The latest issue of Irreantum features a fine essay by Doug Thayer entitled “About Serious Mormon Fiction.” One statement from Thayer moved me to think about the sources of fiction that might grow out of the Mormon experience. Thayer says future Mormon writers “are going to work in the rich center of the faith.” This made me wonder exactly where that rich center is. At least two possible answers come to mind for me—one that will lead to bad fiction, and one that will lead to better fiction.
First, the “bad center”—in regards to a source for real art.
Certainly Mormons believe in individuality and individual agency. We say a war in heaven was fought to preserve that! But perhaps when we think of ourselves as “Mormons” (plural), we take a step toward a group identity that involves generalization, self-censorship, and the desire to preserve a good public image for the church. It’s not bad to cultivate a positive group identity. But when it comes to art, generalized representations tend toward the propagandistic. In fiction, it leads to cardboard characters and easy answers.
I believe we run into trouble when we work with the generalized image of Mormons in groups. These Mormons are found (sometimes, not always) at the ward meetinghouse, on the home or visiting teaching visit, or in the family when we believe others are watching. These are the instances when we self-censor, behaving in the image of what we think others want from us. Ironically, this cannot be blamed on others, because we do the censoring ourselves. I believe God would advocate more genuine behavior among us. I believe He is just as frustrated with our moments of insincerity as we are.
In art, I think we err when we center too much on our public selves, our group selves. These selves go to church, serve in callings, wear nice clothes at meetings, and watch their language. These selves smile a lot. When asked “How are you?” they answer “Good, good,” even when they’re not. The smooth function of society may necessitate such public behavior (read Civilization and its Discontents). But in art, in fiction, we need characters that are more genuine. John Updike said that in fiction we should be as honest and intimate with our readers as we are with our own selves. That’s pretty honest, pretty intimate! It’s certainly more honest than we are in groups.
To put it bluntly, our public, church-going, best-face selves just aren’t very interesting. As Mormon individuals, the meaningful things we have to offer have little to do with the things we spend so much time emphasizing—outward appearances, church activities, or behaving according to social expectations.
Now the “better center.”
Our focus should be on our private, individual selves. The ward meetinghouse may be a good setting for a story, in fact, as long as it’s the setting for an individual, not a stereotype. And be careful! A stereotypical “jack-Mormon”—a rural, odd-duck, inactive curmudgeon—may be just as clichéd as a cover-of-the-Ensign “good Mormon.” Moving beyond stereotypes isn’t easy. When it come to rich and individual portrayals of character, I think it’s harder to write “good” characters than “evil” characters, because, as I’ve written before, goodness is fundamentally more rich and complex than evil.
So my advice for working “in the rich center of the faith” is to move characters beyond the public forum, beyond the meetinghouse and the public gathering. This is not easy for Mormons, as we congregate so often and so easily. I believe “the rich center of the faith” is found where John Steinbeck located it, in “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
As my friend Angela Hallstrom said to me in a recent email, “I think what a great Mormon lit will do is hold up a mirror to our own lives, culture, and theology, and help us to see them more clearly and more honestly.” Such literature will “Use the mundaneness of everyday life as a setting to explode and complicate our understanding.”
I once heard a critic refer to Mormonism as “the American cheese of religions.” Sadly, this makes sense when we look at ourselves and listen to what we talk about the most—when we’re talking to each other in groups. Meanwhile, our profound theology and our unique individualities remain ignored.
Interestingly, the way we err in art is analogous to the way we can err in our religion, by a pharisaic focus on the superficial. Jesus said in Matt. 23: 23:
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
Our church-going, best-face, public selves are the tithe of mint, the easy stuff. The real stories, the tough stories, are in the judgment, mercy, and faith of the individual.