Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Who Reads A Mormon Novel?

So, there’s some hand-wringing going on at the Deseret News, at Dialogue: A Journal for Mormon Thought, and now, thanks to Dialogue, it’s spilling over to Slate.com, over the absence of a “Mormon” novel.

Mormon novelist Barry Udall seems to suggest, as Slate.com reports, that it’s fear that is stopping the Mormon novel:
We have always been threatened by anything that doesn’t fit squarely within our system of belief. Good art will always be complex, contradictory, and will resist easy judgment – all things that would make any good Mormon nervous.
Really? And as a life-long Mormon, can’t I say that Mormonism itself is complex, contradictory, and resistant to easy judgment? I can and will, because it’s true.

Slate says Deseret News columnist Jerry Earl Johnston, says Mormons “are too uncomfortable with ambiguity and imperfection” to write a great novel.

To that I say: What? Any society that can struggle through the Isaiah Chapters in Second Nephi, the Allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob and other ponderous writings of Nephi take ambiguity in stride.

So they’re missing the mark in pondering the question.

Ironically, it’s from kinda someone Udall and Johnston are looking for that I think the truth comes out. Paul Bailey, who wrote the wonderful book “Polygamy was Better than Monotony,” has this to say:
The rents and patches are there because of me, my flounderings, and my continued and unorthodox toilings. I have found that whenever I too snugly tighten my cloak, it becomes a strait-jacket. . . . By wearing the cloak a bit loose, by opening it to the wind and the storms, I have frayed its edges, and have weather-spotted it a little more than it should be. But it is a good cloak, and I am proud of it.
To that, I respond:

Yes, he admits, he’s gone astray. But being the big-minded cultural Mormon he is, his astrayness is OK because it makes his cultural Mormonism that much better. While I myself have been known to wear my cloak a bit loose as well, I’m not foolish enough to think that keeping core aspects as tight as I can bear. That tightness, that unwillingness to bend – which his beloved Grandfather Forbes displayed as he first served jail time for being in a polygamous relationship, then fled to Colorado and New Mexico to avoid capture by federal authorities – might be the true store of the pugnaciousness that Bailey claims is missing from the church today. But that’s just me.

But, more importantly, I’m drawn to the words of Sydney Smith, who, in reviewing a written history of the United States in 1820, had this to say:
In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? Or what old ones have they advanced? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? Who drinks out of American glasses? Or eats from American plates? Or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets? Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?
Though what he says is too often taken as a slam against everything American, what Smith was trying to point out is that is it really important that books – or any other article or item – be labeled as “American,” or “Mormon,” or anything else.

The screaming desire for a great Mormon author is nothing more than a desire to enter into the world of popularity contests. There are plenty of mediocre authors out there – Mormon and not – who haven’t yet been identified by the intellisnobstia as “great” for good reason: They’re not great. Chaim Potok writes Jewish novels. I’ve read them. Yes, the characters are Jewish. But does that make him a Jewish author? Do Mormons have to write about Mormons and Mormonism to be considered Mormon authors?

I also look at whom I consider to be great authors and I have to wonder: Do I care if they’re Mormons, Presbyterians, Atheists or whatever? Not really. I like them for what they write. Sinclair Lewis. C.S. Lewis. John Steinbeck. Richard Rhodes. And many others.

"Great" novels are great because they're a rarity. Some writers are able to produce a few great novels, but they're rarer still. Only Steinbeck could have written "The Grapes of Wrath." Only Lewis could have written
"Babbitt." When we encounter a great novel, we do as did a reviewer for Richard Adams' "Watership Down":

I announce, with trembling pleasure, the appearance of a great novel.

At least that's what I do. I don't immediately take out my Great Author Bingo Chart and cross off another X.

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