Cultural texts do not exist independent of one another, but in an interdependent relationship we call the tradition. New texts rely on the tradition of older texts, and older texts depend on new texts to keep the tradition vibrant and relevant. The text that leaves no inheritance—or makes no case for its place in one—damns itself to obscurity. We read Hamlet today not because of what it is, but because of what it sustained and made possible. The same is true about watching the television series Lost, the presence of which we now feel whenever we hear the Gilligan’s Isle theme, read Joseph Hilton’s Lost Horizon or Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or watch the latest episode of Once Upon a Time or Revolution. We also catch the scent of it in the most episodic of television shows—past and present—and their refusal to conform to the serial format Lost reinvigorated.
Closely associated with tradition is imitation. For beginning artists, imitation is a useful way to learn necessary skills while learning the tradition. When I was a senior in high school, for example, my creative writing professor had us write poetry that imitated famous poems like “Dover Beach” and e. e. cummings’ “in just—.” Later, as an art major at Ricks College, I kept a “Masters Journal” of sketches done of in imitation of the Old Masters of the Renaissance. The theory behind these exercises—and that’s precisely what they were: exercises—was that imitation offered some insight into the style and technique of successful artists. Through them I was supposed to find my own artistic sense. Imitation was never meant to be the end of the line.
Sadly, imitation often seems to be the goal of Mormon cultural production, particularly in the kitschmarket. I became aware of this when I worked as an early-morning custodian at the BYU Bookstore, one of the great Meccas of the Mormon Knock-Offs industry. Since then, I’ve kept an eye out for examples. Here are a few of them:
- Settlers of Zarahemla, a knock-off of the board game Settlers of Cataan
- Charly, Jack Weyland’s knock-off of Love Story
- Pat Bagley’s Norman the Nephite books, knock-offs of the Where’s Waldo franchise
- Obert Skye’s Levin Thumps books, one of several Mormon Harry Potter knock-offs
- Halestorm’s The Home Teachers, a shameless Mormon knock-off of Tommy Boy and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
- Green CTR bracelet knock-offs of the yellow Livestrong wristbrands
- Jericho Road, a Mormon Backstreet Boys
- Daniel Beck, a Mormon Josh Groban
You can probably come up with a few more—especially if you have more frequent and direct exposure to the LDS kitschmarket than I do. The rule seems to be that if anything has recently hit it big on the national stage, some Mormon entrepreneur had already capitalized on it with a knock-off. You can even find knock-offs of successful Mormon products like The Work and the Glory, which has spawned several less-successful imitations (see here and here for examples) since its initial publication in 1991. The same is also true, I imagine, for the Tennis Shoes series.
Imitation, of course, is not unique to Mormon culture as all culture follows the trends that prove most popular and lucrative. Take a look at the inbreeding that happens in the YA fantasy market, where books about boy wizards, vampires, and post-apocalyptic dystopias give birth to more of the same. Originality and trend-setting is a more difficult task, and Mormons writers—with the exception, perhaps, of Stephenie Meyer—seem more likely to follow trends than to start them. This was true even in the early days. What is B. H. Roberts’ Corianton but a Mormon knock-off of Ben-Hur? What is Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon but a Mormon knock-off of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward? Both Ben-Hur and Looking Backward were enormous best-sellers in the late nineteenth century, after all, and Roberts and Anderson certainly took note of them.
Some Mormon fiction, to be sure, rises above the level of imitation. While The Backslider seems to have much in common thematically with Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, it seems to be more in conversation with that book than an imitation of it. Likewise, Jack Harrell’s Vernal Promises seems less an imitation of The Backslider than an engaged rewriting of it. In a sense, each novel is indebted to the one before it, and each modifies the way we understand the others, without becoming an overt plagiarism. Much the same thing occurs in Margaret Young and Darius Gray’s Standing on the Promises series (read this too), which clearly borrows from the conventions of Gerald Lund’s The Work and the Glory series (and its imitators), yet subverts them—even to the extent of Signifin(g) on them—with an alternative version of Mormon history that privileges the story of African-American Mormons over those of their white brothers and sisters.
Even these novels, however, are rather imitative on the levels of form, style, tone, and structure. As far as I can tell, the Mormon literary avant-garde moves a cautious twenty years or thirty years behind the cutting edges of the literary establishment—and even then the avant-garde plays it safe. Douglas Thayer, for example, is probably the Mormon fiction writer most affected by American Modernism, yet his brand of Modernism is more Hemingway and Fitzgerald than Faulkner. And as postmodernism goes, Mormon authors have tended to be more Raymond Carver than Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. Again, this conservatism seems to have always been the case. While Added Upon is a kind of paradoxically imitative work of experimental fiction, Anderson’s subsequent novels generally hold the conventional line of popular didactic fiction.
Why Mormon fiction tends to follow rather than innovate is a question we can open up for debate. I believe it has something to do with assimilation and the desire to fit in and be respected. Even though we don’t realize it, I think we Mormons are still smarting from a childhood of playground bullying. Having been abused early in the national presses, and soundly threatened by the fatherland to shape up or ship out, we have a deeply-rooting need to prove our worth and show that we’re just as good as the other kids. When we write, we’re not trying to show how different we are or how innovative we can be—that’s proved to be way too dangerous in the past. Instead, we’re simply trying to show that we’re smart enough, skilled enough, and normal enough to write a short story or novel that doesn’t raise a suspicious eyebrow or merit easy dismissal. And we take the same approach to other forms of culture, from poetry to film to t-shirt design.
Of course, I think Mormon knock-off culture will diminish as Mormonism matures and gains more confidence in itself and its worldview. How long that will take is as predictable as the Second Coming, yet I’ll play the Millerite and guess that the end of Mormon cultural dependence on imitation will happen on October 22, 2044. By then, I imagine, we’ll find our own niche in the tradition and build upon it in a way that is more innovative than imitative. However, we must learn how to participate in and contribute to larger conversation in order for this to happen. If we allow ourselves merely to parrot other works in with a gentle Utah accent, we do no better than the man who bolts his bed to his parents’ basement floor and orders new wallpaper from Amazon. Sometime between now and thirty-two years from now, we’ll need to pack up our U-Haul and bid the parents adieu. We’ve learned a lot from them, and they are part of who we are, but it’s time to do our own thing with the DNA they passed down to us. We need to do it and they need us to do it. It’s in both of our best interests.
A few developments give me hope that we’re moving in the right direction. Mormons have seized the blogosphere and created the so-called “Bloggernacle,” a digital behemoth that even outsiders recognize as distinctive and culturally insightful. Recent Mormon literary contests like the Mormon Lit Blitz and the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contests, while less-recognized, have also done much by claiming flash fiction as a genre for innovative Mormon expression. (I was impressed, for example, with how stories like “Little Karl,” “Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North,” “Release,” and “Avek, Who is Distributed” told Mormon stories that took us off the beaten paths of Mormon storytelling.) These developments and others make me wonder if we cannot find a way to combine storytelling with the technological possibilities of hypertext, video streaming, social media, memes, e-publishing, and anything else out there that’s available to redefine the way we experience storytelling. Writers have been experimenting with this kind of literature for at least the last twenty-five years or so anyway, so Mormons are about due to pick up on the trend, which hasn’t quite gone mainstream yet.
Perhaps, uncharacteristically, we can jump the gun and make a mark in electronic literature before it becomes the standard.1
1 Maybe it’s too soon to be calling for a new fiction contest or Lit Blitz, but I think one that encourages technological and narratival innovation is in order. James?