By now everyone has read Mark Oppenheimerâ€™s article on Mormon literature in the New York Times. Typical in its approach, it highlights Mormon successes in genre fiction and offers a few explanations for why these successes happen and why they arenâ€™t more forthcoming in a Mormon-flavored â€œRealist literature for adults.â€ The reasons he puts forth seem to be as follows: Mormons are uncomfortable with realism, Mormons are afraid of â€œchurch disapproval,â€ and Mormons are culturally geared towards a â€œsunny outlookâ€ that privileges uplifting narratives over realistic literature that presents sex, violence, and swearing without judgment and moralizing.
In his eloquent and insightful response to this article, George Handley rightly calls Oppenheimer out on these reasons, particularly the notion that literary greatness is some alchemic mixture of â€œgreat suffering,â€ book sales, and national recognition. Mormon writers, Handley suggest, have made great strides irrespective of these factors, and will likely keep doing so â€œbefore the rest of the world notices.â€ For him, rather, Mormons have â€œunderachievedâ€ in the realm of realistic Mormon literatureâ€”or â€œGreat Mormon Literatureâ€â€”as a result of a number of cultural flaws: their reliance on â€œtriumphalist rhetoric,â€ a â€œthirst after quick and easy forms of [cultural] vindication,â€ and rather narrow ideas â€œabout what constitutes a Mormon identity.â€ In making this argument, he seems to echo Samuel W. Taylorâ€™s 46-year-old claim that Mormon literature is the captive of â€œpositive-thinkers,â€ or public-relations-minded Mormons who police their peopleâ€™s output for the sake of pleasing and appeasing public opinion. He also suggestsâ€”taking a cue, perhaps, from Nephi Andersonâ€™s account of the artist in Zionâ€”that Mormons need to do a better job of being a community that cares for (and about) its artistsâ€”including artists whose works are neither nationally recognized nor compatible with the ideology and aesthetics of â€œpositive-thinkingâ€ Mormons. Â
Overall, I agree with Handleyâ€™s assessment of the present state of Mormon literature (if not his conclusions) as much as I regret that Oppenheimerâ€™s article was not more broadly informed about Mormon literature. (Setting aside the Terry Tempest Williams faux-pas, the problem of Oppenheimerâ€™s article boils down to the issue of sources.) Â Still, I challenge the assumptionâ€”apparent in both piecesâ€”that Mormon literature is somehow underachieving. True, Mormons have not, as Oppenheimer suggests, produced a Milton, Milosz, or Munroâ€”but they have produced an Anderson, Sorenson, Scowcroft, Peterson, Udall, and Peck. Is this not an achievementâ€”indeed, an over-achievement compared to communities with similar backgrounds? Moreover, I wonder if the cultural flaws Handley identifies as Mormon literatureâ€™s chief stumbling blocks are not in reality the source of its strengthâ€”the resistance against which it pushes and hones its muscles. After all, were it not for the triumphalist rhetoric, the thirst for vindication, the narrow view of Mormon identity, and the â€œpositive-thinkersâ€ of Mormonism, Mormon writers could not not have written iconic and iconoclastic books like Dorian, The Evening and the Morning, The Backslider, andÂ The Scholar of Moab.Â Nor couldÂ Mormon writers have filled the pages of Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, Fire in the Pasture, Monsters and Mormons, andÂ Saints on Stage.Â The truth is, Mormon writers need these cultural flawsâ€”these walls of resistanceâ€”to make the utopian critique that is so crucial to what’s MormonÂ aboutÂ Mormon literature.
Personally, I am not worried about the past, present, or future of Mormon literature. Having spent the better part of the past three years with Mormon literature, I know its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Give it time. Let it temper in the refining fire of cultural flaws. It has done well for itself over the last one hundred and eighty-three years. And it will continue to do so as long as Mormon writers keep at it and donâ€™t let the hand-wringers discourage them. Setbacks, like the recent demise of Irreantum, will slow the momentum at times, but they will not kill it. Like the Church itself, Mormon literature has survived assimilation, correlation, and a host of other paradigm shifts. If Mormonism and its cultural flaws can produce the likes of The Backslider and The Scholar of Moab in a period of twenty-five years, why should we not expect them to do the same, with even better results, in the seventeen years remaining till the bicentennial? And why should we not expect them to continue informing great Mormon literature for another two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years?
What Iâ€™ve read of Mormon literature, what I know about Mormonism and Mormon writers, gives me nothing but a â€œsunny outlook” on its future.