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 vantageBy 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.
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A couple of other blogs about Jerry Johnston's article:
Dallas has a fun piece about this essay
Kent Larson at Times and Season has a thought provoking piece on the article.