Yesterday I presented a paper on Mormon fiction at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. Two weeks before the conference, the panel chair emailed me and asked that I somehow work Romney and the Mormon Moment into my presentation. I originally had not planned to do this, but I was more than happy to oblige since it gave me an opportunity think more about what Mormon literature has to offer non-Mormon readers.
What follows is the conclusion to my paper. It's here that I address the Romney/Mormon lit/non-Mormon reader question most directly.
As I hope this very brief overview shows, Mormon fiction is moving away from the American West and seeking to tell less traditional Mormon stories. Still, the question remains: Why read Mormon literature? I think I can adequately answer that question for Mormons—and I have done so many times—but I struggle to answer it for everyone else. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, of course, makes the struggle somewhat easier. In an age when an American president’s religious beliefs often have a significant influence on national and global policies, people are understandably curious—even anxious—to learn more about those beliefs. Mormon fiction, therefore, provides readers with an opportunity to get to know Mormons and Mormonism without sitting down with the missionaries. Realistic Mormon fiction, after all, is not like a pesky white-shirted missionary: it will not invite you to be baptized into the Mormon Church, it will not ask you to read the Book of Mormon, and it certainly will not ask you to believe what Mormons believe. It will, however, give you a fair idea of how Mormonism plays out daily in a “real world” setting and how it informs the lives and worldviews of Mormons, particularly their notions of selfhood, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and social responsibility. More importantly, I think, it shows the variety of Mormon experiences out there by undermining stereotypes that tend to cast Mormons as a homogenous herd that thinks and behaves uniformly. Of course, Mormon fiction is no substitute for getting to know an actual Mormon, just as reading any piece of minority literature is no substitute for actual cultural interaction. However, for those hesitant to take such steps, Mormon fiction provides a perfectly adequate alternative. In fact, I would recommend Todd Robert Petersen’s Long After Dark and the anthology Dispensation: Latter-Day Fiction as a good places to start.
But what happens if Romney doesn’t get the Republican nomination? What happens if he never gets elected? What happens if The Book of Mormon musical ends its run on Broadway, teenagers stop reading Twilight, and Harry Reed dies of a heart attack at age 75? What happens if the current Mormon Moment fizzles out? Will contemporary Mormon fiction still be relevant to American readers? Will there still be a pressing need to read it?
As one who studies Mormon fiction, I would argue that there is. I’d like to think, after all, that Mormon fiction has more to offer than insight into a presidential candidate’s psyche, and I’d certainly like to think that Mormon culture has more to offer than a storehouse of easily parodied images. I’d also like to think that Mormon fiction has the potential to speak to others the way Jewish fiction, African-American fiction, gay and lesbian fiction, and other minority fictions have been able to speak to others of different backgrounds and world views. Ultimately, I’d even like to think that Mormon fiction can answer the question posed by Louis Ironson to his gay Mormon lover in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America: “How can a fundamentalist theocratic religion function participatorily in a pluralistic secular democracy?” (215). While I, of course, would not characterize twenty-first-century Mormonism as “a fundamentalist theocratic religion,” I think Louis’s question is a valid one that Mormon fiction can answer. In fact, I think twenty-first century Mormon fiction would do well—at least in America—to explore further the problematics of being a close-knit religious community that strives to engage itself actively within the “pluralistic secular democracy” it is a part of. Indeed, because of Mormonism’s long, complicated history with America, Mormon fiction is perhaps perfectly situated to be an excellent go-to place for anyone interested in studying fiction that explores America’s complex relationship with religion.