The Great Mormon Novel

A couple weeks back Jerry Earl Johnston, a columnist for the Mormon Times, wrote about a conversation he once had with the novelist Wallace Stegner. Stegner suggested that Johnston try his hand at writing the Great Mormon Novel:

“I don’t have the scope or range to do it,” I said.

“You don’t have to make it large,” he said. “Just get things right.”

He said he thought the “Great Mormon Novel” would eventually be penned by someone who was born in the church, left the church, then made it “part way” back again. He seemed to think that would be a perfect vantage point. Being away from the church would give the writer perspective, while coming part way back would guarantee his empathy for the culture.

From there, Johnston speculates that there’s little chance that an important novel about Mormonism would be produced by somebody within the church—unlike, say, Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic who still felt free to explore the boundaries of her faith. This has stoked some crankiness among a couple of writers at A Motley Vision, a Mormon arts blog. William Morris makes the valid point that the Great American Novel in general is a “worn out cliche that barely anybody has the energy for anymore and for Mormons to take up the idea is for us to prove yet again our status as belated moderns. S.P. Bailey, meanwhile, notes out that Graham Greene and O’Connor “were serious Christians who refused to speak the language of their own flock. They told Christian stories in the terms of 20C fiction, and gained literary acceptance in the process.”

That’s another good point; you could combine Bailey’s and Morris’ assertions and also realize that O’Connor was free to write an excellent novel about sin and faith, Wise Blood, without feeling much pressure to write a Great Catholic Novel. What’s left undiscussed, though, is whether there’s any competition whatsoever for the title of a Great Mormon Novel, or even great Mormon novelist. Orson Scott Card is the only mainstream Mormon fiction writer I know of, but I’ve never read his work; some commenters on Morris’ post mention Brady Udall‘s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, a novel I haven’t looked at since I read it in 2001 and evokes no strong memories of greatness. Is there a novel that addresses Mormonism with thought and care?

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Housekeeping note: I’ve been away for the past few days, recovering some of my very rusty French in Montreal. I had a very good time, but that meant a few things around here have gone neglected—most prominently the D.C.-area readings listings, which should be back to normal by the end of the week. Thanks for your patience.

14 responses to “The Great Mormon Novel

  1. So, are you avoiding thought of Stephanie Meyer? I daresay she’s much more well-known and “mainstream” than Card. Note that I’m only speaking in terms of popularity. Unless things are odder in Utah than we know, I don’t think vampire stories constitute the great Mormon novel. Or at least I hope not.

    • Mark Athitakis

      I wasn’t avoiding a discussion about Meyer. Indeed, I’m so oblivious to the “Twilight” phenomenon that I have no idea how much (for want of a better term) Mormon content there is in her books.

      • Her series’ approach towards sexuality and abstinence has been pretty routinely viewed as influenced by LDS norms. The Motley Vision site itself has an article on “Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonism and the ‘erotics of abstinence’.”

  2. The Open Curtain addresses Mormonism with thought and care. Though I don’t think Brian Evenson has gone “part way back” to the church, and I’m guessing he’ll never try to write the “Great Mormon Novel.” But you never know.

  3. DC’s Chandler Brossard, author of “Who Walk In Darkness,” “The Bold Saboteurs,” and “Wake Up We’re Almost There” among other books, and sometimes classified as a Beat writer (a label he disliked), came from a family very prominent in Mormon circles. His father Edgar, the chairman of the US Tariff Commission, was a bishop in the LDS community in DC. (CB’s brother-in-law, incidentally, was an FBI bigwig who was Clyde Tolson’s roommate before Clyde moved in with J. Edgar, but that’s another story; see Anthony Summers’ Hoover bio.)

    CB, in an interview published in Review of Contemporary Fiction (www.dalkeyarchive.com/interviews/show/11) credited his Mormon upbringing with what work ethic he had, but it doesn’t show up at all in his fiction. (“Bold Saboteurs,” an autobiographical novel set in DC in the 1930s, at one point describes the old Mormon cathedral in Washington, but doesn’t get around to identifying it as an LDS place of worship.)

  4. Mark,

    It’s already been written: Vardis Fisher, Children of God (1939).

    —David

  5. I don’t remember Edgar Mint reading like a “Mormon novel” (at all), but I do remember liking it quite a bit.

  6. On the flannery point… would a mormon novel achieve success if it placed itself as a christian novel and didn’t present itself as a mormon novel?

    God Bless,

  7. So read some Orson Scott Card, especially the Alvin Maker series climaxing in The Crystal City. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    Also read “The Folk of the Fringe”, a collection of short stories – the handcart trek in the very first episode is a dead giveaway as to what he’s doing there.

    And don’t scorn it because it’s science fiction. A number of literary classics are science fiction, but “But, they can’t be science fiction! They’re literary classics!” The obvious ones being 1984, and Brave New World, of course.

  8. Does Jon Krakauer write fiction? ;)

  9. Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, while being known for introducing Sherlock Holmes, was also a novel about the dark side of Mormonism.

  10. The only post-“Lost Generation” era* novel that I can point to that would even be a candidate is The Backslider by Levi Peterson. It could best be classified as a minor masterpiece of Western Regionalism.

    The most intriguing candidate of the past few years, in my opinion, is Angel Falling Softly which combines vampires and Mormons in a much more dangerous, Christian, literary and Mormon way than Stephenie Meyer’s work. I don’t know that it wholly succeeds, but it’s certainly a fascinating attempt at using literary, genre and Mormon materials to create a hybrid that has some interesting things to say about sacrifice and redemption and sin. Needless to say the particular form it takes has turned off readers of all types because it attempts to take all of the major materials it uses seriously. You can actually read it for free at the author’s website (Eugene Woodbury).

    * which includes Vardis Fisher, mentioned by D G Meyers above, and a few others who were actually published by national publishing houses — most of the Mormons who are published by national houses these days work in speculative or young adult fiction. Literary fiction tends to be a small, indie-press thing. See paragraphs 40-43 in Eugene England’s historical overview of Mormon literature for more on the Lost Generation.

  11. I guess I’m confused since a novel about Mormonism would be a work of fiction. To me a novel about Mormonism wouldn’t be the great Mormon novel. It would be boring. That’s what non-fiction is for. But if he means a great novel by a Mormon author, then I think the “great Mormon novel” has already been written, by many authors, in many forms. I think, easily, one of the most brilliant “Mormon” novelists of this era is Brandon Sanderson.

  12. While I agree with Wm. that Angel Falling Softly is a great Mormon novel, I also think Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth is another. It approaches Mormonism with thought and care (as you mention, Mark) and seems to have been accepted by both popular and literary crowds (as illustrated in its winning of both the AML’s 2008 novel of the year and the 2008 Whitney award for best novel by a new author), something I think the great Mormon novel should aspire to.

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