More on Faithful Realism and the Problem with Classification

Recently, I’ve had a few people ask me to clarify my understanding of “Faithful Realism.” Here are some of my thoughts on the term:

As a classification of Mormon literature, “Faithful Realism” came into vogue in the late twentieth century. Both Eugene England and Richard Cracroft used the term to describe Mormon fiction that placed a greater emphasis on depicting the concrete world, rather than supernatural experience, while approaching and presenting Mormonism from an essentially “faithful” perspective. They did so to set contemporary literary efforts apart from the earlier works of the “Lost Generation” of Mormon writers, like Vardis Fisher and Virginia Sorensen, whose writings arguably conveyed a less-faithful (or “lost”) perspective.

The more experience I get with “Faithful Realism,” though, the more uncomfortable I am with the term. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I disagree with the practice of classifying Mormon writers and works by the degree of testimony they espouse—or seem to espouse—because doing so asks us to privilege one approach to Mormon belief over another and draw firmer lines than are necessary and desirable between the works of writers who are practicing Mormons, cultural Mormons, and all the other kinds of Mormons in between. One reason I like the term “Home Literature” over other classifiers is that, despite its historical associations with missionary work and Mormon propaganda, is the way it posits Mormonism as a home writers write from and to. Both “Lost Generation” and “Faithful Realism,” however, suggest a kind of fall and redemption of Mormon literary output—leading the reader and critic to approach them as such at the expense of richer, more nuanced readings.

At the same time, I think “Faithful Realism” is a useful classifer for what it says about the cultural work that some works from that era (roughly 1965-2005) were trying to perform. However, I believe it becomes less useful the more we try to make it a blanket term for the era—and the more we try to make it an unexamined or uncontested descriptor of the work’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

For me, “Faithful Realism” is a useful term when it describes what we might also call the Signature Books School, or works of fiction that sought to make a case for a more liberal approach to post-World War II American Mormonism. A response to the more conservative reforms of the correlation movement, these works (many of which Signature published) tried to wrest the term “faithful” out of the monopolizing hands of hardline advocates to show that one could take a softer, more liberal-accommodationist approach to Mormonism and still be faithful to the Kingdom. Often, these works were critical of the Church and its members, but with the utopian potential for inspiring and ideally effecting internal reforms. Examples of this kind of Faithful Realism are Linda Sillitoe’s Sideways to the Sun, Levi Peterson’s Aspen Marooney, John Bennion’s Falling toward Heaven, and (as a late example) Todd Robert Petersen’s Rift.

The best of these works (Aspen Marooney, Rift) execute the rhetorical aims of “Faithful Realism” admirably, even if their impact on American Mormonism has not (yet) been significant. The worst, on the other hand, tend to be polemics disguised as fiction—preachy tales that are ideological different from the Deseret Book School, but still guilty of the same literary “offense” of didacticism. Both the best and worst of “Faithful Realism,” however, are equally worthy of our study. They offer important insights into our understanding of late twentieth-century Mormonism and ongoing debates on the roles of the artist in Mormonism and the Mormon artist in mainstream host cultures.

Understanding “Faithful Realism” this narrower way, to be sure, asks that we leave some works out. The fiction of Douglas Thayer, for example, does not fit well within my notion of “Faithful Realism” except as a conservative variation of the norm. The Backslider, likewise, is a poor fit because its playful retreat from realism is, as far as Mormon fiction is concerned, thirty years ahead of its time. For me, these works are simply examples of late twentieth-century Home Literature that do something other than Faithful Realist titles. I see in both Thayer and The Backslider, that is, the impulse to inspire reform within Mormonism, but not the same rhetorical positioning and reluctance to engage and privilege the spiritual that we often see in more typical examples of “Faithful Realism.”

Of course, the problem with classifications like “Faithful Realism”–or any literary classification, really–is that their uses are limited. They help teachers and critics talk about similar writers and works as a unit, and they sometimes act as useful guides for readers who are looking for more of what they like, but the generalizations they foster tend to collapse as readers and critics approach individual works with more nuance. Personally, I like classifications for the way they ease big-picture conversations about literature, but I dislike how they sometimes draw readers and critics away from the individual offerings of specific texts.

I wish, in other words, that I could read Virginia Sorensen without thinking about her “Lost Generation.”

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One thought on “More on Faithful Realism and the Problem with Classification”

  1. I really appreciate this. One of my (too many) side projects right now is Virginia Sorensen (as Danish-American). She was completely different than the way I expected her to be based on what I read about her works as a part of the “Lost Generation”. The result is that it’s made me a bit wary of that generation of critics. I haven’t gotten around to Whipple or Fisher yet, though.

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