Category Archives: Mormon fiction

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.

Continue reading More on Faithful Realism and the Problem with Classification

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Learning to “linger with the givenness of the present moment”: A Review of A Song for Issy Bradley

A surprising number of Mormon novels came out in 2014, but none of them seemed to receive as much attention as Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley. Admittedly, when I first learned about the novel, I yawned. Jenn Ashworth’s The Friday Gospels had just given us a novel about a dysfunctional Mormon family in the United Kingdom, so nothing about Issy Bradley seemed all that original. For this reason, perhaps, I took my time getting to the novel—a delay I now regret. While A Song for Issy Bradley is not the One Mighty and Strong Novel avid #MormonLit watchers are waiting for, it is an impressive addition to a growing list of well-written and finely-crafted twenty-first century Mormon novels.

A Song for Issy Bradley takes place within a small Mormon community in Southport, a coastal town in the United Kingdom. Its main characters, the Bradleys, are a typical LDS family with too many obligations and hardly any time to fulfill them. When the novel opens, their home is on the brink of bedlam. It is seven-year-old Jacob’s birthday, and his friends from school are coming over for a party. Ian, the family patriarch and ward bishop, is on his way out the door to tend to a chronically-needy ward member. This makes the morning more stressful for Claire, his wife, who feels the burden of her husband’s calling and struggles to meet cultural pressures that ask her “to make a willing sacrifice” of his presence (28). Ian, after all, is the kind of bishop who can’t refuse a petitioner. Although he has difficulty discerning the Spirit in his work, he tries to do everything by the book—literally, the Handbook of Instructions—and be there for people as “Jesus would do if he were here” (44). Unfortunately, that often means not being there for his own family, which frustrates Claire, a convert, who tends to be less rigid in her Mormon practice and belief.

Rounding out the Bradley family are their four children—Zippy, Alma, Jacob, and Issy—each named for characters in scripture.[i] Zippy, a teenager, is adrift in a sea of kitschy chastity object lessons and tactless admonitions to dress modestly. Alma, a deacon, is a rebel who would rather play soccer than pass the sacrament. Jacob, the seven-year-old, is a firm believer in the mystical world of the primary manual. And Issy, the youngest daughter, is the object of everyone’s love. She is the glue the holds them together.

Continue reading Learning to “linger with the givenness of the present moment”: A Review of A Song for Issy Bradley

Community and the Mormon Novel

I recently revised an essay on transnational Mormon novels after an editor requested that I clarify my definition of the Mormon novel prior to publication.  His view was that the Mormon novel was not a distinct genre, as I had suggested in the article, but rather a thematic concern that any author could address, regardless of his or her background or beliefs. I took this to be a valid point, but I felt like it sidelined the crucial role community plays in the creation of art and culture. For me, after all, Mormon themes would not exist without a community of people giving them life, shape, and direction.  

Here is how I clarified my position on the matter:

Because novels have been written by both Mormon insiders and outsiders, what qualifies as a “Mormon” novel remains ambiguous. The existence of different Mormon faith traditions independent of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also complicates the matter.

Throughout this essay I refer frequently to the Mormon novel as a distinct genre. I do so to understand it as a cultural product of the Mormon people rather than a product that views and treats Mormonism as a thematic concern alone. In doing so, I seek to distinguish works by and about Mormons from works about Mormons from those with no cultural or ideological ties to the community. For the purpose of this study, therefore, the Mormon novel is any novel produced by a writer to emerge from the Utah Latter-day Saint tradition that demonstrates an overt investment in Mormonism in its content and themes. While this definition remains inadequate on a number of levels—where, for example, would Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint fit within this definition?—it draws a clearer line of demarcation between works like Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, say, and David Ebershoff’s The Nineteenth Wife.

What do you think? Am I being unfair to the thematic camp? Is community affiliation really that necessary?

Beyond Faithful Realism: A Review of Steven L. Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell

Sometimes I worry about Mormon fiction. Thirty years ago or so, when I was still a toddler haunting the playgrounds of BYU married student housing, writers like Douglas Thayer and Levi Peterson were reinventing the Mormon novel and short story with Summer Fire and Canyons of Grace. These works, perhaps by design, were unlike anything written by Mormon writers before. Welding the unflinching realism and literary craft of the Mormon Modernists of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s with the faith-affirming perspectives of the Home Literature writers, Thayer and Peterson showed that Art and Faith could work together to create something as appealing to the spirit as it was to the mind and heart. In the years that followed, their work inspired a whole generation of faithful realists—from Margaret Blair Young to Todd Robert Petersen—to push the boundaries of Mormon storytelling. Today, literary Mormon fiction is better because of their pioneering work.
But it is also getting a bit tired.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the past few years have given us excellent new works of Mormon fiction—like Long after Dark, Bound on Earth, and The Death of a Disco Dancer. However, I’m beginning to get over the novelty of seeing American Mormon life realistically played out in literary fiction. Yes, yes, I want Faithful Realism to continue as long as it can, or as long as it ought to, but I think Mormon literary fiction needs some variety to keep it vibrant. Something that isn’t so by the book, so Faithful Realist. It needs something a little off-kilter.  
Something like Steven L. Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell.
For a long time I have harbored the suspicion that Steven L. Peck is staging a kind of coup d’etatwithin Mormon letters. In 2011, he published the AML award-winning The Scholar of Moab and was anthologized in both Monsters & Mormons and Fire in the Pasture. Last year, he followed these successes up with A Short Stay inHell (more about this in a moment), TheRifts of Rime (a YA fantasy novel about warrior squirrels), a practical sweep of the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest (read his stories here and here), and a series of off-beat blog posts chronicling the career of fictional Mormon writer Gilda Trillim. While I haven’t read all of Peck’s work, what I have read of it screams something fresh. I hate hyperbole, but Steven L. Peck might be the Moses of Mormon Letters in the Twenty-First Century. Aspiring Mormon fictionists need—I repeat: need—to pay attention to his exodus from Faithful Realism.
In my opinion, A Short Stay in Hell (Strange Violin Editions, 2012) is a good place to start. A deliberate homage to Borges (with a bit of Kafka and Book of Mormon thrown in), the novella centers on Soren Johansson, a Mormon geologist who dies from cancer and ends up in a Zoroasterian hell rather than the spirit paradise of Mormon scripture. For Johansson, the realization that the afterlife is not what he always imagined throws him into an existential crisis that is only exacerbated by the nature of the hell he finds himself in: a seemingly endless library wherein every book that has ever been written or could have been written can be found. Johansson’s task is to find the one book that describes his “earthly life story (without errors, e.g., in spelling, grammer, etc.)” and feed it through a designated slot so that he can gain entrance into heaven, which is lorded over by the Zoroasterian god Ahura Mazda. The task seems simple enough, but the simplicity of this hell is deceiving. A Short Stay in Hell is only 108 pages, but it covers billions of years.
Johansson’s search takes a long, long time.
The book, however, is not about Johansson’s search—not entirely. Upon arriving in hell, he is informed that he is there “to learn something,” but warned that he shouldn’t “try to figure out what it is” because doing so would only be “frustrating and unproductive” (19). A Short Stay in Hell, therefore, is partly about finding meaning after every traditional framework and superstructure of meaning has been exploded. Johansson and his fellow hellmates—all of whom are white Americans from the post-war era—grasp for meaning at every opportunity, wresting the least bit of sense from the absurd gibberish contained in most of the books in the library. To a certain extent, they bring some meaning to their lives by organizing exploratory expeditions, holding award ceremonies, creating makeshift Zoroasterian religions, and founding a university.  For the most part, though, these efforts are futile and hollow. As one character notes:
The absurdity of it has never left me. We can’t care about anything here. We can’t make a difference—all meaning has been subtracted, we don’t now where anything comes from or where it goes. There’s no context in our lives. We’re all white, equal ciphers, instances of the same absurdity repeated over and over. We try to scratch some hope or meaning out of it with our university, but ultimately there is nothing to attach meaning to. We’re damned. (65)
But the lives of those in A Short Stay in Hell are not always as bleak as this character makes them sound. True, much of what Johansson experiences in hell lives up to its name. (While there is no fire and brimstone—no real fire and brimstone, that is—there are plenty of bad people in hell, including a demagogue named Dire Dan, who terrorizes its inhabitants with a sadistically corrupt religion.) Even so, Johansson still finds friendship, love, and hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. In the end, these glimmers of light may not add up to much against the absurdity of hell and the despair it cultivates, but the novella seems to suggest that these good things matter, regardless of how small or weak they may be.
A Short Stay in Hell, therefore, is not just about one man’s journey through hell, but our journey through life—which itself can seem absurd and meaningless at times, particularly when super-storms wreck cities and lone gunmen massacre movie-goers and schoolchildren. If anything, it asks us to consider how we make meaning out of the chaos God gives us—and how we make God (or variations of God) out of the chaos. This, I think, is where A Short Stay in Hell departs from the realm of Faithful Realism. It is not the novella’s fantastic setting or implausible premise that separates it from so much of literary Mormon fiction, but the ambiguous stance it takes to faith, belief, and other such things we Saints hold dear. It is heretical, in a sense, but in the same way the Book of Mormon or the Book of Job or Ecclesiastes are heretical. It breaks firmly anchored paradigms in order to clear the way for something deeper and more meaningful to emerge. It gets us thinking about what we can do to make better meaning from the meaning we already have.
And that is what we need more Mormon fiction to do. 

500 Words on the Cultural Work of Mormon Fiction

In her book Sensational Designs, Jane Tompkins suggests that “novels and stories should be studied not because they manage to escape the limitations of their particular time and place, but because they offer powerful examples of the way a culture thinks about itself, articulating and proposing solutions for the problems that shape a particular historical moment” (xi).

Texts, in other words, perform cultural work. They both reflect “the way a culture thinks about itself” and participate in what I call cultural projects, or efforts toward cultural change.
Along with individual texts, literary movements perform cultural work. In an earlier post, for example, I have suggested that the cultural work of late Home Literature was to aid Mormonism’s transition from a regional polygamist religious sect to a more mainstream American religion. One could also argue that the cultural work of early Home Literature essentially performed the opposite: the fierce defense of polygamy as a signifier of Mormon identity.
Home Literature—or what some label as Home Literature—continues to this day in the form of popular Mormon fiction. These texts, of course, perform a cultural work, but it’s a work that does little more than affirm the status quo. At best, they display a kind of squeaky-clean cleverness of style; at worst, they are generically derivative fluff that currently has no relevant voice in Mormonism’s current cultural projects.  
But I don’t see this new kind of Home Literature as Home Literature in the tradition of Nephi Anderson and his contemporaries, even though its aesthetic seems very similar. What the cultural project of Mormonism needed in 1911, when it still needed to convince all of America that it wasn’t a “weird and sinister” cult, was very different from what it needs now as the Church is transitioning into a more diverse world religion. Arguably, popular Mormon fiction is feeding into a dead cultural project.
So-called Faithful Realism is, in many ways, the real descendent of the Home Literature tradition primarily because it is performing relevant cultural work that is, to borrow from Tompkins, “articulating and proposing solutions for the problems” that are shaping Mormonism’s “particular historical moment.” Central to this work, I think, is Faithful Realism’s interest in broader definitions of Mormon identity and experience.
Interestingly, the end of Faithful Realism’s cultural relevance is in sight. Twenty-five years ago, when The Backslider was published, it was subversive in its insistence on the primacy of Christ’s grace in the Plan of Salvation. Now, all that’s subversive about it is its rejection of a CleanFlicks aesthetic. More recently, Long After Dark and the fiction anthology Dispensation seemed subversive in their depictions of atypical Mormon experiences. Now, these works are beginning to seem like slightly edgier versions of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign.
Am I wrong to suggest that the cultural work of Faithful Realism is becoming a less subversive voice in Mormonism’s current cultural project? Is it possible that Faithful Realism will soon* fall in step with the new status quo and become irrelevant?
* Within twenty years or so?
   

500 Words on Why Mormon Fiction Should Avoid Utopian Spaces

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “Utopia” as “[a] place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.”  The original terms, of course, derives from Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book, Utopia, which describes how such a place would be run.  
Today, when we talk about utopian spaces, we are generally referring to safe-havens perfectly suited for people who have been screwed over by society. Early in Mormon history, Joseph Smith and his followers attempted to build utopian spaces in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Later, Brigham Young and the pioneers tried again in Utah and its surrounding regions. In each case, the Saints came up short. 
Today, the Mormon utopian dream is a dream deferred, although remnants of it still exist prominently in such practices as tithing, temple work, service, Church welfare, and home and visiting teaching. While these practices do much to ease the burdens of the persecuted and create a more utopian space, they are not perfect.
Zion is still yet to be redeemed.
In “realistic” fiction, utopian spaces occasionally pop up. For instance, in John Steinbeck’s excellent Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family visits the Weedpatch Camp, an idyllic government-run haven for migrant workers in California. For the Joads, as well as for Steinbeck’s readers, the Weedpatch Camp presents the perfect remedy for the squalid living conditions, abuses, and exploitations that workers were then subjected to.  The suggestion is that if there were more places like the Weedpatch Camp, families like the Joads would be able to stay together and survive.
In many ways, the Weedpatch Camp episode injects much needed hope and idealism in an otherwise bleak novel. At the same time, however, something about Steinbeck’s depiction of it makes it seem a little too perfect and idyllic—and that kind of perfection is suspicious to me.  As a reader, I’m happy that the Joads find a clean, safe place to stay for a while. But, at the same time, I also want a whole picture. What’s the other side to the Weedpatch Camp?
My point is this: perfect places don’t exist in this life and safe-havens are not without dangers of their own.  When we begin to believe otherwise, we take our first steps toward disillusionment, disappointment, betrayal, and apostasy. As Mormons, we believe that nothing can currently exist without the influence of some kind opposition. Our goal, therefore, is not to be rid of opposition—i.e. achieve a perfect state—but to exist well despite of it. Of course, this means that everything we do or are, every space that we make, will be imperfect, subject to dissolution.  Real spaces are flawed.
Realistic Mormon fiction should avoid the lie of utopian spaces—especially when they’re meant to be uniquely Mormon.  Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming the worst kind of inspiration fiction—the candy fluff that seeks to “pacify, and lull [readers] away into carnal security,” leading them to believe that “All is well in Zion.”  

Small-Press Mormon Fiction

When I tell people that I study Mormon literature, I usually get one of two responses:

1. From Non-Mormons: Really? I didn’t know there was such a thing.
2. From Mormons: Like what? Twilight?
In many ways, both responses are really just different ways of saying the same thing. Non-Mormons, of course, tend not to know much about the church in the first place–aside from its associations with polygamy and what they see on the evening news or HBO–so I’m not too surprised by their response. And, to be sure, I’m not that surprised by the responses of my fellow Mormons. While we generally know a great deal about our church and its doctrines, we don’t generally familiarize ourselves with the creative output of its members. We know the big names, but not the little ones.
Already I know some people are going to object. “I know Mormon literature is more than Twilight,” they’ll say. They get the Deseret Books catalog in the mail. They’ve hung a Greg Olsen painting on the wall. They’ve read (and enjoyed!) Glenn Beck’s most recent novel. So, there you have it.
Well, actually, there you don’t have it.
Admittedly, what I’m about to say may sound elitist, but it’s not (or, at least, it’s not trying to be). In fact, I have nothing against popular Mormon culture, or any kind of popular culture, really. I believe that culture is culture, popular or otherwise, so everything is worthy of consumption and study. (For the record, I’ve read and written seriously about all four Twilight novels and even cried while watching the film version of Charly.) However, I tend to lament (especially on long car ride or sleepless nights) that certain aspects of Mormon creative cultural are not more widely known and studied.
One such aspect is small-press Mormon fiction (I say “small-press” to avoid the more problematic and divisive term “literary,” although I readily recognize that “small-press” has its own problems). While these books are abundant indeed, few are reading them. I’d hate to have it said that Mormon fiction underwent a renaissance that no one noticed.
So, why aren’t they being read? For the moment, I’m not entirely sure. Some of it, perhaps, is their lack of visibility. You won’t find these books on the shelves of your local bookstores–at least not anywhere outside of Utah and Idaho. Another reason, perhaps, is content, since they tend to deal with themes and issues that don’t make for light Sunday reading. Also, judging from reviews of these books on Amazon.com, readers either see them as “too Mormon” or “not Mormon enough” (which seems to boil down to the number of four-letter words in the book, although I hope I’m over-simplifying things). Maybe, after looking more into the matter, I’ll have a better answer.
Of course, I’m new to these books too; in fact, it’s only been over the past year that I’ve begun to take them seriously. It could be that most of them suck (no vampire pun intended). However, what I’ve read of them is promising. If you want a good place to start, check out the short story collection Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, edited by Angela Hallstrom and published by Zarahemla Books.
Also, to be a better advocate of Mormon fiction, I’m going to be reading several Mormon novels and reviewing them here. I hope you will find the reviews useful.