Realishness and Realizing Realism

I write across a fair number of genres and styles—article, essay, short story, novel; science fiction, fantasy, (trying) horror, slice of life, absurd, magic realism, literary.

Each form prides itself on telling True Stories that move beyond mere accuracy to expose underlying Reality. Even when stories are based on actual events, enormous selective liberty is taken with fact so as to clarify a specific thematic underpinning. Facts are more of a guideline than a rule, to be left out or ignored as needed in service of the chosen thematic Truth.
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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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In Defense of Grumpiness: A Review of “Brothers,” “Quietly,” and A Roof Overhead

Update 18 Aug 2012: In the comments, Mahonri Stewart responds to my critiques of his piece. In the interest of fairness, I encourage anyone who reads this review to also take a look at his comments. I happen to agree with his argument that my use of the term “blood libel” is excessive and unfair. It fits the character of the grumpy narrator of this review but is too exaggerated and charged to be helpful in discussing the structure of the play.

On A Motley Vision in May and again in July, I took issue with three works others had praised: Levi Peterson’s “Brothers,” Todd Robert Petersen’s “Quietly,” and Mahonri Stewart’s A Roof Overhead. Many readers were surprised by my sudden grumpiness. Some asked if I held a problematic aesthetic that shut out a variety of Mormon voices. Some pointed out that other readers hadn’t complained about the issues I brought up, or diplomatically suggested our differences were simple matters of personal taste.

Looking back on those brief exchanges, I’ve felt a little like a self-appointed referee who walks into the middle of a pick-up game of basketball. Others aren’t bothered if a writer sneaks a quick elbow or double-dribbles because at least he’s playing the literary Mormon game. So when I blow my whistle and start to crack open a rulebook, of course people are going to use the lack of blood to show there’s been no foul, or else wonder whether too much whistling is going to cramp the players’ style. And hey, if it’s a pickup game—they’re right. I should shut up and get off the playground.

But I don’t think most of us want Mormon Literature to be a playground game. I think we want to take craft seriously and take our role in society seriously—and that means we have to acknowledge that there are about a million things that can go wrong aesthetically or ethically with a piece. So unless Mormon writers are gods, there ought to be at least a few things in every story that we can and should call out and comment on. Continue Reading →

Unintended Consequence—Loss of the “Safe” Genre

There’s been a fun kerfuffle around shifting lines of acceptance for aggressive or explicit content in YA fiction. Certainly the discussion in not new (Rachel Nunes, for example, commented to in a post back in January 2010), but this latest round helped me articulate an unintended consequence of that shift. Continue Reading →

Mysterious Doings: Poison and the Pen With Gregg Luke

*Gregg Luke is a Pharmacist by day and a writer of medical thrillers by night, weekends, and lunch breaks. His books have pioneered a new genre in the LDS suspense market, specifically intended for those readers who want a good mystery, intense plot, and accurate science. His most recent book is titled Blink of an Eye and is a finalist in the 2010 Whitney Awards. Winners of the 2010 Whitney Awards will be announced May 7th at the Whitney Award Gala.

From Gregg:

My first loves were good movies, good books, drawing, and nature. In many ways they still are. While my creative talents were exceptional when I was young, my intellectual abilities were abysmal. I dreamed of being an author or a cartoonist and graduated high school in Santa Barbara, California, with average marks and zero interest in going to college.

My mission to Wisconsin was a turning point in my life. Two of my brothers and one sister served foreign missions and then I went  . . .  Stateside. I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to learn a language. Fortunately, my third companion suggested I make the scriptures my second language. Bingo. I took to studying and memorizing like never before. It was in the mission field where I learned how to study, and I soon discovered how little I knew about anything. Continue Reading →

YA Corner: Because Wrong is Interesting

Recently, one of our librarians recounted a conversation he had overheard in the teen stacks.  A teenager and her mother were looking for books for the girl when they came across a popular vampire series.   The young woman pleaded with her mother to check the books out, to which her mom replied, “Now remember, we’re looking for books that are virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy.”

“But Mom,” the teen cried, “they are so good!”

As readers, and especially as parents, teachers, and advisers to teen readers, how do we balance the command to seek after anything virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy with the desire to read meaningful, honest, interesting stories? Continue Reading →

Mormons, Masks, and Mommy Blogs

By now, you’ve probably seen Emily Matchar’s article “Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs.” (Her tagline: “I’m a young feminist atheist who can’t bake a cupcake. Why am I addicted to the shiny, happy lives of these women?”)

If you missed it, Matchar’s point is this: In a post-feminist world, where domesticity is often ignored or treated with derision, it’s sometimes nice to fantasize about domestic bliss. And a lot of women are doing just that by reading Mormon mommy blogs. Mormon women, it seems, offer up in their blogs “picture-perfect catalog lives” that seem “adorable and old-fashioned and comforting,” Reading them lets contemporary women participate in a sort of escapist domestic fantasy.

Since its publication in January, I’ve read and heard dozens of reactions to Matchar’s article—from the pleased (“Hey, people are noticing how great we are!) to the annoyed (“Hey, stop gawking at us like were cute, furry pandas!).

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I Am Jane (with a little Levinas)

I wrote the play I Am Jane a decade ago, and we had our premiere performance in an LDS chapel for the Genesis Group meeting. We turned the sacrament table into a deathbed and the choir seats into a pioneer camp. It was a sweet evening. Nothing professional about it, but very sweet—probably because we did have some good actors, and certainly because we were depicting the compelling, inspiring story of Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a Black Mormon pioneer. For Black Mormons, her story often provides a link to Utah’s Pioneer Day celebrations. As one of the actresses said, “I used to hate pioneer day. I’d think, ‘Yeah, you had pioneer ancestors—but they CHOSE to come. My ancestors had no choice.” Jane’s story was a bridge builder.

We subsequently had more professional performances, and BYU expressed an interest in staging it for Black History Month.

That was when we got into trouble. I submitted the script, and representatives of BYU’s administration and the Religion department had some serious questions about the wisdom of doing the play as I had written it. I was inadvertently copied on a memo which raised all the questions or objections. I did make some revisions to the script and the play was shown, but the objections remain interesting to me. What is there about Jane’s story which any might see as threatening to faith?

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The Populist’s Soapbox: LDS Fiction: It’s Not Just LDS Anymore

Last week a Deseret News reporters interviewed me about Band of Sisters and the Flat Daddy Project. I’ve done several interviews recently, but this particular reporter asked something no one had yet.

Her question, and my answer to it, have kept me thinking ever since. Continue Reading →

What Offends the Mormon Reader?

In an earlier post here at the AML Blog (and again during a panel discussion at last weekend’s AML Conference) Chris Bigelow admitted that even though Seagull Book had requested ordering information on the anthology I edited, Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction, he felt it was important to warn the buyer that this book’s content is PG-13.  First of all, I’m not surprised that Chris hasn’t heard back from the buyer (although I am very, very encouraged that the buyer even contacted Chris at all).  But–perhaps surprisingly?–I don’t fault Chris one bit for issuing the warning that may have affected this anthology’s ability to hit the shelves in a Seagull store.  I mean, I’ve dreamt of one of my titles being available at Deseret Book or Seagull.  I’ve lamented the fact that smallish publishers like Zarahemla and Parables will never score significant sales unless one of their books breaks through and shows up in these stores.  So why wouldn’t I want the anthology I edited to be that book? Continue Reading →

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