Being a Restorationist Writer, and the Quest for the Infinite—17

Let’s Do Some Practical Criticism

**I have received some encouragement for continuing my contributions, such as they are, to “the conversation,” maybe by pulling out for further discussion small “nuggets” from what I have submitted before, to bide time while I prepare to say something intelligent about the French poets who created part of the remote C19 and early C20 context of Joseph Smith’s work. So, how about this. I imagine a few of my readers—or my readers, who are few—to be sitting with me at a circular table in a quiet corner of a small café on the Left Bank of the Provo River, a café that serves only Word of Wisdom – approved beverages, sipping our Sutter Home Fré wine (I hope that’s approved; I drink quite a lot of it—antioxidants, you know; also O’Doul’s, which my adult children, who drink Diet Coke and Mountain Dew, call “Bishop’s Beer”) and shooting the breeze about poetry and MoLit. I put before you for comparison and contrast the following two passages from two different authors. What do we see here? I invite observations and thoughts. Continue Reading →

On Writing, Mom-ing and Critics: An interview with Danette Hansen

What do you write? Tell me about your published fiction, and your current work-in-progress (if you don’t mind.)

CoincidenceI have two historical novels published; one under the title Coincidence. With a strong Christian tone, the past and the present resemble each other in my tender WWII mystery where Annaliese risks her future career in her search for answers. It has a deep family history theme. Here is a quote taken from the story, “It’s the legacy our loved ones leave behind that is important, not how many years they actually lived on the earth.” The book is set in the Netherlands where my husband’s grandfather is from which gave it a personal feel as I wrote. Continue Reading →

Literature and the Challenge of The Mormon People

Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, published earlier this year by Random House, is possibly the best overview of Mormon history that I’ve read. Written for scholars and general readers alike, the book situates Mormonism against a broader backdrop of events and cultural trends in American history. For instance, it shows how Mormon intellectuals like B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and John A. Widtsoe, along with Presidents Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant, actively sought to align—and sometimes adapt—Mormon teachings and practice to the optimism and ideology of the Progressive Era, which accounts for their idealism and scientifically rational approach to understanding the gospel.

As someone who has grown up in the church, and whose life has been thoroughly and unabashedly Mormon, I found the experience of reading Bowman’s book akin to looking through my grandparents’ photo albums and seeing ancestors with my nose and hairline. On every page of the book, it seems, is a genealogy of the Mormon character—rich historical explanations for why we think and act and say the things we do. It gave me a greater appreciation for how Mormons engage the world and adapt themselves to its challenges. It also led me to think seriously about what future direction the church and its culture will take as the world evolves and changes and poses new challenges for the Mormon people.

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Mormon LitCrit: Do We Need New Mormon Literary Theory?

“There is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it has mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once, deluding itself, too, in wanting to look at the text without touching it, without laying a hand on the ‘object,’ without risking—which is the only chance of entering into the game, by getting a few fingers caught—in the addition of some new thread.”—Jacques Derrida, Plato’s Pharmacy

In literary studies, the word “theory” usually functions in one of two ways. First, it suggests a collective of ideas that have contributed—whether we realize it or not—to how we think about the world. For students, this is the kind of theory that either makes them groan or get all intellectually giddy inside. It goes by names like “poststructuralist” or “queer” or “feminist” or “postcolonial.” Rarely does anyone feel lukewarm about this kind of theory.1

The other kind of theory has to do with making an informed guess about how something functions or ought to function.2 This is like the kind of theory TV shows like Lost inspire, but on an arguably more sophisticated level.3 Scholars sometimes associate this kind of theory with methodology—which can make things confusing when the methodology goes by the same name as the collective of ideas.4

Mormon literary studies, of course, have already produced both types of theory.5 Our friends at Ships of Hagoth, in fact, have linked the best-known examples of these texts to their website, which itself is a kind of Mormon theory mill-in-the-making, but others exist buried deep in the digital archives of Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies, and blogs like this one, A Motley Vision, and probably even By Common Consent, Feminist Mormon Housewives, and Times and Seasons.6 The undigitized archives of Irreantum also likely contain theory, as do books like Tending the Garden and Marden J. Clark’s Liberating Form, which I recently picked up at Deseret Industries for two dollars.

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Book Reviews on the Internet: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Recently, a discussion cropped up in the comments section on a book review posted on another blog. The commenter noted that both the person reviewing the book, along with the other commenters, were generally heaping praise on the book while doing little to review its faults. This commenter disagreed with the reviewer’s take on the book, but felt pressure to not say anything because the tenor of the discussion had been mostly positive. This commenter also noted feeling like there was pressure within the Mormon literature community for authors to be soft on each other and to avoid giving fully critical reviews. Although this question of the validity and purpose of critique within the relatively small and somewhat insular world of Mormon letters is as a good one, the discussion cycled back to the question of book reviews: why do we write them and who do we write them for? Continue Reading →

History as Fiction, Fiction as History

A few weeks ago, A Motley Vision provided a quote from an 1897 publication by Junius Wells in which he discusses the idea of books as ‘companions’ and urges his readers to reconsider the type of company they keep when they read. Wells makes a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and privileges scriptural and factual based writing over ‘lighter fare’, noting that ‘the staff of intellectual life is fact.’ While it is easy to dismiss the words of Wells as old-fashioned and to assume that we have advanced culturally beyond our fear of fiction, I have sometimes run into a subset of Mormon readers who still fear fiction. They prefer to read nonfiction, preferably the devotional type written by a proven authority figure and published by an official press, but they may occasionally indulge in some inspirational fiction or perhaps some historical fiction that retells familiar events in a way that allows them to learn something and still ring ‘true’. Continue Reading →

Nickel Basins and the Mormon Experience

One of my majors as an undergraduate (yes, it was one that I actually completed and got a diploma in) was Spanish Translation. I thought it would be a great way to find a practical use for the second language I picked up on mission, but it turns out that I enjoyed the theoretical aspects of language much more than the skills I would need to actually make money as a translator and I went to grad school instead of doing anything useful with my degree. I still remember a paradigm-shifting moment in one class when my professor gave an example to illustrate the difference between denotation and connotation. He pointed out that if you were to have an American draw a picture of ‘bread’ on the chalkboard, he would most likely draw the sort of rectangular loaf with a rounded top that is so ubiquitous in American kitchens. If you were to ask a Spaniard to draw bread, or pan on the board, they would most likely draw a long, tapered loaf of the sort of crusty bread that you pick up at the panadería on your way home for lunch each day. Despite the fact that the sentences “I went to the store and bought bread” and “Fui al mercado y compré pan” are functionally equivalent, you could argue that they still create completely different meanings for their readers. Thus we have what Jose Ortega y Gasset famously called “The misery and the splendor of translation.”

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In Tents # 3 That Same Organization

Title: Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations
Author: Steven C. Harper
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Scripture Studies
Year Published: 2008
Number of Pages: 601
Binding: Hardbound in perfectbound signatures, not sewn, which I discovered when I closed the book one day then looked at it. It seemed a little askew. Opening it again I found it had split all the way down the middle between pages 314 and 315, right between two signatures. And I treat my books gently.
ISBN10: n/a
ISBN13: 978-1-59038-921-8
Price: $35.95 (But on sale just now at 60-75% off at Statebird Book.)

Listening to the State of the Union address the other night (OK, three months of other nights ago) I asked myself a question I asked two years ago. I wonder why none of Salt Lake’s micro breweries have brewed up a celebratory Barack Ale? And the answer was the same: But who would get it?

If you get it, if you know that Shederlaomach is not a low-calorie mickeyrooney and shiz meal in the frozen foods aisle of Ahashdah’s ozondah in Shinehah, if, indeed, you find yourself substituting Shederlaomach every time Rough Stone Rolling mentions Frederick G. Williams, or think Ahashdah when you hear of Newell K. Whitney, or think of Kirtland as Shinehah, or “my servant Gazelem” as Enoch, or know that Pelagoram is not a form of dermatitis associated with niacin deficiency, and want to know why “it was not always desirable that the identity of the individuals whom the Lord addressed in the revelations should be known by the world,” Continue Reading →

Mysterious Doings: Who Didn’t do it?

*Spoiler alert. This post reveals antagonists in a few classic mystery novels. The books are still worth reading even if you know who did it, though. Proceed at your own risk.

Formula is a dirty word for some writers and readers when used in regard to a pattern a book follows. Most genres have some kind of formula, some more rigid than others. For me a genre formula is basically a recipe—something you can always play around with but is there because it works. I’ve learned a lot about genres, sub-genres, emphasis, climbing action, red herrings, etc—things I hope to cover in future posts—as I’ve worked on my current series, but today I want to talk about the fascinating discovery I made about who didn’t do it. Continue Reading →

The Writer’s Desk: Writing Epiphanies

Novelist Charles Baxter’s book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction is a must-read for anyone interested in the art of fiction writing. One of the most evocative essays in the book is called “Against Epiphanies.” Though Baxter is critiquing American culture and literature in this incisive essay, I believe his assertions have unique resonance in Mormon culture.

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