Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The End is Near! Read Modern Mormon Men!

My latest post is up on Modern Mormon Men. In it I use the upcoming Apocalypse to talk about a few Mormon books I'm interested in reading right now. I also shamelessly pitch the Mormon Lit Blitz.

You can read the post here.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The New Home Literature: Art for the Committed Mormon Masses

Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be.”
--Orson F. Whitney, "Home Literature"

When Orson F. Whitney delivered his landmark 1888 speech “Home Literature,” he had one thing in mind: Missionary Work. That’s the impression you get, at least, from a passage like this one:

"Wake up! ye sons and daughters of God! Trim your lamps and go forth to meet your destiny. A world awaits you: rich and poor, high and low, learned and unlearned. All must be preached to; all must be sought after; all must be left without excuse. And whither we cannot go, we must send; where we cannot speak we must write; and in order to win men with our writings we must know how and what to write [….] For over fifty years the gospel has been preached to the poor and lowly. It will yet go to the high and mighty, even to kings and nobles, and penetrate and climb to places hitherto deemed inaccessible. Our literature will help to take it there; for this, like all else with which we have to do, must be made subservient to the building up of Zion."

And it’s a pretty accurate impression. Throughout the speech, which is one of the earliest pieces of Mormon literary theory out there, Whitney kept coming back to missionary work. When he famously prophesied that “[we] will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” it was with the hope that such would be able to bring into the fold the kind of people who read Milton and Shakespeare.

Even though he was extremely popular in his day, Orson F. Whitney is now largely forgotten--except, maybe, as a name that occasionally pops up in Sunday School manuals. “Home Literature,” too, is almost lost to time. Unless you’re really into Mormon literary studies, it’s unlikely that you’ve ever heard of it.

Still, the speech’s influence lives on. Turn-of-the-Century Mormon writers, took Whitney’s challenge seriously. In publications like The Contributor, The Juvenile Instructor, The Young Women’s Journal, The Woman’s Exponent, and The Improvement Era, they published stories, poems, and essays that put a new, more evangelically useful face on Mormonism. For today’s readers, these works seem a little trite, hardly Milton or Shakespeare; back in the day, though, they were a powerful force in shaping the way the Church and its member saw themselves.

Of course, this approach to literature-making had its drawbacks. For one, it led many to associate Mormon literature with missionary work and PR efforts, even though this certainly wasn’t the aim of every work being publish. It also gave rise to the stereotype that all Mormon literature was preachy, cheesy, and (at worst) deceptive in its no-warts depictions of Mormon life. Today, when a Mormon book gets called “Home Literature,” it’s not meant as a compliment. It’s basically another way of saying the book is little more than sermonizing fluff, the print equivalent of diet Sprite.

And—to be honest—some of it is. Unlike its turn-of-the-century predecessor, this so-called “Home Literature” does nothing more for its Mormon readers than lull them away with promises of “clean” entertainment and hardly any pressure to change in a meaningful way. True, such novels offer uplifting messages and wholesome homilies, but they often do little but assure the reader that all is well in Zion.

In my opinion, this literature is not Home Literature. Superficially it may sound like home literature, but it doesn’t act like it. It is a true impostor. Try to shake its hand and all you’ll get is air.

So, what is the new Home Literature?

First, let’s go back to Orson F. Whitney. True, his ideal Home Literature was missionary minded, but it was also meant to be a reflection of the writer’s commitment to the Gospel of Christ, the Kingdom of God, and the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. “[A] pure and powerful literature can only proceed from a pure and powerful people,” he argued, and a people could only be pure and powerful under the refining influence of Christ and the Spirit. For Whitney, in fact, the Holy Ghost was the muse, “the genius of ‘Mormon’ literature.” Without it, there was no Home Literature.

This brings me to our next dilemma. If Home Literature is meant to be a reflection of the writer’s commitment to the Gospel, doesn’t that automatically preclude the writer from trying to tackle tough issues in realistic ways? I mean, can a writer really, really be committed to the Gospel and write something that doesn’t put a nice sheen the Mormon experience?

Or, similarly: How can a writer show his or her commitment to the Gospel and not write something that is trite and cheesy? Isn’t that generally the problem with Mormon literature in the first place? Too many people trying to bear testimony with characters, setting, and plot?

Here we have the First Great Fallacy, the belief that the faithful voice and the artistic voice can’t tie the knot without producing a houseful of corn and cheese. This is closely associated with the Second Great Fallacy, the belief that a faithful audience will never give ear to an artistic writer’s work. And the Third Great Fallacy, the belief that an artistic audience has no time for a faithful voice. And, for that matter, the Fourth Great Fallacy, the belief that the faithful Mormon life isn't complex enough for good art.

I could go on.

The basic truth is this: Orson F. Whitney was on to something. Literature is a force to be reckoned with, capable of enacting great change and gathering diverse people into a unified whole. It can only be so, however, if we make it so.

A false tradition has been handed to us that says Mormon literature will only appeal to the Mormon masses if it’s faithful fluff—or, conversely, faithful literature will only appeal to more “sophisticated” readers if it’s riddled with subversive content (i.e. profanity, castrations, coffee) and an undercurrent of doubt. Proponents of such falsehoods like to point out that there’s little evidence to the contrary. To borrow loosely from Whitney’s own imagery, which he borrowed from the Savior himself, such individuals are content with pouring new wine into the old bottles of yesteryear, forcing potentially fresh Mormon literature to fit within the tired stereotypes, and ruining it in the process.

To be clear, I am not saying Mormon literature needs to purge itself of the subversive and doubtful. That would needlessly limit its scope. What I am saying is that Mormon literature needs to toss aside the idea that subversion and such represent the only way to merge art with faith. As I see it, there is room for all kinds of Mormon literatures. If we close the door on one approach, say it can’t be done, we are casting our lot against all of Mormon literature. It is only in the intense rivalry of these various approaches that Mormon literature can ever hope for a richer, more diverse future.

So, here’s the challenge of the New Home Literature: finding a way to merge art and faith in a way that appeals not only to the “serious” Mormon reader, but also to the masses of committed Mormons. Only then, I believe, will it be able to skirt the impostor’s fate and truly matter. Only then will it be like its predecessor: a powerful and influential cultural force.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Mormon Lit Blitz Writing Contest


Chances are, you've already seen this. But if you haven't, you should take a quick look. It's a contest being organized by James Goldberg and me, and it's open to all writers interested in writing for an audience who loves Mormonism. Judging is blind, so seasoned Mormon writers and new-comers alike have a chance of winning the grand prize: a Kindle pre-loaded with works of great Mormon literature.  
Not a writer? That's okay. In February you can read the contest finalists' work online and vote for the one you like best. Until then, you can also stay updated on the contest by "liking" the Mormon Lit Blitz on Facebook and following it on Twitter. 
Also, keep checking back here for more posts related to Mormon literature and the Mormon Lit Blitz.
CALL FOR CONTEST SUBMISSIONS
Now announcing the first ever Mormon Lit Blitz Writing Contest. Send up to three submissions by 15 January 2012 to mormonlitblitz at gmail dot com for a chance to win a Kindle and more.
What we want:
Short work for Mormons to be published and read online.
The details:
“Short” means under 1,000 words.
“Work” means creative writing in any genre, from literary realism to far future science fiction, and in any form: fiction, essay, poetry, even play or screenplay if you can keep it under 1,000 words. Give us a tiny, polished gem we can show off to people who love Mormonism and love great writing but “know not where to find” a place where the two meet.
“For Mormons” means for committed Latter-day Saints. Yes, that’s an extremely diverse audience (see the “I’m a Mormon” campaign—and your ward members), but it’s also an audience with distinctive shared values and history that don’t often get attention in creative work. We want you to write something that will appeal to us as people who believe in the sacred, who have ridiculous numbers of brothers and sisters we see every week, who worry about being good and faithful servants no matter what our day jobs are and wonder what it will be like to meet our grandparents’ grandparents in heaven. We don’t need your pieces to preach to us. We do need them to combine your creativity and religious commitment in a way that excites us and gives us something cool to talk about with our Mormon friends.
“To be published and read online” means we’re going to post six to twelve finalists’ pieces on Mormon Artist magazine’s blog (www.mormonartist.net) and then ask readers to vote on their favorites.
One catch: since even 1,000 words can be intimidating on a screen, your piece needs a strong hook of no more than 120 words (or eight lines for poetry) to be visible on the main blog page. Mark the end of your hook with [MORE]. Even our editors will only read further if you’ve piqued their interest.
Submission Guidelines:Submissions must have fewer than 1,000 words with a hook no longer than 120 words (or eight lines for poetry). Submissions must be engaging to Latter-day Saints and engage with their Mormon identity in some way.
Authors may submit up to three works. Each submission must be attached to an email as a .doc or .pdf file. The selection process is blind, so the author’s name should not appear on the document.
Email any questions and your submissions to mormonlitblitz at gmail dot com. Submission emails should contain the author’s name, the titles of each submission, and contact information (telephone number or email address).
By submitting, authors give us the one-time rights to publish their work electronically. Previously published work is OK if you still have the rights to the piece and if it meets the above contest requirements (don’t forget to add a [MORE] tag to the end of your hook).
The prize:
The contest editors will select six to twelve finalists. All finalists will have their short works published online starting in mid-February 2012 and actively promoted across the LDS blogosphere by the Mormon Lit Blitz team.
After all pieces have been published, readers will vote on a single Grand Prize Winner, who will receive a Kindle pre-loaded with LDS literary works, including Parley P. Pratt’s classic short “A Dialogue Between Joseph Smith and the Devil,” Peculiar Pages’ recent Monsters & Mormons anthology, Zarahemla Books’ Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, the poetry anthology Fire in the Pasture, and recent issues of Mormon Artist magazine.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

New Low-Tech Web Address

The Low-Tech World has a new web address: www.low-techworld.org.

Update your blog rolls, feeds, and subscriptions accordingly. 

Reviewing Mormon Literature

A few months ago I became the book review editor for Irreantum, the literary journal published by the Association for Mormon Letters. So far the job has been challenging in a good way. I’ve never worked officially as an editor before, so I’m learning a lot and acquiring skills that will probably benefit me well into the future. I’m also getting random, unsolicited review copies in the mail from publishers and authors who want me to run reviews of their books. (By the way, you should probably subscribe to Irreantum. Here's how: http://irreantum.mormonletters.org/Subscribe.aspx)

So, not a bad gig.

Anyway, this post has two purposes. I’ll get the first one out of the way right now:

I’m currently putting together a list of potential reviewers, a veritable bullpen of insightful readers and writers who are willing to step up whenever a book needs reviewing. As is often the case, Irreantum doesn’t get a lot of book review submissions, so it is my job to a) find existing reviews on blogs that can be turned into journal reviews or b) recruit people to review texts of b.1) my choosing or b.2) their choosing. This is not a terribly difficult job, but it can be time consuming if no one is posting reviews on blogs or slamming my inbox with submissions.

So, if you’d like to be in the bullpen…let me know. In most cases you’ll at least get a free copy of the book under review and a contributor’s copy of the Irreantum issue carrying your work.

Now for the second purpose:

Just as there is no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, there is no right way to write a book review. Still, to encourage review submissions and aid potential reviews along, I am in the process of drafting guidelines for writing Irreantum book reviews. So far, this is what I have:   

Since Irreantum is a journal focused on Mormon literature, it’s primarily interested in publishing reviews of fiction, poetry, and drama by or about Mormons. Reviews of visual narratives, like graphic novels, and texts published in emerging literary forms are also considered.

Reviewed texts do not need to be brand new, although reviews of recent texts are preferred. Irreantum is also interested in publishing, from time to time, new reviews of “lost” Mormon literature—say from the 1960s or 70s or earlier.   

Most book reviews in Irreantum run anywhere from 1000 words to 2000 words, although longer reviews are not uncommon.

Book reviews should address a work’s literary value and possible significance to Mormon literature as a whole. It can likewise touch on what the work has to say about Mormonism culturally.

Reviews should draw attention to such things as the work’s target audience, major theme or themes, style and tone, characters, character development, plot, and genre. Reviewers should also incorporate direct quotes or passages from the text to supplement the review’s main points.   

Theological matters can be brought up in a review, but they should not overwhelm it.

Reviews can provide some biographical information about the work’s author. Special attention should be paid to the author’s previous works and how the new work fits in or takes the author’s career in new directions.

The style and tone of a review does not need to be formal and scholarly, although it can be. Also, reviewers can include autobiographical anecdotes in the review as long as they are relevant and do not distract from the primary work of the review.

Reviewers should keep in mind that the Mormon literary community is small. Likely, if you review a book, the author of that book will read your review. Be fair. Be helpful. Be honest.

A review should point out flaws when necessary and always have something good to say about a text. They should also be free of ad hominem attacks and any comparison of a text to Milton or Shakespeare.

The long and short of it is this: write about the book—what you love or hate about it, why others should or should not read it, etc.  Write something that will do justice to the book and be helpful for future readers. Have fun with it. Let the readers get a sense of your connection with the text. 

Reviews can be submitted to reviewsubmissions at mormonletters dot org.

Again, this is only a rough draft of review guidelines and does not represent any official review policies of Irreantum or the Association for Mormon Letters. As many of you know, AML has its own policies for reviews published on its websites. Reviewers for Irreantum would do well to look at those guidelines as well.

Also: is there anything I’ve missed? What more should a review of Mormon literature include?   

Friday, November 11, 2011

Latest Modern Mormon Men Post: "Revisiting My Dorky Childhood"

My latest post is up on Modern Mormon Men today. It's called "Revisiting My Dorky Childhood." You should read it. It has nothing to do with Mormon literature. But you should read it.

You should also make a habit of reading Modern Mormon Men. It's not just for the guys.

Already this week they've featured great posts on motherhood and sacrifice, Mormon myths, personal tragedies, and youth finding acceptance through Michael Jackson music.

Also, if you want to donate your old comics to me to help rebuild my collection, contact me by comment, email, airmail, or telepathy.

You can also follow me on Twitter because I need more followers. In fact, you can follow me on Twitter even if you don't have any comic books.

'Nuff said!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Nephi Anderson's "The Inevitable" in Action; Or, My Critical Bromance with "The Author of Added Upon" Continues

Recently I came across Nephi Anderson's 1907 short story "The Inevitable," which was published in the August issue of The Improvement Era. The story recounts an evening discussion between Bert Archer, a recent Mormon convert, and Lucy, his non-Mormon wife. Lately, Bert has been trying to share his new-found faith with Lucy, who adamantly insists that she "shan't and won't be a 'Mormon!" Bert is persistent, though, and presses his wife for an explanation. This is what ensues:

"I don't understand 'Mormonism,' " she continued, "and I can't believe what I do not understand. And especially the marriage part of your religion-there are some things in it that I can't and won't believe."
  "What particular part, for instance?"
  "Polygamy."
  He did not laugh at her, but it was a big, broad smile which she saw across the table.
  "As far as we are concerned here and now," he said, "that is a matter scarcely worth debating. Wherever or whenever we see that 'article' we may be sure that it is contraband. You need not worry about polygamy, my dear. Let us get down to the first principles."
  "No; I am going to stay with the 'higher principles,' as you call them. Faith, repentance and baptism may be well enough, but what about plural marriage and these other things?"
  "Well, what about them, dear?"
  She did not reply, but she leaned forward and adjusted the coal in the grate. He wondered at the strange mood she was in tonight. When she sat up again she did not look at him, but at the picture of a sweet-faced woman [Bert's deceased first wife] hanging on the wall above him. After a few moments, her eyes still fixed on the picture, she said:
  "She must have been a beautiful girl. Was she?"
  "I think so; and as good as she was beautiful.
  "She had never heard of 'Mormonism,' had she?"
  "No; she died six months before the 'Mormon' elders came to our town."
  "Had she lived, do you think she would have become a 'Mormon?."
  "I have no doubt about it. Our religious views were much alike, and we often discussed principles which later I learned were gospel truths."
  "Did you ever discuss the marriage question with her?"
  "Do husband and wife ever talk of marriage? Well, now-"
  "I mean from the 'Mormon' viewpoint, of course, that of marriage for eternity."
  "Yes; although we did not have much light on the question, we having been taught from childhood that the marriage relations entered into here were only binding until death did us part. It seemed to us that there was something wrong, but we could not locate it. If we are eternal beings, we reasoned, and have an eternal principle, why should not love continue as long as there is existence. And then, again, what God does should be eternal, and we believed that when Parson Brown married us-as he married you and me-and said, 'What God hath joined, let no man put asunder,' we believed he had the authority which he claimed. But I'll admit that we were somewhat at sea on these matters."
  "Now, Bert; tell me this: you believe that the true marriage state exists eternally. You loved your first wife as much-well as much as you say you love me. You will want her in the next world as much as you say you want me." She looked fixedly at him across the table.
  "True, dear, true, but-"
  "Don't you think, Bert, that I can see the inevitable result of this marriage system? Yes; I am not so dull, or so blind.-All you need to do is to be sealed to your first wife for eternity, and then marry me for time and eternity in your temple, and there you have it."
  Bert did not reply.
  "You will then two wives at the same time," she said.
  "Your reasoning is absolutely correct," he replied.

***

By today's standards, and possibly even by those of its own day, "The Inevitable" is not a great story. Still, Bert and Lucy's discussion of Mormon marriage doctrines, published three years after the so-called Second Manifesto and six months after the close of the Reed Smoot hearings, is a piece of Home Literature that exemplifies the cultural work being done by Mormon literature at the time. Bert, a well-read and articulate man, serves as a highly rational model of a believer, the antithesis of the stereotypical Mormon then being demonized by the national presses. What is more, he acts as a mouthpiece for the relatively new LDS stance on marriage, carefully distancing the Church and its men from polygamy (without, of course, disavowing the principle or its place in the hereafter) and affirming the inherent logic behind the principle of eternal marriage. Indeed, his confident, unabashed defense of Mormonism and its teachings seems calculated to assure Anderson's 1907 readers that its okay to be a Latter-day Saint.

***

"The Inevitable" is not a well-known story, but it is among the many lost Mormon short stories that need to  be dusted off and studied critically to better understand Mormon literature and its role in the creation of Mormon culture and life. Who knows what these forgotten texts have to teach us about ourselves and our cultural tradition?


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

John Lyon's "Murder Will Out": 19th Century Mormon Pulp

In celebration of Monday's release of the highly-anticipated (and highly quirky) Mormon literature anthology Monsters & Mormons, I give you this classic ghost story written by John Lyon, Mormon poet.  

It first appeared in the June 1883 issue of The Contributor.

"Murder Will Out"
by John Lyon
  
WHEN I was nine years old, I was terrified to go to bed alone, I had heard so many tales of ghosts, and witches, that I was afraid even at that advanced age of boyhood to sleep alone. My mother was a strong minded woman on every subject but one, and that was in the fear of spirits after death, and of their appearance to people who survived their decease. In consequence, this subject was often brought up by neighbors who came to visit her, and I became a retentive auditor and stored my mind with these spiritual relations, that to this day cause me to keep a sharp lookout, in out-of-the-way places, for something supernatural.

Among the innumerable stories thus told in my childhood, there was one I could never forget, which was related by a soldier's wife, and which I believe was quite authentic. Her husband was a private in the Lanarkshire militia, and she was with the regiment as a laundress, in the seaport town of Dundalk, Ireland, in the year 1792, when this circumstance transpired.

In the above town there were two men who kept a store in partnership, doing an extensive business an all maritime articles, and they were thought by the public to have accumulated a great amount of wealth. Suddenly one of them left, and no reason could be imagined for his disappearance. Sometime had transpired, and there being no prospects of his return, his wife demanded that a settlement be made of their affairs in stock and trade. This was not done before in consequence of a report being circulated, that her husband had taken with him a large amount of money belonging to the firm, which the remaining partner had kept secret for the sake of his family. However, he complied with the lady's desire, and an inventory was taken, that she might know her portion of the stock. This was done so rapidly and the value of the proceeds was so small, that her friends who had been interested in the division of the property, thought something was wrong, not only in the smallness of the amount of goods, and the largeness of the firm's indebtedness; but the hurried way in which every thing was done by the partner, who had the property and stock in his possession, looked very suspicious. The lady whose grief was already extreme was still more, grieved to know that her husband who was esteemed, not only to be wealthy but honest, having held a respectable position in society, should without any apparent cause so suddenly leave, his worth reduced to an insignificant amount, compared with what it should be in view of his economical way of living, and the vast amount of business done as a ship storing merchant.

A short time after the settlement, the heart sick, and desolate lady lay in her sleepless bed thinking over her bereavement, and the strange turn of her lost husband's affairs, when there he stood before her, seemingly bathed in blood! So real was the apparition that for a moment she thought he had returned to his home. Stretching out her hand she accosted him by name, and was in the act of rising from her couch, when he waved his hand to her, and said he was no more of this world, and that he had been permitted to appear, and reveal to her the mystery of his disappearance. He informed her, that he and his partner had gone out on a pleasure sailboat, and that the latter struck him down with a hatchet, tied a sack with a large stone in it to his body, and threw him into the sea. Her husband commanded her that she should go directly and inform the magistrates of this crime, and have the murderer apprehended, not only for his murder, but for swindling her out of his property. At this point of the spectres relation, the lady fainted, and when she had come to her senses the spirit was gone. The day following she went as the spirit had told her to the magistrate. When he heard the relation, looking upon it as a delusion, he said he could do nothing in the matter, as there were no witnesses to prove what she had told him.

Sorrowful, and disappointed she returned to her home, and when night again invited her to a weary sleepless couch, through vexation, and the nameless trepidation of a spiritual visitation, she lay down wide awake, when, lo! as she expected, her husband again appeared, and spoke to her in soothing encouraging language bidding her not to be afraid and telling her, as if he knew what the magistrate had said, in respect to having no witnesses to verify the truth that he had been murdered, that he would appear himself in person, at twelve o'clock on the morrow at the levee of the new dock-telling her to describe his wounds, which he showed her, and his appearance as she saw him on both nights.

As directed, the lady again called on the magistrate, and told him the request of the spectre. Still unbelieving, the official ordered a warrant for the apprehension of the accused partner. Early in the day the town of Dundalk was well informed of this wonderful affair, namely, that a dead man would appear as a witness against the murderer of himself! Thousands of people turned out on the levee, some laughing at the credulity of the story as a spirit hoax, others less infidel, and others firmly believing in the truthfulness of the revelation waited in patience, expecting to see a personage of the other world. To the surprise of the multitude, just as the sun was at the meridian, there the dead body of the lost man floated into the new harbor, his skull cloven, as before told. The authorities present thought the fact most damning, as no person could have brought the body to land precisely at the appointed hour, as it was seen borne by the waves when far out on the water, before the time specified it would arrive.

The person taken on suspicion that morning, when he heard of this wonderful appearance and discovery, seen by thousands, so corroborative of his guilt, confessed his crime, and also to robbing his partner's widow, upon which confession he was brought before the lords of the justiciary, condemned and afterwards executed at the new dock. The place to this day is called the hangman's harbor.

The person who told me this story was a spectator on the quay and saw the body float into the harbor.