Incidentally Mormon Literature

Some literature is Mormon to the bones. This includes — maybe is identical to — literature that is to some important extent about the experience of being Mormon. The story turns out the way it does partly because the main character is Mormon; being Mormon influences his/her key choices. The work may take a variety of stances toward being Mormon, from home literature (old or new) to lost generation, faithful realism, or ex-Mormon satire, but when you read the book there’s no question that if you threw out the Mormon element, the story would change in some noticeable way. This is what people are advocating when they say that if you make a character Mormon, it should make a difference.

And then there are those stories that are only incidentally Mormon. I’m thinking, for example, of Steve Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell, in which the main character’s Mormonness is played up for laughs a few times, but could be from basically any background. It’s possible, of course — likely, even — that at some deep level Peck’s construction of his main character includes his Mormon background as an important element, but if so, it’s not something we as readers are aware of.

So is the mention of Mormonism a weakness in Steve Peck’s story? A distraction to the reader? I don’t think so. Indeed, while books about Mormonness may be centrally important for the development of Mormon literature, books with characters or settings that are only incidentally Mormon probably provide a clearer index to penetration of Mormonism as part of American literature.

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There’s a philosophy that everything you put into a story should serve to advance the plot. A lot of people expand this to include “and develop the character.”

This is one of those statements which, in my view, either doesn’t mean as much as it sounds like, or simply isn’t true — at least for longer genres such as the novel. Maybe it’s a reasonable standard for a short story. But the appeal of novels, in my observation, lies to a large extent in the world they create for us to enter. They present a slice of life. And life includes a lot of things that don’t play neatly into plot-patterns.

(One theorist whose views of the novel I find particularly thought-provoking is Bakhtin, whose term heteroglossia has to do with how the language of the novel warps around individual characters in ways that reflect their own language. At least, that’s my 10-second summary. I’m not entirely sure I believe everything Bakhtin says about the novel, but it’s fascinating stuff. And much easier to follow than French theorists, not that that’s saying much…)

There must, of course, be some coherence. The work of art isn’t a part of life; it’s a work of art, an artifact of human craft. But still, the appeal of this particular literary form, in my view, lies in part in its invitation to explore a world of the imagination. Some peripheral elements are okay, if they add to the concreteness of the experience.

Which is where incidental Mormonism comes in. There are, it should be easy to agree, no generic individuals. Every person is particular and specific. Literary characters should be the same way. A character without individual details isn’t really a character at all, anymore than a face with all of its features obscured is a face. (Speaking of Edward Gorey’s prune people.)

So why not have a character that is incidentally Mormon, just as he/she may be incidentally brown-haired, married, living in house in a South Dakota suburb with a dog named Ecclesiastes? Part of the attraction of reading (and writing) stories, for me at least, lies in getting to know individual quirky people. Why can’t those people be Mormons?

Reading some of the Whitney finalists from the last several years has been quite disappointing in this respect. Some of these stories, as I recall, were clearly based on the author’s conception of a Mormon character, from a Mormon family. But the details were all obscured — like the wisps painted post facto over the naughty bits in Michelangelo.

Which makes me wonder: what are the reasons for this reticence? Artistic choice? Maybe — except, as I say, that in general, a better fleshed-out character is superior to a drab abstract one. Desire to appeal to non-Mormons? But I like reading about Jews, Catholics, Baptists. Why wouldn’t non-Mormons want to read about characters who happen to be Mormon? Either it’s not true, in which case it’s an instance of unnecessary self-censorship by authors (or their publishers) — or it is true, in which case I have to ask, in a more serious way: what is it about Mormons and our American culture that makes it unacceptable to read a story about a Mormon, unless it’s a story about a Mormon? If that makes sense.

Some may argue that even if making your characters Mormon turns off only a few people, why run that risk? To which I would say: every word other than a, an, and the is likely to have negative connotations for some readers. But we wouldn’t have anything to attract readers, either, if we left out all the words. To turn on some readers is to turn off others.

And yeah, there are times when it simply works better to have a non-Mormon character. Scott Card, when he wanted to write about a human colony with a strong religious life, wrote about Catholics. But there were reasons for that which went along nicely with other particulars of the story he was telling. Besides which, Card has done plenty of writing featuring Mormons in various roles, including cases where the Mormonism was incidental. (Can anyone say Ender’s Game?) He’s definitely earned a pass on this one.

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There’s a way in which I agree with the notion that a character’s Mormonness should mean something. That is to say, I think any character should be well-conceived. If you have created a character who is Mormon — or Muslim, or autistic, or a die-hard soccer fan — you should think about how that dimension fits with the other elements of that character’s personality to make a coherent whole. You should know what Mormonism means to that person, even if it’s not an important part of the story.

And you should get it right. Allen Drury gets points for making Brigham Anderson’s internal conflict over his homosexual impulses (influenced by his Mormonism) part of the central drama of Advise and Consent. But he quickly loses many of those points by his ignorance of the fact that for Mormons, a mission is only temporary. Likewise Tony Kushner in Angels in America, as I’ve argued elsewhere.

I also suspect that part of the reticence of Mormon authors in including Mormon characters has to do with a developing sense that it’s not exactly polite to talk too much about religion in public. I think, though, that a lot of this isn’t so much people being turned off by religion, as a kind of self-perpetuating habit in recent years of simply not including much about religion in a lot of our stories, even when they would be a part of our character’s lives. And sometimes religion may be a distraction. For some kinds of books, it could be an enormous distraction. (Can you imagine the main character in Diary of a Wimpy Kid telling us about his prayers at night? On the other hand, that could be really hilarious…)

In short: stories about what it means to be Mormon, yeah, great. I mean, heck, I wrote one. But let’s not look down on or ignore stories where the characters are Mormon in the same way they eat peanut butter and potato chip sandwiches and practice the piano after school (under protest, with nagging by Mom). Let Mormonism be an accent sometimes, not the dominant flavor.

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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3 Responses to Incidentally Mormon Literature

  1. Th. says:

    .

    This has been a recurring topic of discussion in the arts class I’ve been teaching. I personally have been arriving at the conclusion that we’re too dang assimilated. And we expend so much energy in passing as normal not-Mormon people that we don’t wish to allow any cracks in that armor. It’s instinctive at this point. Plus, we’re just too nice to risk ever looking like missionaries in public. Better to stick with Catholics.

  2. Casey Anderson says:

    Hello, thank you for your article. I have been pondering the same since I began writing. The question has always been, how do I write about my experience as a Mormon without being didactic and without coming across as a missionary.
    I recently read a novel coming out by a professor at BYU-Idaho. It, I feel, is the perfect example of writing about Mormons without writing about Mormons, if that makes sense. What I mean is it deals with issues that Mormons face and the reconciliation of their faith and their environment. In fact, I don’t think it ever said “Mormon” at any point in the novel. It never once forced the reader to think a certain way but simply presented it there before them.
    We have an interesting story to tell people. The Mormon experience is wholly unique and people want to understand this. They don’t, however, want to be preached to. As Mormon writers I feel that the worst thing we could do in our writing is to preach. We do, however, need to share this experience along with its difficulties with our readers.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Casey,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I actually think there’s been a fair amount of good, interest Mormon literature produced — but it’s mostly being published by small small presses and doesn’t get a very large readership, either inside or outside of Mormonism.

      Has the novel you mentioned been published? If so, please feel free to share the author and title. We always like to hear readers recommending good books!

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