Category Archives: Theory

Community and the Mormon Novel

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?

Rereading “Prophets and Assimilationists”

This is possibly the first in a series of posts that respond to and reevaluate essays in Orson Scott Card’s A Storyteler in Zion: Essays and Speeches. 

Shortly after I returned home from my mission, I purchased a copy of Orson Scott Card’s A Storyteller in Zion: Essays and Speeches at the BYU-Idaho bookstore. I was already semi-familiar with Card’s work from reading Saints and Folk of the Fringe before my mission, and, because I wanted to write fiction, Storyteller seemed like the go-to text for learning how to write fiction as a Mormon. I must not have read much of the book, though, because most of the essays in the table of contents seem new to me today. Was “Walking the Tightrope” really in there before?

The exceptions are Card’s essays “The Problem of Evil in Fiction,” which was fundamental in my early education in creative writing as a Mormon, and “Prophets and Assimilationists,” which resonated a great deal with me as a recently returned missionary. Specifically, I was impressed by Card’s unequivocal condemnation of those who chose the “World” and its standards over the “Church” and its standards. Also, his denunciation—practically an exposé, it seemed—of contemporary American literature and critical theory rang true. For me, Card wrote as a real Mormon iconoclast. When he asserted that “the true revolutionaries within the Church are those who are radically orthodox, not those who are loudly assimilationist,” I was ready to take up the cause and follow him (155).

Rereading the essay more than a decade later, I am still impressed by Card’s passionate defense of radical orthodoxy, but I don’t feel the same fervor to second his opinions about Mormon assimilation as I once did. I see now, after all, that “Prophets and Assimilationists” is less a carefully-crafted essay than a rather anecdotal response to what we might call Free-Press Mormonism, making the essay something of a forerunner to the twenty-first-century Mormon blog post. As such, it relies more on emotional reaction than solid reasoning. It is an essay of and for a particular moment and nuance seems to have been the price Card paid for the moral urgency of his tone. Furthermore, it is grounded on a number of assumptions that seem weak or inaccurate. For example, Card posits a clean line between those who follow the counsel of prophets and apostles and those who seek, as he puts it, “to change gospel ideals and customs until it is possible to be a ‘Mormon’ without ever having to go through the embarrassment of being different from the non-Mormons they admire” (153). For Card, people seem to fall into one or the other camp based on their spoken or unspoken desires, with apparently no middle ground. It is simply either Church or the World.

Continue reading Rereading “Prophets and Assimilationists”

Mormon Tragedy Revisited, Part II

Since finishing my post on Mormon tragedy for Dawning of a Brighter Day, I’ve been thinking more about the relationship between authors and characters. As I stated in the post, Mormon tragedy is (likely) only possible if we are willing to damn our characters–by which I mean I think we must be willing to let them step off the path towards exaltation and stay there. Following the essay I cited by Adam Miller, this stepping off can have much to do with the way  characters respond to conflict: do they face them in the present moment or do they reject and flee from them? Tragedy, I concluded, occurs when characters run from the grace of Christ–or that which has the potential to redeem them.

If this is the case, I don’t see a great deal of tragedy in Mormon fiction–at least among primary characters. Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House, for example, is one of a Mormon literature’s best studies of suffering and pain, but it’s ultimately hopeful message, which affirms everyone’s dependence on grace, makes it a somber comedy. The same is likewise true about Levi Peterson’s The Backslider and Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises (the latter being a kind of rewriting of the former), as both novels depict the journeys of characters who step off and then return to the path of exaltation. Indeed, if there is any Mormon novel that affirms the sanctity of the present as givenness, it is The Backslider and its life-affirming and life-advocating Cowboy Jesus. The same is true for Steven Peck’s often bleak A Short Stay in Hell, which, despite its rather tragic feel, ends with Soren Johannsen’s affirmation of purpose in his search for way out of the hell in which he finds himself.

Continue reading Mormon Tragedy Revisited, Part II