Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Can Mormons Write Great Literature?

Yes, yes, I'm supposed to be writing a novel right now, but I'm in a bit of a rut, so I've come back here to write a post and avoid writing my book. Plus, I read a couple of things this week related to writing in general that have really got me thinking and I kind of wanted to talk about them here.

I stumbled across this article from the New York Times called "Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson About Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness." Basically, the author talks about how any well-known or popular Mormon authors (Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer, Shannon Hale) tend to gravitate toward genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi) or young adult fiction because we, as a Mormon culture, feel more comfortable in these relatively happier, good beats evil genres than we do with the darker content of literary fiction. They gist is that Mormons are encouraged to always promote things that are "lovely, virtuous, of good report, and praise-worthy," and that basically rules us out from ever writing serious stuff like sex, violence, or the depressing messiness of the human condition, in any sort of realistic literary sense.

I know a few of my (Mormon) friends took issue with this argument, citing Mormon authors who aren't afraid to write about sex and violence and other generally taboo topics, but honestly, I agreed with the article. I've actually pondered about this phenomenon before, because it's very clear to me that Mormon authors only seem to find success and recognition in genre categories. I just can't think of a single note-worthy literary fiction Mormon author, at least not one that's still in good standing with the Church.

But I'm not sure I agree with the author's hints that it's the structure of the Mormon church itself that limits our authors. I'm just not sure that we have a bunch of repressed authors who would turn out to be Miltons and Shakespeares if the Church would just encourage us to write about the darker side of life. I honestly believe that Mormons don't write about the depressing subject matter of so much literary fiction because for most of us, that is not our reality. Maybe I shouldn't speak for other Mormon authors (and maybe I shouldn't be presumptuous enough to consider myself a Mormon author), but my reality is happy. Okay, not everything is perfect, there have been trials and hard times, but at the end of the day my reality consists of hope in a God that will make everything all right, and that brings me peace. I don't find myself drowning in the utter senselessness of human life and suffering. My life has meaning, my pain makes sense to me. There is a happy ending (or at least, the hope of a happy ending) to each and every one of my stories, and that simply does not fit with the modern sense of literary fiction.

This whole process of writing a novel has taught me this about myself as a writer. I think that I would love to write a literary fiction novel, but most of the literary fiction novels I've read in recent years have left me feeling sad, hopeless about life, and dark. And no, I'm not comfortable writing a book like that. I don't want to create something that is so antithetical to the way I actually feel and live. So I have started a novel that is a young adult fantasy. I'm more comfortable in this genre because even though there is magic, there is also a happy ending, and that is closer to my view of reality than more "realistic" literary fiction.

Really, I don't think this is a problem of the Church or religion, but rather one of the current state of literary fiction. It's a question, posed by a character in one of my favorite books (Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner):
Oh, come on, Charity said. Really. Art and literature have these fashions. Why don't you just ignore all that stuff so many modern writers concentrate on, and write something about a really decent, kind, good human being living a normal life in a normal community, interested in the things most ordinary people are interested in-- family, children, education-- good uplifting entertainment? (216).
What a question for the ages. Why don't writers write this kind of happy, normal stuff? Because only children and young adults will read it and find it to be of any worth. Because otherwise it is cast off as religious, sentimental fiction, not serious stuff. Because literary fiction must be full of sex and depression and meaningless tragedy.

I'm not saying that Mormon authors should ignore the real pain and suffering of life, pretend like it doesn't exist, and try not to represent it realistically. This would not be an accurate portrayal of life. A deep part of our doctrine is that there must be opposition in all things, and we recognize that there is suffering in this life and it is necessary. Our literature should reflect that. However, I don't think that we will see any great Mormon literary authors until the literary world accepts that while there is suffering, there is it's opposite as well. Some conflicts have resolutions, some people find peace in this life, and happiness is a legitimate reality. Happiness is a story worth being told, and I hope someday to read a great literary work that tells it.

Maybe I'll have to write it.

(P.S. I would love to know if you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts here. I'm willing to admit that my limited experience might not reflect the reality of the literary world, the Mormon literary community, or life in general.)

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