In this week’s episode of WWE, we’re pleased to present our first guest post! The author is Scott Hales, a PhD candidate in English at the University of Cincinnati who is “in the process of starting a dissertation” (aren’t we all?) on the contemporary Mormon novel. Scott writes a personal Mormon literature blog called The Low-Tech World and contributes to the Mormon lit group blog Dawning of a Brighter Day.
In her book A Poetics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon finds the traditional divide between history and literature problematic because both not only depend on “verisimilitude” rather than “objective truth,” but also are constructed in ways that incorporate conventional storytelling techniques and existing texts in a complex manner. She likewise points out that the divide becomes especially problematic when you remember that “history” and “fiction” are “themselves historical terms and that their definitions and interrelations are historically determined and vary with time” (105).
The constructedness of this divide—and its blurriness—is no surprise to anyone who studies history or literature. In my own work as a literary critic and scholar, I’ve learned that I can never spend too long in a literary text without delving into history. So much of contemporary literary studies, after all, has to do both with what a literary text says and what it does or performs as a material text within culture. To get by, today’s literary critic must be willing to see the text as an open product of its world. This requires him or her to treat literary texts as historical texts and vice versa.
Troubling the divide between history and literature makes some uneasy. Mormons, for example, privileged history over literature early on not only because it was sanctioned by revelation (see D&C 47:1), but also because it purported to be true. Literature, on the other hand, played loosely with facts—if it played with them at all—and was therefore suspect. John Henry Evans suggested as much, at least, in his introduction to Nephi Anderson’s 1912 novel Piney Ridge Cottage when he argued that “We [Mormons] are a sober, an earnest, almost a puritan people, and it is hard for us to exercise patience with that which is not fact, and we forget that artistic truth may be really higher than mere fact” (3-4).
One hundred years later, this attitude is less prevalent in Mormon culture, yet traces of it remain. The current CES institute manual for the Old Testament, for example, uses the following excerpt from a 1978 talk by Keith H. Meservy to prove the veracity of the Book of Job narrative:
There are other reasons for regarding Job as an historical person but, to me, the most decisive criterion in this regard, is the fact that when Joseph Smith and his people were in great distress, and Joseph Smith went to the Lord and said, ‘Oh God, where art thou? Where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place.’ The Lord responded to his appeal for help by saying, ‘my son, peace be to thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high . . . Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgressions, as they did Job’ ( D&C 121:7–10, emphasis added). Now, if Job were not real and his suffering, therefore, were merely the figment of some author’s imagination, and Joseph Smith on the other hand was very real, and his suffering and that of his people were not imaginary, then for the Lord to chide him because his circumstances were not as bad as Job’s were, would provide an intolerable comparison, since one cannot compare real with unreal things. On the other hand, since the Lord did make the comparison, it must be a real one. I would, therefore, conclude on this basis alone, that Job was a very real person.
Merservy’s underlying assumptions here are that “one cannot compare real with unreal things” and that God would never do something so “intolerable” as mix fact and fiction. Never mind that Jesus compared “real with unreal things” every time he gave a parable about a fictional prodigal son or Lazarus safe and sound in Abraham’s bosom (see Luke 15.11-32, 16.19-31).
Interestingly, Mormon literary studies, while never at a complete standstill, have not thrived the way Mormon historical studies have in recent years. Engaging books on Mormon history are published monthly, it seems, and journalistic pieces on Mormonism regularly name-drop people like Patrick Mason, Matthew Bowman, Jan Shipps, and Kathleen Flake. Books about Mormon literature are less forthcoming, however, even though new Mormon literary works—novels, novellas, short stories, poems, plays, and films—are abundant. Terryl L. Givens’ People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (2007, Oxford UP) and Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin’s Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (2010, Utah State UP), of course, devote excellent chapters to Mormon literature, yet similar works are scarce.
One reason for this scarcity, perhaps, is Mormon cultural unease about “that which is not fact,” which maybe results in a tendency not to take imaginative literature as seriously as literature that claims to be factual. Another possible reason could be the aesthetic stigma attached to Mormon literature, which I encounter frequently when I write or talk about Mormon fiction, poetry, and drama with those unacquainted with the field.
The stigma is apparent in comments on a Mormon literature post I wrote last year for the blog Modern Mormon Men. One reader, for instance, said that “[…] it’s nearly impossible to find LDS literature that doesn’t bleach us out to the point of being thoroughly artificial.” Another reader similarly stated that she “always thought LDS fiction was that Anita Stansfield-type…um, stuff.” You can also find the stigma articulated in a post from earlier this year on The Millennial Star titled “Why I Don’t Read Mormon Fiction.” In this post, the author posits that Mormon literature is either “the cringe worthy fluff of Mormon publishers” or the “salacious” stuff of “national publishing”—hardly an accurate view of the range of existing Mormon literature.
These notions about Mormon literature are not new. In 1969, Mormon literary critic Karl Keller argued in Dialogue that Mormons “do not seem to have much faith in words as a creative force, in writing as a creative act, in literature as a part of an on-going creation” (14). And one of their chief delusions, he claimed, was “the insistence on sweetness and light in the things [they] read and the things [they] write”:
This delusion, more than any of the others, has been held by most editors and contributors to the Improvement Era, Relief Society Magazine, and the Instructor, so that almost everything that is published in the church is a nonliterature, a nonentity, even (as literature) nonsense. (20)
Real literature, he suggested, was something altogether different:
[…] literature is essentially anarchic, rebellious, shocking, analytical, critical, deviant, absurd, subversive, destructive. It attempts to destroy institutions; it challenges individual settled faith; it will disrupt all of life. The meek and the mild should not read it. The strong will be upset and uprooted by it. But it provides the service of making surer the grounds of one’s belief. (20)
Keller, of course, was writing within the context of New Critical training and the revolutionary 1960s, neither of which were very sympathetic of the kind of literature that appeared in The Improvement Era. In other essays, Keller and others specifically attacked the works of Nephi Anderson, whose novels, short stories, and poems were staples of Church magazines up until the author’s death in 1923. At the time, Mormon literary scholars were trying to forge a new kind of Mormon literature—one that Eugene England characterized as “realistic and even critical about Mormon experience but profoundly faithful to the vision and concerns of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” (xxiii-xxiv)—something distinct from the kind of novels and stories being published by companies like Deseret Book. In doing so, they pioneered what’s now called “faithful realism” at the expense of most of the Mormon literature that came before it.
Today’s Mormon literary scholars now face challenges bequeathed to them by their ground-breaking predecessors. On the one hand, they have a responsibility to destigmatize the works of earlier Mormon writers through research and criticism that takes these authors seriously and uncovers meaning within them by exploring their context and function in Mormon history and culture. On the other hand, they also have the crucial task of analyzing new and sophisticated works of contemporary Mormon literature, much of which has received little critical attention aside from book reviews and the occasional short blog post. All of this, of course, must happen within a Mormon studies context that often overlooks the contributions of its literary critics—because of the stigma attached to Mormon literature, the relative paucity of Mormon literary critics actively pursuing Mormon literary studies professionally, or for some other reason yet to be revealed.
Hutcheon is right, though: history and literature have much in common. Why, then, should Mormon literary studies lag while Mormon history studies thrive? Can there not be more conversation between the camps? I believe such an exchange has great potential not only to enrich both fields of study, but also to raise awareness of quality Mormon literature and attract more scholars to Mormon literary studies. Besides, I’m sure Mormon historians are getting tired of the attention and want to share the limelight.