Writing Mormon Literature for a non-Mormon Audience

3.26.10 | | 21 comments

Note: This started as an entry for my personal/book blog, which focuses primarily (so far) on No Going Back and its reception. However, I quickly realized that what I was writing was taking a far more theoretical/literary direction. So I decided to cross-post it here, with apologies if needed, on the theory that I’d love to get some response to the question I’m trying to ask about how to write Mormon literature for non-Mormon audiences. So have at it!

It’s always interesting seeing what non-Mormon readers of No Going Back have to say about the book. For one thing, it includes an awful lot of Mormon detail. Since I never imagined that it might have a large non-Mormon audience, I didn’t go to any trouble to explain that detail. No real accommodations for any readers who don’t happen to be Mormon.

At a more basic level, I’ve wondered if non-Mormons would even be able to identify with the characters and their motivations. Sure, there’s a lot of universality to the basic conflicts in the book. Every teenager struggles with issues of identity and peer pressure. Every married couple struggles with issues of communication and priorities. But that doesn’t necessarily make the particulars of one person’s conflict easy to identify with on the part of readers whose lives are very different.

I particularly wonder if there’s much possibility for non-Mormon readers to identify with the main characters in No Going Back in their Mormonness. Granted, there are other conservative churches that reject homosexuality as a lifestyle, and even some that embrace the delicate balance of viewing the attraction itself as not a sign of sin but rather as a trial that must be resisted. It’s my perception, however, that being a Mormon is rather different on an experiential level from being a Baptist or a Catholic or what have you. Certainly on a theological level the reasons why Mormons reject homosexuality are quite different, so far as I know, from the reasons given by any other religion — because we’re the only ones who believe that (a) it is human destiny (if we accept it) to become like God, and (b) that the definition of God includes, and is indeed partly defined by, heterosexual marriage. That’s far more than just rhetoric for Mormon teenagers; it’s a fundamental part of how we view ourselves. One of the first songs we learn in childhood starts, “I am a child of God” — and for us, that’s literal.

So I’m always interested to read or hear what non-Mormon readers think about No Going Back, and whether it makes sense to them. All of which made me particularly interested in a review that showed up earlier this week on Amazon.com by Amos Lassen, a veteran Amazon reviewer (almost 3,000 reviews!) who apparently tries to read as many GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) titles as he can and who also has strong interests in religion, but not specifically LDS religion. Awarding No Going Back 5 stars (out of 5), he writes in part:

“Everyone tries to understand [Paul’s] feelings and provide him with love and support but he remains somewhat in pain…. He doesn’t try to cure himself but he feels he needs the support of others but he does not want to come out and he knows that gay sex is forbidden by his religion. He wants a life of virtue and to be accepted for the person that he is…. The struggle between desire and faith seems to always be with us and the author has us examine ourselves closely so that we can be more understanding and accepting of others. The book is not an attack on gay people and is just the story of a boy who understands that he has the right to make the choice about how he wants to live his life.”

After reading Lassen’s review, I emailed him to thank him for his thoughts and find out more about how he’d become aware of my book. (Answer: browsing Amazon.) He mentioned that he teaches a class in gay literature at the college level, and is thinking of adding No Going Back. I’d love to find out what his students think.

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It’s a perpetual question among many Mormon writers just how we as Mormons can effectively present Mormon experience to a national audience. Examples that are frequently held up for emulation from other traditions include the novel The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, depicting the coming-of-age of a Jewish boy during World War II, and the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I freely admit that No Going Back isn’t a terribly good candidate for that. It’s got too many other things going on to really be a good depiction of Mormon experience for non-Mormons — including the gay issue, which kind of overshadows everything else. But the positive responses I’ve received from a few non-Mormon readers — including the one from Amos Lassen, and one from a non-LDS retired literature professor published in my Wisconsin hometown newspaper, and even the surprisingly positive response I got from a vehemently atheist gay British acquaintance — make me wonder if maybe the target isn’t a little closer than I’d thought.

Looking at what I’ve seen of Mormon attempts to portray our experience in literature intended for Mormons and non-Mormons both, I find that a lot of it suffers from one or more of the following problems:

- Eccentricity — showing characters that would be oddballs in any Mormon ward (or anywhere else, for that matter)

- Over-the-top slapstick

- Whitewashing

- Focus on superficial elements of Mormon experience

- Attempts to convert

All of these have their place, but they get in the way of helping non-Mormon readers come away from the reading with a better understanding of what it means to be Mormon.

Some characteristics of a Mormon literature that would speak meaningfully to non-Mormons are obvious inverses of the problems I listed above. Such a literature would present its Mormon characters as being fundamentally ordinary, in both good and bad ways. It would show them as flawed, but sincere in their beliefs. It would take the Mormon context seriously enough not to exaggerate or turn things into a joke. It would not shy away from showing some of the deeper aspects of what it means to be a believing Mormon — the spiritual experiences and such —but would do it in a way that invites readers to accept those elements as part of understanding the character, rather than demanding that readers make a decision as to whether they personally accept Mormonism as true. It may be that such a literature will be more successful if it doesn’t attempt to explain elements of Mormon culture, but simply puts the reader into the middle of it.

Certainly we’ve seen some examples of this. Personally I think the first two Dutcher movies (God’s Army and Brigham City) did this quite well. (I haven’t watched States of Grace and so don’t have an opinion on it.) And Orson Scott Card’s Lost Boys is, bar none, the best depiction of modern suburban Mormonism that I’ve yet read, though I suspect the supernatural element in it functions kind of like homosexuality in No Going Back to distract non-Mormon readers from the Mormonness of it all.

But I think there’s a lot more that can be done. And reading the responses of non-Mormon readers to No Going Back gives me, I think, a clearer idea of what that might involve.

21 comments: “Writing Mormon Literature for a non-Mormon Audience

  1. Moriah Jovan

    It may be that such a literature will be more successful if it doesn’t attempt to explain elements of Mormon culture, but simply puts the reader into the middle of it.

    Did that.

    Twice.

    It worked. Very well.

    What works better, so my lapsed Catholic alpha reader tells me about book #3 is that FINALLY she gets to see all the workings, the rituals, the explanations, the culture, the jargon from a sympathetic yet ignorant point of view.

    She was thrilled that she could identify elements/concepts from the first two books, but even more thrilled that she got to journey with Cassie (the nonmember character) as she learns to understand Mitch (the widower bishop) and then plops herself down in his world. What works even better is that Cassie’s POV is 1st person.

    I don’t hold much back except deeper doctrine, and allowed the reader to draw a few conclusions, given what Cassie has already seen/learned/deduced. However, I leave certain things open-ended because life goes on. (That’s part of writing a series.)

    I find you can’t go too wrong by letting the reader figure out a few things on his/her own.

  2. Th.

    .

    Frankly, I want to slap every single person who tells me that gentiles are too stupid to figure out fictional Mormons. Slap them until they have brain damage as an excuse for their stupidity.

    I want to slap them.

    SLAP THEM.

  3. Krista Lynne Jensen

    I think we, as a Mormon culture, tend to be wary of judgment. We want to explain everything so we are understood, and cover our butts over every little thing that may be turned into anti-sentiment. Given our history, I can understand that.
    But as a writer, one of my responsibilities is to respect the reader; recognize they are intelligent and write to that level. It’s something I am learning, and I catch myself trying to explain or support my character’s choices, when really, the development of my character should be so that the reader gets it, whether the reader is of my faith or another, or none. The reader should understand why my character made the choice he did, without a preachy or in-depth excuse, or some corny stereotype (and yes, I concede there is a place for corny stereotypes, but then I see those corny stereotypical Mormons showing up on mainstream TV).
    If we write with the Spirit, that same spirit will translate to a perceptive reader.
    Like Th. said, in so many words, readers are smart. Just write well.
    Thanks, Jonathan. I hope this translates because it’s way past my bedtime.

  4. Davey

    Agreed with Theric. I think it’s often easier said than done, but we also often make to big a deal of it. Sometimes there are things that can be better contextualized when we go back for a second draft, but I think we can worry ourselves into a lot of problems here. We can understand literature from all different backgrounds culturally, historically, nationally, religiously, etc., that were never written for us. Others can do the same of our literature.

    I agree that Dutcher’s films are a terrific example. “States of Grace” isn’t quite as steeped in Mormon culture as those first two films I don’t think, just because that’s not as central to the story it’s telling, but it IS steeped in Mormon theology, and, like the other two films, it presents Mormon culture very intelligently and accessibly and unassumingly. And it may be his best film. So see it.

  5. Tamara

    great post! LDS fiction is often quite over the top. The other side of the coin are authors and publishers afraid to show how Mormon a normal Mormon person is. We are afraid to show real prayers, real conversations about sex, real feelings on forgiveness. Yet when I’ve encountered non-Mormons who have liked a Mormon character, it is the real-ness they liked. They don’t feel like they are being converted; they feel like they are getting to know the character.

  6. Jettboy

    Lets not forget that Market has a lot to do with it. How many book publishers are going to print books with Mormonism as a backdrop? Secular book publishing is controlled by non-religious liberals and Christian books of any kind have the same weaknesses as Mormon books. Right now Mormons have no problem publishing in the genre of fantasy/science and Young Adult fiction. It is the non-genre fiction that is lacking. Some of them you can even pick out the Mormon characters if paying attention.

    I agree with Moriah Jovan and Th., readers don’t need to be told every detail. write the books for the sake of story and the rest will follow. That does beg the question why does there even have to be Mormon literature vs. just literature?

  7. Kent Larsen

    “How many book publishers are going to print books with Mormonism as a backdrop?”

    Jettboy, I know many book publishers; I work in book publishing; I have worked in book publishing for more than 20 years. I don’t think I know ANY (outside of the Christian market) who wouldn’t consider a book “with Mormonism as a backdrop.” EVERYTHING depends on how it is presented.

    “Secular book publishing is controlled by non-religious liberals”

    I strongly suggest you get some evidence or experience to back this kind of statement. The people who work in book publishing are normal people. They are often as conservative or liberal as the rest of the country. There are some well-known conservative book publishers — ever heard of Judith Regan? or of Regnery Publishing? In my experience I’ve run into many more conservative than I in book publishing.

    They are also often religious. I’ve been in small companies where half the staff were clearly religious (you can tell a lot during Lent or on Jewish holidays), and the rest may have also been, they just weren’t obvious about it. Heck, there have even been a few Mormons working in book publishing (even a few before my time).

    Now, I will admit that those in book publishing are often more liberal than those in Utah or Idaho — but then about 75% of the U.S. is more liberal than those in Utah or Idaho.

    The bottom line is that blaming a lack of success in the market on “non-religious liberals” is silly and unlikely to provide anyone any real help in either getting published or getting a job.

  8. Th.

    .

    Speaking for myself, it’s easier to pursue the Mormon market because it’s where I am not throughly unknown. But I do think work “good enough” for the national market has an obligation to seek out the national market. I need to be more bold and start trying harder to make my presence known nationally. And so do other good LDS writers writing good LDS fiction. (cf the hero’s journey)

  9. Jettboy

    “I strongly suggest you get some evidence or experience to back this kind of statement.”

    Oh that is easy. Go brows your typical bookstore and pick up “Conservative” books. At the least count the conservative vs. the liberal books that are on the market. I will be greatly surprised if there is more than one book out there with positive religious themes, support of traditional moral positions, non-Democrats as heroes, and pro-American sentiments. If there really are that many religious publishers than they sure hide that fact with what they pick to publish. Then again, I could be wrong and it is a matter of distribution problems.

  10. Th.

    .

    Have you done an actual survey? I haven’t, but I have to admit that my casual looks in the bookstore have given me the exact opposite results. In fact, I’ve often wondered if conservatives spend more money as a proportion of their income on books.

  11. Jettboy

    It would be cool to do a comparison of what I see and what you see. Perhaps our definition of conservative and liberal is different. Also, are we talking novel type literature or books as a whole? Heck, I wouldn’t mind having a list so that I can actually find more to read that doesn’t turn me off.

  12. Th.

    .

    I’m speaking of books that clearly exhibit to the casual browser a conservative or liberal stance. So mostly nonfiction.

  13. Open.Window

    I’ve never really thought about writing Mormon literature with non-Mormons in mind before, simply because I didn’t think that non-Mormons would be interested in reading it, which, now I think about it, is rather naive and prejudiced of me.

    Thank you, this is a great article, which has really got me thinking, particularly on the characteristics you suggest would speak meaningfully to non-Mormons.

  14. Jonathan Langford

    Interesting comments. Thanks to everyone. I was a bit nervous about posting (again!) about responses to my own book, but it looks like the broader question I was trying to approach struck a chord (to thoroughly mix my metaphors…).

    None of us can know for ourselves what will and what won’t work for readers of our writing, especially those whose experience and background is different from ours. Hence the need to experiment and collect feedback. Like Open.Window, I had thought that No Going Back was unlikely to interest non-Mormon readers. So far, that seems not to be so much the case as I had expected. Which perhaps speaks to the point that our experience as Mormons may not be as unique as we sometimes like to think it is…

    It’s my belief that as writers, we approach the universal through the particular. Trying to make our stories more generic so they will appeal more broadly doesn’t work because it removes the very specificity that brings a story and its characters to life. As readers, we identity more easily with a life that is alien to ours, but sharp-edged and fully realized through its narrative, than we do to one that is more bland and general. Or at least that’s my current working hypothesis — though as a critic I have to admit that it’s probably a lot more complicated than that, with different types of detail and different types of alienness counting differently in the equation for different readers. (Enough difference there?)

    Back to the specific case of my book: I had a conversation on Sunday with my best friend growing up, an ex-Catholic-now-gay who teaches German literature and queer theory at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts. He told me that he liked No Going Back quite a bit, and thought it presented some important perspectives that you don’t typically get in gay narratives. Of course, it’s always possible that growing up as my best friend gave him a familiarity with Mormonism that would make the book more accessible to him than to many other readers. So far, my sample size of non-Mormon readers (not counting those who may have left the Church but who possess a strong cultural knowledge and background) is too small to draw conclusions. Up to this point, though, all of the comments about non-Mormons not being able to follow the story have come from my Mormon readers — not my non-Mormon readers.

  15. Angela Morrison

    Hello Motley Vision–thank you, Moriah for leading me here. I actually wrote my critical MFA thesis on this very issue. You can find an excerpt of on my website’s liv2writ blog. Here’s the link:

    http://web.me.com/angelamorrison/Angela_Morrison/liv2writ/Entries/2009/8/30_From_Faith_to_Fiction.html

    My young adult novel, TAKEN BY STORM, is about a faithful, authentic LDS girl who falls in love with the non-member new kid at school who has just lost his parents in a devastating storm. I sold it to Penguin’s Razorbill imprint after three and half years of rejections–many from obviously liberal editors and many from editors who were quite intrigued by the Mormon aspect and even offered suggestions or requested the manuscript. ALA’s review magazines were brutal and continue to be with my second novel, SING ME TO SLEEP. Publisher’s Weekly gave STORM a starred review! I’ve heard from many, many non-Mormon readers who appreciate walking in Leesie’s imperfect but faithful shoes. LDS readers have been slow to embrace it.

  16. Moriah Jovan

    Oh, Angela, I just about DIED when I saw you on DA and had never seen you around these parts. I didn’t want to presume, but dang, woman, WE are missing out on you.

    Welcome!

  17. Angela Morrison

    Thanks, Moriah. I just wish I had more time to follow all the discussions. It’s so much fun. I’m starved for interaction with LDS authors. If you’d like me to do a guest post or something, just let me know.

  18. nosurfgirl

    What would you call the superficial elements of the Mormon experience?

    I’m writing historical ficition that I would like to eventually market to a larger-than-Mormon audience. And yes, it’s set in a Mormon Historical scenario.

    This is a very helpful post.

  19. Jonathan Langford

    Nosurfgirl,

    That’s a good question. I’d say that superficial elements of the Mormon experience are the small cultural markers and practices that may identify us as Mormons, but don’t reflect the interior meaning or importance of that Mormon-ness. CTR rings. “Flip” and “fetch.” Johnny Lingo. No-dating-till-16. No R movies. Relief Society crafts. Youth dances. Standards night. Wacky testimonies in testimony meeting. Last-day-of-the-month home teaching. And the list goes on.

    Thinking about it, it seems to me that just about anything that’s distinctively Mormon has the potential be handled superficially. And I think there’s a place for that. Those kinds of details can add color, realism, and concreteness. They’re *part* of what being a Mormon is about.

    I think my complaint comes when the superficial side is all that you get. When you have the kid wearing his CTR ring, but not the struggles as he starts to realize that he’s going to have to make some hard choices where “Choose the Right” doesn’t necessarily help that much.

    Every life, I think, is ultimately complex and difficult. (This is Jonathan philosophy talking.) That being the case, if you want to show a person’s religion as being important to him or her, you have to show how it influences the choices and actions a person takes when life does get difficult and complex. Sometimes that religious belief will be a source of difficulty and complexity, as it asks things of us that contradict what other parts of us or those around us want.

    It’s my perception that most Latter-day Saints, at least those who stay active past their teenage years, have a belief that extends beyond the superficial. That being the case, a true show of Mormon belief requires that you show that complexity and difficulty. You show that trying to live the gospel is hard, and you also show people trying their best to live the gospel even when it is hard. And you show just what that means in their lives.

    This doesn’t mean throwing out the superficial details. Ideally, the relationship between that kind of thematic and character depth and the more superficial markers of Mormon culture and experience is a complementary one. There can be an ironic tension between superficial culture and deep struggle. There can be reinforcement, as character look beneath the surface of everyday symbols and practices. Richard Dutcher used the sacrament to great effect in his movie Brigham City. I tried to do something similar in my novel.

    The superficial elements are *supposed* to connect at a deeper level, after all. My objection comes when it’s all surface and no substanc — which, come to think of it, is poor character development and writing craft, as well as being a poor depiction of belief.

  20. Jonathan Langford

    Here’s another thought.

    The question occurred to me: Just how do we create sympathy for a character with religious belief among readers who may not share that belief? I think, practically speaking, that we do it by having that belief and commitment rub shoulders with other emotions and beliefs and commitments that readers are more likely to share.

    For example, Chaim Potok doesn’t spend a lot of time showing us *why* Reuven believes in God. In fact, it’s unclear that Reuven spends that much time thinking about why he believes in God. What Potok does it show other powerful emotions that readers are likely to identify with, like the complex and powerful feelings between fathers and sons and between best friends. Religious belief rubs shoulders with those other emotions on a more or less equal ground, within the context of well-rounded and believable characters we have already come to care about. And so even non-religious readers can accept Reuven’s religiousness — because failure to do so would mean a failure to accept Reuven’s other emotions as real, too.

  21. Jonathan Langford Post author

    Over at my blog, I just posted an update about non-Mormon reactions to No Going Back, in case anyone is interested. A lot of what I’ve found out from non-Mormon reactions and reviews since then supports some of the points we’ve all been talking about here.

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