Dear “Ask Mormon Girl”:
I ran across this article, “The Great Mormon Novel: Where is it?” about Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist. The article really struck me because I’m a graduate student studying literature, and I often feel like an outsider–socially, politically, and intellectually–around my peers at church. Either I belong to a ward where higher education is viewed with suspicion (being a less “worthy” pursuit than “real” jobs), or I belong to a well-educated ward where I am the lone humanities student amongst aspiring lawyers, physicians, and those studying business. The Slate article references a slightly older article in Dialogue that I have read many times and continue to enjoy. So, to quote the Rectors, “will we ever see the day prophesied by John Taylor, when ‘Zion shall be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind?'” And “can we, and this is the heart of the dilemma, humbly ask the Spirit to guide us beyond our safe and certified, conventional selves?”
Nick from the STL
Oh, Nick. I do know where you’re coming from. Yes, it’s true that AMG makes her living as a literature professor. I do know the loneliness of which you speak, though I do try not to worry too much about it. And I try not to worry too much about this totally-made-up concept of the “Great Mormon Novel” that seems to come up every time a Mormon novelist writes a pretty good novel and then seemingly only for the self-defeating purposes of finding our literature once again failing to be “Great.”
Take, for example, the reception of Brady Udall’s Lonely Polygamist. I loved the book. And I’ve cheered the terrific reviews Brady’s been getting in newspapers across the country. But what’s this we hear from the small land of Mormon-on-Mormon literary criticism: self-conscious grumbling of the “we’re not yet great” variety and internecine bickering about whether Brady Udall is “faithful” enough for his book to count as a “Mormon” novel. And it’s our internal bickering about other people’s piety that makes the news in the New York Times Book Review. What a pity.
There’s a line from the end of The Lonely Polygamist wherein Golden Richards (having survived a major crisis of faith in his own ability to be a decent husband and father to so many wives and children) finds that “his heart is spacious enough to accommodate them all.” If more of our Mormon-on-Mormon literary critics had as much heart as Golden Richards, I’m sure they’d stop waiting for the “One Mighty and Strong” Novel and find a lot more in our literature (all of it—even the really good books written by other than perfectly orthodox Mormons) to celebrate and love.
But, Nick, you know what really struck me when I read that Slate article? Not just our tendency to use the fabricated concept of the “Great Mormon Novel” to find ourselves inadequate, but the total absence of women! Why haven’t we produced Miltons, Shakespeares, and (heaven help us) Phillip Roths? Maybe the true marker of our culture’s arrival will be when we start worrying about where our Emily Dickinsons and Toni Morrisons are, not to mention our Isabel Allendes.
So enough with this Great Mormon Novel business! Cheeky soul that I am, I’m ready to take pity on the small land of Mormon-on-Mormon literary criticism and settle this once and for all by declaring that the Great Mormon Novel arrived years ago and (surprise) it was not actually a novel. It was, of course, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge. Hallejullah! Now, let’s move on.
Nick, let’s get to the cry of loneliness at the heart of your query: the loneliness of the bookish Mormon. I read an article a few weeks ago in the New York Times by author Michael Chabon, written in the wake of Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla. In his essay, the amazing Chabon (who crafts sentences that leave me slackjawed in awe) reflects on the idea subscribed to among Jews that a superior intelligence or canniness—a yiddishe kop, as the saying goes—has enabled Jewish survival across the centuries. And this, Chabon finds, is “utter nonsense,” because “Jews are stupid in roughly the same proportion as all the world’s people — but . . . from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore [stupid Jews]. A stupid Jew is like a hole in the pocket of your pants, there every time you put them on, always forgotten until the instant your quarters run clattering across the floor.”
If Jews are stereotyped and stereotype themselves for their intelligence, then the stereotype about Mormons goes that we’re all conservative, insular, and intellectually uncurious, but pretty good at working for the CIA and making money. And that, Nick, defines the role of us bookish types in Mormon culture (as lonely as we may be): we break the stereotypes. And by breaking the stereotypes, we prove that Mormonism is not a single-minded cult (as the opponents of the faith like to crow) but an actual living human culture after all. A culture that, yes, is capable of producing some truly good art. If we can just stop freaking out about it.
Now, readers, I’ve had my turn. It’s your turn to weigh in. Great Mormon Novel. Mormon Shakespeares. Mormon Miltons. Stereotypes and self-judgment. Discuss.
Send your query to firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow askmormongirl on Twitter.
8 responses to “Ask Mormon Girl: Where is the Great Mormon Novel?”
I appreciate the link to A Motley Vision — although I don’t think you quite capture the flavor the discussion that has occurred there. In fact, this:
“If more of our Mormon-on-Mormon literary critics had as much heart as Golden Richards, I’m sure they’d stop waiting for the “One Mighty and Strong” Novel and find a lot more in our literature (all of it—even the really good books written by other than perfectly orthodox Mormons) to celebrate and love.”
describes exactly what we do at A Motley Vision so who are these Mormon-on-Mormon literary critics that you are complaining about? Heck, where the Mormon-on-Mormon literary critics? I sure don’t run across many.
I’d also note that I came to the same conclusion one of the previous times this question came up. See my post Why we need not worry about the Great Mormon Novel.
In terms of women Mormon novelists: two of the novels that have received the most acclaim in the (admittedly small) world of Mormon letters are Margaret Young’s Salvador and Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth (although, Bound on Earth also got some traction with the LDS Fiction, we-don’t-read-anything-icky-or-challenging scene, which possibly makes it the most widely-read among the widest number of types of LDS/Mormons specifically Mormon novel ever). In fact, both made bigger splashes in their time than any number of pretty good novels by male novelists.
The one big exception, of course, is Levi Peterson’s The Backslider, which is the only Mormon literary novel that consistently seems to be read by reading-Mormons-who-aren’t-part-of-the-Mormon-letters-scene, that saw a lot of library acquisition across the country, and that gets pointed to when this whole great Mormon novel issue is brought up.
“A culture that, yes, is capable of producing some truly good art. If we can just stop freaking out about it.”
Exactly. But as always there are so many different kinds of “we”s involved. Trying to tease those out is an important project of Mormon criticism, imo, because it provides space for a variety of Mormon literatures and, hopefully, a communities for specific kinds of Mormon artists and celebrators and critics of art. Which is why in spite of the whining that is about to arrive, I really enjoy what I do as a Mormon arts blogger and the people that I interact with.
However, to get whiny for a minute: One of the issues for me is that everybody in blog-land only seems to pop up when these types of discussions arise, including the folks who. Meanwhile, when I write about Salvador or Eric Jepson interrogates notions of maculinity in Rift, there’s pretty much silence.
Now this is NOT aimed solely at you, Joanna. I know you do a lot to bring Mormon women voices to the fore (something we’ve also publicized at AMV). It just gets a little tiring year-after-year to see blogs only talk about Mormon literature when the “great Mormon novel” or the “heretical Mormon artist” tropes come up (and yet again that Miltons and Shakespeares quote gets trotted out).
Also: “Refuge” doesn’t count if we’re talking about fiction. If we’re talking about Mormon literature broadly defined, then there’s a lot of support for that notion among several Mormon critics. I’m not one of them because I refuse to read “Refuge” — mainly because so many have said that it’s a must-read and I have a petulant streak in me. It’s the same reason I refuse to watch “Dead Poet’s Society” (oh, you really should — it seems like it would be right up your alley). But I’ve decided to repent and just put in a request for the 10th anniversary edition at my local library.
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I did not now you were a litprof, J. So please, yes, swing by AMV and engage.
(And here’s a corrected link to my Rift post if you’re interested.)
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my inquiry. I appreciate your response and the comments by Wm. Morris (I had previously visited AMV and enjoyed his post about the GMN). I wonder, however, if by linking to the Slate article I have actually overshadowed the core of my question.
I initially ran across Joanna as a graduate student reading American Lazarus before I realized she was LDS and had become a public voice for “unorthodox Mormons” on the interwebs. It was an exciting discovery for me, as my feelings of isolation at church never led me to imagine that an influential scholar in my field could be LDS. Certainly my ignorance of other influential LDS scholars does not mean there aren’t a number of them (that same week I learned of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) out there, yet I still feel compelled to ask myself where humanist scholars (for lack of a better umbrella term) stand in relation to Mormon culture. As an graduate student in literature I am the perpetual outsider (my wife is also marginalized by default because she is not a “medical school widow”) in wards filled with aspiring physicians, lawyers, and businessmen (and sometimes women). Each fall when introductions are made in priesthood, special emphasis is given to my marginal status as I am referred to as “our token humanities student” or “the English guy.” When a member of the EQ presidency realized that I wasn’t a medical student on my first Sunday here, his response to me was: “Oh. Well we do have a social work student that just moved in. Perhaps the two of you can be friends.” Periodically I am told (with kind intentions, I’m sure) that “I could never do what you do” by one of my fellow church members, but the subtext is always that “I would never want to and can’t understand why you do.” What makes literary scholarship such a strange pursuit?
This may be nothing more than my limited personal experience, having only been a member of the church since I was 18 and having only lived in Michigan, Missouri, and northern California since that time. Yet I doubt it. A few months ago our current mission president came to speak at our ward and made a point to explain why medical students and physicians eventually make excellent general authorities and church leaders. I felt sick to my stomach as I watched most of the heads in the congregation nod in agreement. What is it about our culture that glorifies these professions as more appropriate that the fabled “life of the mind?” Why must the “bookish” Mormons, to use Joanna’s words, be isolated and few? Do we have no roles within church leadership? Is our resistance to hierarchy and willingness to deal in contradictions and ambiguities too unstable to be useful/productive?
So while I used the Slate article as a launching point for my question, I think I’m less interested in the potential for a “Great Mormon Novel” and more interested in understanding our cultural resistance to humanities scholarship. Do we not participate in the “learning of every kind” of which Taylor spoke? Are we culturally too invested in our “safe, certified, conventional selves?” And if so, what are the future implications for the church and Mormon culture? I love what Joanna says about our role in breaking stereotypes, but at what point should I be concerned that maybe Mormon culture isn’t a living human culture? That maybe we are just as conservative, insular, and intellectually uncurious as I fear? Perhaps it is part of the genetic makeup of literary scholars to be overly anxious about our place in the academy, our communities, our churches, and the world in general. Still, I find myself genuinely confused when I attend my church meetings and leave feeling like I don’t belong there.
That being said (and now that I’ve painted myself as a complete downer), I am often heartened and surprised by individual members of the church in ways that make it easier to “freak out” less. Although my wife has had mixed experiences with RS reading groups and book clubs in the past (here I will borrow the “we-don’t-read-anything-icky-or-challenging scene” construction put forth by Morris), yet I have recently been approached and asked to start an informal reading group in our EQ to provide the quorum with a non-athletic social activity. We haven’t met yet, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest expressed at the idea. Hopefully it will be a good experience.
Thanks again for the response and the comments. As always, I enjoy reading your blog and following your articles on RD.
Nick, join Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. The annual conferences are great fun and you meet people geeky enough to love book, theories, literature, and the like, within the context of a vibrant Mormonism.
How does one join? I searched for a website, but what I found at mormonscholars.org was a site under construction. I would love to check it out. Thanks!
I have written a post which is partly related to this issue at StayLDS –
I am currently working hard on a novel, but it is actually difficult to work out what I should and shouldn’t be doing as a church member. It’s not a Mormon novel as such, but I feel I have to be realistic in the portrayal of certain characters.
p.s. I am not the same person as “Sam MB” above by the way!
Always the same: check out “chris and Louisa” by my wife, Judith and me. note the reviews. It is on amazon, barns,xlibris, etc.
KindlY look. it is a candidate for the great mormon novel.
RALPH/JUDY VANDER HEIDE NOTE: