“Then why read novels?”

In a recent review of a newly-published novel, I concluded that its “polemic” emphasis made me like it less than I might have otherwise.  Every plot point seemed to be put there in service of an argument against something, a heavy-handed set of choices I began to find distasteful not far into the book.

So an astute friend asked me pointedly, “Then why read novels?” After all, my friend said, you have to concede that the author has a point and wants to voice it. Well, sure. An author has every right to do that.  But my friend meant, I think, to make me look hard at my own choices. If, she was saying, you don’t like a novel to make use of polemic discourse (as Jane Smiley defines it in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel), what do you like — or want — or need — when you choose to read a novel?

An excellent question, which I’d like to tease out a little here at the beginning of a new year, since “novel” means “new” and so far, 2017 is a pretty novel year, and now’s as good a time as any to think about why we should or could want to read novels. (Which I think we should. And short stories too — though I’ll save a discussion of those for another post or two.) For what purposes do we Mormon writers and readers employ novels that might be the same or different from anyone else’s purposes? Do we employ novels in a peculiarly Mormon way that differs from how novels have ever been employed? At first knee-jerk, I don’t think so. But let’s look.

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Divine Rights of Writers

I’ve been making my difficult and sometimes dreary way through Clyde Forsberg’s ninety-eight-dollar tome Divine Rite of Kings (review arriving shortly), wishing I could see the good. His thesis is generally nasty: Mormonism, like its parent organization the Masons, is racist, sexist, empire-building and xenophobic, and no good can come out of Joseph Smith or his minions. He quotes sources without establishing their ethos — so many it makes my head spin, just taunting me to say this is exhaustively-researched and thoroughly cited — but mostly the book tastes bad, an eight-course meal in a foreign country whose ingredients don’t agree with my stomach and whose spices and oils never smelled right from the start. I’m almost done, and I haven’t found a way to recommend any of it.

Details will come later, in the review. Significantly, some other things have been going on this month that deserve attention. The election – yeah, that. (I hereby vow not to write about the nasty there. You’ve already heard too much.) But another thing going on right now is Nanowrimo.

NOT nasty.

Pretty nice, in fact.

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Making Art: The importance of connecting with “other”

My interview for this month kind of fell through, so it’s just me right now.

 

As I was trying to think about what to write, what I thought would be relevant or helpful, and related to the posts I’ve been doing these last few months, one idea kept coming to mind.

How do we make ourselves and our art accessible?

I feel that one problem with literary writing is forgetting the audience.  I suppose writing can just be for itself; the exercise of the art, the self-expression. But to me, writing is both an expression and a connection…. like an arrow with a line shot–you’ve got a target in mind, and that target will pull your writing taut.

For instance, anti-novels, along the line of Samuel Beckett. Has anyone here ever tried to read his triad Molloy, Malone Dies, the Unnamable? I tried. I got about halfway through Malone Dies through sheer determination. And yes, the writing is evocative, and turns my mind around in all kinds of twisty ways, and so obviously Beckett is a consummate writer.

But to what end?

Not to say that art shouldn’t require some effort in its consumption and interpretation.  A *lot* of effort, sometimes. That effort, to access a piece of art, can bring so much more depth of understanding of a piece once you’ve arrived at understanding, interpretation. Like a Urim-and-Thummim, almost…. you can look through a piece of art as a window into something wider and deeper. Continue Reading →

The Business Side of Writing: Honing Your Craft and the Best Books on Writing

I’ll begin by saying that I of course will not present an exhaustive list of the best books on writing. I’m going to list the best books I know of on writing, and would love to have people add onto said list in the comments. One thing about being a writer is that no matter how long you work on your craft, you are always competing against people who are older and have been at it much longer than you have. You can never stop improving if you want to stay in the game, and while there are a lot of ways to hone your craft, reading good books on writing is probably the cheapest way – in terms of money, at least. You still need to put in the time to apply what you learn. So here are the books that I recommend.

Wanderings on Writing by Jane Lindskold

WanderingsOnWritingNook

I may be the first person to blog about this one, because it just came out. Some would say there’s no Golden Key, no magic word that you can learn to get yourself a writing career. Lindskold begs to differ. There is a Golden Key, the only catch is, you have to forge it yourself. So, while she can’t present you with a Golden Key, she can tell you how she forged hers. This book is a compilation of essays she’s written over the years on topics ranging from how to write a sympathetic villain to how to keep from driving your family insane as you pursue your dreams. The book is written in accessible, conversational prose. Once you pick it up, you may have trouble putting it down. Continue Reading →

Enid vs. The Real vs. The Not Real

I’ve been doing more cartooning (and teaching) than criticism lately, so I haven’t had much time to come up with new posts for this blog. But since Dawning of a Brighter Day up and running again, after several days’ rest no doubt, I decided I owe it something.

Below is one of my latest Enid comics–the second that deals specifically with Mormons and fiction. (The first appeared on this blog “pseudo-anonymously” several months ago.) In it, Enid tries to explain why members in her ward are “uncomfortable” with fiction, ultimately tying it in to ways Mormons–in America, at least–seek for truth.

What are your thoughts?

NOTE: I should say that I post this not to reopen the science fiction vs. realism debates, but to maybe invite new insights into the evolving role of fiction in Mormon society. Also, I also want to say that Enid’s grouping of science fiction with escapist literature is not to suggest that it is escapist, but rather that it often perceived and treated as such by readers seeking a reprieve from the daily grind of life.

 

Christmas Stories Story

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I brought back A Christmas Carol this year after a three-year hiatus. It was a middling success. Perhaps my kids are still too young to follow Dickens’s sentences. Of course, we did Luke 2 last night, like every Christmas Eve, whether they get it all or not. Plus, we’ve turned the pages (over and over) on all those piles of picture books that get taken out of boxes each December. Add to that sung stories like “Rudolph” and “Frosty” and my kid’s have no shortage of Christmas tales, the best of which tie thematically or metaphorically or literally to a certain babe in a certain manger.

My grandmother used to buy random old books, many of which are on my own shelves now. For instance, I have an unmodernized version of Holinshed’s Chronicles, and if you’ve never read Shakespeare’s source material with all the Us and Vs switched you must. Another, older book is a crummy, late eighteenth-century reproduction of an even older—that is—medieval manuscript. You can make out the illumination though deciphering the words is impossible, not least because of an apparent smear. I like to imagine that the monk had stayed up late, taking great care with each letter, then, as he stood to head for bed, his sleeve dragged over the drying letters as he reached for his candle. Continue Reading →

Interview with David Charles

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I was on BART reading an old interview with Matthew Barney when a guy standing and holding the bar next to me leaned into my space and asked if I liked Barney’s work. I had seen a Barney show at the SFMoMA (not the major 2006 show, but a more recent, smaller show) and have to admit I did not, in fact, like it. I would still like to see at least parts of the Cremaster series someday, and the interview I was reading did make me think more favorably of him, but still: the show sucked.

The guy nodded. At the next stop, the person sitting next to me got off the train; I slid over and he sat down next to me. “How do you like the new seats?”

I liked them fine, but I’m not good at keeping transit conversations going. But then he said something too interesting to pass up. He’d worked on the set of the last Cremaster film.

“Oh?”

Ends up he is an electrician and has taken journeyman work on many film sets. He’s never been an actual gaffer or best boy or anything, but he has gotten around. Including work on States of Grace, Orgazmo, and a T.C. Christensen scifi family comedy. Crazily, of all those goofy Mormon connections, it was on the set (on the set!) of Orgazmo that he actually met with missionaries.

I had my little mp3 recorder in my bag and he let me start recording a few minutes into our conversation.

Sensitive readers take note: I’ve only barely censored his language. Continue Reading →

Fifteen Things You Should Know Before You Try to Write Mormon Missionary Fiction

  1. You are not the first person to write a Mormon missionary story. In fact, there’s a good chance that your Mormon missionary story has already been written.
  2. You stand a better chance of writing a good Mormon missionary story if you take the time to read Mormon missionary fiction written by other writers first.
  3. Mormon missionary stories can explore more than just the tensions between doubt and belief and individuality and conformity. Also, stories involving the pairing of an obedient with a disobedient missionary already have two strikes against them.
  4. It is okay for the missionaries in your story to be naïve; however, it is not okay for you, the writer, to be naïve about them and their experiences.
  5. Your story about the Mormon missionary who has sex is neither edgy nor original. It has been told many, many times before.
  6. Stories about Sister Missionaries are often more interesting and original than stories about Elders.
  7. I have never read a story about a senior missionary couple or a disabled missionary, but I want to.
  8. Mormon missionary stories do not need to be about white American young men. They do not need to involve Americans. Nor do they need to involve humans.
  9. Sometimes the best Mormon missionary stories focus on the characters who are not missionaries.
  10. Foreign and urban mission fields do not need to be danger zones.
  11. Your story about a misunderstood Mormon missionary intellectual has already been written.
  12. The best Mormon missionary stories maintain a global perspective without losing their intimate sense of place.
  13. The Great Mormon Missionary Novel is yet to be written.
  14. Mormon missionary fiction succeeds only when it becomes more interesting than real-life mission stories.
  15. Mormon missionary work has changed a lot in the past year. New Mormon missionary fiction should reflect this change.

Mormon LitCrit: From Imitation to Innovation; or, Why Mormon Writers Should Move Out of the Basement

Cultural texts do not exist independent of one another, but in an interdependent relationship we call the tradition. New texts rely on the tradition of older texts, and older texts depend on new texts to keep the tradition vibrant and relevant. The text that leaves no inheritance—or makes no case for its place in one—damns itself to obscurity. We read Hamlet today not because of what it is, but because of what it sustained and made possible. The same is true about watching the television series Lost, the presence of which we now feel whenever we hear the Gilligan’s Isle theme, read Joseph Hilton’s Lost Horizon or Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or watch the latest episode of Once Upon a Time or Revolution. We also catch the scent of it in the most episodic of television shows—past and present—and their refusal to conform to the serial format Lost reinvigorated.  

Closely associated with tradition is imitation. For beginning artists, imitation is a useful way to learn necessary skills while learning the tradition. When I was a senior in high school, for example, my creative writing professor had us write poetry that imitated famous poems like “Dover Beach” and e. e. cummings’ “in just—.” Later, as an art major at Ricks College, I kept a “Masters Journal” of sketches done of in imitation of the Old Masters of the Renaissance. The theory behind these exercises—and that’s precisely what they were: exercises—was that imitation offered some insight into the style and technique of successful artists. Through them I was supposed to find my own artistic sense. Imitation was never meant to be the end of the line.

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Mormon Literature and the Anxiety of “Passing”

In literature, a character’s ability to move unnoticed from one social group to another, often more privileged group is called “passing.” In Disney’s Mulan, for example, the title character “passes” for a man so that she can take her aging father’s place in the male-only military. In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, a criminal, “passes” for a respectable member of mid-nineteenth-century French society. In The Great Gatsby, poor Midwesterner Jay Gatsby makes dirty money and “passes” as the lone inheritor of a San Francisco family’s fortune.

You get the idea.

“Passing” is a common theme especially in literature about the African-American experience. In works from Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative to Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, light-skinned characters of mixed racial heritage are able to pass imperceptibly into the white majority and thus avoid discrimination and prejudice. Anxiety usually accompanies these instances of “passing,” however. Characters either live in fear of being exposed or in shame for turning their backs on their people.

Mormon literature also contains instances of “passing.” Perhaps the most famous are the Cullens, Stephenie Meyer’s vampire family, who “pass” as regular people in order to avoid misunderstandings with their neighbors. Although they are not Mormons, their guarded desire to be in the world, but not of it seems to parallel a similar tendency among contemporary Mormons who try to fit in and fly beneath the cultural radar—despite a deep-rooted sense of difference and group peculiarity.

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