Review of Ockham’s Razor by Alan Williams

7.22.10 | | 60 comments

Title: Ockham’s Razor

Author: Alan Michael Williams

Publisher: BookSurge Publishing (self-published)

Genre: Fiction (gay fiction)

Year Published: 2009

Number of Pages: 250

Binding: Paperback

ISBN10: 1439235279

ISBN13: 978-1439235270

Price: $12.99 print; $7.99 Kindle. Available at Amazon.com.

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Note: I received a free electronic review copy of this book from the author.

Reviewing Ockham’s Razor is a bit odd for me. It’s a book about Micah, a gay kid in his early twenties who was raised a Mormon (though he claims not to be one anymore), and his on-again-off-again relationship with Brendan, a 17-year-old gay Mormon who isn’t sure if he wants to stay in the Church or not. It’s also about the mutual misunderstandings and awkwardness that are common in relationships of any kind at this age, and about Micah’s efforts to engage with mental models about life from a variety of sources, ranging from French philosopher Michel Foucault to Micah’s Mormon mother, to two nurses who work at the same detox center as Micah. And it’s about Brendan as well, though as readers we never really see him clearly: only the imperfect and poorly understood Brendan-construct, subject of endless hypothesizing on Micah’s part, that dwells in the older boy’s mind.

On a surface level, Ockham’s Razor seems in some ways like a mirror image to my own novel, No Going Back, also published in 2009 (maybe it was something in the water?) and also about a gay teenage Mormon kid, though the character in No Going Back is somewhat younger and never strays quite as far from the Church as either Brendan or Micah. In both novels, the Mormon Church and its teachings about homosexuality represent almost another major character in the story, influencing the actions and motivations of the other characters and representing at least a perceived alternative to self-acceptance as a homosexual. Despite some optimistic suggestions otherwise early in Ockham’s Razor and Paul’s initial attempts to balance his gay side and his Mormon side in No Going Back, ultimately in both cases choosing to be Mormon means choosing not to live as a homosexual.

One big difference is the stance of the books toward Mormonism. The central viewpoint depicted in No Going Back is one in which Mormonism is true as a belief system, written primarily for an audience of believing Mormons. Ockham’s Razor, by contrast, is written from a distinctly non-LDS worldview, in which Mormon beliefs are a source of ongoing frustration and wonder on the part of the main character as to how others can believe and accept this stuff. It’s perhaps indicative that the term “Ockham’s razor” is first introduced as part of a discussion in which Micah is berating his mother about the Church’s position on blacks, including his claim that Ockham’s razor (the principle that the simplest explanation consistent with the facts is likely to be true) suggests causes other than revelation for the 1978 change in policy. While part of this rings true in terms of typical late adolescent badgering of parents — something Micah is never slow to do whenever his mother shows up in a scene — it reflects a viewpoint that will resonate more with those who have left the Mormon faith than with believing Mormons.

It’s hard to imagine that many believing Mormons would be comfortable reading this book. Aside from the main character’s constant mental and verbal martialing of arguments against the Church’s position on various issues, most commonly homosexuality, there are some explicit descriptions of homosexual sex that few practicing Mormons will be comfortable with.

The novel is well-written on a sentence, paragraph, and scene level, though at first I found the style sometimes confusing in its quick alternative of person (first person, second person, third person) in internally reported thoughts. Example:

I scootch next to him on the couch and notice he hasn’t put on deodorant today. His pheromones make the world grow pleasantly fuzzy. I never got the chance to be close to you like this at school. This is surreal. (p. 11)

Either the style grew clearer as I went along, or I got used to it.

In general, the story appeared well-edited and well-produced, which is a challenge for self-published books. However, the story’s biggest challenge is its lack of a natural audience: as I pointed out above, it’s not a good match for most Mormon readers, but at the same time it’s also sufficiently engaged with the matter of Mormonism that readers without a Mormon background may find it hard to follow and/or sympathize with. It’s also very much a story about the internal thought processes of the main character and the real-world events that prompt those thoughts, as opposed to a more externally plot-driven narrative. It’s a cerebral story where sometimes it seems that the main characters are more interested in talking about ideas than having a relationship. And the romance doesn’t turn out happily in the end: Brendan decides he wants to go on a mission and stops seeing Micah. All these are strikes against the book finding a very wide readership.

What the novel does best, in my view, is its depiction of Micah as a young man, confused in the way that many (perhaps most?) young men are often confused in their first serious relationships, whether that relationship is with a female or (as described here) with another male. Micah is constantly questioning what Brendan means, what he should say to the other boy, what just went wrong in their interaction, whether or not he should push for more physical contact or back off… the usual suspects.

In this respect, it strikes me that despite the thematic focus on homosexuality, much of the story could be retold as a boy-girl romance without changing a lot of the interpersonal dynamics. That’s not a bad thing, in my opinion. If anything, I think it’s a step forward to acknowledge that gay relationships can be just a clueless and frustrating as straight relationships can be, particularly between two people who are too young to really know what they’re doing and still largely narcissistically focused on themselves and their own agendas (as all of us tend to be when we start down the relationship path). The randomness in story events — the flow of conversation, the moods and attitudes of the main character — strikes me as in many ways a faithful depiction of reality, particularly the element of mutual befuddlement and confusion that so often creates problems during the early stages of relationships.

At the same time, the story’s sudden shifts also made it hard for me as a reader to process things. Much of the time I felt like there was something missing from what I was reading: as if Micah’s own understanding of his and Brendan’s situation was so lacking that he was leaving out vital information that would help me make sense out of things. Most notably, I’m not sure I ever had a clear sense of just what it was that held Micah and Brendan together as a couple. Their breakup was no surprise to me because their relationship had never made sense to begin with. I can’t decide if that’s the way Williams wanted me to react, or if I’m missing something as a reader. It’s also unclear to me why Micah, who has never had a testimony and who on the face of it doesn’t seem to have much reason to value the Church, spends so much time and mental energy thinking up arguments against the Church’s position on homosexuality.

The book’s biggest unknown is Brendan. How does he feel about being gay? How does he feel about being Mormon? Why does he ultimately choose to be Mormon instead of gay? Micah never knows, and we never know. We’re told that Brendan values the Church, but I saw nothing in his attitude suggesting a real spiritual conviction. Instead, he comes across as confused and unwilling to take a risky step outside his family’s expectations into a gay world. In general, I’d say that while Ockham’s Razor engages with Mormon ideas and experiences, it doesn’t do it in a way that explains why anyone with a healthy sense of intelligence or self-worth would ever want to stay in the Church, particularly if that person is homosexually attracted. While not by any means an anti-Mormon book, it’s definitely a book written from the outside looking in, or perhaps more accurately from a post-Mormon life phase looking back.

I’ve commented elsewhere on the need for stories about faithful, believing Mormons who also happen to be homosexually attracted. What the example of Ockham’s Razor makes clear is that if we don’t generate such stories, others certainly won’t hold back from telling stories about this topic that won’t please us nearly as much. Most examples are likely to be far less balanced and sympathetic to Mormon characters (and likely less well-written) than Ockham’s Razor.

Title: Ockham’s Razor

Author: Alan Michael Williams

Publisher: BookSurge Publishing (self-published)

Genre: Fiction (gay fiction)

Year Published: 2009

Number of Pages: 250

Binding: Paperback

ISBN10: 1439235279

ISBN13: 978-1439235270

Price: $12.99 print; $7.99 Kindle. Available at Amazon.com.

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Note: I received a free electronic review copy of this book from the author.

Reviewing Ockham’s Razor is a bit odd for me. It’s a book about Micah, a gay kid in his early twenties who was raised a Mormon (though he claims not to be one anymore), and his on-again-off-again relationship with Brendan, a 17-year-old gay Mormon who isn’t sure if he wants to stay in the Church or not. It’s also about the mutual misunderstandings and awkwardness that are common in relationships of any kind at this age, and about Micah’s efforts to engage with mental models about life from a variety of sources, ranging from French philosopher Michel Foucault to Micah’s Mormon mother, to two nurses who work at the same detox center as Micah. And it’s about Brendan as well, though as readers we never really see him clearly: only the imperfect and poorly understood Brendan-construct, subject of endless hypothesizing on Micah’s part, that dwells in the older boy’s mind.

On a surface level, Ockham’s Razor seems in some ways like a mirror image to my own novel, No Going Back, also published in 2009 (maybe it was something in the water?) and also about a gay teenage Mormon kid, though the character in No Going Back is somewhat younger and never strays quite as far from the Church as either Brendan or Micah. In both novels, the Mormon Church and its teachings about homosexuality represent almost another major character in the story, influencing the actions and motivations of the other characters and representing at least a perceived alternative to self-acceptance as a homosexual. Despite some optimistic suggestions otherwise early in Ockham’s Razor and Paul’s initial attempts to balance his gay side and his Mormon side in No Going Back, ultimately in both cases choosing to be Mormon means choosing not to live as a homosexual.

One big difference is the stance of the books toward Mormonism. The central viewpoint depicted in No Going Back is one in which Mormonism is true as a belief system, written primarily for an audience of believing Mormons. Ockham’s Razor, by contrast, is written from a distinctly non-LDS worldview, in which Mormon beliefs are a source of ongoing frustration and wonder on the part of the main character as to how others can believe and accept this stuff. It’s perhaps indicative that the term “Ockham’s razor” is first introduced as part of a discussion in which Micah is berating his mother about the Church’s position on blacks, including his claim that Ockham’s razor (the principle that the simplest explanation consistent with the facts is likely to be true) suggests causes other than revelation for the 1978 change in policy. While part of this rings true in terms of typical late adolescent badgering of parents — something Micah is never slow to do whenever his mother shows up in a scene — it reflects a viewpoint that will resonate more with those who have left the Mormon faith than with believing Mormons.

It’s hard to believe that many believing Mormons would be comfortable reading this book. Aside from the main character’s constant mental and verbal martialing of arguments against the Church’s position on various issues, most commonly homosexuality, there are some explicit descriptions of homosexual sex that few practicing Mormons will be comfortable with.

The novel is well-written on a sentence, paragraph, and scene level, though at first I found the style sometimes confusing in its quick alternative of person (first person, second person, third person) in internally reported thoughts. Example:

“I scootch next to him on the couch and notice he hasn’t put on deodorant today. His pheromones make the world grow pleasantly fuzzy. I never got the chance to be close to you like this at school. This is surreal.” (p. 11)

Either the style grew clearer as I went along, or I got used to it. In general, the story appeared well-edited and well-produced, which is a challenge for self-published books. However, the story’s biggest challenge is its lack of a natural audience: as I pointed out above, it’s not a good match for most Mormon readers, but at the same time it’s also sufficiently engaged with the matter of Mormonism that readers without a Mormon background may find it hard to follow and/or sympathize with. It’s also very much a story about the internal thought processes of the main character and the real-world events that prompt those thoughts, as opposed to a more externally plot-driven narrative. It’s a cerebral story where sometimes it seems that the main characters are more interested in talking about ideas than having a relationship. And the romance doesn’t turn out happily in the end: Brendan decides he wants to go on a mission and stops seeing Micah. All these are strikes against the book finding a very wide readership.

What the novel does best, in my view, is its depiction of Micah as a young man, confused in the way that many (perhaps most?) young men are often confused in their first serious relationships, whether that relationship is with a female or (as described here) with another male. Micah is constantly questioning what Brendan means, what he should say to the other boy, what just went wrong in their interaction, whether or not he should push for more physical contact or back off… the usual suspects.

In this respect, it strikes me that despite the thematic focus on homosexuality, much of the story could be retold as a boy-girl romance without changing a lot of the interpersonal dynamics. That’s not a bad thing, in my opinion. If anything, I think it’s a step forward to acknowledge that gay relationships can be just a clueless and frustrating as straight relationships can be, particularly between two people who are too young to really know what they’re doing and still largely narcissistically focused on themselves and their own agendas (as all of us tend to be when we start down the relationship path). The randomness in story events — the flow of conversation, the moods and attitudes of the main character — strikes me as in many ways a faithful depiction of reality, particularly the element of mutual befuddlement and confusion that so often creates problems during the early stages of relationships.

At the same time, the story’s sudden shifts also made it hard for me as a reader to process things. Much of the time I felt like there was something missing from what I was reading: as if Micah’s own understanding of his and Brendan’s situation was so lacking that he was leaving out vital information that would help me make sense out of things. Most notably, I’m not sure I ever had a clear sense of just what it was that held Micah and Brendan together as a couple. Their breakup was no surprise to me because their relationship had never made sense to begin with. I can’t decide if that’s the way Williams wanted me to react, or if I’m missing something as a reader. It’s also unclear to me why Micah, who has never had a testimony and who on the face of it doesn’t seem to have much reason to value the Church, spends so much time and mental energy thinking up arguments against the Church’s position on homosexuality.

The book’s biggest unknown is Brendan. How does he feel about being gay? How does he feel about being Mormon? Why does he ultimately choose to be Mormon instead of gay? Micah never knows, and we never know. We’re told that Brendan values the Church, but I saw nothing in his attitude suggesting a real spiritual conviction. Instead, he comes across as confused and unwilling to take a risky step outside his family’s expectations into a gay world. In general, I’d say that while Ockham’s Razor engages with Mormon ideas and experiences, it doesn’t do it in a way that explains why anyone with a healthy sense of intelligence or self-worth would ever want to stay in the Church, particularly if that person is homosexually attracted. While not by any means an anti-Mormon book, it’s definitely a book written from the outside looking in, or perhaps more accurately from a post-Mormon life phase looking back.

I’ve commented elsewhere on the need for stories about faithful, believing Mormons who also happen to be homosexually attracted. What the example of Ockham’s Razor makes clear is that if we don’t generate such stories, others certainly won’t hold back from telling stories about this topic that won’t please us nearly as much. Most examples are likely to be far less balanced and sympathetic to Mormon characters (and likely less well-written) than Ockham’s Razor.

60 comments: “Review of Ockham’s Razor by Alan Williams

  1. chanson

    I think you make some good points.

    Regarding his treatment of the faithful Mormon character Brendan: it’s true that his behavior is mysterious. And this is definitely a trap that authors need to watch out for: picking a point-of-view that’s unfamiliar to you (LDS believers in this case), and portraying their behavior as incomprehensible (because it is incomprehensible to you, the author).

    Still, in this case, I think there are some mitigating factors that make his treatment of believers reasonably fair:

    1. Brendan isn’t the only believing Mormon in the story. The mom is also a strong believer, and she’s a well-rounded character — very different from Brendan — who has a consistent perspective that makes sense.

    2. A huge point of the story is Micah’s frustration at not being able to make this emotional connection with Brendan.

    3. Your interpretation — that Brendan is a confused teenager — actually explains his behavior pretty well. If you’re looking for a role model who will be a good representative of faithful same-sex-attracted LDS youth, you’re right that Brendan’s not it. But (for example), consider the interpretation that Brendan likes Micah (and is attracted to Micah) — but he’s less interested in Micah than Micah is in him. Add that to the idea that he’s a young guy who’s still trying to figure out how he feels about the church and about his faith. Then Brendan’s behavior stops seeming bizarre or erratic.

    It’s also unclear to me why Micah, who has never had a testimony and who on the face of it doesn’t seem to have much reason to value the Church, spends so much time and mental energy thinking up arguments against the Church’s position on homosexuality.

    This point would not be mysterious at all if you spend any time on the exmo side of the Internet. If you don’t get it, I think it would take more than a handful of sentences in a comment to explain it. ;)

  2. Andrew S

    I probably shouldn’t post yet, until I get further into the review, but I’m really intrigued by the juxtaposition: you reviewing Alan’s work and didn’t Alan review yours earlier?

    This is a reminder for me to come back to this review.

  3. Jonathan Langford

    Andrew,

    Alan didn’t review my book per se, but he has commented extensively on earlier blogs talking about my book (I also provided him with an electronic copy I think), and he’s delivering a paper at the upcoming Sunstone that I believe discusses my book and his.

    Given my own personal investment in this issue, I wondered for a while whether I ought to review Alan’s book. Eventually I decided to go ahead and do so, partly on the grounds that the community of those writing and commenting about gay Mormon literature is small enough that if we disqualified ourselves due to conflicts of interest, very little would ever be said.

  4. Jonathan Langford

    Carol,

    I wouldn’t have any problem understanding Micah’s preoccupation with answering Mormon ideas if he’d been depicted as someone who was truly raised in the Church, as opposed to someone who encountered it in his teens. I guess my point is that his preoccupation makes it seem that Mormonism is more important to him (in a negative way) than his own comments lead us to believe that he thinks it is.

    With respect to #1: I wasn’t trying to say that Williams’s portrayal of believing Mormons is unfair. I’m also not sure it’s fair to assume that Mormon belief is unfamiliar to Williams as an author, just because it doesn’t come through clearly to Micah as the POV character. I think it’s true, however, that either (a) Brendan isn’t much of a believing Mormon, or (b) we aren’t ever shown that belief in a way that makes sense of it. Possibly this is because we’re in Micah’s head, and one of the main sources of plot conflict is Micah’s general confusion about Brendan.

  5. Mahonri Stewart

    “I’ve commented elsewhere on the need for stories about faithful, believing Mormons who also happen to be homosexually attracted. What the example of Ockham’s Razor makes clear is that if we don’t generate such stories, others certainly won’t hold back from telling stories about this topic that won’t please us nearly as much.”

    This has proven true, in my experience. Dwelling in the theatre world, as I do, I run into this all the time, especially post _Angels in America_ which made the combined topic of Mormons and homosexuals quite popular.

    But I’ve debated with myself as to whether I’m the one to write such a story. I have one that has been wandering in my head for the larger part of this decade. The whole plot and its characters are pretty much all there. It would be very compassionate, but take a similar approach that you have, Jonathan. Still, I don’t know if I’m just afraid to write it, or feel that this subject is already pretty well covered between writers like you and Melissa Leilani Larson. Could I actually add anything new to the conversation?

  6. Jonathan Langford

    Mahonri,

    Let me push back a bit on this. If we were talking about art that deals with heterosexual attraction in Mormon characters, would you be tempted to say that one or two authors have “covered the territory” and that additional perspectives simply aren’t needed? Or would you assume that this is a rich and varied stream of perspectives and experiences that could potentially fuel hundreds of fresh, well-written stories (if done correctly) about a variety of people in a variety of circumstances?

    In general, I’m not a great believer in stories about “typical” experiences, since all experience (in my experience) is individually quirky. This is just as true of homosexuality as anything else. There is, from what I’ve seen, just as great a variation in types of homosexuality as heterosexuality, including the ways that attractions and tendencies intersect with religious belief.

    Having said all that, I also have to acknowledge that topics can get stale, though I hope that hasn’t happened yet in this area. Actually, I was hoping that No Going Back might help to spark more narratives in this area (even — or perhaps especially — if some of it is the “I can do better than that!” reaction). So if your muse leads you there, more power to you!

  7. Moriah Jovan

    I have a faithful gay character in my Dunham family series. He features as a pretty prominent secondary character in Magdalene, but I don’t know if I’m going to pursue that or not.

  8. Katya

    Still, I don’t know if I’m just afraid to write it, or feel that this subject is already pretty well covered between writers like you and Melissa Leilani Larson. Could I actually add anything new to the conversation?

    I know of at least 9 plays about gay Mormons who have left the LDS Church and 2 plays about gay or lesbian Mormons who have stayed LDS, so I agree with Jonathan that there is room for more perspectives on the subject. That said, do you actually know any faithful gay or lesbian Mormons well enough to talk to them about what their lives are like? Without a little grounding in reality, I think a play on this topic could easily turn into something very didactic and unrealistic that simplifies the issues at hand.

  9. Moriah Jovan

    That said, do you actually know any faithful gay or lesbian Mormons well enough to talk to them about what their lives are like?

    Not speaking for Jonathan, but I do. We’ve talked about his struggles.

    The problem for me is that he’s still in his 20s and *my* character, at least, is 40.

  10. Andrew S.

    Heheh, turns out that as I come back, I don’t have much to say.

    Except I guess I can see the “audience” problem. I think works featuring ex-Mormons generally have audience problems for the reason you listed — too Mormon for non-members, but not faithful enough for members. So, there is a story to be told, but to whom?

  11. Silus Grok

    The gay Mormon community — small though it may be — is an echo chamber of epic proportions. We love talking to and about ourselves.

    Never mind us … we’ll just sit here in the corner, talking.

    :)

  12. Alan Williams

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks very much for this review. I can sense your ambivalence about its existence, but I appreciate that you feel that it’s better that the conversation flow rather than not flow.

    In terms of the Mormonness of the two main characters, you’re right that Micah wasn’t raised in the Church if this means “from birth to age 18,” but he was in it enough to affect him, to make him think about Mormonism seriously as a young adult, particularly since he has a Mormon boyfriend he’s trying to figure out. I wanted to offer a realistic depiction of how a young adult would pick up a faith that troubled him in his teens, which might include merely attacking the pieces that aren’t making his immediate situation as good as he wants it. As you point out, Micah characteristically argues with his mother about the faith, although she has grown accustom to this and stands her ground and tries (sometimes humorously) to redirect him. Furthermore, as the story develops, we see that attacking Mormonism gets Micah ~nowhere~ with Brendan, and in the end, when they break up, Micah turns to his mother to fix things, thinking there is something there that she gets and he doesn’t get.

    In terms of Brendan, and his lack of spirituality on the page: Brendan is clear that he considers his relationship with Micah to be “outside the Church” so the more he chooses Micah, the less Mormon he feels. Micah tries to convince him that he can be “gay and Mormon,” but this doesn’t make sense for Brendan. So, in the end, Brendan might be said to be “experimenting” with Micah, which is how the Church pigeonholes homosexuality for faithful adherents: “You can choose that, but it’s not real.” Of course, as in the case of Paul in No Going Back, as Brendan grows older he will still have to resolve this definitional matter for himself. In the meantime, he’s working within the framework the Church has laid out: if you’re gay, you’re not Mormon; if you’re Mormon, you’re not gay.

    You’ll notice in the beginning of the story, Brendan tells Micah that he’s scared that “being gay is a curse for could-be Saints.” He feels a kind of shame that Paul in No Going Back does not feel. However, orthodox Mormons tore your novel apart on the grounds that Paul is not shameful about thinking he is gay. I consider No Going Back to be similar to the approach that Ty Mansfield took in In Quiet Desperation: that “you can be gay, and eventually marry and be happy.” Although this might be true for some or even many people, and is a certainly a “faithful” perspective in 2010 Mormonism, policy-wise I agree with Dean Byrd that if you normalize homosexual attraction, the likely result overlain onto the plethora of human psychologies within the Church is that people will say: “Why can’t we act on our attractions if they’re indeed normal?” This is why “same-gender attraction” in Mormonism continues to be framed as a disability, something to be fixed, if not here then in the hereafter. The way the Church continues to frame homosexuality is likely to create more people (fictionally-speaking, characters) that are shameful about being gay, and who, sequester their gayness from their faithfulness the longer they stay faithful, than people who trouble themselves with integration their whole lives. In the case of Brendan, he’s young and lets himself “slip,” not because he’s “not a faithful Mormon,” but because he wonders if something more beautiful (ideal) exists for him outside the Church. Micah doesn’t live up to this ideal, as it is a lot to place on the shoulders of someone almost as young and confused as Brendan is.

    In sum, your review strikes me as having a lot of gatekeeping about “authentic gay Mormonism” without letting these characters and the story stand on its own. I agree that audience is a major issue here, but as Carol has noted in her review of your book, No Going Back has a kind of dicacticism to it in the same way that In Quiet Desperation is meant to help Mormon culture “deal with” homosexuality. This is not the book I wrote and I would appreciate it not being judged on these terms, although I understand that perhaps Mormon culture cannot not judge it on these terms.

  13. Jonathan Langford

    Alan,

    I don’t really see my review as gatekeeping with respect to authentic gay Mormonism. Certainly that wasn’t my intention. However, in writing a review for a Mormon venue about a book with Mormon characters, I did feel the need to describe the relationship of that book to Mormonism, together with comments about how that book would be perceived by believing Mormons (as well as others). I also felt the need to try to clarify just what Ockham’s Razor is and isn’t — not because I want to condemn it, but because that’s a big part of the job of any review.

    It may very well be that Brendan feels shame at being homosexually attracted, but as a reader, I don’t feel that in the novel. There are actions that could be the result of such shame, but they’re depicted at a sufficient remove (through the lens of Micah’s frequently faulty perceptions) that any conclusion about Brendan’s motives, based purely on the text, strikes me as speculation.

    If I was meant to understand what Brendan is going through, the book failed for me on that level. If, on the other hand, I’m meant to identify with Micah’s confusion, then the book succeeded admirably — which is not meant as an insult: you did a very good job of depicting Micah’s very credible reaction to events, which I took (and still take) as being the main focus of the story.

    My point about Brendan’s belief or lack thereof has less to do with his whether or not he’s following the path that the Church says he should follow with respect to his homosexuality, and more to do with the fact that aside from his ultimate choice to break things off with Micah (which seems more plausible as the result of pressure from his family and social expectations), I don’t see any real signs of genuine religious belief on his part. Early in the book, he says he’s taking a break from the Church, which is a fairly telling statement for a 17-year-old. For the first 2/3 or more of the book he strikes me as a young man on his way out of the Church, even if hasn’t admitted it yet. Eventually he makes a decision otherwise — but the most we find out about his decision-making process is that he’s been meeting with his bishop. What did they say? Why did he change his mind? All these things would be critical information if this novel was about Brendan’s Mormonness as experienced by him — but that’s not, ultimately, what this story is about (at least as I read it). Rather, it’s about the largely incomprehending Micah, who I genuinely feel sorry for at the end of the book, not because he’s gay so much as because he’s just been in an immensely confusing relationship where he wasn’t treated at all well.

    Certainly I don’t think that Mormon belief is represented in the novel in a way that brings it believably onstage. We see characters who are motivated by Mormon belief, but we never see *why* they believe. What hints we are given are all in the direction of an unthinking adherence to social expectations and what-I’ve-been-taught. In that respect, this isn’t a story about Mormon experience, though possibly about on-the-way-out-the-door experience.

    Is Brendan’s experience authentic? As the reader, I never feel that I have enough information to make a judgment. Certainly it could be authentic, whether he’s on his way out of the Church or vacillating between several different sets of feelings or filled with shame at his own weakness or running a con game on his family and his bishop. Any of these *could* be a variety of authentic experience, worthy of telling in stories, but as a reader I don’t know which of these (if any) is true of him. Micah’s story, on the other hand, seems quite authentic, as a confused young man who doesn’t really understand the religious belief that seems to keep getting in the way of that relationship.

    I don’t have anything against this novel, and I personally found it enjoyable for its own sake, though also immensely frustrating at times due to the cluelessness of many of its characters. But if one is looking for a novel about a believing Mormon confronting his homosexuality, this book isn’t it. My comments about definition weren’t meant any more judgmentally than that.

  14. Alan Williams

    To say that unless the “why” of Mormon belief is demonstrated in a story, that therefore the Mormon characters are acting in accordance to “social expectations” seems…jumpy. If this is your reading, if Mormonism seemed reduced to a kind of roboticism (or at least, a kind of periphery), I can’t argue against your reading.

    I would say two things, though: I thought I made a good case for Micah also living “what he’s been taught” and living the “social expectations” of a “gay, ex-Mormon.” And secondly, I personally thought spirituality as a positive force had a large presence in my novel. The character of Elizabeth was quite “Christian”; Micah was a quasi-Buddhist. Micah’s mother and brother, Brendan, and much of Brendan’s family were Mormon, some orthodox. Yes, all of this is seen through Micah’s “secular” eyes, and often negatively so, but Brendan obviously didn’t think about his family or his own life the same way Micah does. So even if I did not present Brendan’s motivations fully, I don’t think I presented him with a “false consciousness.”

    In the great scheme of things, stories about believing Mormons confronting their homosexuality are not the only stories needed at this time. The “why” of Mormon belief that demonstrates the nuts-and-bolts of how one might use choose “faith over sexuality” is not a totalizing force. I think stories that show how the “other side” mixes with Mormonism don’t make a story any less “Mormon.” This is what I mean by gatekeeping. The question of a natural audience is a separate matter. =)

  15. Th.

    .

    I always get nervous when an author clarifies a finished work. At least in an authoritative way. I’m a true New Critic in this sense. In my opinion, once the work is published, the only opinions that matter are those of the readers. And so while conversations like this one are interesting, when we are talking about reading a book, only the reader’s experience ultimately matters. Do you agree?

  16. Jonathan Langford

    Wbat I’m saying is that you did a better job of showing Brendan throughout the novel as motivated by social fear than as showing any genuine religious conviction on his part. As a result, it’s much easier to see his choice to go back to Church later in the novel as the natural outgrowth of that fear, particularly since he doesn’t explain the experiences that led him to that decision. This doesn’t make him a bad character, or even necessarily a bad person. But it contributes to my perception of him as someone who isn’t torn between religious belief and sexual orientation so much as he’s torn between sexual orientation and fear. Even that, though, is guesswork, because all his actions are seen through the lens of Micah’s perceptions.

    An equally plausible reading, given the way his character has been presented, is that Brendan is returning to the Church specifically as a way of backing out of his relationship to Micah because he doesn’t feel ready for that level of commitment. I think that if I went through the text, I could find at least as much support for that as any other possibility. That would make for an interestingly problematic future for him.

    I didn’t see the part about Micah living what he’s been taught are the social expectations of a gay ex-Mormon, unless you’re referring to the fact that he hasn’t dated seriously until now and that he finds (ironically) that he’s attracted to what he sees as a clean-cut Mormon kid. Could you explain more about that?

  17. Jonathan Langford

    Theric,

    I think it all depends on context. Personally, I’m always interested in what the author meant to say, compared to what I as a reader actually saw — partly because I’m interested in the phenomena of authorship, textual communication, motivation in writing, intended and unintended meaning, etc. That’s one reason why I participate in discussions about my own book: because I find such questions genuinely interesting, as well as because (as an author) I like to find out how people interpreted my work that are both similar to and different from what I had in mind.

    I don’t take the author’s post-hoc comments as being authoritative, as in overriding my (or anyone else’s) perceptions of the story. However, sometimes an author may mention things that make me think of the story or its elements in a different way: e.g., pointing out a pattern of meaning that I hadn’t seen before. In this case, I take the the author as speaking as critic and fellow-reader, no more authoritative than anyone else. Still, it’s more likely that this will happen with the writer than with most other readers, simply because the writer has paid far more attention to the text (and cares more about it) than anyone else.

    The other exception is when the author’s statements enter the public discourse and start having an impact on how a text is received. The classic case, I suppose, would be Joseph Smith’s account of how he received and translated the Book of Mormon. For almost 200 years, his translation narrative has been so powerful that for many readers it drowns out reactions to the text itself.

    So Alan, for my part I’m perfectly happy with your continued comments about your reading of the text of your story — as well as any other comments you might want to make about your own intentions, composition process, etc.

  18. Jonathan Langford

    I suppose that as the author of the review, if I applied a strict policy that authors can’t comment on texts post-publication, I wouldn’t be allowed to comment on and/or clarify my own review either…

  19. Moriah Jovan

    I can only say that the one and only time I clarified and/or reinterpreted how the reader interpreted it, I regretted it. Still do.

    I come from a tradition of the Author Keeps Her Mouth Shut, except for a thank-you, good, bad, or indifferent. I wish I’d stuck to my normal policy.

    (Otherwise, I do comment on reviews that get something flat wrong, and especially if the reviewer has an ax to grind, which happened to me on my very first review.)

  20. Moriah Jovan

    Andrew S said:

    Except I guess I can see the “audience” problem. I think works featuring ex-Mormons generally have audience problems for the reason you listed — too Mormon for non-members, but not faithful enough for members. So, there is a story to be told, but to whom?

    To anyone willing to listen.

    I’ve come at this Mormon fiction thing from a completely different angle, a completely different sensibility, a completely different audience, and what I’ve found is that most people are willing to read about The Other as long as it’s a good story.

    What I try to do, since about half my characters are Mormon (or almost or ex) and I’m writing to a non-Mormon audience, is clarify things in the text in such a way to avoid being encyclopedic. I don’t explain a few things that remain fuzzy in the reader’s mind on exactly how that works in our culture/religion, but they get the gist and go on. That’s what I think smart readers do anyway.

    What I try to do is make our culture a motive for their behavior, but not explain it away or preach; it’s just who they are. Everyone has influences. Why can’t my characters have the influence of Mormonism?

    What I try to do is take back the vocabulary of our culture for people whose only exposure to it is polygamy or Prop 8 or blacks-and-the-priesthood or those weird kids in black suits or…none at all.

    So the net effect is that with books 1 and 2, I’ve set up a trust system with my readers who know that book 3 will be deep in the heart of Mormonism–and they’re okay with that. They trust me to take them on a good ride with lots of twists and turns, with people they’ve come to know and (yes) love, in a world they (mostly) don’t agree with (religiously or politically) but want to stay in as long as they can.

    The audience is there, amongst regular readers (see sales figures for The Lonely Polygamist—#782 at Amazon). We have to be unafraid to pursue those people, to give them credit for being smart people who don’t mind reading about The Other, to be willing to take criticism and potshots.

    There is nothing different about our stories. We need to stop thinking there is.

  21. Jonathan Langford

    Moriah (#23),

    There is that. I have nothing against taking part in such conversations in theory, but in practice, I have at times been sorry I did.

  22. Alan Williams

    Th.@19: Yes, I do agree — except in cases where factual errors are made that can cut unfairly into what might already be a niche text, which is not the case here. In reviews of my novel so far, I have stayed silent — except in a first review that I amateurishly freaked out at, but even this was done offstage. Here, the conversation is not just about my book, though, but also about representations of “gay Mormons” generally, a subject about which Jonathan and I have already been in conversation.

    JL@20: I still think you’re assuming that if you see “fear” about sexual orientation, then somehow religious conviction is lacking. This sets up a binary in which the Church’s stance on homosexuality can only be true if it is “unfearsome.” But in my reading of Mormonism, when church leaders talk about “homosexuality as an abomination before the Lord,” this is supposed to instill a kind of fear of eternal consequences, which once instilled upon the psyche of a person, eventually becomes less of a “fear” and more of a “well, that’s just the way it is.” I tried to have Brendan occupy this space that’s more complex than just “I’m scared because I’m gay,” even if he is scared because he’s gay.

    In terms of Micah living social expectations, his views about sexuality and about how to “help” Brendan are primarily given to him by a society around him. He starts out as a typical enough “gay, ex-Mormon” in this regard, but his experiences nuance his views.

  23. Jonathan Langford

    Alan,

    I’m not assuming that fear means that absence of religious conviction, but I am saying that I see the fear but NOT the religious conviction. If you intended to show Brendan as a character filled with sincere religious belief, that didn’t come through — at least, not for me as a reader. But that doesn’t mean I was necessarily convinced that it wasn’t there. As I’ve noted above, this is all through Micah’s perceptions, which are demonstrably incomplete (even he knows that he doesn’t “get” Brendan’s actions and motives).

  24. Alan Williams

    What would sincere religious belief look like for you? I’m curious about Moriah’s comment @24 in which Mormonism as a motivation for characters can be present in a story to good effect without getting all religious about it. Did other characters in the story strike you as having religious conviction, such as Elizabeth or Micah’s mother?

  25. Jonathan Langford

    I’d like to open up Alan’s question, “What would sincere religious belief look like for you?” to general comment, with the understanding that (a) we’re talking about how this gets shown in a story character, (b) in a Mormon context. It’s a good question, and I think throwing it open more generally will yield better results than just having me answer it — in part because I won’t be trying to “tailor” my answer to what the characters in Alan’s book did and didn’t do.

  26. Andrew S.

    re 24:

    Moriah,

    So the net effect is that with books 1 and 2, I’ve set up a trust system with my readers who know that book 3 will be deep in the heart of Mormonism–and they’re okay with that. They trust me to take them on a good ride with lots of twists and turns, with people they’ve come to know and (yes) love, in a world they (mostly) don’t agree with (religiously or politically) but want to stay in as long as they can.

    …so, do you think you could’ve done it with one book, instead of three? Do you think that certain trust systems can be established more easily based on the familiarity of the individuals and groups involved?

    re 29:

    Jonathan, I for one am also really interested in what sincere religious belief would look like…especially for someone who doesn’t appear active or even appears — as has been said at some point — “on their way out.”

    For example, I guess this is a personal example, but from the way my brother acts, I don’t know whether he has a testimony or not. I always assumed he just didn’t, since he doesn’t attend church, doesn’t speak much about things like that, etc., However, as he has interacted with his friends, I’ve seen glimpses of a much deeper understanding of and identification with the scriptures than I would have even guessed.

    So, I don’t know. I have a bad radar in this sense.

    (p.s. to site owners, I think every blog can benefit with the option to subscribe by email to comments. I think there is a plugin that can do that for wordpress. wink wink)

  27. Moriah Jovan

    @Alan #28:

    My books 1 and 2 were meant to create a reader base and ease them into book 3. I say “meant to” like I really did mean to, but I don’t outline anything, so it became an evolving process that began the minute I wrote my protag’s name in book 1.

    Anyhoo. Book 3, Magdalene, is an allegory of the atonement. Of course, when talking to nonmembers I say it’s an allegory of the crucifixion, but nobody blinks a (virtual) eye. (Actually, what I usually get is “that’s effing ART!” You don’t see that theme in romance/women’s fiction/family saga much, yanno?)

    Better than half the book is told in first person from the perspective of Cassie, the nonmember ex-prostitute. The rest is in third person from Mitch’s (widowed bishop) point of view.

    I’ve actually run across a few people who can look at the tagline, who aren’t familiar enough (or at all) with Christian mythos to get it. It’s a whole new story. Even a couple of my (Christian) beta readers (whom I did not tell what I was doing) missed the whole thing. My Jewish critique partner certainly would’ve missed some of the nuance had she not asked.

    And that’s okay.

    I want it to function on several levels. What I DON’T want it to do is a) preach, b) preach, or c) preach.

    I also didn’t want to come off like a MormonAd.

    All I wanted to do was present our culture in its natural habitat with an affectionate eye.

    I’d tell you why/how I decided this, but it’s late and I doubt anybody really cares.

    I’m really not trying to plug myself, nor am I trying to clarify my story or anything like that. I’m just trying to set forth what my goals became once I finally stopped tiptoeing around why my characters did some of the things they did, and said, “These X, Y, Z characters are or have been Mormons.”

    To me, this discussion isn’t about gay or Mormon or gay AND Mormon. It’s about trying to find our way to a Mormon literature tradition that lives in the national marketplace, and doesn’t a) disguise itself as self-help programs and sparkly vampires, b) smack of tokenism, and/or c) wilt on the way out the door of Deseret Book and Sam Weller’s.

  28. Moriah Jovan

    @Andrew #30

    …so, do you think you could’ve done it with one book, instead of three? Do you think that certain trust systems can be established more easily based on the familiarity of the individuals and groups involved?

    No.

    I didn’t set out writing The Proviso with this end in mind. It evolved.

    See, in genre romance, there’s this pesky thing called virginity. Heroines who have it past some nebulous age need to justify WHY. I wrote a 34-year-old virgin. Nobody’s gonna believe that.

    In MY mind, I know why and it’s comfortable, but I know it’s not to the rest of the world. Some romance authors have gone to ridiculous lengths to justify a woman’s virginity past, say, 22 or so. Past 25 or 28 or 30? Forget it. Book becomes an instant wallbanger.

    So I struggled. And I finally took a page out of Sheri Tepper’s book(s) and said, “Screw it. I’m going to write these people like I know them and I’m not going to pussyfoot around about it. You wanna know why my heroine’s a 34-year-old virgin? I’ll tell you why: She’s a Mormon and she’s saving it for a temple marriage.” (Irp, she didn’t make it, BTW.)

    And that was where it all started. Trying to justify a 34-year-old woman’s virginity to a genre romance readership that would have accepted no other reason.

  29. Alan Williams

    Moriah@32:

    To me, this discussion isn’t about gay or Mormon or gay AND Mormon. It’s about trying to find our way to a Mormon literature tradition that lives in the national marketplace…

    I support such an enterprise. However, I am thus confused about Langford’s review in which he says:

    I’ve commented elsewhere on the need for stories about faithful, believing Mormons who also happen to be homosexually attracted. What the example of Ockham’s Razor makes clear is that if we don’t generate such stories, others certainly won’t hold back from telling stories about this topic that won’t please us nearly as much.

    I have been positioned as an “other” who is not part of this “we” engaging in a “Mormon literature tradition.”

    Why is this? I believe it is linked to how Langford understands the character of Brendan to lack “religious conviction.” I think Andrew is onto something @30 when he asks “what is religious conviction when it comes to a character who is perceived to be ‘on his way out?'” The fact that the character of Brendan ends up back in the Church at the end of the story has been described as “mysterious” and that’s fine, but the character is also very much engaged in questions of what it means to be Mormon, which is not something someone who is “on his way out” does. I suspect that because the character does not hesitate to “act on his attraction” when he meets someone he likes and trusts that therefore, he is said to lack religious conviction, and by extension my story is considered not part of the “we.” This is why I am calling out Langford on his gatekeeping. Like I’ve said, I understand that there’s a question of “Well, Mormons simply aren’t going to appreciate a story that shows two guys being intimate,” but I think even this is not demographically accurate.

  30. Moriah Jovan

    @Alan

    stories about this topic that won’t please us nearly as much.

    I have been positioned as an “other” who is not part of this “we” engaging in a “Mormon literature tradition.”

    So speaking from the place of another The Other, I can only offer my opinion that it really doesn’t matter.

    And FWIW, there were a whole lot of people who weren’t pleased with Jonathan’s book, either, for various and sundry reasons—but mostly, if I read the scuttlebutt right, because it made people uncomfortable.

    There were a lot of people who wanted to have Eugene Woodbury tarred and feathered (kidding, just ex’d) for Angel Falling Softly because a couple of things made them uncomfortable.

    Discomfort is always going to make people not pleased.

    When one writes stuff that’s out of the bounds of cultural expectation, one is going to be considered out of bounds, too. It goes along with the territory.

    On the other hand, when you write the uncomfortable, you give other, more timid writers permission to explore their own stories but have never had the courage because they feared what would happen to them. Un/fortunately, whichever way you look at it, the trailblazers are the ones who take the hits.

    Like I’ve said, I understand that there’s a question of “Well, Mormons simply aren’t going to appreciate a story that shows two guys being intimate,” but I think even this is not demographically accurate.

    The trick is to find where that demographic is, where you’re not The Other, but the chronicler of the struggle.

  31. Wm Morris

    Andrew:

    I’ll look in to it, but you should also learn to use RSS — it’s the better way. ;-P

    ———

    I don’t understand the objection to gatekeeping. Jonathan’s novel was not only subject to gatekeeping on the ex-mo side, but the author himself was subject to speculation and some personal attacks that were only shakily tied to the text. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened here so far (and won’t because I’ll come down with a heavy hand on anyone who does so — no matter which author we’re talking about).

    Gatekeeping is an important function of critics, especially those operating within particular literary schools/fields (which we loosely define here at AMV as the radical middle of Mormon narrative art). I don’t object to someone being called out as a gatekeeper (or even me being called out as a gatekeeper). That’s also a big tradition of literary schools/fields and ethnic literatures. We do it ourselves, sometimes, in relation to other gatekeepers.

    I’d also note Alan, that in your excerpt from the review quoted above you focus on the negative and cut out all the positive stuff that Jonathan mentions. What place do you think Ockham’s Razor has in both Mormon culture and the world of Mormon letters? I don’t think you are being positioned as an other so much as on the fringe. That’s okay, because Jonathan is also on the fringe; so am I — just in a different area of the fringe.

    —–

    In terms of that not being demographically accurate — what evidence do you have to suggests that? What demographics are we talking about?

    Also: “but the character is also very much engaged in questions of what it means to be Mormon, which is not something someone who is “on his way out” does.”

    Actually it seems that many who are on the way out are very much engaged in questions of what it means to be Mormon. Often more so than those who are comfortably “in.”

  32. Jonathan Langford

    Interesting discussion. And Moriah, I don’t mind bringing in your work as well; I like a discussion that goes in multiple directions.

    It is true that in the last paragraph of my review I went outside talking directly about Alan’s book to making a larger cultural comment about what I see as the need for more texts describing the faithful LDS experience with respect to homosexuality. That’s not something that I believe Ockham’s Razor does, in part because the POV character is not faithful LDS, and because the character who is described as faithful LDS (Brendan) is depicted in a way that his religious beliefs are mysterious at best to the main character and not revealed to us as readers. Certainly his willingness to act on his homosexual feelings is an element in Micah’s bafflement (and mine as a reader) in describing him as a faithful Latter-day Saint.

    Alan asked what Mormon religious belief looks like. Since no one else has addressed that question, I’ll bite the bullet and list a set of characteristics (though I really would appreciate some help here, particularly since I think it’s an important topic that’s right down the middle of AMV’s area of focus). For me, some of the signs that a character is a believing Mormon include the following:

    – Descriptions of spiritual experiences, either within the character’s POV or in the character’s voice

    – Descriptions of spiritual actions, such as prayer — and of the character’s sincere reaction to those actions

    – Willing service in the Church

    – Feelings of love, loyalty, or joy related to the Church and/or its teachings

    – A willingness to alter actions and behavior in response to Church teachings

    – An interest in talking about gospel teachings in appropriate contexts

    – Bearing a sincere testimony. I add “sincere” because like many of the other signs on this list, this can also be extreme or hypocritical. It’s part of the author’s art to do this in a way that will make clear to the reader how it’s to be taken.

    – A sense of the doctrines of the gospel informing a character’s worldview at a deep level. For example, if a person really believes that every person is a child of God, that will play into his or her worldview.

    I’m sure there are some I’ve missed, but these are examples of how I can imagine Mormon religious belief being depicted in a story.

    It’s certainly possible to write a good character in a story, even a good Mormon character, without showing any of these signs. And I agree with Andrew that it can often be hard (in real life or in a character) to know whether religious belief is present. The example of his brother actually makes my point, as I see it: if you have someone who doesn’t seem to be acting like a believing Mormon, then outside observers won’t simply assume that he or she is, regardless of label.

    The other place where I suppose I can be accused of literary gatekeeping is when I say that Ockham’s Razor “reflects a viewpoint that will resonate more with those who have left the Mormon faith than with believing Mormons” and that “While not by any means an anti-Mormon book, it’s definitely a book written from the outside looking in, or perhaps more accurately from a post-Mormon life phase looking back.” Alan, would you dispute either of those statement? Do you have evidence to suggest that either is untrue? Would you *want* either of these to be untrue?

    Certainly Ockham’s Razor is part of the universe of gay Mormon literature. That universe is one where the experience of leaving the Church has been depicted far more frequently than the experience of staying faithfully within the Church. That’s an imbalance (in my view) that needs addressing. It’s not an imbalance that I feel your book does anything to address, because Brendan is not in my view a credible believing Mormon whose belief is presented sympathetically. Most important (and this is a point you have not addressed in my comments), his experience is never depicted in a way that makes it clear to me as a reader exactly *what* his experience has been. Micah is a self-absorbed, unperceptive narrator (much like myself as a young man) who never seems to perceive Brendan clearly, between the haze of emotional and physical attraction and his obsession over whether things are going well or poorly, minute-by-minute, in their relationship. As a reader, I never even really get a clear picture of what the two of them see in each other, let alone what Brendan’s interior motivations are like.

    My conclusion that this isn’t a book about Brendan (except as a mysterious Other in Micah’s imagination) OR about the experience of a faithful gay Mormon isn’t meant as a condemnation, but simply as a description. If you were trying to describe what it means to be a faithful Mormon who is also homosexually attracted, then from my perspective as a reader, you simply failed. Honestly, it never occurred to me that this was something you were even trying to do.

    In the closing comments of my review, I follow the time-honored tradition of going beyond talking directly about your book and talking instead about the larger literary context for it. In that paragraph, I do call on a “we” that I presume does not include you of those who want to see sympathetic depictions in fiction of characters who are living by LDS teachings in this area. Frankly, nothing in the story itself or in how you’ve presented it (here or elsewhere) leads me to believe that you would want it to be characterized this way. Why, then, do you object to me leaving Ockham’s Razor outside of a category I have no evidence you ever wanted it to belong to?

    There’s a broader debate in the Mormon/gay community about what being a “faithful gay” member of the Church can and does include. Does it require living celibately? Does it require activity in the Church? Does it require believing that you don’t have an eternal gay identity? Most Mormon readers are going to say “yes” to all three. Maybe you were trying to argue that this isn’t the case. If so, that never came through in the book, presumably in part because the focus stays so firmly within Micah’s POV.

    Other than that, I really don’t know what the argument here is about. I never claimed that the book was unsympathetic to Mormons as characters. I never claimed it was anti-Mormon. I never claimed that the experiences depicted weren’t authentic. All that I said was that it doesn’t show a believing gay Mormon experience, partly because Brendan’s faithfulness seems dubious and partly because we simply don’t get a good view of Brendan as a character. And I still stand by that.

  33. Eugene

    Yes, if somebody actually stumbles across that demographic, please tell the rest of us where it is. Although some of us have grudgingly accepted that such a demographic collectively exists only in our wishful thinking, and that the best chance of reaching its remnants is on the rebound off a much broader audience.

  34. Alan Williams

    I want to thank everyone for their reasonableness. I promise I won’t push this much further. =p

    Do I disagree with the statement that the book “reflects a viewpoint that will resonate more with those who have left the Mormon faith than with believing Mormons?” Yes, I do disagree. As Moriah said @24:

    most people are willing to read about The Other as long as it’s a good story

    which means that written well enough, a story can resonate with anyone, not just those whose viewpoints resemble the protagonist’s.

    The demographic of “faithful Mormons who don’t mind seeing two guys who are intimate” exists. They are people who disagree with the Church on the topic of homosexuality, but are otherwise faithful. They include members of divided families; women who are interested in same-sex romance as a genre (a rather popular genre these days, actually); converts to the Church, etc. There is a lot of diversity in this regard that falls “under the radar.” I am curious about Jonathan’s reading experience, if as a faithful Mormon he felt compelled to skip past scenes that are “unfaithful”? I think human beings are complex creatures capable of holding multiple viewpoints at once, which is what a reading experience provides. If all Mormons only read “faithful” books, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    I had, what I would consider, a faithful Mormon woman email me who herself writes same-sex [male] romance and she told me about conversations she’s had with her bishop on the subject, and they’ve basically agreed to disagree. There are of course faithful gay people in the Church who might be interested in my book, not because they’re biting their fingernails about whether they should enter a same-sex relationship (i.e, they’re “on their way out”), but simply because they’re gay and the book features Mormons.

    When it comes to same-sex sexuality in Mormonism, there does seem to be an echo chamber that Silus pointed out @15. But I think what’s actually happening out there is much broader than this echo chamber. I for one, wrote Ockham’s Razor based on life experience, not discourse found in the “gay, Mormon community” — which I didn’t venture into until after the book was published.

    WH@36:

    Actually it seems that many who are on the way out are very much engaged in questions of what it means to be Mormon. Often more so than those who are comfortably “in.”

    I’m speaking specifically of “trials of faith” that young people often have that can potentially strengthen their resolve to remain in the Church.

  35. Moriah Jovan

    They include [...] families; women who are interested in same-sex romance as a genre (a rather popular genre these days, actually);

    Yes, extremely popular. I must admit that I don’t care for m/m romance, but that’s a function of what I find hawt and not. (I don’t like the absence of a female in the equation; I can’t relate.)

    I had, what I would consider, a faithful Mormon woman email me who herself writes same-sex [male] romance and she told me about conversations she’s had with her bishop on the subject, and they’ve basically agreed to disagree.

    I know quite a few female m/m authors. They’re raking in the dough, lemme tell ya. From everything I can gather, m/m romance outsells m/f and menage (in any combination) about 5:1.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if a portion of that customer base is LDS.

  36. Wm Morris

    Thanks, Alan. I better get where you coming from now.

    In terms of m/m, this is where we need Eugene to weigh in on Yaoi. ;-)

  37. Alan Williams

    I’ve written on yaoi myself (I’m a huge fan of the genre); I’d be very interested in a study of same-sex romance consumption among Mormon women, so if anyone has any information about that… =D

  38. Jonathan Langford

    My statement that Ockham’s Razor “reflects a viewpoint that will resonate more with those who have left the Mormon faith than with believing Mormons” has less to do with the description of homosexuality and more to do with the fact that Micah keeps bashing the Church about various things (such as blacks and the priesthood) while those who disagree with him are left either with nothing to say in response or sounding like idiots. Granted, that’s a function of Micah’s character, but it’s one that faithful Mormons aren’t likely to go out of their way to experience. Most members of the Church, in my experience, have experienced plenty of real-life confrontations about their faith; why read about more of them?

    One of the challenges in getting people to read No Going Back has been the assumption of some readers that it’s going to be another story bashing the Church’s position on homosexuality. While Ockham’s Razor doesn’t precisely do that, it certainly gives much better lines to those criticizing the Church’s position than to those defending it.

    Alan, if what you’re arguing is that Mormons should be more open to reading about what their position on homosexuality looks like to those outside the faith, I can’t argue with that, though certainly that’s an uphill battle. In talking about your book in particular, however, I would argue that the faithful LDS perspective on homosexuality is the “other” that is largely denied coherent voice in your narrative.

  39. Alan Williams

    A gay Mormon story doesn’t have to fit into either “defending” the Church or “attacking” it. For example, what I was doing in scenes concerning race in the Church were about more than only black ordination. These were not just scenes “against” the Church…I was storytelling about “race in the Church” from a generational perspective (Micah’s mom versus Micah). You might note that Brendan shuts Micah down fairly quickly when it comes to race, and Brendan is not a white character and he’s Mormon.

    I think the conceptual block “faithful LDS perspective on homosexuality” is defined not only by “official church policy,” but also by the practices and beliefs of church members, particularly when it comes to the question of audience for a story. I’m not saying “Mormons need to be open to reading about what their position on homosexuality looks like to those outside their faith,” I’m saying that who Mormons are and what their positions are on homosexuality are multi-vocal.

  40. Mahonri Stewart

    “That said, do you actually know any faithful gay or lesbian Mormons well enough to talk to them about what their lives are like? Without a little grounding in reality, I think a play on this topic could easily turn into something very didactic and unrealistic that simplifies the issues at hand.”

    Moriah, I’ve had a number of gay friends. Most of them have left the Church, or had troubled relationships with it in the first place. Obviously, before tackling such a subject, if I ever do, I would do my research. But my first line of research would be done on a very personal level and draw from some very personal experiences.

    Of course, not understanding the culture didn’t stop Tony Kushner from writing Angels in America, and he got a pulitzer prize, a tony, plus a huge amount of other awards for his troubles. ;]

  41. Mahonri Stewart

    But, as beautifully written as Angels in America was, the play did, now that I think of it, come off as a little “didactic and unrealistic [and simplified] the issues at hand.” But, hey, who can argue with that Pulitzer?

  42. Mahonri Stewart

    Jonathan, on comment #7:
    It’s that “staleness” that I’m afraid of. Honestly, it’s a tiring, heart wrenching subject. On one hand, that’s probably as good of a reason to write the thing as any. On the other, it’s kind of like when two of the same kind of movie come out at the same time… say _Armageddon_ and _Deep Impact_, or _Bug’s Life_ and _Antz_… overexposure will make the subject matter less impactful. I would be afraid that people would say, “Oh, yeah, that OTHER GUY’s gay Mormon play.” If I ever wrote the piece, it would actually be very personal to me and I would hate to get that kind of reaction to it. I’m used to the controversy… I write polygamy plays… it’s the throwing my pearls before swine thing that I would have trouble getting over.
    That doesn’t mean I won’t write it, necessarily. I would have to feel, like all my other projects, that I feel personally involved enough that I need to write it. I have so many other projects I want to do that I weigh it all very carefully.

  43. Mahonri Stewart

    “Of course, not understanding the culture didn’t stop Tony Kushner from writing Angels in America, and he got a pulitzer prize, a tony, plus a huge amount of other awards for his troubles.”
    And of course, by this I mean Kushner doesn’t understand MORMON culture. It’s obvious that he understands homosexual culture.

  44. Jonathan Langford

    Mahonri,

    You wrote: “I would be afraid that people would say, ‘Oh, yeah, that OTHER GUY’s gay Mormon play.'” On the other hand, people might say, “Wow! Mahonri’s work built on what we’d seen before, and added something more!”

    Joking aside, Kushner’s play certainly wasn’t the first play about AIDS and being gay. If anything, he had an advantage of writing a play about a topic where previous artistic offerings had built interest. (The fact that it included Mormons, while different and unique, was really only a cosmetic detail to everyone but Mormons. Certainly it wasn’t part of what made people think AA was so good!) Not that I think that will necessarily happen here: there isn’t a built-in constituency in positions of power within the Mormon artistic community similar to the gay community in theater with a strong interest in seeing their story told.

    In the end, I agree that the determining factor needs to be a sense of personal involvement: that the story grips you so much that you can’t *not* write it. Choosing to write the story because it’s topical right now, or not to write it because it might have been overdone, should be secondary motivations at best. In my opinion.

  45. Katya

    “Moriah, I’ve had a number of gay friends.”

    I’m actually the one who made the comment you responded to, not Moriah. (Don’t worry, we get that all the time. ;) )

  46. Moriah Jovan

    Mahonri… :) I do have access to someone who is a gay faithful member.

    But like I said, he’s in his 20s and my character is in his 40s. I’m QUITE SURE that makes a huge difference. Straight or gay or bi- or a-, are any of us remotely the same people we were 10 or 20 years ago?

    I was on the Usenet group alt.religion.mormon in the late 90s, early 00s, and there was a regular poster in that group, very apologist, whom I really admired. (Who liked what I had to say, also. I loved that group. Wish it hadn’t been taken over by trolls.)

    A couple of years ago, I found out he had come out, left his wife and kids, and was struggling on his own, but still trying to be faithful. I think. I was disappointed not that he was gay or had come out, but that he’d left his wife and kids. I dunno. Maybe the wife wanted it that way. I can’t judge. I want to talk to him because he’s that age, but he doesn’t remember me and that would be…awkward.

    Anyway, my female protagonist’s ex-husband is gay. She’s from the Upper East Side, clearly moneyed, technically Episcopalian but not even Easter-and-Christmas ones. The coming out and leaving the wife and family is not unique to us by a long shot.

    Oh, so I wrote my character to a) contrast with the rest of his family, who has a bunch of excommunicable sins under their belts and b) write an homage to those faithful gay Mormons who sacrifice and c) make it as realistic as I can without getting didactic. My beta readers think I succeeded, but who knows?

    In any case, I realize that I’m an apologist and I write with an affectionate eye toward the church, but by the same token, I try to be frank about its failings.

    There’s a short bit of dialogue in The Proviso that (I think) cuts to the heart of it, but I won’t quote it.

    /pointless rambling

    And also, Katya’s the good cop. I’m the bad one.

  47. Jonathan Langford

    Other life circumstances also matter. I think the experience, for example, of faithful male characters who marry while being gay is no doubt vastly different from those who stay single. The experience of those who get divorced is doubtless different from those who stay married. And, of course, male is vastly different from female experience.

    Moriah, what are the circumstances of your character? What kinds of reader feedback are you looking for? And you should certainly feel free to post your dialogue here, if you’re so inclined. As I said before, I think a richer discussion is no disadvantage.

  48. Katya

    “And also, Katya’s the good cop. I’m the bad one.”

    Ha! Except for on the AML blog. :)

  49. Moriah Jovan

    Moriah, what are the circumstances of your character?

    He’s a secondary character. He’s also a second counselor in the bishopric.

    He’s meant to provide a contrast to the rest of his family, who have gone astray in one way or another (and in one case, irretrievably).

    He’s meant to explain the church’s position on homosexuality.

    In terms of genre romance (which definition I’m straddling with my work), it’s meant to showcase a gay character who is NOT a villain and whose homosexuality is not used as a shorthand for villainy.

    What kinds of reader feedback are you looking for?

    My beta readers basically tell me what works and what doesn’t, logical fallacies, places where the plot or characterization falls apart, how generally engrossing the story is, if I get didactic or evangelical instead of informational.

    I have four sections of beta readers: nonmembers who HAVE read books 1 and 2 (for continuity) and nonmembers who HAVE NOT read books 1 and 2 (to make sure the book can stand alone and give me the skinny on Upper East Side sensibilities). Then I have two members, one who doesn’t believe and is undergoing her own struggle and a jack Mormon. Some are writers, some are not. A couple of them are people I didn’t know before they bought/read books 1 and 2, liked them, and whose comments I found valuable.

    And you should certainly feel free to post your dialogue here, if you’re so inclined. As I said before, I think a richer discussion is no disadvantage.

    Now I’m not sure that what I was going to post adds anything to the discussion.

    There are three gay men in the book—one is the character I’ve been discussing; one is Cassie’s ex-husband; the last is her best friend, who is her ex-husband’s husband).

    There are two places in Magdalene where the homosexuality of the characters is discussed in depth. You’ll have to trust there are thematic layers and connections made throughout because otherwise, I’d have to post the whole book.

    Morgan (the faithful gay second counselor)’s celibacy is discussed in relation to Mitch’s (the widowed bishop protagonist). Cassie, being an ex-prostitute, is/has been gay-for-pay, and she’s had non-paid flings with women. Regardless, she doesn’t understand celibacy at all, straight or gay.

    A conversation between Cassie and Morgan takes place when Cassie’s preparing to ambush Mitch at church (as he hasn’t invited her and she’s curious). If you want me to post that conversation, I will, but I’m getting uncomfortable taking the focus off Alan’s book to mine, as that was not my intent.

  50. Jonathan Langford

    I’d be interested, but I also don’t want you to feel uncomfortable posting. Feel free to email me directly with the section in question. (One thing for you to research, if you haven’t done so already: I’m not sure what Church policy is on calling single individuals as counselors in bishoprics. I know they can’t serve as bishops. If you’d like, I can check on this once I’m back in Wisconsin, later in August.)

    It’s an interesting challenge: how to describe the Church’s position on homosexuality in fiction. Alan does it. I do it. Anyone who writes about this topic in a Mormon context has to do it. (As I recall, the closest Kushner comes to this is when a character — Hannah? — says Mormons don’t believe in homosexuality, but it’s been a long time since I read and wrote about that). One of the things I liked about Alan’s book is that he pulls in a lot of different elements — shows some of that variation in opinions that he mentioned in #44 — though still in a way that was (understandably) fairly heavily tilted toward favoring those more inclined to acceptance of homosexuality.

  51. Moriah Jovan

    I’m not sure what Church policy is on calling single individuals as counselors in bishoprics.

    My ward has. I don’t know his orientation; it’s hard to know here where there is little to choose from. I’ve observed single men in this neck of the woods long enough to know that as they get older and remain single, their interest in marrying decreases. I don’t know what that’s a function of.

    It was harder to justify a widower remaining as bishop, but I shook down one of my previous bishops and my uncle, (neither of whom saw any reason to release him—and also taking a page from my area’s weird stake boundary issues), got some information from the handbook (reassuringly vague/ambivalent), and finally decided that since it wasn’t prohibited, it has to be that way for the story to work.

    how to describe the Church’s position on homosexuality in fiction. Alan does it. I do it. Anyone who writes about this topic in a Mormon context has to do it.

    I should clarify. He explains it in terms of his own situation.

    I’ll not post the conversation. It’s long and the book is still in beta reads, and I’m not eager to put my nekkid self on display like that. ;)

  52. Alan Williams

    @55:

    HARPER: It’s terrible. Mormons are not supposed to be addicted to anything. I’m a Mormon.
    PRIOR: I’m a homosexual.
    HARPER: Oh. In my church, we don’t believe in homosexuals.
    PRIOR: In my church, we don’t believe in Mormons.
    HARPER: What church do…oh! (She laughs) I get it.

    @56:

    I’ve observed single men in this neck of the woods long enough to know that as they get older and remain single, their interest in marrying decreases.

    If a widower, I can see this, because they guy’s wife will be “waiting for him on the other side.” If never married, I don’t think “being gay” realistically prevents wanting to be married in Mormonism. All the older gay men I know of in the faith are either married, divorced or want to marry (desperately). The only one I know who is a chosen single was not a Mormon for 30 years. If you can find me a gay, Mormon man who has chosen to be chaste his whole life as a “lifestyle” because he’s “gay” (and has been an active Mormon his whole time), then I’d like to meet him. I think that being gay makes one think twice about marriage and over time can be like: “I’m happy enough; why should I get married?” But “same-gender attraction” is not really an “excuse” in Mormonism to not marry. Neither is “getting older.”

  53. Moriah Jovan

    But “same-gender attraction” is not really an “excuse” in Mormonism to not marry.

    I struggled with that, but it’s a minor theme in the bigger story arc. After all, the novel’s 150,000 words long.

    There’s a sweet spot where you can say X much and the reader will take it on its face; but then you go past that and say X+1—and the reader starts asking questions they’re never gonna get an answer to.

    Going further into the obligation of a man to marry regardless would’ve been way past that sweet spot.

    If a widower, I can see this, because they guy’s wife will be “waiting for him on the other side.” If never married, I don’t think “being gay” realistically prevents wanting to be married in Mormonism. All the older gay men I know of in the faith are either married, divorced or want to marry (desperately).

    No, these are ones who are my age (give or take a couple of years), never married, gave lip service to wanting to marry (desperately), but did nothing toward that, saying they couldn’t find the right girl. One even went so far as to move back to Utah to do so, and still didn’t.

    I’ve never ascribed this to orientation, although I’ve always wondered if they were lying to themselves. I ascribed it more to a complete loss of interest over time, and being comfortable in their lives.

    In one case, however, I can see where he’s simply not desirable husband material: aimless, wandering through life with no ambition, no real job, living with his parents, with an unwillingness to go forth and be a responsible, productive member of society.

    The others…I don’t know.

  54. Alan Williams

    There’s a sweet spot where you can say X much and the reader will take it on its face; but then you go past that and say X+1—and the reader starts asking questions they’re never gonna get an answer to.

    Some readers will inevitably see themselves in a text, and automatically ask X+1, +2, etc. But I think you’re right about a “sweet spot” for a target audience as a whole. If you provide X+1, then you’re likely to turn off other readers in the process, bogging down a narrative with over-developed characters.

    In Langford’s book where spirituality is used to explain Paul’s choices, this makes sense for a Mormon reader, the book’s target audience. But unless the reader has this spirituality, Paul’s choices still don’t necessarily make sense and can be dismissed as an X+1. I would venture to say that leaving Brendan’s spirituality “mysterious” in my novel might be viewed by the more secular reader as a more explanatory force for Brendan’s behavior. Because if I got into specifics, the secular reader could simply dismiss the theology. This is what happened to the Church during Prop 8: The Church gave theological reasons to the public to explain its position, and those reasons were shot down because not everyone is Mormon. So, not to kick a dead horse, but faithfulness comes in a lot of flavors, including its lack.

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