Wednesday, May 19, 2010


a few months back, ABK and i were eating brunch in brooklyn (say that three times fast) when he posed the following question: if i were to recommend a seminal piece of mormon literature, what would it be?

and i could think of nothing.

well, nothing except for the twilight saga. but that is not a serious answer.

(though, sidenote, when ABK, my measuring stick for all things intellectual and worthwhile, said, "i think i am going to see the second movie. the first one was pretty good and the preview for the second one looks kind of bad-ass" all shame i felt about twilight disappeared.)

back to the question at hand, though, i was seriously stumped. no great mormon novelist, no precise and moving mormon novel came to mind. i could not think of a single piece of literature that captured the mormon experience. it was distressing.

and so ABK asked the next logical question (logical question-asker that he is): why do you think that is?

i didn't have a very coherent answer then, but i thought about it for a while and consulted many a thinking mormon, and came up with a few theories.

for one thing, the mormon experience is young. it is not rooted in the exotic and expansive generational histories of so many of the world's other religions. there is not much ancient or mystical to draw on.

i also think that much of moving and great religious literature relies somewhat on an identification with struggle and trial, and while the history of mormons and the mormon church certainly has adversity to spare, i feel like the mormon ethos is one of triumph over trial instead of self-identity in trial. some groups of faithful people live in it, weather it, make it a critical piece of their identity and experience. mormons tend to conquer it and move on. this is not to say that one is right and one is wrong and, as with most things, a balance between the two is probably the best. but endless optimism doesn't always make for reflective, heart-wrenching fiction. (unless that fiction involves true love and vampires.)

another theory is that the mormon ethos is one of practical production, not artistic self-indulgence. we are CEOs, not novelists! there is a sense of urgency about earning, doing, leading, progressing, moving up and on that can stifle the more quiet, and often less tangible work of thinking and creating.

most of all, though, i think mormons still worry about being weird, and the thought of putting the intricacies of a spiritual experience that most people find bizarre at best, and sacrilegious at worst, out into the world whether as a piece of fiction or something else is, frankly, terrifying. the truly religious experience is hard enough to put into words that other people who have not lived your life can understand. and harder still when you feel that your life is so much different from everyone else's.

well, it turns out i was not the only person thinking about this.

just yesterday, slate ran an article asking the same question ABK did: where is the great mormon novel? the author, a mormon himself, offers many similar theories to my own about the lack of great mormon fiction, and provides some additional postulations as well. mormons are too uncomfortable with ambiguity and imperfection to write great fiction. they find a willingness to ask questions is threatening. mormons are unwilling to look beyond their conventional selves. major detractors suggest that the absence of great mormon fiction writers (sorry, stephenie meyer), is proof that one cannot be intellectually serious and a mormon at the same time, though i take major issue with that particular claim.

i think the author hits the nail on the proverbial head when he says, "a great mormon writer might change how the religion is perceived in the wider culture. if that writer drew on his own background in his work... he could help humanize a group of people still regarded by many as peculiar."

but i think the honest truth is, we are all still too sensitive about, and afraid of, our peculiarity to try.

what do you think? am i up in the night here? and is there a great mormon novel we are all missing? (no nominations for orson scott card, please.)


PNRBAC said...

Interesting post my dear. I have to ask what your definition of "seminal piece of literature" is. If you mean purely fictional, I know several best sellers written by Mormons. If you mean historical fiction, I also know a handful of great ones. Please define further. Maybe it would help if you listed some NON-mormon seminal pieces of literature to set the bar. Are you a looking for a book ABOUT Mormons or simply WRITTEN by a Mormon? Is it a Mormon Jane Austin you are looking for or a Mormon C.S. Lewis...or am I way off in left field?

suvi said...

dear frances! I just read this article yesterday too, and I had that very conversation with a friend of mine in Brooklyn as well about why there isn't a great Mormon novel (I vote that he writes it).

I agree with you that I think that the religion is too young to have developed a culture of writers in the way say, the Jews have. Also, great novels often deal with conflict and sorrow , but we Mormons look forward with a hope in the gospel, with even the sting of death swallowed up in Christ. It's a great life attitude, but certainly doesn't bring the same tension to works of literature that say, a Chaim Potock or jonathan safran foer does. We like happy endings because our doctrine is essentially a happy ending. I also think that when presenting a story, we tend to over-explain the Mormon parts because we are self-conscious about being misunderstood, because of the lack of accurate information about mormons that the general public has, and we have such a strong missionary culture that it would be almost impossible for a good mormon to write a piece of work without thinking that it could impact someone either positively or negatively about the church (we are always told that you never know who is watching you as a representative of the church). Along that same vein, i disagree that Mormons are afraid to ask questions. i think that we do ask questions and are encouraged to do so-- we just are not very good at being public about our questioning.

Anyway, it's an interesting thought and i so look forward to that day when i read a novel by a Mormon, can see my culture reflected in it, and I don't feel like there is an awkward tension, like the author is either preaching or apologizing for it. And it isn't about vampires or another type of young adult novel. One day. I think it is possible.

steve said...

Glenn Beck.

'nuf said. Nothing BUT fiction comes out of that assclown's mouth.

okay, but on a more serious note, I know that a lot of people snub fantasy and sci-fi, but I think you may be selling a few authors short. Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance and other fantasy novels) and Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game and other sci-fi novels) have both sold more books than you and I ever will. No... they're not the "Mormon Steinbeck", but their work is notable.

Anna said...

Interesting post that has left me thinking, so I'll respond more later, but as a side note, funny to see that the author of the Slate article you included is my cousin. That was unexpected.

FJ, you are missed in SLC.

PNRBAC said...

I have actually thought about this post a lot lately. And I have another idea. You mentioned that maybe a reason a book like this doesn't exhist is because the mormon culture is in it's infancy compared to other denominations and religions all together. But could it also be that there IS a great piece of literature already written by a mormon that hasn't had a chance to age? If I remember correctly from my Jr. High art class the art of Vincent Vangough wasn't considered brilliant masterpiece work until AFTER he died. It seems like as the classics age they become better, like wine and cheese. So, not to say that mormonism is young (when it is in fact very ancient) but to say that mormon BOOKS are young may also be appropriate. Maybe we need to wait a few decades to see which books can stand the test of time. Just a thought.

Susan said...
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