Friday, December 30, 2011

A Prospective Deacon's Guide to Jock Straps and Disco Dancing: A Review of David Clark's "The Death of a Disco Dancer"

For me, life began when I was twelve. Before then, I lived in imitation of my older brother: what he did, I tried to do—often less successfully. Take a look at our second grade school pictures. Both of us are wearing the same blue and white v-neck t-shirt. I remember deliberately picking that shirt from my drawer of hand-me-downs because I knew it had been the shirt he had worn for his second grade picture two years earlier. When time came to take the picture, I tried my best to smile just like he had. I had been practicing all morning.

Everything changed when I turned twelve and became my own man. I was a deacon, for one, which meant that I no longer had to suffer the humiliation of being a full-time member of Senior Primary. I also became a Boy Scout, which meant that I could finally carry a pocket knife and light off firecrackers in the woods. I had hit the big time. No more riding on an older brother’s coattails for me. I was a MAN—or, at least, on the cusp of manhood—the envy of Blazers and Valients alike!

Being twelve had its downsides too, which I usually learned the hard way. Kids were meaner in sixth and seventh grade than they had been in fourth and fifth grade, and girls suddenly took shape and became harder to talk to. But I survived it all—somehow—a little worse for wear, no doubt, but with a great deal of nostalgia for the dumb stuff I did to get by and fit in. When I started writing stories at fifteen or sixteen, a lot of them were based on my years as a hapless deacon.

Sadly, the deacon years of the male Mormon experience are not often depicted in Mormon fiction. One can always find deacons in the fiction of Douglas Thayer, of course, and recently Brady Udall featured an imaginative deacon-to-be named Rusty in his novel The Lonely Polygamist. But most Mormon fiction, if it’s not depicting adults, seems more interested in older young men: teachers, priests, or missionaries.

This is perhaps why David Clark’s new novel The Death of a Disco Dancer (ZarahemlaBooks, 2011) stands out in my mind. Set in sweltering Arizona in 1981, the novel follows eleven-year-old Todd Whitman as he stumbles—or, more precisely, limps—towards a Kenny Rogers-infused “Pubescent Apocalypse,” his junior high Hello Dance. Along the way, he participates in various rites of boyhood—oranging, fake fighting, gym class hazing—and learns more about his family history from his grandmother, who lives with his family and suffers from Alzheimer’s. In fact, it’s Todd’s relationship with his grandmother that forms the central nervous system of the novel. Without the chapters devoted to their midnight family history/dancing sessions, the book would be a fun novel, but not necessarily a good one.

Which is odd, because my favorite part of The Death of a Disco Dancer is its sophomoricism, its endless string of crotch humor and juvenile sadism. Todd and his friends, after all, are at an age when the usual childhood games have become boring, so new and more exciting games have to be found. They’re also at an age when puberty has made all things below the belt the punch-line of every half-understood joke. Throughout the novel, Todd’s mind never wanders too far from jock straps, bathrooms, and bodily functions.   

Aiding and abetting Todd’s humor is his hilarious older brother Gregory, a ninth grader who masterfully feeds Todd’s prepubescent anxieties. For example, to prepare Todd for junior high gym class, Gregory describes the gauntlet each seventh grader must run to exit the showers:

The seventh grader would dart around the corner into a gauntlet—a birth canal-like aisle of orange locked lined with zitty metal-mouthed ninth graders laughing and screaming the F-word, snapping towels at your bare butt as you ran past them. Some of the meaner ones, Gregory said, would make rat tails—soaking wet towels rolled up as tightly as possible—and aim for your wiener as you instinctively cupped yourself and waddled as fast as you can through the chaos. When snapped correctly, a rat tail sounds like the crack of Indiana Jones’s whip. (169)

Much of what Gregory tells Todd about junior high runs along a similar vein, and all of it keeps the reader laughing, even at times when Gregory tries to be helpful. When Todd frets about not knowing how to dance, Gregory dryly reassures him that “[d]ances are a form of institutionalized mating ritual. And all mating rituals are foolproof. If somebody doesn’t tell you what to do, at the last minutes and in the right situation your natural instincts will take over” (171).

But The Death of a Disco Dancer is not just about wiener jokes and gym class anxiety. As Todd witnesses his grandmother’s mental decline, and especially its effect on his mother, he gains insights about life and death that would have gone unobserved or overlooked if he had been any younger. In a sense, the novel is about the very beginnings of Todd’s coming-of-age, the first summer of the rest of his life. And though the book ends before Todd’s twelfth birthday, readers still get a sense that he’s going to survive the precarious transition from child to teenager years. He may still need a few more dancing lesson, but he’s ready for the responsibilities of a deacon.

The Death of a Disco Dancer is David Clark’s first novel, and part of me hopes that he becomes this century’s Douglas Thayer, whose literary influence seems to pervade the book’s prose. Todd Whitman has a strong, distinct narrative voice that captures perfectly the innate obnoxiousness of early adolescence. Also, Clark incorporates Mormon elements so seamlessly into the novel that one wonders why he felt the need to include a straight-laced “Unofficial Glossary of Selected Mormon Terminology” at the end of the book. I’m no gentile, but I can’t imagine anyone unfamiliar with Mormonism getting lost in this book. Not in an age of Wikipedia, at least.

Admittedly, certain aspects of the novel seem weaker than others. While I appreciate Todd’s relationship with his grandmother—and Clark’s handling of it—I feel as if that aspect of the novel lacks closure. Also, certain elements of the grandmother’s history are never fully fleshed out, particularly her relationship with her husband, whom she remembers only as “The Dancer.” Midway through novel, for instance, Clark introduces a mystery, a certain falling out between the grandparents, which is never articulated in detail. As a reader, I’m curious to know more. I want the mystery solved, the ambiguities gone.

Of course, I recognize that ambiguity well done is the stuff of good fiction, even if it does leave things messy. Still, I’m unsure whether the ambiguities at the end The Death of a Disco Dancer frustrate me or leave me more intrigued with the book and its characters. I guess I’ll have to read it again a few years from now, maybe when I start forgetting how strangely exhilarating it was to be a twelve-year-old Mormon kid on the verge of something terrifying and great. That it, after all, the strength of The Death of a Disco Dancer: its heartfelt, realistic tribute to that age when life truly begins.   


Note: I received a complimentary copy of The Death of a Disco Dancer from its publisher, Zarahemla Books, which in no way influenced my review of the book.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"A New Plea for Fiction" on A Motley Vision

If you haven't yet had a chance to read my new guest post on A Motley Vision, you can access it here.

It is a plea for all of you Mormon fiction writers out there to submit stories about contemporary Mormon life to the Mormon Lit Blitz.

So, go ahead and read it...even if you aren't a fiction writer.  

And make sure your Mormon Lit Blitz submissions are in on January 15th.

And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, &c., &c.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tyler Chadwick Uncut: "Fire in the Pasture" and Mormon Poetry in the 21st Century

Yesterday, Modern Mormon Men posted an interview I had with Tyler Chadwick, editor of Fire in the Pasture, a recent anthology of Mormon poets. Sadly, I wasn't able to run the full interview on MMM because of its length, so I have decided to post the uncut version here. Most of what you'll read below made the original cut, but a few choice insights--like Chadwick's take on what makes a poet "Mormon"--are unique to this post.

Enjoy.     

Scott Hales: What is Fire in the Pasture and how did you become a part of it?

Tyler Chadwick: Fire in the Pasture is an anthology that includes the work of 82 twenty-first century Mormon poets. It was released October 15 by Peculiar Pages, an independent publisher of what the company's proprietor, Eric W Jepson, calls "auspicious multiauthor anthologies"—like The FOB Bible (2009) and Monsters & Mormons (2011). In the publisher's words, Fire in the Pasture is "a major landmark boundary-disrupting game-defining historic unmissable mustread book." As the book's editor and as a poet myself, I'm much less modest. In fact, when I think of the book, I think legendary. Heroic. Epic—in length as well as in importance to Mormon culture. Also, canonical. Or better yet, canon-busting. Then, canon-remaking.

Let me explain: Since 1989 the standard for Mormon poetry has been Eugene England and Dennis Clark's anthology,
Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems. And it should hold an honored place in Mormon letters: England and Clark gathered hundreds of poems from 58 poets whose writing careers spanned the half-century before the book was published. But that was over two decades ago. And poetry didn't die in or around the '80s, contrary to what some people have written. Neither did Mormon poetry retire nor drift into apostasy after Harvest hit bookshelves. In fact, it may have just been breaking into stride.

Eric acknowledged as much in April 2009 when he asked me if I'd like to edit a new anthology of Mormon poetry. "People are always talking about how we need a new volume of poetry,” he said, “that Harvest, great as it is, was long ago and needs to be supplemented. But, to the best of my knowledge, no one is actually putting anything together. It's all talk. No action.”

And he wanted to take action: "Here's what I have in mind,” he continued. “A survey of the best stuff published [from] the dawn of the millennium . . . through the end of 2010." I jumped at the chance to update Harvest and, before I'd even closed out of my inbox, I started the marathon effort of gathering poems and contacting poets—because, really, who wouldn't want to help the world of Mormon letters move past its apparent Harvest-envy?

SH: A lot of poets talk about how poetry is at least a dying art—something no one ever reads any more. How is that not true in Mormon culture? What is poetry’s place in contemporary Mormonism?

TC: Poetry isn't dying. And any poet who suggests otherwise may not be worth her/his salt as a poet. I'm just sayin'. I mean, seriously, what artists in their right mind would say the craft to which they've dedicated a lifetime is headed for a shallow, unattended grave? Maybe someone who wants to play the victim, I guess—and I'm sure there are poets desperate, for whatever reason, to fill this role, emotionally-sensitive, attention-seeking lot that we are. (And by "we are" I mean, of course, "I am.") But to say poetry is dying or has been or is being killed off ultimately does the craft, its practitioners, and its potential audience a great disservice.

I, for one, believe poetry is as vital and virile as it ever has been, if not more so. Consider the following varieties of contemporary American poetry—though it might be more productive to think of "poetry" in the plural. So: Consider the following short list of contemporary American poetries: ASL, concrete, cowboy, free verse, formal, hip hop, jazz, language, lyric, prose, slam, sound, spoken word, rap, video, visual. And many of these poetries contain further variations on and combinations of each theme. What's more, there's really something there for everyone. If you don't like formal or lyric verse, try some spoken word or slam. If slam's not your cup of tea, try some concrete or visual poetry. And so on and so forth. The reading possibilities are there and anyone with access to the Internet can track down examples of excellence in each category with a simple keyword search (though Googler beware: this will also bring up some not-so-excellent examples).

So, again: poetry isn't dying. It's very much alive and thriving. And you can even have it delivered straight to your RSS reader every day.

As for poetry's place in contemporary Mormon culture, I think Latter-day Saints—as with many in broader American culture—may in general read a) more classic than contemporary poetry (cross reference
Best-Loved Poems of the LDS People, which contains work “from Shakespeare, Dickinson, Longfellow, Wordsworth, and Kipling, [. . .] alongside classic LDS poets W.W. Phelps, Eliza R. Snow and David O. McKay”) and b) more didactic or sentimental or sensational verse than work by contemporary poets. By this I mean that many of us may prefer poems that offer an easy moral or emotional or spiritual payload, one that could be grasped with a cursory reading of the text and used to illustrate a gospel principle in a sacrament meeting talk, which, let's face it, may be one of the only times some of us go looking for or are exposed to poetry in the first place (cross reference Especially for Mormons, where, “[f]or almost 30 years, thousands of Saints have turned [. . .] to find inspiring stories, quotes, and thoughts to use in lessons and talks”). But such poems are often really just doctrine or morals masquerading in predictable rhythms and rhymes.

And while I'm happy poetry has any place in contemporary Mormonism, "all is not [yet] well in Zion"—but we're getting there. The quoted part of that statement is an echo of Clinton F. Larson, who is often referred to as the first modern Mormon poet (think Parley P. Pratt meets Dylan Thomas). Larson borrowed the line from Nephi over four decades ago when he was asked in
an interview with Ed Geary to consider "the future of poetry in the church." I find the rest of his response especially relevant today when so many Mormon poets have made their way into mainstream American poetry and are being published by respectable journals and presses and being nominated for and winning national prizes and endowments for their work.

Anyway, Larson suggests in his reply to Geary that “[p]art of the spiritual record that must be kept [by the Latter-day Saints] is the poetry of the people.” He then warns that without a “body of significant and enduring poetry” to connect the Saints sensually and aesthetically to their religious experiences, Mormonism's cultural heritage would be in jeopardy. He actually says it would “not, in fact, exist.” Poetry, then, as Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Hass observes, is “a sign of cultural health.” It’s an indication, Hass continues, that “a lot of people [in the culture are] literate and alive,” simply because “[y]ou have to have some kind of interior life to make [and to enjoy] a work of art and in a world as busy and heedless as this one we need all the consciousness we can muster” in order not to wither on the vine, as it were. So poetry comes of introspection and carries with it an abiding awareness that the inner life matters. And this strikes me as being especially relevant to Mormons in terms of the LDS quest to marry our inner- and outer-lives, to expand our personal and cultural consciences and consciousness toward the establishment of Zion.

But I’ve gone too philosophical now, haven’t I?

SH: How does Fire in the Pasture take Mormon literature—and specifically Mormon poetry—in a new direction?

TC: As I was gathering poems for Fire, my focus increasingly turned to the poets themselves. I wanted less to compile a collection of Mormon poems (as was the case with Harvest, which is subtitled Contemporary Mormon Poems) and more to showcase the depth and breadth of Mormonism’s contemporary poets. In
his review of Fire, poet and literary critic Michael R. Collings, whom I invited to include five poems in the anthology, aptly speaks to the distinction—so I’m going to borrow his words:

Rather than being a compilation of “Contemporary Mormon Poems,” with the implication that each of the poems contained therein will somehow reveal its inherent “Mormon-ness” to a discerning reader, Fire shifts attention to “Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets”—the difference being that this collection concentrates on the poetry (and thereby the poetics) of poets who are Mormons. On poets.

As I see it, then (and others are, of course, free to disagree), Fire in part turns attention to the cultural work these poets and their poems perform. This work includes, among other things, theories of life, religion, and spirituality; cultural critique, of Mormonism and beyond; and explorations of doctrinal, historical, personal, and sociological territory that may not be fully possible in the functional—and sometimes completely bureaucratic—prose of historical and contemporary Mormonism.

SH: Fire in the Pasture features the work of seasoned Mormon poets and newcomers alike. What does this rising generation of Mormon poets bring to the anthology?

TC: Save having a bit less experience and cultural cache, the newcomers bring the same thing as the seasoned poets: devotion to the craft and diverse relationships with contemporary Mormonism.

SH: The subtitle to Fire in the Pasture is Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets. What makes a poet Mormon?

TC: From my perspective—and again, others might not necessarily agree with it, but this was how I framed the book—poets are Mormon if they’ve been initiated into mainstream Mormonism, meaning they were at least baptized members of the LDS Church, even if they no longer actively practice the religion or have had their names dropped from Church records. So they at least have some sedimental relationship with Mormonism, even if they don’t worship as Latter-day Saints anymore.

In this light Fire is really more concerned with Mormonism as a cultural construct and less as a purely religious system of doctrines, rituals, ordinances, and beliefs.

SH: Why should every Modern Mormon Man have a copy of Fire in the Pasture on his bookshelf?

TC: Because it matters. And poetry in general matters. And he should really keep it on his nightstand, not on his bookshelf. I mean, look at
the cover: it’s gorgeous—and sensual, as poetry is also sensual. Who couldn’t use more of that in their bedrooms lives?

SH: Who would win in a fight between Clinton F. Larson, the Father of Contemporary Mormon Poetry, and, say, T. S. Eliot? Would a tag-team option involving Leslie Norris and Ezra Pound change the outcome?

TC: Honestly, I'd put my money on Eliot, especially if Pound had his back (which he did), especially since Eliot and Pound were larger-than-life during their own lifetimes, and especially since without Eliot and Pound, there may not have been a Larson. Throwing Norris in there might improve Larson’s chances a bit, though.

*****

Tyler Chadwick lives in Pocatello, Idaho, with his wife, Jess, and their four strong-willed daughters. He’s (almost) a doctoral candidate in English at Idaho State University--just needs to get those blasted comprehensive exams out of the way!--and he teaches freshman composition at ISU and online for BYU-Idaho. He sometimes blogs at chasing the long white cloud and A Motley Vision and he's recently started writing on poets, poetries, and poetics attawhiao.tumblr.com. His latest poetry project is an ekphrastic (*bless you*) engagement of J. Kirk Richards’ paintings.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

One Year with Mormon Literature

Today marks one year since I started posting solely about Mormon literature. I thought I'd commemorate the occasion briefly by linking my five favorite posts from the last year.

Here they are in no particular order:

Modern Mormon Family: A Review of Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth

A Darkly Sentimental Alley: Rethinking Nephi Anderson and the Home Literature Endeavor

Get Your Hands Off Those Sheep: A Review of H. B. Moore's Ammon

Flooding the Bloggernacle with Mormon Literature...?

The New Home Literature: Art for the Committed Mormon Masses

For the record, I'm going to keep posting weekly as long as I can. I want to end December with a review or two and then begin reading a group of Mormon novels that are part of my qualifying exams. Later, sometime in April, I'll be spending a week or so teaching out of Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, and around June I'll start working on my dissertation on Mormon fiction.

All in all, I should have plenty of material for posts.

As always, thanks for reading. Keep the comments coming...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's Not About Mormon Literature, Butt...

I have a guest post up right now on my friend's new blog, "Heidi Poppins." It's not about Mormon literature, but rather a Christmas story about a special ornament that hangs on my Christmas tree.

You can read "The Butt Ornament" here.

Enjoy

Monday, December 12, 2011

Modern Mormon Men Interview: John S. Dinger and "The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes"

My latest post is up on Modern Mormon Men. It's an interview with John S. Dinger, editor of The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, forthcoming from Signature Books.

It's a fascinating discussion about Joseph Smith and the relationship between church and state in Nauvoo. Among other things, Dinger provides some great insight into the city council's controversial decision to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor.
  
In conjunction with the interview is a giveaway hosted by the blog. If you would like to have a chance at winning a free copy of The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, go here and follow the steps provided.

You can read the interview here.

You can learn more about the The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

B. H. Roberts on "Legitimate Fiction" and Social Reform

In 1889, the Church was on the brink of making significant policy changes that would fundamentally affect the way its members saw themselves and the world around them. Recognizing this, perhaps, B.H. Roberts, writing under the pseudonym "Horatio," made this passionate plea for the legitimacy of fiction in the Latter-day Saint life. "The dry facts of a theory respecting social reform must be made to live in persons and work out the results desired," he argued, and fiction, more so than "a lengthy homily from the church on the subject," was the way to make them live!  


Note: I've edited the following text for length and bolded the most important stuff for all you skimmers out there.    

from "Legitimate Fiction"
The Contributor 10, 1889
      
But what in the main I wish to call attention to is the fact that it is becoming generally recognized that the medium of fiction is the most effectual means of attracting the attention of the general public and instructing them. The dry facts of a theory respecting social reform must be made to live in persons and work out the results desired. The essayist is a character of the past, the novelist of a certain type is taking his place.
  
Nor is this style of fiction confined to these modern days; it existed in very ancient times, as witness the life of Cyrus by Xenophon. As Cicero says to his brother Quintus, in a letter, "The design of Xenophon in writing the life of Cyrus, was not so much to follow truth, as to give a model of a just government," and I might add, of a prince and a man. To show how effective this style of composition was in the hands of such a master as Xenophon, I introduce an incident which he relates of Cyrus in the before mentioned work. When Cyrus was some twelve years of age he was taken by his mother, Mandane, to visit his grandfather, Astyages, king of Media. Here everything was different from what Cyrus had been accustomed to in Persia. Voluptuousness, intemperance, pride and magnificence were characteristic of it. When the time came for Cyrus to return, a great feast was gotten up in his honor, for he had become a general favorite at the court of Media. At this feast Cyrus was permitted to distribute the meats as he saw proper, which he did, giving such quality and quantity to each of the King's officers, agreeable to his own fancy or pleasure; to one because he had taught him to ride; to another, because he waited well upon his grandfather; to another, because he took great care of his mother; but to the King's cup-bearer he gave nothing. This officer being the one who introduced those who had an audience with the king, and not having procured that privilege for Cyrus as often as he desired it, he was no great favorite with the prince who took this opportunity of showing his resentment.
  
King Astyages was displeased at the slight given one for whom he had a particular regard, because, as he said, of the graceful dexterity with which he served him. "Is that all papa!" said young Cyrus, "if that be sufficient to merit your favor, you shall see I will quickly obtain it; for I will take it upon me to serve you better than he." He left the banquet hall soon to return with a napkin over his shoulder, and holding the cup filled with wine gracefully with three fingers, he approached the king to whom he presented the cup with such charming dexterity and grace that he won the applause of all present, but most of all the praises of the king; "O, Sacas! poor Sacas!" meaning the cup-bearer, "thou art undone; I shall take thy place!" exclaimed the young prince as he kissed the king. Only one ceremony he had omitted, that of pouring a little wine into the left hand and tasting it before handing it to the king, and to this his grandfather now called his attention: "I am mighty well pleased, my dear child: no body can serve me with a better grace; but you have forgotten one essential ceremony, which is that of tasting." "No, it is not through forgetfulness that I omitted the ceremony," replied the young prince. "Why then, for what reason did you do it?" "Because I apprehended there was poison in the liquor." "Poison, child! How could you think so?" "Yes, poison, papa, for not long ago, at an entertainment you gave the lords of your court, after the guests had drunk a little of that liquor, I perceived all their heads were turned; they sang, made a noise, and talked they did not know what; you yourself seemed to have forgotten that you were king, and they, that they were subjects; and when you would have danced, you could not stand upon your legs." "Why, have you never seen the same thing happen to your father?" broke in the king. "No, never," replied Cyrus. "How is it with him then when he drinks?" "Why, when he has drunk, his thirst is quenched, and that's all."
  
It matters not much to us whether the foregoing actually occurred or not. There stands a glorious lesson on intemperance; more impressive than a lengthy homily from the church on the subject; more effective than any mere scientific treatment of the subject, with its learned terms and cold moral precepts could be; at the same time it pleases the fancy with its dramatic force and beautiful simplicity.
  
I can see no harm in such fiction as this; on the contrary, I recognize an effective and pleasing method of teaching doctrine, illustrating principle, exhibiting various phases of character, and making the facts of history at once well known, and giving them an application to human conduct. This class of fiction, indeed, is working its way into our own literature; and stories illustrating the evils overtaking young women, who marry those not of our faith, have appeared both in the Juvenile Instructor and the CONTRIBUTOR. Nor do I think any one reading those stories can doubt their effectiveness; and I am of the opinion that this style of teaching can be employed successfully in other directions.
  
I hope these remarks will not be construed into a defense of those inflammatory, sensational novels,
  
Which, kindling a combustion of desire
With some cold moral think to quench the fire-
Though all their engineering proves in vain,
The dribbling stream ne'er puts it out again.
  
Such works of fiction cannot be too much condemned, nor too severely barred entrance into the household, especially the households of the Saints; and with Cowper I could wish:
  
* * * A verse had power and could command,
  
Far, far away these flesh flies from the land;
Who fasten without mercy on the fair,
And suck and leave a craving maggot there!
  
For with him I agree that-
  
Such writers and such readers owe the gust
And relish of their pleasure all to lust.
  
But while the class of fiction which snivels and drivels folly without end, and is composed of "sentimental frippery and dream," and which mars what it would mend-is to be condemned; it by no means follows that the great works of Scott, Lytton, Thackeray, Dickens, Browning, George Elliot and Victor Hugo are also to be condemned. To bar such works as these from our homes or libraries would be to deny ourselves access to the richest treasures of English literature.
  
Horatio.

I'm not going to comment at length on this piece, but I think it's interesting that the "inflammatory, sensational novels" Roberts condemns are later described as "the class of fiction which snivels and drivels folly without end, and is composed of 'sentimental frippery and dream." In other words, Roberts, like so many Mormon literary critics seventy years later, seemed to have had no time for the fluffy, popular literature of his day. True, he wanted a didactic literature, but Roberts did not, as we often do today, associate "didactic" with bad literature. For him, rather, it seemed to mean a literature that sought to teach and shape the social conscience of the reader. Hence, his endorsement of talented, well-respected writers like Scott, Lytton, Thackeray, Dickens, Browning, Elliot, and Hugo, all of whom wrote powerful works designed to effect some kind of deep social change or another. 

We ought to keep this in mind when we look at the creative efforts of the Mormon writers of Roberts' day.   Were their didactic works little more that trite homilies, or were they powerful instruments of social change within the Mormon community? 

Also, would it be that bad of a thing to say that realistic Mormon fiction today is fundamentally and powerfully didactic?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Romneyxiety, Faux-Mo Lit, and the Fetishization of the "Bizarre"

Thanks to Mitt Romney and cultural appropriations like The Book of Mormon, everybody has something to say about the Mormons these days. A few weeks ago, for example, the illustrious Harold Bloom took time out from his petrification to grace the world with a fretful New York Times opinion piece on Romney’s run for the presidency. More recently, Michael Ruse expressed similar concerns in a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post. Like other non-Mormon commentators on Mormonism, he was quick to bring up planets, golden plates, and “creepy” Mormon underwear.[1]

I suppose we can forgive Ruse for the way he fetishized seemingly bizarre aspects of Mormonism in his piece. It’s nothing new: people have been doing it since the first Palmyrenes caught wind of Joseph Smith’s “Golden Bible” in the late 1820s. And Ruse is hardly the creepiest of fetishizers. That distinction goes to Max Florence and Gisbert Bossard, two men who tried to extort the Church in 1911 with photos of the interiors of the Salt Lake Temple and Beehive House, including a photo of Joseph F. Smith’s bed. Next to these chaps, Ruse and the rest of the “magical underwear”-loving crew seem kind of dull.

Still, it’s funny how the fetishizers get such a kick out of boiling Mormonism down to Kolob and the Golden Plates, as if such things were cornerstones of Mormon theology. If Romney is elected president in 2012, I hope they aren’t let down when he turns out to be a rather dull Jack.[2] Sadly, I don’t think he’ll be pouring money into the Smithsonian to fund archeological expeditions to Mexico to uncover ancient Nephite artifacts. Nor do I think he’ll spend a whole lot of time searching for Kolob with his all-access pass to the Hubble Telescope. Heck, he probably won’t even Bush his religion around all that much. Not as much as the fetishizers would like him to, at least.

Since this is a Mormon literature blog, I should probably point out that this brand of fetishizing is one of the hallmarks of faux-Mo lit. Recently on A Motley Vision, in fact, Theric tackled this very issue in his review of James Rollins’ novel The Devil Colony, which apparently sags with references to Golden Plates and a Mormon Kodesh Hakodashim! I mean, is it not telling that Ruse cites Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet as his first primer on Mormonism? It makes one wonder about the influence of, say, polygamy sexploitation novels.

Of course, it is my observation that real Mormon literature is much less likely to hold “bizarre” Mormonism up as a fetish than its faux-Mo counterpart. There are exceptions to this rule, no doubt, like the recent Monsters & Mormons, which brilliantly fetishizes the fetishization of Mormonism. But that’s an exception. Mormon literature, for better or for worse, is fairly down-to-earth stuff. Like most Mormons, it doesn’t spend a whole lot of time hie-ing to Kolob or digging up Golden Plates.[3]   


[1] I’m not sure what’s creepier: the fact that Mormons wear garments or that Ruse is looking at picture of them online. I mean, what’s up with the link? 

[2] Dull in the sense that he’s not going to reference the Golden Plates in his inaugural address or walk out onto the White House lawn in his “creepy” underwear.  

[3] If you’re interested, Todd Robert Petersen makes the non-Mormon fetishization of “weird” Mormonism the theme of his short story “Redeeming the Dead” from Long After Dark.