This past Saturday was the Annual Meeting for the Association for Mormon Letters. I’ve been a member of AML for twenty years, and try never to miss the Annual Meeting. It’s basically an academic conference–lots of great papers, exploring this arcane world of Mormon literature. And some poetry reading, some readings of other works. Plus–and I always love this part–awards. Outstanding achievement in poetry, drama, fiction in a variety of categories, personal essay.
Anyway, Saturday, my wife and I had some things we had to do in Salt Lake City, and so I missed the Meeting. I always feel bad about missing it–I do love AML. And it turns out, I probably shoulda gone. I won an award, a big one. I won the Smith-Pettit award. A life-time achievement award.
I’m incredibly honored and grateful. I mean, everyone likes to be recognized for what they do, and I’ve been writing plays and getting them produced for thirty-five years now. I honestly never thought I’d be a candidate for the Smith-Pettit. But it rocks. Just wish I could have been there to receive it.
But even talking about AML gets me thinking about Mormon literature generally. It’s a tiny niche category of literature, and it’s even a bit ill-defined. What do we mean by Mormon fiction, or Mormon drama, or Mormon poetry. Definitions aren’t terribly important, I guess–what matters is writing well. And when I served as President of AML, I sort of resisted having, like, a mission statement. I worried about limiting our field of study.
To me, Mormon literature comes in basically three categories, all of which I think should count as legitimate. First, it means literature written by Mormons, for Mormons. That is, novels or plays or poems in which Mormons write about our own culture. A great example, for me, is Levi Peterson’s novel The Backslider. It’s a tremendous novel, about a young LDS cowboy growing up in Southern Utah, and it’s brilliant, a novel about guilt and expiation and family and love and self-hatred. I mean, we can call it a Mormon novel, and that does describe it, but it’s also just a great novel–as good a novel as anything written by an American. I think it’s every bit as important and profound as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist is perhaps the most brilliant recent work in this category.
Second category: literature written by Mormons about anything else. Obviously, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game comes to mind, as does Anne Perry’s The Face of a Stranger. Card writes about Mormon culture from time to time too, but he’s basically known as a sci-fi/fantasy author. And a a lot of Mormon authors have been very successful as fantasy authors, from Dave Wolverton to Brandon Sanderson to Brandon Mull to, you know, Stephenie Meyer. I would also include Tim Slover’s plays; what a smart, compassionate, literate voice.
Final category, Mormon literature also includes works written by people who aren’t Mormon at all, but find Mormonism a fascinating subject for literature. The best two works in this category have been plays, I think–Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and The Book of Mormon, the musical. Neither piece is without controversy in Mormon circles–both also have their defenders, and I count myself as one.
But the main thing I believe about Mormon literature is this: it’s a very big tent. Authors of literary fiction consider ‘genre fiction’ a less important or valuable category. Popular Mormon culture faces off against ‘High’ Mormon culture, just as pop v. high arguments disfigure the larger world of cultural criticism nationally.
Me, I like to read good writing. I don’t care about genre and I don’t care about style, and I certainly don’t care about the membership status or current level of actual or perceived Church commitment. I want to read good prose, an engaging story, interesting, complex, believable characters. I like Lance Larson’s poetry, which is dense and powerful and moving, but I also like John Harris’ cowboy poetry, which has its own insight and impact. I like Dave Wolverton’s fantasy fiction, but I also like Dean Hughes’ Children of Promise series of historical novels. I’m a big fan of Julie Jensen’s marvelous plays, though I don’t think she has any formal connection to the Church anymore, but also Scott Bronson’s plays, who is a very active practicing Mormon.
The two best novels by Mormons I’ve read recently, in fact, you probably don’t know. Sarah Dunster’s The Lightning Tree is a terrific historical novel–find it, buy it, read it. And I read Ryan Rapier’s novel, The Reluctant Blogger, a terrific first novel which isn’t even published yet.
The one idea that ties all of this together is our 13th Article of Faith “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” A good reader needs to seek, and I try to. And I think that seeking needs to transcend parochial concerns, about genre and popularity and whatever facile judgments we might make about the lives of our brothers and sisters. Find good stuff to read, read it, write about it. That’s the mission statement for the Association for Mormon Letters, if we never needed one.
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep writing. More plays, more blog posts, perhaps a novel or two, something I’m not good at but want to keep trying. Just keep on keepin’ on. We’ll see what comes of it.