Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jerry Johnston's Op-Ed on the "Great Mormon Novel"

On Friday, my mom shared with me an op-ed by Jerry Johnston. Mr. Johnston declared that the "Great Mormon Novel" written by an active latter day saint is a pipe dream and will never exist. Now, he's right on one point, the "Great Mormon Novel" has never been written before. In the fiction category, I can't think of any novel that comes close to being the "Great Mormon Novel." Now, the term, the "Great Mormon Novel" is obviously a variation of "The Great American Novel which according to Wiki is :

The "Great American Novel" is the concept of a novel that most perfectly represents the spirit of life in the United States at the time of its writing. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen.

So, by simply simply substituting "Mormon" for American, you get a pretty adequate definition of the "Great Mormon Novel" and one that is align with the definition that Mr. Johnston is using in his op-ed piece.

Mr. Johnston contends that the "Great Mormon Novel will never exist because:

  • Great Novels Need Doubt as a vantage point
  • Devout LDS writers don't have a lot of areas of gray to explore.
  • Mormonism requires devout members a complete surrender of one's ego, ideas and ambitions.
  • A devout Mormon will want to promote the Mormon Faith.
  • "Devout Mormons don't have the luxury of Great Catholic writers (O'Connor and Greene). Catholic writers could stay in the "bosom of the church" and still could give us all kinds of flawed and distorted character. They could write graphically about sin, reel off heretical theological speculations and even lampoon Catholic authority figures."
  • An authentic literary masterpiece would make Mormons feel uncomfortable, exposed and betrayed

Because of the points above, he then goes on to say that a grand and glorious literary novel heralded by both the LDS faithful and the literary world could never exist.

I agree with him that great literary masterpieces use doubt as their "vantage" point. Doubt in the LDS church isn't exactly encouraged. In fact, I'm honestly thinking about how I would describe the role of doubt in the LDS church and in my own experience as a Latter Day Saint. That being said, there are so many gray areas in the LDS church that can be explored.

I personally rarely see the world in black and white, and often Mormonism to me is no different. There's gray areas all over the place in the church. Yes, I have a strong testimony of the gospel, but there's many gray areas in the church that are ripe for exploration in a literary context. There's history, some doctrine, and then there's this-we don't have a perfect understanding of God's plan for us. If we don't have a perfect understanding, there's room for doubt-and because we are not perfect, there will be gray areas because we don't have perfect knowlege. Granted, I've had quite a few friends who explored the gray areas so much that they ultimately left the church.

I understand why most LDS fiction writers portray the church in a favorable light and want to promote the church. However, there's a voice in my head that wonders what if someone were to portray the religious culture, the warts and the glorious parts of itl. What if a fiction writer were to lay bare how they see the church in a novel? Mr. Johnson alludes in his essay that the writer would be ostracized by the church. I'm not sure if that's true. But then at this point, both Mr. Johnson and myself are purely speculating.

I almost see Mr. Johnston challenging a generation of aspiring and published LDS writers. He says it can never be done, but I'm sure there's more than one person out there saying, "it can never be done? I'll show you."

Update: Today I found a quote in "By Common Consent" that resonated with me and relates back to this op-ed,

"The restraints that Mormonism places on our behavior and our comportment should be viewed as the rhyme scheme in a sonnet or the censors in Iran. The pain is in using the limits to force yourself to look inward and work harder with the available material. If we accept the limits, and the necessity of the limits, that should inspire us to find ways to transcend them. So much Mormon literature is about the maintenance of the limits; so little seems to find the value that comes from the struggle with them (that’s what they are there for, after all)."

Jerry Johnston's Op-Ed

Great novels need doubt as vantage

By Jerry Johnston
There are perks with this job -- perks like the chance to spend quality time with quality people.
And a perk I'll always cherish is the afternoon I spent with Wallace Stegner talking about Montana, Mormons and modern writing.
Stegner was the guru of all things Western. And he understood Mormons about as well as someone not of the faith can. Yet even then, he missed things. He told me that in his novel "Recapitulation," he had a chaste, young Mormon couple getting married in the backyard of a friend. Someone had to point out to him that chaste, young Mormon couples get married in the LDS temple.
He didn't know.
And he didn't know when "The Great Mormon Novel" would show up. He said he'd been reading Levi Peterson's "The Backslider," but didn't think that was it. Then he said, "Maybe you'll write it."
He was joking, of course.
"I don't have the scope or range to do it," I said.
"You don't have to make it large," he said. "Just get things right."
He said he thought the "Great Mormon Novel" would eventually be penned by someone who was born in the church, left the church, then made it "part way" back again. He seemed to think that would be a perfect vantage point. Being away from the church would give the writer perspective, while coming part way back would guarantee his empathy for the culture.
Since that day with Stegner, I've thought often about LDS novels. And I've reached the conclusion that Stegner hadn't found the Great Mormon Novel because ... there can never be one.
I have known some marvelous Mormon wordsmiths. But being a Mormon is not like being Catholic or Jewish. There is precious little wiggle room for devout LDS writers. There aren't a lot of gray areas to explore.
The Mormon religion demands a lot of people. At its core, Mormonism demands all of one's talents to the furthering of the Kingdom of God. That means a complete surrender of one's ego, ideas and ambitions.
A true LDS writer would not want to be on the outside looking in. He wouldn't want to be defiant.
He'd want to promote the faith.
Great Catholic writers, like Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene, could follow their muse and stay in the Catholic fold. They could give us all kinds of flawed and distorted character. They could write graphically about sin, reel off heretical theological speculations and even lampoon Catholic authority figures, yet remain in the bosom of their church.
Mormons -- card-carrying temple Mormons -- can never have that luxury.
In the future, I'm sure LDS writers will produce wonderful novels.
But a grand and glorious literary novel that is heralded by both the LDS faithful and the literary world?
I don't think so.
Without the blessing of the church, it would never really be a Mormon novel -- anymore than "Angels in America" is a Mormon play.
The Great Mormon Novel is a dream held by literary types in the church.
It is also the Great White Whale pursued by devout Mormons who can't understand -- in this day and age -- just how uncomfortable, exposed and betrayed an authentic literary masterpiece would make them feel.

MormonTimes.com is produced by the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Copyright © 2009 Deseret News Publishing Company


A couple of other blogs about Jerry Johnston's article:

William Morris and S.P. Bailey at A Motley Vision makes some interesting points, most I don't agree with-but his piece is thought-provoking.

Dallas has a fun piece about this essay

Kent Larson at Times and Season has a thought provoking piece on the article.

17 comments:

Jules said...

Fascinating. Last December, my honors Juniors read Gatsby, Huck Finn, and Slaughterhouse Five.

Then they had to write a paper arguing which one deserved the title of "The Great American Novel." We had some interesting discussions about whether or not anyone had even written "The Great American Novel."

My book club in Ohio read "Bound on Earth" by Angela Hallstrom. I didn't read it (studying for comps) but went to the discussion, and while it is framed against an LDS family, I gathered that it wasn't the rosy picture often portrayed by LDS authors.

Sorry to make such a long comment. Great post, gives me something to think about in terms of how I teach lit.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What a treatise. I simply mentioned the column & the fact that Jerry Johnston stated he knew & talked with Stegner. Knowing your attitude about Mormon fiction, I thought you would find it interesting. (Nevertheless, you did read Jack Weyland & the Storm Testament series when you were but a wee lass.) Well stated. LV MOM

Steve said...

Wait, isn't the Twilight series the LDS' best novel?!?! haha.

You bring up some great points. Think of all the great fiction about the Catholic church, not just in recent years, but for hundreds of years, especially once the Catholic church stopped burning heretics. But I agree that the Great Mormon Novel will never exist or at least be mainstream b/c the Church WOULD shun anything that is too titilating, against doctrine or anything that questions the authority, even via doubt.

I agree, this could be fascinating, even to the general public, but even from trying to have conversations with members about such gray areas is hard enough, I can't imagine a book that does such a thing not receiving scorn from a wide swath of the LDS community.

mj said...

Okay so since I went to school to be an American novelist I think about this all the time. I think pretty much every great novel is about faith and doubt and the best ones are also about redemption (see every great Russian novel, but also one of best contenders for Great American Novel: East of Eden by Steinbeck). I personally think a Great Mormon Novel is possible, but it would be very hard to write. It would have to have a hopeful ending and those are hard to pull out as authentic and non-schmaltzy. Not to be suzy sunshine or anything but to me novels that end in nothing but doubt and despair do not seem authentic. Life is not like that. Life has both dark and light and both must be represented and if light does not have at least a chance of winning, we are all doomed. I will admit I am afraid to write the Great Mormon Novel. At least for now :-). I need a lot more practice first! But I, like Stegner who knew us pretty well, do not doubt that it is possible. I have heard GAs quote from excellent works of literature that do contain doubt, so I don't think the admission that doubt exists is forbidden. Just the idea that doubt can not be overcome.

Steve said...

MJ - You are such a smarty! I too was trying to think of All American Novels, at least authors. I recall Steinbeck always being brought up or Hemingway, but I'll leave that to pros like you to decide. I've always found authors like Henry Miller and Dostoevsky (ob not Amer.) to be able to dwell so deeply in the inner psyche of man and really create characters or the literary equivalent of themselves so completely that to me, these are great novels. Doubt obviusly is strong in them, if not in a faith, but ultimately in themselves and life. I don't think Dostoevsky was capable of a happy ending, but in many ways, I think that is what is so great. Sure, it is slightly depressing if doubt cannot be overcome in the end, but b/c it is something that everyone on some level deals with, knowing that maybe it can't be overcome or seeing others fail is in some way rewarding b/c it makes us feel more normal and ok, not flawed, for struggling with it so much. Suddenly, the doubt isn't a burden, but something that is shared and a way to connect with our humanity, recognizing our weaknesses, but also our strengths, ultimately making us stronger for it.
Just my two cents!

mj said...

I just wanted to point out that both Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov have two of the most hopeful endings I have ever read. C&P ends with the idea that a cold-blooded murderer can be redeemed and I almost threw-up with the beauty of the near-ending of Brothers K where Dmitri has until then been trapped by his own unsatiable lust has a spiritual awakening that I cannot really describe and barely comprehend. This is exactly the sort of "Great Mormon Novel" that should be reachable. (Dostoevsky is kind of my idol. I am SO reading Brothers K again.) I don't think happy endings are necessary to this genre, just hopeful.

Kent Larsen said...

FWIW, I think Jerry Johnston is generally wrong.

You missed a couple of additional reactions to his article:

S. P. Bailey also took issue with Johnston's article.

I also published a reaction to the article.

I do believe that there is reason for hope -- but it requires getting over the structural problems with the market -- the ones that prevent the best literature from being widely known among LDS Church members.

Sherpa said...

Jules-So, did your students ever concede about whether or not the Great American Novel has ever been written?

"Bound on Earth" Sounds interesting. I'll have to check it out sometime.

Yeah, William Morris contends that the "Great American Novel" is dead and played out but I don't think it is at all. Especially after reading the last two Pulitzer prize winners recently. I think the debate over the "Great American Novel" is a bit of a parlor game, but one I find enjoyable.

Mom-I've been thinking about this for a few days. Thanks for sharing the article.
Yeah, I've read many of the main-stream Mormon writers. I loved Charlie by Jack Weyland...when I was 8 or 9.

Steve-I actually started this blog with a crack about Stephanie Meyers, but it got taken out of the final draft. :)

ut I agree that the Great Mormon Novel will never exist or at least be mainstream b/c the Church WOULD shun anything that is too titilating, against doctrine or anything that questions the authority, even via doubt.

I'm not sure the Church would, actually. When the PBS Documentary, "The Mormons" came out, the Church asked it's members to watch it. There were some parts in it that some members had issues with, but the Church leadership never said anything publicly about it. I honestly wonder if the biggest outcry would be from some members, and not the Church.

Sherpa said...

MJ-Yeah, I didn't get much into my thoughts about "The Great American Novel." I'm a sucker for books about doubt, and I agree many of the greatest books are also about redemption. The Pulitzer Prize list (and my library)is littered with books about faith/doubt and redemption.
"East of Eden" is definitely Steinbeck's masterpiece, and I would consider it on the list of "Great American novels."

Personally, I think it would be interesting to see a Mormon novel that lays the faith bare like Graham Greene's "Power and the Glory." I think Johnston was probably thinking of that novel when he wrote that the Great Mormon Novel couldn't be done.

Life is not like that. Life has both dark and light and both must be represented and if light does not have at least a chance of winning, we are all doomed.

Yeah. I agree.

But I, like Stegner who knew us pretty well, do not doubt that it is possible.

I honestly think we'll see some great literature written by Mormons during our lifetime. I'm guessing that Johnston may eat his words. I think the problem with Johnston is he might be a bit of a cynic, or was playing the devil's advocate a bit.

I have heard GAs quote from excellent works of literature that do contain doubt, so I don't think the admission that doubt exists is forbidden. Just the idea that doubt can not be overcome.

Doubt is tricky, it can consume someone-I've seen it happen to many people I know. However, I agree, the GA's quote great literature a lot.

Sherpa said...

Steve-
Sure, it is slightly depressing if doubt cannot be overcome in the end, but b/c it is something that everyone on some level deals with, knowing that maybe it can't be overcome or seeing others fail is in some way rewarding b/c it makes us feel more normal and ok, not flawed, for struggling with it so much. Suddenly, the doubt isn't a burden, but something that is shared and a way to connect with our humanity, recognizing our weaknesses, but also our strengths, ultimately making us stronger for it.
Just my two cents!


I agree. I find myself attracted to this type of fiction also.

Sherpa said...

Kent-
Thanks a ton for taking the time to comment on my blog. I appreciate the extra links.

There is in the core Mormon culture — that dominated by the conservative, Wasatch-Front based elements — a belief that because we have been persecuted and continue to be criticized, we must shield ourselves and our practice from outsiders to maintain how sacred it is. Our image must be faultless, so that no one will be dissuaded from investigating the Church because of our faults.

Great point.

Sherpa said...

Kent-
Thanks a ton for taking the time to comment on my blog. I appreciate the extra links.

There is in the core Mormon culture — that dominated by the conservative, Wasatch-Front based elements — a belief that because we have been persecuted and continue to be criticized, we must shield ourselves and our practice from outsiders to maintain how sacred it is. Our image must be faultless, so that no one will be dissuaded from investigating the Church because of our faults.

Great point.

I agree with you about the problems with the LDS market-the audience and the publishers.

Steve said...

MJ - Can you believe those are two of the books by Dosotevsky I have NOT read, haha. Although, I was looking for C&P the other day in my house to start! I really liked the Idiot and The Gambler. But like I said, I'll leave the literary details to the experts like you and Sherpa, hehe, since I know I am in over my head here. :)

David Murdoch said...

I think that if the novel is true and accurate in its depiction, even if many people should dislike it, there shouldn't be something wrong about writing it... for it is then the truth.

God Bless,

aisy said...

Interesting discussion. Not sure if I agree with all his points. I have started to see a shift in the church not being as afraid of unflattering depictions etc We have a ways to go, but I'm hopeful it will keep improving.

I could never write it because I can't write... and according to him, you can't be defiant ;)

NoSurfGirl said...

I love this post. I usually sort of gloss over my feelings on this, simplifying them quite a bit so that I don't bog myself down in my own writing. This expresses a lot of what I feel in very precise terms. Thanks for writing on this.

We will do it. One of us, someday... that is my real feeling on the subject. The question is, will it be published in Mainstream LDS venues.

Putz said...

if you can do it without being embarassed and completely open then it might work'''i.m open