Monday, October 8, 2012

Brace Yourselves: Mormon Literature and the Drop in Missionary Age

Much has been said already about what effects the drop in missionary age for men and women may have on the Church and its culture. I don't have much to add that hasn't been said in three or four other places. I'm excited about the change and the ways it will likely affect how LDS youth prepare for missions, college, and the rest of life. In twenty-five years, I'm sure we'll all look back and talk about how Saturday's announcement brought about this or that new Mormon cultural practice.

One thing I haven't heard anyone say anything about yet is the effect the age drop will have on Mormon literature. Missionary work has been a major part of Mormon letters since the earliest missionaries wrote down their experiences and even published them. Someone more schooled in early Mormon letters (Kent Larsen perhaps?) can probably cite our earliest example of missionary literature--maybe something by Parley P. Pratt--but I can say with some certainty (and feel free to correct my errors) that Susa Young Gates' The Little Missionary (1899) is probably the first Mormon novel about missionary service followed by Nephi Anderson's Romance of a Missionary (serialized 1907, novel 1919).  Since then, countless others have appeared, including recently Alan Rex Mitchell's Angel of the Danube, Coke Newell's On the Road to Heaven, Douglas Thayer's The Tree House, and S.P. Bailey's Millstone City. Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction also has some missionary stories, including Laura McCune-Poplin's "Salvation," a rare story about sister missionaries. 

I don't presume to be a great predictor of the future (Lost knocked that presumption out of me), but here are a few of my thoughts on how the age drop could affect Mormon literature. Since my preference is for fiction, my thoughts will mainly focus there. Poetry folks: feel free to add your thoughts on how the drop will alter Mormon poetry.

  •  Obviously, we're going to have more mission stories. I'm not a big fan of mission stories, and I count myself lucky any time I get through a Sunday meeting without hearing or sharing one. Still, I recognize that they are one of the largest sub-genres of Mormon lit and will only become more abundant as more missionaries enter the field and gain experience. My hope is that with more missionaries comes higher-quality mission storytelling. Quantity does not always result in quality, of course, but I expect that there's a greater chance that good mission writing will happen when there are more missionaries in the field. You have a better chance of having an Elder Milton and a Sister Shakespeare if you have a group of 100 rather than a group of 10.
  • Speaking of Sister Shakespeare, we're going to have more literature about the sister missionary experience. With more women leaving for missions at a younger age, we're bound to see an end to the male dominated storylines that have long had a chokehold on the sub-genre. I think this may redeem missionary fiction for me. It needs something to change it up a bit. More fiction by returned sister missionaries about sister missionaries might do the trick. Fiction about non-American missionaries, I'd add, would also help the sub-genre out. (So I argue, at least, in the latest issue of Dialogue). 
  • We'll have new conflicts and tensions. So much of Mormon YSA culture centers around missionary work. You have preemies, RMs, waiting girlfriends, women waiting to serve, etc. If you stop and think about how much the old system affected the way Mormon young adults go about life, it's amazing. The age drop with bring about new cultural practices, expectations, relationship dynamics, and conflicts--and Mormon literature will likely reflect and comment on these changes. The old Saturday's Warrior or The Other Side of Heaven paradigm is over. (I don't think Mormon "chick-lit" will take a hit in numbers or popularity, though, although the conventional storylines might be reworked to accommodate the age drop.)
  • Finally, we'll see more Mormon literature. Maybe this is a big assumption, but I think there is something about the mission experience that causes people to write. (Think about how many Mormon writers talk about how they started getting serious about writing on their missions.) Maybe it's writing letters to home. Maybe it's keeping a regular journal. Maybe it's all of the new experiences and relationships. Missions compel us to write. Again: as more missionaries serve, more missionary writing will happen. But not just stories about missions. If we're lucky--and I think we will be--these missionaries who catch the writing bug will come home and pursue that bug. They'll take a look at the world around them and start sharing thoughts and telling stories. True, some of these will be mission stories, but I expect more will be about the world beyond the mission. 
No doubt the drop in missionary age will have a noticeable effect on the next twenty-five years of Mormon literature. Maybe it's worth comparing it to the flowing of American literature that came out of the World War I and World War II experiences. Maybe it's too early to make that comparison. Whatever the case may be, it's worth keeping an eye out for the exciting changes about to happen in Mormon lit.

Have I missed anything? What other effects might the missionary age drop have on Mormon literature?

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