanding Mormon texts individually and collectively.

    Also, because Mormon literary texts are dealing with Mormonism, I think they are doing something unique–just as other ethnic or quasi-ethnic literatures do something unique. This uniqueness, admittedly, has little to do with form or narrative structures–which, in Mormon literature, are fairly ordinary. Thematically, however, I think Mormon texts can pose a challenge to the unschooled, although I think most readers are sophisticated enough to read and understand Mormon texts sufficiently with just a cold reading. I think Mormon theory and criticism can help both Mormon and non-Mormon readers get more out of the text. I don't think a unique reading strategy should try to be definitive, but I do think it should energize the critical and reading community with what it suggests.

    The dearth of critical work is exciting to me too, but I also find it frustrating that so little of it is being done.

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