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?


Thursday, October 20, 2011

One "Long" Record of Failure: A Review of Jana Riess's "Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor"

At least three or four times a week I stop whatever I’m doing and ridicule the memoir genre.  Often without provocation.  The family will be sitting down at the dinner table, eating broccoli soup, and I will interrupt my four-year-old daughter’s energetic rendition of Beyoncé's “If I Were a Boy” to tell everyone how self-absorbed I think memoirs are. [1] “Have you ever noticed,” I’ll say, “how a memoir pretty much makes out with the first person pronoun?”

To which my wife will usually say something like, “Have you ever noticed that you write two blogs?”

And I admit she has a point.  Even now, as I’m trying to write a book review, I’m using it to make out with the first person pronoun.  So I’m just as guilty as the average memoirist, except I don’t have to travel anywhere to use the first person pronoun, which is really my biggest beef with memoirists anyway.  I hate how they always have to go somewhere.[2]

But enough about me.[3]  Let’s get back to my review. 

Memoir is a tricky genre.  For me, it too often comes off as a contrived effort at saying something universal—something “deeply profound” and “moving”—all while quarantined within the tiny confines of a hall-of-mirrors.  I know this isn’t always the case, but it often seems that way in a post-Eat, Pray, Love world.

So, up until a few days ago, I was unsure how I was going to take Jana Riess’s Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking theSabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor (Paraclete Press, 2011).  On the one hand, I have a lot of respect for Riess’s scholarly work, which I first encountered while researching an essay on Mormonism and Twilight.[4] Also, Riess is from Cincinnati, my hometown, which doesn’t hurt her Low-Tech cred.[5]

(NOTE TO CINCINNATIANS: Skyline Chili reference on page 136)

But smart scholarship and the hometown advantage do not a winning memoir make. For me, a really good memoir needs to be a balance of readability, personality, and authenticity.  If it’s severely lacking in any of these areas, I make like the Joad family and move on.[6]

Flunking Sainthood, by the way, is a chronicle of Riess’s attempt at spending a year tackling obscure spiritual practices from a variety of religious traditions. Like other memoirs of this ilk, most notably A. J. Jacobs’s hilarious The Year of Living Biblically, Riess devotes each month to a specific practice, often to the dismay of her family and friends. None of these practices, of course, are as zany as any Jacobs attempts—Riess never tries stoning anyone in Eden Park, for example[7]—but they have their charm.  She fasts, avoids shopping, tries lectio divina and Centering Prayer, talks to Jesus while cooking, keeps an extreme Sabbath Day holy, etc.  Of course, as the book’s title suggests, she’s never very successful at any of these practices. I wouldn’t say she outright fails at everything. But the book’s called Flunking Sainthood for a reason: It’s one long record of failure.

Except, to be honest, it isn’t that long.  

At 179 pages, Flunking Sainthood is a breeze to read. Which is good news for people who have the attention span of a dog or who inhale books like helium. In each chapter, Riess introduces her spiritual practice-of-the-month and then chronicles her failure through droll anecdotes, moments of profundity, and the occasional foray into her past.  Best of all, she provides readers with snarky commentary on the various books she uses to guide her along the sainted way.  For example, here’s Riess’s take on Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century French Monk, and his book The Practice of the Presence of God:

I hate it that Brother Lawrence sometimes refers to himself in the third person. That may have been a post-Renaissance man’s best shot at appearing humble, but nowadays it comes across as anything but. I’m also bothered by the relentless cheer of Brother Lawrence’s opening pages. I mean, being European in the 1600s was not exactly a cocktail party: there were religious wars, beheadings, and smallpox outbreaks, all compounded by unfriendly realities like an absence of central heating and cable TV. Add to that some of the particular unpleasantness of monastic life: the 3 AM self-flagellations, the throwback medieval spoils system, the often unreasonable abbots who were wealthy second sons with special call to the brotherhood. I’ve watched every episode of Cadfael. I know how it was. (25-26)

It’s snarkiness like this, combined with its manageable length, that makes Flunking Sainthood an incredibly readable book.  At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel that Riess’s chapters start to end at the very point when they need to be going that extra mile.  I guess because Riess is so funny and sarcastic, I found that I kept wishing that she would keep it going for a few pages more. Also, I often felt that the insights she gained from her failures sometimes came up too abruptly in the book, before I was able to get a good sense of how her monthly spiritual practice went down.

In a perfect world, Flunking Sainthood would be one hundred pages longer. Not because the book seems freakishly stunted or incomplete, but because the personality of the memoirist seems to scream out for more space. Throughout the book, after all, Riess charms the readers with a persona that is at once ironic, world-weary, and wily.   Nothing, it seems, is safe from Riessian sarcasm, including her husband, Phil, whom she describes memorably as “a classic DIYer, the kind who would gladly perform his own vasectomy using a Time-Life home surgery manual if he could save a buck” (29).[8] With a description like that one, how could you not want more?

Yet, Riess isn’t always chasing the next punch-line. At times, she can be surprisingly (possible grudgingly) heartfelt about her relationship with God and the ways certain practices, like the Jesus Prayer, help enrich that relationship. She also writes tenderly about a Sabbath Day game of Dogopoly[9] with her daughter, Jerusha, which may or may not have constituted Sabbath breakage.[10] Such passages, I think, provide a nice counterpoint to the memoir’s near-constant humor.

Of course, I’m not without Mormo-centric criticism of the book. Mormon readers will note, for instance, that Flunking Sainthood is not about them.[11]  In fact, nowhere in the memoir does Riess let on that the church she keeps talking about, or her conservative “faith tradition,” is of the Mormon persuasion.  This is not to say that Mormon readers won’t see themselves between the lines in the book.  I mean, they’re pretty conspicuous even without a name (see 22, 138, 142, 150).  Take, for instance, Riess’s comments on her church’s prayer practices:

We don’t recite the Lord’s Prayer in our church services, and as far as I know most people don’t do this regularly in family prayer either, though I haven’t exactly conducted polls. I expect that many people in my church are suspicious of “rote” prayers, which smack of Catholicism an might lead to Pharisaic vain repetition. We’re certain that vain repletion will cause dogs and cats to start mating with each other, and that will bring about the end of the world. (142)

If that doesn’t describe the average Mormon’s stance on vain repetition, I don’t know what does. Still, Riess seems hesitant to Mormon up in a book that is obviously designed for a broader Christian audience.

So, is it the right choice for the book?

Probably, since Mormons generally aren’t allowed to write books about Mormonism if they want them to be successful and win over large non-Mormon audiences.  So I can’t know for sure, but I imagine that Flunking Sainthood skirts Riess’s Mormonness because a more direct route would only distract readers from the real substance of her memoir, which is her engagement with these more universal Christian practices. Still, I can’t help but feel that this absence of open affiliation adds a touch of inauthenticity to the narrative, as if Riess is holding something back.  But maybe I’m being too much of a Mormo-centric critic on this point.  Readers of any other faith tradition are not likely to perceive any of this.

I don’t know. I can see both sides of the issue and their individual merits. Mormonism can be a hard ticket to sell, even when it’s not top billing.  Plus, as Robert Jeffress has recently noted, Mormonism is a cult anyway and should have no place in a book like this one.

So, what I’m trying to say is that Flunking Sainthood isn’t about flunking Latter-day Sainthood—and that’s okay because Latter-day Saints can still (believe it or not) benefit from reading it and likening it unto themselves and their own personal spiritual practices.  Who knows? Maybe the memoir will inspire a few of them to try a little Centering Prayer or some non-vain vain repetition.

At any rate, I enjoyed Flunking Sainthood—even though it ended much too soon. Riess not only has written a memoir that is as fun as it is thought provoking, but she has also avoided the self-absorbed hall-of-mirrors pitfall that tends to plague the genre.[12] While I doubt I’ll ever tackle any of her spiritual experiments, I at least have a greater appreciation for them and those masochists (or failed masochists) who practice them (or try to practice them) on a daily (uh…monthly?) basis.    

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of Flunking Sainthood from the publisher.

[1] I should also confess here that I have been known to interrupt my own rendition of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy" to either a) mock memoir or b) offer a shrewd analysis of Beyoncé’s song.

[2] This is the green-eyed monster speaking through me. I’m fine if people want to travel. I just want them to keep it to themselves until my bank account allows me to travel too. Then I’m all ears—unless they want to tell me about the time they hitchhiked through Europe. Or found solace on the peak of a mountain in Asia. Or ground their own coffee in Colombia.  

[3] Which is what memoirists always say when they want to appear humble to their readers. Or so I’ve heard.

[4] An expert on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Riess wrote a review of Twilight for BYU Studies that was, at the time of my research, the only thing written about Twilight and its Mormon connections that was worth its weight in plastic fangs.

[5] I should probably mention here that I’ve never met Riess even though we’re both Mormons in Cincinnati. Here’s the deal: as a city, Cincinnati is split East and West and it is an unwritten rule that East Siders and West Siders never interact except on special occasions, like when the Reds or Bengals are having a great season, which is the same as saying they never interact. But the Church in Cincinnati doesn’t adhere to the East/West dynamic; rather, it splits the city North and South, and North Stakers and South Stakers don’t tend to interact unless maybe when a General Authority is in town. Or, at least, it used to be that way back when Cincinnati only has two stakes. Now that there’s a Cincinnati East Stake, made up of old North Stakers and South Stakers, nothing makes sense any more. Except that North Stakers and South Stakers still don’t talk. Unless some progressive East Staker is willing to act as a kind of mediator.
     Incidentally, this is how my sister (a South Staker) and I (a North Staker) are now able to talk after years of silence: my parents (East Stakers) convey messages between us via a complex system of tin cans, strings, pulleys, and carrier pigeons that does not—amazingly—upset the delicate North/South balance.  
     Riess, by the way, is a South Staker, At least that’s what I gather from my East Stake friends. (Cue the emoticon!) J

[6] “The migrant people, scuttling for work, scrabbling to live, looked always for pleasure, dug for pleasure, manufactured pleasure, and they were hungry for amusement.” The Grapes of Wrath, 444.

[7] Which would be, in a word, awesome. As long as she used foam rocks and apologized later.

[8] By far my favorite line in the entire book.

[9] Monopoly…but with a dog theme.

[10] Is fake money kosher? Is “kosher” even the right word to use in this context?

[11] Let me know if you need to sit down or drink a glass of water.

[12] (cough) Eat (cough) Pray (cough) Love (cough) Julie (cough) & (cough) Julia (cough) …

Monday, October 10, 2011

MMM: "How to Turn Your Mormon Story into a National Bestseller"

My latest post for Modern Mormon Men is up today. In it I give tips on how to write a national bestseller about Mormons. Having never written a bestseller, or any book for that matter, I'm obviously an expert on the subject.

Here's the link:

"How to Turn Your Mormon Story into a National Bestseller"


Monday, October 3, 2011

"A Day with Carry Nation"--Nephi Anderson

Last night I watched the first episode of Ken Burns's most recent PBS documentary, Prohibition, which recounted in brief the history of Carry Nation, one of the more colorful teetotalers of American history.

Here's Nephi Anderson's humorous account of meeting Nation on a train. A longer version of it was first published in The Improvement Era in 1911. 

A Day With Carry Nation.
By Nephi Anderson, Author of "Added Upon," "The Castle Builder," "Daughter of the North," Etc.

We left Kansas City for the West on the evening of September 17, 1906. The train was belated, and we found ourselves next morning rolling slowly over the rain-soaked plains of Kansas. As the morning advanced there was a general awakening among the passengers, an adjustment of chairs and the making of toilets, in which Elder Delbert Stanger and I took part. We were returning "Mormon" missionaries. Elder Stanger had labored in Australia, and was coming home by way of Europe, thus making a complete tour of the world. We had been companions from Liverpool.

Directly across the aisle from us sat a "striking" looking woman. She was large, both in bone and muscle. Her dress was severely black, and when she had readjusted her toilet for the day she had on a small, Quaker-looking, black bonnet. Her black hair was sprinkled generously with gray. Her nose was rather small and sunken, but she had a prominent lower jaw, and lips that indicated the firmness of a vise. When she talked, which she was not timid in doing, it was in a high, clear voice that could be heard in all parts of the car. She attracted our attention from the first.

Presently every one in the car was startled by the woman standing on her feet, and repeating in a loud voice one of the psalms of David. After the recitation, she spoke for a few minutes by way of praise unto the Lord. Then she said, "Let us pray," and kneeling by her seat she uttered a prayer that could be heard in every part of the car. Then she arose to her feet again, and by way of explanation to the astonished passengers, she said, "I give my first and best efforts to God."

As we were still wondering what it all meant, we saw the woman take from her hand-bag a number of papers, go forward to the front of the car, turn to the passengers and thus address them:

"I am Carry Nation. I have copies of my paper, The Hatchet, which I sell for five cents. The newspapers of this country have abused me and misrepresented me, and I am publishing this paper in self-defense. Each paper bears my signature, and you may say you got it from Carry Nation herself. No one seems to know how to spell my name. It is C-a-r-r-y, not C-a-r-r-i-e, as you will see."

Then she came down the aisle, and readily disposed of her papers.

After a time I began conversation with her across the aisle. I asked her how the work of prohibition was prospering, and we talked pleasantly on kindred subjects for some time. Then I handed her my card, I must say, not without some fear.

"You are a 'Mormon' are you?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Well," she said, "there are some good people among the 'Mormons,' of course; but polygamy damns you all."

Just then, to my great relief, a party of four or five young men came in from another car. They had heard that the saloon smasher was on the train, and they came to see. They stopped by Mrs. Nation's seat and shook hands with her, as if they were acquaintances. Some of them had been drinking already, and it did not take long for Mrs. Nation to discover the fact. Then she denounced them roundly, which the young fellows took good-naturedly enough.


After the crowd had left, she came back at Elder Stanger and me. Perhaps she had to have it out of somebody after that mean trick the young fellow had played on her, and here were two "Mormons" within arm's reach. She pounced on us vigorously, talking loudly and boldly about the "Mormons" and their "vile practices." We did not wish to enter into a discussion with her, but she at last forced us to say something in defense. All in the car knew by this time that their stock of curiosities had been augmented by the addition of two "real, live, 'Mormon' elders," so they crowded around us to enjoy the novel spectacle. As Mrs. Nation wildly denounced us, she flourished a large Bible, which she said was the only hatchet she now used. I referred her to a few passages in her Hatchet, and asked her to read them, which she did. But she launched out again in a stream of talk. It was impossible to hold her to a given point until that was disposed of. She would fly from one topic to another with lightning rapidity. And how she did talk! Her words came in a continuous stream, loud and strong. Whenever I could "get in a word edgewise," which was not often, I spoke in a moderate tone; therefore the people in the farther end of the car came nearer to listen. I gave up trying to say anything. We were literally beaten down by the force of words, and at last, when there was a calm in the storm so that I could be heard, I called the listeners' attention to the fact that it was not our fault that Mrs. Nation's statements were not answered. We could not talk against a whirlwind, we said, or against a Kansas tornado.

She quieted a little then, and I talked for a few minutes without interruption, explaining the doctrines and position of the Latter-day Saints on the topics under discussion. The passengers listened attentively, and some of them expressed their approval of what we said. But Mrs. Nation showed her utter contempt for us by her non-attention. Then she became sarcastic, and I fear, I made a mistake by retaliating in kind. However, the "Mormons" tried to take it all good-naturedly. We had taken part in too many such adventures to be very much discomfited at this one. Mrs. Nation had been in Utah, and had been accorded the privilege of speaking in the Tabernacle, but this did not seem to count in the "Mormons"' favor. In fact, she was very ignorant of Utah affairs, for she spoke of the women of Utah as slaves. "Why," she exclaimed, "you 'Mormons' deny the rights of the priesthood to your women!"

We tried to explain.

"I should like to see a man try to bring a second wife to me," she said in no uncertain tones. "I'd fix him!"

"I can well believe it, Mrs. Nation," said I.

It was afternoon before the storm of discussion quieted. I changed seats with Elder Stanger, and after a time he and Mrs. Nation began talking. He told her of his missionary experiences in Australia, and she listened quietly. He spoke of how the Lord had blessed him and answered his prayers, and how his testimony that God lives had been made strong by the experiences through which he had passed. I had doubted whether there was in this strange, strong woman a particle of that finer feeling which naturally is a part of woman's nature; but when I listened to the conversation between Elder Stanger and her, I discovered that I was wrong in my doubts. As she listened to my companion, I noticed a softer expression come into the hard face, and as she, too, talked of how the Lord had been good to her, there was a mildness in her voice. Then I thought, "What an incomprehensibly odd mixture human nature is!" And again, "How wonderful it is that the Lord uses every odd mixture for his own good purpose! Here was Mrs. Carry Nation, eccentric, coarse, foolish in her ways, prejudiced, making herself ridiculous in the eyes of mildly-mannered people, and yet a force which set the people of Kansas and surrounding states to thinking in earnest about their condition in letting the saloon and whisky be their master. Was she not doing her work in the world? It may not be the way I or you would do such work, but who shall say that Carry Nation's way was not the best for the particular time and place?"

It was time for lunch in the car. We got out our meagre bread and butter, and Mrs. Nation opened a package of tempting sandwiches. I don't know whether she saw our scanty store, or our greedy eyes told on us, but I suppose her mother-heart was touched, and so she offered to share with us.

" 'If thine enemy hunger,' " she quoted, as she handed a sandwich over to us.

"Mrs. Nation," I replied good-naturedly, "if that applies to me, I shall not take it. I am not your enemy. I wouldn't object to your smashing every saloon in the land."

She laughed. "I was joking," she said.

"Then I accept your kindness with thanks," I replied.

The sandwiches were delicious.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Low-Tech Tweets

The Low-Tech World is now on Twitter.

That means you can now see how much I can say about Mormon literature in 140 characters or less.

I tried Twitter once before. It was a failure. Mostly, it was me. Not Twitter. I wrote about it here:

I'm hoping to do more with my Twitter account this time around than simply updating my followers whenever I read Ovid or post something on this blog. Most of what I have to say about Mormon literature never ends up in a blog post, so I'm planning to use Twitter to get some of those ideas out there. Kind of like deleted scenes from a movie, but more entertaining.

So, I think you should follow me: