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
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.
Continue reading Mormon Tragedy Revisited, Part II