Unrealistic Expectations of Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares

Every now and then those contemplating the literary aspirations of Mormonism will quote Orson F. Whitney, “we will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” and then ask when or how that can become possible. That musing has now gone national thanks to an article in the New York Times with interviews of current and former Mormon writers about why this hasn’t happened yet. The result is condescension toward both Mormon literature and popular genre fiction. The answer, even by some of the Mormon writers, seems to show the usual academic bias in favor of the nebulous literary fiction.

Although artists should stretch the talent given to them, Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares are not going to exist. That dream needs to be retired. This is not because Mormons are incapable of great literature, but because the expectations are ridiculous. The New York Times article said it best while ignoring the implications, “In the United States, Jews, blacks and South Asians, while they have produced no Milton or Shakespeare — who has, lately? — have all had literary renaissances.” The nearest to the two contemporary “Bards” in prestige is Homer who lived about a thousand years before them. By that reckoning, time is on the Mormon side.

This fascination with literary perfection has been going on since the foundation of the United States. How many American Miltons and Shakespeares are there? The closest that exist are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, and the latter is undoubtedly a genre author. The beloved early American writer James Fenimore Cooper was dismissed by his English contemporaries as too common. He is seen by some modern literary critics as a type of Tom Clancy of his day. Despite this, his prose is better than almost any current writer simply because of the Romantic style of the time. Interesting enough, his prose was heavily criticized by Mark Twain who is the only American author best worthy of the “Bard” mantle. The proclamation of Orson F. Whitney is a distinctive American desire for cultural recognition among more established traditions.

There is also the problem of definitions and the modern publishing world. The nickname “Bard” that belongs to Shakespeare no longer exists. It is a medieval term for those who were hired by wealthy patrons to sing or write poetry or prose usually to celebrating the family heritage. Today’s publishing houses seek out artists to make money, not to finance vanity works. Great modern literature is more an accident of circumstance controlled by a few guardians of public productions. Mormons are outside the cultural niche of major publishing houses that do literary fiction. Besides, drawing the line between literary and genre fiction is an illusion. Not only do publishing houses own different divisions that encompass a wide variety of markets, but writers themselves knock on genre doors. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example.

The irony of the genre and young adult criticism is that more than likely the next great classic will end up to be the Harry Potter series. It has more going for it than most beloved literary fiction authors writing today. All flaws aside, the hero and villain are fully fleshed out characters who grow and develop as people; while still retaining much of the black and white good and evil dichotomy. More of the population has both loved and been exposed to these books than to Milton or Shakespeare. Families have been known to pass down the books to each new generation. In effect, it has enough literary complexity and staying power to best books that many academics would hope survive. For the record, it’s not American.

What many critics of Mormon literature miss is that there is arguably already a Milton and Shakespeare in the faith. Orson Scott Card has been recognized more for his literary achievements than any other Mormon writer or artist. His book Ender’s Game alone has won acclaim from critics, spawned a huge fanbase, has become required reading for the military and academic institutions, been featured on many must read lists, and finally made into a movie. Despite the recent controversy, his work draws wide appeal that no other Mormon has ever reached. More importantly is that he has inspired others, both Mormon and non-Mormon, to become better writers. That said, the prolific Brandon Sanderson is the person to watch for to take his place and perhaps eclipse him. Mormons need to stop comparing expectations to see the greatness that already exists. Call that the optimism derided by the New York Times article, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Pick up your pens or type the words, dear Mormons. Care not for accolades and promises of literary immortality. Stop worrying and love the genre you are in. It is better to have loved the craft of writing than to have never written before or ever again. Fear is the book burner. The point is that we should be writing because we love and not to be loved. That way lies madness. Tomorrow’s Mormon Miltons and Shakespears shall take thought for itself. Sufficient for the day is the writing thereof.

14 thoughts on “Unrealistic Expectations of Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares

  1. Good points Jettboy. I agree. I would add that Milton and Shakespeare were also products of their time and culture, the rare confluence of able genius (of which there are probably many geniuses of equal ability), with a culture and environment that spawns a particular manifestation of that genius. An individual today who possed the genetic and spiritual identity of Shakespeare, would not be recognized as Shakespeare’s equal, nor would he or she be able to distill their talent to the same extent, given the increadible diffusion and diversification of our capitalist, pluralist culture. This diffusion makes it impossible for an artist today to get that kind of traction or influence. In Shakespeare’s day, artistic culture was a tight collective of shared values, ideals, and heritage. In the modern world, Western Culture has experienced a big bang of diversification, spawning endless universes of possibility, where no boundries exist. Today, artists must create worlds of their own, somewhere, lost in this vast expanse, and like-minded individuals may find them and follow their work. But their influence will be limited to their circle of followers and admirers, and all they will achieve is 15 minutes of fame. I don’t think a Shakespeare can exist in such an environment. I could be wrong, but that’s my impression.

  2. To be honest I’m not sure even Shakespeare can live up to Shakespeare’s reputation anymore. I’m not saying his stuff isn’t good, but there is also a lot of school promoted hype setting him up as the default “great English writer”. No one can hope to compete with that sort of grade-school benevolent propaganda.

  3. JSG, those are “fighting words” to me. I can’t think of any author or playwright that has as much diversity in language and genre of the time as he does. He did comedy, history, tragedy, and fantasy to a point. He knew how to write the high language of the aristocracy and the low of the common folk. I could go on in the defensive, but its not exactly about him. My own opinion is that of the two mentioned, Milton is the over rated. His Paradise Lost is brilliant, but the other works seem like the equivalent of today’s sequels; done because the original work was begging for follow ups.

    Bookslinger, I actually was going to mention that the greatest Mormon author was the Prophet Joseph Smith, but that would be both cheating and controversial. What I will say is that if Mormons paid attention to their own Scriptures more, greater works could be created by imitation. There is no reason that Mormon work shouldn’t be epic, and perhaps that is why genre fiction is so often used. We have a sense of the “big picture” and therefore petty concerns of literary fiction isn’t as suited for sensibilities. We might be trying to copy the world while a larger vision is something that should be a better fit. Instead of writing To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps Winds of War is a better literary direction.

  4. I don’t think it’s cheating, Jettboy. If you look at where Whitney’s quote was coming from, it was a time where belated* national/ethinic literatures were looking for their own native geniuses who they could point to as using native materials to create unique works of genius that nevertheless had universal application/appeal. In terms of creating a language/discourse that continues to impact and sketching out the concerns/worldview of the people who claim him, Joseph Smith is our founding literary genius. And he’s an awesome one to have.

    *belated in relation to England and Germany

  5. Reading Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello, as well as the great tragicomedies Winter’s Tale and Twelfth Night, I find it difficult to downplay Shakespeare. Fine, accuse me of Bardolatry; I will confess to it. There is no greater English writer, period. He is firmly ensconced in the upper echelon of the Western Canon, never to be removed, worlds without end.

  6. And yet I think that Shakespeare would marvel at the works of George Lucas (gag) and company.

    The Shakespeare test is a silly one thought. Ask me in 3-500 years if we have anyone that’s worthy of the name. And even then, Shakespeare is not read as much in school classes today as he was 10 years ago, and 10 years before that, etc.

    The shear volume of content that is produced in contemporary times means there will be less time for Shakespeare. That also stacks the deck against a new Shakespeare. Few could ever hope to be so widespread for such a long time with the twin forces of consumerism (always something new to make, promote, and sell) and the information age.

  7. There has been some great discussion going on in the blog world among those who care about the subject. Although some of this has been linked, I want to reiterate and add to the list.

    This one sort of defends the NYT, but also does a little defending of genre writing. Frankly, I think he is both wrong and as the following links will show not well read in the topic.

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2013/11/why-there-are-no-great-mormon-writers/

    The next post to link is the anti-NYT, and considers it nothing more than latte drinking liberal snob writing on a subject he knows nothing about. There has been some criticism in his tone, but most the the comments section supports the dismissals and guffaws.

    http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/fisking-the-nyt-it-isnt-just-me-my-whole-religion-cant-be-real-writers/

    Here on the next link the author supports some of what the NYT says, but at the same time argues the whole story is not told. At the request of a comment, a few Mormon writers of literary fiction are mentioned.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/homewaters/2013/11/the-quest-for-great-mormon-literature.html

    The final one I will link to doesn’t question the NYT conclusions, but also indicates there is a growing field of Mormon literary fiction that have hidden gems. The problem is not many people, Mormon or non-Mormon, read them enough to be recognized.

    http://www.motleyvision.org/2013/mormon-literature-a-sunny-outlook

    Oh, and because I am compelled to once again advertise for this genre Mormon author’s book: http://www.parkingorbitpublishing.com/

    I know it doesn’t have a “sunny disposition,” even if it is a fun escapist adventure.

  8. I would say that the AMV crowd doesn’t directly question the article’s conclusions because they are so self-evidently stupid as to not be worth engaging seriously (although I did indulge in some ranting on twitter via the @motleyvision account).

  9. Wm is right. My post on AMV is more a response to Handley’s post on Patheos than to Oppenheimer’s article in the New York Times. I think the conclusions the NYT draws are not particularly engaging. They don’t reflect an awareness of where Mormon literature stands in 2013.

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