Calling all ex-mormons: the Great Mormon Novel?

Arts Converts and Conversion Culture DAMU Literature

So, I’ve been reading a series of articles about the possibility of the Great Mormon Novel (the great fantasy of all Mormons since Chaim Potok came to the Jewish scene or since we all fell in love with that dairyman Tevye and his daughter)…some say that the Great Mormon Novel hasn’t happened because it is impossible. Others, perhaps very hopefully, disagree. (Also, A Motley Vision’s response and T&S’s summary). And since I know Chanson is very interested in ex-Mormon literature (she’s even gotten her own) and even has theories about Mormon literature , that got me thinking.

Actually, it was a quote from both articles I had read…as Wallace Stegner told Jerry Johnston of Mormon Times:

the “Great Mormon Novel” would eventually be penned by someone who was born in the church, left the church, then made it “part way” back again. [Stegner] seemed to think that would be a perfect vantage point. Being away from the church would give the writer perspective, while coming part way back would guarantee his empathy for the culture.

So, you can predict what I’m going to ask…

How about it guys? Which one of you is willing to go partway back to pen the Great Mormon novel? After all, you’ve heard it…the task is solely on us. The field is white already to harvest, yadda yadda. And fame and fortune and $$$ await us if we can actually do it.

This brings up the curious ultimate disagreement between Jerry of Mormon Times and Dallas at This Mormon Life…Jerry asserts there can be no Great Mormon novel because:

“A true LDS writer would not want to be on the outside looking in. He wouldn’t want to be defiant.

He’d want to promote the faith.”

Oops. So perhaps we are all prematurely disqualified. It gets better…

Without the blessing of the church, it would never really be a Mormon novel — anymore than “Angels in America” is a Mormon play.

So, truly, Provo or SLC or wherever the authoritative theological and cultural center of the church is must be on deck before you can have a Mormon play. Perhaps there is no hope for a Great Mormon Novel under these stifling constraints.

15 thoughts on “Calling all ex-mormons: the Great Mormon Novel?

  1. Yeah – I love “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce. He wasn’t mormon, however.

    I don’t think “the great mormon novel” is possible.

  2. Johnston writes that

    Great Catholic writers, like Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, could follow their muse and stay in the Catholic fold. They could give us all kinds of flawed and distorted character. They could write graphically about sin, reel off heretical theological speculations and even lampoon Catholic authority figures, yet remain in the bosom of their church.

    Did either of them really attempt the great Catholic novel? O’Connor didn’t write about Catholic characters. Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood” isn’t Catholic. I admit I haven’t read Graham Greene, only seen movie adaptations, but it doesn’t sound like he’s really writing about what it’s like to be Catholic. A better comparison for those two might be Stephenie Meyer, who writes about vampires (pretty much not Mormon) but still remains in the church.

    Also, Greene and Graham (and let’s not forget James Joyce, whose “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” gets my vote for the Great Catholic Novel, not that I’m an expert on Catholic lit) were writing when the Catholic church was 1600+ years old, as compared to 160+ years old. Call me overly optimistic, but I entertain a faint hope that Mormon literature might evolve somewhat in the next 1400 years. After all, Catholic literature has progressed considerably since St. Augustine wrote the first Catholic memoir in 398 a.d.

    Rather than Catholic literature, a better parallel for Mormon literature might be Puritan literature–particularly since Mormons and Puritans emphasize both reading and writing in ways Catholics don’t. Fan that I am of William Bradford (Puritan autobiography whose memoir “Of Plymouth Plantation” is actually a good read) and Anne Bradstreet (puritan poet, who was the first person writing in English in North America to see her work published), and as willing as I am to acknowledge that the prize for “Great Puritan Epic Poem” has to go to John Milton for “Paradise Lost,” I think the winner of the “Great Puritan Novel” prize just might be Nathaniel Hawthorne, and he didn’t dig his ancestors or play nice when he depicted them.

  3. the Great Mormon Novel would eventually be penned by someone who was born in the church, left the church, then made it part way back again.

    I was born in the church, left it, and then… well, uh, does going to the Sunstone Symposium count for anything? No matter. Of course you know I’ve thrown My entry into the ring. 😉

    I think it’s amusing when the Mormon Lit community frets over the idea that the “great” Mormon novel might have to come from a slightly outside the faith perspective — since I think, ultimately, they’d prefer to have a great Mormon work that glorifies God and inspires faith. But I think the whole “you’re in or you’re out” attitude of Mormonism is actually part of the problem (as I discussed in my post about the challenges and pleasures of Mormon Lit).

    That, and the fact that Mormonism isn’t that big or old (as Holly pointed out). Ultimately, the more monkeys you have sitting in front of keyboards, the greater the probability that one will produce something good.

  4. Holly #2 – I read “Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene. It’s about a priest in South America in a totalitarian country (I think) – yeah, it’s pretty Catholic. And also recommended.

    Mormonism (let’s face it) also doesn’t have a history of embracing the arts or great literature. That’s just my take. When you try to put clothes on the Rodin sculpture and don’t allow nude drawing at your university…and refuse to read D.H. Lawrence or “Tropic of Cancer” because it’s too scandalous (ok, I’m making that one up). It’s difficult to make the claim that you support the arts.

    And then you look at a sculpture by Bernini – the RC church has centuries of sponsoring the arts. Not really so much in modern times, but back in the day.

    Many faithful LDS will argue this point with me (that mormonism doesn’t have a tradition in some areas of the arts) – but that’s where I see it.

    And mormonism is very tied to the U.S. and North America. How many Catholic universities are there? In how many countries? It’s like comparing choices of theaters and restaurants in New York City vs. Columbus Ohio. NYC can support so many more restaurants and theaters simply because of it’s size and cultural traditions…

    I’m not saying that mormonism needs to grow more in order to have more opportunity to develop the arts…I just don’t think it’s possible within the current LDS structure. And when so much subject matter is off limits – like putting clothes on Rodin. Even “Twilight” has been taken off the shelves of Deseret book for being too “suggestive”.

    I’m just not sure it’s possible (the great mormon novel).

  5. As I wrote in my post, we don’t know if it is or isn’t possible. We won’t know until it happens and even then my best guess is that there won’t be universal or even wide recognition of its status (heck, every literary work of genius has had its detractors — esp. contemporary ones).

    So, no. No fretting here. And as the above post and many of the other posts and comments on this subject throughout the past decade or so have shown, taking up this idea never really gets us very far in terms of real “Mormon” critical discourse and instead tends to simply reflect the prejudices of the commentators vis a vis the institutional LDS Church and the “mainstream” Mormon audience.

  6. William — Sorry about the “fretting” line. I wrote my comment quickly, and that’s probably not the right way of putting it. You’re right, though, that it’s so difficult to judge that it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to tell whether it has happened or not.

    It’s an amusing topic, but I think it’s not one where we can hope to come up with a canonical answer or even any kind of consensus. As you say, the discussion says more about the commentators (me included, of course) than anything else. And, yet, I think that’s half of why the topic is so fun! 😀

  7. How Orson Scott Card must feel as he reads all this fretting and nay-saying. There are no “great x novels” where x doesn’t equal “human” and that is the crux of it in my opinion. As long as we strive for the so-called “great Mormon novel” we will never find it. When Mormonism becomes sufficiently liberal that a large number attempt to express the human without taint of dogmatic idealism then a Mormon might actually write what humanity could consider great. In the mean time it’s up to the ever-increasing apostate horde.

    As usual, those who call themselves Mormon fail to deal with the depth of human experience and sympathy for Mo and NoMo alike that only the apostate can know.

  8. I just read a really good Mormon novel–perhaps not THE GREAT Mormon novel, but an excellent book nonetheless. It’s “The Chosen One” by Carol Lynch Williams, and she has all sorts of ties to BYU, so the correlation committee might even approve of her. Yes, it’s a young adult novel and I finished it in two hours. But it was interesting and believable and really well written. My only concern with it was how someone who could portray polygamy that way could believe that Joseph Smith was anything but a philandering dog.

  9. There is a multitude of great Catholic novels because Catholics are comfortable with sin.

    The short version of the Catholic creed:

    ‘A sin is a sin. Human beings sin. Catholics are human beings. Therefore Catholics sin.

    ‘It’s bad because a sin is a sin but, deal with it, sinning is what makes us human.’

    That’s why Catholics can write great novels.

    By contrast, Mormons believe in being a poster board of their faith. General conference is so one dimensional, it’s a caricature of the human condition.

    There are Mormons who have a great relationships with sin. Neil LaBute’s prose is as that of any Catholic. Of course, the moment he penned the first line about Mormons, he was threatened with excommunication.

    It could have been a great thing.

  10. Look no further:

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/1560850035

    I read “The Backslider” as an exmormon, while attending BYU, and I loved every page of it. Incidentally, my ex-wife (a Mormon through and through) also loved it.

    The book is told from the perspective of a teenage kid (not too bright and not too righteous, but neither dumb nor villainous) and his struggles with religion, family, poverty, mental illness of a family member, etc. There’s lots of interesting conflict and sexuality. Throughout the book, the kid constantly wrestles with his beliefs, and it doesn’t have a nice, pat ending. Which is especially satisfying.

    Anyhoo, it’s a real page-turner, and I’d recommend it to anyone. In my opinion, it’s the ultimate example of the Great Mormon Novel.

  11. I was really interested in this post and all the links (and thanks for the reference to The Backslider, I will have to check it out!). I’m working on a novel (about two-thirds of the way done now) that is intended to be a literary take on having grown up Mormon and then leaving the church for philosophical reasons. And I’m really curious how many other “literary” (ex)Mormon novels are already out there and what they look like. I hadn’t found any models for the type of book I wanted to write (other than The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but then who can really model herself on James Joyce?!)

    I’m hoping my book will be The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance meets The Magic Mountain, with a dollop of Faust on top. Stay tuned! 🙂

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