Recently on A Motley Vision, Wm Morris suggested that Mormon literature advocates are potentially looking beyond the mark when they strive after “literary respectability.” For him—and I hope I’m representing his point accurately—such a pursuit is misguided because any respectability Mormon literature could gain from, say, a national audience or a literary establishment would have to come at a price, namely a willingness to be co-opted by the establishment “for its own purposes,” whatever they may be.
As I see it, this observation implies a few things. First, it suggests that Mormon literature, to be wholeheartedly embraced by the literary powers-that-be, has to be willing to be used politically, much like other minority literatures are sometimes used politically by the establishment, to convey a certain openness or multiculturalism that may or may not actually exist in the establishment itself. In other words, it implies that practitioners of Mormon literature must be willing to let the literary establishment pat its own back on their account.
The observation likewise suggests that Mormon literature must be willing to become what is accepted as respectable by the establishment, which also means that it must be willing to change whatever there is about it that is not acceptable. To gain respectability, that is, Mormon literature has to be be willing to justify itself to the literary world by becoming a kind of Mormon version of what already exists in the establishment—a Mormon Shakespeare or Milton or Roth or Morrison.[i]
With respectability, therefore, Mormon literature risks achieving a kind of Pyrrhic victory: on the one hand, it gains recognition and admiration; on the other, it becomes another literature colonized by the new canon—a compromised literature forced to masquerade as authentic.[ii]
Overall, I tend to agree with Morris on his assessment of the current price of respectability: to make Mormon literature respectable and accessible to the establishment (I don’t see how you could have one without the other) Mormon literature would have to make some changes. Especially if you want it right away.
Look at the examples of The 19th Wife and The Lonely Polygamist. Also take a look at Big Love, The Book of Mormon, and Angels in America. Each of these works is about Mormonism, in one way or another, and has managed to achieve critical acclaim and respectability on a national scale—certainly more so than any novel ever published by a Mormon press, including Deseret Books.
The message seems clear: if you want your Mormon stories to be taken seriously by the establishment, then they have to either depict non-traditional sexualities (at least in the mainstream Mormon community) or cast Mormonism, with its magical Kolobian underwear, as a big joke.[iii]
Don't get me wrong: I’m not saying that polygamy and homosexuality aren’t important issues in contemporary Mormonism. Nor am I saying that they are inappropriate for Mormon literature. [v] What I am saying, though, is that they’re not the only issues occupying the Mormon mind.
The fact is, no one is breaking down doors to read Douglas Thayer or Todd Robert Petersen or any other Mormon writer who chooses to write anything that comes close to suggesting that Mormons are something other than a herd of sexually-repressed/repressive/oversexed weirdos.[vi]
Why is that?
Part of me hopes that it is a matter of accessibility. National critics and audiences, including the literary establishment, are open to Mormon stories about polygamy and homosexuality because they are about national issues—issues about which they have strong opinions. Works like The Lonely Polygamist and Angels in America, therefore, find a wider audience because they address issues that appeal to a wider audience, often in ways that affirm what many readers already feel on the issue.
The same cannot be said, however, about a book like Summer Fire or The Backslider. Who but a Mormon could identify with Owen Williams or Frank Windham? Who but a Mormon could get Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election”?[vii]
Possibly, one way to remedy the barrier between national audiences and more authentic Mormon literatures (i.e. gain literary respectability) would be through education. Teach a national audience, or the literary establishment, about the issues that are important, say, to contemporary Mormon novelists, and the audience will be more likely to be interested in and understand the novelist’s work. If minority literatures show us anything, they show us that we can connect with lives and cultures different from our own as long as they make us care enough to connect.
Of course, making an audience care is tricky. In a guest post on Dawning of a Brighter Day, I once suggested that one way to make certain audiences—specifically, academic audiences—care about Mormon literature would be to develop a body of academic writing about Mormon texts. My idea was that if you produce and publish a sizable body of Mormon literary criticism in reputable venues, then academic recognition and respectability would follow. I still believe this is true, although I readily admit that it will take years and years to bring about.
I wonder if the same principle applies to other audiences as well. If enough of a buzz is made nationally over Mormon literature, would it be sufficient to make people care enough to read a Mormon text on its own terms? Probably, but you still need to find venues willing to cooperate with the buzz efforts. It would be great, for instance, if Oprah selected Bound on Earth or Long After Dark for her popular (and respected) book club, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.[viii] In fact, for the moment, I think a spot on the Oprah Book Club is setting ambitions too high. It’s definitely looking beyond the mark.
As I see it, for Mormon literature to gain wider literary respectability without being colonized by the establishment,[ix] it’s going to need to take it’s time and win its audience over. In fact, before it can take American audiences by storm, it will first need to find a solid Mormon audience. Then, after it has established itself within the Mormon community, and demonstrated its ability to make a dollar, it will have enough uncompromising advocates to carry it safely to the next level, even the Kolobian realms of Oprah.[x]
Of course, getting Mormons to read Mormon literature is a difficult endeavor, and everyone seems to have an opinion on why it hasn’t happened yet. Personally, I don’t think it’s a matter of offensive content or finding Mormons who actually read.[xi] Rather, I think it’s again a matter of education: Mormon readers don’t know what’s out there that’s worth reading.
I wonder, then, if the next step toward respectability is to work toward popularizing Mormon literature among the Mormon masses. No, I don’t mean allowing Mormon literature to be colonized by popular Mormon tastes,[xii] but rather taking the message of Mormon literature to Bloggernacle sites other than, say, A Motley Vision or Dawning of a Brighter Day, where readers have already gotten the message.
This strategy, of course, has been proposed before. Last year, Jonathan Langford posted on A Motely Vision about his attempt to start a conversation about Mormon Literature on an Amazon.com messagae board. I think he’s got the right idea, although I wonder if Amazon is the right place for it.
Currently, the Bloggernacle has many popular, well-travelled blogs that address Mormonism culturally rather than doctrinally or institutionally. I wonder if flooding these sites with energetic guest posts about Mormon literature might be the way the get the word out among the Mormons.[xiii]
In his essay “The Burden of Skepticism,” scientist Carl Sagan chides his fellow scientists for their apparent unwillingness to popularize science for the masses, leaving the door open for pseudo-science to take its place. He reasons that if scientists were able to explain science to “the average person” through “accessible and exciting” means, then the masses would become more interested in real science, and imaginative substitutes, like astrology, would begin to lose its audience.
Could this be true also with Mormon literature? If Mormon literature advocates blasted the Bloggernacle with “accessible and exciting” posts about Mormon literature, would Mormon readers begin to seek out Bound on Earth before The Help? Would that be enough to get Mormon literature on the road to respectability without compromise?
Or do we need to wait for a Mormon Oprah to do the job for us?
[i] I think Morris makes an important, potentially revolutionary point here. Thanks to Orson F. Whitney, who said that Mormons will someday have Shakespeares and Miltons of their own, Mormon writers have looked to the day when a Mormon Milton or Shakespeare would arrive on the scene, messiah-like, and grant respectability to Mormon literature. In his post, however, Morris seems to be suggesting that we're placing too much hope in this “prophesy”—and possibly even allowing it to lead us and Mormon literature astray. I hope he’s right in this respect, since a gentile Milton is bad enough.
[ii] I recognize, by the way, that terms like “Mormon literature” and “literary establishment” are problematic because they are vague and unspecific. What makes a work of literature authentically Mormon? Who makes up the literary establishment? These are questions for other posts. For the sake of this post, though, think of the literary establishment as those who put together or are included in, say, the Norton or Longman literature anthologies that are used by universities across the country.
[iii] If anything irritates me more, it’s the phrase “magical underwear,” which seems to be a media darling.
[iv] And your example can’t include a story about a grisly, religiously-motivated murder, either. Sorry Krakauer fans.
[v] In fact, I’d be willing to say that a Mormon literature that is not willing to address these issues is not much of a Mormon literature at all.
[vi] Of course, the more I read of nineteenth century depictions of Mormon, the more I realize that this has always been the stereotype. The Book of Mormon musical brings nothing new to the table aside from a few catchy songs.
[vii] I’m a Mormon, and I’m not sure I entirely get it.
[viii] While Oprah has endorsed a book about Mormons before, it is not a book many Mormons will likely appreciate.
[ix] A case of having cake and eating it too.
[x] Personally, I hope we set our sights higher than Oprah—although, I admit, Oprah would be big.
[xi] There is an erroneous belief, perpetuated by frustrated Mormon readers, that Mormons don’t read.
[xii] That didn’t work out too well for Mormon cinema.
[xiii] I tried to do this recently, with moderate success, on the blog Modern Mormon Men with a guest post entitled “The Five Mormon Books Every Modern Mormon Man Should Read.”