Some Thoughts: 30 Years after President Kimball’s Plea to Mormon Artists

We’ve all heard something like this before: “I can’t really claim credit for what I’m about to read, because it came to me as inspiration. God is the author.” The follow up is usually a poem which compares faith (or some other virtue) to a gate/ not a fate/ Spirits’ bait/ please don’t wait—or something Edgar A. Guest might have composed.

You do not say anything. You do not voice the words in your head (“God must’ve been having a really bad day”) because you respect the sincerity of the writer—and maybe you recognize your own arrogance. (Surely the Spirit can inspire good thoughts, even if the instrument of expression is untrained.)

Suppose that person then announces that they feel “inspired” to become a writer, and plan on quitting their day job to follow that inspiration. They will be writing romances, of course.

Is there anything wrong with this? Well, no. Not technically. Except that Mormon fiction usually sells badly, and the person might blame God for their economic failure. And, in truth, we have enough romances. We need something else, something profound, even challenging. Sometimes you want a full meal, not another hit at the dessert buffet.

Sadly, if we are to seek wisdom “out of the best books,” we will probably not be shopping at Deseret Book—not for fiction, anyway.

It’s not that I don’t recognize good writers like Dean Hughes, Doug Thayer, and Louise Plummer (to name only two of many); it’s that I don’t see a promising arc in Mormon letters. I see a lot of “bite-your-lip” suspense, dramatizations within supposed Book of Mormon settings, romances, and pioneer-based historical fiction, but (with some notable exceptions) I don’t see much fiction which is really GOOD—well-crafted, rich in detail and ambiguity, not just uplifting but life-changing. We don’t have a Mormon equivalent to Marilynne Robinson and her beautiful _Gilead_, though the musings in that book could well have come from a Latter-day Saint. We don’t have a Saul Bellow willing to follow the faith and slowly surfacing doubts of a _Dean’s December_. And we certainly don’t have a Fyodor Dostoevsky or a Toni Morrison.

Why don’t we? Are we too easily persuaded that sweet stories/poems are usually inspired—especially if they make us feel good and certainly if they make us cry? Are we fearful of where the best fiction might lead us? (Do we really want to challenge Jesus Christ, as Dostoevsky does through Ivan, about the events on the Mount of Temptation? And if we did, would our books ever sell?) Are we, accustomed as we are to correlated lesson manuals, unwilling to plumb deep? Are we consciously contented with easy plots and predictable characters (not to mention predictable rhymes)? Are we lazy readers and therefore lazy writers? Is the problem inherent in the concept of Mormon literature itself? Does such a label invite the literary equivalent to what we’ve seen on the screen: a series of inside jokes, or situations relevant only to Mormons? (Will they get to the temple? Will he quit drinking coffee? Will they manage to camouflage the basketball net for the reception?)

I was in the audience when President Spencer W. Kimball issued his famous challenge to Mormon artists everywhere to “strive for perfection—the best and greatest” and never be “satisfied with mediocrity.”

That was in 1977. Thirty years later, I gratefully acknowledge fine Mormon authors and recognize that we have come quite a ways. But my office bookshelves have no books written by Mormons. (Not even by ex-Mormons.) My fiction reading choices are consistently from national markets, not LDS ones. I suspect I represent many lovers of good literature—who also happen to be Mormon. And with the merger of Covenant Communications and Deseret Book, I’m afraid my reading choices will not change. And sadly, though I’ve published a number of books with LDS presses, I doubt I’ll do it again.

110 comments for “Some Thoughts: 30 Years after President Kimball’s Plea to Mormon Artists

  1. Artists tend to be a mystical bunch. I don’t believe half the inspiration they claim to receive originates from anywhere higher than the top of their heads.

    As an artist (wannabe) it’s taken me about 30 years to figure that out.

  2. I didn’t realize that this was the 30th anniversary of President Kimball’s call. Somebody ought to organize a symposium!

    “It’s not that I don’t recognize good writers like Dean Hughes, Doug Thayer, and Louise Plummer (to name only two of many); it’s that I don’t see a promising arc in Mormon letters.”

    Is this a bit of a slip, Margaret? Or did you add Dean Hughes name at the last minute? I have no direct knowledge of his writing, but given the sort of audience I have observed reading his books, I had previously put him in the same category as Gerald Lund–a fine producer of devotional and historical entertainment, but not someone really working with stories and language the way Thayer and Plummer do.

    “We don’t have a Mormon equivalent to Marilynne Robinson and her beautiful _Gilead_, though the musings in that book could well have come from a Latter-day Saint.”

    I keep hearing wonderul things about this book. I really ought to read it sometime.

    “But my office bookshelves have no books written by Mormons. (Not even by ex-Mormons.) My fiction reading choices are consistently from national markets, not LDS ones.”

    You don’t even have any Orson Scott Card? I’m not a OSC defender; I’ve gotten fairly tired of his writing over the years (he never should have stopped writing short stories; I think that was/is his real strength), but he can still produce a fine yarn, and the national markets treat him well. (Melissa has gotten about as weary of some of OSC’s shtick as I, yet she picked up Magic Street last year, and thought it was first-rate.)

  3. The slip was in a last-minute addition of Doug Thayer, not Dean. Both are fine writers. Dean’s style is clean and simple, largely due to his experience writing YA fiction (a field where LDS writers really excel, btw–and in the national market). Doug is arguably the father of good LDS literature (apologies to Vardis Fischer), though his _Jeff Williams_ novel was done with Signature. (Signature publishes some of the best Mormon fiction, but nobody buys it.)
    Not only have I heard of Orson Scott Card (or Scott to those of us who know him), I helped him go bankrupt some 30 years ago when he tried to start a theater company, which I was a part of. Scott has a soaring imagination and is OFTEN profound. He has become more restrained over the years–which is a good thing. Mormon writers like Scott, Tracy Hickman, and Dave Wolverton have done well in the fantasy market nationally. But their Mormonism is only somewhat relevant to their work (Scott’s _Seventh Son_ series being the exception).
    Scott is usually put at the top of the list of most successful LDS writers.
    The big omission I made was Levi Peterson, who should be much better known than he is.

  4. I had similar thoughts this weekend while reading _My Name is Asher Lev_. There must be Mormon artists who have felt a similar, primal tension between the integrity of their art and the way of faith — and not just faith, but a way of life, a commitment to a community and representing that community — and could not bear to jeopardize the latter in favor of the former.

  5. Good comment, Deborah. Chiam Potok spoke of the importance of the artist being at the center of their faith, not on the fringes, and of writing honestly about core conflicts–when the Jewish core, for example, meets the Hindu or the Mormon core and recognizes the beauty in it and the depth and joy of the OTHER experience. (Potok did meet a Mormon during his experience in Korea, and spoke of it when he was at BYU. When asked how much he knew about the Mormon Church, he gave quite a few details and said, “That’s a lot for a Jewish boy to know.” Interestingly, _My Name is Asher Lev_ was received by the Jewish community with great ambivilance, according to Potok. (My daughter has a blog which includes a book club, and this month they’ll be discussing _My Name is Asher Lev_. You can find the blog at . Last month they did _The Great Divorce_, which my husband discussed at length in some wonderful comments.) I wonder what we’d do if we had a Chiam Potok (at his best–he nodded on occasion) in Mormonism. Would Mormons read him?

  6. “Not only have I heard of Orson Scott Card (or Scott to those of us who know him), I helped him go bankrupt some 30 years ago when he tried to start a theater company, which I was a part of.”

    I’ve only met OSC once, years ago in one of Gene England’s classes. I figured you knew him, but I never would have thought that you were a part of his long-ago theater company. Fascinating. Did you perform in his Moses play, Stone Tables? (Someday, someone should write a history of all the theater companies that have come and gone over the years in Utah Valley; I can think of a couple just from my years at BYU.)

    “Scott has a soaring imagination and is OFTEN profound. He has become more restrained over the years–which is a good thing.”

    You have a higher opinion of him than I do. Not to knock his talent; I’m sure he’s fifty times the writer I could ever be. But I don’t find his movement over the past decade or two towards literary “restraint”; it’s seemed to me rather more like a frequent submission of his imagination to his sense of surety, both philosophical and political. I can handle an overriding certainty in a short story or fable or some other literary form, but not so well in a straight-up novel. (But then, I wouldn’t hold myself up as an example of a good reader either.)

  7. “But their Mormonism is only somewhat relevant to their work (Scott’s _Seventh Son_ series being the exception).”

    Just for the record, I read Scott’s SAINTS in order to discuss it with a non-member friend who had already read it, and asked me about it. (BTW, I live several thousand miles away from Utah.)

    The thing is, I read to learn about the world I DON’T know. My book club at church just finished THE KITE RUNNER, about Afghanistan, and is reading WOMEN OF THE SILK about China.

    I have no particular interest in reading about Mormons.

  8. Agreed, Margaret. Potok represents a type of artistic and religious integrity an LDS author could seek to emulate. At least that’s what I felt while rereading him this weekend — an abiding love for his community, painfully astute observations of its limitations, and deeply human characters.

    Oh, and I think my mom’s play, “Elder’s and Sisters,” was part of that failed OSC theater expirement as well! As a novel, it was turned down by Deseret Book for being too “edgy” in its description of mission life. I read it now and much of it seems positively candy-coated!

  9. To briefly participate in the thread-creep here, OSC’s Mormonism is more noticable than the “Seventh Son” series. There’s also the “Homecoming” series, which is a science-fiction retelling of the Book of Mormon, Specifically First (and maybe Second) Nephi and Alma. There’s also “Saints,” his dabbling in the LDS historical genre. (He made what I felt was a good point in there, about generational Mormons have a kind of chip on their shoulder, just waiting to be given the opportunity to stand up against oppression.)

  10. Most people who don’t like Card’s recent work tend to be those who are often upset by his rightward political drift.

    I think that if his fiction and non-fiction had drifted left-ward, those same people would still be praising/liking him. Too often our fictional tastes are determined by our political tastes. Back when Card was perceived as a somewhat politically liberal Mormon (due to his membership in the Democratic party and support for gun control and affirmative action), the LDS intelligentsia lavished praise on him.

    Now that he supports Bush and some of his fiction is critical of leftist viewpoints, he’s suddenly “not as good as he used to be.”

    Yes, he has become somewhat restrained, and the unique narrative voice in the Alvin Maker series has vanished somewhere along the line. His fiction has become a lot less “edgy” (no more child rape and cannibalism), but beyond that he’s still one of the best science fiction writers alive. A passing OSC book is still better than 95% of anything else published in fiction or science fiction that month.

  11. This is a great post, Margaret.

    Stephenie Meyer made me fall in love with a vampire. (The book was not explicitly LDS but I think very much supportive of our worldview in an extremely subtle way–the entire book is about choosing not to give in to your ‘natural’ desires.)

    I think the real problem is just a numbers game: we’ve got–what?–3 million active English-speaking Saints? Compared to how many hundreds of millions non members? No wonder we haven’t produced many world-class talents yet.

    And if there is anyone out there who hasn’t read the _Standing on the Promises_ series Margaret cowrote, get thee to Amazon! Aside from Card, it is the only LDS fiction that I’ve found worth reading.

  12. “Most people who don’t like Card’s recent work tend to be those who are often upset by his rightward political drift. I think that if his fiction and non-fiction had drifted left-ward, those same people would still be praising/liking him.”

    Could be, Ivan. But I can say that at least in my case, that “surety” which I have increasingly felt in his writing doesn’t necessarily appear track to along any right-left continuum. I don’t know if Lost Boys or Enchantment are more “conservative” than, say Ender’s Game, but I do know that there was a feeling of “rightness,” of absoluteness, to the protagnonists in those books which I didn’t feel in EG, that seemed by contrast to make the moral universe of the later novels, to my mind, somewhat predictable and pedantic. But again, I wouldn’t take me seriously as an informed reader of science fiction (or any literature, for that matter); I’m very much an armchair critic.

  13. can’t really claim credit for what I’m about to read, because it came to me as inspiration. God is the author I’ve never heard anything like this before. Weird, must be a utah thing…

  14. Margaret, I don’t think the problem is quite as complex as your questions suggest. Generally speaking, I think it’s fair to say that the Mormon population at large is roughly equivalent to its non-Mormon counterpart when it comes the arts. Thus, if X% of the general population actually sits down and reads Dostoevsky in their spare time, then very likely X% of the active Mormon population would read a Mormon Dostoevsky. But that number is just too small to make the writing and publishing of such a novel worthwhile.

    Of course, this prospect hasn’t stopped a number of good writers from publishing literary works in the LDS market, but my point is simply that the lack of exceptional Mormon writers cannot necessarily be attributed to any particular sort of anomaly in the Mormon audience. Normal people don’t read Dostoevsky, they read Dean Koontz and Nicholas Sparks. Mormons aren’t any different.

  15. RAF –
    I was discussing more in general terms and wasn’t taking your earlier comment on personally (I hope it wasn’t taken that way). Card is, of course, not a perfect writer so there are always valid criticsms of him – and you have some very valid ones. Card is at his best when he’s writing a tale where the moral lines are harder to draw.

    As for armchair critics – well, Card has often said he thinks those are the best critics because he feels their reactions are more genuine and not filtered through whatever lit crit paradigms they’ve been taught (I’m paraphrasing from memory a speech I heard him give at BYU – or was it UVSC? – several years ago, so I may not have it exactly right).

    I’m a big believer in armchair critics myself, mainly because I’m all about discussions of literature that are more accessible to everyone. I think the great tragedy of Literature departments isn’t the critical theory (most of which I think is fine), but the dense inaccessible prose that passes for serious analysis (well, that and the leftist group think that refuses to admit any conservative idea as worthy of consideration, but that’s a different complaint). To me a good popular book review is of more worth than some jargon laden 30 page essay in an academic journal.

    Okay, now I’m rambling.

  16. Deborah–you’re Gladys Farmer’s daughter? You didn’t give nearly enough history about your mother’s book, which was officially banned by Bookcraft. And yes, it is very tame. And delightful.
    Now, I have to confess that I haven’t kept up with Scott Card. I do e-mail him once in a blue moon, and my students have periodically dropped my name to him, but the last Card I read was _Seventh Son_. I did read _Saints_ when it had that other title and the Harlequin Romance cover (the publishers were trying to attract attention to Eliza R. Snow’s story by creating a bodice-ripper cover), but I have never read _Ender’s Game_. Quite a confession, I know.
    _Stone Tables_ was performed at BYU while Scott was on his mission in Brazil. It was totally 70’s. It included an appearance by Jehovah, wearing a hooded and mirrored full-length cape, as I recall. Jehovah turned around and around on the stage and one of those disco globes twirled, reflecting off all of the mirrors–almost exactly duplicating what the vision must’ve been. :) I remember seeing it and thinking theater must be SO COOL if you could do effects like that! I was in Scott’s plays _Gideon_ (from the BOM), and _Father, Mother, Mother, and Mom–about polygamy. (I would guess it’d get banned today if someone presumed to do it at BYU.) I was also in a bunch of others which his reperatory company performed until it went bankrupt.
    Interesting beginnings. The big thing about Scott, besides his imagination, was his drive. His room was FULL of _Writer’s Digests_, and he was absolutely determined to become a great writer. I wonder if he has attained what he dreamed of, or if his dreams were even loftier.
    I know that in my own writing and reading, I am drawn to hard and complex stories. I love rich but sparing language, and characters who haunt me. I love creating them and I love reading about them in great works. I love Potok’s _The Chosen_; Alice Munro anytime, anything; Toni Morrison’s _Beloved_, Reynolds Price–that sort of thing. Not a Mormon in the lot.
    I have found much of Mormon writing about Mormonism to be subtlely polemicized–either it’s anti or it’s sugar-coated. Could anyone write a history of Joseph Smith which didn’t either self-censor or antagonize? How would a Dostoevsky deal with WIlliam Law in the Russian version of _Joseph Smith: The Man_? The only guy who has really addressed the depth of pathos and conflict in Law is Wallace Stegner in _A Gathering of Saints_, and he wasn’t a Mormon (nor was his book a novel).
    Will we need a sympathetic outsider like Stegner to tell the tale? If one of our own did it, how would it be received?
    P.S.–Thanks for the endorsement, Julie.

  17. \”My fiction reading choices are consistently from national markets, not LDS ones.\” You are not alone, and until Latter-Day Saints can compete in a national or international market, they really haven\’t met President Kimball\’s challenge. As you point out, I think we would be acting in opposition to the prophet\’s challenge by supporting mediocre authors merely because they are LDS, or write about LDS themes.

  18. Matt W.–the reason I wrote this post today is that one of my students told me she wasn’t really sure if her “authentic” voice would come through in the essay I was about to read, as her essay had come by inspiration and was probably mostly written by the Spirit.
    Sadly, I’ve not only heard the line too many times, but I’ve known too many people who have felt “led” to be writers, convinced that God would provide a way. They have been sorely disappointed.

  19. Margaret, that is truly bizarre, did you tell her “Well, I’ll have to give you an F then, for letting someone else write your essay.”

  20. We don’t have a “Fyodor Dostoevsky or a Toni Morrison”

    Who does? Not many communities. A GA comment or two every few decades about Mormon artistic achievement should not be expected to bring forth a Melville or Borges. I like the fact that the prophets have made it clear that it would be good to have great Mormon artists rather than not, but our community and church education system are not really designed to produce such people (nor am I sure that they would be better if they were designed to do so). It’s almost as if we expect to have nobel prize winners in literature right there along our great athletes and the Mo Tab. I’m really proud that our people have produced the latter, but great artists I think are more of a rare gem.

    I agree that Card is someone to be proud of, exactly the kind of artist we should be hoping for in the future. But his orneryness give us a glimpse I think of how uneasily the great Mormon artist would likely sit in the community. If we had a world-class Mormon writer, I bet he’d be more like Butch Cassidy than Steve Young.

    “I think that if his fiction and non-fiction had drifted left-ward, those same people would still be praising/liking him.””
    After many many repetitions, I’ve finally got the message: Everything a Momon liberal ever says is ideologically motivated. There has got to be some way in which this blog post is an underhanded attack on Bush–we just have to look hard enough and always assume the worst possible motives.

  21. I also feel like OSC’s early work is his best. I also feel as though there is no moral complexity anymore, but he’s got it all figured out, has it all down pat, and is totally smug about it. He also writes characters that he obviously despises, and I want to take up for them. I mean, if your own author hates you what chance in life did you have? I loved his early stuff, though. To me that work stands up well to time. Treason, Speaker for the Dead, Songmaster, and others from that time.

  22. Matt W–loved that idea. I think I’ll include it in my definition of plagiarism.
    Jeremiah J–It appears to me that if we were to judge the best religion according to the number of great writers it has produced, the Anglicans would come in first (“We’ve got Shakespeare–beat that!), followed by Russian Orthodox, and then probably Lutherans, Jews, Catholics (Frank and Flannery O’Connor AND Andre Dubus…). It doesn’t pay to be such a small religion in this kind of competition.
    I like your idea of Butch Cassidy as the world-class Mormon writer. And it’s pretty clear to me that if that’s the image, then we’ve got him: Levi Peterson–the scoundral.

  23. Wow. I think my ideas are totally out of the loop here and probably won’t be too popular… I am an avid reader and have read almost every book discussed on here so far…but I keep finding myself comparing these other “artists” to the ones I truly prefer….


    I unfortunately compare authors all the time and find myself disappointed by today’s fiction… LDS and non-LDS. It is like something is sorely lacking… and I can’t quite put my finger on it either… but when I compare today’s fiction to yesterday’s literary fictional classics, there really is no comparison.

  24. Is there anything here beyond a nod to President Kimball’s art talk and the common refrain that Mormon lit could be better? Have you really given up on Mormon lit, Margaret? That seems to be the overall vibe of your post.

    No doubt we should hold the line on what we expect from art, especially Mormon art. Flannery O’Connor, altered to fit our culture, comes to mind: “When people have told me that because I am a [Mormon], I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a [Mormon], I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” (O’Connor, of course, was Catholic.) Yet Mormons are too worried about greatness, too obsessed with having Shakespeares and Miltons of our own, and not really interested in encouraging the good stuff we already have.

    I am not surprised that your “fiction reading choices are consistently from national markets, not LDS ones.” There is a lot of good stuff on the national market. But tell us you still give some Mormon fiction a chance! If even creative writing professors at BYU won’t read new mormon lit, who will? Are you saying that the situation is really that bad?

  25. Too often our fictional tastes are determined by our political tastes.

    I somewhat disagree, since both often grow out of deep assumptions. I find the left’s onlology doesn’t satisfy, and the fiction that shares that ontology similarly leaves me feeling that the main thing has been missed. I’ve been reading quite a lot of well-reviewed fiction written in the past twenty years or so, looking for the right things to assign my students. So far, none of it quite satisfies, though I find lots of things that are quite good, as far as they go. But they don’t wake up enough, shaking off the sleepiness of the general culture, providing flashes of insight into that better world that is almost present in great literature.

    #23 That list is (mostly) from the great Christian tradition that preceded modernity, and might still inspire a great Christian literature. But are young people today really introduced to it, at, say, BYU? I’m only asking–I really don’t know.

    I do know I used to love literature and teach it, but I rarely pay attention any more, though I do re-read those old books–this year, Austen and Thoreau. Okay, Throreau’s not particularly Christian, but though he left the theology he didn’t stray so far from the morality as many later pantheists would.

    My sense–speaking as one who has quit listening and is thus uninformed–is that literature has lost much of its cultural value and isn’t important in the way it once was. Though this is partly due to competition I think the preoccupations of the literary establishment also have quite a lot to do with it.

    I’ve wondered whether the scriptures might be the model for the Great Mormon Literature that’s coming–nonfiction, speaking with the authority of vision and spiritual communion, totally uninterested in markets and the opinions of those with the proper training and credentials and positions. It took me years to appreciate the speaking abilities of our General Authorities, because my critical training got in the way. I used to think they were quite inept and dull. Now I don’t.

    I’ve also thought that family history, taken as seriously as Emily Dickinson took flowers, might yield surprises.

    Nice post, Margaret. It was what I was looking for this evening.

  26. IMHO there is very little art produced in the Mormon culture since so much of it is mediocre. It is designed to be appealing to a mass audience instead of Art for Art’s sake. If Deseret Book won’t put it in their stores, it will not sell.

    Art is supposed to challenge and question, but Mormon artists influenced by the culture don’t want to challenge or question – that goes against the fundamental rules of the culture. Look at Richard Dutcher, a man with a true vision, who has basically sworn off the Mormon market because of the negative reaction to his films, especially “States of Grace”.

    Basically, much Mormomn art is uninspired because the intended audience is uninspired.

  27. I think that one main reason why we don’t have better Mormon artists, composers and scientists is because of the laziness in our culture in general. To become a master at anything not only takes talent but it takes a lot of perserverance and dedication as well. The great writers and composers of the past paid the price to produce their great works. I think it would be an insult to them imply that they got where they did merely by talent alone.

    I have seen so many people who have so much talent, but they quit before produce something great. I have seen so many gifted students live way below their potential. I have surpassed students much more intellegent than myself simply because I was more persistant than them. This has not brought me any joy, but has sadened me to think about what could have been.

    I believe that the Spirit can inspire artist, but it will really only happen when the artist settles for nothing less than excellence.

    In our society there are so many distractions completing for our time. I think that there are many potential Tolstoys out there who are watching too much TV and spending to much time surfing the web.

  28. rk,

    Your description doesn’t really bear much resemblance to the group of Mormons I grew up with in Utah. Just about all the old stereotypes people used to put on Jews about hard work, drive, and passion for excellence applied equally to the kids I knew in Provo.

    Mormon youth are both driven and extremely accomplished.

    I know it’s fashionable to be a cynic, but I don’t think it really applies in this sense.

  29. “Too often our fictional tastes are determined by our political tastes.”

    I’m confident that fictional tastes are correlated with political worldviews, but have yet to see a study that claims, let alone demonstrates, that politics determines them.

    Does enjoyment of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Melville, Austen, and Dickens determine your view of the appropriate role of the state in the economy?

    If I tell you I enjoy Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Margaret Atwood, and Peter Carey can you make good predictions on my positions re: US immigration policy, monitarism, and US-Iranian relations?

    Does my ranking of liberty and equality as political virtues drive my appreciation–or lack thereof–for OSC or Neil Labute?

  30. Interesting thread. Maybe one reason there isn’t more of the kind of profound, challenging Mormon literature out there (although, per S.P. Bailey, there may be more than we know about) is that writing it can be a deeply irrational enterprise. I should know–I have some Mormon-populated, human-themed fiction brewing a couple windows behind this browser. I think Jeremiah J. is correct that, G.A. comments notwithstanding, the “system” is not set up to validate the kind of single-minded devotion and disregard of public reception that profound, challenging fiction requires. When this Card-like drive does show up, it can wreak havoc with relationships, careers and, in extreme cases, church standing. Why would you go through all this for art that has no chance to be sold alongside the nasally hypnotic yeast rolls at Deseret Book? I’m going through it–and there’s no guarantee that it will turn out any better than the Edgar A. Guest drivel Margaret quotes–because life without the writing is (in my case) even more painful, and because I’m tired of threads like these. I hope there are other, similarly driven, vastly more talented LDS writers out there who read these threads and feel the same motivation. Let’s chuck the DB yeast rolls, click back to the word processor and give the people–OK, maybe only a few people–what they don’t know they want yet.

  31. How about Terry Tempest Williams, whose interview your sidebar currently links to? She’s a nationally recognized writer who is often explicit about her words connecting with her religious identity.

    What I would really enjoy is a writer who does with the Mormons what Tony Hillerman did with the Navajo. Any recommendations?

  32. #25–I haven’t given up on Mormon art because I encounter such remarkable talent in my classes at BYU. How could I possibly give up on it, given what I see every semester? But will these young people become great writers? Some have the potential to do it, but I doubt they will because so many other voices will call them–particularly the one saying, “You need to make some money.” I have lost faith in our ability WITHIN MORMONISM to really appreciate and nurture a fine writer, because LDS marketers will always be looking for the bottom line. I think there is NO CHANCE that a Dostoevsky would sell his Mormon book to Deseret Book. None. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t sell it to a more appreciative and critical national audience.
    Greg B., you just listed a bunch of my favorite authors. (And you may know that Evelyn Waugh has a Mormon connection, in that his brother married Virginia Sorenson.) I don’t see a Mormon Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, but I think Brady Udall, who publishes nationally, is every bit as good as Richard Ford and even Phillip Roth at his best. (I consider Roth in a tragic decline.)
    I love Richard Dutcher and respect his work tremendously. The fact that _States of Grace_ was met with the same kind of ambivilance which Potok encountered when he published _Asher Lev_ is disappointing but hardly surprising. I just taught a Sunday School lesson about Jesus being dismissed as a “carpenter’s son” when he began to reveal his true identity to those of Nazareth. Richard could be the symbol of the Mormon artist who hits the core of our religion and our human challenges and then is called on the carpet because “the missionaries broke the rules.”

  33. Greg B. –

    well, this is a bit of a thread jack, but your examples are red herrings. Here – I’ll just list four types of “art” and you can see if political tastes, in many (but not all) cases, determined who liked it, who didn’t, and who got the award statues: Toby Keith, Dixie Chicks, 24, The V-g-na Monolouges. (trying to avoid getting blocked byt the spam filter).

    Cries of “it’s just fiction” when certain monolouges were attacked for featuring the seduction of a 13 year old by an older woman are compared with those same people attacking another work of fiction because of its depiction of torture (and then there are those who attack the fiction depection of pedophilia, but defend the depiction of torture with the “it’s just fiction” defense as well. It goes all ways).

    Were certain artists any less or better as musicians due to political statements/songs? No, but they often found themselves with totally different audiences almost overnight.

  34. A quick addition before I head out the door–Anon, you are CLEARLY talented. Your post was a joy to read because of your images and wit (not to mention the substance). Go for it. Live up to the gift God has clearly given you.
    #32: I like Terry Tempest Williams as a wilderness writer. _Refuge_ is wonderful, but I wouldn’t call it great. (And it’s not fiction.) Phyllis Barber has tremendous talent as well. Both of these women, however, are on the fringes, not the center of Mormonism. Is there a message in that? Was Potok wrong in his statement that religiously committed writers must work from the core, not the fringes, of their faith? Would this apply to other religions but not to Mormonism? Would a core-Mormon writer feel too much pressure to not embarrass the Church by difficult issues (Scott Card has said he would never write about his mission because that episode in his life would embarrass the church) that the deepest conflicts would never be fully addressed?

  35. If you liked Williams as a wilderness writer, try on Leap in which she (still in non-fiction mode) creates a novel-length personal essay on art, spirituality, religion, organization, restoration, self-discovery, and, of course, Mormonism.

    And she does so without the inhibitions apparent in works by those who refuse to see and describe either the power or the corruption of religious things.

  36. Margaret, I found it interesting that you mentioned Richard Dutcher. I think he started us on a new road in regards to telling Mormon stories. But as you mentioned, there was quite a bit of LDS ambivalence in response to his work. Maybe if we are to have great authors, we will have to have develop as an audience that is willing to truly confront human nature. I think sometimes we want to believe that people and things are a lot more ideal than they are in reality.

  37. Margaret–
    You say you’ve lost confidence that within Mormonism we can nurture great artists because Mormon marketers look to the bottom line–I’m not sure how that’s different from any other marketers today. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that Dostoevsky could make it as a writer today, in Mormon or non-Mormon circles. I think that’s where the comparison to the ancient greats falls down–the economic model today is different. Shakespeare, were he writing today, likely couldn’t survive as a playwright. But as a movie writer? Maybe. I think, sometimes, that we’re so focused on yesterday’s model of “art” that we ignore the fact that yesterday’s writer would be lost in today’s sea of B&N, Borders, Amazon, etc.

  38. I really need to write a full review for A Motley Vision, but the stories in Todd Robert Peterson\’s \”Long After Dark\” are fantastic and contemporary and important and a major contribution to Mormon discourse.

    Sam B:

    I agree. But I also have this odd belief that the graphic novel genre is one of our best hopes for amazing Mormon art that is also relevant and successful on the national scene.

  39. Margaret,

    What would you think of a Mormon letters foundation. I\’m thinking something along the lines of a residency program that offered a couple of years of room, board, and living expenses for the writer and any family s/he may have. I believe Stanford has a program similar to what I\’m envisioning. And goodness knows there\’s enough excess, unconsecrated capital floating around the Wasatch front to fund something like this.

    As a high school English teacher working on a novel (what self-respecting secondary English teacher isn\’t) with a second job and a family, I\’ve disovered that it\’s nearly impossible to devote meaningful time to my writing. A patronage program might help the truly talented (myself excluded) move from goodness to greatness – something to help offset the inevitable \”Andrea del Sarto\” syndrome that likely besets Mormon artistic endeavors (and perhaps explains some of the additional challenges of creating great art from the \”center\” of the Mormon faith community).

    Any ideas or suggestions that you have would be great.

  40. “Some have the potential to do it, but I doubt they will because so many other voices will call them–particularly the one saying, ‘You need to make some money.'”

    Sounds about right to me. The siren call to practice law thins the ranks of potential artists significantly.

  41. (Surely the Spirit can inspire good thoughts, even if the instrument of expression is untrained.)

    e.g. BoM?

  42. As best I can tell, Shakespeare looked to the bottom line. He had certain social financial goals and quit writing as a fairly young man when he met those goals. Shakespeare gave people what they wanted. Fortunately, back then quality was profitable. Shakespeare wrote plays that were extremely entertaining but that you walk out of the first time keenly aware that you missed important aspects of it. This was profitable since with multiple playhouses in a fairly small city, you depended on the people to come back and see the plays again.

    Sad thing is that there probably are folks with Shakespeare’s mind and talents out there today, but they out producing advertising or other garbage, since that’s where the money is.

  43. “The siren call to practice law thins the ranks of potential artists significantly.”

    Not necessarily. Authors who write simply to feed their families and lawyers are only different in few respects. Perhaps most significantly, lawyers make more money. Really. Almost nobody makes a living writing full time. Also, many great 20C artists have been professionals (cf. Wallace Stevens, Charles Ives, T.S. Eliot, etc.) Indeed, given the economic realities of present art markets, people otherwise gainfully employed may be more, not less, likely to make worthwhile art. A non-art profession grants some independence and security that may form a safe place where art is possible.

    A related argument that I think is equally lame: Mormons are just too busy to make good art. The problem with that: Mormons have been brilliantly successful in other fields that require talent, hard work, long hours, luck, political aptitude, etc., etc.

    I think the major obstacles to good Mormon art are cultural: First, suspicion of non-propaganda Mormon cultural production among many members and (2) indifference to art in general. I think the former is on the wane among some (but not enough of us). As far as the latter goes, Mormons may be roughly similar to the general population. But our priorities could change: even a small portion of the Mormon leisure dollars spent last year on video games, boats, rvs, enormous tvs, etc., etc. would go a long, long way.

  44. Seth R #27

    Believe me I know many hard working members. I have been a student and teachers assistant at both BYU and another state school. I would say that in general LDS students are much harder working that their counterparts at other schools, even the Jewish students. However, I seem to always see really talented people slack off while those who have more modest talent excel thanks to their hard work. To be the best at anything you need to have both the talent and the work ethic. I just rarely see that combination

  45. We still operate under the romantic cult of the great artist as hero–the creator of value, the dissolver of tradition. I easily imagine that if the great artist we needed did come, we would see his/her work as propaganda–the supporting of public modes of communal feeling. I suspect the sophisticates will be the last to see.

    The modernist turn toward authenticity and away from revelation seems more often than not an anti-gospel turn.

    I suspect we have not yet fallen far enough into a bottomless abyss to see that our more and more profound exegesis of hell isn\’t going to save us.

    Where is the missing scripture and why can\’t we read it?

  46. Several reasons.

    1. Our entire church culture is gradually dumbed down to the lowest common denominator by the CES. No matter what anyone says, learning stops once you leave the BYU campus, if it ever really began when you entered.

    Sweeping generality alert: Religion in general promotes mediocrity; it’s not just us. I don’t know why great faith and great artistry cannot live side by side in one person, but it doesn’t tend to.

    2. Great art very often comes from great pain. Often, the people in the church who suffer great pain are not writers and the potential writers in the church do not suffer great pain (or don’t appear to, anyway).

    3. There is a certain denial within our church culture that great pain actually exists. And when there is acknowledgment of it, there is never explicit description so that we, the listener/observer/reader can experience a small portion of it. Even Christ’s crucifixion and its details are very often left to imagination with the pat, “Christ atoned for our sins.” I guess all that crucifixion business is too edgy.

    4. I have also noticed that truth is seen as just way too harsh instead of what it is: truth.

    5. Phouchg said:

    “Art is supposed to challenge and question, but Mormon artists influenced by the culture don’t want to challenge or question – that goes against the fundamental rules of the culture…Basically, much Mormon art is uninspired because the intended audience is uninspired.”

    Agreed, but why are they uninspired? Is it because we’re taught that idle hands are the devil’s plaything and are too busy with church callings, being perfect parents, having family home evenings, attending homemaking meetings (I can never remember what it’s called now), having litters of children, and quite possibly with both parents working full-time jobs to boot?

    And rk said:

    “I think that one main reason why we don’t have better Mormon artists, composers and scientists is because of the laziness in our culture in general.”

    I disagree to some extent; it’s that our attention is pulled hither and yon, always at odds with what other people expect. To be an artist REQUIRES a level of selfishness that we are taught is detrimental to the goal of the eternities, especially for women.

    Man cannot serve two masters, yet we attempt to serve 18 or 43, and do most of them mediocrely simply because there isn’t time or energy to devote to one. Forget art. Let’s just see if we can pull together our Relief Society lesson 5 minutes before it’s time to give it because we didn’t have time the rest of the week.

    Obviously, church culture hasn’t quite risen up the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to self-actualization. We’re still doing the busywork required of safety, belonging, and esteem.

    6. There is the assumption that what we think/write about is what we are. Thus, if we write about fornication, adultery, drugs, murder, rape, pillaging, it must mean we condone it or, better yet, that these are our secret fantasies come to life. This conflict of interest, I think, keeps some of the more talented, yet timid, would-be artists silent. Or selling drek at Deseret Books.

    And, like anon up there in #31, I have a “too-edgy” LDS-themed book or six in my hard drive somewhere, all turned down by the LDS publishers for being thus. And at this point in my life, I’m okay with that.

  47. I’m more than a wee bit irked by comments that blame the church membership in general for a lack of great Mormon art, because we’re too dumb/cheap/uninspired to support great art. We don’t owe our support to works and workmen who don’t fill our needs, whatever those needs are, anymore than we owe our support to the makers of fine wines or gold-plated tennis rackets for cross-eyed poodles whose products don’t fill our needs.

    Write, paint, compose, whatever your art is, but either keep your day job or reconcile yourself to living on what you can earn, though it be very little. If you’re good enough we’ll discover you, and our respect and admiration will develop and grow, and the rewards will come — hopefully that means financial rewards during your lifetime, but you may have to be satisfied by recognition after you’re gone.

    I consider I have a little pact with each of you artists: You don’t buy or read any of my history that doesn’t interest you or that isn’t well enough reasoned and written to fill your needs, and I won’t buy or read/listen to/view any of your artworks that aren’t up to my standards. We can then worship together in peace, with no blame on either side.

  48. Lizard Gumbo #48: “Religion in general promotes mediocrity; it’s not just us. I don’t know why great faith and great artistry cannot live side by side in one person, but it doesn’t tend to.”

    Doesn’t tend to?!? Dude, have you ever SEEN the Sistine Chapel? the cathedrals of Europe? Any, in fact, of two millenia of religious art (of which, lacking an art history background, I am woefully unable to describe)????

    I’d be surprised if in two millenia we haven’t produced that kind of quantity and quality art.

  49. Wacky #50: I haven’t seen the Sistine Chapel in person, but have been to many of the other great cathedrals of Europe including Notre Dame in Paris and more than a handful in Belgium. The artistsand artisans were paid professionals and craftsmen by the church; the church did not grow its own artists of that magnitude. In addition, the church got that kind of money from selling indulgences.

    Indeed, I attend Midnight Mass here where I live because the music is divine and I am spiritually enriched by the experience. I would be hard pressed to find music of such quality in our church as is there other than the Mo Tab. On the other hand, their musicians are paid professionals.

    I was pretty certain that the point of the original article was that we don’t grow our own artists of that skill and talent.

  50. I’ve spent the day viewing footage for a documentary and am just now looking at the blossomed blog. It occurs to me that I should post President Kimball’s talk. I do not know how to do that with just a “here” because I have not progressed in computer literacy, but the link is:

    I have spoken only about literature, but President Kimball addresses all artistic endeavors. In literature, he holds Goethe and Shakespeare as literary geniuses we should aspire not just to equal in brilliance, but to exceed. He suggests that Mormon artists should be able to “take a Nicodemus and put the spirit of Joseph Smith in him.”) He opens with a prophecy from John Taylor. What do you make of the prophecy?

    Other issues–
    Brian, it would be wonderful if there could be a Mormon Letters Foundation which would pay good writers to write books, but I know the reality of the Association for Mormon Letters, and budget is always a problem. Doug Thayer once responded to a student who said he wanted to make money by writing books. Doug said, “Make money? Make money by hitting little old ladies and stealing their purses. You don’t make money WRITING.” I do have a friend at UVSC who will be on paid leave to do some writing, so it is possible within a university setting.

    Other Mormon artists–I love Todd Peterson also. And I adore Louis Horne, whose _House of James_ (Signature) gets little attention. Michael Fillerup, John Bennion, Bruce Jorgensen, Leslie Beaton Headley (I’m trying to get some women in here, but interestingly I find their names far less frequently in my “good read” list than I find the men’s names), Karen Rosenbaum… Obviously just a sampling. Only Headley is a Deseret Book author, and I haven’t seen anything from her recently.

  51. I think much of the problem lies in the fragile relationship between artist and audience. Mormon audiences can be unkind and uncharitable toward their artists and vice versa. Richard Dutcher is particularly gifted at insulting the very audience he expects to attend his films.

    I believe the greatest artists forge on and either create the great audience they deserve through pure force of will, discipline, and persistence, or they love, nurture, and reward a fledgling audience until it grows big enough to support them and others.

    The truth is that either the great artist or the great audience can arrive first, but one will probably follow shortly after the other. I think as Mormons we fall short in our duty as audience. It doesn’t justify Dutcher’s bitterness, but probably more of us should have seen his last movie. More of us should read Levi Peterson, or any other of the writers Margaret has listed, but even those of us who love writing, love reading, and want that great artist to show up don’t really read the handful of good Mormon writers that we have. So the audience needs to step up.

    But so do the artists. Mormon writers need to stop blaming the audience and the culture. With today’s technology it’s never been easier for aspiring artists and amateurs to get their work seen, and to find an audience for it. I think that the true promise of Mormon blogging–a promise that remains largely unfullfilled–is that given time it can hopefully match writers to audiences. One day the audience might grow great enough that the great artist will follow. Or vice versa.

  52. Christian,

    “As best I can tell, Shakespeare looked to the bottom line. He had certain social financial goals and quit writing as a fairly young man when he met those goals.”

    Shakespeare also had a patron. That’s why his company was called the King’s Men. This was pretty standard back then for writers and musicians and made things slightly easier what with not having to have a day job and all. (It’s also why there are so many stories of composers complaining about how their patrons were cramping their style.) But on balance it sounds pretty good to me. Can I get a patron? Where do I sign up?

  53. I know lots of great mormon artists. Just because they aren’t writing deseret-book for-mormons-only novels doesn’t mean there arent alot of great mormon artists. See Mr. and Mrs. Hess. What about Steve Fales? (ok, I havent seen it but its getting a great reception). Of course there is Gladys Knight. I happen to know a couple tremendously great artists who work in game design (ok, might be biased, one is my husband), and who is to say Video Games aren’t one of the great mediums of our day? I know the Intelluctuals love to hate them, but there is some tremendous work done in games and its only getting better. We have these debates in the bloggernacle alot, and I have to agree somewhat that the ‘ideal’ we paint for our youth as far as byu-mission-marriage-10 kids-law degree (so as to enable house big enough for 10 kids) kinda puts a damper on pursuing the arts. But people are doing it. I just don’t understand why our art has to be produced for a mormon-only audience (as it seems some are suggesting). The whole idea seems kind of strange.

  54. The problem is when we say “great Mormon artist” we aren’t sure what we mean?

    Do we mean “great artist who is Mormon?” “Mormon who get accolades from the art community”? A Mormon who excells in an artistic field?

    And what is art, anyway? Mike Allred is hands down, a master of the comic book form. There are few who can touch him, and he’s popular and influential. His Madman comics are pure comic book gold. Yet I doubt many of those calling for Great Mormon Art would even consider him, mainly because their conception of art is far too narrow.

    Mormons have a huge presence in Science Fiction and Fantasy – not just OSC, but Dave Wolverton/David Farland, Tracy Hickman, Gerald Lund (yes, he used to write dystopian themed SF before he became famous for the W&G), M. Shayne Bell, Elizabeth Boyer, Battlestar Galactica, etc.

    Same problem applies here – we could have a Mormon write a Great Novel, and the critics would overlook it because it was science fiction.

  55. The rise of Mormon literature, as an AMERICAN literature, depends as much on Mormon literary criticism as the literature itself. I think there are great Mormon writers already, but their exposure outside of Mormon audiences is hampered by a lack of criticism that engages their work as serious literature.

    I’ve wrestled with this issue for a long time now. When I try to tell my dissertation advisor what an important American novel THE BACKSLIDER is, I have no pretext for that discussion (I live in Connecticut). The only starting point is a writer like Brian Evenson, whom I adore, but we all know the problems of a Mormon literature when ALTMANN’s TONGUE is the jumping off point (by the way, his new novel, THE OPEN CURTAIN, is wonderful).

    Here’s the real problem: Say I’m writing an academic essay on Mormon Literature. The best sources–take John Bennion’s piece, “Renegotiating Scylla and Charybdis – Reading and the Distance between New York and Utah,” or Eugene England’s excellent survey piece on the history and future of Mormon literature, for example–exclude non-Mormon readers when they speak Mormonese or presume Mormon truth in their discussion of literature. What kind of scholarly journal accepts an essay that uses such sources? The real shame, to me at least, is that these two articles are insightful, important, well-written, and scholarly (with an asterisk). It frustrates me that we can’t have a criticism outside the parameters of Mormon truth, even while Mormon artists wrestle with that truth (without it, novels like THE BACKSLIDER remain on the fringes of American literature). Why does the discussion of Mormon literature also have to reaffirm Mormon truth? Isn’t that what church, scripture study, and general conference are for? Incidentally, I think the best critical work is being done on blogs (again, how can I use these as sources?).

    Eugene England quotes Karl Keller from a roundtable in Dialogue: “When someone becomes capable of creating imaginative worlds where Mormon theological principles are concretely true, then we will have a writer of the stature of Flannery O’Connor. Because she was a Catholic, she said, she could not afford to be less than a good artist.” Flannery O’Connor is an interesting choice. No story upsets my students more than “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and to me the Misfit bears more resemblance to a Brian Evenson character than any other Mormon character I know (pick one of his). I like Evenson’s work because it is so distinctly Mormon and yet he has been shoved out the door. Mormon critics, I suggest, are afraid of the same fate, which is why they often declare Mormon truth in the same breath as their literary utterance. This prevents Mormon literature from moving forward and THE BACKSLIDER from gaining a wider readership. Furthermore, Keller’s quote still relies on the idea of Mormon truth.

    I believe Mormon literary critics need to push for a more responsible criticism that seeks to reach Mormons and non-Mormons alike, one that proposes Mormon literature as American literature. Until we do that I’m afraid our best writers will be stuck in literary conversations where the central concern is how a book builds up, or tears down, our testimonies (there is precedent in Mormon literature for this question–I don’t mean to be cheeky–but this kind of discussion does little to promote Mormon writers as serious American writers).

    For this to happen I think Mormon critics might step it up (sorry for the sportscaster diction) by addressing an audience of both Mormons and non-Mormons. I think Mormons often operate in defensive mode, a mode that protects certain aspects of Mormonism from the general public for fear of being misunderstood. This defensive mode waters down some of the more interesting aspects of Mormonism and suggests, on some level, that we are ashamed of our heritage. I think this defensive mode has trickled into the way we talk about our writers. Any discussion of literature seems to begin and end with what a Mormon audience might think of that literature. Is it too edgy for a Mormon audience? was the refrain of the Brother Brigham book review on Motley Vision a few weeks ago. The brilliance of the Flannery O’Connor essay I quoted above is that she realizes that her fiction will offend many Catholics. At one point she even says that it is a good thing that Catholic leaders tell other Catholics not to read her fiction. In that same essay she writes:

    “If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists, but insures it (the restrictions of art are another matter), and to convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages they consider obscene. It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of the discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit” (from “The Church and the Fiction Writer”).

  56. Ivan,

    You’re still going too far. Plenty of science fiction/fantasy is recognized and praised beyond the smaller circle of science fiction critics. For example, Carroll, Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, Lewis–and now McCarthy–don’t seem to have their works overlooked because of their chosen genre.

  57. Several commenters have complained about “the marketplace for great art” (S. Bailey, Brian G, Margaret).

    It seems to me that the Mormon audience has no responsibility to support Mormon artists, at least no more than they have a responsibility to support Mormon athletes or Mormon insurance agents. The call has been made for Mormons to excel in art, and everything else, but there’s an international art market. Mormons supported Steve Young not because he was Mormon, but because he was a Mormon who excelled at the highest levels. Steve Young and J. Willard Marriott didn’t excel because lots of Mormons bought Young’s jerseys or stayed at Marriott’s hotels. Aren’t Mormon artists called to excel in the same way? Authors shouldn’t need to cater to a Mormon audience any more than Steve Young or Marriott.

    Most of what I know of the conservative American Jewish experience I learned from Chaim Potok. His books are read in Utah high schools, and one of the challenges for the Mormon author, it seems to me, is to write a book about Mormonism that will be read in New York high schools. Mormon audiences will have as little role in that achievement as they did in the success of Steve Young and Marriott.

  58. Greg B, –

    and you’re still throwing in red herrings and ignoring the larger issue in favor of rare exceptions.

    What I said was true, regardless of what you think. Your examples barely relate and do not refute my point, so I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at.

  59. “the reason I wrote this post today is that one of my students told me she wasn’t really sure if her “authentic” voice would come through in the essay I was about to read, as her essay had come by inspiration and was probably mostly written by the Spirit.”

    I used to think that people who claimed their talks/essays/stories were inspired were lieing if the product wasn’t very good. I’ve changed my mind. I realized that the Spirit speaks to us in our own idiom. If our idiom is unpracticed, turgid, and disorganized, we’ll be spoken to that way.

  60. I always enjoy reading bad writers complain about bad writing.

    Presumptuousness, narcissism, and self-loathing fuels the desire to stand as judges of what is “good” or “great” art.

    By the way, Brady Udall is an amazing writer.

  61. Matt Evans,

    I disagree. Art is not just another product. If we don’t have an interest in Mormon art we don’t have an interest in Mormon community, and if we don’t have an interest in Mormon community we’re not wholly Mormon.

  62. “Presumptuousness, narcissism, and self-loathing fuels the desire to stand as judges of what is “good” or “great” art.”


  63. Adam, whatever obligation we have to support art, I don’t believe it entails an obligation to support Mormon artists (at least no more than my obligation to support Mormon insurance agents). To me this is why the church chose Harry nderson over a Mormon painter — the work itself is more important than the religion of the artist.

    I also see no reason to believe that art is essential to community formation or cohesion. A common culture is probably essential, but none of the culture need qualify as Art for it to bind people together. I’d guess that the societies of Enoch and 4 Nephi weren’t artistic golden ages, but had more “Thoreauean” perspectives that the greatest Art is in building human character, and may have even seen the working of wood and clay as a distraction from that which really matters, the working of human souls. (And to Thoreau I’d correct, since he wrongy sought to free himself from society, that the greatest art is building a relationship.) This is what I take Hinckley to mean when he says the symbol of our church is the lives of our people: Mormons do performance art on the grandest stage.

    I like that idea. I think it’s the best answer to why Mormons haven’t produced a Milton, or even a Bellows: Mormons specialize in performance art.

  64. Be nice. Be polite. It’s Valentine’s Day. There are some very thought provoking comments in this conversation. Just keep the good thoughts and leave the insults for other blogs. Pretend that everything you say is written in a valentine. Don’t you feel better now?

  65. This topic comes up often in a lot of different forums. I’m always surprised that no one mentions (or maybe just isn’t aware of?) the many LDS writers who are successfully writing children’s/YA for the national market. (And when they do, it’s not always current, more like 15 years old.) My favorite two would be Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown), who’s been on the NYT bestseller list for a long time now (YA vampire novels) and Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury), whose book Princess Academy won a Newbery Honor last year. She has I think four books out right now and a number of others in various stages of post-contract-signing (including an adult book and a graphic novel). Ann Dee Ellis has a first book coming out from Little, Brown this summer (This is What I Did:). And don’t forget Rebecca Tingle or Kimberly Heuston. There are others. There will be more. Even if the books aren’t about Utah, it’s impossible for these writers’ beliefs not to come through in the writing.

    There’s a lot to celebrate out there, and I think we can enjoy the happy fact that there is more where that came from.

  66. Aaron Sanders (#57):

    I understand what you are saying and generally agree with your assessment. And I look forward to those who will take up the project as you define it.

    At the same time, why should we care if we’re accepted by American Literature? I sometimes think we need to be more of an “ethnic” literature and critique the broader culture in our work and criticism — part of the problem may be that it’s a bit too easy for us [speaking of producers, consumers and critics] to partake and be part of the mainstream American culture (however you define that — but it seems like you’re speaking here like that broad collection of philosophies/tastes/discourses that have general currency in academia and other purveyors of cultural elitism.

    But whatever directions we take, I fully agree that we need a stronger, more active [even populist?] critical culture. I’ll save the rest for the manifesto, though. ;-)

    Adam (#62): Absolutely. Just as we find it difficult to express the feelings/inspiration of the spirit in devotional discourse so, I think, we find it difficult to express that inspiration in creative discourse*. And — and this is key, imo — because of that we shouldn’t have the expectation that others should be inspired by our creations even if we know (beyond a shadow of a doubt?) that our work was inspired.

    I also think it’s easy for Mormons to confuse the feelings of artistic creation (the inspiration of the muse so-to-speak) with those of the Spirit (or perhaps they’re related in ways we don’t currently define) — much as it is easy to confuse spiritual and romantic feelings sometimes.

    *Or at least I do. But I’m only one data point.

  67. Matt,

    When I talk about a Mormon audience supporting its artists my primary meaning isn’t financial support in terms of buying their work, although that kind of support is always appreciated I’m sure. I talk about a willingness to be charitable, understanding, and not presumptuous about the character, spiritual worthiness, or intentions of the artists. This is a different thing than watching a football game or staying in a hotel room. My understanding is that J. Willard Marriott isn’t routinely criticized for having pornography available in his hotels, and Steve Young and other Mormon athletes aren’t strongly condemned for playing on Sunday. The membership and the leadership, it seems, are understanding. Meanwhile, Richard Dutcher faces rampant rumors and widespread disapproval for planning a movie that might not be rated PG. Neil LaBute faces church discipline for a play he wrote. Brian Evanson loses his teaching position.

    You hold up Potok as a model, but forget that he paid a price in his community for his work. Aspiring artists in our community look to those who have gone before and see the price they have paid and often end up deciding it’s too steep. This leaves too many artists little choice but to try and succeed on a national scale, and to seal off and compartmentalize their Mormonness in a way that it won’t seep into their work for fear of losing the fellowship of fellow members, if not their membership. There’s nothing particularly Mormon about passing a football or running a hotel. It’s a lot harder to keep your Mormon heritage from influencing writing or painting. I agree with Adam in that art is essential to community cohesion and formation. All cultures and communities base themselves around stories. Mormon culture is no different except there is a strong bias and preference for non-fiction stories: the scriptures, the testimony, the general conference talk annecdote.

    The status quo is problematic because rather than having our best artists boldly exploring what is most universal in their very personal, very Mormon experiences, as Potok did with his Judaic background, we expect them to a) succeed on a much larger scale and b) somehow purge or disguise most of their Mormon experience from what they produce. Those expectations are unfair.

    Your idea about Mormons specializing in performance art is an interesting one, but if I’m to accept the notion that the greatest art is building a relationship than why can’t I reasonably expect Mormon audiences and Mormon artists to work on improving the relationship they have with each other.

  68. Margaret

    I find your post and this thread fascinating because I believe I could post a similar thread about Evangelicalism and art (though I must confess that I’m not an artist of any sort and probably would not even qualify as a lover of art). In both worlds, the subject is, no doubt, quite complex. For Evangelicals, I believe the problem is in part theological. We don’t know how to embrace the world. In fact, the very idea of embracing the world sounds like a contradiction of the Scriptures. We have a sense of the tension between Christianity and the world but are at somewhat of a loss to know how God’s love for the world (so much so that he sent his only son) should inform our art (unless we limit art to a one sided conversation). Of course, there are some wonderful exceptions. I don’t know enough about Mormon culture to know if the problem you raise may be, in part, the result of the same kind of impoverished theology. It would be fun to compare notes.

  69. Brian G–some excellent points. However, you have some apples and oranges in the same bushel. Dutcher DID deal with explicitly Mormon themes in all of his movies (well, except _Girl Crazy_) until now. (And I understand that the one in post-production [to be released in October] will be rated PG-13.) Evenson’s work was not Mormon themed, nor was LaBute’s. Both of these writers explored issues of violence and sexuality, but both were aiming at audiences far beyond the Wasatch Front (which is where much of Mormon literature aims itself, though that HAS to change). In fact, I’d be surprised if either expected that their works would do well with Mormons. And I would contend that Potok remains an excellent model despite much of his community’s ambivilence or disapproval. Potok was an ordained rabbi. The fact that he worked with Jewish issues and from the center of his culture is significant. I doubt Hasidic Jews will ever accept him with much acclaim, but certainly many in his community valued his work, and still do. More importantly, the best of what he wrote has endured.

  70. Craig V–let’s compare notes. Tell me who the “wonderful exceptions” are in your tradition. I am not familiar with Evangelical writing. I haven’t had much respect for the apocalyptic fiction which has been so popular lately, but I’d be very interested to see what artists the Presbyterian/Evangelical culture has produced and how well they’ve been received. What religion was Natalie Sleeth? She wrote some wonderful music. She feels Evangelical to me, but what do I know?

  71. “The problem is when we say “great Mormon artist” we aren’t sure what we mean?

    Do we mean “great artist who is Mormon?” “Mormon who get accolades from the art community”? A Mormon who excells in an artistic field?

    And what is art, anyway? Mike Allred is hands down, a master of the comic book form. There are few who can touch him, and he’s popular and influential. His Madman comics are pure comic book gold. Yet I doubt many of those calling for Great Mormon Art would even consider him, mainly because their conception of art is far too narrow.

    Mormons have a huge presence in Science Fiction and Fantasy – not just OSC, but Dave Wolverton/David Farland, Tracy Hickman, Gerald Lund (yes, he used to write dystopian themed SF before he became famous for the W&G), M. Shayne Bell, Elizabeth Boyer, Battlestar Galactica, etc.

    Same problem applies here – we could have a Mormon write a Great Novel, and the critics would overlook it because it was science fiction. ”
    Wasn’t Ender’s Game critically acclaimed even though it was sci-fi? Maybe I’m remembering incorrectly, but I think my copy having some kind of seal stamped on it for awards it had won.

    Mike Allred is a genius, and I’ve enjoyed sharing his work a few times when people have asked who my favorite Mormon artist is. Unfortunately you’re probably right though, most people wouldn’t consider him an artist when they talk about Mormon artists.

    For anyone that has never heard of Mike Allred, he’s a popular comic-book artist that recently took time off superhero comics to draw an illustrated version of the BOM. Examples of his work are here

  72. The most obvious is C.S. Lewis. If I’m limited to Presbyterian Evangelicals, no one modern comes to mind, but that probably says as much about me as it does about the state of art in our tradition. As far as the apocalyptic fiction you refer to (I assume you mean the “Left Behind” books and company) I’m tempted to say something unkind, but the truth is I haven’t read any of these.

    I don’t read much Evangelical literature (which mirrors what you’ve said). What I do read comes from traditions that have a rich theology of embracing the world (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican). This could be a quirk in my own personal history, but I tend to think it’s not. I suspect that for art to truly be art there must be a sense in which it belongs to all cultures. If we see ourselves as in a hostile, one dimensional, relationship with the world, how can we serve it with great art?

  73. Oh dear, we have to arm wrestle about claiming C.S. Lewis. And you’re handicapped and I seriously broke my elbow a couple of years ago. This will not be pretty. Craig V., C.S. Lewis gets quoted in LDS General Conference about as much as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We’ve had C.S. Lewis symposia at BYU, and my husband teaches a C.S. Lewis class–which always has a waiting list. Because of our belief in the possibility of conversion even after death, I would guess that most Mormons assume C.S. Lewis has already become a vital member of our faith. His quote from _The Weight of Glory_ about human potential (“It is a serious thing to ive in a society of possible gods and godesses…You have never met a real mortal…”) is often used to uphold the idea of eternal progression. I know that idea doesn’t fit the Presbyterian frame, since many Evangelicals consider that the LDS belief in endless human potential–even unto godhood–as heretical. Anyway, Lewis, if pressed, would ultimately identify himself as Anglican, so the Anglicans are still way ahead in producing great art.
    I wondered if Reynolds Price was an evangelical. I’m rushed at the moment, but I think I’ll look into that. He is very frank about his Christianity, and in a wonderful book called _Letter to a Man in the Fire_ writes to a young man dying of cancer about his (Price’s) vision of the Savior, which is very real to him. As he records it, he begged Jesus for healing, and Jesus approached with the words, “Your sins are forgiven.” “But am I healed?” Price demanded. Jesus looked at him with wry disappointment and said, “That too.” Price tells it so beautifully. (He is a master writer.) And he clearly BELIEVES it.
    As far as the _Left Behind_ series–I don’t know if we have to read it in order to say unkind things about it. (Maybe you, as a pastor, have to maintain that condition.) I saw about 10 minutes of the television movie and grimaced. I think I said something like, “Wow. This is really contrived and stupid.” The problem was the characters, who were simply serving the plot, and the dialogue, which was badly written.

  74. P.S. (written later): I can’t believe I misquoted C.S. Lewis. One word changes so much. The quote should be: “You have never met a MERE mortal.”
    As for Reynolds Price, I did do a little research. It appears he grappled with familiar issues in his own church. Here’s a quote from him:

    REYNOLDS PRICE: In all sorts of senses. I’m an outlaw Christian in the first sense that I don’t belong to a particular church. I was reared in a Protestant church and I really stopped going to church when I was about 21, 22 years old, and realized that I had been in the church all my life and had never heard one single word said against racism. That was in the mid-1950s. And that was, in fact, the truth.
    Since then, as I’ve watched the church and wished it well certainly, I’ve watched it essentially fail to deal adequately with the main moral issues of our times. First of all racism; the status of women in worship and in the human community, now homosexuality, which is a situation that affects a great many human beings; and a number of other failures that I could recount.

  75. “My husband teaches a C.S. Lewis class–which always has a waiting list.”

    A English professor–who happens to be Baptist–here at Friends University teaches a C.S. Lewis class, and he too always has a waiting list of students to get in. Lewis has practically become a superstar of sorts amongst the vaguely conservative and/or orthodox religious and literary set. Not a bad fate, to be sure, though I wonder what he would make of it, seeing as I doubt he ever quite transcended his own personal and obvious distaste for radical, evangelical, and “low church” religions, like Quakers or Baptists….or Mormons (who very possibly are what Lewis partly had in mind when he created Eustace Scrubb’s non-drinking, non-smoking, funny-underwear wearing parents).

  76. That so many, from a wide variety of viewpoints, would see C.S. Lewis as speaking to them and perhaps even for them underscores, I believe, that great literature doesn’t (and can’t) belong to one group (church or culture). I’ll let you win the arm wrestling, Margaret, as I wouldn’t want to take advantage of your elbow. It’s also noteworthy that Evangelicals and LDS are, in terms of literature, more represented in fantasy and sci-fi than in other genres. I vaguely remember reading somewhere a few years ago that Clive Barker liked the horror genre (a relative to fantasy and sci-fi) because it alone gave the freedom to explore what are usually considered religious topics.

    I’m not familiar with Reynolds Price, but it sounds like I should be. Unfortunately, I just purchased some short stories by Miguel de Unamuno and would have to face the wrath of my wife if I were to try to purchase more literature in the near future. Perhaps next month.

    As far as belief in human godhood, I don’t think our disagreement is so much about human potential as it is about the nature of God. We have a tradition of deification (admittedly, most Evangelicals would prefer to call it glorification). The difference, as I understand it, is that we believe that deification is a result of God becoming fully human in Christ and our union with Christ. Put another way, we become one with God in Christ and in that sense, what is human has divine potential.

  77. Margaret,

    I agree that there are crucial differences between Dutcher, Evenson, and LaBute, but they still serve as examples to support my points. My understanding is that LaBute’s biggest condemnation came from “Bash: Latter-Day Plays” which did explicitly deal with Mormon characters. This supports my contention that when talented Mormon artists deal specifically with Mormon issues that is precisely the point where they’re most vulnerable to punishment or exclusion in one form or another.

    Dutcher, as you note, has publically proclaimed his intention to stop making Mormon-themed works. We’ve probably seen our last explicitly Mormon-themed film from him. About a year ago I saw him speak and he talked about his strong feeling that the personal is universal in storytelling, but apparently he now seems to feel his personal Mormon experiences aren’t worth exploring artistically because he won’t find a large enough sympathetic Mormon audience, or a large enough general audience. He’s decided to take the path Matt advocates of excelling on a national level, but I feel this is a great loss because for one thing we’ll get a lot less Mormon-themed films, but for another, I am skeptical of his chances for success at a national level. I’m afraid without the Mormon-themes his work frankly won’t be that interesting. I think Dutcher is the perfect example of a Mormon artist who has a tortured relationship with his intended audience. Dutcher’s work is entirely unoffensive, and more than anyone he aimed his work up and down the Wasatch front, but look at what it’s gotten him. He seems to be on the same path as Evenson and LaBute, and my understanding is that his comments suggested as much when he appeared with the two of them at a recent Sunstone event.

    If I’m not mistaken Evenson got national recognition early in the way of a fellowship from the NEA, and he has dealt explicitly with Mormon themes in his later works after ALTMANN’S TONGUE. He’s a relevant example because his experience indicates that even if you do excel on a national level, as Matt suggests, there’s no guarantee, for writers at least, that you’ll get much acceptance or support from a Mormon audience.

    Now granted, Evenson and LaBute are fairly extreme and have little qualms about challenging or shocking their audience, but if they had been met with approbation rather than condemnation who knows how their careers may have developed.

    I agree Potok is a great writer for Mormon authors to emulate, but we can’t ignore he paid a price with his community. I contend that Mormon writers face paying a greater price than Potok did. I can’t imagine Evenson, LaBute, Dutcher, or a Levi Peterson ever serving as a Bishop, (analogous I suppose to Potok being a rabbi) if they were still all members they’d be lucky to be asked to speak in sacrament meeting. I live in L.A. and I’m thrilled the director of NEW YORK DOLL, Greg Whitely, is serving locally as a Bishop, but given the number of people in the L.A. Stake that are pursuing artistic careers they are vastly underrepresented in local leadership. I’m always surprised at just how little artistic ambition is required to get viewed slightly askance by people in my local wards.

  78. This blog has been so interesting to me. I’m bouncing between rooms–supervising homework in one room and googling Christian authors in another to see what their particular religious upbringing was. (Marilynne Robinson belongs to a Congregational Community of Christ–which I believe is a remnant of Puritanism, isn’t it?)
    Craig V., I think you nailed it. When we read great literature, we find our common humanity. In fact, it’s the turf where we freely enter each other’s synagogues, temples, cathedrals, chapels and are invited to partake as though it were our own home. The fact that Dostoevsky was Russian Orthodox makes no difference to me when I encounter characters who voice my own feelings and reveal my own inner tensions or fears. It’s like going to another country and somehow, magically, speaking the language. Or like being guided into unfamiliar regions by either a Virgil or a Beatrice. I did look up Evangelical authors and found a lot of complaints about bad writing. I hadn’t heard of any of the authors. (No surprise.) I looked up Mormon authors (just in a general google) and found a Wikipedia article which named a bunch of the popular ones but only a few whom I consider really good writers. I wonder who will endure as I predict Potok will. Will my grandchildren read _Ender’s Game_? I suspect so, though I’ll be surprised if they’re reading the other authors mentioned.

    Brian G-You might be surprised to learn of how well-accepted Dutcher’s _States of Grace_ was in private showings to pastors/ministers throughout the U.S. in clerical screenings. The problem was that the screenings were expensive, and the followthrough from the various congregations looked to be very shaky. And sadly, so many have bad opinions of Mormons that when patrons bought tickets to _SOG_ outside of Utah, they were cautioned at the ticket office: “This is a Mormon film, not a Christian one.” (Yes, those very words were sometimes used.) I wonder if _SOG_ will have a renaissance in another 50 years. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
    I don’t think you can consider Evenson’s works post _Altmann’s Tongue_ to be Mormon themed, though Evenson is clearly using the Mormon structure as the pattern for the church he creates, and his references to coverups and infidelities are undoubtedly (but not explicitly) drawn from Mormon possibilities.
    I had thought Labute’s problems were over _In the Company of Men_, but I could well be mistaken. His story is a sad one–and yes, it engenders fear in upcoming artists. How could it not?

  79. Neil LaBute faces church discipline for a play he wrote. Brian Evanson loses his teaching position.

    Brian G,

    Clearly these aren’t the artists President Kimball had in mind when he urged Mormon artists to be exceptional. It sounds as though you think Kimball asked the impossible — creating exceptional art while holding fast to the faith. I think it’s obvious President Kimball wasn’t pleading for Mormon art that would be offensive (or “challenging”) to Mormons. I’m doubtful that when President Kimball said “best and greatest” he imagined anything remotely close to what passed then, or now, for the avant garde. More likely he wished Mormons wrote novels or plays to rival Les Miserables or the Sound of Music, but from stories drawn from the Mormon experience, or stories like My Turn On Earth, based on our unique understanding of the plan of salvation, but of such outstanding quality that non-members would appreciate them for their aesthetics and exploration of the human condition.

    To measure our progress toward President Kimball’s call for great Mormon art, we have to understand what he considered great art.

  80. I think it’s obvious President Kimball wasn’t pleading for Mormon art that would be offensive (or “challenging”) to Mormons. I’m doubtful that when President Kimball said “best and greatest” he imagined anything remotely close to what passed then, or now, for the avant garde…To measure our progress toward President Kimball’s call for great Mormon art, we have to understand what he considered great art.

    I think this is plainly true. It also might be difficult to strictly prove, if only because President Kimball–no doubt like any other man dedicated enough to serve the church his whole life–probably spent relatively little time in his life reading and watching and thinking about, and then sharing his views about, art. I certainly have no idea what President Hinckley thinks when he puts on his art critic cap, even assuming he has one. (At that birthday bash thrown for him a while back–do you suppose he genuinely liked the Donny Osmond number? The Gladys Knight one? Do you suppose he really has the time or inclination to go to the movies at all?) So there is an interesting problem here: Kimball’s call was a call to artists, but it is by no means clear that Kimball would have been comfortable with artists themselves defining the meaning of his call.

  81. Matt, Milton and Shakespeare weren’t exactly unchallenging to the devout in their own religious traditions–how sure can you be of your interpretation of President Kimball’s intent? I love The Sound of Music (despite the fact that the single most embarrassing moment of my life occurred when I belted out “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in what I assumed was the soundproof bathroom in the back of my first grade classroom), but one doesn’t have to be a trained critic to know it’s not comparable to Shakesepeare.

  82. \”Suppose that person then announces that they feel “inspired” to become a writer, and plan on quitting their day job to follow that inspiration. They will be writing romances, of course.\”

    LOL!!! I may be guilty of having written some LDS-themed romances, but at least I didn\’t quit my day job to do it… ;-)

    I\’ve written some discussion of the challenges of Mormon literature here.

  83. Thinking that my own ignorance was the problem, I asked my wife, who reads more literature than me, to name some great, modern Evangelical writers. She named C.S. Lewis and then struggled to think of others (so I didn’t feel so bad). One thing this thread has shown me is that I don’t really do my part in supporting Evangelical writers. I’ve never read an Evangelical work of fiction (unless C.S. Lewis counts). When I’m told that an alleged work of art is Evangelical I respond much the way that I would if I were told about some Evangelical soap. I know the soap is going to be over priced and probably not very effective since if it were good soap it would sell on its own merits and not on its Evangelical connection. I’m going to attempt to change, however. Several friends have recommended Calvin Miller to me, so I’m going to give him a try.

    That both LDS and Evangelicals seem to struggle with a similar problem still smells like a theological problem to me, but I need to think on this more.

  84. Just to clarify, Orson F. Whitney invokes Milton and Shakespeare. Pres. Kimball discusses Shakespeare, Verdi, Handel, Wagner, Rembrandt, Michaelangelo, etc. — and, a bit to my surprise, George Bernard Shaw.

    I think, though, that trying to gauge either Whitney’s or Kimball’s aesthetics (or Boyd K. Packer’s or Neil A. Maxwell’s) from their sermons is dicey. The artists chosen as exemplars seem to me to be less important as purveyors of an aesthetic and/or world view and more important as examples of artists who contributed to a particular (sometimes national) culture. In other words, it’s not entirely clear if Whitney wants the Milton who stood up for the more liberal political philosophy of the age (as Milton did) or the Milton that was considered the premiere poet of the English language for so many centuries. My guess is more the latter.

    And that’s the problem with discussing Mormon art and artists within the context of prophecy. Really, all we have been given is a vague idea of greatness and the thought that dramatizing Mormon history is worthwhile.

    I still find both Whitney’s and Kimball’s visions inspiring. But I also wonder if they have led to a) misplaced zeal among some Mormon artists (art without craftsmanship) and b) a yearning for greatness that breeds lazy consumption of what is already produced (waiting for the great without helping to sow the seeds where greatness could arise).

  85. Kristine, we can only wish that the problem with Mormon art were that it’s stuck at The Sound of Music quality. (Or even your first grade version of it — wish I were there!) Pining for Milton or Shakespeare? If President Kimball is going to get Shakespeare-quality Mormon art it will be much faster for him to convert the Bard up there than wait for us to find his equal down here.

    To your main point: whatever President Kimball considered to be great art, we can be confident he didn’t believe it requires artists to compromise their morals or jeopardize their church standing.

  86. A personal experience from today:
    I spent several delightful hours with Darius Gray et al viewing footage for _Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons_. One of our great treasures is footage shot in 1968 and never released. (I won’t detail how we got it, but I do count it a miracle.) In the footage, we get to see a very young Darius, along with several other Black LDS converts. (It was no small thing to be a Black LDS convert in 1968.) Darius and I both had a VERY strong impression (yes, I do use that word and I do believe in inspiration) that we needed to try to reach one of the four Black Mormon men interviewed back then–a specific man who I won’t name right now. Was he still LDS? What has his nearly 40-year journey been like? We made a few phone calls to try to find him, but we had no leads. We didn’t even know if he was still alive.
    Later, on the day we viewed that 1968 footage, Darius called to tell me he had been going through some papers and had come upon this man’s contact information. We called him today, but he was at work. Darius left his phone number with the man’s son. An hour ago, Darius called me to say the man had returned his call excitedly. He had been searching for Darius for the past month, because he and others are setting up a sort of Genesis Group in Indiana. And he had been looking all over for that never-released footage, hoping it might be on the internet. Yes, he is still an active Latter-Day Saint–but that’s all we know at present. We are going to set up something where we can interview him, and put him and Darius together to talk about what they’ve experienced since 1968.. (Does anyone have film making contacts in Indianapolis?)
    So here are my immediate thoughts:
    I believe this project is an inspired one, meaning that God is involved in some way. I have felt the need to do everything in my power to communicate with God so that we do this right. I am somewhat terrified as I watch our amazing footage (not just the bit from 1968), realizing what we have and how important it can become. Do we have the skills to do it as it must be done? (Darius is an experienced documentary maker; I am not. We have some good, experienced people involved, but right now we’re shaping it.)
    The frightening part of realizing that this artistic endeaver has a divine mandate (not yet an endorsement, because we haven’t finished it) is the recognition that we will AUTHOMATICALLY encounter difficulties. That seems to be part of the way we accomplish any great thing: we get to go through a refiner’s fire.
    Darius remains very ill, and I do not anticipate he will be healed so that we can do this. I will not detail other obstacles this documentary has already encountered, but they have been significant.
    I feel huge pressure to get it right–to have the balance be what it should be. I want to tell the story (or stories) in a way that will build and inspire, that will not only acknowledge but put a face on the pain and the power which the race issue brings with it. This documentary has to tell the truth, but it cannot be bitter. It is meant to heal and to bridge.
    In a way I have never felt when structuring a novel, I feel an overwhelming need to rely on higher powers than my own. I feel a need to offer what I have and let God make it sufficient.
    But this is no guarantee that the documentary will be great. I’m sharing these things mid-process.
    And Craig V., I should tell you that one of the documentaries I’ve watched in my preparation to do this is an evangelical one called _Through the Gates of Splendor_. You and your family would appreciate it. It is a beautiful piece.
    Right now, I don’t feel like offering more observations about art, because I find myself “surprised by joy” (to quote that great artist we all claim, C.S. Lewis). I am amazed at little miracles, and humbled by the implications of what this project might mean, and by the level of devotion I know we must take to the editing room. I am eager to include President Kimball’s voice in the documentary–not tatlking about art, but about the power of revelation. Or maybe one simply illuminates the other.

  87. Matt,

    I in no way think President Kimball asked the impossible. I believe Mormon artists can hold fast to the faith and create exceptional work. Your assumption that I might feel that way is indicative of part of the problem I’m trying to draw attention to–assumptiveness. You and I really don’t know that LaBute or Evenson compromised their morals, or how they may or may not have jeopardized their Church standing. I don’t know the order of events either. Did they receive censure, and then lose their faith, or vice versa? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I do know they got in trouble for what they wrote in works of fiction. In my mind, writing about sex and violence alone doesn’t necessarily prove or indicate any moral shortcomings on the part of the author. Do you feel it does?

    All writers have the little demons (or are they angels?) that sit on their shoulders and whisper don’t write that they’ll laugh at you, or you’ll get in trouble, or you’ll look stupid, or weird. All I’m saying is there’s a pattern of Mormon writers who reach national prominence (which is what you advocated in your comment) getting censure from the church and its membership. As a result, aspiring Mormon writers have additional over-sized demons and angels on their shoulders whispering things like don’t write that you’ll lose your membership, shame your parents, etc. I think it’s easy to see how this kind of fear and insecurity is not conducive to aspiring writers fulfilling President Kimball’s vision.

    A lot of people mistakenly think writers can choose and change their themes and subject matter as easily as they choose and change their socks. It really doesn’t work that way. If I wanted to make a name for myself and please much of Mormondom by writing an inoffensive musical like MY TURN ON EARTH or SOUND OF MUSIC–well, I’d have a better shot at becoming a starting center in the NBA.

  88. Margaret,

    I found your comment inspiring. I work in documentary and reality television and I know a lot of LDS filmmakers with professional experience in documentary filmmaking: camera operators, editors, producers, etc. that could help you. I don’t know of anyone in Indiana, but I do think I could serve as a resource for you in helping you find the right people to make your project all that it needs to be.

    Feel free to contact me with more details, requests, or ideas about how I might be best able to help you.

    brianngibson at gmail dot com

  89. I think that after the way that “Big Love” has turned church terminology into a Big Joke, that our Shakespeares and our Chaucers can sit under a rock for the next quarter-century until BL is forgotten. We don’t have a chance in hell of representing our culture or faith to outsiders after our whole language has been poisoned to the world.

  90. A lot of people mistakenly think writers can choose and change their themes and subject matter as easily as they choose and change their socks.

    The mistake is only in thinking decent artists are talented like exceptional artists. Exceptional artists, like the Beatles, can change themes as easily as socks.

    If I wanted to make a name for myself and please much of Mormondom by writing an inoffensive musical like MY TURN ON EARTH or SOUND OF MUSIC–well, I’d have a better shot at becoming a starting center in the NBA.

    I believe this is the key problem. Most artists, like Labute, aren’t exceptional and can’t make their name with talent. If they’re determined to make a name for themselves despite their lack of talent, they have no option but to resorting to controversy and offense to win attention. To keep your NBA example, they suffer from Dennis Rodman Syndrome. If they were talented they could be successful writing about everything from brightly colored submarines to a woman who picks up rice after a church wedding.

  91. Matt Evans,

    You are wrong, Wrong, WRONG. Your basic premise, that a writer can “change themes as easily as socks” is the most frustrating idea in this whole Mormon Art/Mormon Audience debate. Comparing pop music to playwriting to basketball is not helpful either. Where to begin? Throw out Dennis Rodman, who is TALENTED, by the way, and the Beatles, who are BRILLIANT like you suggest. But take Labute: he is talented with a capital T and to suggest otherwise is ignorant. You don’t have to like him, but he is a brilliant writer and to suggest that anyone can do what he does if he/she simply sets out to be controversial is inane (Valentine’s Day is over). What is most interesting to me about someone like Labute is that he cannot writer other than what he writes. His style and voice are uniquely his–as misanthropic and/or misogynistic as they are–and he cannot simply change that. Your comments suggest to me that you have no idea what it is like to actually spend years of your life devoted to the craft of writing, and how limited the palette actually is. Some writers can shift and change forms/themes/ideas more easily than others, but style and voice are constant and, I would argue, essential. For many other Mormon writers I know, this coming to terms with style and voice is an important, and often painful, part of becoming a writer.

    I hear this conversation all the time: we want great Mormon art, but it must be without _________ or with _________. You have people without any knowledge of the craft placing parameters on that craft. For those that fit within the parameters, good for them. But for those others, comments like yours are a painful realization that they will be ostracized by their brothers and sisters for what they do. And should they try to explain what it is that they do, you patronize them with the idea that they should change what they write, you know, like they change their socks.

  92. Aaron #96, thank you Thank You THANK YOU from me, too. I can’t say it much better, but I can chip in with an anecdote. Someone in a past ward asked me to write a film adaptation of a book he’d bought the rights to. It was a lovely book/project, and would have produced a wholesome family film. There’s nothing wrong with that–I want wholesome films for my family–but there was something wrong with me doing it. The more I worked on it, the fewer ideas I had, and the greater my sense of foreboding. I called it an artistic stupor of thought. My essential style and voice, as Aaron puts it, were incompatible with this lighter, happier material. Eventually the style and voice decamped for darker territory where they had more to say, but fewer people to say it to. Versatility in expression and voice, while an enviable artistic ability, should not be mistaken for an overriding, indispensable, or prophetically-mandated talent. A good match between artist and subject material is least as important. In one of Adam Greenwood’s posted vignettes, he wondered why more writers couldn’t capture the essential sweetness of Mormon life. I remember reading that and wishing (in vain) that I were that writer (though he doesn’t do a bad job himself!). I’m not good with essential sweetness, but I wish for Adam and others an LDS writer whose authentic voice can do it justice. (Perhaps he or she is already out there. Suggestions?) Meanwhile, I’ll pull on my holey, knotty dark socks–the socks in which I can move and write freely–and get to work conveying those aspects of Mormon life and culture to which my voice *can* do justice.

    Thanks again, Aaron. Liberating post.

  93. You have people without any knowledge of the craft placing parameters on that craft.

    I admit that President Kimball probably didn’t know much about creating great art, but his definition of great art certainly places parameters on its content, and maybe even on its form. Granted, few contemporary “artists” share President Kimball’s definition of great art, his requirement that art be morally uplifting, free of gratuitous sex or violence, or his opinion of what is or is not gratuitous. But this thread isn’t about what so-called artists consider great art, or about what you or I consider to be great art, it’s about what _President Kimball_ meant when he plead for great art. (President Kimball’s plea was almost certainly a reaction against the contemporary definition of “art” itself, and reflected his hope that Mormons could rescue the art world from itself.) I’m sure we agree that the art world doesn’t believe it needs rescuing from Mormons who believe President Kimball is a prophet of God.

    Dennis Rodman was talented (talent is necessary to play in the NBA at all), but his talent wasn’t sufficient to get him Sports Illustrated cover stories like the best players. He had to act outrageously to get the media attention his peers got because of their talent alone.

  94. Matt,

    Sorry for the threadjack, but your mistaken regarding recognition for Rodman’s talent.

    The NBA Web site states that Rodman led the NBA in rebounding for at least seven consecutive seasons. He was a key member of five NBA championship teams. He shares the NBA Finals record with 11 offensive rebounds in a game, achieving the feat twice during the 1996 NBA Finals. He was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1989-90 and 1990-91, and he was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team seven times. He led the NBA in field-goal percentage in 1988-89. Wilt Chamberlain is the only player to win more rebounding titles.

    The NBA states that Rodman is “arguably the best rebounding forward in NBA history” that his “achievements on the court are indisputable,” and that he “is one of the few players in basketball who can change the course of a game without taking a shot.”

  95. Matt,

    The Beatles did change the sock of delightfully-catchy-pop-songs-about-love for the sock of delightfully-catchy-pop-songs about-drugs-and-Eastern-philosophy, but as exceptionally talented as they were I don’t think they’re the best example to prove your point, moving as they did from the conventional to the uncoventional, from the traditional to the experimental, challenging, and controversial.

    I’m glad you brought the Beatles up, though, because it made me think of a cool idea for a story.

    Can you imagine if Lennon and McCartney were born in Provo instead of Liverpool? Do you think they would have made it out of there and become internationally famous? Would their exceptional talent have won out? Or would they have played it safe? Would they have recycled “Love Me Do,” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for their entire careers?

    I can see the story having scenes where Lennon’s parents beg to know why the song can’t end with “Eleanor Rigby” meeting someone in her singles ward and having 2-3 children. McCartney’s Bishop would be a lot happier if “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was changed to “Lucy in the Diamond Sky” (get it, LDS, see, that’s still symbolic) and if the song was about a vision of the pre-existence rather than an acid-fueled dream.

    And also, in my alternative universe, Donnie and Marie would have been born in Liverpool and would have earned world reknown and the uncontested status of Rock Gods…until, that is, Donnie marries an avant garde artist from Japan and the whole thing just falls to pieces.

  96. Brian G, I see no reason to think that the Beatles later success was due to their drug use, and from what I know of their story, they didn’t depend on drugs when they did Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby. While the lyrics of some of their later songs speak of drug use, the drug-themed lyrics aren’t necessar to the song. Their music succeeded even when the lyrics were about a suburban street intersection! No matter the influence of drugs on the Beatles, we can be certain President Kimball didn’t think great art required hallucinagenic drugs.

    Your hypothetical raises valid questions, but what would lead you to think great Mormon artists would have to avoid painful subjects like Eleanor Rigby? You’ve argued that social pressure or our world view hampers Mormon artists, but Mormons appreciate all the arts, including tragedies and works that explore death and pain, even if they share Kimball’s view of what currently passes for “art.” To the degree Mormon artists produce saccharine, I believe it’s because they don’t have the talent to pull something off like Eleanor Rigby. They don’t stick to saccharine because Mormonism has sheltered them from reading tragedies, but because it’s easier.

    Mormonism has had good artists, like we’ve had good basketball players, economists and constitutional scholars, but I see no more reason to blame our lack of extraordinary artists on our Mormon culture than to blame the culture for our lack of NBA Hall of Famers, Nobel-winners or Supreme Court justices. If Mormons were winning the Nobel science prizes but not the literature prize, we might wonder if our culture discourages literature compared to science, but we have produced few extraordinary anythings. With the exception, as I commented earlier, of creating the world’s top performance artists.

    [threadjack] Greg, I agree that Rodman hounded the boards like no one else and successfully bothered almost everyone he guarded. Mark Eaton also won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, however, shattered the record for blocked-shots in a season, won multiple shot-blocking titles, and was a leading rebounder besides, but I don’t consider him to be particularly talented, either. Rodman had 10% more talent than Laimbeer. [/threadjack]

  97. I think you miss my point, Matt. You miss my point while proving it.

    Personally, I love the Beatles songs about drugs. Give me “Come Together” over “Love Me Do” any day. Trust me, if the Beatles had grown up Mormon, and if they still would have made it big, many Mormons would have been disappointed in their darker turns at the end of their careers, and would not have been as charitable toward them as you are.

    It’s interesting that you defend the Beatles by pointing to their other songs that aren’t about drugs as proof of their artistic range and great talent. Yet earlier you didn’t extend Neil LaBute quite the same courtesy.

    If Mormon artists are edgy they’re lazy and untalented. If they’re too saccharine they’re lazy and untalented. You can’t really have it both ways and still be fair-minded, and you refuse to acknowledge any significant difference between artistic achievement and athletic, academic, or business achievement.

    My first comment said both the Mormon audience and the Mormon artist need to be held more accountable for our failure to meet President Kimball’s challenge. I don’t really see much hope in getting you to see how the Mormon audience can do its part better, so maybe we should move on to dicussing how the artists can do their part.

    Or you could try and list five Mormon-themed works of tragedy that explore death and pain that Mormons have embraced. Or I’ll make it easier for you, they don’t even have to be Mormon-themed, they can just be written by Mormons.

  98. Brian,

    I like the Beatles songs about drugs, too. I’ve never suggested otherwise. What I have suggested is that their use of drug-themed lyrics had nothing to do with their success. They only needed a focus for their lyrics and music, and whether the theme was drugs, bright submarines, lonely people, or a suburban street intersection, they produced great work. They never had artistic need to write about drugs. They could have stripped Strawberry Fields of it’s drug overtones, for example, left it solely about the orphanage near Lennon’s childhood home, and been equally successful.

    If Mormon artists are edgy they’re lazy and untalented. If they’re too saccharine they’re lazy and untalented. You can’t really have it both ways

    You’ve stated this backwards: Being edgy or saccharine doesn’t _make_ an artist unexceptional, unexceptional artists have to do edgy or saccharine work _because_ they’re unexceptional. Someone who’s exceptional doesn’t need the edgy and saccharine crutches lessor artists depend on.

    Five Mormon tragedies: I don’t know many Mormon artists period, but my wife tells me the best-seller Charlie is super sad.

    you refuse to acknowledge any significant difference between artistic achievement and athletic, academic, or business achievement

    Rivaling the giants in any field of human achievement, as President Kimball challenged Mormon artists to do, is almost impossible. Matching Shakespeare and Milton is no harder than matching Newton and Einstein, Plato and Aristotle, Jesse Owens and Mark Spitz, or Edison and Ford.

  99. Frankly, I think anyone who sits around and complains about what hasn’t happened in thirty years ought to either be doing a little more or lighten up a little bit.

    I should addend this by saying it isn’t a direct dig on the author of this post. It is, however, a general statement. I don’t believe it’s completely fair to reflect on the lacking state of Mormon aesthetic without some sense of accountability to it. Well, this is at least or especially true for hobbyists of the complaint.

  100. Re: #53 (Brian G) – “Richard Dutcher is particularly gifted at insulting the very audience he expects to attend his films.”

    He should/i insult us! After all, we peed and pooped in his pool! (That sentence isn’t particularly great literature, but it does/i have some catchy alliteration, no? ;-D)

    Re: #54 (Carolyn) – Can I get a patron?

    Sure! How many zeros do you want on the check? (I’ll just take it out of petty cash!) ;-D

    Re: #92 (Brian G.) – “If I wanted to make a name for myself and please much of Mormondom by writing an inoffensive musical like MY TURN ON EARTH or SOUND OF MUSIC–well, I’d have a better shot at becoming a starting center in the NBA.”

    How tall are you? ;-D

  101. #91: “(Does anyone have film making contacts in Indianapolis?)”

    Doesn’t LaBute live in Indiana?

  102. I think that President Kimball’s challenge will not be fulfilled until church members are told that being challenged and questioning faith is acceptable. I believe that too often mainstream church members are unwilling to be challenged and feel that their time could be spent in more worthwhile reading endeavors (scriptures, church magazines, etc.). Please do not mistake my previous statement for treating sacred things lightly, but unless church members accept the responsibilty for being receptive to challenging pieces of art, the artists making them will not be recognized, no matter how talented they are. Is an artist considered great if no one views the art he or she is making?

  103. I write Mormon fiction — at least, I’m a Mormon who writes fiction. People always tell me that it doesn’t have anything to do with Mormonism. I disagree, but I don’t argue much about it; it’s not especially important to me. My stories have usually been described as “unfortunate” and “strange.” And if they’re awful (which, in fact, they certainly are), it ain’t because they’re sweet.

    Aside from the fact that (as I’ve mentioned) it’s altogether bad, the stuff that I write strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that Mormon fiction ought to be; viz., primarily concerned with understanding our place (and the place of those things around us) and our role in the pre-mortal/mortal/post-mortal continuum. I believe that each of my stories, at least, does this.

    In case anyone has enough morbid curiosity to read what I’ve tried to pass off as fiction, here are the links:

    A Faint Glimmer (first published under the pen name “Miranda Park Jones”)

    Boring Year for the Brownsteins (also written under the pen name “Miranda Park Jones”)

    A Drop in the Bucket (again written under the pen name “Miranda Park Jones”)

    A New Name for Mr. Flightly

    Death Between Friends

  104. The Gospel in the Arts
    My thoughts from Kimball\’s talk

    In our world there have risen brilliant stars
    Bursting from all the fields of excellence
    One day our members will exceed all by far
    As the world increases in divergence

    Zion, one day, will be praised by the whole earth
    Kings will come to gaze upon her glory
    To hear songs of Christ, as too new arts give birth
    Which depict the best events in history

    Who\’s obsessed enough for this worthy goal?
    To tell each story with love and pathos
    Imagine masterpieces in perfection
    The greatest of all in production…

    Our own talent, obsessed with dynamism from a worthy goal, could put into such a story life and heartbeats and emotions and love and pathos, drama, suffering, fear, courage; and they could put into it the great leader, the mighty modern Moses who led a people farther than from Egypt to Jericho, who knew miracles as great as the stream from the rock at Horeb, manna in the desert, giant grapes, rain when needed, battles won against great odds.

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