Mormon LitCrit: On Envying Jewish Lit

Two weeks ago, my wife and I received a complimentary copy the Winter 2011 issue of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies because we have an article about Joann Sfar’s Klezmer published there. About a week before that, as it happens, I’d gotten an acceptance notice from a literary magazine called Drash: Northwest Mosaic for a cycle of microfiction stories about immigrants I’d written structured around the Jewish liturgical calendar. One of the reviewer comments included this intensely flattering passage: “A story for me is great when you start reading it out loud, as if the words just take your vocal cords and undo the silence so you can hear the words twice… from silence to sound.  A cantor would know this well.”

It’s true that the grass always seems greener in the field next door, but it’s pretty easy to argue that the grass is actually, objectively far greener in Jewish lit than Mormon lit. After all, there are roughly the same numbers of Jews and Mormons in the world, but a lot more successful Jewish writers. I don’t have space to describe all the advantages Jewish lit has or appears to have, but odds are you’ve thought about and actively envied at least a few of them. Maybe you’re secretly a bit jealous that Jewish lit has fairly widespread institutional support from universities (Shofar, for instance, is published by Purdue) and from congregations (Drash is published by Temple Beth Am). Or maybe you’re more jealous of Jewish lit audiences, audiences which include Jews who say say nice things involving cantors about your work, Jews who live up to the stereotype of loving books and/or a good, long debate more than just about anything, and which include many millions of non-Jews who are drawn to Jewish stories (something which the Jewish Daily Forward‘s Menachem Wecker thinks may be especially true of Mormons).

You are not jealous, I am sure, of the Jewish lion’s share of Holocaust suffering, but perhaps you have noticed that wrestling with the Holocaust explicitly or implicitly is a cornerstone of contemporary American English-Department thought. You may be more jealous of Jews’ ability to claim several thousand more years of history than we typically do, of their symbolically and narratively rich holiday traditions, and of the many literary and other intellectual prizes my grandfather always used to remind my siblings and I that Jews have won and Mormons have not.

Maybe you’ve cautiously hoped that Jewish writers can be a model for Mormon writers on how to write cultural particularity, even peculiarity, in a way that taps into deeply human themes a broad audience can access. Or maybe you’ve considered, in a fit a desperation, writing a Mormon story and then doing some rewrites to quickly pretend your characters are simply part of a small and unusual sect of Jews.

But green as the grass is in the field of Jewish lit, is there any reason to be thankful for what we have as Mormons?

After my father mentioned how interested he was in reading Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, my wife and I got into a discussion about Chabon and Joann Sfar, whose work we wrote about for Shofar. Both are imaginative, critically acclaimed writers who, as my wife put it “are deeply invested in Jewishness but not at all in Judaism.” Sfar, for instance, openly attacks the idea of conflating religious observance with Jewish identity. I’m not sure if Chabon is as direct on the subject, but he certainly isn’t attached to traditional religion in life or his writing. The same could be said of many famous Jewish writers–and while I’ll admit to a little jealousy that the list of famous Jewish writers who fit into this particular grouping is still far too long to make in a mere blog post, I can also say: is it all that bad that religious Mormons don’t have to worry about competing over identity with a Mormon Michael Chabon?

In a series of emails with William Morris last year, I noted that maybe it would be more productive to use a migratory tribe rather than the American categories of ethnicity or religion as a model for talking about Mormonism. We are a community in which religious identity and activity are of paramount importance: you maintain the identity when you keep moving with the tribe–it’s extremely difficult to establish an identity based in non-religious Mormonness.

I realize, of course, that for some Mormon writers, the Judaism-Jewishness distinction is yet another reason to envy Jewish writers. If I’m honest, though, I’m fairly happy that my identity as a Mormon is both necessarily attached to my participation in a community and necessarily religious, that it is negotiated primarily by prophets and bishops, by Mormon mothers and fathers in Family Home Evenings with their children, and that would-be Mormon Chabons and Sfars and Roths don’t get much a voice in it.

If having a more accepted literature coming out of our community would also change the way Mormon identity is negotiated, maybe it’s just not worth it. Maybe the admittedly green grass out there has its drawbacks, and it’s not ultimately worth envying writers who lucked into being born Jews.

What do you think?

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36 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: On Envying Jewish Lit

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    This is only marginally literarily related in that I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with a fairly accomplished writer (occasionally of some Jewishness).

    He asked me what I was and I said, “Mormon.”

    He beamed and said, “I love Mormons! Because you love Jews! And I’m a Jew!”

    I said, “Yes. We have a cultural crush on you.”

  2. Th. says:

    .

    We certainly do. I even talked about that in some of the MFA apps.

  3. Wm Morris says:

    We should do an AMV/AML crossover episode based on that discussion, James. Kind of like what I did with Stephen Carter and The Red Brick Store on endings but with a bit more depth.

    —-
    I don’t know that as things currently stand, and if we’re talking about contemporary literary fiction, that we’re that far apart. Yeah, I’d take Chabon and Roth over Evenson and LaBute and Walter Kirn, but once you throw in Brady Udall. Well, I really like Chabon’s work so maybe still not.

    Point is: I don’t know that we’ve yet leveraged or distilled or crafted our socio-historical and religious materials in a way that really let’s us know if we should have envy or not. And to me that’s very exciting and interesting.

  4. “You may be more jealous of Jews’ ability to claim several thousand more years of history than we typically do….”

    I beg to differ. We may not claim that many years of history blatantly or even overtly, but we do claim that what we believe and practice was believed and practiced by Adam, and again and again by several others down through time.

    We’re only “new” or “young” because that stuff has to keep being restored. It may not be continuous, but it is ancient.

  5. Angela H. says:

    James, I find this interesting in light of the recent announcement of Whitney Award finalists and the fact that Brady Udall’s _The Lonely Polygamist_ was excluded.

    You said:
    “We are a community in which religious identity and activity are of paramount importance: you maintain the identity when you keep moving with the tribe–it’s extremely difficult to establish an identity based in non-religious Mormonness.”

    I’m not exactly surprised that TLP was excluded from the Whitneys, but I admit to having a flicker of hope that it might squeak through based on sheer excellence. As I see it, there are only two reasons this ambitious, highly acclaimed novel would be excluded: 1. The novel itself has too much language and sex and was therefore deemed inappropriate for consideration and/or 2. Udall himself, in his own statements about the way he lives his Mormonism, isn’t “Mormon” enough for the committee. I’m guessing the novel’s exclusion is a combination of both factors.

    Again, I’m not surprised, but I am a little sad.

  6. How do you mean “excluded,” Angela? I just looked up the announcement about the Whitney Award finalists, and I can’t see anywhere that the committee says the book is excluded.

    I thought the books that made finalists were determined by the number of nominations. Are you accusing the Whitney Award committee of ignoring nominations for Udall’s book?

  7. Angela H. says:

    No, no. By “excluded” I mean it isn’t one of the finalists for General Fiction. It received the requisite number of nominations by outside readers to be considered for a finalist slot (see this list here: http://whitneyawards.com/wordpress/2010/11/14/whos-been-nominated-for-a-whitney/) but the committee makes the final decision about which five novels among those nominated in each category ultimately will be considered for the award. It doesn’t have anything to do with the number of nominations received. Here’s what it says on the Whitney website: “Any novel which receives five or more nominations will be placed considered an Official Nominee. Those Official Nominees will be evaluated by a panel of genre judges. Those judges will rate each novel. . . . The five books in each category that receive the highest ratings will be Whitney Finalists, and placed on the final ballot.”

    I’m not suggesting anything at all untoward occurred. I’m simply stating that TLP’s exclusion from the list of finalists can’t be about literary quality. It has to be about whether or not it fits the Whitney Award’s criteria for what is or is not “Mormon literature,” and the reasons it doesn’t fit those criteria are spelled out in James’ post. And that personally, I wish this weren’t the case. But I’m sure many other Mormon readers and writers would disagree with me.

  8. Angela Hallstrom says:

    Whoops. Included parentheses in my link, so it won’t work. Here is is again:

    http://whitneyawards.com/wordpress/2010/11/14/whos-been-nominated-for-a-whitney/

    And I also want to edit “Whitney Award’s criteria” to read “Whitney Awards’ criteria,” and tweak a few other things about that last comment, but alas, I cannot. Forgive me my typos!

  9. Josi says:

    As Angela said, a book requires 5 reader votes to become an official nominee. The Lonely Polygamist received it’s fifth vote a day or two before the deadline of December 31st (this might be a good nudge to vote for books you loved even if you think it’s a shoe in for the 5 votes :-). We got copies of the book and sent them to the judges who were unable to find a copy in their local library. I did get a (just one) complaint that felt it should not be considered due to both content and Udall’s public statement regarding his status as a member of the church when it was listed as official nominee. That person was told that we do not discriminate based on content or membership status. To our knowledge Udall is still an ‘official’ member of the church, and therefore his book was eligible. The commitee has NOTHING to do with the judges voting–all we do is coordinate the back office processes that have to happen for the program to work.

    The judges were given no rubric or break down of elements they were supposed to be mindful of–we simply asked them to read every book so they could cast a fair vote. Judging comes down to preference, and they are allowed to use any reasoning they prefer. I know some judges are critical of content, while others are more critical of writing ability. Yet others will be more strongly influenced by overall plot and character arcs. We are not prescriptive in how they determine what book they prefer.

    When the judges cast their votes via an online ballot, they are given a series of the same question: What book do you feel is most deserving of a Whitney Award. Each question has two title they choose between and every title is compared to every other title. The judging is anonymous, no one knows who voted for what. Once all the judges in each category has voted, the category poll closes and the votes are tallied. Because the questions are comparing each title to every other title, there is a ‘winner’ of every question. Thus, if there are 290 questions, there are 290 winners (there were more than that in YF spec–poor judges :-) the survey then ‘ranks’ the books according to how many ‘wins’ each title received via all five judges votes. The top five are finalists. There is no discussion among the judges or the committee as to whether or not a book should be ‘allowed’ to be a finalist. It either is a finalist via the results or it isn’t. When reading the ballots, two members of the Whitney Committee are present to verify the results are genuine.

    I would expect every judge has certain books they think would make a better finalist then the five chosen, but the award program is based on all 5 judges votes–no one individual gets to make those decisions in hopes that we more adequately reflect multiple viewpoints. We work hard to have a variety of judges for each category so that we aren’t getting the same ‘temperament’ in any one catigory.

    The only books disqualified this year were ones where the length did not meet the length requirements (50K for all but YF which is 20K) and those books that were written by members of the committee, and we listed those books on the website.

    I hope that helps clarify the process a little more. All that said, the Whitney Awards is still rather fluid, and many judges suggested another voting arrangement than comparing titles so this could very well change but for this year, and in light of the question regarding committee involvement in eligibility, I can assure you that the finalists are determined 100% by secret ballot submitted by judges.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Josi,

      Thanks for that interesting clarification. I didn’t know about the comparing-two-titles process. Was it that way last year as well?

  10. Angela Hallstrom says:

    Josi, thanks so much for the clarification. I probably shouldn’t have used the term “committee,” because I did realize that the Whitney committee is separate from the genre judges, and I see now that my use of the word “committee” could be confusing. What I meant was “the committee of people who decide each genre’s finalists,” not the Whitney committee itself.

    I do think you’re process is very interesting, though, and I can tell you all go to great lengths to make sure the process is fair. I didn’t mean to sound as if I’m indicting the committee itself or even the process; I know from firsthand experience running the Irreantum fiction contest that such things are inherently subjective. And I appreciate all the Whitney folks do. Generally speaking, I think the organization has had a big tent philosophy that includes all sorts of writers, championing critically-acclaimed national writers, Mormon market genre writers, and self-published literary writers all at once. That’s a wonderful thing.

    So the reason I personally feel a little sad isn’t because I think they Whitney Awards did anything wrong. You were entirely fair and above board with the whole proceeding. It’s that we can have an amazing novel like TLP that doesn’t get the recognition *I* feel it deserves in our own community. (Notice the emphasis on *I*!) I understand that many LDS writers and readers will disagree with me here, and feel very strongly that a novel with coarse language and sex scenes shouldn’t be held up as representative of the best Mormon literature has to offer. People have a right to draw such lines. I can also see how it would be tricky to ask all the people who are eligible to read and vote on the Whitney finalists to read TLP, too. I had to be very careful about recommending the book because I knew it would offend some readers—people whom I love and respect.

    But! If we’re talking about the best in Mormon literature for 2010? It still makes me a little sad that we’re overlooking one of the most important mainstream literary novels by a Mormon author in a long, long time. Can’t help it. And a little jealous of the Jews. :-)

  11. Josi says:

    It was a comparison vote last year too–for the judges. The Academy uses a ranked ballot where they simply put the books in the order of their preference. Again, they have no rubric or elemental ranking–it’s all based on what they liked which is what the Whitney Awards is–an award based on reader’s choice fiction written by LDS writers. It’s nice that between the many award programs for this market help to round things out for everyone–I think we all work well together :-)

  12. Josi says:

    Angela, I must have been typing when your response came in :-) I wasn’t offended by your comment, just wanted to be clear about how it works and the ‘blinds’ that we keep in place. I realize that it’s very easy to look at the program and assume that there is something funny going on–whether that be allowing judges to discuss books between themselves (which we don’t do, they don’t even know who each other are most of the time–but we’ve been accused of it) or telling them what we want them to weigh as the strongest points. I appreciate having the chance to clarify–we are transparent and have nothing to hide.

    I also see your point in wanting a book you consider great to get the recognition it deserves within the LDS market who’s readers would have some increased perspective on what seems to be the premise of the book. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say how this theory applies to TLP, but I wonder if the mainstream Jewish culture is as accepting of a Jewish book they might feel infringes on some of it’s values as would be readers from other cultures who aren’t offended by that infringement. I would consider most of the readers who nominate books to the Whitneys to be mainstream Mormons. Our judges and Acadamy members would be considered the same. So, assuming my theory holds, if the majority of readers DO struggle with the content to the point of not being able to see through it to the merit of literature–which is their right, as you said–then it wouldn’t surprise me that a book would not get the recognition that those people who can appreciate the literature through the content feel it deserves.

    I do have to say, however, that it was down right funny to me last year that the winner of Speculative was titled “Servant of a Dark God” and one of the Best Novel by New Authors was “I am not a Serial Killer”–all that for a Mormon award. It made me laugh.

  13. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Back to the Jewishness thing. I find myself sitting her wondering if the difference is less between Jewish writer and Mormon writer and more between Jewish audience and Mormon audience. These are new thoughts to me, and I wouldn’t die on this hill. But it does seem to me that most Americans are, generally, sympathetic toward the Jews. Certainly the ivory tower is. After all, our grandfathers and grandmothers risked their lives to liberate the Jews. So isn’t it natural that American culture and readers would be open to stories from the Jewish world, be they purely cultural or religious? The American gentile relationship with the Jew is positive. Christian Americans were the heroes.

    But here come the Mormons. The Mormons who’ve been perceived by many to be a thorn in the side of America since the faith’s inception. Polygamy. Separation of church/state (think Smoot). ERA. Anti-prop 8. The Exalted Man as God. Only our baptism counts. We’ll convert your kids and invade your private space with a tenacious knock at the door. The Mormons may just have a few hurdles to overcome in terms of charming the general American audience that post-Holocaust Jews don’t. Certainly anti-semitism is alive and well in America. No argument there. But compare how universities approach Jews and how they approach Mormons. One is favorable and one tends to not be, (she says based only on her impression, not on actual fact or survey.) We have some unique hurdles–hurdles that go far beyond the possibility of audience presuppositions–and I’m not sure that our biggest problem is lack of talent.

    And yes, I’m one who has looked to the 20th century Jewish writers for a template to guide me in how to write our peculiarities for the mainstream. Not ready to give that up, but jealous? Heck, they’ve been mining their stories for decades and we are only beginning to mine ours. I like where we stand. (And go, Udall, go!)

  14. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Let me reword this sentence: “I find myself sitting her wondering if the difference is less between Jewish writer and Mormon writer and more between Jewish audience and Mormon audience.”

    I should’ve written it thusly: I find myself sitting her wondering if the difference is less between Jewish writer and Mormon writer and more between how American audiences perceive Jews and Mormons.”

  15. Jonathan Langford says:

    I really like the Whitney’s 3-tiered system: open nominations, a jury to winnow down to finalists, and a large pool of basically everyone who’s currently active in the LDS literary community as a writer or bookseller (and many critics as well) and is willing to read all the finalists. It’s got to be a horrific burden on the judges (I’m a slow reader these days and find it hard to imagine putting that much time into reading that many books in that short a time), but so far at least, the system seems to be working.

    Back to the Jewishness thing (as Lisa put it): I don’t know about publishers, but my experience has been that non-LDS readers can be surprisingly open to a story that includes a rather large focus on being Mormon (something I’ve written about here: http://www.langfordwriter.com/blog/?p=428 and here: http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/writing-mormon-literature-for-a-non-mormon-audience). I’ve come to believe that a key is not focusing on the culture as a source of eccentricity (“those wacky Mormons”) but rather on characters who are both ordinary and deeply Mormon. Come to think of it, that is also (from what I’ve read) a characteristic of the Jewish-American literature I’ve read that’s appealed to me, including Potok’s The Chosen. I find the bits of Jewish culture fascinating, but what riveted me to the book was the friendship between Danny and Reuven and the relationship between the two boys and their fathers.

    I also think that we may not be fully appreciative of what have, in terms of Mormon authors. It’s true that a lot of the most successful Mormon writers haven’t written explicitly about Mormonness (Mormon culture and characters), but then that’s true of Jewish writers as well.

    Anyway. Time for me to post this comment and then take my lunch up to my daughter, who left it at home by accident when she took off for early-morning seminary…

  16. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Jonathan is, of course, correct about our casting of characters being of utmost importance when trying to reach any audience, LDS or non-LDS. But Mormons do have an insular way of thinking and many of us don’t realize that we are being offensive when we are. I’ll fall back to my favorite misogynistic novel, Rift, which I understand thru the grapevine was floated nationally and rejected. There is no way on God’s green earth a national publisher would pick up a book that painted the masses of women in this way, not that I think he came close to how LDS women in a ward truly are. But that’s probably not a good example because it shouldn’t be hard to write Mormon women as something other than harpies and bitches. But, for instance, the way we view family–the forever family. That requires temple rites and temple rites are insular. Only for Mormons. Most of us won’t touch the intimacies of the Temple. Writing a family tale that includes this very Mormon idea without off-putting those outside the faith is harder than most of us understand. Few of us try. This, again, is not a problem the Jews have, especially those Jewish writers who are cultural writers–and that’s nearly all. Like it or not, much of what floats our boats, much of what makes us who we are, has kept us running parallel to the mainstream, rather than as part of it. This is how our literature is running too. If we truly write our culture, we tend to run parallel, not among, the mainstream canon. If we don’t write our culture per se, we mix in better.

  17. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Consider Brady Udall, who has mixed into the mainstream. He didn’t really write his culture in TLP or even in Edgar Mint. The one is about polygamists and the other an American Indian who bumped into Mormonism as he looked for a better way of life. But even in Edgar Mint, his portrayal of an LDS family? Liberal democrats, the matriarch of which is a woman who was willing to have a sexual tryst. Certainly not unheard of in Mormonism, but, as far as representational realism of the Mormon experience . . . Well, it smacks more of the mainstream culture than the average Mormon family. Udall is close, but still no cigar, I think.

  18. Thanks for linking my Forward story.

  19. Th. says:

    .

    The books that Jonathan and Lisa are talking about are not, in my opinion, particularly hard to write. We just have to trust the national audience to be bright enough to understand them. This is where we can look to the Jews for ideas. Potok, as Jonathan mentioned, takes us right into the Orthodox community and I for one am happy to follow him even though some of the vocabulary and significances pass me by. It’s an immersing foreign world and that’s a happy experience for me.

    We hear constantly that the national publishers are unwilling to believe that Mormon worlds will interest the national audience and I imagine there’s some truth to that. But only some. A couple breakthrough authors and soon we’ll start hearing the phrase “the new Mormon book” in NYT reviews as if that were simply a thing.

  20. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Oh, I’m convinced the national audiences will respond to well-conceived, relevant books that are steeped in our culture. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading interviews with Potok and believe what he says about writing bridges between cultures is spot on. I highly recommend that anyone wanting to write our culture for the mainstream take a look at some of his interviews. Wise man. He understood what made him “other” and made the best of it. But he was careful in how he crafted it. Try _Conversations with Chaim Potok_ from the _Literary Conversations Series_. Its worth the money and time.

  21. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    And no, Th is right. Neither EM nor TLP was “hard” to write in terms of representing LDS culture. My point is that they skim the culture. I don’t beleive you can really get at the heart of what it is to be LDS by skimming over the doctrinal issues that make us very “other.” I mean, sure, do it and it’ll may have success, but it won’t be as deeply Mormon as The Chosen is deeply Jewish. What you’ll have is just another story that could be written about any small town (Rift) or about a Navajo foster kid in any family (Baptist, Episcopalian, etc). The quirks may very, but the story will be the same. To write a Mormon story that is uniquely ours is difficult.

  22. Moriah Jovan says:

    To write a Mormon story that is uniquely ours is difficult.

    Well, there I do have to disagree with. It’s not difficult. It’s SCARY.

    You have no idea the kind of email I get from LDSs who WANT to write those kinds of stories but are scared of what people will think and, ultimately, scared of excommunication.

    And don’t think I didn’t discuss the possibility with my husband before I published The Proviso. I still wonder if that’s in my future.

    Those stories ARE there. They ARE being written. I can tell you that. They’re just being written in the deep dark of the night and hidden in the deep dark recesses of their hard drives.

  23. Jonathan Langford says:

    I think it’s fine to write stories with characters who are Mormon, but whose Mormonness is only incidental to the main thrust of the story — though I agree that it’s better if such characters are portrayed accurately and not as cliches. I also agree that ignoring distinctively Mormon doctrines and cultural practices yields stories and characters that are only superficially Mormon. Lisa put it very well: “just another story that could be written about any” [fill in the blank].

    One of my complaints about Angels in America was that rather than engaging with “the peculiarly Mormon ideas that make homosexuality not merely a sin but also an eternal dead end,” Kushner instead depicted Mormons as more or less generic conservative Christians (except in the places where he wanted to riff on Mormon tropes in his own distinctive way) (see my review, http://mormonletters.org/Reviews/Review.aspx?id=4638). While there are universal elements of a story about a believing Mormon grappling with homosexual attraction, some elements of that story are going to be unique to a Mormon context: both the doctrinal context and the context of specific practices of the Mormon community. Example: one of the non-Mormon readers of No Going Back commented that she couldn’t imagine being willing, as a teenager, to talk with a bishop about her own sexual conduct, as the main character in No Going Back does. Instead of seeing this as a sign that the novel was unrealistic, however, she viewed it as a window into a different world: the world of a specific belief system. I can only conclude that for her, that depiction worked. (Apologies for harking back to my own book, but it’s my best source of available data on this point…)

    I guess I have two points here. One is that yes, if we’re going to write truthful novels about the Mormon experience, we have to deal with the specifics of that experience, including the doctrinal and cultural pieces that are different from other groups. The second is my belief that some readers, at least, will be willing to follow us there if we do it well — which I think includes an open and matter-of-fact depiction of those elements, not trying to downplay them or dumb them down for readers. This is something I think I’ve seen Moriah say as well, based on her experience. Yes?

    One place where I’m not sure I agree with Lisa is when she says that it’s hard to write this kind of story. In some ways, I suppose that’s true — but in other ways, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. If you’re writing about a Mormon character, how can you avoid writing about the things that make that person distinctively Mormon? Going through and genericizing things seems like a much more artificial exercise to me. (I find it interesting in that respect that several of my Mormon or ex-Mormon readers thought No Going Back was too Mormon to be easily followed by readers without an LDS background — but even when queried specifically on this point, almost none of my non-LDS readers have felt that way. Mormons may be easier for non-Mormon readers to understand than we often think.)

  24. Moriah Jovan says:

    The second is my belief that some readers, at least, will be willing to follow us there if we do it well — which I think includes an open and matter-of-fact depiction of those elements, not trying to downplay them or dumb them down for readers. This is something I think I’ve seen Moriah say as well, based on her experience. Yes?

    Yes.

    Here’s where I’m coming from in genre romance: Readers are tired of being spoon-fed the story. Everything’s explained. The characters don’t seem to have reasonable/sufficient motivations that drive certain tropes (e.g., the virgin heroine). The characters aren’t drawn three dimensionally. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there was lots more risk-taking, a lot more layered and in-depth stories, a lot more going on. Long-time romance readers have been tired of the same-old-same-old for going on 15 years now, because that’s how long it’s been since something “risk-taking” in romance has been the norm instead of the exception.

    So I’m going to springboard off my book, The Proviso, as a contrast of motivation for the trope of the virgin heroine:

    Heroine #1: 36-year-old virgin in 2006. Why? Because I want to make her one. But… Why? “Because I want to make her one” is not a sufficient answer. So I fiddled and diddled and tried to come up with reasons, which were all lame. The only way I could do this was to give her a strong motivation for deliberately remaining a virgin. Protestantism isn’t that hung up on it because, after all, they’re saved by grace, so, in essence, it really doesn’t matter. This is one way in which we part company from traditional Christianity.

    Too, remaining a virgin until marriage in spite of the difficulty of doing so is an incredibly important cultural expectation, over and above a doctrinal expectation. In other words, the culture surrounding this particular motivation is much stronger than that in any other Christian denomination.

    No genre romance reader (especially ones who are new to the genre and don’t know that there’s a long tradition/requirement of a virgin heroine) is gonna buy this unless I can draw the context around her. It also makes her eventual giving-in more powerful. (And her reaction to that is followed up on in Magdalene.)

    This one point made me realize that I couldn’t have a virgin heroine without actually delving into Mormonism. Generic Christianity, i.e., “religious reasons” wasn’t going to cut it, either, because she has possible excommunication at stake (although she hadn’t been to the temple). And if I were going to delve into Mormonism, I might as well just go all-out and trust the readers.

    That’s when I decided to also start layering the story, throwing in obscure pop and literary and political references as well as blatantly overt references to specific philosophies instead of couching them in vague terms. It’s also where Mitch (my widowed bishop in Magdalene) was born. After all, if I were going to put some of it out there, why not go all the way?

    So. All that said, most of my fans and beta readers are nonmembers. Very little has been said about the “Mormonness” of my books. The overriding tenor is that these are people who live in X culture and thus have Y motives for what they do, and in that context, they are entirely believable and three dimensional.

    That’s not to say all reviewers thought that. A few just thought “meh, soap opera – C+ – next!” and went about their business. But that’s instructive in this discussion because “meh, soap opera – C+ – next!” still didn’t expound on its Mormonness.

    My beta readers for Magdalene, again all nonmembers, liked a) the walk through our culture (the little things, the details) and especially liked it from the 1st person POV of the outsider, and b) having been given credit for understanding it even when they weren’t quite sure of the terminology, but could grasp the gist of it. One beta reader was confused about the references to all the businesses I have in the book, which led her to ask me to have an illustration, which led her to also ask for an illustration of church hierarchy. It was a stroke of brilliance I’d have never had.

    Our stories write themselves. We may as well be writing scifi/fantasy because the manifestation of our culture in our everyday lives is so foreign to people that they’ll take it on its face as worldbuilding, if nothing else. It was this realization to lead me to drop the idea that there is such a thing as the Great Mormon Novel, and instead adopt the idea of the Great Mormon Genre.

    The key is to build the characters three dimensionally and then give them to the readers and trust them.

  25. Katya says:

    We may as well be writing scifi/fantasy because the manifestation of our culture in our everyday lives is so foreign to people that they’ll take it on its face as worldbuilding, if nothing else.

    The more I learn about traditional sci-fi/fantasy worldbuilding (and subsequent world-explaining), the more I see the same techniques and patterns showing up outside those genres. My most recent experience was watching The King’s Speech and paying attention to how the screenwriter and director had to make it absolutely clear that divorce is a BIG deal in this culture without spoonfeeding the information to the audience.

    Good sci-fi and fantasy writers assume that their readers are smart enough to catch on without having every little thing explained, and their readers tend to rise to the challenge. I imagine that Moriah and Jonathan’s non-Mormon readers are rising to the challenge of being dropped into a Mormon world in the same way.

  26. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Hm. I’m not succeeding in communicating. I’m not surprised by anything Jonathan or Moriah say about non-member reaction to their books. I’ve read Jonathan’s work and am beginning to get to know Moriah’s work. :) Notice I said that to write a story that is “uniquely ours” is difficult. Moriah admits that her storyline with the virgin heroine has been done; hence it isn’t uniquely ours. And Jonathan’s NGB, is, in the end, a story about a religious kid and his homosexuality. Details are very Mormon, but Baptist kids face many of the same stresses. Forgive me, but neither of these is “uniquely ours.” Just coming up with an idea about something that is uniquely ours is tough. I did it once, in the 2007 AML short story winner “Clothing Esther.” (Since we’re all talking about our own work, I’ll join in). CE had to do with clothing the dead for the temple. That practice is uniquely ours in the Christian world. That experience couldn’t happen for a Baptist–not the way virginity might, or homosexuality. Writing those stories is hard and, as Moriah says, very scary. She mentions the fear of excommunication. I think I could’ve written CE in a way that would have gotten me called in–told too much of the temple, for instance. As is, I do mention the old school Initiatories and temple garments. It was very hard selecting what to put in, what to say, to craft it so there were levels of meaning for both endowed member and non-member that would be palatable across cultures. And yes, I, too, had several non-members read it and they reported positive responses that would embarras me to relate. (Good times.) I believe non-Mormons are interested in us. I don’t believe we are boring. I believe any story set in a Mormon context that is well-written can be well-received by the broader audience. But I’m also certain that writing deeply Mormon stories–stories that could *only* happen to Mormons–is very difficult. Unless the writer just doesn’t give a rip about his “standing.”

  27. Jonathan Langford says:

    Lisa,

    Thanks for the clarification. Given your definition, I agree that it’s very hard to find a story that could *only* happen to a Mormon. If I’m understanding you correctly, it sounds like few Jewish works would qualify as unique in that sense either. Certainly not The Chosen. Probably not even My Name Is Asher Lev.

    I remember reading a story once by Poul Anderson, about a woman who was telepathically bound to an alien who wound up sacrificing himself for the ship and being sucked into a black hole as a result — leaving her bound to him for the rest of her life, because from her perspective (due to time dilation) he would *always* be in the act of falling into the black hole, no matter how long she lived. And due to the bond between them, she would always be feeling that moment, no matter how far away she might travel. The thing that impressed me was that this was a story that could have been told *only* as a science fiction story (at least, so far as I can imagine). It’s a story about human (and alien) emotions, but one that absolutely requires the sf set-up in order to put the characters in that unique bind.

  28. Moriah Jovan says:

    Moriah admits that her storyline with the virgin heroine has been done; hence it isn’t uniquely ours.

    I take your point. No, the trope isn’t, but the culture surrounding her, motivating her, is. What she thinks about it, how she thinks about it, is. (Or, rather, I tried to make it so.)

  29. Lisa:

    For their recent book “American Grace,” Robert Putnam and David Campbell conducted extensive surveys on religious attitudes in the United States. One of their findings was that when people rate their feelings about other religious groups, Jews currently come out highest–followed by Catholics. (I think we may be at a point, incidentally, where all nine Supreme Court Justices are from one of these two groups.)

    Yes, intense Anti-Semitism does still exist among a tiny minority in the United States–being the most popular on average doesn’t protect Jewish buildings from being targets of violence more than most churches–but your hunch that American audiences are sympathetic to both Judaism and Jewishness is supported by recent research.

  30. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Oh, I’d put The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev as “uniquely theirs.” Who else has schools like the Jews? Who else but a Hasidic would raise a child in silence? Now the anti-psychology side of it, yes, that could be a problem a Baptist or Mormon kid had, but taken all together, I’d say it’s uniquely Jewish because of the Hasidism. Same kind of argument for MNIAL. Who else won’t allow art? That a child is stifled, okay. Any culture, but that particular problem…? Well, I can’t think of another culture that would have that. And its true. I don’t think most Jewish writers that I’ve read (which isn’t many and is limited to Americans from the 20th century) don’t write stories unique to their culture. Potok did. Malamud did some. But I’m no scholar on the issue.

    And, in case I haven’t been clear, I don’t really think we HAVE to write stories that are “uniquely ours” to be successful outside our culture. But I think it’d be hugely beneficial to the advancement of Moriah’s Mormon genre (in terms of breadth of audience) if we did have a few here and there. Because I think the “uniquely our” stories would develop an intimacy and trust with those who are “other.”

    And James, thanks for the interesting info. How did Mormons fair?

  31. William:

    Let’s ignore inherently subjective considerations of quality and focus on measures of popularity, public/critical attention, etc. As a very rough measure, let’s compare number of Google hits for the writers you mention:

    Philip Roth: 1.5 milliom
    Michael Chabon: 300 thousand

    Neil LaBute: 300 thousand
    Brian Evenson: 150 thousand
    Walter Kirn: 80 thousand

    Also tried “Jewish authors” and got 7.9 million hits. “Mormon authors” gets 850 thousand.

    Also as a point of reference for Labute, who seems to be the class-topper for writers with some Mormon experience: fellow playwright Neil Simon gets 3.5 million.

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  33. Moriah Jovan says:

    A large part of the reason Jews are seen favorably in the U.S. is because (in my neck of the Bible belt, anyway) evangelicals believe that Jews are God’s chosen people and whoever are on their side are on God’s side and thus, somewhat…ah…immune to His wrath.

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