A cross-post from Mormon Renaissance
On Saturday at BYU's science fiction/fantasy symposium, Life, The Universe, and Everything, Orson Scott Card gave a lecture entitled "SF&F as a Legitimate Literary Genre." Now, I'm going to ignore the primary question of his speech, since science fiction is not what this blog is all about. However, I think some of the points he raised can be legitimately applied to Mormon literature. Because, in its own way, Mormon fiction is like SF&F: a class of writing read by a small, cult-like following, a genre which many (self-proclaimed literary) people look down on because of its "juvenile" conventions.
Card's point was this--the dismissal of an entire genre is usually illegitimate. When we do so (usually by using only one example, or only its worst examples), we're really just setting up strawmen to knock down to our own literary preferences. To read science fiction with an eye for literary fiction is an experiment doomed to fail. The genres have different definitions of success. For example, Card claimed that in literary fiction, the star is the author, who as he/she writes, encodes meaning into complex layers of symbols which the reader is then to decode. This is what people who read literary fiction want, and when it is done well, they are happy. However, these conventions would be found ridiculous to science fiction readers, who are completely concerned with plot. Science fiction is about the believable linkage of cause and effect, an exploration of how we effect the world. That exploration is best done through stories rather than symbols.
I see this applying to Mormon literature in two ways. First, as I said in our opening post, it's unfair to judge Mormon lit by all that is really crappy in it. In Jeff Savage's recent post on LDS Publisher, he pointed out that we ought to look first to find literature that suits our own tastes and then within that genre to find that best books that fit that need. Within Mormon literature, there is room for sappy romances, homey mysteries, epic historicals, as well as literary fiction, as long as we don't expect them to be what they are not. Any impulse to declare any one of these as the Mormon fiction, to the exclusion of the others, would be invalid. However, within each of these genres, there are good quality works and lesser quality works, and we can work on improving each genre to its own ideal to achieve its own ends.
Second, Card's discussion of the different aesthetic approaches of each genre reminded me of what the people in the Fit for the Kingdom films movement are trying to do. This film-making group has divorced itself from the idea that Mormon cinema ought to employ the popular Hollywood conventions, instead trying to define a style of honesty and celebration of the ordinary that is uniquely Mormon. I'd like to see a similar thing happen in Mormon literature. As I said, Mormon literature covers many genres. What makes people (like me) want to unite them is that they all deal with Mormon subject matter. But in style, in approach, they seem pretty disparates: Mormon literary fiction follows literary fiction conventions, Mormon romance novels follow romance novel conventions (obviously with some amendments). This is good--romance novels would not work if the character suddenly broke out into random bouts of symbolism as they tend to in literary fiction.
However, it seems to me that the unity of Mormon literature could benefit from the definition of some uniquely Mormon style, independent of the worldly genres. I'm not sure there's a genre that could be called the "Mormon" genre, but perhaps there could be a specific aesthetic or style of Mormon writing. My personal vision would be an aesthetic of individual consideration and empowerment--a Christian writing where there are no "bad" or "good" guys, but simply sympathetic people trying their misguided best to do what they think will bring them happiness. This belief in the power of humanity and its ultimate humanness is one of the most unique beliefs in Mormondom, and I think it could make for a great literature. From the buzz I'm hearing about Angela Hallstrom's Bound on Earth, this novel seems promising in that direction.
But that's my vision: What's your Mormon literary aesthetic? Am I wrong about Mormon literature not being about genres? Is there one genre that sticks out to you as Mormon?