Mormon Day at Slate

Besides a review of Grant Hardy’s new book, yesterday’s edition of Slate carried an article by Dialogue’s poetry editor, David Haglund (also one of my multitudinous cousins), in which he becomes the latest in a long line of Mormon thinkers to wonder where those Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares might be. The novelty, perhaps, is in his musing about whether we may have skipped a few centuries and produced a Mormon Philip Roth instead, in the person of Brady Udall, whose new novel, The Lonely Polygamist, was just released by W.W. Norton. He links to this 2003 Dialogue article by John and Kirsten Rector, still one of the most important considerations of Orson F. Whitney’s famous prediction.

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“We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”
—Orson F. Whitney

SINCE THE ORGANIZATION OF THE CHURCH, Mormon spiritual leaders have emphasized the importance of attaining knowledge, both spiritual and secular. Not only have we been admonished to seek and value learning, but church leaders have predicted that church members would surpass the rest of the world in their scholarly and artistic accomplishments. President John Taylor exclaimed,

You will see the day that Zion will be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are today in regard to religious matters. God expects Zion to become the praise and glory of the whole earth, so that kings, hearing of her fame, will come and gaze upon her glory.

Read the complete article

(While you’re there, consider making a small donation to Dialogue. So far, people are saying lots of nice things about the site, but the, uh, windows of heaven are not yet opening…)

Comments

  1. What? Stephanie Meyer doesn’t count?

  2. I’m trying to donate by Amex (int’l). Does Dialogue only accept Visa/Mastercard (or maybe only domestic cards)? If so, pls advise a Paypal account or other donation method. Thanks!

  3. I think the nature of good art makes it subversive, even to itself. So lots of members of the Church feel conflicted writing anything that subverts its own values. However, I’m not sure that’s entirely necessary.

    I’m no expert on literature and poetry. But I will say with every fiber of my being, that we have not yet seen a Mormon Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Nick Drake, or even Radiohead. A combination of popular and critical acclaim, from an intelligent, informed audience. Here’s hoping.

  4. Hey, what about Donny Osmond! (grin)

  5. *blank stare*

  6. no mention of Glenn Beck?

  7. Syphax,
    “But I will say with every fiber of my being, that we have not yet seen a Mormon Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Nick Drake, or even Radiohead.”

    But, other than the originals, we’ve never seen a non-Mormon Beatles, Zeppelin, Nick Drake, or Radiohead, either. In fact, when the Black Crowes came out, I remember a lot of complaining that they were just trying to be the Stones (or, from one friend, just trying to be Aerosmith being the Stones).

    That’s why I’m not totally interested in the “Shakespeares and Miltons of our own” concept; the power of art, I believe, is more ineffable than that, and it loses something where it’s just derivative.

    Ultimately, what is it about the Beatles, Zeppelin, Nick Drake, and Radiohead (or Shakespeare and Milton, or whomever) that gives them such cultural power? Is it that they’re influential? Imitated? Universally (or nearly-universally) beloved? That they accomplished one or more of these things in their life? or posthumously?

    I think we need Mormons to create art, and probably even Art (or Great Art). But I don’t know that we need Mormons to achieve success based on prior (and likely outmoded) models that have worked in the past, but may not have any purchase today.

  8. Well, but of course, I’m not trying to say that we need some Mormons to sound like the Beatles and do what the Beatles did and become as popular as the Beatles.

    I’m saying we need Mormons that can combine critical and popular appeal in their art as seamlessly as the Beatles did (or Shakespeare or whomever), in music or whatever venture that they attempt. Critical appeal is important because it means that they can speak the language of great Art, and speak to the artists of the world, and popular appeal is important because it means their message has reached a great number of people, signifying a message that really speaks universally to people.

    I don’t think that once this is acheived in any venture, the mold is broken and can never be used again anyway. When Nirvana came out, they did something that no one else did previously in the same way. The same with Radiohead. They were both in the ’90s when many people were saying that the important things have already been said.

    The Black Crowes is a poor example, as they are a less-popular, more derivative product.

    But anyway, the only reason I use the Beatles, Nirvana, Nick Drake, or Shakespeare as examples is because I can hear about the past but I can’t see into the future. Nobody in the ’50s said, “What we need is The Beatles in popular music!”

  9. It sounds trite, but I think good art requires a certain amount of angst. It requires inner conflict. It requires a certain dynamic that spurs on creativity.

    Unfortunately, in the somewhat hierarchal and conformist system that the LDS Church has evolved into, there is little room for this. People who aren’t willing to buy off on the whole package – ie. do your home teaching, wear a white shirt, “not a drop”, etc. are essentially marginalized.

    There are a number of people in the art and entertainment world who were LDS at some point, but it seems the majority have been marginalized out of being active LDS. I think it will therefore be very difficult for someone to be seen as an “active” LDS member and a profound artist/writer/etc.

  10. Just to add a little to John and Kirsten Rector’s insightful observations, Eric Hoffer in “The True Believer” says that creativity is stifled during the active/revolutionary phase of a mass movement. In order for the movement to successfully transition out of the active phase to an “established” phase, its hierarchy needs to make peace with the intellectuals. Hoffer would predict that there won’t be much flowering in the arts until after the LDS church makes such a transition successfully. Arguably, retrenchment to authoritarianism via correlation has prolonged this transition.

  11. The funny secret is, we have WONDERFUL LDS writers–good ones, remarkable ones, including Brady. I am thrilled about the doors _The Lonely Polygamist_ might open for good LDS writers. Take a look at _Dispensation_, edited by Angela Hallstrom. Mormons tend not to BUY it, because, well, it’s Mormon. (Can anything good come out of Provo?)The fiction in that anthology is as good as any you’ll find anywhere. I am speaking as one who has not usually read Mormon literature, unless I was taking a class taught by Gene England. But currently, I happen to find myself the president of the Association for Mormon letters, so I am speaking in that role. Support us better. For those who were already familiar with good LDS writers, it was NO SURPRISE that Brady Udall produced a book which will be such a groundbreaker. And if you hadn’t heard of him until recently–well, repent. And get reading. Check out Todd Robert Peterson’s _The Rift_, poetry by Susan Howe, Lance Larsen, Phillip White and anyone you see published in _Sunstone_ or _Dialogue_. (Standards are high in those journals, and submissions are peer reviewed.) I brought LDS literature with me to England, as well as literature by more famous writers. I am personally vowing to support good Mormon writers far better than I have in the past.

  12. Heck yes, Stephanie Meyer counts. 100 million books sold in the Twilight series, translated into 38 languages? We’re in Stephen King territory here.

  13. We shouldn’t threadjack the OP, but honestly, sales will never equal quality. There is no comparison literarily between Stephanie Meyer and Brady Udall. President Kimball, in asking Mormon artists to move beyond mediocrity, was not hoping for more compelling vampires.

  14. Kristine says:

    Amen, Margaret.

  15. Johnson says:

    I don’t know about Milton (will there ever be another Milton?), but maybe a Mormon Mark Twain/Salinger can be found here:

    the reviews make it seem like a combination of Twain and Krakuer, maybe.

  16. “President Kimball, in asking Mormon artists to move beyond mediocrity, was not hoping for more compelling vampires.”

    I find this statement a little unfortunate. Presumably, he wasn’t hoping for more literary snobbery either.

    I would never defend the merits of Meyer as a writer, but while “sales don’t equal quality” they certainly help authors to be able to keep writing. In our attempt to elevate Mormon art and artists, let’s not denigrate the ones who are successful in the popular realm, or who write in genres that the public enjoys. There’s room for different types of Mormon artists and many people, including President Kimball, might enjoy a good vampire story. Bram Stoker was not exactly a hack, and even Shakes peare could be described as writing “popular” material in his day.

  17. Actually, MCQ, I think we need some literary snobbery. Otherwise, we won’t distinguish between truly fine literature and just a good plot. We need readers who know how to appreciate a Milton or a Shakespeare, to recognize the difference between a beautifully crafted sentence and writing that twists around itself before it manages to make a point. I wouldn’t teach creative writing if imagination were the only requirement to writing well. Imagination is vital, but so is the management of all the literary tools. It takes me one page to identify a well-written or a badly-written book. As Garrison Keillor said, “A poem [or story] that starts out clunky never gets good.” I want my students and my children to recognize excellent prose, prose that rewards all of the senses and touches the mind and heart. They can still read the popular stuff (and both of my daughters have read _Twighlight_), but they should also be ready for _Wild Swans_ and _The Kite Runner_–which my oldest daughter loves. Shakespeare wrote plays to make money, no question. But he was almost unimaginably gifted–with language, with character, with insight. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Also, God agrees with me. “Seek wisdom out of the BEST BOOKS.”

  18. I always think that a real element of snobbery that runs thru these types of threads.

    The snobby types simply looking down their noses at those that read more middlebrow fare.

    I am off to read Vince Flynn….. Suckas

  19. MikeInWeHo says:

    “There are a number of people in the art and entertainment world who were LDS at some point….”

    Mike S is right. So why not count their work as Mormon art? Does one have to be a TR-holding member for it to count?

    I guess my real question is this: What exactly IS Mormon art and literature?

  20. MikeInWeHo–
    WE DO COUNT THEIR WORK.
    The “What is Mormon Art” conversation tends to take up a lot of time, so I won’t pursue that. The authors in _Dispensation_ are all kinds of Mormons or former Mormons–TR-carrying, borderline, and former. They all count. They are all US.

  21. On the one hand, I read some stuff, even on this blog, where I suffer covetous pangs in my gut, wishing I could write like these people. They can create really spectacular images with just a few well-placed words and make arguments that pierce me to my brain-stem.

    But, boy, must I be a philistine. A lot of “fine literature” leaves me completely dry, wondering why I even bothered with it. I’ve been trying to listen to podcasts of PRI’s Selected Shorts and readings of the New Yorker as I run, and while I occasionally hear a gem, most are just forgettable. The New Yorker readings have commentary both before and after, and it would be funny to listen to them if it weren’t so painful. There’s definitely a group of literary people who love to turn a word without conveying anything particularly meaningful. No wonder I’ve been off my times.

  22. Gee, I forgot my “other hand..” Nothing quite like commenting on silly word-turners while being inept at it myself…

  23. So if there church were more true, we’d have more well known artists?

  24. I’m about to go to bed (I’m a little sick), but Martin, go easy on yourself. You have particular tastes. That’s a good thing. There are many writers I love, but there are others who are well-respected yet who do absolutely nothing for me. I instruct my students to seek “mentor” writers–writers who make them want to write, writers they can’t wait to read, writers who excite their creative instincts. Go find some of those, and your runs will be more fun.
    As to the use of the word “true,” read StevenP’s recent blog at http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/05/11/must-you-believe-in-irrational-numbers-to-go-to-heaven/ . I think if the church were more true, we’d all understand calculus–yea, even we snobby writers, who are mostly just compensating for our mathematical ineptitude and hoping nobody will notice that our shoes are untied.

  25. There is good writing, and there is compelling story telling. And then there are the Dan Brown’s and the Stephanie Meyers who write well enough, and get enough of the story out to make them readable, and resonate with their target audience. But they both fall short of really being engaging beyond trying to figure out “what happens next”.

    The tricky balance for Mormon authors is to avoiding being too didactic for the rest of the world, and yet still capture the inner struggles and outward expressions that make for good writing. Orson Scott Card did it well in some of his earlier works; lately, I think he has lost his balance. If you start your story with the idea that it has to be faithful and faith promoting, then you get off on the wrong foot. Real people struggle with real stuff, and it doesn’t always turn out right in the end. I want to read about characters and situations that I can relate to, not stereotypes and perfect examples.

    If your story is good, then you should trust your story and your characters to tell it, without having to explain everything as an author. Too often, the LDS fiction I have read doesn’t trust the story enough to propel itself forward on its own, or respect the reader enough to allow them to approach the story on their own terms.

    We don’t have to be snobs; we do need to be discriminating.

  26. Margaret Blair Young, I love and adore you.

  27. S.P. Bailey says:

    David’s piece on the state of Mormon lit and Brady Udall was interesting. Mormon lit is better than you think. And getting better all the time! (And thanks for the link, David.)

    The piece on the Book of Mormon as literature sucked for a variety of reasons. Too often Slate seems like a forum where glib hipsters reassure each other that they were right about what they always assumed about things they do not understand.

  28. No mention of the Whitney Awards?
    http://www.whitneyawards.com/

    How about Brandon Sanderson? He has some real potential, and people are going to hear about him, what with the popularity of the Wheel of Time.

    (P.S. Stephanie Black rocks the LDS Mystery!)

  29. Brandon Sanderson is a good example of what I was talking about. He’s an excellent LDS writer who is already very well known in his genre, and who was asked to finish the Wheel of Time series as a result of his excellent skils and reputation.

    Sadly, he is all but ignored genereally because he writes in a certain genre that, like vampire fiction, is considered to be not high enough art to satisfy the demands of those who are looking for the great Mormon artists. He should be celebrated and appreciated, rather than ignored, by his fellow church members.

  30. “Actually, MCQ, I think we need some literary snobbery. Otherwise, we won’t distinguish between truly fine literature and just a good plot.”

    I always kinda hope for both, Margaret. I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek out and celebrate excellence in writing and other art. I just hate to see popular writers and popular genres automatically disdained out of some high-handed sense of aesthetic standards. Our appreciation of Mormon art can afford include even vampires, as well as other creatures not technically found within the pages of our scriptures (or some that are, I’m still waiting for the great curelom novel, for example).

  31. jjohnsen says:

    “Sadly, he is all but ignored genereally because he writes in a certain genre that, like vampire fiction, is considered to be not high enough art to satisfy the demands of those who are looking for the great Mormon artists.”

    I don’t think this is true. Card writes in a genre that you could similarly discount, but there are plenty of people that consider his work art. I find it annoying that someone is expecting me to celebrate Stephanie Meyer because she’s a LDS artist, then would accuse me of being a snob because I think her art sucks (pun intended).

  32. Helen Wheels says:

    Margret Blair Young would you be my sister? And Tracy M would you be my daughter? (Sorry for slight thread jack.)

  33. Sigh.

    jjohnsen, I specifically said that this is not about Meyer, and I’m not going to get drawn into defending her by your intentional misrepresentation of my comment. I was merely reponding to Margaret’s comment that seemed to suggest that our hope for great Mormon art did not include art that was about such things as vampires. I don’t think we need to be unnecessarily exclusionary in our search for great Mormon art. That doesn’t, of course, mean we need to celebrate Meyer or any other artist just because she happens to be Mormon. But I suspect you knew that.

  34. I would like to defend literary snobbery, along with philosophical, historical, and political snobbery. I would say that I am trying to be like Margaret, but I am not that nice to others. I will work on that.

    In a culture where many consider Skousen a historian, Meyer much just be high literature.

    We need gate-keepers.

  35. If I were more honest in my mission journal, I would have had a great first draft of a Mormon Portnoy’s Complaint.

  36. Great post and comments, Margaret. And thanks for mentioning Dispensation. There are stories in Dispensation that should appeal to all sorts of readers, from aficionados of New Yorker-style literary fiction to lovers of speculative fiction. No genre was automatically dismissed.

    And MCQ, you said that Brandon Sanderson “is all but ignored generally because he writes in a certain genre that, like vampire fiction, is considered to be not high enough art to satisfy the demands of those who are looking for the great Mormon artists.” Brandon Sanderson is one of the most well-respected AND popular LDS writers working right now. He’s won an awards from the Association for Mormon Letters, his creative writing classes at BYU fill up immediately, etc. As Irreantum’s co-editor, I’ve been pretty plugged in to the Mormon lit community for the past 7-8 years, and I know that Sanderson is considered a big name and a serious artist. It’s *not* the case that literary “snobs” automatically dismiss him because he writes genre fiction. He’s really good at his craft, so the snobs appreciate him.

    The truth is, speculative fiction (and YA fiction) are the genres where we Mormons usually get the most attention and applause, both from the outside world and among ourselves. And I’m not complaining about this; many of our great writers simply choose to write in these genres. It’s the writers of literary fiction for adults who rarely get attention (or money!). That’s one reason I’ve been involved with Irreantum: to give such writers one more place to publish. Even though our circulation is small, the magazine will be on a shelf somewhere for years to come, and that means something.

    And it’s another reason I’m so excited about The Lonely Polygamist–a big, fat literary novel for adults. I just finished it, and thought it was one of the best novels I’ve read in years. The fact that it was written by a Mormon author was just gravy. It’s excellent.

    Oh, and I might as well mention this too, for all the writers at BCC who might be interested: Irreantum’s fiction and creative nonfiction contests are currently accepting submissions. The deadline is May 31. See here for more info: http://irreantum.mormonletters.org/Rules.aspx

    And Segullah is sponsoring a Writing Retreat in SLC on June 26. http://segullah.org/segullah-writing-retreat/

    There’s a lot of excellent writing out there in Mormondom!

  37. Angela, I’m glad to hear that about Brandon. He deserves all that and more.

    I also agree that we need more outlets for literary fiction and I support what Irreantum is doing 100%.

    My only point was that it’s difficult enough to get anything published and to get any attention after that. Why we would want any more gate keepers in that process is beyond me.

  38. “My only point was that it’s difficult enough to get anything published and to get any attention after that. Why we would want any more gate keepers in that process is beyond me.”

    Hmmm, maybe that is the problem. We are letting MBAs and people like Sheri Dew make our decisions about art and literature. Did anyone here say that Twilight should not be published? I really like it, but my maturity level is more on par with Harry Potter and teen fiction.

    Literary experts are not gate-keeper of the market or the culture, but we should look to them as we seek to develop a rich culture which includes the great…and the fun.

  39. My husband and I LOVED Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. We just read it for book club, too.

  40. It is a mark of my lack of education that I don’t get the difference between literature and books. Good writing is good writing, and you get a lifetime to practice. I keep going back to King (not a Mormon), widely regarded as a hack who got lucky by stumbling into a popular genre at the right time. After years and years and years of success/hackery, he wrote a non-fiction book, “On Writing,” that regularly turns up on people’s personal top ten non-fiction lists. It was an astonishing, illuminating, personal and encouraging work that taught me everything I need to know about being a writer: that it’s not for me.

    (Aside: my favorite part of the book is where he describes his fat teenage baby sitter with smelly farts who used to sit on his face and say “Pow!” when she farted. He said it was excellent preparation for literary criticism, in that nothing anybody said about his writing was as terrible as that.)

    Write off writers like Meyer as “not Mormon Artists” at your own risk. She’s just getting started, and in 20 years she could be winning Booker Prizes and the AML will wish they’d been nicer to her back when. Then again, she could still be writing immensely best-selling popular fiction with feminist undertones and strong-but-subtle moral messages that is widely derided by the literati. Or maybe she’ll be retired and living like a queen in Patagonia. Any which way, she wins.

  41. “at your own risk”

    Is that like my risk of getting cancer or my risk of not being cool. I am already not cool.

  42. Ann, I understand what you’re trying to say, but King isn’t really “widely regarded as a hack.” He’s been published in The New Yorker, edited the prestigious Best American Short Stories anthology, etc. There are other popular genre writers who are definitely snubbed by the literati, but King ain’t one of ‘em. And this is because King has writing chops that other popular genre writers don’t have, no matter how entertaining their stories might be.

    As far as Meyer goes: I respect her as an excellent storyteller and think her books are fun, escapist fiction. (I really liked The Host.) I’m truly glad that a Mormon writer like Meyer has had such amazing success and wish her more in the future. But she’s not trying to write literary masterpieces and has admitted as much. And she won’t ever get the Booker Prize . . mainly because she’s not British or Irish, an important requirement for the honor.

  43. I remember reading once that LDS are over-represented percentage-wise in science fiction and fantasy. For instance, Sanderson is a fantastic fantasy author.

    And do not forget Orson Scott Card and his contribution to science fiction. Even people who love to hate on his Prop. 8 stance admit “Ender’s Game” is considered a classic of science fiction. And yes, I use the word ‘classic’ on purpose.

  44. Anne Perry’s books are excellent.

    I also can’t stand many of the “classics”. “Twilight” isn’t phenomenal literature, but neither are lots of books on the best of all-time lists.

    I’m all for counting popular authors as great authors – just for different reasons than Hemingway and Tolstoy. I could list quite a few writers who are famous as stock fiction authors but were phenomenal writers, because that’s what put bread on the table when they were writing. They aren’t seen as literary masters, because they never had the luxury or inclination to write a classic, but their skill was not one bit less than many of the accepted masters. They just wrote for different audiences.

  45. For the record, I think Brandon Sanderson is great–as are a bunch of others. I don’t mind genre fiction at all, if it’s done well. Ulsula Leguin, who writes speculative stuff, is magnificent–and a frequent entry in “The Best American Short Stories.”
    And now, I’m off to Oxford.

  46. Ursula K. LeGuin is a personal hero of mine, Margaret. Thanks for mentioning her. Her Earthsea trilogy is perhaps the most perfect trilogy ever written. I think you and I have little or no difference of opinion here.

  47. Peter LLC says:

    but the, uh, windows of heaven are not yet opening…

    Segullah has a post on that.

  48. 47 posts and not yet a single mention of a book written by a GA – astonishing.

  49. Kristine says:

    Thanks, Peter. I hope you’ll appreciate the blessings when Dialogue moves into your house :)

  50. Peter LLC says:

    I’ll start clearing off the bunkbed!

  51. Kristine says:

    So, I talked with Brady Udall about the Slate article yesterday. (Yeah, I love my job!)

    Unsurprisingly, he said the Great Mormon Novel may happen someday, but we probably won’t notice when it does. The ambition to create a “Great” anything is deadly to the creative process, and most great books don’t announce themselves, are often recognized only long after their publication. He mentioned The Backslider as an example.

    Both novels that aim at grandeur and the kind of criticism that looks to identify and proclaim it are antithetical to the real work that fiction can do, which is based in passionate specificity, the careful (and care-full) observation of particular people and places, and bearing witness of them as exactly and straightforwardly as possible.

    He’s pretty convincing :)

  52. Totally wrong, Brady. The great Mormon novel will involve the 2000 stripling warriors. Other possible sources, observed or no, are just silly.

  53. Aaron R. says:

    Kristine, Udall’s comment reminds me of Roth’s ironically titled ‘The Great American Novel’. Perhaps the comparison between Roth and Udall is increasing in credibility

  54. Karen M. says:

    I’m very late to this, but it seems like the point of this article has gotten a little lost in the comments here.
    I don’t think the point is whether or not Mormons can create good literature (of whatever genre). I think it’s more a question of how someone can capture the essence of Mormonism and Mormons in art or literature in a way that rings true, without making Mormons look deliberately gullible or slapping everyone in the face with a moral. How can someone show how Mormon naivete and, well, peculiarity, are just like everyone else’s naivete and peculiarity.
    I disagree that it would have to be someone who’s left the church and come part way back. I think it could just as easily be a non-Mormon with lots of experience with Mormons, or a devoted member who’s comfortable with their religious ambiguity. I do agree that it can’t be the goal at the outset to create the great Mormon novel, because then it’s kind of doomed to seem contrived.

  55. Former UK Resident says:

    Margaret said:
    Ursula LeGuin, who writes speculative stuff, is magnificent–and a frequent entry in “The Best American Short Stories.” And now, I’m off to Oxford.

    I think her “Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea”) is my favorite short story of all time. By a mile.

    As to Oxford, my digital picture frame just displayed a picture of me sitting at C.S. Lewis’s writing desk in his home and pondering a first printing of The Silmarillion by his good friend. Timely.

  56. S.P. Bailey says:

    Regarding No. 51: I made the same/similar arguments here

    Not sure why that guest post is now attributed to Taryn. Maybe I offended Steve?

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