Welcome to the seventh email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover: “We Have Our Standards (For Mormon Writers)”
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark discusses the continuum of literary standards—from “an inferno of absolute dishonesty” to “a paradise of absolute integrity” (89)—and situates recent (to him) Mormon literary/publishing trends along that continuum. He calls out cynically writing for the market (to make money), the “refusal or failure to treat our materials honestly” (92), sentimentality, and other issues he sees. He nods to the complexity of writing within a community and calls for and offers hope for future Mormon literary excellence.
Best Lines: “I have great faith, I hope not just a naive one, in the power of the excellent to get people to rise to it, and in the power of people to rise to it if they have it always available. That is our burden: to create the excellent on whatever level and for whatever purpose we are writing. I think we can trust our audience to rise to it. But even if they don’t we will have had our reward, in the very fact of our having create excellence…” (101)
Why: It captures why reading Clark’s essays is so useful today. I do think he is being naive. The Mormon audience has a very mixed, mostly negative, record of rising to excellence since Clark wrote these words. But I like the way Clark wants Mormon artists to still make the attempt, and notes that even if the audience doesn’t appreciate excellence, creating an excellent work is its’ own reward. I think it’s easier to either dismiss or cater to the Mormon audience. Reading Clark makes me want to keep trying to see if the radical middle can break through.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife occupies a strange place in Mormon literature: it challenges both the broader audience and the Mormon one. It’s ostensibly a romantic comedy where the romance isn’t a romantic romance. It will frustrate many readers. It has too little Mormonism for keen readers of Mormon literature and too much Mormonism for other readers. I don’t know if it quite gets the balance right. It’s fluffy, but also has streaks of realism. I don’t know if you will like it, but it’s very much worth reading.
Other Recommendation: Discussions about standards for art often paint a broad brush across fiction genres. And by standards, I mean standards of excellence—moral standard is a related, overlapping discussion, but not what I’m talking about here. When it comes to genre fiction, the wholesale dismissal of genres, especially YA (young adult fiction), comics, fan fiction, romance, etc. is reductive and more often than not shows the ignorance of the person making the claim. And yet wholesale defenses are also often reductive, albeit in a more positive direction. So let’s say you’re open to a new genre, but don’t know where to start. Awards lists can help, but tend to not surface the best stuff. What you need is recommendations. Here are a few sources I personally trust. Your tastes may differ.
William Update: The AML annual conference is coming up in late July, and I will be moderating three panels, including one on the list of 100 notable works of Mormon literature an AML committee has been working on for two+ years now. Click here for more details and to RSVP
For this deep dive, I’m going to list the levels in Clark’s continuum of literary dishonesty to integrity and then focus mostly on his notions of integrity and excellence.
Most Dishonest: Pornography that’s exploitative (esp. of children).
Still Very Dishonest: Literary theft/plagiarism.
Dishonest: Ghost writing, including anonymous/committee writing. Clark acknowledges there’s a spectrum here. He observes: “I am uncomfortable with the anonymity of church manuals and the stylistic flatness and uniformity that almost inevitably results from committee work … with the way anonymity devalues the writer and presents the written as … self-created hence unindebted” (90). But even that’s better than taking the words of others and passing them off as our own, even if they’ve specifically been written for our use.
As a sidenote, I wonder what he’d think about the Saints project, which technically is committee writing, but gives bylines to the writers who have contributed, including some of the best current Mormon writers, and while is not idiosyncratic in literary style has more voice to it and research poured into it than the LDS Church manuals have.
Somewhat Less Dishonest: “the scissors and paste jobs that flood our book markets” (91); that is, the collections of anecdotes, famous quotations, short passages, poems, etc. that get used in talks and lessons; Clark claims they “demand no sustained creative reading” and create “consumers of snippets” (91). He also objects to them because they play so cynically to the market. And, in fact, he generally condemns writing to the market as a form of literary dishonesty.
Neutral Zone: Not writing. Notice how this is considered better than everything lower than it. Clark sees it not as dishonesty, but still as a negative, as “the temptation to do nothing” (93). He notes that is a real problem, that heavy Church commitments contribute to it, but we still must not use them as an excuse, and that we also need to be careful to not let things that are good but are “immediately enjoyable”(94) keep us from creating what we should be creating.
Literary Honesty & Integrity: Work that is the opposite of all of the forms of dishonesty below it; work that avoids sentimentality; work that comes out of a profound belief “that we are sons and daughters of God” (95)
Clark writes: “The quest for literary honesty and integrity in the complex sense that I have been talking about should and must be the quest for excellence. And excellence—no matter how we define it or recognize it or reward do it—should be crucial to our standards” (99).
Some of those factors, as defined by Clark, are:
In short, Clark wants Mormon writers to create art that displays “the formal control that both creates and releases the highest energy inherent in our work—that is, the control that gives us our liberating form” (99).
As I’ve noted in past emails, Clark takes a very classical humanist view of art and tends to privilege work and genres that fits neatly into that tradition. His innovation (or hopeful heresy [in both directions]) is to fold that into an overall Mormon worldview, and specifically one that focuses on the plan of salvation as a test of pre-existent spirits who are born into a mortal world and whose actions lead to an eventual fate/judgement. He writes that Mormon writers knowledge of and believe in such a plan should “pull from us great tragedies (because so much is at stake in our human struggles) and great ‘divine comedies’ (because our ultimate destiny is reunion with God)” (101).
Clark goes on to acknowledge that “most of our readership can hardly be considered sophisticated” (101) and even nods to the fact that Mormonism becoming a worldwide religion layers in additional challenges for Mormon writers trying to reach as large of an audience as well. However, he claims that while this audience may “have in common, perhaps, only a hunger and thirst after righteousness ad knowledge. But the Gospel should also give them a hunger and thirst after excellence” that Mormon writers “can minister to”(101). He adds that he has a “great faith” (and hopes “not just a naive one”) that this worldwide audience can embrace excellent art (101). And also offers the consolation that if they don’t Mormon artists will still have the reward of “having created excellence” (101) and the fact that the process of creating creates “better selves” (102).
This is probably obvious, but I would argue that if we are more expansive with Clarks definitions both in terms of what we mean by excellence in art and by what we include the Mormon worldview, then I think it puts artists in a pretty good mindset and place in which to create work.
Or to put it another way: I find value and meaning in a lot of different places when it comes to art. But what I value most is when I experience art that is very good and very Mormon.
There are plenty of people who can great good, even great, art. And there are plenty of Mormons who create entertaining even excellent art that has little to no overt Mormonism in it.
Rare is the work that is both excellent and very Mormon.
Clark says we have our standards, but there aren’t that many torchbearers for those standards.
Which is fine: as he notes, creating—and I would add: experiencing—such art is its own reward.
I do wish, though, that he spent more time on the possibilities rather than what Mormon art shouldn’t be. He will go into that a bit in his next essay, but I think one of the issues we run into is that so much of the discussion about Mormon art is about what the audience (or church leadership) will or will not tolerate or about what the grand abstract potentialities for Mormon art are rather than focusing on what exciting, interesting, complex, unique materials Mormon artists have to work with.
Or have worked with.
Indeed, this has become more of a frustration as I get further into the collection: when is Clark going to talk in detail about actual works of Mormon art? I realize there was a lot less that had been created back then. But the field wasn’t devoid of work.
If we want to have standards of excellence for Mormon art, perhaps we should pay more attention to what it exists and discuss what it accomplishes and fails to accomplish. Perhaps doing so might even increase the Mormon audience.
Thanks for reading!
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