Thursday, April 28, 2011

500 Words on Mormon Fiction and the Decline of the Rural Utah Aesthetic

Rural Utah has been important, historically, for Mormon novels. Even recently, acclaimed novels such as Todd Robert Petersen’s Rift and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist suggest that rural Utah (particularly southern Utah) continues to speak to the Latter-day Saint experience.

For some time now, though, the Church has started to focus less on its Utah identity and more on its global image. Take a look at the photography used on its webpage and you will find very little that smacks of rural Utah.

Of course, rural Utah is still a part of church culture and teaching. Just this morning, for example, I shared a quote by Spencer W. Kimball in which he talks about milking cows as a boy—something, I guarantee, a majority of LDS Seminary students have never done. In General Conference, too, we still tend to hear stories by General Authorities about their farm days, although this is beginning to change.

Change is happening in Mormon fiction as well. While the literary Mormon novel continues to hold tight to the rural Utah aesthetic—a veritable Bishop’s Storehouse of settings, images, characters, tropes, and dialects—Mormon short fiction seems to be cutting ties, ditching the farm for less greener pastures. More and more we are seeing stories about Mormon life outside of Utah. Even better: we are seeing an increasing number of Mormon stories cross national boundaries.

Admittedly, some recent Mormon novels have ventured beyond the borders of both Utah and the United States. Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, for example, takes place not only in Utah, but also in Germany and Korea (although, I think it’s safe to say that Harris Thatcher’s mind is never far from home). Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven, likewise, takes readers on a journey through Colombia. In both instances, these border crossings happen from the point-of-view of American missionaries, so foreign lands always remain foreign.

Although I’ve criticized mission fiction in the past, I think such stories as Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden” and Laura McCune-Poplin’s “Salvation” (along with Thayer’s The Tree House) prove that mission stories don’t have to suck. Still, I’d like to see more kinds of transnational Mormon experiences depicted in fiction. More Latter-day Saints live outside the United States than in, after all, so it stands to reason that their stories should have a prominent place beside the rural Utah aesthetic.

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t like rural Utah fiction, but I do find myself being drawn to stories that give me a different picture of Mormonism. In Long After Dark, for example, Todd Robert Petersen has some excellent stories about Mormons in Rwanda (“Quietly”) and Argentina (“Now and at the Hour of Our Death”), which show the possibilities of an international approach to Mormon literature. I’m hoping that these stories foreshadow the future of Mormon fiction.

I’m also hoping that the proposed anthology of Portuguese Mormon short stories by Samuel Lamanite Editions hits the presses soon. It’ll be a step in the right direction.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mormon Fiction Bibliography

I've added an additional page on this blog for a bibliography of essays on Mormon fiction. The bibliography is a work in progress. Ideally, I want it to be a list of every essay ever published on novels and short stories by Mormon authors or about Mormon characters. As I find these essays, I'll add them to the list. When possible, I'll link the bibliographic entries to the essays themselves.

I'm limiting the bibliography to essays that focus on specific works of Mormon fiction. Essays on Mormon poetry or drama, therefore, won't make the list. I'm also going to leave out essays that treat Mormon literature generally.

Feel free to direct me to essays not yet on the bibliography.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Shocking Satire: A Review of A. Allworth's "Saints in the Latter Days"

Satire is tricky. Very few people pull it off well. Those who do—Jonathan Swift, Stephen Colbert—are geniuses. Those who don’t usually end up embarrassing themselves.

Take the chaps at Halestorm—the guys who spent the last decade cranking out low-budget Mormon comedies like The Single’s Ward, The Home Teachers, Church Ball, and The Single’s 2nd Ward. In many ways, they had it right: we Mormons need satire.

But then, in the execution, they often got it wrong. Like 8 times out of 10.

Remember, for instance, the scene from The Home Teachers—one of the few not shamelessly lifted from Tommy Boy or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—when the home teachers get discouraged and sing Michael McLean’s “You’re Not Alone”? That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never have back. Watching it, I felt embarrassed for them.

So, all satire is tricky. Especially really good Mormon satire.

I bring this up because I recently finished reading the enigmatic A. Allworth’s satiric Mormon novel Saints in the Latter Days, which has recently been published as an ebook and made available on Amazon and wackymormonbook.com.

Here’s a brief summary. Conflict, controversy, intrigue, and eco-terrorism ensue when philanthropist and eco-activist Abel Rosenberg is found dead, tied to a dogwood tree and suffocated on a baby-back rib. Since the philanthropist was also the owner of a prime piece of much-coveted Virginia property, his death—an obvious result of foul play—triggers a tenacious land-grab. Immediately, three parties step into the ring: Utah Senator P. Alma Pedersen, who wants to use the land to dump his state’s surplus of dirty diapers; N. Dellmer Christensen, a Mormon bishop and president of High Times Tobacco Company, who wants it for tobacco cultivation; and the Virginia Land Trust, an environmentalist group that wants to preserve the land from development.

Each group goes to great lengths to prevent their rivals from getting the land. Senator Pedersen, for example, enlists two local missionaries—Elder Higbee and Elder Lee—to masquerade as eco-terrorists and sabotage High Times equipment. Such work suits them: before their missions, Higbee and Lee (both named, incidentally, after the perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre) were less than ideal Mormon boys.

Obviously, Saints in the Latter Days is an irreverent romp through Mormon culture. Nothing is sacred in this novel. Rare is the page that does not carry some form of sacrilege and blasphemy. There’s no need to ask: this book will offend you.

Here’s the deal. Saints in the Latter Days is the kind of book that requires a certain kind of audience. If you are like me—if you're relatively puritanical and like the object of satire to be recognizable in the text—then Saints in the Latter Days is not for you. Frequently, for example, Allworth’s Mormons are so over-the-top “unrighteous” and “inappropriate” that they cease to say anything meaningful about Mormonism. What are you supposed to do, after all, with a Utah senator who’s ridiculously obsessed with pornography and sees polygamy as a way of fathering a male heir? Sure, there’s a commentary on patriarchy somewhere in there, but not a kind of patriarchy that I really see operative in the church today. Depictions of the church, likewise, are equally over-the-top. For example, early in the novel, BYU (and really Mormonism in general) is characterized as an uber-conservative police state that disciplines and excommunicates at the drop of a hat. It’s a liberal’s nightmare three steps away from Nazi Germany.

Now, I’m not saying the church isn’t conservative, because it is. But I am saying this: the exaggerations you find in Saints in the Latter Days are not exaggerations of the church as it really is, but rather exaggerations of stereotypical perceptions of the church. There isn’t, in other words, a whole lot of nuance in Allworth’s satire. When I read this book, I don’t feel like I’m looking at the church as if through a well-polished funhouse mirror. Rather, I feel like I’m looking at a quickly-drawn amusement park caricature: I see the resemblance, but only because I’m looking for it.

That said, Saints in the Latter Days is not without merit. Allworth has come up with an imaginative cast of characters, for example, who manage to keep the novel interesting. And, while Allworth’s irony-laden prose is nothing special, it’s also not bad. Occasionally, it even provides a laugh or two, usually when Elders Higbee and Lee take the stage, and the ending doesn't suck. Sadly, though, too much in the novel seeks to shock rather than to satirize. After a while, the perversity begins to grate on you.

So I didn’t like Saints in the Latter Days and I’m not going to recommend it to my friends and readers. Like D. Michael Martindale’s Brother Brigham, it’s the kind of Mormon novel that comes into your house, takes a leak on the carpet, and leaves without cleaning up the mess.

Of course, I’m not going to say that Saints in the Latter Days is not without an audience. Just because I didn’t like anything about the novel doesn’t mean that you won’t. Some people, whose worldviews and opinions differ from mine, would enjoy this sort of book and find Allworth’s twisted brand of humor funny. I imagine it’s the kind of book Jack Mormons and apostates will enjoy with a glass of wine and a cigarette.

If nothing else, I hope A. Allworth takes that (and the comment about the carpet) as a compliment.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of Saints in the Latter Days from the author. A. Allworth is a writer from Georgia. Saints in the Latter Days is her first novel.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"The Raw Material for a Literature Absolutely Unique"

This past week I received an email from Theric at Thmazing's Thutopia directing me to this, the introduction to Nephi Anderson's 1912 novel, Piney Ridge Cottage: The Love Story of a "Mormon" Country Girl. The introduction was written by the nearly-forgotten John Henry Evans, who, we quickly learned, was at one time a prominent Mormon man of letters (and, later, Joseph Smith's first major biographer).

What he had to say in 1912 continues to be relevant for Mormon writers and critics 99 years later.


INTRODUCTORY.

"Mormonism" has been a distinct influence in the world now for exactly eighty-two years. During this time it has become a great and notable institution; formed a people, unique in many respects; given direction to tens of thousands of minds; shaped destinies; created an atmosphere, an environment, the like of which you can find nowhere else; has impressed on its adherents, consciously or unconsciously, a philosophy of life, an outlook on the world.

Here then is the raw material for a literature absolutely unique. Here is a means of untold wealth, awaiting the discovering genius and the transforming touch of modern labor and machinery. It surpasses in literary opportunity that which made fame for the authors of the "Luck of Roaring Camp," the "Octopus," the "Virginian," the "Gentleman from Indiana," the Winning of Barbara "Worth," "A Certain Rich Man," the "New England Nun," and scores of other works of fiction which have their setting in this or that part of the country, and which depict characters and scenes peculiar to a given locality. We may go even further than this. We have that in our community life and religion which ought to produce literature with the universal note.

But there are two things that hinder the development of pure literature among us. The first is the hesitancy with which many of our people take up fiction and poetry. We 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 a mere fact. And then, too, if a story like this of Mr. Anderson's, be in local color, its reading public is bound to be comparatively small, even if most "Mormon" families buy it. No writer among us today therefore, can live wholly by his pen. And until our writers can live wholly by their pen, devoting all their mind and heart and leisure to creative work, we cannot expect to see them do the best of which they are capable in literature.

I plead, therefore, for more encouragement of our home writers. If we are to have anything substantial and permanent in our literature, we must do it ourselves. For although outsiders are beginning now to use this raw material of ours, still they cannot do anything of real and lasting value, no matter how much art they put into their work, because they are outsiders, lacking the sympathetic insight with what they try to depict—which is indispensable to high creative work.

Let us be loyal to our own. Let us lend encouragement to him who lives by the sweat of his brain, as we are already loyal to him who lives by the sweat of his brow. Let us imbibe and help our children to imbibe, the influence that comes from work which has been beaten out on our home anvils under an impulse which has come from our own morality and high seriousness.

John Henry Evans.

Salt Lake City, Utah, April, 1912.

I don't see a real need to add anything more to Evans's words, but I will say this: Mormon literature continues to need a larger reading audience. I'm not one of those who is cynical about Mormon reading habits. Most Mormons I talk to read books of one kind or another--and not just the fluffy stuff (as the stereotype goes). My wife's Relief Society book club, for example, has tackled some pretty heady books, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and no one seemed to complain. I think they'd willingly tackle Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth or Todd Robert Petersen's Rift if they 1) knew about them and 2) had access to them.

Part of what motivates this blog is that I want people to know that these books exist. But awareness only goes so far without access. Unless we can get Mormon literature into the hands of the Mormons, they're not going to read them. I'm sure small-press Mormon publishers can talk about their frustrations with the access issue.

So, echoing Anderson, I plead for "more encouragement for our home writers," particularly those who publish through the small literary presses. There are good Mormon novels out there--heady novels that push beneath the fluffy "gee-whiz" exteriors that many readers associate with Mormon literature. These books are packed with the "raw material" of Mormonism, and they need to be read by Mormons.

Sadly, libraries outside of Utah don't carry a lot of these books, and we Mormons are a thrifty people. Fortunately, the rise rise of eBooks and eReaders are making books and publishing less expensive and more accessible. It could be that Mormon literature will finally get a more substantial following once devices like the Kindle and Nook become the norm.

I hope this will be the case over the next 99 years.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Correct Me If I'm Wrong: A Review of Ally Condie's "Matched" (and a Certain Kind of Mormon Criticism)

I recently finished a novel about a society that really values traditional marriage.

No, it wasn't about the Mormons. It was about “the Society,” a post-apocalyptic Utopian community that serves as the setting for Ally Condie’s latest YA novel, Matched (Dutton Books, 2010).

The novel takes place in the future, several generations after civilization as we now know it has self-destructed. Technology is the main culprit. "Everyone had technology, too much of it," we learn, "and the consequences we disastrous." Details, unfortunately, are sketchy. In the aftermath of this techno-apocalypse, the survivors created the Society, a kind of nation-state that makes its decisions based on what's best for the community. Every aspect of life is determined by logic. Rather than leaving its members to make their own choices, the leaders of the Society--the Officials--make their choices for them based on data that is collected, sorted, and analyzed to ensure a collective happiness.

Nobody questions the system because it always delivers on its promises.

The pinnacle of the Society is marriage. When members of the Society turn seventeen, most of them are given the option to remain single--which is clearly the second best option--or be matched with someone from the opposite sex who, statistically speaking, would make the best match (think of it as a more serious version of those compatibility tests you took in Junior High). Significant pomp and circumstance surrounds the announcement of these matches, which are made during an exclusive ceremony called the Match Banquet.

As I mentioned, most members of the Society are given the choice of being matched. Still, within the Society are also aberrations, or members of the Society who perform menial labor and are barred from marriage. In many ways, these aberrations are no different from other members of the Society, and nothing about their physical appearance betrays their low status. Yet, for one reason or another, the Society has branded them pariahs.

Herein is the central conflict of Matched: what happens when someone who has already been matched falls in love with an aberration?

Love triangles seem to be a Tree of Life for a lot of YA fiction these days, and Matched certainly holds to the rod. Cassia, the novel’s main character and narrator, is matched early in the novel to Xander, her best friend since childhood, but she quickly develops feelings for Ky, another childhood friend, when they become hiking buddies during their recreation time. I’m not going to reveal too much about the plot, since a novel like Matched depends upon the potency of its secrets, but I will say this: things don’t go well for Cassia and Ky. For one, Ky is an aberration. He’s also a poetry-reading rebel with a knack for drawing pictures on napkins.

Need I say more?

Overall, Matched is a good book, although it’s nothing exceptional. At times, for example, the world Condie presents us seems rather generic, so we never get a sense that we’ve been transplanted into a strange, new environment. For me, this is the book’s main drawback. When I read science fiction and fantasy, I want to be taken someplace that unsettles me with its foreignness. The characters are also a little flat, especially Xander, who isn’t given enough face-time to leave readers with a lasting impression. Cassia is the most “realistic” character, and it’s through her strong narrative voice that we are allowed to share in her struggles over questions of freedom, government, happiness, choice, and conscience. She’s a smart character, and the fascinating emergence of her disillusionment is really what carries this book and makes it succeed as well as it does.

Reading it, I recognized a lot of tropes from other dystopian novels like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and especially The Giver. If you are a hardcore fan of these kinds of novels, then you may get bored with Matched since it brings nothing new to the genre. However, if you’re not hardcore (I imagine most of us fall into this category), then Matched might be worth the day or two it will take for you to read it. My ideal readers for this book, though, would be the tweens and early teens crowd. I think they’re the kinds of people who would benefit most from the dilemmas the characters characters face.

Of course, as a Mormon reader and reviewer, I tried to look around for a cool Mormon subtext in Matched--you know, something that goes beyond mere thematic issues. I didn’t really find anything too significant, but I won’t be too surprised if I attend a conference one day and hear a paper read that parallels the Society with an Althusserian-style reading of Mormonism.

Here’s a common enough situation: our friend the literary critic—let’s call him “Walter”—picks up a copy of, say, Twilight and opens it up and stays awake all night reading it. Walter, being a well-educated man with highly refined tastes and sensibilities, is not overly impressed by the book, nor is he dying to read its sequel, the celebrated New Moon. Nevertheless, Walter has watched a PBS documentary on the Mormons and, in a moment of unforgivable weakness, has even met (only once) with LDS missionaries. Both experiences, he feels, were enough to acquaint him with Mormonism, enough to help him see deeply into the Mormon subtexts of Twilight, one of the few works of fiction (he’s sure) written by an actual Mormon.

So Walter begins drawing parallels (drawing upon Wikipedia when necessary). During their visit, the missionaries had said something about chastity, so Walter suddenly understands why no one has sex in the novel. He also sees a connection between Twilight’s apparent lack of gay characters and the LDS Church's well-publicized position on Prop 8 in California. (Could there be any other explanation?) Then there's this quote he found in the book of Second Neephee! Suddenly he knows why Meyer's vampires glow.

Within a week, his brainstorming session comes to an end, and he is very proud of the “revealing connections” he has drawn. Obviously, under the black-light of critical scrutiny, Twilight glows with trace evidence of Mormonism. By the end of the month Walter has a conference paper ready. He has even coined the phrase “neo-Lamanitism” in reference to Meyer’s portrayal of Native Americans.

Don't get me wrong: significant Mormon subtexts can (and do) exist in novels like Twilight and Matched. But critical approaches like Walter's are too often based on superficial comparisons, misinformed readings of Mormon culture, and irrelevant applications of long-defunct Mormon teachings. It's a lazy kind of scholarship that feeds off of sensationalism and good old fashioned shock-and-awe. Unfortunately, too many critics fall Chewbacca-like into its trap.

So, like I said, I will not be surprised if someone ends up drawing these kinds of parallels in Matched--especially if it takes off like Twilight. I imagine a few critics will look at the Society's emphasis on marriage, obedience, and group cohesion, and point out how Mormonism emphasizes the "same thing." Who knows, someone might even point out how the cover of the novel shows a young woman trapped in a bubble.

You know. A bubble like Provo.

Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I’m not sure this kind of criticism holds much water. I admit, when I first read the premise of Matched, I thought the Society sounded similar to how the LDS Church is sometimes characterized by those who look at it suspiciously, so I tried to read the novel that way. It didn’t last long. My connections started to stretch and tear like Hulk Hogan’s t-shirt. Since those kinds of readings annoy me anyway, I wasn’t too disappointed.

My point: Critics have to be careful when drawing parallels between Mormonism and the fictional worlds created by Mormon authors. Sometimes the parallels ring true. A lot of the time they don't.

Of course, Walter, I could be all wrong about Matched. It could be that we have something really subversive here from the author of several otherwise faithful LDS novels.

But I doubt it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

500 Words on Mormon Science Fiction and Fantasy

Within the last thirty years, many Mormon writers have worked within the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Orson Scott Card and Stephenie Meyer, of course, are likely the most famous among them. I’ve read and reviewed works by both authors, and while I have been critical of Meyer’s Twilight series, I have always had a great deal of respect for Card’s work.

(For Low-Tech fun, here are my reviews of Card, Meyer, and Meyer.)

Still, I’m not a big reader of science fiction and fantasy. Last year, for example, I read only three novels that I would label certifiably science fiction or fantasy (Interview with the Vampire, Breaking Dawn, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and one that I would label as borderline (Slaughterhouse-Five). I don’t know why, but I’ve never been able to get into sf&f—even though I like a good sci-fi film or TV series. Maybe I’ve had too many students approach me with the first twenty pages of their lousy fantasy novels, begging me to give them my “expert opinion” on their work.

I’ve always drifted towards realistic fiction. While my friends in high school were reading Robert Jordan and writing stories about guys named “Xyff,” I was reading Hemingway and writing “gritty” stories about a kid named “Steve Wyler” who spends a summer canoeing with a suicidal girl named “Karen.” Of course, I tried to read and write the kinds of speculative stories my friends liked, but they never hooked me. Even today, I prefer stories about normal people with relatively normal problems.

This might make me an exception among Mormon readers. Mormons, after all, love speculative fiction, and there are many fantastic Mormon writers out there who work wonders within the genre. Of course, I’ve heard many theories as to why this is the case. Once, for example, at a conference dedicated to the Twilight series, I heard a panelist argue that Mormons prefer to write fantasy because they can’t face the realities of life. At the same time, she also speculated that Stephenie Meyer has not yet been excommunicated because the Mormon hierarchy wants her tithing money.

Obviously, the panelist who spoke at the Twilight conference based her claims on a rather superficial awareness of Mormonism and what’s going on in Mormon literature. While the best-known names in Mormon literature—Card and Meyer—are science fiction and fantasy writers, I’m not sure their work is typical of Mormon literature in general, which is surprisingly polygeneric. Moreover, I think it’s silly to suggest that speculative fiction, because it’s based on a highly stylized presentation of reality, does not face the realities of life. Such a claim says more about the reader than the genre.

Still, as much as I admire the work of Mormon sf&f authors, I doubt I’ll ever become their avid reader. Part of me feels this way because the stuff I really value—the realistic Mormon fiction—is not getting enough attention. Maybe I’ll change my mind when realistic Mormon fiction starts selling as many copies as the latest Fablehaven novel.