When I tell people that I study Mormon literature, I usually get one of two responses:
1. From Non-Mormons: Really? I didn’t know there was such a thing.
2. From Mormons: Like what? Twilight?
In many ways, both responses are really just different ways of saying the same thing. Non-Mormons, of course, tend not to know much about the church in the first place–aside from its associations with polygamy and what they see on the evening news or HBO–so I’m not too surprised by their response. And, to be sure, I’m not that surprised by the responses of my fellow Mormons. While we generally know a great deal about our church and its doctrines, we don’t generally familiarize ourselves with the creative output of its members. We know the big names, but not the little ones.
Already I know some people are going to object. “I know Mormon literature is more than Twilight,” they’ll say. They get the Deseret Books catalog in the mail. They’ve hung a Greg Olsen painting on the wall. They’ve read (and enjoyed!) Glenn Beck’s most recent novel. So, there you have it.
Well, actually, there you don’t have it.
Admittedly, what I’m about to say may sound elitist, but it’s not (or, at least, it’s not trying to be). In fact, I have nothing against popular Mormon culture, or any kind of popular culture, really. I believe that culture is culture, popular or otherwise, so everything is worthy of consumption and study. (For the record, I’ve read and written seriously about all four Twilight novels and even cried while watching the film version of Charly.) However, I tend to lament (especially on long car ride or sleepless nights) that certain aspects of Mormon creative cultural are not more widely known and studied.
One such aspect is small-press Mormon fiction (I say “small-press” to avoid the more problematic and divisive term “literary,” although I readily recognize that “small-press” has its own problems). While these books are abundant indeed, few are reading them. I’d hate to have it said that Mormon fiction underwent a renaissance that no one noticed.
So, why aren’t they being read? For the moment, I’m not entirely sure. Some of it, perhaps, is their lack of visibility. You won’t find these books on the shelves of your local bookstores–at least not anywhere outside of Utah and Idaho. Another reason, perhaps, is content, since they tend to deal with themes and issues that don’t make for light Sunday reading. Also, judging from reviews of these books on Amazon.com, readers either see them as “too Mormon” or “not Mormon enough” (which seems to boil down to the number of four-letter words in the book, although I hope I’m over-simplifying things). Maybe, after looking more into the matter, I’ll have a better answer.
Of course, I’m new to these books too; in fact, it’s only been over the past year that I’ve begun to take them seriously. It could be that most of them suck (no vampire pun intended). However, what I’ve read of them is promising. If you want a good place to start, check out the short story collection Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, edited by Angela Hallstrom and published by Zarahemla Books.
Also, to be a better advocate of Mormon fiction, I’m going to be reading several Mormon novels and reviewing them here. I hope you will find the reviews useful.