26 February 2008

On a Unified Mormon Fiction

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?


Paradox said...

First, you have no idea how jealous I am that you got to go see Orson Scott Card:P

Second, as far as LDS fiction is concerned, I'd just like to see it gain enough credibility with book sellers to be sold across the US. So far, the only two fiction authors I'm aware of who have managed to do that are Orson Scott Card and Stephenie Meyer.

I think part of that may be because LDS fiction may appear, to an outsider, to be a really specific genre of fiction unto itself. To break it down even more into Romance, Sci-fi, and fantasy seems a bit too divided. Perhaps as Mormon fiction increases in prevalence and literary merit, being so specific will be necessary. But as of right now, it probably hasn't occurred to a lot of people that Mormon fiction even exists.

Until then, us east coast Mormons will continue doing happy dances when we find the Women of Genesis series on the "LDS" shelf, even though it's (sadly) sandwiched between the anti-Mormon memoirs that make up the rest of the shelf. Not to mention that said shelf is positioned between the Catholic doctrine books and the books on Pagan traditions and practices.

How 'bout THOSE implications, hm? LOL.

Andrew Clarke said...

You make a very good point. Different literature genres are meant to serve different purposes. To compare them is like comparing a galloping race horse with a trotter and saying that the galloper is best because it goes faster. That is a false comparison. A trotter does a different thing. The same is true of a draught horse pulling a wagon. What is does is not the same as a speed contest. The same goes for books. Romance serves a different interest from suspense, or western action, or whatever.

Liz Busby said...

Thanks for the comments guys. If you don't mind, send those comments along to the Mormon Renaissance blog post--I'd like to get conversation going on there as well!

Liz Busby said...

Oh, and Paradox, when you're at BYU, I'm sure you'll have plenty of chances to be in the presence of the Card. Isn't the Women of Genesis series awesome?

onelowerlight said...

Aha! LTUE! BYU's SF/F con...er, symposium! So much fun! I recorded Card's main address and the panel on LDS in SF/F, so if you want copies of those, I can get those out to you. LTUE this year was just fantastic!

Those are some good points about how you can't really judge a genre by a handful of works. And it's true that within LDS publishing, there are romances and fantasies and other stuff. I think that the unifying characteristic of them all is that it takes place within an LDS worldview. Now, even within the church, different people have slightly different worldviews, but I think there are some basic concepts and principles that we can agree on--such as the pre-eminence of free agency, the immortality of the soul, the value of chastity, etc. I don't think that LDS fiction should be purged of coffee or tea, but I do think that when things contrary to the gospel are shown, they should be shown as we see them through an LDS worldview.

I don't think that LDS fiction should go mainstream--or rather, I don't think that it will go mainstream. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Writers like OSC or Sanderson who go mainstream write for an audience that doesn't really know anything about the LDS, so the references to distinctively LDS concepts and ideas simply aren't there. Of course, their LDS-ness shows in how they deal with ethical dilemmas, and their LDS worldview will affect their writing, but in a more general way. For example, in the Ender's Game series OSC examines several ethical issues, but they are general enough that he does it through writing some very convincing Catholic characters.

When Card came to the Library last year for the House of Learning Lecture, he made the very interesting comment that "all fiction is the culture talking to itself." I think that the thing that makes LDS fiction different is that it "talks about" the issues that are of peculiar significance to us as LDS. I don't think that all LDS fiction should have the missionaries always be the heroes, or have the non LDS characters convert, or be completely devoid of anything that anyone in the church could vaguely construe as being contrary to a teaching of the gospel, but I think that it should deal with these issues.

Now that I've rambled enough, I'll spare you from more. But yes, this is a very interesting topic.

Michaela Stephens said...

Hollywood and the literati have gone through a passel of hero types. They have the hero (knight in shining armor),
the reluctant hero,
and lately they are pushing on us the disgusting anti-hero (a bad guy who we are supposed to be manipulated into sympathizing with)

I think it is time to add both realism and idealism to the definition of hero. I think Mormons are uniquely positioned to do this, because of our belief in the life mission.
Let's start a new type called "the prepared hero", a hero who starts off small and humble and is called upon to do greater and greater works, until they basically save the world from all evil. (the longer the build-up, the better it would be)

This hero is believable, because they start small. There is room for reluctance. There is room for doubt and hesitancy. And there is room for growth. And I think the growth of capability aspect makes characters so much more enduring and endearing.

One of the above comments thought that the heroes shouldn't all be missionaries and that the non-members shouldn't all convert. I think there is definitely room for interesting scenarios to be written about missionary struggles and companion dynamics and investigator dynamics and how the missionaries deal with failure or success and on and on.. The literature part is about making something that is recognizable from life and holding up a little microcosm of the Mormon worldview and the reader will see what they need to see.