Thursday, February 01, 2007
I've read faithful Mormon literature, ex-Mormon literature, even anti-Mormon literature, but I think this anthology is the first work I'd be tempted to classify as jack-Mormon literature. ;^)
In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions (edited by Robert Raleigh) is a collection of thought-provoking short-stories about life in the American West and/or in Mormon culture. Here there's Mormonism in the air, but it's not always at center-stage.
Many of the stories in this collection explore troubled or changing relationships, with the characters' cultural background as the framing structure for other human experiences. This is true of Levi Peterson's contribution "Durfey Renews an Interest in Rodeo" as well as others such as "My Father Waltzing Home" by Jan Stucki, "Throwing the Bread" by Ron Carlson, "Not Quite Peru" by Lee Ann Mortensen, and "Badlands" by Joanna Brooks.
One that stands out in this category is the lyrical "Fidelity" by Kristen Rogers about a small-town woman gaining the trust of a stray dog: "My dad had a shoe repair shop, T.L. said. He used to say, See this sole? This sole has walked maybe two thousand miles but I bet you it's never been more than five, ten miles from right here."
Other stories in the collection deal specifically with Mormonism and the Mormon issues. Several explore the tension between one's daily experiences and one's Mormon expectations, especially regarding sexuality. This internal conflict is clearly spelled out in the story "Almond Milk" by Johnny Townsend, about a gay Mormon missionary who meets an openly gay couple in Rome.
Two of my favorites in the collection were studies in Mormon sexuality: "Love, Mormon Style" by Bob Bringhurst, and "Twinkie" by Gary Burgess. "Love, Mormon Style" is a tragicomic caricature of the Mormon fixation on chastity and marriage and of the painfully confused result on healthy, horny young singles. "Twinkie" is a more poignant portrait of the same confusion and turmoil, as a Mormon man living in Hong Kong tries to make sense of his feeling for a local prostitute as he also tries to deal with his familiar culture's alien-ness in his current surroundings.
One more story in this collection's Mormon sexuality category is one I'd read before, and is in fact the very story that sparked my interest in Mormon literature and gave me the idea to write fiction myself. This is probably the most back-handed compliment ever, but I have to mention it, given the role this story played for me:
I read Walter Kirn's "Mormon Eden" while reading through some old back-issues of The New Yorker a few years ago. My reaction was "Interesting, but... a little off." It rang false. And the logical response to the feeling "that's not what it's like to be a Mormon teenager..." is to write your own damn story about what it's really like to be a Mormon teenager. The result was the four-chapter novella "Youth Conference" which was the seed that eventually grew into the novel Exmormon.
A few other stories in the collection explore women's place and treatment in Mormon culture including "Pure" by Dawn Houghton (a story of post-humously baptizing Marilyn Monroe), "Something in the Shape of Something" by Pauline Mortensen (a comedy about a woman's resentment of the fact that her academic achievements are overshadowed by another woman's skill at handicrafts), and "Spirit Babies" by Phyllis Barber (about a mom who sees visions of the spirits that would like to come down and join her family).
This collection has a remarkable variety of styles, themes, and tones, from poetic to straight-forward, from comic to tragic, from spiritual to earthy. As the editor, Robert Raleigh, states in the introduction: "Mormonism may be a jumping off point (for an ever growing number of people around the world), but ultimately these are stories about living, with its infinite variety of experiences and attendant emotions."
In a similar vein, Raleigh states the following goal:
"There is a tendency within Mormon culture to see the world in terms of good and evil. You are either for or against the ever advancing Kingdom of God. Within Mormon culture, art can entertain, but it should also instruct and enlighten. There is a growing body of work, however, that doesn't fit these categories or purposes. It is not for or against, but it is about. It doesn't exactly instruct, though it often provokes feeling and thought. This the type of work I have attempted to gather together in this collection."
Did he succeed in this goal? I think to some degree he did. Some of the works explore problems in LDS culture, and for the most part they address these issues in an introspective way without presenting simplistic or dismissive judgments. And inasmuch as parts of this collection missed the mark, the problem is that this goal -- writing Mormon stories "not for or against, but about" is very, very hard.
Both the author and the audience face obstacles. For the author, either you believe in Mormonism or you don't, and that will affect what you write. In my opinion -- regardless of the author's belief -- the better the writer, the less heavy-handed the work will be. That doesn't mean that the ideal work should be devoid of values, however, and these values can hardly help but lean at least a little in the "for" or "against" direction. On the other hand, human values and experiences aren't always quite as binary as that.
But then there's the other side of the equation: the audience, and -- let's be blunt -- the market.
The Mormon lit community faces special challenges. A lot of Mormons want to read stories that will uplift and inspire them. Yet many don't want to read a story that comes off as a preachy fable. Naturally, some of the most effective works are some of the most "challenging" ones. But not everyone has the same idea of what is uplifting, and a lot of readers are wary of "challenging" works because they present the bad as well as the good, and risk to glorify the bad or bring a bad spirit in the process.
Compounding the problem is the recent merger of Deseret Book with its largest competitor, creating a monopoly with the potential to shut out a great work from getting publicity and distribution to its target audience.
On the not-necessarily-faith-promoting side of LDS lit, the publishing options look at least as bleak. There are rumors that Signature doesn't like having a reputation as "the anti-Mormon publishing house" and is becoming less accepting of borderline works (such as In Our Lovely Deseret) in hopes of winning back the faithful part of the audience who are put off by them. Will this get Signature better shelf space at Deseret-Seagull Book? I wouldn't bet the farm on it. Maybe they should just embrace the whole "anti-Mormon publishing house" thing -- at least that way they'd have a niche... ;-) But seriously, Signature's example shows the perils of even attempting to straddle the divide.
Another elephant in the room of Mormon lit -- perhaps an even bigger one than belief vs. unbelief -- is sexuality. One of the oft-cited draws of (mainstream) Mormon lit is that it's "clean". A huge portion of the LDS audience doesn't want to be reading along and encounter a sex scene, and many (most?) LDS authors agree with the audience about it and are more than happy to oblige. But this taboo -- its causes, its effects, its relation to the Mormon emphasis on family -- turns sexuality into one of the most fascinating aspects of Mormon culture to explore. Almost all of the LDS-interest works I've read lately (faithful and otherwise) have strong sexual themes (see here, here, here, and here). It's apparent in In Our Lovely Deseret, it's in my book, it's over on Popcorn Popping. And frankly I wouldn't accuse a single one of these works of including sex just for the sake of making the work "edgy". Yet it renders all of these works inaccessible to much of the LDS audience.
So what do we do about it?
Well, I can list the problems, but I can't promise that I have a whole lot of solutions. I'm curious to watch though, and maybe come along for the ride. :D