I recently revised an essay on transnational Mormon novels after an editor requested that I clarify my definition of the Mormon novel prior to publication. His view was that the Mormon novel was not a distinct genre, as I had suggested in the article, but rather a thematic concern that any author could address, regardless of his or her background or beliefs. I took this to be a valid point, but I felt like it sidelined the crucial role community plays in the creation of art and culture. For me, after all, Mormon themes would not exist without a community of people giving them life, shape, and direction.
Here is how I clarified my position on the matter:
Because novels have been written by both Mormon insiders and outsiders, what qualifies as a “Mormon” novel remains ambiguous. The existence of different Mormon faith traditions independent of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also complicates the matter.
Throughout this essay I refer frequently to the Mormon novel as a distinct genre. I do so to understand it as a cultural product of the Mormon people rather than a product that views and treats Mormonism as a thematic concern alone. In doing so, I seek to distinguish works by and about Mormons from works about Mormons from those with no cultural or ideological ties to the community. For the purpose of this study, therefore, the Mormon novel is any novel produced by a writer to emerge from the Utah Latter-day Saint tradition that demonstrates an overt investment in Mormonism in its content and themes. While this definition remains inadequate on a number of levels—where, for example, would Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game or Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint fit within this definition?—it draws a clearer line of demarcation between works like Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, say, and David Ebershoff’s The Nineteenth Wife.
What do you think? Am I being unfair to the thematic camp? Is community affiliation really that necessary?