Mormon LitCrit: Public and Private Selves in Fiction

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.

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6 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Public and Private Selves in Fiction

  1. Wm Morris says:

    I don’t disagree, but I also think that we need to use our center as a way to critique (in the best sense of that term) the broader culture.

    And I also wonder about our church-going, best-face public selves — I don’t see them as inherently shallow or as the tithe of mint. There’s a lot going on there (and not just hypocrisy or insecurity or whatever). It seems to me that the relationship formation and minor tweaks to how the Gospel is understood and talked about and the cultural mores formed and expressed is important and interesting and possibly not boring to write about.

    “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.”

    This is a great sentence, Jack. I like it very much.

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    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.

    I think Th. thinks I did that pretty okay.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    (Nice review, Moriah. Congratulations.)

    All this is so much easier said than done. We can talk a blue streak about mining the rich center of our Mormon faith for stories that enlarge us, but doing this–stripping away the stereotypical, or the safe–is nowhere near as simple as all our talk makes it sound. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I bring it up because I think our discussion should include *how* to write such stories.

    Writing such stories is not only difficult, it takes real courage. To date, much of our literature that has been considered brave has, in my opinion, not been brave at all. I think of Evenson’s _The Open Curtain_. Not brave. Maybe daring, because certainly his representation of blood atonement ruffles feathers. But brave? Exposing cultural or doctrinal hypocrisy or wrongdoing is easy, speaking relatively. Its easy to write stories that show that the bishop is a hypocrite and the relief society president is petty. There really is nothing revealing of the human soul in such scenarios. Don’t we all understand that Ward members are sinful? No big revelation. Where’s the growth?

    IMO, a writer who wants to write from the center of faith must learn that s/he must tear open his or her own soul and face whatever is found there. What is brave is taking what that writer finds and transforming it into words that are naked, revealing, honest, painful, humiliating and, yes, joyful. We need to be as unashamed of our positive attributes as our negative because the two together are who we are. Maybe a writer can’t begin to approach that rich center of our faith until he or she truly understands the great irony that good and evil are partners, not enemies, and that together they shape us, that we embrace both, that we need both. Faith has never existed without doubt, and doubt can’t exist without faith. There is no right/wrong in that, nor is there any give and take. It simply is. To achieve this, a writer must be as willing to reveal each about him/herself with the same degree of honesty.

    Jack quotes Angela, who hopes “a great Mormon literature will … hold a mirror” up for us to see ourselves. On one hand, I like what she says, but I also sense in the statement a potential error in writerly thinking. In her statement, I hear the implication that the writer’s job is to hold that mirror up so that others see themselves. In my thinking, the writer should not worry about showing anyone who they truly are, mirror or not. Why? Because that somehow exalts the writer over audience, a tendency, I think, that leads towards self-deception and dishonesty in the literature. I think we are in a wider literary period that shuns the writer-as-teacher/preacher, and for good reason, but Mormon lit hasn’t been as quick to embrace this. Or maybe this is what I wish literature is. Regardless, when I read, I don’t want to see myself in a mirror so much as discover myself in the narrative. As a writer, the only way I know to write a narrative that allows for reader self-discovery is if the narrative is my own process of self-discovery. How do I feel about death? Sex? Relationships? Money? Faith? And so on.

    So for me, writing from the rich center of faith requires us to be expert in self-awareness before we are expert in storytelling. Sure, storytelling is difficult, but it is relatively easy to tell others the truth about themselves. What is difficult, what takes genuine courage, is telling others the truth about yourself. Mormons are better at doing this through the personal essay. Why we have trouble moving that honesty into our fiction is perplexing.

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    Thanks, Lisa.

    Exposing cultural or doctrinal hypocrisy or wrongdoing is easy, speaking relatively. Its easy to write stories that show that the bishop is a hypocrite and the relief society president is petty.

    I don’t know the particular work you cite, Lisa, but in general, I have to agree 110% with that.


    Now, in my case, it was no great stretch to write what I did. Basically, I got mad. And when I get mad, I do something about it. I’m coming from a place of wanting to read about ME. No genre and/or cultural library has ever given me what I want in terms of reading about ME, and I got tired of not seeing ME. And, in at least one circle on my personal Venn diagram of ME, all of YOU are ME too. And all of YOU have been complaining (and still are) that there is no good representation of US.

    But that’s only one of MY circles on MY diagram. There’s that steamy circle of genre romance and erotica and the happily-ever-after. And that philosophical/political circle of blatant libertarianism. And that rococo circle of angst!money!fashion!melodrama!soap!opera! And so I wrote that. And I published that.

    And a funny thing happened. Somewhere in the middle of my Venn diagram I collected a bunch of nonmember readers who just really like the world I created and who are not only eager to see where I’m going to take them next, but willing (expecting to) fall in love with them. (You know you’ve done your job right when your most liberal [and atheist] fans tell you you made them fall in love with a Mormon bishop.)

    How do WE write US? WE write it fearlessly. WE write three-dimensional characters and let them peel back the layers of our culture.

    I love Sheri Tepper’s work. Love it. She preaches. Her entire oeuvre is one long screed after another of philosophies and concepts I don’t agree with. And you know what? I love it anyway because she is BOLD in her preaching, and she gives me, Random Reader, credit for being able to accept the characters and stories for what they are. Her worldview becomes her characters’ motives and I understand their motives and it makes them and their actions make sense.

    Tepper is THE author who gave me “permission” to write boldly, to write ME. Without apology. If she can write stories I love with underlying philosophies I can’t stomach, why can’t I do that for others?

    Why can’t any of us?

    Andrew’s post at AMV elicited some responses that didn’t surprise me. I, too, thought Andrew was a bit…disappointed?…that there was such a paucity in adult fiction writers in his list, but a commenter took exception to his tone. You know what? I’m disappointed, too. (Surprise.)

    Where are the adults? Where is the adult fiction? Why is our tribal oeuvre 90% young adult/middle grade, sci-fi and fantasy? Why is another 7% genre romance with no religious references at all? Why is another 2% in other genres with the same lack of faith?

    Where are these titles that show ME and MY culture? I’m not 17. I’m not 10. I don’t fly a spaceship or live in a dystopian society (yet). I’m not a hobbit, elf, dragon, vampire, werewolf, random paranormal creature, nor do I hang out with any of those types. I’m also not faithless, agnostic, atheist, or lacking personal philosophies.

    I’m a 40-something active Mormon woman with a faith AND a life AND a libido AND other philosophies AND temporal ambitions that have nothing to do with eternity–just like the real-life Mormon women I know. And I don’t want to have to cut through any more metaphor or symbolism or allegory or veiled doctrinal references to get a hint of a whiff of ME and MY culture.

    The only book I know of (besides mine) that shows ME is Angela’s. Brilliant book. My only complaint is that it wasn’t put out there for national marketing and consumption. It deserves to be in the national marketplace and not relegated to the most remote corners of the most remote niche of the bloggernacle. It’s not even at Deseret Book.

    Our Shakespeares. Our Miltons. Pffftt. But not for lack of talent, that’s for sure.

    Mind you, this is not to say YOU should go out and write US if that’s not what you’re moved to do. Nobody should do that. But this is a board full of writers. If there is a writer who has a pressing need to see US (and there must be because the complaints are getting more frequent), then take up a pen and WRITE IT.


  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    Lots of good thinking, both in Jack’s original post and in the follow-up posts.

    I like a lot of what Lisa and Moriah are saying. For me, it was Dave Wolverton who showed me that since people care about ideas, stories about characters can also be stories about ideas. (I also like Sheri Tepper, FYI, and almost succeeded in getting her out to the BYU sf&f symposium one year…) I also think that while courage may be needed, it’s not so much courage in confronting social expectations as courage in looking inside ourselves.

    While I agree with the need for genuine characters, I also agree with William that part of that genuine behavior occurs in groups and in Church settings. We are inherently social creatures. I’m suspicious of hierarchies that put the private over the public. Is it not possible to be self-deceptive and hypocritcal as well? It’s also become something of a cliche within the broader literary community to see formalized religion as inherently shallow, and individual spirituality as inherently more genuine. I think, though, that Gene England had a point in claiming that our wards are one of the crucibles of individual faith and a true practice ground for Christian charity (thinking about his essay, “Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel”).

    In all this, I don’t think I’m really disagreeing with Jack about what constitutes good fiction. But I think I am disagreeing with the way it’s stated. I don’t think that focusing on people’s “social selves” is really the culprit when it comes to bad Mormon fiction. Rather, I think it’s simply poor characterization, whether in a public or private setting — and shying away from writing that talks honestly about the things that really matter to us.

  6. Th. says:


    How exciting to find such a vigorous discussion and discover I agree with everybody!

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