Mormon Characters in Mormon Literature

I recently finished reading THE SCHOLAR OF MOAB, by Steven L. Peck, which
received the AML Novel Award for last year, and I want to say, first of all, that the writing in this book is wonderful. The characters are strong and clearly defined, and they each have their own unique voices. And the author provides them with plenty of opportunities to express themselves, so the reader can get to know them.

That said, I am a little confused about whether or not this novel represents what AML is all about as an association for promoting Mormon Literature (as we say “literature by, for, or about Mormons”). Clearly, since it was given the novel award, it has much that is worthwhile as a novel, and other readers have appreciated its contribution to literature. But I am confused about its place in Mormon literature.

I am confused because I found every Mormon in this book (except one) to be depicted as naive and gullible and narrow-minded. The exception was a young geology student from BYU who, when invited to help the title character experiment on how much faith bumblebees need to have in order to fly (because, as asserted in the book, scientists had proven that they can’t fly by natural means, so they must fly by faith*), devised an
experiment that involved cutting off slivers of the bumblebees’ wings until they didn’t have enough faith to keep flying (or enough wing), and then encouraging the “Scholar” to submit a paper on their experiments to a scientific journal. The paper was accepted for publication because the editors took the whole thing as a joke, and the “Scholar” was too naive to realize that, even though the “educated” Mormon must have known. So while he wasn’t a stupid Mormon, he was cruel and unscrupulous.

(*Scientist have since figured out how bumblebees fly–and why scientists were wrong about them not being able to, something that the author, as a biologist surely must know.)

The only characters that I connected with in the story were non-Mormons: a Wiccan poetess who believed in aliens and UFOs from personal experience, and conjoined triplets, and they were also the only ones I found believable. The title character was an extremely unreliable narrator, and the frame narrator (the “Redactor”) was barely a character at all–his motivation for narrating (or compiling or redacting) the whole tale was never explained, nor, as Scott Parkin points out in his review posted on this blog, was the question about what really happened to the “Scholar” ever asked, even though that may have been the unmentioned motivation. (Unlike Scott Parkin’s reaction upon finishing
this book–”deep dissatisfaction [which] caused me to rant at whoever would (pretend) to listen”–I was merely depressed, and this blog post is the result of my depression.)

Are Mormons who are either on the outs with the Church, in one way or another, or who are naive, stupid, narrow-minded, rigid, or gullible, the kinds of characters we want to encourage in Mormon Literature? I don’t ask just because of this most recent AML novel award. I also ask because of books like RIFT, by Todd Robert Petersen, and THE LONELY POLYGAMIST, by Brady Udall, the two preceding novel awards given by AML.

Are faithful, sacrificing, praying, learning, and repenting Mormons just not worthy of the kind of wonderful writing produced by authors like Steven L. Peck and Brady Udall, or is it just impossible to write well about such Mormons? (Please feel free to consider that a challenge.)

Are there no worthwhile stories in the Mormon experience about struggling with the tests and trials of this life and enduring faithful to the end? Stories about Mormons firmly within the Church, as opposed to those on the edge, or those being converted, or those falling away? Or are Mormons who do are faithful all the way through a story just not believable enough for fiction? What kinds of characters are worthy of our best writing and of literature that is truly by, for, and about Mormons?

I am also curious about why this book and the other recent novel award recipients are considered to be representative enough of Mormon literature for them to deserve awards from AML in spite of the way Mormons are portrayed in their pages?

About Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury

Author of six professionally published short stories; moderator of two online writing workshop forums for Orson Scott Card (The Hatrack River Writers Workshop and the Nauvoo Workshop for LDS Writers); part-time computer genealogist; AML Review Archive editor and AML website flunky; mother of three and grandmother of five, so far (plus slave of a polydactyl, part-lynx-point snowshoe Siamese cat); Salt Lake Temple ordinance worker; lover of reading, knitting, and dark chocolate.
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37 Responses to Mormon Characters in Mormon Literature

  1. Scott Parkin says:

    It depends on what AML is all about, I suppose.

    For me the story is so intensely Mormon in theme, setting, and viewpoint that it is an absolute celebration of Mormonosity, even if it indulges in a lot of caricature of Mormons. I get tired of the endless parade of eccentric characters and overstated situations popular in literary-academic fiction, but I don’t see how you can remove either cultural or conceptual Mormonism from Scholar and have much of anything left.

    In that sense it’s arguably the very definition of Mormon literature. Mormons and Mormon thought are not just set-pieces or generic contexts for a non-denominational conflict; they’re the reason for the conflict and its escalation.

    I would love to see fewer eccentric Mormons in the stories we write about ourselves. Yes, we need to learn to laugh at ourselves, but it often seems like our better writers *only* laugh—or at least point fingers. For my dime Scholar was a little more loving than some other recent works.

    But yeah, I’d love to see at least a few prominent authors explore Mormonness with less exaggeration and/or fewer punchlines.

    [Digression---we had a fully polydactyl cat (all four paws) and loved her. I decided to bring her home when an office mate brought her in as a kitten and she promptly climbed the cloth-covered cube walls with those amazing puppy-paws. Kawaii!!!]

  2. Jessie says:

    I think the definition of “Mormon” literature is one that has been debated much in the past and will continue to be debated in the future. I have not read The Scholar of Moab yet; although I attended a reading of the novel, it didn’t really pique my interest. I didn’t grow up in the 1970s and I didn’t grow up in Utah Mormon culture, so none of those aspects interest me. I also prefer generally prefer realism in fiction.

    However, I think you and Scott bring up a valid point, which is that literary fiction has come to favor the eccentric and quirky over the more mundane. In both Mormon and non-Mormon circles, ‘good’ literary fiction is often defined as that which celebrates the bizarre. I don’t think that Rift actually fits into this paradigm, because to me it is a good example of realistic contemporary fiction. But The Lonely Polygamist certainly does, and while I think it is a great novel, I’m tired of people holding it up as a “Great Mormon Novel” because to me it is about as far from the Mormon experience as you can get.

    The book Borrowed Light by Carla Kelly is one that has probably been dismissed by many readers of ‘serious Mormon fiction’ because it is historical, a romance, and written by a woman. However, it was one of the best Mormon novels I read last year in the way it explored the intersection between faith, doubt, and redemption. Similarly, Death of a Disco Dancer received quite a bit of critical acclaim, but has sadly won no awards. I also thought it was one of the best Mormon novels I’ve read lately.

    I guess the question is, and there probably is no answer, what qualities are awarding when we award ‘novel of the year’? A book that is daring, eccentric, and quirky? A book that most closely matches current cultural ideas about ‘literary fiction’ (since genre fiction cannot be ‘serious literature’)? A book that reflects a typical Mormon experience? (not that such a thing exists) A book that reflects historical Mormon culture? All of these things? None of these things?

    • The only thing I’d like to say here is that, as a woman who has been involved (admittedly on a limited basis) on the lit fic side of Mormon letters as both writer and editor, I don’t think it fair to assert that part of the reason a writer like Carla Kelly (whose work I haven’t read) is dismissed is because she is a woman. I’ve never felt a lick of prejudice by the men with whom I’ve worked.

      • Jessie says:

        Out of the last 10 winners of the AML Novel award, one has been a woman (Angela Hallstrom, who has already been mentioned here). It’s not just Mormon lit where this is an issue; women authors are also less likely to receive literary awards across the board. Women are more likely to write genre fiction, like romance, that doesn’t often get considered as ‘literary fiction’ and therefore not award-worthy.

        Truthfully, my main concern in making my comment was not the male/female dichotomy, but the literary fiction/genre fiction one. There were several books that I read as Whitney finalists last year that were, I think, at least worthy of consideration as novels that explore the Mormon experience and yet I fear were dismissed simply by being romantic fiction. I think we need to be careful about assuming that books that have the hallmarks of literary fiction (including the quirky elements discussed here) should always be privileged over those that don’t.

  3. BHodges says:

    Full disclosure: I’m a friend of Steven Peck and also a huge fan of his books and professional (though unpaid) Peckpologist.

    So while he wasn’t a stupid Mormon, he was cruel and unscrupulous.

    I disagree with this characterization of the character. I don’t think this character was either of those things. I saw him as sympathetic to Hyrum, as a person who recognized that Hyrum was a different sort of fellow, a guy who basically didn’t feel like putting out the excited flame of Hyrum, despite its misdirection. I don’t know what Peck intended by this interaction, but I didn’t read it the way you did.

    The only characters that I connected with in the story were non-Mormons.

    Strong connection with non-Mormon characters is one of the strengths of this book. At risk of getting a little homiletic, Joseph Smith talked about gathering up the good wherever it may come from. I think Mormons could use plenty of reminders to this effect. Further, there were non-Mormon characters who weren’t depicted in flattering ways at all, so I don’t believe it is a matter of Mormon=dumb/bad, Non-Mormon=good/awesome in Peck’s narrative, not at all.

    You also said the characters were strong and clearly defined but you also said the twins (only possibly were they to be considered “triplets”) were the only characters you found believable. Just curious what you meant by it.

    The title character was an extremely unreliable narrator, and the frame narrator (the “Redactor”) was barely a character at all–

    I thought this was one of the most remarkable strengths of the book, and an important reminder of the precarious ways we rely on each other to build up our worlds. And the label of “extremely unreliable” deserves further reflection. Was he a straight up liar? Did he inadvertently disclose even while he thought he was disclosing? Who was his audience for his papers and how did that shape the way he told his story? How did the records of other individuals disclose his unreliability? This made for very thoughtful reading. I had to wrestle with the ambiguities rooted in documents refracted through a nameless redactor. (Old Testament, anyone?)

    Are Mormons who are either on the outs with the Church, in one way or another, or who are naive, stupid, narrow-minded, rigid, or gullible, the kinds of characters we want to encourage in Mormon Literature?

    I get the sense such characters are so under-represented in our official venues of literature (Deseret Book publications, stories in church magazines) that it is refreshing, and feels more authentic to experience, for such independent stories to contain these types of characters. There are some narrow-minded, rigid, or gullible Mormons. We all qualify at different times and for different reasons. But don’t expect to read about it in the New Era.

    Are faithful, sacrificing, praying, learning, and repenting Mormons just not worthy of the kind of wonderful writing produced by authors like Steven L. Peck and Brady Udall, or is it just impossible to write well about such Mormons? (Please feel free to consider that a challenge.)

    This question seems to be rooted in an assumption that the best Mormon literature should be homiletic. While I think there is space for more blatantly devotional characters, I also think there is room for the types of folks Peck and other authors have depicted. And of course, Levi Peterson’s The Backslider depicts a leading character who isn’t a typical Mormon, and who finds an unconventional redemption at the end, which suggests to me there are different ways of approaching characters.

    I am also curious about why this book and the other recent novel award recipients are considered to be representative enough of Mormon literature for them to deserve awards from AML in spite of the way Mormons are portrayed in their pages?

    In Peck’s case, his willingness to experiment with the genre a bit was massively refreshing for me. I have a moderate tolerance for narrative experimentation. I don’t think it’s a question of these authors starting out by saying “how can I depict some jerky Mormons and some apostates who are cool?” They also aren’t starting out by saying “how can I impress people about Mormonism or share the gospel?” So you get books that don’t have obviously devotional conclusions being presented in obvious packages, but instead you get stories which make you think about things which you probably never had supposed.

    There have been several reviews of Peck’s book by Mormon authors (myself included), and while you refer to one here you don’t engage with other Mormon authors on their critiques. Perhaps reading other reflections might give you an idea about why such a book would qualify for such an award. (The skill of Peck in so many different voices seems almost enough to merit the award itself, aside from the fun story. But I’ve said enough!)

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I can’t speak for Kathleen, but I have no interest in seeing only “homiletic” stories, and I resist the idea that there’s some sort of exclusive binary here with correlated preachment vs. bizarre bazaar as the only choices.

      Seems like a false dichotomy (how’s that for a hackneyed expression) to me. One is not required to abandon anything to move along the continuum, only change the proportions.

      But recently it seems like our better literary-academic authors are bunching up at the eccentric end (with SoM offered only as the latest example). I think it’s a fair question to wonder why, and to suggest that there are other kinds of stories that our talented authors can tell.

      No dismissal involved; only an open question.

      • Thank you, Scott.

        Even though you weren’t speaking for me, you said what I am trying to say very well indeed.

        • BHodges says:

          “Seems like a false dichotomy (how’s that for a hackneyed expression) to me. One is not required to abandon anything to move along the continuum, only change the proportions. ”

          What would an author like Steven Peck do with such a suggestion? He wrote what he loved to write.

          Any author is always free to change any proportions. If they write a gook which the committee likes then I assume they’ll win the award.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Never suggested he should. He wrote the story he wanted to the way he wanted to. Others should write their stories their ways. I would like to see a different author produce a work using a different method worthy of the same recognition. Variety of approaches.

          I’m talking community there, not individuals. Many unique points make up the space under that curve.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          The question of why so many stories bunch up at the quirky end of the spectrum is a fair one. As you point out, the committee can only award to stories that are actually published.

          Is it a cultural artifact of Mormonism that’s led to quirk? A regional or national movement? Tastes of readers? Laziness? Inherent necessity of the subject matter.

          These are fair questions in a vibrant literature that don’t involve picking on SoM, though it does function as a convenient foil for a discussion about something else.

        • Wm says:

          I think that quirky is the result of:

          a. the postmodern turn in the field
          b. a reaction to combat the popularity of genre fiction (quirk in character to combat quirk in setting)
          c. the result of the blurring of genre and literary realism of the past two decades
          d. the fault of punk and post-punk

          I’m not saying that this is the case for Steve, who has been upfront about his influences (Borges, for one) and is clearly working in the post-modern experimental fiction vein, but rather I’m talking about the phenomenon generally.

  4. BHodges says:

    (PS- isn’t the “what counts as Mormon literature” discussion a bit shopworn by now? Perhaps it’s a perennial question, and the surest sign that there actually exists such a sub-genre.)

  5. BHodges says:

    (PPS- I’m with Scott in thinking this book was shot through with Mormonness, but Peck’s ability to avoid making it too overt is one of the reasons I strongly recommend it.)

  6. Jonathan Langford says:

    To start with: I haven’t read the book, so I don’t have any opinions about it. I am curious, though, whether other readers’ experience confirms Kathleen’s experience of not finding any sympathetic Mormon characters in the novel.

    I also have to agree with Scott that wanting stories about “faithful, sacrificing, praying, learning, and repenting Mormons” is not at all the same as wanting only homiletic stories. One of the biggest problems with Mormon fiction, as I see it, is that there’s been relatively little in the way of *realistic* treatment of life as a believing mainstream Latter-day Saint. In fact, I’d argue that homiletic stories and tales of the Mormon bizarre are both equally far from this kind of realistic treatment.

    • BHodges says:

      “wanting stories about “faithful, sacrificing, praying, learning, and repenting Mormons”

      Hyrum as a character may not embody these characteristics in obvious ways, but from my recollection they’re all there, every one of them, complexly, in his experiences as described by Peck. And I don’t think Peck set out to make it that way, but it’s there.

  7. Scott Parkin says:

    A couple of (not so quick) thoughts—

    First, I don’t believe I reviewed The Scholar of Moab. I offered a reader-response rant, but came nowhere close to what I would consider a structured review. Maybe the distinction is irrelevant, but to me a review is a more carefully constructed piece than a meander is.

    Second, I think there are other forms than satire for penetrating looks at ourselves. The problem with satire is that it’s necessarily exaggerated, and I’m starting to get tired of being portrayed in caricature so often. It seems like much of our media is fixated on circuses; some balancing bread would be nice, too.

    Third, though it touched so many of my exasperation points, I really liked The Scholar of Moab and didn’t have quite as many problems with the characters as Kathleen seems to have. For me they were (nearly) all recognizable people who were “living at the tops of their voices.”

    The twins were certainly odd. The living embodiment of being of two minds, of literally struggling with yourself for control of your actions. The deep fascination with kabbalah (unseen structure) and the search after signs and portents. Not meaningfully different than how Mormons struggle with eternal hopes in a mundane world.

    Dora certainly had her share of weird, from desert poetess/prophetess to her belief that aliens took her baby (or that the twins were aliens). Not really that far off from believing in visitations, transfigurations, or other spiritual manifestations that have common acceptance (if not common occurrence or direct experience) in our own religious heritage.

    Hyrum Thayne (I’ve been incorrectly calling him Thane all this time [the horror]) is nearly criminally innocent, leading him to acts that would be cruel if there were any guile at all to spoil his intense naivete. That he universally chooses to allow himself to be seen a deep, powerful, and meaningful to his community is only an exaggerated manifestation of every hometown kid’s desire to rise to prominence. Everyone wants to be a hero and to hide evidence of mistake. To me he was clueless, but not evil.

    The people of Moab who readily conflated the bogeymen of Mormon culture with the bogeymen of American culture in a hopelessly muddled (if well-intended) transference are clearly recognizable even to my northwest-suburban-Chicago childhood in the 1970s. I can’t remember how many times I came around a corner at Church to hear a couple of (seemingly old) men standing in front of the Seventies bookstore (a locking clamshell bookcase next to the ward library) chatting about Brother Skousen’s latest Thousand Years book and the impending signs that would validate our faith to all the world.

    All of it certainly exaggerated in the details, but true enough in the broad shapes to raise a certain nostalgia and clear sense of recognition in me.

    The movement from inherited faith to qualified faith—especially when you belong to a (socially) isolated society that places certain mystifying pressures toward expressing that faith—is at best a difficult transition. Moving from limited information to greater access may change the quality of the thing, but not its essential nature. Whether a naive teen experimenting on the faith of bees or a jaded scientist in a pub in Vienna trying to correlate eerie coincidences (or a woman in a state hospital dealing with serial loss), the struggle toward coherent integration of hope, desire, and experience is essentially the same despite the wide disparities in the details.

    For me that made all of the primary characters functionally equal in nature, with none preferred over the other. Three faces of the same challenge. All odd, all naive, all moving toward integration and acceptance as they gathered new information. If the mocking finger points, it point at all equally.

    Which is why I didn’t feel particularly victimized in the narrative. The contrasts (and comparisons) offered by the different kinds of characters gave a fuller view of the one basic challenge.


    I’ve managed to talk myself into liking the novel even more. But as much as I like SoM, I’m still tired of quirky and would like to see other kinds of stories that cover similar ground but by different literary methods.

    Maybe it’s not possible; maybe one requires an exaggerated distance to keep the story from becoming maudlin and falling into bland homily. I don’t think so, and would love to see greater variety in approach from AML Award winners. I want not only the statement (like The Scholar of Moab), but the literary comparators and contrasters that can fill out the idea even more and make our cultural exploration that much more relevant and useful to a wider variety of readers.

    In the mean time I enjoy the story I tell myself about The Scholar of Moab written by a scholar of Moab and can’t help but wonder how much of it is imaginative and how much is autobiographical—not that the two are in any way exclusive.

  8. Your token ex-Mormon atheist Mormon-lit-enthusiast chiming in here.

    One potential function of any literature is to poke fun at readers themselves – and when it’s well-done, it can be as enjoyable to read as it is painful and illuminating. As a city liberal/intellectual of a certain generation, I can enjoy fiction that pokes fun at me and my ilk and feel like I learn from it. I also enjoy fiction that pokes fun at other groups, sometimes because I agree with the subtle points being made. Things are funny because they’re true, and I feel like TSOM accomplishes some of that with regard to the goofier aspects of Mormon culture. Ideally, faithful believing Mormons could and should find value and even enjoyment in being made fun of and caricatured in literature, not just because it’s funny, but also because it could be illuminating and humbling. Cf. the way Jane Austen pokes fun at the various people in her society – often she laughs at them precisely because she clearly loves them, and also because she wants them to be better and nobler people.

    I do think it would be interesting to try to write a faithful orthodox Mormon character without making fun of him/her, and make such a character the center of a truly complicated and clearly literary story, without ever collapsing into didacticism or devotionalism. (Not just a romance or a thriller, etc.) I think the closest example I’ve seen is Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth, though I think some of the stories made me uncomfortable precisely by taking Mormonism more seriously than I ever could, and by the unhumbled self-righteousness implicit in one or two of them (e.g., the assumption that the “sinner” younger sister was bound for hell because of not following Mormon practices). But it was a good and important effort to communicate with the world outside Mormonism, which I think would be to me another ideal quality of high-end Mormon literature.

    • Katya says:

      . . . the unhumbled self-righteousness implicit in one or two of them (e.g., the assumption that the “sinner” younger sister was bound for hell because of not following Mormon practices) . . .

      Did you think the author felt that way or just the characters? For my part, I was very sympathetic to that sister because I felt that the Church rejected her first, and not the other way around. (I’m thinking specifically of the story about her experiences in Primary, which probably resonated with me because I also hated Primary when I was growing up, although for different reasons.) Did you read that story differently?

      • It’s been a while now since I read it, but if I’m remembering correctly I sensed from the way it was portrayed that the author felt very sad about the “black sheep” sister’s decisions to go her own way outside the parameters of Mormonism … but I also got the impression that the story arose out of the author struggling to go deep and understand the black sheep sister character rather than just condemning her out of hand. The struggle is admirable, but on the whole it still left me with a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach, because the struggle wouldn’t exist without the original judgmental atitude, and it seemed to me that the author also ended up in a “love the sinner but hate the sin” type of place. I’m not a big fan of that slogan, because I don’t think it’s really so easy to dissociate people’s identities from their choices, and the “love” that results is often just a saccharin-covered version of the original disgust …

        Of course, that’s a whole big can of worms, and this probably isn’t the place to open it up … :)

  9. SteveP says:

    I’d like to thank Kathleen for opening this discussion (Although I feel bad I depressed her!). No one is more surprised than me at the attention the book has gotten, so I’m grateful to those taking it seriously and generously. I’m really happy Kathleen opened this discussion.

    This seems to be a perspective that somehow Mormon literature should be moved toward something, or perhaps its awards should be used to move toward certain ends. Am I misreading? The complaint that AML has been honoring quirky (although I’m really not sure what that means), maybe true, but maybe that the moment—like when Darwin and Wallace discovered evolution at the same time. I suspect that whatever is happening, it’s happening organically. It’s emerging from something in the air. Because, unfortunately, Rift is still sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, and when I read The Lonely Polygamist, the Scholar of Moab was already at the printers (or on her hard drive—however its done these days), they are unlikely influences. So what’s happening?
    I doubt that any writer sets out to do otherwise than to tell the story within them, and to tell it as they wont. For me the Scholar of Moab, came from my roots in Moab, my influences are those I had read, like Vonnegut, Brautigan, Le Guin, Borgas, Bradbury, Abbey and of course Dickens and Eliot, and if I wrote quirkily, I say blame them. Also, blame the people of Moab who I grew up with who really did believe that the ghosts of the Gadianton Robbers roamed the cliffs that sheltered our valley, and which specters could do nothing worse than conspire with the communists that lurked in similar shadows; and who really believed that bumblebees needed faith to fly; and blame my Mormonness which runs though my heart and soul like red rock does the Canyonlands (how’s that for some Dora-like metaphors!). Blame Moab. But it was an organic process that I seemed to have very little control of, if that makes sense, e.g., I remember when I was early into the project and Hyrum was the only character in the novel, I was picturing him working the sensing station when suddenly the Babcock twins rode up. My reaction to them was like anyone’s: Who are they and what are they doing here? There was no attempt to quirkyize the work, they are just two characters who one day rode into the story and demanded their place. Who was I to deny them?

    I suppose what I am saying is that Mormon Lit. will always be a product of the Mormons (and Non) who write it. I don’t think we should try to shape it by suggesting that we award one kind over another but rather take what we are given and if it has quality reward it, if not, ignore it, but that quality cannot be predicted or demanded. It must come from the hearts and experience of those who write. If three quirky stories have won three times, then so be it. I’m just an average, believing Mormon and Scholar of Moab is what popped out. It’s a summation of and emergence from what I am—the product of whatever cultural influences produced me. Some may not want to claim me as a part of their definition of Mormonism (or they might just not like my book, which is fine because it is an odd book and not to everyone’s tastes), but to situate me outside of this culture because I don’t deal with mainstream type themes, or the type of Mormons we think of as more representative, I think would be a mistake. I am a Mormon scientist from Moab, this is what came out. Do I see the people I grew up with as “naive and gullible and narrow-minded” heavens no—Granted Hyrum did, and we see many of the people through his eyes, but Hyrum and I disagree on this point. Remember there is the moment when Dora is up on the cliff in Moonflower canyon and she suddenly sees the people with a little more dimensionality, and she becomes very angry at what Hyrum is doing below (exorcising the Gadianton Robbers)? That would have been my reaction too.

    One more thing, I must admit I loved, loved, loved The Lonely Polygamist. What’s strange, and what I don’t get, is that SofM and Lonely Polygamist don’t really seem to be of the same species, or even genus. Granted, a coyote gets shot in both of them, but other than that I’m not sure I see that many parallels except both might be loosely pegged as dark comedies that happen in the more deserty parts of South Utah (mine Eastern his Western) that involve protagonists trying to figure out their place in the universe? There are no Fundamentalists in mine, and the themes and concerns are completely different, although I admit neither is likely to get a long stretch of shelf space at Deseret Book. Is that what quirky is?

    Thanks for letting me weigh in. It’s not false modesty when I say I’m the least qualified to place SoM in Mormon literature or even discuss its worth or lack. I read with envy those of you who actually study literature. I’m not even sure authors should weigh in on these kinds of discussions as they might be too close to the subject to speak sensibly (really, I have no sense of what taboos I might be breaking), but I thought what the heck—what would Hyrum do?

    • Mark Penny says:

      No taboos have been broken by you, Steve, at least not in my as-yet-to-be published book.

      I’ve read a bit of your book, the one in question, (Amazon, I think) and it looks pretty good—and goofy. I hope to get my hands on it someday.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      AML will have to speak for itself, but in my case it’s just an interest in seeing more variety in the writing (presumably followed by more variety in the awarding). Our focus on odd characters seems to have become so absolute that there’s little room for (relatively) ordinary ones.

      It’s an observation, not a criticism. We seem to be (organically) narrowing our array of options, which seems potentially limiting and unnecessary.

      Asking why trends emerge seems like a fair question, and I don’t see how encouraging diversity is bad. Always award the best, but (one) part of the organization’s broad role also seems to be to agitate for continued evolution, not just to celebrate stable forms.

      Or not. That organizational role and intent is at least one of the questions I think is being asked. SoM was a foil for that discussion, the most recent example of an apparent trend, not an identified problem to be solved. Or so it seems to me.

      • Wm says:

        To me one of the bigger issues in Mormon literature is that there are so few datapoints that land in the (non-DB-market/non-mainstream-genre-fiction market) that every single one can seem/feel like a trend.

  10. Mark Penny says:

    The Goldberg’s little contest on Everyday Mormon Writer should go some way to addressing the concern about leaning too far to one side. It certainly has at my end. As I’ve been working on my intended contributions, I’ve begun thinking how important two keys to an engaging devout Mormon character in my universe are (1) the culturally and personally idiosyncratic experience of belief and religion, and (2) the constant switching that I bet many of us do between the sometimes conflicting imperatives of various cultural sources. A completed 20th century story and more or less fully conceptualized late 21st century story deal with the first. A spiritually created (and partially fever-induced) 22nd century story deals with the latter. The very roughly visualized 19th century story might do both.

    I haven’t read Steven’s book yet, but I get the impression from what I’ve read about it that it treats the cultural and personal experiences that get played down in more orthodox camp-bound accounts. This is worth doing, but I would like to see and provide more stories about cultural and psychological integration of, for example, belief with fact and faith with science. For all but the preternaturally religion- or science-oriented, some sort of accommodation is required for social harmony and mental stability.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      A powerful, penetrating, entertaining book with nothing but love for its characters. Do yourself a favor and buy it (Amazon offers next-day delivery).

  11. Katya says:

    Kathleen, are there novels published in 2011 that you thought did a better job of portraying Mormons? (I.e., do you see the problem as AML ignoring these novels or are the novels not being written in the first place?)

    • Good question, Katya. I am not aware of any that I felt were ignored by AML this past year. Maybe it is more that such novels not being written.

      As has been expressed, not just by me, the focus seems to be on the quirky, more than on the more middle-of-the-road (ordinary?) Mormons. Almost as if the beautiful writing isn’t enough to make it worth reading–there has to be weirdness as well. Perhaps just as other kinds of fiction seem to have to have romance, mystery, or adventure added to stories with Mormon characters. They can’t just be about Mormons living normal Mormon lives. (And yes, I understand that there’s no such thing as a “normal” Mormon life, but I hope you get my meaning.)

      There’s a kind of mainstream novel that I refer to as “just folks” fiction, and I would think that there were enough “just folks” Mormons out there to be the bases of any number of wonderfully written novels. I just don’t seem to be seeing any, though.

      AML has been known to award novels that aren’t necessarily about Mormons and the Mormon experience, by the way, but those have to have been written by Mormons or people with some kind of Mormon connection.

      Anyway, maybe there just isn’t a market for what I’m asking for.

      • Just wanted to add that I’m reading WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel about Cromwell. The style is quite amazing, and I’m thinking “trendy” for historical fiction. VERY LITERARY and depicts REAL people. I’d like to see this kind of thing more? About outstanding Mormon figures? At least I’ll try it. (Says the ‘umble Mormon history lover.)

  12. My take home from this discussion is as follows:

    1) There’s definitely room in Mormon Lit for The Scholar of Moab–not to mention the short stories of Brigham Borges. Why shouldn’t we enjoy the quirky weird?

    2) There does seem to be a shortage of contemporary realistic literary fiction that has deep respect for believably Mormon characters–especially at novel length. And it would be lovely to see more of that.

    3) People actually do care about the AML Awards. And that’s pretty cool.

  13. It just occurred to me that both my play Prodigal Son (AML Drama Award 2009) and Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets (AML Drama Award 2012) are exactly the sorts of stories Kathleen calls for. Prodigal Son takes both the religious commitment of the son and the atheism of the father seriously. Little Happy Secrets fascinates me because rather than treating its protagonist’s attraction/orientation and religion as dueling forces that act on her, it treats both as integral, organic parts of her. We see her turn to her personal faith as she tries to understand difficult things.

    So in a way, AML has balanced well between different types of stories. The winning dramas (which, though available, have probably not been as widely read) focus more on realistic contemporary characters, while the novels don’t mind going quirky exotic.

    There may be a simply reason for this: when conjoined twins ride up to playwrights, the playwrights have logistical and budget motivations to shoo them off the stage.

    • It would be nice if these plays could be more widely available in print so they could be more widely read (hint, hint). Hasn’t Zarahemla made a step in that direction by publishing some of Mahonri Stewart’s plays, or am I thinking of something else?

        • Wm speaks the truth. That collection has a lot of plays in it–the eBook is 3.99 and it looks like used print copies are currently running at $10 on Amazon. You should check it out.

          I know Stephen Carter has also made attempts to make original Mormon play scripts available to a larger print audience. He printed Samuelsen’s “The Plan” in an issue of Sunstone, for instance, and included “Prodigal Son” in his Best of Mormonism: 2009 collection.

        • Thank you, William and James. That’s good to know.

          I hope I’m not the only one to go find them now and read them.

        • Th. says:


          You won’t regret it. The book is chockfull of awesome. I was just telling someone about the other Goldberg play earlier this week.

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