Scholar to Scholar: On Mormon literary studies

12.15.2014 | Guest

The latest volume of the Mormon Studies Review features two pieces focused on Mormon literature. In one, Michael Austin introduces the wider academic community to the state of Mormon literary studies. In the other, Scott Hales reviews two of the finest recent instances of Mormon literature, Steven L. Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell and The Scholar of Moab.

Shortly after volume two was published, Hales posted an in-depth response to Austin’s essay. We saw a golden opportunity to bring these two scholars directly into conversation and we thank them for being willing to participate. In what we hope to be the first of many “Scholar to Scholar” posts at the MI Blog, Austin responds to eight questions asked by Hales. You can read the MSR essay that sparked this exchange here.—BHodges

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[Scott Hales:] Michael, your essay has much to say about published studies on Mormon literature (or the lack thereof), but very little to say about the kind of intellectual work being done on sites like A Motley Vision, Dawning of a Brighter Day, and Mormon Artist, where most major discussions of Mormon literature are happening today. What, in your opinion, is the value of this kind of web-based work in Mormon literary studies?   

[Michael Austin:] This is a great question, Scott, and a somewhat complicated one too. First, let me emphasize that, in this particular essay, I was writing to a specific set of instructions. Unlike my 1995 article “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time,” which you cite in your response, this essay was not advocating for any particular definition of or vision for Mormon literature or Mormon literary studies. I was, rather, responding to an invitation from the editors of the Mormon Studies Review to provide a survey of both the history and present state of the academic study of Mormon literature. As I interpreted this assignment, the major focus had to be on studies published by peer-reviewed journals and academic presses. In the academic world, these are the coins of the realm. That does not mean that they are the best coins, or that the academic world is the best realm; it merely means that they were the proper focus of the essay that I was asked to write.

But I do think that peer-reviewed academic publications are extremely important for Mormon literature. They are still the best way for scholars to influence the larger culture. The conversations that occur in these kinds of publications are, by their very nature, external to the Mormon literature community. They are sent to academic peer reviewers, they are placed in university libraries, and they are indexed in the catalogs and databases that most academics use to research literary topics. When they reach a certain critical mass, they give an academic legitimacy to the conversation that invites other scholars to join it.

I think that these are good things for scholars of Mormon literature to do. I do not think that they are the only good things to do or that they are inherently better than other kinds of intellectual work. I have been impressed with the kinds of critical efforts I have seen on A Motley Vision and Dawning of a Brighter Day. Much of it is very good. Some of it is excellent. I have not participated much in these forums, but they remind me a lot of a forum that I did participate in back in the 1990s: the old AML-List moderated by Benson Parkinson. This was back in the day of dialup modems and monochrome monitors, but the list hosted a lot of challenging, interesting, and intellectually sophisticated discussions and columns. I would probably never have become interested in Mormon Literature at all had it not been for my experience in this forum.

Those conversations, though, were almost entirely internal. This is not a bad thing. Internal conversations are necessary to the development of a critical culture. They incubate ideas and provide a lot of extremely important feedback to the people who have ideas. In my judgment, this is how the Mormon Literature blogs function now. I think they are great things, but they are not quite the things that I was focusing on in this essay.

As just an aside (and to show that I am not in any way contemptuous of the intellectual work done on blogs) I would point out that I do participate actively on a current affairs and politics blog called the Internet Voter Network where I write about two posts a week on contemporary issues and on the nature of contemporary political discourse. I think I have done some of my best writing in these blog posts, and much of the work on political discourse is now finding its way into a book that I am currently writing on civility and political argument. I consider the work that I do there to be fulfilling and important. But I do not see it as quite the same thing as my scholarly writing. This is not an evaluative comment. I don’t see my blog work as less important, or more important than my scholarly work—just different.

2) A major perception among scholars of Mormon literature is that Mormon literary studies would see more peer-reviewed publications if it had more institutional support, especially from BYU, where the field had its beginnings. Do you see this lack of institutional support as a major player in Mormon literary studies’ struggle to establish itself? What could greater institutional support offer the field?

This is sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. I have long felt (and I said this in my 1995 article too) that institutional support will follow more peer-reviewed publications (which, as you point out, will lead to more peer review publications because of the institutional support). I do not know of any English Department in the country—not even BYU—that would not be thrilled if a faculty member published a well-written and widely reviewed scholarly book with Oxford or Johns Hopkins University Press. Even a book dealing with something as tawdry as Mormon literature would almost certainly be reviewed positively. Strong, peer-reviewed publications are still the best way to legitimize fields of study and attract institutional resources.

3) In your essay, you state that there is “much more consequential literature about Mormons than by them” (60). Can you clarify what you mean by “consequential,” especially since the emergence of cultural studies has made virtually any cultural product potentially consequential?

I completely agree that any cultural product is potentially consequential, but that potential is not equal across the whole range of cultural artifacts. Scholarship builds on traditions. The more a subject area has been studied, the easier it is to make connections into the academic communities that study it. Book and journal editors generally look for scholarship that engages conversations that are already going on. And in the non-Mormon world, the conversations about Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson are much more fully developed than the conversations about, say, Jack Weyland or Lex de Azevedo.

4) In many ways, the Mormon literature community is divided into two fluid, cross-pollinating camps, the critics and the creative writers. Your essay says much about the work of the critics, but not much about the work of creative writers who write about craft, or the production of Mormon literature. How would these studies fit into your schema? What function do you see them playing in the ongoing development of Mormon literary studies?

This was an essay about the academic study of Mormon literature, so it focused almost exclusively on literary criticism. The actual production of Mormon literature, and the current conversations about that production, were part of the project only to the extent they shaped the critical reception of Mormon literature. In saying this, I do not mean to devalue the other kind of writing at all. It is legitimate, interesting, and important. And it certainly has the potential to become extremely relevant to the critical discourse. Literary scholars today care a great deal about what T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold had to say about writing poetry. Their writings about their craft have become important forms of literature in their own right.

5) Your essay focuses more on fiction and studies of fiction than on poetry and drama. What motivated that choice? How would you characterize the state of contemporary Mormon poetry and drama?

I think that this is true of the larger literary culture in America generally. Contemporary fiction gets studied and written about a lot more than contemporary drama or poetry. And since my purpose was to survey the state of the critical discourse, rather than the state of Mormon literature, I focused on the kinds of texts that have produced the bulk of the scholarly studies.

6) You write that “Scholarly studies of the role of Mormonism in literary history have always been easier to place with mainstream academic publishers than studies of literature by and for Latter-day Saints” and that “[s]uch studies will continue to offer the best opportunities for Mormon literary critics to break out of the ‘Utah bubble’ that has both nourished and confined them” (65-66). With this statement are you suggesting that critics wishing to work with Mormon literature should focus their efforts on texts about Mormons rather than by and about Mormons? What course of action should scholars wishing to study the latter take?

I think that critics should follow their own lights and their own passions and write about things that they find important. I have no desire to constrain or influence what gets studied or written about. I am simply trying to give my best evaluation of the state of Mormon literary studies as it relates to the state of American literary studies generally. It is generally easier—especially for somebody just starting out—to engage with scholarly conversations that are already happening than to define and create a new conversation. But top-notch scholarship will always find publishers, and I welcome top-notch scholarship about all things Mormon.

7) Similarly, you claim that “Academic journals and university presses are simply more interested in manuscripts about Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Angels in America than about Nephi Anderson and Saturday’s Warrior” (65-66). My experience, however, has been that publishers are interested in both kinds of scholarship as long as the study is able to place the Mormon elements within a broader historical, social, and/or literary context, thus making it relevant to mainstream readers. Could the problem, then, be less about the interests of the journals and presses and more about how we teach and talk about Mormon literature?     

All I can really say here is that your experiences are different than mine, and I am certainly happy to be proven wrong. But I am not sure we are saying completely different things here. Placing Mormon literature in conversation with broader conversations is indeed the necessary thing. In literary studies, this will often mean connecting it with canonical figures, but not always. There are certainly other ways to do the same thing, and I am interested to see what you and others come up with.

8) In my response to your article, I take issue with your claim that “Mormons have not even been very good about producing, or recognizing […] challenging but deeply spiritual writers who draw on the power of their religious traditions […] to produce works of significant literary merit” (73). While I agree that the Mormon community has yet to recognize and embrace its best writers (a problem most communities have), I disagree with the notion that it has not yet produced “deeply spiritual writers” who do interesting and powerful things with Mormonism. I look, for example, at Angela Hallstrom’s anthology Dispensation (2010), Tyler Chadwick’s poetry anthology Fire in the Pasture (2011), William Morris and Theric Jepson’s speculative fiction anthology Monsters and Mormons (2011), Mahonri Stewart’s drama anthology Saints on Stage (2013), and Jerry Argentsinger, Jeff Laver, and Johnny Townsend’s gay Mormon fiction anthology Latter-Gay Saints (2013) and wonder if a community can produce five sizeable, high-quality literary anthologies within four years and not be “very good” at producing the kind of writers and literature you describe. As I see it, perpetuating the idea that Mormon literature still has very little to offer critics in terms of sophistication and quality prevents Mormon literary studies from breaking out of its “bubble” and attracting more scholars from inside and outside the Mormon community. Thoughts?

It was certainly not my intention to disparage the current state of Mormon literature. Indeed, I am quite optimistic about the actual production of Mormon literature. But this was an essay about the state of Mormon literary criticism.

But really, criticism is just a lead measure for cultural penetration, which is something that relates to the production of literature. In the passage that you quote from here, I allude to two writers—Cynthia Ozick and Flannery O’Connor—who took their respective religious traditions (Judaism and Catholicism) into the larger American culture and showed the world what their particular spirituality looks like. This is largely what I mean by doing “interesting and powerful things with Mormonism.” Perhaps a better phrasing would have been “interesting and powerful things with Mormonism that other people are noticing.”

I have read two of the anthologies you cite here—Dispensation and Saints on the Stage—and I enjoyed them both very much. They are indeed representative of a vibrant literary culture. But their impact has also been confined to a small circle of people who were already interested in Mormon literature. They have not penetrated very far into the larger Mormon culture, much less the larger American literary culture, in a way that makes them comparable to the kinds of works that I was discussing in my essay.

Very few works of Mormon literature have done this. One that has is Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, which I taught this semester in a seminar class called “Novels of Home and Immigration.” Several students told me that it was their favorite novel of the semester, and one told me that it was the best thing she had ever read. It was during this discussion that I outed myself as a Mormon to my students (which is not an easy thing for a Provost at a Catholic school to do) and had some very meaningful discussions of my own spiritual understanding. I have also published, with Utah State University Press, a book of interviews with Terry Tempest Williams that has significant Mormon content and that was sold primarily to university libraries and independent bookstores. It has even had a fair number of course adoptions. I could do this only because her books, especially Refuge, had already attracted enough interest from scholars and teachers to justify such a publication.

As I said in the Review essay, I think that this is a critical problem more than it is a literary problem. There are other works of Mormon literature that could support this kind of scholarly activity—Steven Peck’s Scholar of Moab comes to mind as a good candidate—but we have to get behind and push.

But I take exception to the statement that “perpetuating the idea that Mormon literature still has very little to offer critics in terms of sophistication and quality prevents Mormon literary studies from . . . . attracting more scholars from inside and outside the Mormon community.” I think this makes it sound as though we could solve the problem by doing a little bit more cheerleading in our internal conversations (where, I think, plenty of cheerleading is going on already). I actually think that this strategy is counterproductive.

The way to attract more scholars from inside and outside of the Mormon community is to produce the kind of scholarship that these scholars will read and then publish it in the venues that they respect. For the foreseeable future, this means peer-reviewed journals and university presses.

In this respect, our internal conversations can be double-edged swords. They can nurture ideas and provide a safe place to refine them until they are ready for prime time. However, they can also prevent broader conversations by providing such safe and nurturing spaces that scholars stay in them and never try to make connections to larger academic communities.

As you acknowledge in your initial response, “no national press has published a work specifically focused on Mormon literary studies.” I find this fact somewhat distressing, as it cannot be said for the disciplines of religious studies, sociology, anthropology, economics, psychology, political science, legal studies, social work, folklore, gender studies, art history, or musicology. All of these fields can point to at least a handful of scholarly monographs from academic presses that deal significantly with Mormon themes. I think that we need to be very honest about asking ourselves why we are so far behind most of the other branches on the Mormon Studies tree.

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Scott Hales received his PhD in English from the University of Cincinnati. His critical essays on American and Mormon literature have been published in Religion and the Arts; The Edgar Allan Poe Review; Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought; and War, Literature, and the Arts. He has also published book reviews in Irreantum and Religion and Popular Culture.

Michael Austin is provost, vice president for academic affairs, and professor of English at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Reading the World: Ideas That Matter (Norton, 2006), Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), and Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford, 2014). He is currently working on a book on Vardis Fisher, Virginia Sorensen, and the mid-twentieth-century Mormon literary diaspora.