Going Viral with Mormon Lit

I’ve just had a rather strange experience.

On Monday night, I wrote up a blog post in response to a New York Times op ed piece that was pretty negative about Mormonism. The NYT piece was really nothing new–the central point seemed to be that Mormons are naive, kooky creatures who just crawled out of some time capsule. Which I’m sure you’ve heard before. Maybe it was seeing it in the NYT that motivated me to respond. Maybe it was just that my mom had to go before I finished talking with her on the phone about it.

But whatever the reason, I wrote a response, and posted it, and put up a link on Facebook.

According to Google Analytics, over 17,000 people have read my piece since then.

Why did so many people read it?

Why is it resonating so deeply with so many of them?

And are there broader implications for Mormon Lit?

I really don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But it seems to me there’s a significant LDS audience out there who need to hear someone speaking their language. Who feel the pressures of being systemically misunderstood in a noisy larger culture and are thirsty for something lyrical and articulate that is grounded in the universe of values, experiences, and ideas they come from.

When we performed my play Prodigal Son nearly four years ago, people sometimes came to me crying after performances: not because of the story I’d created so much as for the way that story spoke to their own pain, their own struggles for dignity.

There are always people talking around us, anymore. Maybe it’s the feeling that someone is really talking to us that we crave. That moment when a piece of writing throws open doors of memory we’ve half-closed.

Maybe the audience for Mormon literature today is ready. Maybe they’re already seated, waiting. But are we ready to step out onto the stage?

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21 Responses to Going Viral with Mormon Lit

  1. Wm says:

    I’m not the best person to measure this by, but I certainly saw it pop up in my Facebook feed several times.

    I don’t know what it means for Mormon lit — a blog post takes less effort to read. Plus, who doesn’t love a good slamming of the NY Times?

    However, I do wonder, as you do if there’s a growing craving for some sort of Mormon ethnic pride and identity (ethnic isn’t quite the right word, but I’ll spare us all another 1,000 words from me on the weird situation Mormonism is in in relation to ethnicity/nation/religion/culture). And I wonder what it will take to make a work of Mormon narrative art to go truly viral.

  2. James Goldberg says:

    I hope it bodes well for the Mormon Lit Blitz contest. While the pieces for the contest don’t have the advantage of timely emotional stakes, I’m hoping that the ability to read something quickly online and share it with a few clicks means that more people will get to read the short works we’ve selected.

    I don’t know yet whether I think short online work will be important in paving the way for longer works or whether I think short online work will be the dominant form in successful Mormon Lit over the next decade or so.

    I mean, there’s no rule that Literature has to be code for Novels. Why not develop short forms into a greater art if they’re what people need and respond to?

  3. Wm says:

    Works for me. So far, I prefer to work in shorter forms.

  4. And I am hopeless at short fiction :/ Funny thing, my writing league wants to add the category “flash fiction” to our yearly contests and a lot of the older members are resisting. They say, what can you write in 500-1000 words? And we started talking about the shorter forms that have come about nowadays… I can’t remember the name for fiction that is less than 500 words. In a way I feel like short forms are great because they actually can improve a writer’s ability. Just wish I were good at it.

    I think we’re ready to break out. We just have to be willing to break free of some of our self-imposed constraints… ideas of what Mormon writers write, who our audience is, etc. I think a lot of people are doing great things in that area. I’m trying to figure it out, too… it can be very confusing and discouraging at times.

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    I hope that what you’re saying might be the case. Unfortunately, something I saw moderating AML-List is that even among those who supposedly have an interest in Mormon literature, we tended to get healthier discussions of just about anything that didn’t require people to go out and actually *read* Mormon fiction. I’m not convinced that interest in LDS culture, among Mormons or non-Mormons, necessarily has much to do with interest in reading fiction.

    That probably sounds cynical, but I don’t think it necessarily is. The essence of online media is the sense of conversational exchange with other people in close to real time. Going off to read a story or novel breaks that interaction, in a way that reading an opinion article doesn’t. Stories are something you talk about, not something you talk to.

    Maybe moving to shorter forms will help mitigate that, though I’m inclined to think that the problem is one of interest, more than one of time commitment — at least among those who aren’t already reading Mormon fiction. (Time is definitely an issue for those of us who are.) And maybe some spark will catch the Mormon (or non-Mormon) consciousness in a big way, and bring people into our (literary) fold. It’s happened before. Back in 1976, an estimated 5,000 people came to see the first run of Tom Rogers’s play Huebener. Much to everyone’s surprise, it became a Mormon cultural event. By all means, let’s keep trying. I think it’s also important, though, to recognize the possibility that it’s *not* a matter of “catching the wave,” but rather of developing a community over time.

    • James Goldberg says:

      So…is it that people want to see an overt link from fiction to some current topic of interest? Or that the Mormon literature readers are most ready for is short essay?
      I realize, of course, that the strong response to my piece doesn’t give us answers to those questions. But I do wonder: what would happen if we focused more of the lyrical energy we pour into fiction on essays with contemporary themes? Is there something in the culture that would make it easier for people to respond to that?
      I’m inclined at the moment to think that audiences aren’t picky about nonfiction vs. fiction, but do want to feel like creative work is an extension of something they’re already experiencing rather than a discreet, closed experience. Maybe?

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        Don’t know. Based on what seems to attract the attention of Mormon readers in the blogosphere, it seems to me that either (a) polemics, or (b) a “straight” and explicitly nonfiction telling of common experience (“this is how I deal with my child who has Asperger’s”) are most likely to garner large, instant audiences.

        Maybe you’re right, and it is a matter of distance from current experience. I also think, though, that it’s a matter of distance from the immediacy of conversational discourse. Anything that slows down the exchange — including anything that requires reflection (fiction or nonfiction) — is likely to lose readers.

        Which sounds like I’m jumping on the bandwagon of condemning modern life for its insistence on immediacy, its fostering of instant payoff and short attention spans. But that’s not really where I’m trying to go. I think there’s still plenty of interest in stories, essays, etc. But it’s not the same pool of interest that’s reflected in social media. Social media aren’t this generation’s substitute for thoughtful, reflective reading; instead, they’re this generation’s substitute for telephone calls and lunchroom/hallway conversations. Thinking that we can channel the immediacy and potentially huge audiences of social media into literary outlets, in my view, fundamentally mistakes the *nature* of what people are looking for when they use those media.

        If I’m right about this, then what I’m arguing is that there’s little to no possibility for a literary work of any kind (including a truly thoughtful, reflective essay) to “go viral” because that’s not the kind of experience people are looking for in the world of instant electronic communication. The very same people may read stories, essays, etc., at other times and in other modes — just not then, or in that way.

        Which suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to switch media in an attempt to chase the audience. Not to say that we shouldn’t experiment and try new things. If nothing else, it seems to me that different media are apt for different kinds of artistic experiences. What might we accomplish in a new medium? We won’t know if we don’t try.

        (Seen from another perspective, this line of thought suggests to me that simply trading fiction for essays as you propose might not accomplish much. Even if an essay gets you more readers, have you accomplished the same thing that you would with a story?)

        Thanks for raising these questions. I’m sure there’s still a lot I’m not considering, but you’ve pushed me to think this through a little more thoughtfully.

        • James Goldberg says:

          OK. So your thought is: what the audience craves in an electronic medium is continuity with conversation and what the audience craves in a novel, play, or essay is reflection. So you can’t really combine that two–instant reflection is too close to an oxymoron.

          Unless, of course, you’re doing Kabuki theatre…

          • Jonathan Langford says:

            Pretty much, yeah. At least the more “instant” electronic media. At least, that’s the theory I’m advancing at present.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        By the way, I’ve now read your post, and agree that it was truly excellent. And thoughtful. Bravo! But still quite different from the short story or play we might have gotten from you on this topic…

  6. Th. says:

    .

    I had it come up in my feed once that I noticed (great post by the way — I was going to comment, but the comments were already crazy long). And, as expected with James, it was written beautifully and with a reasonableness that always sticks out. I’m not surprised it was appreciated—how darn viral it was however, that was surprising.

    But I do think we have an issue where people want MoLit they just know not where to find it. Or even that they’re looking for it. It’s opening that bridge that’s the tough part.

    I have an idea. Let’s get James a Pulitzer. That should get some attention.

  7. Remember when AML gave a special award to THE BOOK OF JER3MIAH a few years ago?

    Has anyone actually looked at what they did and have been doing with that? They just presented at LTUE about it all, and it was amazing the use they made of social media and so on. (They call it “transmedia,” and it has some interesting possibilities.)

  8. As for a reading experience having an emotional impact, there was a scene in Janette Rallison’s DAKOTA’S REVENGE that hit me so hard and made me cry so much, I almost couldn’t keep reading.

    I’ll agree that emotional connection with a character can be something a reader may want to experience, but it can also be something that can make the reading experience very hard for the reader to tolerate.

  9. Katya says:

    Jonathan said:

    If I’m right about this, then what I’m arguing is that there’s little to no possibility for a literary work of any kind (including a truly thoughtful, reflective essay) to “go viral” because that’s not the kind of experience people are looking for in the world of instant electronic communication.

    Duncan Watts is a researcher who studies how trends move through social networks. I’m a big fan of his work and based on what I know about Watts’ research, I’m going to disagree a bit with Jonathan.

    Watts says that the two biggest factors in how well an idea spreads through a network are the number of people who are initially exposed to the idea and how receptive those people are to that idea.

    When we think of a work going viral in the internet age, it’s generally a video or a picture (or a blog post) that has a fairly limited initial audience, but hits a nerve of some sort and is soon being shared and reshared far and wide. That’s a low initial audience/high receptiveness situation.

    However, I’d argue that literary works and other works that require more of an investment (be it time, money, or thought) go viral all the time. That’s why some books stay on bestseller lists for months and months and some movies are runaway hits at the box office. Yes, they require more of an investment in time and money, which means you’re going to have an inherently lower receptivity and that lower receptiveness has to be overcome by reaching a higher initial audience (be it through previews or other kinds of mass market advertising). Social networking can also play a role, though, even if the work itself can’t be transmitted socially. (The day that Mockingjay came out, my facebook feed was full of people talking about the book, so social networking certainly helped put it on my radar, even though I couldn’t read it online.)

    When it comes to Mormon literature, we’re facing a problem of low initial audience (because we can’t afford to advertise to a huge group) and low audience receptiveness (because our audience is realistically going to consist of (1) Mormons who are (2) interested in literature and who will (3) take the time to read the work in question).

    Based on those conditions, there is probably no work of MoLit that is going to take the internet by storm like Susan Boyle or Charlie’s brother (the one who bit his finger) or even James Goldberg’s blog post on the “realness” of the Mormon world.

    But I think that’s OK.

    If we assume that there are people out there who are receptive to Mormon literature (and I think there are), then it may take more work to find them and more exposure to the work before they’re ready to dip a toe in the water, let alone become an active member of the community. In the meantime, we can work on the best ways to reach a larger group of people as well as trying to identify those who will be most receptive to reading the work. An idea doesn’t have to spread quickly to spread virally; it just has to consistently spread beyond the initial audience.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Katya,

      I was using “going viral” in a more limited sense, i.e., specifically with reference to catching on quickly in a widespread fashion via electronic media. In general, though, I agree with the point you’re making. In fact, part of where I was trying to go was that we need to *not* be discouraged if things aren’t immediately popular, because there are also ways to develop audiences over the long term.

      I agree with you that Mormon literature is a relatively low-receptivity situation (compared to, say, blog posts about Mormon culture), due in part to the greater investment involved in reading literature. I also think that because of that, we need to look beyond initial exposure to the notion of cumulative exposures. You make a reference to this, I think, in your mention of “more exposure to the work” in your last paragraph. Hence the value (for example) of multiple reviews and personal recommendations, even for works that have already achieved some notoriety. (I’m reminded of statistics I used to hear quoted about how many positive exposures to the Church someone needed on average before he/she would actually meet with the missionaries.)

      • James Goldberg says:

        I think part of the problem now is a fairly high bad-experience-with-Mormon-Lit to good-experience-with-Mormon-Lit ratio. We need to generate more good experiences and make them easier for a larger number of people to have before we’re going to see higher-investment works taking off successfully.

        I think my blog post is helpful in that it uses lyrical, literary language to make a cultural point, thus (hopefully) adding to people’s interest in the literary.

        I think the Lit Blitz will be helpful in making good impressions. I’m anticipating most readers will have maybe four pieces they love, four pieces they think are OK, four pieces they don’t connect with, and maybe one that’s a total turn-off. If I’m right, that’s pretty good.

        I know I go back to short work a lot, but I do think we’ll be best served if we can all find ways to write a few quality short pieces and get people widely exposed in a free context to them rather than focused exclusively on longer and subscribe-up-front work.

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          A lot depends on context. Short work is all well and good, but in my experience, some readers like short fiction and others (usually including myself) don’t. And some writers like writing short fiction, while others (again including myself) are mostly drawn to stories that don’t adapt well to that format.

          I don’t think it has to be one or the other. In fact, I think there’s a broad enough diversity in the potential audience for high-quality Mormon literature that it *shouldn’t* be one or the other: not if we want to draw everyone in. Some people will be drawn in by short works, others by novels. Some by plays. Some by poetry. Some by contemporary fiction. Some by historical fiction. Some by romances. Some by rural settings. Some by urban settings. And so on.

          Which doesn’t necessarily contradict what you’re saying, in terms of using free short fiction as a gateway drug — for some people. But you need to be aware of the limitations. You could throw short fiction at me all day long, and the chances that I’d find something to draw me into Mormon literature are almost nil, just because of the way my tastes run. A good novel, on the other hand… that’s *way* more satisfying. To me.

  10. James Goldberg says:

    Katya,

    With social networks, part of what might help is to increase the number of lit-interested Mormons who are connected to each other. I wonder whether part of the success of my blog piece had to do with the relatively high number of avid reader Mormons who are already my Facebook friends through my associations with New Play Project, AML, and BYU’s English Grad Program.

    I think as we see more literary LDS types connected to each other, it’ll be easier for work to spread.

    I’m very interested to see how that plays out for the Mormon Lit Blitz.

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