Fiddler-Envy and the Elusive “Cross-over” Work

“A Mormon Fiddler on the Roof. That’s what we want and when we have it we’ll know that LDS culture has reached its potential.”

At least that’s what many Church members think. You might say they have ‘Fiddler-envy.’ I’ve seen LDS publishers create imprints or approach authors claiming that they are looking for ‘cross-over’ works or that they can help the author sell their work nationally as well. I even know of one LDS publisher who initially made this its core mission. I’m not sure why these publishers think they can enter the national market — I do not know of any, not even Deseret Book, who have enough experience to succeed nationally. Personally, I’m not so sure that we should put our efforts toward such works, or that the arrival of a “cross-over” work will mean that LDS culture has reached its potential.

Fiddler on the Roof may be the best example to date of a “cross-over” work from one religion becoming popular among the mainstream of the US. Everyone knows the musical, yet it is still very Jewish. It uses Jewish terminology, talks about Jewish customs and assumes everyone understands what these customs and terms mean. I’d even venture to say that many people in the US trace their limited knowledge of Jews to the Bible and to Fiddler on the Roof.

For Mormons the appeal of such a work is significant. The mainstream US market is very large, perhaps the largest in the world, so producing a work that becomes even a modest success in that market would be extremely lucrative. And, more importantly, such a work would serve as a missionary tool—an introduction to LDS culture and beliefs in a non-threatening form.

Is such a work possible? Sure! Why not? Obviously the universal themes in Fiddler on the Roof make it attractive to a broad audience. There are certainy universal themes in LDS culture and beliefs that can serve as the basis for such a work. There are even strong elements in LDS culture that should appear in a cross-over work, ones that any author would love to make use of in their writing.

We have even had some works that have come close to this appeal. Many LDS authors who have become well-known outside the LDS audience—Orson Scott Card, Stephen Covey, Anne Perry, and others—have used LDS themes in their work and even written about LDS doctrine or drawn on LDS stories for some of their works. But these works are either so universal that there is nothing uniquely Mormon in them, or the Mormon elements are so disguised that only Church members recognize them, or the specific work hasn’t been popular.

So, yes, I think such a work is attractive and possible. But, I don’t think its worth working towards as an end in itself. Working towards creating such a work will probably guarantee failure, just like setting yourself up to write the ‘great american novel’ will likely result in failure. Authors who write with such an aim are likely to create unpopular, mediocre works. Why? Because too careful attention to creating a great work makes most authors concentrate on elements they aren’t familiar with at the expense of those elements they are good at. And publishers who search for these works are likely to loose their focus on their market by trying to serve two markets at once.

So where did Fiddler on the Roof come from? It was adapted from a short story, “Tevye and His Daughters” written in Yiddish by Sholom Aleichem. Doesn’t sound like it was written for a national audience, does it?

A stark contrast to this is the current off-broadway production of Michael McLean’s The Ark which I saw in previews last week. The show’s producer, Eric Orton, is best known among LDS Church members for his work on the Church’s production “Savior of the World.” He is also a member of my ward and a friend.

I must admit that I haven’t seen any previous productions of the show, and I don’t know how ‘Mormon’ it ever was. I do know that the current production has no Mormon elements to speak of. Eric did tell me that the show has undergone extensive re-writes, first for its production in Seattle a few years ago, and again for the current, off-broadway production.

While I don’t want to give a formal review of the show, I do think that it mostly works. I can’t say I was captivated by it (I’m not really a fan of musicals anyway), but it was enjoyable and I understood it well.

Of course, its normal for plays, musicals, films and other collaborative works to be reworked repeatedly. The process tends to make these works better. But one of the things that can be lost in this process are the cultural elements in the work. I can easily see the Mormon elements or themes being stripped out of a play in the process.

Should McLean have included Mormon elements in The Ark? Or should its Mormon elements, if there were any, have been preserved? Well, it depends. Some works are inherently Mormon, and should be left that way. Others are inherently not Mormon, and Mormon elements are best left out of such works. In my opinion, The Ark is one of the latter — there just isn’t a reasonable way to include Mormon elements in it. It can therefore never be a cross-over work.

But, I believe that our best bet at finding the elusive cross-over title is to simply write good Mormon literature — novels, short stories, plays, etc, and not worry about whether or not they could be a cross-over title. There is enough universal in the themes and elements we use that many of the works we have written and are writing now could well become cross-over works.

So, lets not strip the Mormon elements and themes from what we write. If the work will work as a Mormon work, then we should include Mormon elements. If it won’t work as a Mormon work, then we shouldn’t include Mormon elements. We don’t need to force what we write to fit a national market, just to get the elusive cross-over title.

Author: Kent Larsen

I grew up in the Washington DC area and served an LDS mission to Portugal. After receiving bachelor's degrees in Accounting and Portuguese from BYU, I came to New York City, where I worked in publishing companies like Henry Holt & Co., Bantam Doubleday Dell (now part of Random House), and North-South Books. I am now the owner of Luso-Brazilian Books (http://www.lusobraz.com), the largest importer and publisher of Portuguese-language materials for North America. I also run a Mormon-oriented publishing house under the imprint names Mormon Arts and Letters (http://www.mormonartsandletters.com), Mormon News Books, Latter-day Renaissance and Samuel Lamanite Books (forthcoming).

2 thoughts on “Fiddler-Envy and the Elusive “Cross-over” Work”

  1. The opportunity to cheer on this post has lured me (temporarily) out of a year of lurking. I think you’re absolutely right, Kent, about the dangers of aiming for a “great Mormon novel” or a “crossover hit” without tending to the artistry behind it. In my experience, a well-written story will entice me over the hurdles of its specific terminology; indeed, part of the attraction to any work of fiction is the opportunity to venture inside a different culture or worldview. Why, then, should Mormon fiction/art invite readers into a living room stripped of its portrait of Jesus, its pile of Ensigns on the coffee table, or its Wheel-of-Fortune Family Home Evening chart if these elements are organically present ? (If they’re not naturally present in the work that’s fine, too, per the analysis in your final paragraph.) Combating the fear of readers balking at our characters’ preferred living room decor by stripping the decor is, I think, wrong. This effort would be more usefully channeled into craft, into making sure that the story you invited them into that room to hear is good enough to keep them glued to the couch, not to the pictures on the walls.

    As for the missionary aspect, I am not sure that people who might close the door on missionaries would be any more receptive to awkward or inauthentic literary renderings of Mormon life. We represent ourselves best, on doorsteps and in literature, with truth. Let’s write/film/paint authentically and well. Then crossover success–which so often eludes intent–might well creep up on us, much the way a horde of distant relatives might drop by on their cross-country trip, fill your authentically-decorated living room and wait–eagerly–for you to tell them your story. 

    Posted by Heather M.

  2. Yes, there is LDS literature with soul. Two unpublished works I’ve reviewed are incredibly soulful, and one I think even has cross-over potential.

    But like I said, they’re unpublished. I’ve come across nothing in Deseret Book that would be inspiring to anyone not already inspired by the gospel itself.

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