Association for Mormon Letters 2017 Conference Call for Papers

Writing the Past:

Intersections of Literature and History in Mormon Letters

Utah Valley University

April 22, 2017

Mormons have long made recording and preserving their history a priority. On the day Joseph Smith organized the Church of Christ in 1830, he revealed that “there shall be a record kept” in the new church. Almost a year later, John Whitmer became the first person tasked with “writ[ing] and keep[ing] a regular history” of the Mormon people. Since then, Mormons have sought to preserve not only their institutional history, but their cultural and personal histories as well.

Mormon creative writers have likewise sought to engage the Mormon past. Among the earliest works of Mormon fiction, poetry, and drama were texts that retold and memorialized the epic story of the Mormon pioneers and their efforts to establish a foothold in the Intermountain West. In subsequent years, Mormon writers have continued to show interest in their history, producing texts that explore the history of the Latter-day Saint experience across the globe.

These works, while grounded in the events of the past, often offer insight into the present as well, creating multi-layered texts that give insight not only into Mormon understandings of history and memory, but also into the historical moment of the text itself.

For the 2017 Association for Mormon Letters Conference, we invite proposals for papers, panels, and readings that explore the intersections of literature and history in Mormon letters. We will also consider proposals on other subjects that fall within the boundaries of Mormon Letters.

Send proposals to scotthales80@gmail.com by 1 February 2017. Proposals should be no more than 300 words and include the title of the presentation as well as audio-visual needs.

Alienation, Accommodation, and Substitution: Three Modes of Mormon Art

Before I launch into my post, I want to remind everyone that the deadline for submissions for the new anthology of Mormon Literary Criticism and Theory is December 1st. I’ve already received a few submissions, and I’m hoping to receive a few more before I start shaping the volume. If your submission is still a work in progress, I’m willing to accept brief abstracts (300-500 words) by the submission date with the understanding that a submission draft will be delivered in full by the end of the year.

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Recently, Wm’s posts about self-censorship and the Mormon writerJonathan’s excellent exploration of the “Mormon” in Mormon literature, and Mahonri’s recent reflection on identity and the Mormon artist have caused me to think about the ways we use Mormonism in art. What follows is not a definition of Mormon art, or even a system of classification, but rather a few observations about trends I see in how we deliberately and sometimes overtly employ Mormonism as we engage audiences with art.

My focus here (as usual) is not on art by artists who happen to be Mormons. While I’m happy to include such works in discussions of Mormon art, I’m not bringing them into this discussion. My interest here is in how and why artists bring Mormonism into their work. I’m also interested in how audience considerations influence artistic decisions.

For this post, I focus on three modes of Mormon artistic expression: alienation, accommodation, and substitution. Each mode has its strengths and weaknesses. Any preference I show for one over the other is simply a matter of taste.

THE THREE MODES

Alienation. This mode of Mormon art exists exclusively for Mormon audiences and engages deeply with the Mormon mythos. Content is deliberately and overtly Mormon. It does not modify its engagement with Mormonism to cater to the audience’s background, knowledge, or understanding. It assumed its audience is already immersed in Mormonism. It intentionally alienates audiences in the sense that it assumes “others” and disregards them. The disregard is not necessarily born of enmity, hostility, or indifference, although it can be.

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CFP: Announcing a New Anthology of Essays on Mormon Literature

596219Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson’s Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature. As the first anthology of Mormon literary criticism, it was an important step forward in the development of Mormon literary studies and served a generation of scholars well.

Unfortunately, while the essays in Tending the Garden remain useful, the volume itself has become outdated. Over the last two decades, Mormon literature and literary studies have evolved in surprising ways, thanks in part to the ongoing efforts of the Association for Mormon Letters and the rise of the internet. Indeed, as foretold by Lavina Fielding Anderson in her preface to Tending the Garden, the internet has allowed discussions of Mormon literature to extend beyond the borders of the Wasatch Front, introducing fresh insights and enabling a more global understanding of Mormon literature. Moreover, it has allowed scholars, authors, and enthusiasts of Mormon literature from around the world to feel a sense of community and engage actively in the ongoing development of Mormon literature and Mormon literary studies.

In light of recent anthologies of short Mormon fiction, Mormon poetry, and Mormon drama, I am putting together a new anthology of Mormon literary theory and criticism to be published by Peculiar Pages. The first part of the anthology will collect essays from the last twenty years about theoretical and practical approaches to writing and analyzing Mormon literature, while the second part will collect essays from the same time period about specific Mormon texts or literary trends.

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Peculiarity, Assimilation, and the Purposes of Mormon Literature

Reading William Morris’ short story collection Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories reminds me why I—and everyone else—should bother with Mormon literature. The excellent, relatively short collection explores Mormonism’s place as a subculture in a broader cultural context, taking a giant step back from Mormon Faithful Realism’s efforts to explore how individual Mormons find space within Mormonism and the Intermountain Mormon West. Like no other recent work of Mormon literature, that is, Dark Watch foregrounds and engages questions about Mormon assimilation to force readers to reflect on the consequences—both positive and negative—of Mormonism’s slow retreat from peculiarity.

For many readers of this blog, I think, the purpose of Mormon literature is to provide a sense of tribal belonging—sort of like the way a professional sports team unites a city. In Mormon literary texts, we see reflections of ourselves and our ward members in characters and situations, and that experience helps us understand, make sense of, and take pride in the faith and culture around which we order our lives. These texts also teach us how—or encourage us, at least—to be better Mormons within the Mormon world by providing useful models: idealized depictions of Mormons using agency well and/or stinging portraits of Mormons behaving badly.

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On Mormon Alternate History Stories

Last year, William Morris announced on A Motley Vision that he would be putting together an anthology of Mormon alternate history stories. As William explained in his first post on the subject, Mormon writers seem to be turning to alternate history in the wake of the Mormon Moment for “more compelling ways of expressing our culture and help[ing] us think through both our past and future trajectories in interesting and fruitful ways.” As evidence, he cites D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints and several Mormon Lit Blitz entries. To this list you could add Steve Peck’s “A Strange Report from Church Archives,” published in the final issue of Irreantum, and a handful of stories and comics in Monsters and Mormons.

I’ve always preferred historical fiction to other genres, and alternate history has fascinated me since I was a kid playing Civil War video games that allowed me to change the outcomes of famous battles. In the last few years, I have thought much about the common ground between fiction and history, particularly in the writing of it. Aside from the academic work I’ve done in this area, which has dealt somewhat with alternate history, I’ve done some creative work as well. On Wilderness Interface Zone, for example, I published two works of historical fiction—“The Curse of Eve” and “The Mechanics of Creation.” Of the two, “The Mechanics of Creation” is more of an alternate history—if only because the main characters are actual historical figures engaged in a situation that, while possible, likely never happened.

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Social Media and AML 2.0

While the blog is still up and running, I want to post briefly about AML’s revamped social media presence. As many of you already know, shortly before General Conference, Christopher Cunningham and I took over AML’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Since then we’ve been posting news and announcements related to Mormon letters to keep existing followers informed and attract new followers to the accounts. So far everything is going well, and we are pleased that people are interacting with the accounts.

If you haven’t already done so, please follow the accounts and let other interested parties know they exist. It’s my belief that some of the most interesting discussions about Mormon literature are happening on social media, and I hope to use these accounts to spur more discussion. I also hope that they will become significant factors in attracting new and long-lost members to the AML fold. Young Mormons especially are on social media, and I believe many of them have much to offer our organization and its future.

Eventually I’d like to set up AML Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Vine accounts (and maybe Google+ for the five people who use it). For the time being, though, we’re going to stick with Facebook and Twitter—unless someone else would like to take the lead on one of these other platforms. Then I’d be more than happy to help you set it up. (I also have plenty of ideas for what you can do with them!)

Finally, if you know of blog posts, news reports, or announcements that ought to be shared with the AML community, please feel free to tweet them to the account (we’ll retweet them!) or post them directly to the Facebook page (we’ll make sure they get shared!). Also, if you are already connected with us personally on social media, you can direct message items/suggestions to either Christopher or me via our personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. (I think I’m connected with most regular participants on this blog, but if not, feel free to friend me. I promise to flood your News Feed with Enid comics, images of old-timey daguerreotypes, and irony.)

Thanks for following AML on social media. Like many of you, I’m optimistic about AML 2.0 and the ways technology can make it more relevant and accessible to members old and new.