A Place for Mormon Literary Studies

The Beguiling of Merlin

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 Magazineand 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.


A Place for Mormon Literary Studies — 18 Comments

  1. Thought provoking. You made me want to start writing and drawing about fictional Book of Mormon characters! Please inspire me, William Blake! Give me Nephi’s wife to heal the sick among Lemuel’s children using the power of her holy angels!

  2. Scott: I’m not sure that describing literary and historical investigation as opposing (and monolithic) camps is helpful to the kind of exchange you seem to be asking for. In fact, it strikes me that the kind of stalemate you describe in your final paragraph is exactly what “Mormon Studies” transcends as it follows in the wake of over twenty years of the impact of “theory” in the Humanities.

    In other words, the interdisciplinary work you allude in your second paragraph (which seems to recognize a semiotic and historical materialist approach) has become mainstream in the academy; Linda Hutcheon’s work articulated academic problems in the mid to late 80′s, when “literary theory” was making it’s first impact on the American English Department. In 2012, the role of the traditional “literary critic,” a discriminating connoisseur who arranges hierarchical “literary merit,” is at odds with the theorist of culture who seeks a “critique” of literature: an explanation of the text’s ideological functions.

    I think you present a good outline of the history of Mormon literature’s reception. Of special importance is, as you note, the common sense understanding of literature as “fiction” and fiction as “not truth.” I think there is a history of this in past Mormon culture and I think at this point it’s running head on with how pervasive this view has become in American culture at large. How many times have you encountered students or other people say “I prefer to read non-fiction because I like what’s real?”

    The approach I take to that is less to argue for the “truth” of imaginative literature than to show students that everything they know they have learned via a narrative of some sort; the same narrative conventions found in Jude the Obscure are also found in the nightly news, the magazines they read, the films they watch and, most importantly, in the way they make sense of themselves and their own experience. This focus also underscores my own current Mormon studies work in which literature and history are both investigated as narrative constructs.

    I think you are correct that there is a perceived stigma about the quality of “Mormon literature,” but should the goal of the scholar merely be to be able to point to a list of the “good stuff?” Or should a scholar interested in Mormonism and literature instead examine all narratives of Mormonism, those authored by Mormons and as well as those not? The work of recognized “serious” writers, but also the domestic fiction published in the Relief Society Magazine in the 20′s, 30′s and 40′s? I realize I am setting up a pretty stark binary, but I’m doing so because I’m not exactly sure how you conceptualize “Mormon Literature.”

    By focusing solely on works by Mormon authors, and on analyzing them from the perspective of a “literary critic” or a scholar of “literary studies,” I fear you may be re-inscribing the very conceptual categories that Hutcheon explodes. In her essay, historiography and fiction are never completely separate: all is crafted narrative.

    As I understand Mormon Studies, as an interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry, literary representation of Mormonism, Mormons, and Mormon history and culture, is of great interest. But the problem isn’t just to “add literature” to the Mormon Studies recipe, it’s also about how “literature” is understood.

  3. Interesting thoughts, Mina. To some degree I share your concerns, which remind me a bit of the concerns that some have expressed about the continued use of “race” as an analytical category in sociology, which has a similar tendency to re-inscribe the very distinctions such work is ostensibly trying to eliminate.

    I have to say, though, that I don’t entirely agree with your assessement that Mormon Studies transcends this divide. In the pages of Sunstone and Dialogue, perhaps, there is some of that. But we still have MHA and the AML, with surprisingly little crossover between the two groups. I think Scott, as a member of the AML, has put his finger on a very real phenomenon wherein Mormon Studies, for whatever reason, gets predominantly defined for the general public by history people with little awareness of or interest in the work being done by the AML. So for that reason, I think Scott’s post is a useful reminder.

  4. Mina,

    Admittedly, the way I’m presenting “Mormon literature” in this post comes off in a monolithic way. As you point out, Mina, cultural studies and theory over the past several decades have exploded out traditional notions of texts and made the term “literature” increasingly more suspect. People still study and analyze novels and poems, of course, but they also study kitschy statues of the Salt Lake Temple and Jell-O recipes. My decision to bring in Hutcheon–aside from the fact that I just finished studying the book–was to point out just that: the pervasiveness of narrative and the artificiality of the disciplinary divisions that persist in the humanities.

    I guess my main concern, though, is not that Mormon historical studies are eclipsing Mormon literary studies, but that there is a whole body of cultural material that critics and theorists seem to be overlooking for a number of possible reasons. This material happens to fall within the traditional realms of literary studies, I find it convenient to think of them in those terms–especially since those who are and have been actively creating those texts think of them in that way. What I’m trying to express in this post is that we need more scholars–from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines– willing to take a look at these texts and bring them into the conversations. I especially think scholars trained in English and Literature departments ought to take notice–not so much because they are “really good stuff”–because a lot of it is not–but because they are rich with material to study.

    Also worthy of study, I think, are past and current efforts by many to construct a “Mormon literature.” What ideological function does the creation of a “Mormon literary canon” serve, for example, and what do efforts toward constructing that canon say about Mormonism, Mormon artists, Mormon culture, etc.

  5. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the post. I guess I’m left wondering at what exactly is supposed to happen next. I’m not against any calls for scholars of different disciplines collaborating, but I’m unsure what the next step from here would be. As someone who is outside the disciplines of History and Literature all I was able to take away from this is “Read Mormon Literature!” Okay, but what am I looking for?

  6. there is a whole body of cultural material that critics and theorists seem to be overlooking for a number of possible reasons

    Part of the problem, IMO, is that people studying Mormonism are faced with an embarrassment of riches. Our archives overfloweth. Older Mofic, much of which appeared in journals which are now considered somewhat obscure, and until the past week weren’t available online. Also the attitude that most of it is simple homiletics seems to turn people off. Of course, even if simple homiletics is all it is it would still call for scholarly attention as Mina outlines.

    As for me, I am possibly including a section in my master’s thesis regarding depictions of disability in Mormon fiction. My thesis deals primarily with cognitive disability in Mormon theology, but I’m going to include analysis of a variety of sources, from conference addresses to scriptures to folk doctrines and perhaps Mormon fiction. If you can think of examples of Mormon fiction which feature people with disabilities I would be grateful to hear about it. I would analyze it to see what sort of roles people with disabilities play, how they are depicted and understood from within the LDS framework.

    IOW, this seems to be just the sort of thing you are looking for, no? Engaging Mofic to unmask historical and theological assumptions in the LDS tradition, yes?

  7. Scott,
    You have pointed out the obvious fact that we live in an age of academic and occupantional specialization. Thank you for your thoughts. But the best way to break up the blinders of those barriers is to engage multiple perspectives in the right setting. I remember that the Jesus seminar invited a famous Dutch film maker to the group’s discussion. He ofren not only had the most interesting things to say, but got scholars of Greek and Aramaic to think like a film maker about the New Testament. The sulution to the problems you raise is quite simple, in theory. It is not discussing the barriers, but the radical idea of having people actually talk. When you have a chemist and a poet talking about the same fundamental issue, they will come up with perspectives that neither could imagine without the other. I would like to see Richard Bushman and Mina and Chris analyze the afternoon soap operas and compare them with the shocking poetry of John Donne and the narratives of Joseph Smith’s 1838 history—all as religious texts.

  8. Let me second BHodges’s remark about “an embarrassment of riches!” It is unbelievable how much sheer ‘stuff’ a scholar is now likely to get quickly buried under when taking up Mormon Studies in any fashion. To me that calls for more scholarly work in more directions and not a battening down of traditional literary hatches.

    That’s why I’m confused, Scott, by language like this:

    “I guess my main concern, though, is not that Mormon historical studies are eclipsing Mormon literary studies, but that there is a whole body of cultural material that critics and theorists seem to be overlooking for a number of possible reasons.”

    Why think of “historical studies” and “literary studies” as mutually exclusive categories? At some points you argue for work which sounds interdisciplinary, but you also keep coming back to what seems like for you are two distinct camps. For example, while you say there is a great deal of “cultural material” as yet unstudied, you then go on to define it as strictly literary:

    “This material happens to fall within the traditional realms of literary studies, I find it convenient to think of them in those terms–especially since those who are and have been actively creating those texts think of them in that way.”

    “Cultural matter” gets elided and we’re back to “traditional literary studies” for no reason except “convenience” and that most problematic category for even “traditional literary study,” authorial intent.

    If you indeed think the questions you raise in the last paragraph of your reply (# 4) are important, i.e., “What ideological function does the creation of a “Mormon literary canon” serve,” etc., then issues of whether there is good Mormon literature, or if as you say, “alot of it is not,” are not especially urgent.

    Quality literature, however that is defined, has always been produced by Mormon writers. Commercial literature and genre fiction have too. I can understand groups like the AML who want to encourage and support literary endeavor. But literature is discussed at the MHA and literature by and about Mormons are discussed at all manner of academic conferences. I can only think that this will increase as Mormon Studies helps make the argument that Mormon history and culture are an important and oft overlooked part of the story of America.

    And mdthomas, Richard Bushman, Chris and I will be over to watch soap operas at your house. Is Thursday afternoon good?

  9. Excellent piece. I may return with some thoughts later. But for now, I just wanted to note that this just brought back bitter sweet memories of Eugene England, who had a huge impact on me. Thanks.

  10. .

    I’ve brought up the question “What about the literature?” to a number of people including Grant Underwood and Patrick Mason and Bob Rees and the answer I tend to get is some variation on “Have you heard of the AML?”

    So I’m all for Scott’s alleged two-camps rhetoric not because I support there being two camps but because Mormon Studies in general seems to have deliberately ignored our literature. And that’s a shame. It can hold its own both in the this-is-part-of-the-story sense Mina mentions and as capital-L literature.

  11. First of all, thanks everyone for your contributions so far. I appreciate your responses.

    I’m certainly not trying to not “batten down” and “traditional literary hatches” with this post–and I find it hard to disagree with anything Mina is suggesting about the current state cultural studies. As Chris, BHodges, and Th. suggest, though, there is a tendency in Mormon studies (and I would suggest in the humanities in general) to compartmentalize disciplines even though what happens within those disciplines are very similar. And still within the academy, distinct disciplines remain intact even though there is much interdepartmental exchange.

    For me, this post is about wanting to see more people engage Mormon fiction, poetry, and drama in their scholarship. I think what BHodges is doing with disabilities in Mormon fiction is precisely what I’m talking about–and work that makes use of 1940s poetry from the Relief Society magazine would work as well. It’s not a departmental thing, but rather a about a choice of material.

    Which I hope answers Patrick’s question. Yes, read Mormon literature. But also investigate what it observes and contributes to our understanding of Mormonism. Or, to go along with the soap opera analogy, look at how it intersects or engages with your own scholarly interests. For instance, I would like to see what insight the readers of this blog, with their varying backgrounds and interests, have on my current research into the novels of Nephi Anderson (novels which can, in fact, get a little soap operatics).

  12. I’m wondering if you might be able to push these ideas in new and more productive directions. It seems to me that even your framing here—literature vs. history—limits where you might go. At the very least, it seems like the body of your post contradicts the spirit of Hutcheson’s argument, which would undermine traditional, elitist definitions of “literature” to begin with, when what it seems you’re trying to do is to embrace Deseret Book publications and historical Mormon letters as capital-L literature. The point of Hutcheson’s piece (or at least one of them) is that “literature” as a category is a moving target and it depends on the values and agendas of the people doing the defining, as well as the social context within which they seek to place their “literature.”

    So I think one of the things that bothers me most is that I cannot discern (although I can infer) what values and agendas are behind your call for an “inclusion” of work that, from my brief experience in Mormon Studies is already included in the broad range of the field. Even Eugene England, whom you cite, taught courses that explored the full range of Mormon letters. I have not found a stigma against studying, say, Jack Wayland in Mormon Studies at all. So what I think you’re responding to is that fact that people see Wayland as a product of a particular kind of Mormonism and his “literature” as doing some kind of work. In your call to take Mormon literature seriously, then, it seems that what you really want is for people to see it as “Good,” in a sort of Matthew Arnold kind of way; or perhaps you want them not to analyze them critically as products of a Mormon context, because that somehow “stigmatizes” them. Regardless, people certainly ARE studying those literatures.

    I’m not against having aesthetic arguments about works of art (or literature) and would even find it an interesting project to try to make a critical argument FOR the aesthetic value of these “stigmatized” pieces of Mormon literature. But I think you would be hard pressed to do so given that most such work is brazenly polemical or transparently manipulative. I do not say this because I think it’s “Bad,” (in the Arnold sense), but rather because that is an apt description of what it DOES within its context. A good deal (most? all?) artist production from within Mormonism is tightly scripted by the expectations and consequent needs of the Mormon context, which makes it more like propaganda than art (often, but not always). The aesthetic experiences of those who participate with the art/literature in some way are then tightly connected to their context and the narrow band of “appropriate” as deemed by the rules of the culture.

    To be sure, all cultures have aesthetic rules and expectations. But there are degrees of breadth and influence of those rules, and there are different context of both production and consumption of art/literature. And to be sure, the Mormon context constrains literary production in ways that constrain the possible aesthetic, if not foreclose it outright.

    Further, it also seems to me that you’re fighting a battle that happened 30 years ago in literary studies over what “counts” as literature. Given that literature departments around the country house those working on cultural studies and pop culture studies across genres and even forms, I’m not really sure what the trouble is. My own research is sociological, and I’ve focused on conversion and disaffiliation, but even in my fields and readings of the scholarly literature I’ve come across numerous treatments of Mormon literature writ large. Perhaps others who are working on Mormonism from the standpoint of literary studies can correct me if I’m wrong.

    So in sum, I have three big questions (well, big for me):

    a) What exactly do you think “literature” is and why is that the definition that matters in the study of Mormon letters?

    b) What are the values that are driving your argument? Why should we worry about, so long after the cultural turn and the cultural studies movement, whether or not something is considered “literature”?

    And finally c) Consider, for example, _The Work and the Glory_. Why is it important for that to be categorized as “real” literature? And why is it better or more important to see TWATG as “literature” rather than as a cultural object to be studied or analyzed or interpreted in a cultural studies vein of analysis?

  13. Thanks for your comments, Todd. I’d like to respond to most of what you say and not try to go back over anything we’ve already established in the conversation.

    First, I’d like to clarify what I’m talking about when I use the word “literature,” which you seem to read as an elitist term that distinguishes a body of “good” or “real” literature from a body of “bad” literature in the way that Matthew Arnold would or the way Mormon literary critic Karl Keller does in his essay “The Delusions of a Mormon Literature,” which I quote in the post. This is not how I use it in the post, nor do I mean it to designate the “high” end of a “high-brow,” “middle-brow,” and “low-brow” system of literary classification. In other words, I don’t use it as shorthand for an aesthetic judgement.

    True, throughout the twentieth century, aesthetics played a role in defining “literature,” but that way of thinking has since fallen out of vogue, although elitist notions about what makes “real” literature still persist–which is perhaps why you read that meaning into my use of the term. When I talk about literature, I mean the branch of culture that deals with literary arts–the written word–although I hesitate even to define it in that way. As you point out in your comment, after all, that branch of culture has since been troubled and the study of what has been generally designated as literature–fiction, poetry, and drama–has been opened up to include or be associated with other kinds of cultural texts–including non-fiction texts like journals, sermons, governmental documents, and the like.

    What you are suggesting, I think, is that “literature” is essentially a dead term–which may very well become the case in the future, although I don’t think it has run its course yet, especially as a disciplinary category. I certainly think it is an ambiguous term, and perhaps one loaded with more meaning than is useful on an interdisciplinary site like this one. At the same time, I think its ambiguity is liberating for those who study literature since it allows them to move more freely than students of literature fifty years ago. In future posts, I might do well to use more specific (less ambiguous?) terms like “fiction” and “poetry” and avoid confusion.

    Second, while I recognize that there are people studying Mormon fiction, poetry, and drama, I would say that they are few in number and not as well represented in Mormon scholarly publications. Personally, I don’t think this is the fault of the publications themselves, but rather the scholars–including me–who aren’t doing enough to get their work out there. If we look at scholarship on Mormon fiction, for example, which is my area of interest, the only works that get regular attention are the Twilight novels or the works of Orson Scott Card. Attention to these works should continue, but we also need to explore other authors. Rarely do we see work on the fiction of Brady Udall, Levi Peterson, Douglas Thayer, Phyllis Barber, Todd Robert Petersen, Margaret Young, Virginia Sorensen, or any other Mormon fiction writer, for example. (Although, we have seen recently an unpublished dissertation on the fiction of Phyllis Barber by Angel Chaparro.)

    But even more well known Mormon writers like Jack Weyland and Gerald Lund aren’t studied nearly as much as they could be–although I think The Work and the Glory pops up more frequently than others. So, my question is this: Why are the works of these writers not a more important part of the Mormon studies conversation?

    I go back to the stigma. You say:

    “I’m not against having aesthetic arguments about works of art (or literature) and would even find it an interesting project to try to make a critical argument FOR the aesthetic value of these ‘stigmatized’ pieces of Mormon literature. But I think you would be hard pressed to do so given that most such work is brazenly polemical or transparently manipulative. I do not say this because I think it’s ‘Bad,’ (in the Arnold sense), but rather because that is an apt description of what it DOES within its context. A good deal (most? all?) artist production from within Mormonism is tightly scripted by the expectations and consequent needs of the Mormon context, which makes it more like propaganda than art (often, but not always). The aesthetic experiences of those who participate with the art/literature in some way are then tightly connected to their context and the narrow band of ‘appropriate’ as deemed by the rules of the culture.”

    Your point here is to argue that it would be a difficult to make an aesthetic argument for these works because of their execution, which you characterize as propagandistic, polemical, and manipulative. Essentially, you make the same argument about Mormon fiction that Karl Keller makes in his essay, which I don’t think is an accurate description of Mormon fiction today. Mormon fiction is far more aesthetically diverse than you suggest, and its cultural agendas are not so narrow. In other words, I don’t think an aesthetic argument for Mormon fiction (or poetry, or drama) would be difficult at all. Yet, many persist in thinking of Mormon fiction, poetry, and drama as this heavy-handed stuff dripping with dogma and moralizing, which has a tendency to turn people off.

    But that’s really not what my post is driving at. It really is meant to suggest that scholarship on Mormon creative writing is not happening on the same level as Mormon history. In making that, I’m not trying to set them in opposition to each other, but rather trying to say that Mormon scholarship into its creative/imaginative writing needs to step it up. There are scholars working on it, but not nearly enough to draw from it its full potential. If, in other words, we’re only tapping the works of Stephenie Meyer, Orson Scott Card, Jack Weyland, Gerald Lund, and nineteenth century poets, we’re not even scratching the surface.

    I can see how you can infer an aesthetic argument in what I’ve just said, but my intention is not to make one. As I said in an earlier comment, I’m simply arguing for more attention to Mormon letters in our cultural studies of Mormonism. They are, as BHodges and Mina have pointed out, rich with material to study, but for some reason, we’re only tapping (when we tap) those works that sit most glaringly in the public eye. What would be the state of Mormon history, for example, if Mormon historians only studied the pioneers?

    So, in short, I think students of Mormon literature had a lot to learn from the ways historians have developed the field of Mormon history. I also think Mormon cultural studies need to do a more thorough job of looking into Mormon fiction, poetry, and drama. Yes, this work is being done, but my perception is that it is creeping along. When I start seeing more published essays and conference presentations on works other than Twilight and Orson Scott Card, I will change my mind. When entire annual conferences are dedicated to interdisciplinary papers on the works of Levi Peterson, Douglas Thayer, Nephi Anderson, or Phyllis Barber, I’ll be satisfied that this area of Mormon cultural studies is sitting well.

  14. .

    I think this sums up my frustration with Mormon Studies as currently constituted: that it tends to ignore our literature. Of which there is much and varied.

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