Thursday, February 01, 2007

Challenges and Pleasures of Mormon lit: In Our Lovely Deseret, edited by Robert Raleigh

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


Rebecca said...

Interesting. Do you think this would make a good birthday present for my TBM mom? Maybe I'll read it and see. Is it available on Amazon? I guess I could just go over there and check...

PS - My brother likes your novel (or at least the first chapter of it)! Okay, I'm a little biased when it comes to him, but I think that's high praise. He reads like crazy.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Rebecca!!!

And thanks to your brother too!!!

This book for your mom who loves cleanflicks? No, this is the wrong book for her.

I've really got to read and review some more of the "clean" LDS lit works, just to get some more balance around here... ;^)

Anonymous said...

Interesting, I never even thought there would be any kind of literature like Our Lovely Deseret, since all the LDS literature I was ever exposed to was either scriptures, books by GA's and of course, the Charlie/Sam series by Jack Weyland back in my seminary days...

The things you learn in blogsphere!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MikeP!!!

This has been an education for me too!!!

I had always thought of Mormon lit as being confined to exactly the categories you describe, but since I've been blogging and exploring the LDS-interest Internet, I've found that there's a lot more out there than I realized. There's some really great stuff in all different categories!!!

(For some hints, see the proposed canon of Mormon literature.)

I think the main problem is that the faith-promoting LDS works have little publicity/distribution, and the Mormon-culture works have none. So you have to seek if you want to find!!! ;^)

Anonymous said...

As nice as something like this must be from someone who grew up in the Morg Corridor, I'm afraid it just won't bring as much attention as Weird Al's "Amish Paradise" did to where I'm from.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

Weird Al did an anthology about the Amish? That must be great!!!

Actually, I didn't grow up in the corridor myself, so the wild west culture and small-town Utah and Idaho settings in some of these stories were unfamiliar to me.

T Wanker said...

Damn c.l. I can't keep up -- you are reading and writing me into the ground. So much to read and so little time.

I've got to get this anthology. I've read a lot of Walter Kirn, ever since my BYU days. I'm old enough to remember when he was touted as a "Mormon" writer. I also got to hear him speak at The King's English bookstore in Salt Lake about his latest novel, Mission to America, which also has some Mormon overtones.

I've read Levi Peterson's short stories, his 1987 Dialogue article "In Defense of Mormon Erotica" and his classic novel, The Backslider. So I can at least attest that the authors in the anthology are top notch.

I'm just dismayed at the lack of time I have to devout to these more scholarly pursuits. Not especially encouraged by another week of work coming up either.

Sorry I've been so busy with life and haven't commented more.

Lots of great stuff on your blog.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey T. Wanker!!!

I doubt you're as far behind as you imagine. ;-)

Really I've only just started studying Mormon lit, and this blog is something of a chronicle of my education in the subject. Practically everything I know about Mormon lit is posted somewhere on this blog.

For example, the piece by Levi Peterson in this anthology was the first work by him I've ever read (although of course I want to read The Backslider as soon as I can get a hold of a copy).

Plus, it was just since writing this review that I learned that Walter Kirn is considered an important figure in Mormon lit. Honestly, when I first read that story in The New Yorker, I had thought it was written by someone who had never been Mormon (or perhaps by someone who was Mormon for a very short time and wasn't paying very close attention...) because so many of the details seemed wrong (not to mention the entire premise that it's common for Mormon girls to go around giving NSA BJs to guys specifically as a missionary tactic to keep them in the faith...).

Anonymous said...

Actually, you were right that it was written by someone who wasn't Mormon for very long. I think Kirn was Mormon for maybe three or four years, but left when he was fourteen, or something like that. That's why he gets so many details wrong. I was bugged by the details too, but I was too timid to make him rewrite it. After all, he's been published in the New Yorker. If I were to do it over again today, I'd make him rewrite (he proclaims boldly).

It is a little strange that Kirn has ever been considered a Mormon writer particularly, much less an important one. I guess it just goes to show you what a paucity of quality Mormon fiction there is (at least as judged by the world outside Mormondom).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Robert!!!

Yeah, I understand how you feel. After The New Yorker printed the story, it would be hard to say "Sorry, this needs some rewrites before it can go into my anthology..." ;-)

T Wanker said...

After hearing Kirn speak at The King's English bookstore in Salt Lake, I'd say (not having read the New Yorker story yet) that his errors were intentional fictionalizations. He didn't sound like one to let the truth get in the way of a good story. He uses Mormon cultural influences to the extent they suit him, rather than in strict adherence to reality.

Kirn got tagged with the "Mormon" label back in the early 80s when I was at the Zoo. I wish I could remember who said it, but someone had opined that the first "great literary" Mormon author, would by necessity have to come from outside of the faith to be able to maintain any objectivity. Kirn had just published My Hard Bargain, a collection of short stories and being outside the faith became someone to watch. At least that is how I remember it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey T. Wanker!!!

That's very possible. Essentially all of his "errors" make Mormons look just a little weirder than they really are. But if so, it's kind of annoying because the story has a strong flavor of "I'm going to tell you what Mormons are like!!!"

The little errors weren't my main problem with the story, though. My main problem was with the character of the Mormon girl. It's not just that she doesn't seem like a real Mormon girl, it was that she doesn't seem like a real person at all, with her simple faith, her knowing-yet-thoughtless sexuality, and her complete lack of feelings/insecurities about her own sexuality.

To me, Kirn is guilty of the same flaw I noticed in the work of Jack Weyland: writing his one-dimensional adolescent fantasy of what a Mormon girl is like rather than writing Mormon girls who are complete characters. (Although Kirn's fantasy Mormon girl is perhaps a little different from Weyland's...)