Scott Hales on Mormon Literature

Dispensation

Dear Mormon Misfit Magazine readers,

Here’s what happened, in order of events.

  • Scott Hales agrees to answer some questions I had about Mormon literature, including ridiculous ones that I came up with like “you don’t know me but can you tell me why I never…”.
  • Scott graciously takes the time to thoughtfully answer my questions.
  • I eat up his answers and fill my Amazon shopping cart with fantastic book suggestions.
  • I move some of those items to the wish list (TEMPORARILY) because I remember that I am still caregiver to a teenage boy who likes to eat. A lot.
  • I consider how many books I can move back into my cart once swim season is over and the boy ratchets back down a few thousand calories.

I hope you’ll enjoy Scott’s thoughts and insights. And may your own book budget be bountiful.

Hi Scott! Although many Mormon Misfit readers and listeners will know you from mormonshorts and The Garden of Enid, some may know that you are also a writer and a professor of literature. Tell us a little more about what you do.

Right now I teach English classes at a few colleges and universities in the Cincinnati area. My broad area of expertise is in American literature since 1800, although right now I’m most interested in nineteenth-century American fiction. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the Mormon novel, so I’m also interested in that—I just don’t get a chance to work much with it in the classroom. Most of my research is in the Mormon novel, though, and I hope someday to teach it more.

When and how did you become interested in Mormon literature?

I’ve been interested in it since I was a kid. The first Mormon novel I can remember ever seeing was a Dean Hughes novel called Under the Same Stars, which we had in my home. We also had all of the Tennis Shoes novels, which I liked, and the Work and the Glory novels, which I didn’t. As a teenager I also got to know books like Orson Scott Card’s Saints and The Folk of the Fringe and Vardis Fisher’s Children of God.

During and after my mission I became obsessed with the idea of Mormon art and literature, and I started doing a lot of creative work with Mormon content when I got back home. I was never bold enough to do anything with it, though, so it took me a long time to discover that there were many people out there with similar interests. While at BYU, I learned about the Association for Mormon Letters and Irreantum, its literary journal, but I never took an active part in it until I left Utah and started graduate school at the University of Cincinnati. There I started exploring Mormon literature more, kind of as a way to claim an identity, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.  I think I’ve been blogging about Mormon literature since late 2010.

It has been said that Mormon lit suffers from an inability to tackle grittier, messier truth (or as The New York Times has suggested, we have a predisposition to a “sunny outlook” that may be getting in the way of our art). Is this a fair or unfair characterization?

When that piece came out in the New York Times, I responded to it with a post on A Motley Vision. To be honest, though, I think there is some truth to the claim. When our culture—at least in the United States—talks about art, it usually uses words like “uplifting” and “appropriate”—or invokes the thirteenth Article of Faith. Consequently, we tend to focus on content rather than context—meaning we focus on what’s in the art (or, more accurately, what’s NOT in the art) rather than what it means. We tend to talk about how much bad language or sex a movie or book has without talking about why that content might be there in the first place or what goodness you can derive from the work as a whole. We also want art that makes us feel good because we associate goodness with God.

I’m not going to fault people, of course, for wanting to be cautious about what they invite onto the stage of their mind. I’m cautious myself. However, my worry is that focusing on content rather than context makes us miss out on the good things seemingly “questionable” (another word we like to use) art has to offer. I also think it is a dangerous way to judge something—especially when applied to people, past or present. I’d much rather be judged based on the context of my choices than on their content. Joseph Smith, I’m sure, would feel the same way. Sometimes I wonder if the recent rise of faith crises among young Mormons—especially over matters of history—is tied somehow to our often zero-tolerance approach to media.  How can we expect young Latter-day Saints to understand and forgive the flaws of our past if we encourage them to flee from media with deeply flawed—even sinful—characters? I’d much rather see us create a culture that equips youth with the tools they need to process and contextualize what they might see on the screen and page.

How has Mormon literature changed over the years?

Mormon literature has changed in the same ways most literature has changed in the last century or so—although I’d say at a much slower pace. What’s exciting is that we are beginning to see Mormon literature migrate outside of Utah and even outside the United States. Up until recently, most Mormon literature has focused on the Utah experience—or the missionary experience. That still remains true today, but in the last few years there have been a few novels coming out of the United Kingdom—Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley being the best-known of them. I hope to see this trend develop in the future.

Perhaps the biggest change, though, has to do with publishing venues. It used to be that official Church magazines published poetry and short or serialized fiction, but that hasn’t been the case for more than twenty years. If you want to write Mormon poetry and short fiction, you really only have two options if you want to see it in print—Dialogue and Sunstone—although Church magazines will occasionally publish a poem or two in an issue. Irreantum, the only journal (I think) ever to be devoted solely to Mormon literature, stopped publication a few years ago.

That said, I think things are little better if you write Mormon novels. A number of publishers—Deseret, Cedar Fort, Zarahemla, Signature—still regularly put out Mormon novels. Smaller presses are always popping up too, sometimes with really impressive products. A small press called Strange Violins released a number of really good Mormon novels a few years ago. Self-publishing has also become a thing, although I’ve been less impressed by the results. For every The Five Books of Jesus that comes out you get scores of books that are often painful to read.

I think I read that you taught a Mormon lit course to a class of largely (if not entirely) non-Mormons. How did it go? What works did the class respond to?

I’ve taught Mormon literature twice to non-Mormon students. The first time it went really well and the second was not a disaster—but it wasn’t great either. Of course, the first class focused entirely on American religious fiction, so the students were better prepared for it. The second class was an American literature survey, which included almost no religious fiction, so the Mormon lit really stood out. Plus, I taught it during the last week of class—when students were busy studying for finals—so I don’t think many of them actually read the stories.

Both classes responded well to Angela Hallstrom’s story “Thanksgiving,” which is the first chapter in her novel Bound on Earth.  The first class also responded well to Douglas Thayer’s story “Wolves.” You can find both stories in the anthology Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, which should be on the bookshelf in every Mormon home.

What’s keeping Mormon authors off the bestseller list? Is there hope for Mormon authors, or perhaps for fiction with Mormon characters or settings to cross over to a more mainstream audience? Is this to be desired or even necessary?

This is a good question. Mormon authors are actually well-represented on bestseller lists, although almost uniformly for science fiction and fantasy works. Mormons have a great reputation for their contributions to that genre, and there are plenty of reasons for why.

What we never see on bestseller lists, however, are works by Mormon authors about the Mormon experience. In the past few years, of course, there have been a handful of nationally and internationally published books by Mormon authors (or post-Mormon authors) about the Mormon experience, but I don’t think any of them achieved bestseller status. (I could be wrong, though, since I don’t often look at the numbers.)  Some of them have been very good, while others mostly irritated me. Sometimes I get the sense that the only way to publish your Mormon story nationally is to either over-explain and apologize for the Mormon content (which is often a problem in Mormon literature) or caricaturize or antagonize Mormonism. Rarely do you get a nationally-published book that is able to sidestep both problems. Tim Wirkus’ recent City of Brick and Shadow, published by Tyrus Books, manages to do it very well.

I have been participating in a small book club for a little over a decade. We only just recently, finally, agreed to read a novel by a Mormon author. I’ll admit it felt like something we were avoiding. I can’t even entirely explain why! We tried to pinpoint our seeming bias against it, but we couldn’t. Has it been a case of avoiding the good works out there because we knew not where to find them? Have they been there all along? Where, pray tell, can we find them?

I’m not sure if there is a single reason for the bias, but it is definitely there. Part of the problem, I think, is that the best Mormon literature is not always the most visible. In Utah, for example, LDS Bookstores offer only a narrow selection of Mormon novels—usually only titles published by Deseret Book and its various imprints or Cedar Fort. So, unless you have a taste for Mormon-themed genre fiction, clean mysteries and romances, or Harry Potter knock-offs, you’re probably not going to find anything that interests you in these stores.

LDS fiction also has a reputation for being preachy, cheesy, and /or Utah-centric—which is not too surprising since a lot of it has been. Again, if you’re not into that kind of literature, you’re going to have a hard time finding stuff you like unless you follow what’s going on in the smaller world of independent Mormon publishing. A lot of these smaller companies are producing great titles, but they struggle for a number of reasons to get the word out. Some don’t have the budget for marketing and some, because the content in their product tends to push the envelope, find it difficult to place their titles in conservative LDS bookstores.

I don’t live in Utah, but I’ve found when I’m there that I can normally find lesser-known Mormon literature at the BYU Bookstore and independent bookstores in the state. Usually, though, I just get books through Amazon or directly from the publisher. I think if you are interested in these lesser-known books, make a habit of following the blogs A Motley Vision and Dawning of a Brighter Day—and especially look out for Andrew Hall’s monthly “This Week in Mormon Literature” column on Dawning of a Brighter Day. It will tell you all you need to know about what’s happening in the Mormon literary world. It covers everything.

What can we look forward to in the future of Mormon literature?

I think Mormon literature will continue to follow mainstream or established literary trends—at least until it can find its feet and get the confidence and audience it needs to experiment with something new. This is the path all literature takes as it develops. My guess is that Mormon literature will need many more decades and a constant supply of new blood to get to a point where someone can take an objective look at it and say, “Wow, the Mormons are really doing something new with their literature.” My expectation is that we’ll see a more confident voice emerge in Mormon writing as new writers catch visions of what Mormon literature could be. We already see this happening now. I think a lot of emerging Mormon writers are becoming less willing to explain Mormonism to outsiders, apologize for its doctrinal or cultural quirks, or look cynically upon its shortcomings than previous generations. The writers I like reading now are those who see the mind-expanding possibilities of the Restoration—those who see their Mormonism not as a restriction or a liability, but as a resource or catalyst for opening up the imagination. I get bored with works of Mormon literature the minute they start complaining about how restrictive and confining Mormonism is. Mormon literature in the future, I hope, will embrace the concept of a Mormon imagination.

I also think we’ll be rediscovering older works of Mormon literature. For the last half-century, critics have been saying that early Mormon literature is not worth reading. I used to believe that until I started reading it. While it can be preachy and sentimental and amateurish, it can also be powerful and deeply moving. For the past four years Peculiar Pages, a Mormon publishing company, has been putting together a new critical edition of Nephi Anderson’s Dorian, one of the best examples of quality early Mormon literature, and it’s finally finished. The book was first published in 1921, but it is still very relevant for today. My hope is that we’ll see more new editions of old Mormon literary works in the future. I also hope readers will take a look at this new edition of Dorian—and not just because I have an essay on it. It’s a fantastic volume.

Can you give us a little reading list?

This is probably the hardest question because there is so much goodness to recommend. Back in September, I put together a fifteen-week reading course for people who wanted to get to know Mormon literature, but I’ll try to simplify that even more. First, I recommend acquainting yourself with these anthologies: Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction, Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-First Century Mormon Poets, and Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama. Then, because my thing is the Mormon novel, I recommend these works: Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth, Theric Jepson’s Byuck, Sarah Dunster’s Lightning Tree, Steven Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell, and James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus.

All of these novels, I think, have the ability to appeal to a broad spectrum of Latter-day Saints. They are exceptional gateway drugs to the best of what contemporary Mormon fiction has to offer.

I love all that you’ve given us to explore and look forward to in the world of Mormon literature. We are so happy to have you here at Mormon Misfit. Thank you, Scott!

2 Comments

  1. .

    Dean Hughes’s kid-pioneer books were among the first I read as well, though I have no clear memories of them anymore. Dean deserves a lot of credit for getting the 70s rebirth of Mormon lit out of its initial morass.

    Something I look forward to seeing more of in years coming is more care for craft and more risk-taking with form. Which sounds smart and vague at the same time, so I’m probably right.

    Reply
    • Agreed. Unfortunately, I think the advent of cheap and easy e-publishing has led many to believe that because they can publish instantly, they should. I hope Mormon writers in the future will remember to take the time to develop their craft while also employing talented editors who can bring out the best in their work.

      Reply

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  1. This Month in Mormon Literature, Early March 2015 | Dawning of a Brighter Day - […] Hales is the newest contributor to the Mormon Misfit Magazine. The site has an interview with Scott about Mormon …
  2. This Month in Mormon Literature, Early March 2015 | Dawning of a Brighter Day - […] Hales is the newest contributor to the Mormon Misfit Magazine. The site has an interview with Scott about Mormon …

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