Friday, February 24, 2012

Thoughts on Romney, Mormon Fiction, and Non-Mormon Readers

Yesterday I presented a paper on Mormon fiction at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. Two weeks before the conference, the panel chair emailed me and asked that I somehow work Romney and the Mormon Moment into my presentation. I originally had not planned to do this, but I was more than happy to oblige since it gave me an opportunity think more about what Mormon literature has to offer non-Mormon readers. 

What follows is the conclusion to my paper. It's here that I address the Romney/Mormon lit/non-Mormon reader question most directly. 

As I hope this very brief overview shows, Mormon fiction is moving away from the American West and seeking to tell less traditional Mormon stories. Still, the question remains: Why read Mormon literature? I think I can adequately answer that question for Mormons—and I have done so many times—but I struggle to answer it for everyone else. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, of course, makes the struggle somewhat easier. In an age when an American president’s religious beliefs often have a significant influence on national and global policies, people are understandably curious—even anxious—to learn more about those beliefs. Mormon fiction, therefore, provides readers with an opportunity to get to know Mormons and Mormonism without sitting down with the missionaries. Realistic Mormon fiction, after all, is not like a pesky white-shirted missionary: it will not invite you to be baptized into the Mormon Church, it will not ask you to read the Book of Mormon, and it certainly will not ask you to believe what Mormons believe. It will, however, give you a fair idea of how Mormonism plays out daily in a “real world” setting and how it informs the lives and worldviews of Mormons, particularly their notions of selfhood, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and social responsibility. More importantly, I think, it shows the variety of Mormon experiences out there by undermining stereotypes that tend to cast Mormons as a homogenous herd that thinks and behaves uniformly. Of course, Mormon fiction is no substitute for getting to know an actual Mormon, just as reading any piece of minority literature is no substitute for actual cultural interaction. However, for those hesitant to take such steps, Mormon fiction provides a perfectly adequate alternative. In fact, I would recommend Todd Robert Petersen’s Long After Dark and the anthology Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction as a good places to start.

But what happens if Romney doesn’t get the Republican nomination? What happens if he never gets elected? What happens if The Book of Mormon musical ends its run on Broadway, teenagers stop reading Twilight, and Harry Reed dies of a heart attack at age 75? What happens if the current Mormon Moment fizzles out? Will contemporary Mormon fiction still be relevant to American readers? Will there still be a pressing need to read it?

As one who studies Mormon fiction, I would argue that there is. I’d like to think, after all, that Mormon fiction has more to offer than insight into a presidential candidate’s psyche, and I’d certainly like to think that Mormon culture has more to offer than a storehouse of easily parodied images. I’d also like to think that Mormon fiction has the potential to speak to others the way Jewish fiction, African-American fiction, gay and lesbian fiction, and other minority fictions have been able to speak to others of different backgrounds and world views.  Ultimately, I’d even like to think that Mormon fiction can answer the question posed by Louis Ironson to his gay Mormon lover in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America: “How can a fundamentalist theocratic religion function participatorily in a pluralistic secular democracy?” (215). While I, of course, would not characterize twenty-first-century Mormonism as “a fundamentalist theocratic religion,” I think Louis’s question is a valid one that Mormon fiction can answer. In fact, I think twenty-first century Mormon fiction would do well—at least in America—to explore further the problematics of being a close-knit religious community that strives to engage itself actively within the “pluralistic secular democracy” it is a part of. Indeed, because of Mormonism’s long, complicated history with America, Mormon fiction is perhaps perfectly situated to be an excellent go-to place for anyone interested in studying fiction that explores America’s complex relationship with religion. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Mormon Lit Blitz Is Live!

"We must read, and think, and feel, and pray, and then bring forth our thoughts, and polish and preserve them. This will make literature."—Orson F. Whitney

Fifty years ago, most schools taught that making literature was a matter of combining great language and universal human values. Since then, millions of readers have decided that context also counts: that it’s nice to get our grand human dilemmas through the lens of very specific cultures with their unique values, traditions, tensions.

From February 15th to February 29thMormon Artist magazine will begin hosting the Mormon Lit Blitz, an online literary contest organized by James Goldberg and Scott Hales. We believe that Mormon experience is rich enough to inspire engaging poems, stories, and essays—and are ready to offer thirteen pieces as proof.   

The format of the contest is simple. Beginning on February 15th, the Mormon Artist blog will post one short story, poem, or personal essay a day for the rest of the month (except on Sundays). At the end of the contest, readers will be encouraged to vote for the pieces they like best, and the author of the winning piece will be awarded a Kindle loaded with works of Mormon literature.

The thirteen pieces featured in the contest were selected from almost two hundred entries from four different countries. They were written to appeal broadly to Latter-day Saint audiences, particularly committed members of the Church. However, the judges were careful to select artistic works that avoided the cheesiness and preachiness that people often associate with Mormon literature.

We hope you will enjoy the Mormon Lit Blitz. Please support the finalists by reading their work and voting for your favorites.

Contest Schedule:
2/15   “In Bulk” by Marilyn Nielson
2/16   “The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop” by Wm Morris
2/17   “No Substitute for Chocolate” by Jeanna Mason Stay
2/18   “Second Coming” by Emily Harris Adams
2/20   “The Road Not Taken” by Sandra Tayler
2/21   “Stillborn” by Merrijane Rice
2/22   “Oil of Gladness” by Kathyrn Lynard Soper
2/23   “The Shoe App” by Emily Debenham
2/24   “Cada Regalo Perfecto” by Deja Earley
2/25   “The Gloaming” by Kerry Spencer
2/27   “Babel” by Jonathon Penny
2/28   “The Hearts of the Fathers” by Jeanine Bee
2/29   “Red Rock” by Marianne Hales Harding

You can stay updated on the Mormon Lit Blitz by liking it on Facebook (here), following it on Twitter (here), and/or subscribing to the Mormon Artist blog (here).

Mormon Lit Blitz Pass-along Card #15

The force is strong in this one. It's also our last pass-along card.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Get Your Mormon Lit Blitz Blog Button!

To get your own Mormon Lit Blitz blog button, copy the html code in the grab box below and paste it into an html/javascript gadget or widget on your blog. If you did everything right, our blog button should appear on your site.

Readers who click on the button will be taken directly to the Mormon Artist blog, home of the Mormon Lit Blitz.

Thank you!

Mormon Lit Blitz Pass-along Card #14

Happy Valentine's Day! One day to go...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mormon Lit Blitz Pass-along Card #13

Stan Lee was living right the day he came up with J. Jonas Jameson.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mormon Lit Blitz Pass-along Card #9

He doesn't always keep the Word of Wisdom...but he does speak words of wisdom.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mormon Lit Blitz Pass-along Card #8

If it weren't for Katherine Heigl, Aaron Eckhart, Amy Adams, and maybe Jewel, he'd be everyone's favorite lapsed Mormon celebrity...

...but at least he's got his own internet meme.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What is the Role of Mormon Literature in the Mormon Moment?

Sally Denton and Carrie Sheffield recently added their voices to the Mormon Moment with opinion pieces that did not skimp on fog and scary music. Denton, a journalist who has published two unflattering books about Mormon history, is the more ridiculous of the two; her piece is rife with outlandish claims[1] and whispery references to secret inner world of Mormonism[2] that would make for excellent satire if Denton were not so intensely serious about them. Sheffield’s piece is less extreme but hardly flattering. It suggests that Mormons are unquestioningly obedient anti-intellectuals who shun wayward family members, outlaw reading, and crap on all things scientific.

I’m hardly one to suggest that these pieces aren’t worth reading, even though I think their take on Mormonism is flawed and ultimately unhelpful to anyone looking for an accurate portrait of the Mormon people. As cultural touchstones, they reveal reams about what ex-Mormons like Denton and Sheffield see as their role in the Mormon Moment. Moreover, their viral popularity speaks just as much to their audience’s unfamiliarity with Mormonism and its desire to learn more about the Church and its teachings in an age when a president’s religious beliefs can have national and global consequences.

But as someone whose experience with Mormonism has not been consistent with those Denton and Sheffield present, I think such pieces need responding to in ways equally public and viral—and not solely because I’m bothered by their naked exaggerations, half-truths, and scare tactics. The Mormon experience, after all, is not something that can be wedged into a tidy mold or universal paradigm.  Nor is it something that can be contained within a singular noun.[3]

Of course, we Mormons are not always comfortable with this truth. Our cooperative culture places a lot of emphasis on unity, which leads us to focus on the things we share rather than the things that set us apart from one another. This creates an illusion of uniformity that even Mormons who know better buy into.

Looking around the chapel on Sunday morning, though, I can’t help noticing that my own congregation is becoming increasingly more diverse than the “overwhelmingly white and middle to upper class” image of Mormonism Denton that offers in another opinion piece.[4] I bet if I took the time to get to know each member personally, I’d discover that the diversity goes beyond skin color and bank accounts.

Mormonism binds Mormons together, and encourages them to “be one,” but it doesn’t erase their individuality or narrow their experiences. This is something realistic Mormon literature has taught me. Beneath the surface of every Mormon is a person with a story that defies the stereotypes touted by the likes of Denton and Sheffield.[5] If we Mormons can learn anything from unflattering op-eds, it’s that we need to do a better job of being one while being ourselves.

Reading literature that presents Mormons and Mormonism honestly can help us do this. It can also help those who misunderstand us to understand us better. True, it won’t convince anyone about the validity of Mormon truth-claims, but it will give them a better, fairer idea of who we are as a people.

Maybe that should be the role of Mormon literature in the Mormon Moment.

[1] “[I]t would seem that the office of the American presidency is the ultimate ecclesiastical position to which a Mormon leader might aspire.”

[2] “The seeds of Romney’s unique brand of conservatism, often regarded with intense suspicion by most non-Mormon conservatives, were sown in the secretive, acquisitive, patriarchal, authoritarian religious empire run by ‘quorums’ of men under an umbrella consortium called the General Authorities. A creed unlike any other in the United States, from its inception Mormonism encouraged material prosperity and abundance as a measure of holy worth, and its strict system of tithing 10 percent of individual wealth has made the church one of the world’s richest institutions.”

[3] The same can be said about the ex-Mormon experience.

[4] It’s telling, isn’t it, that Denton’s description of Mormonism doesn’t seem to take into account the majority of Mormons who live outside of the United States, where I hear a lot of people (including Mormons) aren’t middle to upper-class whites. How nicely that oversight suits her argument.

[5] I thought the shallow stereotyping of minority groups was a thing of the twentieth century and conservative politicians. Geez! What a naive Mormon I am!

Mormon Lit Blitz Pass-along Card #7

Not an official endorsement...or is it?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mormon Lit Blitz Pass-along Card #6

It's an honest question. Orson F. Whitney was the man!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mormon Lit Blitz Pass-along Card #1

I'll be posting one of these every day until the Mormon Lit blitz begins. Feel free to pass it along...