On Eliza R. Snow’s “To the Writers of Fiction”

Yesterday, as I was finishing my latest Enid comic, I came across Eliza R. Snow’s poem “To the Writers of Fiction,” which I had somehow missed while writing my dissertation. How this oversight happened is beyond me, and I only wish now that I had known about it nine months ago. It would have fit perfectly in the introduction–and maybe have provided a nice epigraph for the entire book. When I revise and publish it, I’m definitely finding a place for the poem.

Here it is in its entirety:

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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?

Do We Need to Walk a Tightrope?

I recently read Orson Scott Card’s “Walking the Tightrope” from A Storyteller in Zion. The title had not sounded familiar when I began reading, but by the end of the first paragraph, which references the controversy over Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, I remembered that I had, in fact, read the essay—and forgotten it completely.

“Walking the Tightrope” is positioned historically between the excommunication of Sonia Johnson in 1979 and the 1993 excommunication of the September Six, making it a contemporary voice in the late-twentieth-century Mormon culture wars. In the essay, Card compares the division between the Mormon intelligencia and the Church hierarchy over matters of intellectual freedom, particularly the breakdown of communication and understanding, with an apparently similar division within the Muslim community. Card suggests, in both instances, that the heated reactions from all sides stem from a failure to acknowledge fault in one’s own actions—and in forgetting that “the finger of blame points both ways.” More specifically, Card argues that Mormon intellectuals, as insiders, tend to know what buttons to push to get a rise from the hierarchy—much like Rushdie knew how to anger Muslims in his depictions of Mohammed in his novel—and therefore are partly responsible for the “clamping down” on “non-official voices in the Church” that occasionally happens. Furthermore, he goes on to suggest that the public too often rallies behind “non-official” voices that are unworthy of them. Rushdie is one example he gives, and Sonia Johnson is another. In both cases, Card sees insidious intents—deliberate efforts to upset, disrupt, corrupt, and offend. Such destructiveness, it seems, is at the heart of Card’s objections to them. For him, their words do nothing but tear down.

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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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Exploring Mormon Literature