Thursday, October 27, 2011

500 Words on the Cultural Work of Mormon Fiction

In her book Sensational Designs, Jane Tompkins suggests that “novels and stories should be studied not because they manage to escape the limitations of their particular time and place, but because they offer powerful examples of the way a culture thinks about itself, articulating and proposing solutions for the problems that shape a particular historical moment” (xi).

Texts, in other words, perform cultural work. They both reflect “the way a culture thinks about itself” and participate in what I call cultural projects, or efforts toward cultural change.

Along with individual texts, literary movements perform cultural work. In an earlier post, for example, I have suggested that the cultural work of late Home Literature was to aid Mormonism’s transition from a regional polygamist religious sect to a more mainstream American religion. One could also argue that the cultural work of early Home Literature essentially performed the opposite: the fierce defense of polygamy as a signifier of Mormon identity.

Home Literature—or what some label as Home Literature—continues to this day in the form of popular Mormon fiction. These texts, of course, perform a cultural work, but it’s a work that does little more than affirm the status quo. At best, they display a kind of squeaky-clean cleverness of style; at worst, they are generically derivative fluff that currently has no relevant voice in Mormonism’s current cultural projects.  

But I don’t see this new kind of Home Literature as Home Literature in the tradition of Nephi Anderson and his contemporaries, even though its aesthetic seems very similar. What the cultural project of Mormonism needed in 1911, when it still needed to convince all of America that it wasn’t a “weird and sinister” cult, was very different from what it needs now as the Church is transitioning into a more diverse world religion. Arguably, popular Mormon fiction is feeding into a dead cultural project.

So-called Faithful Realism is, in many ways, the real descendent of the Home Literature tradition primarily because it is performing relevant cultural work that is, to borrow from Tompkins, “articulating and proposing solutions for the problems” that are shaping Mormonism’s “particular historical moment.” Central to this work, I think, is Faithful Realism’s interest in broader definitions of Mormon identity and experience.

Interestingly, the end of Faithful Realism’s cultural relevance is in sight. Twenty-five years ago, when The Backslider was published, it was subversive in its insistence on the primacy of Christ's grace in the Plan of Salvation. Now, all that’s subversive about it is its rejection of a CleanFlicks aesthetic. More recently, Long After Dark and the fiction anthology Dispensation seemed subversive in their depictions of atypical Mormon experiences. Now, these works are beginning to seem like slightly edgier versions of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign.

Am I wrong to suggest that the cultural work of Faithful Realism is becoming a less subversive voice in Mormonism’s current cultural project? Is it possible that Faithful Realism will soon* fall in step with the new status quo and become irrelevant?

* Within twenty years or so?

   

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