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Literary Philistines and Great Mormon Novels

May 19, 2010

As certain as the summer is every year, so is the discussion of the Great Mormon Novel (and its absence.) Every time people bring up this topic again, I spend varying amounts of time looking over it. The reactions from believers. The reactions from non and ex-believers. I even dabbled in writing about it once upon a time.

…But, I recognize that I just don’t get the point and don’t think I did before. I don’t get why this is something people spend so much time about. I don’t get why everyone’s talking about a great Mormon novel.

Does the absence of such a great Mormon novel invalidated Mormonism as a culture? Does the presence of one validate Mormonism as a church? Does either absence or presence say anything about Mormonism as a religion? or as a way of living?

Seth R., a frequenter of all blogs relating to Mormonism (except his own) has gotten caught up in a debate on another one of my posts. I’m sure it must be somewhat frustrating for all of the participants involved (now that the discussion is over 200 comments), but it’s great for me to look over as it happens. In it, he has expressed what I think is an intriguing idea:

In response to an attempt at explaining why people find religions compelling from a nonreligious person, Seth wrote:

…people do not simply follow these ideas because someone told them to.They follow them because the ideas – in and of themselves – are glorious and powerful and speak to the greatest passions, longings, and aims of human identity. The ideas are powerful – with or without someone forcing them on everyone else.

I can see this. So, even though the particulars of what may speak to me, or what my longings are, or what my aims are as a human, may be different than what speaks to another, I feel there is a commonality at the foundation of what others and I are seeking.

Seth continues:

But Daniel, this ignores the fact that some belief systems are better and more compelling than others.

This is where the fatuous comparisons of God to Santa Claus fall on their face.

The idea of Santa Claus didn’t inspire the Sistine Chapel, Milton’s Paradise Lost, most of the works of Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Nor did it inform the American Revolution, Martin Luther King, and the Abolitionists. Nor does “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” stand up very well to Handel’s “Messiah.”

I agree with Seth’s argument as it relates to constructs like the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” and “Celestial Teapot,” (but I also believe that these concepts are not raised to try to equate inspirational impact.)

Nevertheless, Seth’s comment made me think. Some belief systems are better and more compelling than others, eh? The fruits of these are the inspiration and fulfillment provided from participation and immersion in the worldviews.

So then, perhaps there are other factors, but wouldn’t Mormonism be expected — if it were glorious and powerful — to produce works attesting to its glory and power? Wouldn’t these works become “Great” Novels?

Kyle has more to to say on this.

To support a generalization with another generalization, the best artists and writers are those that can create something beautiful from conflict, right? Take an inner turmoil, or a fear, or an insecurity, and turn that into something relatable. “The human experience” is one of wondering and searching, and the best art expresses that in a way that the audience can relate to. And while it’s not always true, there tend to be patterns in the backstories of my own favorite artists, which shaped them and pushed them to be who they are.

Here’s a third generalization: mormons tend not to fit those patterns. I don’t have any kind of hard numbers to back this up, but American mormons tend to come from middle class homes; the divorce rate is lower among mormons; education is stressed; family unity is definitely stressed; there’s a built-in social circle–I bet there is actually less loneliness during the formative years of mormons’ lives, either because of siblings or because of cultural bonds with friends at school. I’m painting with a very broad brush here, but you get the picture.

But beyond upbringing and cultural surroundings (the “nurture” half of the equation), there are psychological factors as well (the “nature” part). In terms of intellectualism, I think it’s ridiculous to say (as the Slate article kinda does) that mormons aren’t as smart or intellectually curious as average people–my congregation is full of scientists, grad students, investment bankers, and lawyers. But when it comes to the deeper questions of life, the questions of the soul–the questions that make for good lyrics and prose–mormons take comfort in the answers provided by their religion. As they should, right? I mean, aren’t those the questions that people turn to religion to address?

This doesn’t mean that mormons don’t soul-search or engage in self-examination–we just come to different conclusions, I think. Self-improvement and self-control are big themes in the mormon culture. That’s the simple answer to why there are so many mormon CEOs out there. But the self-assured striving that makes for a great CEO makes for a terrible songwriter.

I don’t think these fruits should be chastised. After all, material success and stability is great, especially when it’s grounded in an environment of self-improvement and self-control. But, for some reason, it doesn’t create compelling literature. I guess artists starve for a reason, while CEOs generally don’t?

But, now, I am beginning to see a little more into why the discussion on the Great Mormon Novel takes place. Could it be that we have an anxiety as Mormons? As part of this community, we want our experiences (whether inside or outside the church) to be validated…we feel that the beauty — and perhaps even tragedy — of our experiences is meaningful and can be meaningful to non-Mormons too. [So, I guess I can see why some people say the Great Mormon Novel must actually be a Great Ex-Mormon Novel.]

If Mormons are ignored or, even worse, found irrelevant, this hurts us even more than being persecuted does. If we are persecuted, we can believe that our theology is so powerful that it threatens the outside world. If we are irrelevant, then we risk our religion and culture being no more emotionally weighty than flying space china.

I guess it would be interesting to see if things change soon. Personally, I believe that Seth R, for all he talks about the glory of Mormonism (and he certainly seems to have an intriguing look on things, which pokes through whenever he is commenting on sites not his own) must be the one to write the Great Mormon Novel.

Ok, seriously? I don’t know.

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32 Comments
  1. Surely Orson Scott Card has written something which qualifies. I love Ender’s Game, but I don’t know how “Mormon” that is. Some of the later books are more Mormon-y than the first. What about the Homecoming saga? That’s basically the Book of Mormon in space.

    • My wife and I can’t read 1 Nephi without laughing now that we’ve read that book.

    • I dunno. Is Ender’s Game a “Great Novel” in the same way Grapes of Wrath is?

      I guess I feel there’s a bias against sci fi in particular.

    • Which is too bad – because Mormonism is great in space.

  2. I just came over from listening to the first couple installments of the Mormon Expressions podcast series interviewing Andrew Ainsworth.

    So maybe it’s unsurprising that I’m inclined to blame it on Correlation right now. There is undeniably a certain risk-averse banality to Mormon culture in the United States. Mormons are great ones for the classics (you’ll never find a place with a greater concentration of concert pianists than Provo, Utah). But forging ahead with new stuff and leading-out?

    Well….

    One thing I don’t think that the participants on that other thread caught was that my remark about the evidence for a religion being in its “fruits” was just as much a criticism of the LDS Church on my part as a defense of it.

    • I was actually thinking about the latest podcast at Mormon Stories — the one with Daymon Smith, that hits correlation and the idea that the church may be losing its focus and gaining a more “mammon”-like focus (and where Andrew Ainsworth was the interviewer)…how coincidental!

      Anyway, one of the things that AA asks Daymon: “But haven’t we tried that (the United Order, consecration, etc.,) before…and didn’t it not work out?”

      And Daymon says…well, sure, if you look at the way the world judges success, then of course it didn’t work out. But maybe those aren’t the same signs as spiritual success. He noted that there certainly seemed to be a lot more “big” spiritual experiences back then than we hear about nowadays.

      So, it seems that such a lifestyle (from a pre-correlation era), even if it appears to be a fiscal or economic failure, would have all of the ingredients necessary to produce spiritual depth while reaching to genuine human concerns.

      But yeah, I agree. Most people don’t seem to get that you most certainly don’t represent the “average” Mormon, whoever that ends up being…

      • No, it was Damon. I messed up the name.

        • but I think it would be pretty cool if MS or ME interviewed Andrew A. (It probably has happened…I just haven’t scoured through enough MS podcasts)

  3. Chris permalink

    Hmm… correlation vs causation. Creative types are everywhere. Would they have created great works of art regardless of their religion? Or was religion the cause of their creative work? Or did religion provide a venue of sorts?

    The larger an institution gets, the greater chance it has of snatching up a creative type.

    • I think conflict and strife, and the wrestle with those kinds of things inspire great art.

      I think religion is a great source of such conflict and strife. Not just externally, but internally. And it provides “languages” for people to try to wrestle with such strife. So I don’t think it is just the case that religious institutions are “snatching up” creative types who would be so creative anywhere they were.

  4. Thanks for the link/quotage. I think there is an element of trophy gathering in all this–“Hey, we’ve got a presidential candidate!” “Hey, a famous musician/actor is a mormon!”–and a Great Novel is another trophy we can display in the Donnie And Marie Osmond Memorial Trophy Case of Cultural Legitimacy.

    Of course, if one WERE ever to be written, it would cause an outcry within the church. Great Novels tend to examine and challenge, and our culture tends to get defensive when we’re examined or challenged.

    • I think this makes an interesting conundrum.

      If a great novel were written, it would be examined and challenged (I agree). But it seems like to have a great novel, such examination and challenge needs to happen in the first place. So, perhaps the defensiveness is another reason why we haven’t seen such yet.

      Although, with the other “trophies” we are getting (e.g., presidential candidates), the examination and challenge has been coming anyway.

  5. Goldarn permalink

    I don’t think a Great Mormon Novel can happen.

    The problem, as I see it, is that Great Novels are about a journey, and Mormonism seems to devalue the journey. You pray, and you get a testimony. If you struggled, you struggled for a few hours and then it happened. That’s the Official Conversion Story, and deviating from it is Not Encouraged. Even talking about your past sins is considered bad, because you might give someone the idea that they can repent of them instead of avoiding them.

    That’s the way I see it. Anyway, the argument is moot — the only way to prove that a Great Mormon Novel can be written is for someone to write the Great Mormon Novel.

  6. Doesn’t having a “Great Mormon Novel” actually just confirm our own marginal status within society.

    Kind of a patronizing – “hey, you guys may have lost the cultural contest, but here – have a trophy – you’ll make a great novelty item at parties!”

  7. Do you think “great xxx novels” are just “great novelty items at parties”?

    • Yeah, basically.

      • then why can’t we say twilight *is* the great Mormon novel and be done with it?

      • I’d prefer Orson Scott Card.

  8. nktrygg permalink

    1. as fro the Greatest WHATEVER novel – it’s not meant to exist, but represent possibility

    there are great novels out there that capture their times and big ideas – but the greatest of any culture – wouldn’t that pretty much be the end of the culture – our greatest should be in the future

    2. if religious ideas were actually compelling, then there would be no need to teach them to children, or be missionaries or go door to door or spread the word – the word would be out there – and there’d be one

    don’t you think it’s funny when someone claims an after death experience and they’ve been with the deities and they have a message that they never endorse any religion but want to sell you their own book?

  9. If math, or history, or “To Kill a Mockingbird” was actually compelling, there would be no need to teach it to our children and pay for public schools.

    Nice try though.

    Incidentally, I suggest if we’re going to argue this, we do it on the other thread. I don’t want to have to keep track of two different threads.

    • nktrygg permalink

      math, history and literature are compelling

      they are taught in school to ensure access to the material to everyone

      the ones who most enjoy these subjects continue to pursue them in off school hours and throughout their lives

      it is extremely sad to me that you don’t find any of the three major subjects compelling.

      is it because they don’t support your religious belief?

      • ???

        I think you need to re-read my comment.

  10. Dan permalink

    One of the qualities that makes literature great is the ability to create nuance. Protagonists with serious flaws and antagonists with shiny centers. I don’t think Mormonism is very conducive to this view. There’s a lot of black and white thinking – take the typical LDS attitude toward coffee drinkers, for example.

    In fact, an arument could be made that an individual Mormon writer could write a great novel, but a MORMON novel, by definition, is going to be flat and full of cariacture.

    • nktrygg permalink

      Dan

      that is a very interesting observation

      if you cant’ think in a nuanced way, then you can’t write it either

      I think it also explains why christian rock is so wussy, the mentality is the opposite of what rock is about

    • Psh. Mormonism itself is full of nuance, protagonists with serious flaws and antagonists with shiny centers. It is our history, our legacy.

      Even if you argue next that Mormonism whitewashes its history, I would argue next that the modern church, because of its history of correlation, is full of “nuance,” “protagonists with serious flaws,” and “antagonists with shiny centers.”

  11. A few points:

    1. The idea that Mormons or Mormonism cannot abide nuance is a silly, shallow trope that needs to die and shows absolutely no awareness of how Mormon literature has developed, nor its current state (and the state of associated art forms), nor the diversity among Mormons, even believing, active LDS. It also glosses over the inherent tensions in correlation as well as (as Andrew notes) the history of Mormon culture.

    2. As I mention in my post Why we need not worry about the Great Mormon novel, the “great” anything and specifically the Orson F. Whitney quote arise out of a specific context that is not unique to Mormons as an “ethnies” (of sorts) and that Mormons don’t need to worry about because we already have our cultural founding genius — Joseph Smith. That that is not acknowledge by either Mormons or the larger American culture is more of a function of the political-economic re assimilation of Mormons in to America than cultural development.

    3. I do acknowledge, though, that things get a bit complicated when it comes to authors who want to remain actively LDS and write works with a certain level of literary-ness to them (and to a lesser extent genre-ness). How different this is from any writer who is part of any ethnic, religious or national group is a complicated issue that I have yet to see a real good treatment of.

    4. I’d argue the complete opposite when it comes to Mormonism and journey. Progession is a central element to both the Mormon view and the classic boundaries of narrative art. Whether or not popular folk understandings of Mormonism accommodate that well is up for debate, but as a good post-modernist, I’d say that even any attempts at Mormon optimism and shallow happy stasis inhere in them the kinds of tensions and cracks and slippages that make for great literature.

  12. so, what exactly is a Mormon novel, anyway?

    a story with characters who happen to be Mormon?

    or is there a Mormon sensibility that would be reflected in the novel’s world?

    I think that might be the first step to determine if there could be a “great one” –

    and also, great for who? a Mormon only audience or a broader one?

  13. nktrygg,

    That is the big question.

    I think that it’s closer to a novel where there is a Mormon sensibility that is reflected in the novel’s world. (This may or may not be achieved with Mormon characters).

    And I think it would have to be “great” for a broader audience. The great Mormon novel, like the great (any) novel, is a coming out for a particular group. It explains that group for itself *and* to the outside world.

    • Interesting

      I would think a great novel is on the surface about a particular and unique group, but reveals universal truths about all of us.

      The movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” could be with very few – and mostly dialog changes – my big fat Ukrainian or Indian or Lebanese or Chinese or any group Wedding.

      Ditto for Whale Riders – could have been about group that’s stuck in that place between traditions and modern realities

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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