“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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Writing and Community Building

For the last several months I have been the editor of my ward’s monthly newsletter. This experience has been interesting in many ways and I wanted to share a few thoughts about it in this setting. First of all, I fully acknowledge that the existence of a ward newsletter is a luxury of being in a large, fairly active, geographically close ward. Although I have come to see many benefits from having a well-written ward newsletter, I still think it should be low on the list of priorities for any church unit. I live in Utah County and our ward boundaries are fairly small. This is one of the only wards I’ve lived in during my lifetime that has teachers come around to each home to collect fast offerings each month, and as part of their duties they distribute the newsletter to each household (I know that they also distribute it to everyone who lives in ward boundaries as well). If printing and distribution of the newsletter were more difficult I’m not sure it would be worth it, but from what I’ve seen thus far it is one of the tools we have available to us to foster better unity among our ward family and in our ward it seems to be working. Continue Reading →

The Mystery of Theory to Practice

For this month’s installment of Mysterious Doings, I’ve invited Braden Bell as a guest. I think his viewpoint is wonderful and I hope you enjoy what he has to share with us.

Braden Bell

I’ve always been intrigued by the apostle Peter—particularly the episode when he walked on the water, at least for a few miraculous steps.

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Loving What You Do

Several years ago, I went a long period of no writing. I had a book I was working on–something I was sure my publisher would love, something I knew I’d get good reviews on, but I couldn’t make myself work on the book. I could never drag myself into the story for long enough to reach “the end.”

It was during this time that I found myself on the phone with Jeff Savage. I was whining (I know, hard to believe), and he asked what I was working on.

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Storytelling & community: Three Things

I’m thinking of three things. Here’s the first one: I remember a conversation some years ago with Scott Bronson. Having danced around as sort of an art-hobbyist for years, I was contemplating what I described in conversation with Scott as a kind of mystical leap into greater loyalty to artful pursuits – a new covenant to follow the muse.  My tone was getting pretty lofty, and I was getting kind of worked up. Scott listened patiently, and then brought me back down to earth by saying something like, “Relax, Sam. It’s not like we’re talking about curing cancer.” The comment was made more potent, perhaps, by the fact that Scott was, at that time, battling cancer. Anyway, that’s the first thing. Continue Reading →

Electronic Age: When we lay art down, what will we pick up?

I’ve got a friend who plays in a band for a living, and because he and his mates travel with lots of expensive gear, he keeps as close an eye as he can on what’s happening on the tarmac as luggage gets loaded. Through airplane windows, he watches stuff get tossed around, smart-phone camera at the ready. He’s snapped some photos of some particular scary luggage moments, and he’s always one touch of the screen away from communicating such to an audience of his choosing.

Some twenty years ago or more, my dad, a traveling musician himself, lost a guitar to a baggage handling accident. Bob Dylan had been its former owner. Continue Reading →

The Writer’s Desk: Audiences Don’t Owe us Anything

Spoke last week in a stake fireside in Las Vegas. David Skousen introduced me (he also accompanied the opening hymn for the fireside: a rendition of “The Spirit of God” that would have parted your hair. Also, as he stood at the pulpit I learned that he’d dated my stepmom). In his introduction, he spoke of the necessity of being a “useful artist,” which is kind of a loaded phrase. And while I wouldn’t presume to speak for David as to exactly what he’d call a “useful artist” (I’ve got my own ideas about artists and their usefulness), it did at least seem apparent that his comment had to do with the relationship between artist and audience – that it contained an assertion that in the process of making art, the audience has a seat at the table.

So I’m thinking over the last few days about audiences. And the one solid principle that I keep coming back to is this: audiences don’t owe artists anything. Continue Reading →

On-Stage: “What Hast Thou Been?”

A very good friend once told me that there was nothing in the world that he could do that would be more important than his writing. Not too long after that conversation he became a former Mormon. Speaking scientifically, I have no real evidence to prove a correlation between these two events. On the other hand, after years of casual observation, I feel strongly that I can claim there is at least a relationship involved; one does tend to follow the other. I have watched many of my friends and acquaintances leave the church in what appears to be — to me — a desire to devote more time, effort and allegiance to their art.

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Storytelling & Community: There’s Always a Message

(A disclaimer before you begin: This little essay should not be construed as a response to Darlene’s essay, “Coward, or What is Not Art.” I’m not like most of the other bloggers here who can toss off a few hundred words of keen analysis with barely a thought. I’ve spent days–off and on–trying to word this thing just right so that there will be no misunderstanding of my point, but I despair that I’ll ever be clever enough to be that clear. What I’m saying is, my thoughts about propaganda preceded Darlene’s by several days and have nothing to do with what she said.)

Most artists I know–perhaps I should say, artistes–abhor the thought of creating propaganda; they wouldn’t be caught dead using their work to further or perhaps even damage some institutionalized cause. Although I’m not sure where the notion comes from that only institutions use art to further or damage a cause, this seems to be the understood source of all that can be deemed propaganda. Apparently only oppressive monolithic organizations have agendas.


Oh, and, I used the phrase “wouldn’t be caught dead,” ironically, because in truth, after an artist dies is when the knives are truly sharpened and institutionalized critics are free to dissect an artist’s work and assign all sorts of intent–whether to further or damage–whatever pet cause it is to which the critic happens to adhere. What? The critics aren’t institutionalized?


Think about it now…just for a minute or two.

Everyone has an agenda. Everyone is institutionalized.

Ev. ‘Ry. One. Continue Reading →

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