For the past two years or so I have been reading Mormon novels as literary efforts to reconcile Mormonism’s utopian ideals of social betterment and radical world reform with its desire to be recognized and accepted as a mainstream participant in American society. I think this kind of cultural work is pretty clearly evident in the Mormon novel’s first hundred years (1888-1988) and even in most works since the 1990s. However, as we move further into the twenty-first century, I’m noticing a shift as some works resist this kind of reading.
Part of the shift, I think, has to do with changes in how Mormon writers view their relationship to the Church as an institution. In the days of Nephi Anderson, Mormon novels often had a propagandistic quality to them that worked hand-in-hand with the Church’s efforts to promote itself as a monogamous mainstream Christian denomination with a phenomenal health code. Later in the century, Mormon writers who did not follow this propagandistic mode took a different route—often deliberately contrary—that used the novel as a vehicle for internal critique. We see this in the writings of Lost Generation and Faithful Realist writers who gave us characters whose marginal place within Mormon worlds challenged the way the Church and its dominant culture maintained its borders—frequently to show how this border maintenance failed to live up to the Restoration’s vision of Zion, the ideal society.
While we still see these trends in Mormon novels today—particularly in works published through Signature, Zarahemla, and Cedar Fort—we’re beginning to see the rise of a new Mormon fiction that is more interested in viewing Mormonism as a playground of endless possibilities than as a reformer’s tool.
Maybe this has to do with the current Mormon moment. Throughout the twentieth-century, cultural tensions ran high as much between Mormons and non-Mormon as Mormons and themselves—with very few outlets for expressing and exploring these tensions openly and honestly without serious repercussions. Since the rise of the internet and Bloggernacle, however, these tensions have abated quite a bit as blogs and other forms of social media have mediated these tensions and made them rather pedestrian. Twenty years ago, many Mormons would have been scandalized by the posts on Feminist Mormon Housewives and By Common Consent and ecclesiastical leaders would have had their hands full trying to put out heretical fires; thanks to social media, however, and other forms of information sharing, Mormons have become more aware of and used to alternative voices. Utopian expression—in the form of propaganda and/or critique—has become commonplace in the Mormon community and almost anyone with Internet access can participate in it (openly or anonymously) without getting called into the Bishop’s or Stake President’s office. Furthermore, when mainstream media outlets get Mormonism “wrong,” Mormons don’t have to stew about it until someone publishes a response in Dialogue or Sunstone. They can respond instantaneously en masse—and then move on.
This new intellectual climate, in many ways, has drained the utopian energies of Faithful Realism, which has, along with its counterparts in Mormon history and sociology, carried the banner of alternative Mormonism for the last forty years. Some works, like The Backslider and Douglas Thayer’s novels, are still powerful and relevant. Others, like Linda Sillitoe’s Sideways to the Sun or John Bennion’s Falling Toward Heaven, remain readable, but seem increasingly less relevant to a present where online communities of, say, Mormon feminists are more visible and effective in their activism. This, of course, is a good sign because it means Mormon literature is evolving in new directions rather than stagnating. At the same time, I’m sure it makes some traditionalists worried about what the future holds for Mormon letters.
And what does the future hold? I think the present gives us some clues. The Internet is changing Mormon culture in a variety of ways, and one of the main catalysts of this change is the seemingly unlimited and unrestricted access to information about Mormonism via blogs, podcasts, databases, and other information/research resources. Mormons (along with those interested in Mormonism) are now exposed to facts, opinions, and ideas about their religion in an almost unparalleled way. Some Mormons, as the New York Times reported this summer, are finding this access to be a very harrowing and faith-destroying development. Others revel in the intellectual freedom it allows and use it to amass and dump information for the hungry minds of cultural, historical, and theological analysts.
In short: The Internet has created a time of much excitement and anxiety in Mormonism, an intellectual climate not unlike Mormonism’s nineteenth-century publishing boom or the 1970s Camelot—but on steroids.
In this Mormon moment, the new Mormon fiction to emerge captures the euphoria and anxiety of this information dump. We get fiction, often (but not always) absurd, comprised of documents, document fragments, and interviews (The Scholar of Moab, “Gilda Trillim,” A Short Stay in Hell, Byuck, “Singer and Saint: An Interview with Jeevan Sidhu”); conflicts between individuals and information rather than individuals and the Church, its members, or the mainstream (The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, A Sense of Order, The Scholar of Moab, A Short Stay in Hell); genre-bending (“Family History,” Brother Brigham, A Sense of Order, Magdalene, The Scholar of Moab, Monsters & Mormons, A Short Stay in Hell, Byuck); indifference to historical fact (“Maurine Whipple, 16, Takes a Train North,” City of the Saints, The Five Books of Jesus, “A Strange Report from the Church Archives”); unreliable narrators (The Scholar of Moab, Lightning Tree, the introduction to Monsters & Mormons); an inconsequential stance (neither pro nor con) towards institutional Mormonism (see all of the above); vignettes or snapshots of Mormon life (Mormon flash fiction, @MormonShorts, “Gentle Persuasions”); future Mormonisms and dystopias (Monsters & Mormons, “Release,” “Avek, Who is Distributed,” “Oaxaca,” “Dark Watch”); and Mormon maximalism (The Lonely Polygamist, “Gilda Trillim”). These attributes combine to give us a Mormon fiction that emphasizes discovery/recovery and creative production, subverts us/them paradigms and perspectives, creates disorientation and forces readers to configure new realities, undermines notions of historical truth and faith in the historical record, and captures at once the fleeting, ephemeral quality of Mormon life filtered through online interaction and the exhausting challenge of coming to terms with too much information.
What I’ve just described, of course, could simply be evidence that Mormon fiction has finally caught up with literary postmodernism—proving once more that Mormon culture tends to lag thirty years behind the mainstream. At the same time, I think we sell Mormon literature short if we think of the above-mentioned works as Mormon knock-offs of John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, or David Foster Wallace. While this new Mormon fiction undoubtedly borrows from literary postmodernism, it is responding directly to the precarious place Mormonism finds itself at the dawn of the new millennium. Aware of the challenge to embrace the openness of Internet culture while maintaining identifiable Mormon borders, it invites readers to revel in and explore the cultural chaos that surrounds them. It reminds us that the past is an enigmatic archive, the present an icy hill, the future something between a dream and a nightmare. It is exciting fiction that is itself a utopia: a bishop’s storehouse-turned-funhouse where our anxieties about Mormonism can find relief and transform, if we let them, into perfect brightnesses of hope.
*Eugene England uses this term in Bright Angels and Familiars and “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects” to describe what I might classify as late-Faithful Realism. In this essay, I’m stealing it, with deep respect and gratitude, and applying it to an even newer set of writers whose fiction, I believe, has less in common with Faithful Realism than the “new” works England identifies in his essays.
 Not to be confused with the Mormon Moment invented by PR departments and news articles. When I say “the Mormon moment,” I’m referring to the NOW of early 21st-century Mormonism.
 I’m thinking here of the great cultural clashes of 20th-century Mormonism: the Reed Smoot hearings, Mormon expansion and globalization, retrenchment and Correlation, the Mormon culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the September Six, etc.