Over at Motley Vision, Jonathan Langford reviewed his reading of Whitney finalists. In his review of the General Fiction category , he noted that few of the finalists engaged with religious issues, and only one book was explicitly Mormon at all. I wanted to expand on some of Jonathan’s questions about a few of the finalists and explore the idea of taking Mormon fiction to national publishers and national audiences. The finalists this year that most explicitly dealt with Mormon doctrine and culture were actually found in the genre categories (Mystery and Romance), and were published by LDS publishers and primarily marketed to LDS audiences. I think that some of those books are taking steps to explore LDS issues in new ways, but that is not the subject of this post (I had also wanted to look at some of the general youth finalists and religion, but I ran out of room in this post).
The first two books I want to consider fall squarely in the category of “inspirational fiction.” Both The Wedding Letters by Jason Wright and Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans center their plots on ordinary people trying to overcome difficult, messy lives. In both books, characters are tormented by trauma from the past, usually because they think that this trauma was their fault and/or makes them unlovable. At some point in both books, other characters help them see that they can forgive others or themselves, and that they really do have family and friends that love them. As I read both books, I was surprised as I got to the end. I felt a bit of a letdown because I felt like I missed something. On one page a character is suicidal; by the next, she has found the will to live simply through hearing the right words uttered by someone else. Change was wrought simply by applying pop culture tropes such as “believe in yourself.” Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I didn’t feel too inspired because I wasn’t sure what exactly I was supposed to do in order to overcome my problems. Find a friend who can tell me that I’m really OK?
I feel somewhat disingenuous complaining about the lack of overt religion in Evans’ and Wright’s books. The fact that a writer is Mormon, or of any religious persuasion, does not mean that they have to write religious fiction. I think what bothered me about these books was that they are specifically meant to inspire people and give them hope, and yet for me I found them rather uninspiring. There was nothing at the core. What would happen if Richard Paul Evans had made his main character a Mormon? What if, instead of telling his suicidal friend that she should just stop beating herself up because she has friends who like her, he had taught her the plan of salvation? What if he had taught her about the power of prayer and the gift of the Holy Ghost? I hate books with easy Sunday School answers as much as books with empty answers, but I wonder a little about why these authors leave out Mormon content (well, any religious content) and choose to go with pop psychology platitudes.
Another book on the list, The Evolution of Thomas Hall by Kieth Merrill, has no Mormon characters, but still engages explicitly with religious ideas. As far as I know, it has primarily been marketed to and read by an LDS audience, despite being published by Shadow Mountain, Deseret Book’s imprint for national-market books. As Jonathan and others have pointed out in their reviews, the book is flawed by its reliance on stereotypical characters and a central premise that pits a belief in God against a straw man character who is a militant atheist that worships a semi-deified Charles Darwin. The interesting thing about this book is that I get the sense that the author is, in his mind, working through Mormon ideas. Doctrinally, Mormons believe that mankind was created by God and that God intervenes directly in our lives. There is also a strain of popular LDS culture that is anti-science and distrusts any teaching of the theory of evolution, particularly the idea that man evolved from lower forms of life. Merrill also seems to be tapping into a trope common in official discourse: we are living in “enemy territory”, surrounded by the forces of Satan whose mission is to bring down the followers of Christ. In the book, these “enemies” are personified as environmentalists, social workers, scientists, and rich, misogynistic hospital board members. In the author’s vision of the world, a lack of belief in God makes one, not just indifferent to, but actively hostile towards religion.
The frustrating thing about this book to me is that Merrill has a chance as a Mormon author to say something unique about the possible conflicts between scientific theories and religious belief. While Mormon doctrine does definitively affirm a belief in God as the creator of the Earth and mankind, our teachings do not preclude the possibility of evolution as a natural biological process that has created a diversity of life on Earth. We are not Biblical literalists, and we also acknowledge and accept that fact that truth can be found in many religious throughout the world. Although the theme of Merrill’s book is timely and has potential, I feel that it falters by setting up a conflict with opposing sides so ludicrously painted in broad strokes that the outcome is inevitable and ultimately holds little interest for the reader.
As I have been writing this, I realized that the thing that is bothering me the most about these books is the fact that their intent seems to be an engagement with spiritual and religious ideas. And yet, instead of looking to some of the unique doctrines of Mormonism as a way to engage with these issues, the authors fall back on pop psychology, stereotypes, and even some ideas that are antithetical to Mormon ways of thought. If we believe that as Mormons we have a doctrine that is unique, why not engage with that in the public sphere? Why not seek new answers to old questions? What are we afraid of?