A Review of the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz

photo (6)All finalists for the Mormon Lit Blitz have been posted and voting begins today. Remember that you need to vote for your FOUR favorite finalists. Incomplete votes will not count. Voting instructions can be found on the Mormon Artist blog.

Admitting bias, I think this year’s finalists have been the strongest we’ve seen of the three Lit Blitzes. The abundance of fiction may be what tipped the scale for me, as last year’s competition seemed too poetry-heavy for my tastes. This year we have three fine poems and one prose poem, Marianne Hales Harding’s “Platinum Tears,” all of which serve as strong representatives for the world of Mormon poetry. (We’re yet to see how many more poems made it as semi-finalists.) Of the short stories, I feel all of them are strong pieces that convey an evident, timely optimism about the Church and its people. This even includes Stephen Carter’s brilliant and terrifying “Slippery,” my favorite finalist, which uses magical realism to satirize the materialism of a small Utah community (and the American church as a whole). By paralleling modern Mormons with greedy Book of Mormon Nephites in a way that is alarmingly accurate, Carter’s story reminds us that Samuel the Lamanite’s admonitions against avarice remain relevant and applicable even to those who profess the True Gospel of Christ (see Helaman 13:31). Like the Nephites, “Slippery” suggests, we can fall prey to our unrighteous desires if we persist in holding tightly to them. Hope comes in knowing that we are not yet as slippery-fisted as the foolish characters in the story—and still have time to change our ways.

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A Motley Vision Turns Ten: A Q&A with William Morris

This Month A Motley Vision, the first (and still the best!) Mormon arts and culture blog, turns ten years old. To commemorate the occasion, I sent AMV founder William Morris a few questions about the the blog and how it has evolved over the last decade. 

Here are his answers:

Scott Hales: Take us back ten years. How did A Motley Vision get its start? What motivated you to create the blog?

William Morris: In early 2004 I found out about Times & Seasons from Clark Goble, who I knew from our mutual participation in the Association for Mormon Letters email list. I quickly became a frequent commenter on T&S. It’s funny — I had known about blogs for years because I work in higher ed PR, but it had never occurred to me to look to blogs to discuss Mormonism, especially since I was most interested in Mormon art, and that need was filled by the AML-list.

Later that spring, the the technology behind the AML-list melted down. Apparently, that got sorted out within a couple of weeks, but I never got the news. So I continued to comment on T&S and the other Mormon blogs that were popping up and before long had decided that the bloggernacle needed a Mormon culture blog. I re-found the AML-list before AMV launched, but the limitations of that technology and format were much more clear to me now that I had experienced the bloggernacle so I went ahead with my plans for AMV.

My motivations were twofold: a) I had things I wanted to say and b) I wanted there to be a place in the bloggernacle specifically dedicated to Mormon literature and art.

SH: AMV is a group blog, but it is also your brainchild. How have your interests, personality, and values shaped the voice of the blog?

WM: I think it’s that simple: AMV represents the nexus of my interests, personality and values. It represents the conversation I want to have. And as I recruited co-bloggers, I reached out to the voices that engaged with and seemed to want to talk to me. But I suppose at the center has always been my conviction that culture is important to Mormonism in the 21st century; that Mormon culture needs a radical middle; and that AMV should be a voice for the radical middle. And, of course, that humor should be deployed whenever possible.

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Rereading “Prophets and Assimilationists”

This is possibly the first in a series of posts that respond to and reevaluate essays in Orson Scott Card’s A Storyteler in Zion: Essays and Speeches. 

Shortly after I returned home from my mission, I purchased a copy of Orson Scott Card’s A Storyteller in Zion: Essays and Speeches at the BYU-Idaho bookstore. I was already semi-familiar with Card’s work from reading Saints and Folk of the Fringe before my mission, and, because I wanted to write fiction, Storyteller seemed like the go-to text for learning how to write fiction as a Mormon. I must not have read much of the book, though, because most of the essays in the table of contents seem new to me today. Was “Walking the Tightrope” really in there before?

The exceptions are Card’s essays “The Problem of Evil in Fiction,” which was fundamental in my early education in creative writing as a Mormon, and “Prophets and Assimilationists,” which resonated a great deal with me as a recently returned missionary. Specifically, I was impressed by Card’s unequivocal condemnation of those who chose the “World” and its standards over the “Church” and its standards. Also, his denunciation—practically an exposé, it seemed—of contemporary American literature and critical theory rang true. For me, Card wrote as a real Mormon iconoclast. When he asserted that “the true revolutionaries within the Church are those who are radically orthodox, not those who are loudly assimilationist,” I was ready to take up the cause and follow him (155).

Rereading the essay more than a decade later, I am still impressed by Card’s passionate defense of radical orthodoxy, but I don’t feel the same fervor to second his opinions about Mormon assimilation as I once did. I see now, after all, that “Prophets and Assimilationists” is less a carefully-crafted essay than a rather anecdotal response to what we might call Free-Press Mormonism, making the essay something of a forerunner to the twenty-first-century Mormon blog post. As such, it relies more on emotional reaction than solid reasoning. It is an essay of and for a particular moment and nuance seems to have been the price Card paid for the moral urgency of his tone. Furthermore, it is grounded on a number of assumptions that seem weak or inaccurate. For example, Card posits a clean line between those who follow the counsel of prophets and apostles and those who seek, as he puts it, “to change gospel ideals and customs until it is possible to be a ‘Mormon’ without ever having to go through the embarrassment of being different from the non-Mormons they admire” (153). For Card, people seem to fall into one or the other camp based on their spoken or unspoken desires, with apparently no middle ground. It is simply either Church or the World.

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On Mormon Writers and Cultural Tithing

All the TruthJulie Berry’s’ All the Truth That’s in Me (Viking 2013) is this year’s Whitney Award winner in the Best Young Adult General Novel category. It has been well-reviewed by the New York Times , The GuardianPublisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. It has also received a number of other national honors, including an Edgar Award nomination.

The novel tells the story of Judith, a young woman who cannot speak because half of her tongue has been sliced from her mouth. How and why she was mutilated in this way remains a mystery for much of the novel, although Judith’s stark and haunting narration makes it clear that it has something to do with Colonel Whiting, a shadowy outcast from her village who had kidnapped and held her captive for two years. When the novel opens, Judith’s captivity is a thing of the past, although the physical and emotional scars it left are ever-present in Judith’s interactions with her family and village, a Puritan-esque community called Roswell Station. Her daily life consists of subsistence living, silently doing chores to keep her struggling, fatherless family from starvation. Because of her muteness—and unanswered questions about her captivity—she is a curiosity with a dubious reputation. Most in her village, including her embittered mother, doubt her intelligence and virtue.

The draw of the novel is Judith herself. Wounded but strong, she wants the dignity and respect everyone wants from their neighbors. Helping her achieve that dignity are her few close friends: Maria, who gives her confidence to speak despite her damaged tongue, and Lucas, the son of her kidnapper. In fact, it is to Lucas, whom she loves, that the novel’s narration is directed. Written in second person, as a kind of love letter and confession to Lucas, the novel has an intimate voice that is honest and uninhibited. Through it, we get a portrait of Roswell Station not from its center of power, but from the margins—where the forgotten and ignored reside. It is a perspective any teenage reader can relate to.

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Mormon Lit Blitz Longlist

Today’s most important news in the Mormon literary world is the announcement of the longlist of Mormon Lit Blitz finalists. The list can be found on Mormon Artist, the host for this year’s Blitz. Among the finalists are some familiar names from past competitions, including past winner Merrijane Rice, as well as some newcomers. Also, there are a few names on the list that I have never heard of, which is always a good thing in the world of Mormon arts and literature.

My short story “Living Scriptures” made the list. It has significant Book of Mormon elements in it, which seems to be a thing among some of this year’s semi-finalists.

I wish I could read all twenty-four, but only twelve will make it to the final round. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if the Lit Blitz coordinators released a commemorative e-book of all the semi-finalist works? I’d buy it for $2.99.

 

Mormon Tragedy Revisited, Part II

Since finishing my post on Mormon tragedy for Dawning of a Brighter Day, I’ve been thinking more about the relationship between authors and characters. As I stated in the post, Mormon tragedy is (likely) only possible if we are willing to damn our characters–by which I mean I think we must be willing to let them step off the path towards exaltation and stay there. Following the essay I cited by Adam Miller, this stepping off can have much to do with the way  characters respond to conflict: do they face them in the present moment or do they reject and flee from them? Tragedy, I concluded, occurs when characters run from the grace of Christ–or that which has the potential to redeem them.

If this is the case, I don’t see a great deal of tragedy in Mormon fiction–at least among primary characters. Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, for example, is one of a Mormon literature’s best studies of suffering and pain, but it’s ultimately hopeful message, which affirms everyone’s dependence on grace, makes it a somber comedy. The same is likewise true about Levi Peterson’s The Backslider and Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises (the latter being a kind of rewriting of the former), as both novels depict the journeys of characters who step off and then return to the path of exaltation. Indeed, if there is any Mormon novel that affirms the sanctity of the present as givenness, it is The Backslider and its life-affirming and life-advocating Cowboy Jesus. The same is true for Steven Peck’s often bleak A Short Stay in Hell, which, despite its rather tragic feel, ends with Soren Johannsen’s affirmation of purpose in his search for way out of the hell in which he finds himself.

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Introducing Artistic Preaching

APFor a while I’ve been wanting to resume regular posing on my , Mormon literature blog, The Low-Tech Worldbut I’ve put it off for a number of reasons–the first of which being that I find the blogger platform somewhat clunky and inconvenient compared to other platforms, like Tumblr and WordPress.

I’ve also been wanting to start more or less from scratch with a new Mormon literature blog with a name that makes reference to Mormon literary traditions. When I started The Low-Tech World, after all, it was a personal blog where I posted about whatever was on my mind. After it gained a readership among Mormon lit enthusiasts, however, I turned it into a forum specifically devoted to Mormon literature and culture–but retained the old name, which had absolutely nothing to do with Mormonism or literature.

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Best and Worst Reads of 2013

Unless I finish Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis before midnight tonight, I will have read 49 books this year. That’s down significantly from last year, but in my defense I’ve been working full-time on my dissertation, which has left little time for reading books (and writing blog posts) that are unrelated to the project. So most of what I’ve read in 2013 have been for the dissertation or for the two literature classes I’ve taught this year.

As usual, I’m listing the five fiction and five non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed best this year–and the five books–fiction or non-fiction–I’ve enjoyed…er…least. Books I’ve read before are not included in the lists.

Best Fiction Reads of 2013
1. The Age of Innocence–Edith Wharton
2. McTeague–Frank Norris
3. Byuck–Theric Jepson
4. The Scholar of Moab–Steven L. Peck
5. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint–Brady Udall

Honorable Mentions:
Lightning Tree–Sarah Dunster
Aspen Marooney–Levi S. Peterson
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets–Stephen Crane

Best Non-Fiction Reads of 2013
1. The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation–Armand Mauss
2. What of the Night?–Stephen Carter
3. The Mountain Meadows Massacre–Juanita Brooks
4. The God Who Weeps–Terryl and Fiona Givens
5. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930–Thomas G. Alexander

Worst Reads of 2013
1. Redemption Road–Toni Sorenson Brown
2. The Ferry Woman–Gerald Grimmett
3. American Massacre–Sally Denton
4. Elders–Ryan McIlvain
5. Falling Toward Heaven–John S. Bennion

To be fair to both Bennion and McIlvain, I gained more appreciation for their books after writing about them in my dissertation. Still, it’s been a great year of reading–without a lot of clear duds–and I’ve got to have a list of five. They take their spots by default. Neither are anywhere close to being as bad as my top three worst.

Connor’s Q&A with Author L. T. Downing

My daughter recently had a chance to ask author L. T. Downing questions about her historical novel for kids, Adventures of the Restoration: Get That Gold! Here are L. T. Downing’s responses:

Connor Hales: How do you come up with ideas when you write your books? 

L. T. Downing: The ideas for the Adventures of the Restoration series came because I love history and storytelling. I have read a lot of history books about the early days of the church, but those books were too boring to read to my own children. So I began telling them about the really amazing things that went on during the Restoration period. Next thing I knew, I was writing those stories down.

CH: When did you decide that you were going to become a writer? 

LTD: I remember the moment I decided to be a writer like it was yesterday. I was four years old. When I was a baby, I never learned to crawl and a very famous baby doctor had written a book that claimed that babies who never crawl are likely to have trouble learning to read. My mother was worried I wouldn’t be a good reader so she started teaching me as soon as I turned four. To her surprise, I took to it very quickly. One day I was sitting with her on the edge of my parents’ bed, reading a story that had a big red can in it. My mom kept telling me there was no red can in the story. I got mad and kept pointing to the word. “C-A-N,” I said. Then she pointed to the last letter and asked me to look again. Well, can you believe it? The word was spelled “C-A-R.” The big redcar. Not can. I was astonished that changing one little letter at the end of word could change the entire meaning. That’s when my mom said, “When you grow up, you can go to college and study English. And if you want, you can become a writer.” Bam! Decision made. At the age of four, I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful—and powerful—than creating meaning by arranging letters into words and words into sentences and sentences into books. I still think that. 

CH: Was it fun writing the book? 

LTD: YES! There is nothing that is more fun than writing books for kids. Except for Halloween. And Christmas is pretty good too. 

CH: How long did it take to get your book published? 

LTD: Don’t ask! I wrote Get that Gold! and the next book in the Adventures of the Restoration series (The Pilfered Papers) when my oldest child, who is twenty-four now, was about ten years old. I mailed the manuscript to two LDS publishers in existence then. I was told that the first publisher to whom I sent it would take it, but, in the end, the person with the final word rejected it. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea to publish a novel with Joseph Smith as the point of view character. After all, no one knows exactly what Joseph Smith was thinking when those men in the woods attacked him. I guess the publisher thought kids might get confused and not understand what fictionalized history is. But personally, I think kids are really smart. The other publisher I sent it too didn’t seem to understand that it was written for young people because they sent me a nice letter explaining how I should make the work much, much longer and more like The Work and the Glory series, which was written for adults and has books that are hundreds and hundreds of pages long. I felt sad that they wouldn’t publish the Adventures of the Restoration series because I really felt like Heavenly Father inspired me to write them. But I also figured I’d just trust Heavenly Father and move on to the next thing. Your mom and dad will probably tell you that God’s time schedule is not the same as ours. They are right. Nearly fifteen years after writing Get that Gold!, it found a publisher. 

CH: How did you become interested in Joseph Smith? 

LTD: I became interested in Joseph Smith when I was fourteen years old. Before then, I’d never heard of him. I was raised in the Catholic church. But I began hearing about Mormons when I was in eighth grade, so I looked them up in the encyclopedia. That was the first place I learned about the First Vision. I went to the public library and checked out a Book of Mormon. I did a lot of praying and received a testimony of the work of Joseph Smith. I always thought he was very brave. I know sometimes I was scared about joining the church because my family and other people didn’t believe that the gospel needed restoring. I spent a lot of time thinking about how brave Joseph Smith had to be to do what he did. He wasn’t a perfect man. He made mistakes. We all do. But he is my hero. So it helps my testimony stay strong to think about the hard things he had to do so we could have the gospel of Jesus Christ restored to the earth. 

Mormon Literature: A Sunny Outlook

By now everyone has read Mark Oppenheimer’s article on Mormon literature in the New York Times. Typical in its approach, it highlights Mormon successes in genre fiction and offers a few explanations for why these successes happen and why they aren’t more forthcoming in a Mormon-flavored “Realist literature for adults.” The reasons he puts forth seem to be as follows: Mormons are uncomfortable with realism, Mormons are afraid of “church disapproval,” and Mormons are culturally geared towards a “sunny outlook” that privileges uplifting narratives over realistic literature that presents sex, violence, and swearing without judgment and moralizing.
In his eloquent and insightful response to this article, George Handley rightly calls Oppenheimer out on these reasons, particularly the notion that literary greatness is some alchemic mixture of “great suffering,” book sales, and national recognition. Mormon writers, Handley suggest, have made great strides irrespective of these factors, and will likely keep doing so “before the rest of the world notices.” For him, rather, Mormons have “underachieved” in the realm of realistic Mormon literature—or “Great Mormon Literature”—as a result of a number of cultural flaws: their reliance on “triumphalist rhetoric,” a “thirst after quick and easy forms of [cultural] vindication,” and rather narrow ideas “about what constitutes a Mormon identity.” In making this argument, he seems to echo Samuel W. Taylor’s 46-year-old claim that Mormon literature is the captive of “positive-thinkers,” or public-relations-minded Mormons who police their people’s output for the sake of pleasing and appeasing public opinion. He also suggests—taking a cue, perhaps, from Nephi Anderson’s account of the artist in Zion—that Mormons need to do a better job of being a community that cares for (and about) its artists—including artists whose works are neither nationally recognized nor compatible with the ideology and aesthetics of “positive-thinking” Mormons.  
Overall, I agree with Handley’s assessment of the present state of Mormon literature (if not his conclusions) as much as I regret that Oppenheimer’s article was not more broadly informed about Mormon literature. (Setting aside the Terry Tempest Williams faux-pas, the problem of Oppenheimer’s article boils down to the issue of sources.)  Still, I challenge the assumption—apparent in both pieces—that Mormon literature is somehow underachieving. True, Mormons have not, as Oppenheimer suggests, produced a Milton, Milosz, or Munro—but they have produced an Anderson, Sorenson, Scowcroft, Peterson, Udall, and Peck. Is this not an achievement—indeed, an over-achievement compared to communities with similar backgrounds? Moreover, I wonder if the cultural flaws Handley identifies as Mormon literature’s chief stumbling blocks are not in reality the source of its strength—the resistance against which it pushes and hones its muscles. After all, were it not for the triumphalist rhetoric, the thirst for vindication, the narrow view of Mormon identity, and the “positive-thinkers” of Mormonism, Mormon writers could not not have written iconic and iconoclastic books like Dorian, The Evening and the Morning, The Backslider, and The Scholar of Moab. Nor could Mormon writers have filled the pages of Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, Fire in the PastureMonsters and Mormons, and Saints on Stage. The truth is, Mormon writers need these cultural flaws—these walls of resistance—to make the utopian critique that is so crucial to what’s Mormon about Mormon literature.
Personally, I am not worried about the past, present, or future of Mormon literature. Having spent the better part of the past three years with Mormon literature, I know its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Give it time. Let it temper in the refining fire of cultural flaws. It has done well for itself over the last one hundred and eighty-three years. And it will continue to do so as long as Mormon writers keep at it and don’t let the hand-wringers discourage them. Setbacks, like the recent demise of Irreantum, will slow the momentum at times, but they will not kill it. Like the Church itself, Mormon literature has survived assimilation, correlation, and a host of other paradigm shifts. If Mormonism and its cultural flaws can produce the likes of The Backslider and The Scholar of Moab in a period of twenty-five years, why should we not expect them to do the same, with even better results, in the seventeen years remaining till the bicentennial? And why should we not expect them to continue informing great Mormon literature for another two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years?
What I’ve read of Mormon literature, what I know about Mormonism and Mormon writers, gives me nothing but a “sunny outlook” on its future.

Exploring Mormon Literature