Many of our recurring discussions about Mormon Lit try to measure how the field is doing and how it is likely to do within our lifetimes. We return again and again to the economics of literature written for Mormons, to the challenges of and prospects for depicting Mormonism for a national audience, to questions of what a “Great Mormon” novel/play/writer/criticism/bookstore/etc.–whether one exists, whether one will exist, whether one ought to exist, etc.
Sometimes, to encourage ourselves, we talk about the success of Jewish Lit or invoke the Harlem Renaissance or get excited when people read books in which Muslim religious identity is an OK thing. Sometimes, to depress ourselves with envy and push ourselves to work harder, we think about Jewish Lit or the Harlem Renaissance or how much better Australian Muslim writers are doing than their Australian LDS counterparts.
But what we don’t seem to do when trying to gauge our progress and prospects is to compare Mormon Literature to the literatures of other nineteenth-century religions. No comparison is entirely fair, of course, but I think it is important to note that Mormonism is one of four worldwide, fast-growing religions to come out of the nineteenth century. How does Mormon Literature compare to Seventh-day Adventist Literature, Jehovah’s Witness Literature, or Baha’i Literature?
I’m not qualified to give a definitive answer to that question, but I do have some ideas about how we could start. If I recall correctly, the Association for Mormon Letters defines Mormon Lit broadly as anything, “by, for, or about” Mormons. If we want to compare, it appropriate to look at each area.
Mormons: There are some pressures working against Latter-day Saints who consider becoming committed writers, but there seem to be an incredible number of us who are writing anyway.If we could conduct a thorough statistical analysis where we controlled for complicating variables, my suspicion is that Mormon religious commitment actually makes one more likely to become a serious writer. A Latter-day Saint who becomes interested in writing today also has the benefit of visible LDS predecessors in practically every genre: we’ve had no shortage of successful writers in Young Adult Fiction and Speculative Fiction. We have an extremely high profile Mystery writer. Some well-known people in comics/graphic narrative. We’ve got plenty of poets, strong essayists, a small but fascinating history of playwrights, and a decent crowd of literary fiction people, and some solid screenwriters.
Seventh-day Adventists: it turns out that Richard Wright was raised Seventh-day Adventist and that Art Buchenwald spent some of his formative years in an Adventist orphanage or boarding school or something, but I couldn’t quickly find any examples of prominent practicing SDA writers. That may be because of traditional SDA animosity toward fiction and popular media, and may change with time. I found an interesting piece by an English professor and Adventist named Scott Moncrieff, who makes an interesting apologetic argument for fiction based on an SDA frame of reference. Some of the cultural barriers to fiction Moncrieff discusses may sound familiar, though they occupy a much more prominent place in that community than in ours. Looking at the Seventh-day Adventist situation highlights the contribution of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s more accomodating attitudes toward the arts to the development of Mormon Lit since.
Jehovah’s Witnesses: crime writer Mickey Spillane, who is apparently one of the best-selling authors of all time, became a Witness fairly early in his career, producing numerous books between his conversion in the 1950s and his death in 2006.
In general, though, Jehovah’s Witness writers do seem to be rare. I’m going out on a limb here, but I suspect that the high degree of cultural tension between JW values and modern media values is connected to some degree of suspicion of fiction. I also wonder whether the central role of periodical religious literature in the JW community further contributes to a distance from other literary modes. I will make a note to myself to interview my wife’s good JW friend on the topic and get back to you. Anyone else know much about JW feelings about writing as a major avocation or vocational choice?
Baha’is: Hmm. I am beginning to wonder whether the SDA and JW animosity toward fiction narrative is actually based in a distaste for the intensely commercialized history of American media culture. Having roots in Iran, where poetry and religious mysticism have a long and strong association, may be part of the reason why the Bab’s view of literature shows up in quotes like this: “Treasures lie hidden beneath the throne of God; the key to those treasures is the tongue of poets.” I’ve found one website designed for Baha’i authors; there may be others. I also found references elsewhere to some successful American poets who converted to the faith in the middle of their lives. My guess is that the limited Baha’i literary presence I’m finding has more to do with the smaller numbers of Baha’is in countries like the U.S. and Western Europe where more literature is written and distributed. There may be many unrecognized Baha’i poets and short story writers in Iran, though the context of persecution there makes it unlikely that they’ll have careers in literature.
As far as I can tell, SDA and JW publishing focus almost exclusively on content-driven religious commentary. They continue to publish doctrinal works by early major religious figures in their respective movements, religion-based commentary on contemporary life, etc.
Baha’is are extremely active in small, decentralized publishing units as this list of Baha’i publishers demonstrates. Because of the Baha’i focus on world peace, social justice, etc., there appear to be large numbers of nonfiction works on social and public issues as well as writings of prominent early figures, religious pamphlets, etc. Baha’is also seem interested in biographies of different figures in the global story of their faith’s expansion–what we would call modern-day pioneers. Because of the decentralized nature of the publishing community, I would expect to see some variation–I noticed one fantasy novel, for instance.
While there are good reasons to critique Deseret Book et al, the brick-and-mortar LDS distributors seem fairly impressive in this context. Obviously, part of that has to do with our uniqueness among nineteenth-century faiths in having a quasi-homeland in the Mormon corridor. A consequence of the doctrine of gathering has been that we appear to have larger for-members book distribution centers that offer a wider range of genres and support a broader base of authors.
The recent development of numerous independent small publishing operations is also intriguing to me in this comparative context. Unlike decentralized Baha’i publishing, where an imperative to actively promote the religion’s message still seems to be dominant, most small Mormon publishers seem interested in developing a literary culture.
In general, I think it’s fair to say that among other nineteenth-century faiths, content is still the overriding interest of publishers, while the category of writing for Mormons includes many works that are interested in their forms.
Adherents.com has a fascinating collection of pages about religions in literature, which is almost entirely focused on references to religion in science fiction. I took a look at their sub-pages on how each of the four faiths in this group are portrayed in science fiction.
While I would have anticipated a great number of depictions of Latter-day Saints in science fiction than of SDAs, JWs, or Baha’is, I was surprised by how extreme the difference was. The researchers found references to Latter-day Saints in 308 sci-fi novels, movies, and stories with only 4 references to SDAs, 25 to JWs, and 38 to Baha’is (although this number is somewhat inflated, since every reference to Dizzy Gillespie is counted as a references to Baha’is). According to their count, roughly one-fourth of Hugo- and Nebula-winning novels mention Latter-day Saints.
While the disparity may be wider in English-language science fiction than in other genres or languages, I suspect that Mormons do show up in most genres and in most languages with extensive printed literature far often than adherents of other nineteenth-century religions. There are probably numerous reasons for this, and I think we would gain a lot from discussing them, though it’s too big a project for this blog post.
Admittedly, many of the depictions of Mormons in literature are negative and/or inaccurate. But I still think that in some ways, we benefit. After all, the history of representations of Jews in Western literature has been largely anti-Semitic, but it paved the way for Jewish topics and symbols to be recognizable to so many readers today. Lots of people have hated Jews for a very long time–but it does mean that most people on earth have heard of Jews by today.
Mormon characters and vocabulary are more difficult culturally to incorporate into mainstream fiction than Jewish characters…but it appears that we may be a full degree of magnitude more common in literature than our fellow major nineteenth century religions.
What does all this mean for Mormon writers and critics? Is the comparison roughly fair, or at least useful? What else does anybody know about SDA, JW, or Baha’i Lit? Should we care? Discuss…