The New Mormon Fiction*

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

 

Notes:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

This entry was posted in Mormon LitCrit and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The New Mormon Fiction*

  1. Wm says:

    I think what we’re seeing is just as much or even more informed by genre fiction and the meta-genre works that are the D&C, Pearl and Great Price and Book of Mormon as by Barth, Pynchon and DFW (the only work by those authors I have read is DFW’s nonfiction and his collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men). I could be wrong by that, but it seems to me that direct engagement with literary postmodernism is a bit of a dead end (something that mainstream American writers have also discovered and turned away from) and that genre fiction offers much more vivid and inventive engagements with things like metafiction and unreliable narrators and multiple discourses. That puts Mormon writers not on belated terms but on standard terms with other writers — those techniques (which predate postmodern fiction, actually, but seemed much more innovative than they were because of the turn to literary realism that American fiction in particular took) are simple a tool in the box and the fiction is not so much about those tools specifically but about how those tools can serve what the story actually is engaging with.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think I’m on board with what you’re saying here. As I see it, new Mormon fiction has more in common with literary postmodernism in its playfulness, intertextuality, genre-bending, and metafictional work–which are as apparent in the works of the postmodernists I reference as they are in the sophisticated genre fiction you seem to be referencing (which can itself be labeled “postmodern”).

      What I try to suggest in my post is that the new Mormon fiction borrows from this late-century tradition on an aesthetic and stylistic level–but takes its own path in how it chooses to respond to the turmoil of Mormonism in the new millennium–thus skirting the “deadend” of meaninglylessness that postmodernism arguably hits on a philosophical or ideological level. At the same time, I think this fiction is much more open to varieties of meaning within texts–which is not always the case with its more didactic/utopian predecessors.

      I’m not sure I see any difference between what the new Mormon fiction does with genre fiction and what postmodern fiction broadly does with it. Perhaps Mormon writers are simply more willing to call it/market it as “genre” fiction.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        Historically, I think there’s more evidence to suggest that postmodern writers followed genre writers in this than vice versa. Perhaps most likely (as I suggest below) is that they responded in similar ways to various cultural phenomena.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I think that’s the standard view. Modernism cast genre fiction as low fiction while postmodernism embraced and borrowed from it in its efforts to subvert arbitrary classifications.

      • Th. says:

        .

        I see so much variety in the Mormon fiction out there right now that I’m exceedingly curious to see where we end up. This is a fertile period and many possible futures are opening up. I’m loathe to make bets, but I’m glad to participate.

      • Wm says:

        I agree, Scott. I also feel like there’s a particular nexus of masculinity, history and modernity that the “main” postmodern literary fiction writers are responding to that I don’t see as being a primary concern for the “new” Mormon fiction writers.

        • Th. says:

          .

          I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to, but a not-particular “nexus of masculinity, history and modernity” is important in Rift or Scholar of Moab and, perhaps, “Dark Watch.”

          But like I said: I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    I agree with William, but also like your concluding sentence: “It is an exciting fiction that is itself a utopia: a bishop’s storehouse-turned-funhouse…”

    It’s possible, of course, to argue that the genre artists are themselves influenced by postmodernism. I think, though, that it’s more reasonable to assume that they’re all responding to the same set of late-20th/early-21st century phenomena (explosion of information, undercutting of certainties, lessons in the perils of ideological literalism, etc.) that make playfulness and metatextuality seem like more relevant — and more enjoyable — responses.

  3. Tyler says:

    Scott:

    You discuss ways that writers of new Mormon fiction may be impacted by the increasing availability of information and the growth of open discussion about Mormonism on the internet and otherwise. But what about the possibility that said writers are also becoming more willing to respond to the deep playfulness of Mormon theology and more adept at exploring that playfulness and its potential implications and iterations in narrative art? Mormon theology is, after all, revisionary. It demands constant movement (anxious engagement)—that we constantly assess and reassess where we stand in relation to others, to God, to the universe, and to the social and cultural institutions in which our lives are embedded. And it demands that we stir these institutions up, that we do what we can with our gifts and talents, etc., to motivate change in them and in others’ lives, to potentially facilitate needed revisions in our socio-cultural environments.

    Might writers of new Mormon fiction be playing at this playfulness, an opportunity made available because more pedestrian modes of Utopian expression (as you call it) have moved to online social interactions and monographs about Mormon sociology and history, freeing space in our narrative arts for alternative explorations of Mormon theology?

    Just thinking aloud (as it were).

    • Scott Hales says:

      “But what about the possibility that said writers are also becoming more willing to respond to the deep playfulness of Mormon theology and more adept at exploring that playfulness and its potential implications and iterations in narrative art?”

      Yes. In fact, I think the discovery of the playfulness in Mormon theology is one of the things surfacing as more information about early Mormon history and the evolution of Mormon thought comes to light. What we are finding is that there are, despite everything we’ve heard in Sunday school, a lot of gray areas and uncertainties about what is and is not or has been Mormon doctrine. This is part of what makes Mormonism adaptable to shifting historical-cultural conditions and part of what makes the “space” for contemporary Mormon responses to this heterodoxy so fertile.

      • Wm says:

        You know the internet certainly helped, but you’ve caused me to think about where my preoccupations come from, and I can definitely trace those back to my first semester at community college where I had no work study job (soon remedied the next semester) and so I spent my free time at the institute reading Nibley and the Journal of Discourse and then my first semester at Cal where I, once again, had no work study job and I spent my free time going through the shelves of Mormon fiction at the Berkeley institute as well as the few items available at the Doe library.

        Federal work study (or the lack thereof) created a Mormon writer.

    • Th. says:

      .

      I certainly think Joseph Smith would have been okay with the adjective “playful”—and I also think no one took our theology more seriously.

  4. One thing I see in many of the works you mention that may separate Mormon stories from postmodern ones is the deeper investment in relationships and community that Mormon stories seem to have. While individual alienation/isolation is a theme of a lot of postmodern and literary fiction, the current crop of Mormon stories seem focused on the continuing need for connection–to contemporaries, forebears, myths, aspirations, etc.

    “Maurine Whipple, age 16, takes the train north” may be ahistorical, but is not structured to comment on its own ahistoricity. The central gravity of the story seems to be the desire to connect generations–in this case of writers. The story justifies its ahistoricity, you could say, through the very Mormon idea that links must be forged between generations.

    Even A Short Stay in Hell, which involves a great deal of individual isolation and alienation, strikes me as informed by the author’s Mormonism in the relatively bright outlook on the possibility of relationships anyway. (If I recall correctly, there’s a happy, creative thousand-year relationship between the protagonist and his main love interest before circumstances separate them. Considering the book is set in a hell, that suggests a fairly high confidence in relationships on the narrative’s part.)

    “Oaxaca” is extremely communally oriented given its participation in the genre of collapse and apocalypse. “Gentle Persuasions” features plenty of moments of either feeling deep connection with others and with mythic inheritance or else falling short of such moments while placing faith in their possibility. “Jeevan Sidhu” is most focused on the mythic side of connection, but also has a backdrop in deep human relationships and a sense of home.

    I wonder whether Mormon authors are most influenced by the sociology of Mormon family and community, which is in turn influenced by doctrine and mythic inheritance. Compared with literatures of alienation and dislocation, one of the salient recurring characteristics of Mormon narrative is a strong implicit or explicit belief in connection and community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>