Jer3miah, The Great Mormon Novel, and The Problem with Mormon Media

The Book of Jer3miah phenomenon has been noticed on Salon, coincidentally just as an ill-advised Mormon Times essay touched off strong reactions by suggesting that the Great Mormon Novel could never exist.

In his essay, Jerry Johnston, the principle book reviewer for the Deseret News, tells of meeting Pulitzer Prize winning author and Stanford University Professor Wallace Stegner, the western regionalist author who knew Mormons well and wrote about them. But despite Stegner’s claim that someone who left the LDS Church and then returned could write the “Great Mormon Novel,” Johnston came to the conclusion that LDS readers would never accept such an author, and the “Great Mormon Novel” is therefore impossible.

Johnston’s post drew a quick response from Dallas Robbins’ post A Big Steaming Pile About The Great Mormon Novel, a strident refutation of the claim. The Mormon Letters site A Motley Vision soon agreed in S. P. Bailey’s post Abandon All Hope: Mormon Lit Can’t Be ‘Great,’ which suggested that Johnston’s definitions are simply wrong. One of the comments to Bailey’s post, by Jonathan Langford, makes the idea very clear by suggesting that the “Great Mormon Novel” must be great to both LDS readers and to the world reader is akin to “serving two masters.”

Then A Motley Vision‘s William Morris suggested, among other things, that Johnston’s premise is a lot of hooey:

The Great American Novel idea is dead. It’s 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. And to play in to the discourse of the literary elites, of the critics and academics and editors and book reviewers who trot out the trope every so often simply to generate energy for their own decrepit ideas is to bow to an authority that Mormons shouldn’t and don’t need to acknowledge. No one is going to tell me what I should be worrying about when it comes to the production of Mormon narrative art.

I think there is another premise that explains why Johnston would even suggest this idea: he’s stuck in a very traditional view of what Mormon literature should be. AMV’s Bailey noticed an aspect of this, reacting to Johnston’s suggestion that novels need to be approved of by the Church as well as LDS readers by saying:

Johnston makes the church sound like a monolithic, brain-washing cult! I mean, seriously, the blessing of the institutional church is required? Do I submit my novel directly to the correlation department sub-committee on literary greatness? Or is Deseret Book, the official Mormon kitsch-press, good enough? But can any good thing come out of Deseret Book?

Johnston, like basically everyone who writes for the Mormon Times, represents a very traditional view of Mormonism and of Mormon letters. Everything we read, under this view, must be “appropriate” by whatever unwritten narrow rules the conservative, Wasatch-front oriented Mormon culture decides must apply.

So, what does this have to do with the Book of Jer3miah? Jer3miah breaks some of the taboos. BYU film professor Jeff Parkin, the director and creator, writes about his motivation as follows:

In 2004, we moved from Los Angeles to Provo, and I began teaching at BYU. My intention was never to make “Mormon Films”. But then, I observed something that really disturbed me: right here in Happy Valley there was an extreme bias against any kind of Mormon storytelling. Part of being an authentic storyteller is to imbue your work with what matters most to you–sometimes that’s literal, sometimes it’s symbolic. I find it fascinating that members of a missionary-oriented church can be so sensitive to sharing who they are. The more I’ve talked about these ideas with LDS filmmakers, the more I’ve begun to wonder just how big our persecution complex is, and what we’re so afraid of. Makes me think of a vision that Nephi and Lehi had about some great and spacious building that shames a lot of believers into abandoning their spiritual identity.

I discovered Jer3miah myself through a blog post by ‘Twas Brillig that suggested the web-based film series (webisodes) were controversial. According to ‘Twas Brillig, viewers objected to the idea that spiritual elements would be portrayed at all in a film — essentially the same objection many viewers had to Richard Dutcher’s film, Brigham City, in which the sacrament was portrayed. That post and its comments are well worth a look.

Director Parkin suggests that this controversy is mostly about Mormons view of themselves:

“The Book of Jer3miah” is unapologetically Mormon. Why? There are many reasons–but for this discussion, I’ll highlight two: 1) Telling stories about Mormons and about being Mormon is not a crime; 2) Telling  a story about Mormons requires being 100% true to their Mormon-ness–this means capturing how they speak, what they do, and what they believe. We have tried to be true to our characters and their beliefs by not hiding them and by not being ashamed of them.    When people watch “Jer3miah” and feel uncomfortable about their beliefs being depicted on screen, my question is, “Why does this make you feel uncomfortable?” My experience has been that the reaction of an individual who is LDS to the depiction of spirituality in the show seems to reveal more about how they see themselves as Mormons fitting into the larger society, and, how they, as individuals, will be perceived, than it does about the actual nature of the show.

There is in the core Mormon culture — that dominated by the conservative, Wasatch-Front based elements — a belief that because we have been persecuted and continue to be criticized, we must shield ourselves and our practice from outsiders to maintain how sacred it is. Our image must be faultless, so that no one will be dissuaded from investigating the Church because of our faults.

The real solution to our image is, of course, to let people see us and understand us. When we portray our sacred in film and fiction, others will believe that our sacred is, in fact, sacred, although, admittedly, at the risk that others will ridicule. The solution is also to let others see that we have problems too, members who do evil and awful things and leaders who sometimes, inadvertently, err.

But, for now, the major Mormon book publishers, the rest of the principle Mormon media, don’t get it. They are stuck in this mentaility that our image must be pure. And, as a result, the work they produce seems to say “All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well…”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like where that is headed.

44 comments for “Jer3miah, The Great Mormon Novel, and The Problem with Mormon Media

  1. Shame on me for coming to the defense of a Mormon Times writer, but I think Johnston has it right: a Catholic or a Jew can write a novel that has a foot in both worlds, the religious world of their faith tradition and the general cultural world that most readers inhabit, but I think in the LDS case that’s too wide a divide for an LDS writer (any LDS writer) to pull off.

  2. I’ve honestly never read a Mormon-themed fictional tale. The premises of the stories I have seen advertised just don’t appeal to me at all. I’ll take a look at this Jer3miah.

    We have great writers amongst us. BYU is churning out some good writers (Brandon Sanderson and Stephenie Meyer) among others. Where’s the good tale that shows a Mormon living a normal life?

  3. Th. (2), I’m sure you know the actual answer, but, for those who don’t, its found in 2 Ne. 28: 21.

    And Dave (1), thanks for your perception. My perception is different. But I don’t we’ll be able to reach consensus.

  4. The only certain thing is, that if and when the Great Mormon Novel arrives, nobody at Mormon Times, Deseret News, or Deseret Book will recognize it.

  5. As a writer myself, and as the daughter of an extensively published writer, this post really speaks to me. I was talking with my mom (a retired Ancient Scripture Professor at BYU) about the writing project I’m currently working on. It’s honest. It’s gritty. And therefore, it’s controversial. She and I are both very excited about the project. But my big concern is who’s going to publish it? I’m certain that Deseret Book won’t touch it, even though it’s truth.

    Anyway, I find the whole thing fascinating. I know that my post (and THANK YOU for linking to it) really hit a nerve. I knew it would when I wrote it. I guess Jeff Parkin knew it would when I interviewed him. Clearly this is close to his heart too. I’m excited about the pioneers who are willing to break out of the bubble we’ve put ourselves in.

    All is NOT well in Zion. Thank goodness for those who are willing to admit it, so that the rest of us don’t feel like we’re going crazy, or grossly inadequate, or just not quite as perfect as everyone’s pretending to be.

  6. Look, it’s not that hard. All someone really has to do to get a good idea of real Mormonism is to read these posts and their comments. Lots and lots of character, mixed with religious beliefs, culture, attitudes and behaviors. Oh, and drama.

  7. AHLDuke (6), I agree completely. What I’m trying to say in the post is why — its because they have a narrow, erroneous, protective view of how Mormonism can and should be presented. We as a people need to move past this view!!

  8. Brillig (7), thanks for your comments. I can suggest a few things about finding an LDS publisher for your book. I strongly suggest that you follow A Motley Vision, where I’ve started a series of posts profiling various Mormon publishers, and where the bloggers and commenters can be very helpful in locating publishers. You can also check with those on the Association for Mormon Letters forum. There are also other places for information, such as the LDS Storymakers group, where they will probably try to help also, but these groups are oriented towards more conventional LDS works.

    I can suggest the following publishers who are willing to publish non-conventional works: Zarahemla Books, Parables Publishing and my own fledgling effort, Mormon Arts and Letters.

  9. Dan (8), you’ve forgotten that there is a wide difference in the audiences for T&S and the rest of the bloggernacle and the audiences for the Deseret News and Mormon Times.

    T&S draws about 25,000 regular readers and the Bloggernacle as a whole draws perhaps 50,000, while the Deseret News and Mormon Times draw more like 500,000 or 1,000,000 or more.

    I still get plenty of laughs just by using the term “bloggernacle” because people don’t know what it is and have never really read a mormon blog.

    Its only simple if the LDS audience actually read the bloggernacle. Face it, we’re a relatively small minority of the audience.

  10. Oh I know, what I was saying is that maybe Mormon writers have a hard time grasping Mormons talking to each other. I watched the first episode of Jer3miah and cringed at when the father, for example, began talking about the Holy Ghost. It just felt so unrealistic! None of the Mormons I talk to in real life, or even here in the blogs, ever talk like that! There’s a time and place to talk about the Holy Ghost. Richard Dutcher’s God’s Army (the only one I’ve seen of his) did better in this, but still it seems he felt he needed to include particular stereotypical phrases just so people feel they are looking at a Mormon culture. So I was just saying that for inspiration of real life Mormon characters, an up and coming author might not do worse than looking around at how Mormons react to various things on the blogs. :)

  11. Dan, you are right. But you may be judging Jer3miah a little harshly after just 1 episode. I’d have to say that the first episode was one of the weaker episodes, and had more of the kind of problem you are talking about.

    Watch a few more episodes and I think you may like what you see.

    I do have to say that verisimilitude is a problem in ALL fiction and film. To be honest, if you don’t include some of the aspects that viewers of Jer3miah found objectionable, it doesn’t ring true. Other times, when presented in the wrong way, they can ruin how realistic it seems.

    Its even a problem in the news. A major problem with most of the traditional Mormon media is its tendency to ignore the unpleasant, leaving the remaining content less realistic.

  12. The problem with MormonTimes is that they can’t possibly find a more diverse voice, because all of those people wouldn’t write for them… :)

  13. It seems quite likely that many people would ridicule such a public depiction of mormon beliefs. Although, do mormons themselves refrain from ridiculing or putting down the beliefs of other christians?

    God Bless,

  14. David, they already are ridiculing mormon beliefs. If we don’t present them, they will.

    Who would you rather have present mormon beliefs?

  15. I actually agree with Johnston–or at least I agree that if the “great Mormon novel” is ever written, it will be considered heresy by many Church members and will not be sold at Deseret Books.

  16. DavidH (18), you may be right, depending on what the definition of the Great Mormon Novel is. But I think Johnston is wrong to suggest that we Mormons aren’t capable of great writing because we have insufficient doubt.

    As I tried to point out in the post, what you are really saying when you write that a great novel “will be considered heresy by many Church members and will not be sold at Deseret Book” is that there is a part of current Mormon culture that won’t tollerate what is required for great writing. I believe that this view is simply wrong, but I agree that it exists and has almost a lock on Mormon media.

    However, it may be true that great writing actually requires such opposition to some extent. If so, we should have great literature in spades soon! [GRIN]

  17. When the great Mormon novel is written, it will be published by Random House, not Deseret book. It will be on the NY Times bestseller list and Mormons won’t be the only ones reading it anymore than Jews are the only ones reading Chaim Potok novels.

    Mormon Times and Deseret Book are mainstream Mormon publications, both owned by Church affiliated corporations. They wouldn’t publish the great Mormon novel anymore than the Vatican would publish a James Joyce novel–but Catholicism still helped produce James Joyce.

    Let’s stop whining about the Deseret Books of the world who perform a distinct role (and do well at it) and let’s go out and produce great art. Dutcher’s Brigham City is the best “great Mormon film” to date because it tells a story to the world, not just to Mormons. It uses Mormonism and Mormon culture to convey a story that is really about the human experience.

    I for one have thought of this topic often and I believe that one must simply write the “novel” and not be inhibited. If one is trying to be edgy in a conscious way, it won’t do. When one is too concerned about that they are subconsciously admitting that their intended audience is a traditional Mormon audience anyway. But great art is for everyone.

  18. “It uses Mormonism and Mormon culture to convey a story that is really about the human experience.”

    The same could be said of every example of well-crafted faithful realism and a few of the more literary-minded works of genre fiction that have been published to date by Mormon presses. Some of those novels (and some unpublished) have been shopped to national publishers and agents.

    I’d also note that national publishing houses interest in Mormon topics does not seem to extend to LDS authors. I’m sure that with the right book and a fortuitous set of circumstances, it could happen. We may want to think of ourselves in the same realm as Catholics or Orthodox Jews, but I’ll hold out hope for the Great Mormon Novel being published by Random House after they publish the Great Seventh-Day Adventist or the Great Scientologist novel.

    And let’s not forget that “Brigham City” was an indie film that didn’t get a ton of traction outside of the Mormon audience.

    That said, I do agree with this:

    “If one is trying to be edgy in a conscious way, it won’t do. When one is too concerned about that they are subconsciously admitting that their intended audience is a traditional Mormon audience anyway.”

    Although I would note that being edgy in a conscious way is something that plagues many artists — not just Mormon ones. One only needs to read examples of the gritty street poetry written by upper middle class white folk in creative writing programs (yes, a stereotype, but I’ve encountered instances of it) to realize that the whole self-conscious edgy thing seems to be the default mode for a lot of working and aspiring American writers..

    However I think that this:

    “I for one have thought of this topic often and I believe that one must simply write the “novel” and not be inhibited. ”

    is basically meaningless when it comes to the realities of artistic creation. One does not “simply write”; and when one does write, when the flow comes, there is no inhibition rather there are the accumulated experiences and skills of the author and the demands of the narrative. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t ever fear. But no author is 100% fearless.

    My experience with the market is that there isn’t a ton of self-censorship going on (at least not by those who are capable of writing great work). There are major hurdles, however, when it comes to finding a publisher.

  19. revo (20) wrote:

    Let’s stop whining about the Deseret Books of the world who perform a distinct role (and do well at it)

    This is a little off topic, but I can’t let it slide.

    revo, I’ve been studying the LDS market for more than a decade now, and I have more than 20 years of experience in book publishing here in New York City to compare it to. As a result, I’m certain that Deseret Book does NOT do well at it. I admit that their role is not to find and publish literary masterpieces. But, depending on what you think their role is, they are NOT serving the LDS market very well. They are still stuck thinking that the LDS market stretches from Logan to Santaquin, with a few like-minded people elsewhere.

    The real problem with this, for Mormons, is that the “Great Mormon Novel” (whatever that might be, and if it might be), could well be hidden from most LDS Church members by the attitude of those in Deseret Book. Like it or not, Deseret Book controls most of the LDS market. As such, it ends up being a gatekeeper for many Church members. Even though members do have alternatives, the gatekeeper role is a dangerous one–one that could be avoided with a company that wasn’t so dominant and had a broader view of serving the LDS market.

  20. The Great Mormon Novel(s) HAS/HAVE been written, and more than once. Let me put out some authors names who’s works needs more respect and consideration on this type of post: Vardis Fisher, Lorene Pearson, Virginia Sorensen, Richard Scowcroft, Maurine Whipple.

  21. Per Wm. Morris on LDS genre writing: the current The New Yorker has a piece on a book about “creative writing programs and creative writing” (if you can make out my syntax there). And the piece briefly mentions (a paragraph or two?) the contention of “authenticity”: Is an American Indian who reads cutting edge literature and models his writing on it, an authentic American Indian writer? Some say no, because they would say that Amercian Indian writing has its own, wonderful characteristics which this author wouldn’t be using or exploring all that much. Others say that by this American Indian doing Western (meaning “prestige”) literature, that American Indian writing thereby has begun to include Western prestige lit in its make up.

    Would there be any parallel here, say, as would contrast various things Mormons, in general and particular, view as “good” Mormon literature and various things that the prestige literate people view as good literature?

  22. I know the piece you are referring to. It’s by Louis Menand and it’s called Show or Tell. It’s a good piece — but, of course, I say that as one of the main bloggernaclite detractors of creative writing programs so my opinion should be treated with suspicion. It’d be interesting to hear from the MFAs out there have to say about it.

    Authenticity is an interesting discussion when it comes to the use of Mormons in literature. Both Kent and I have had the experience of responding to non-LDS authors trying to write about Mormons. In particular, it seems that many authors see us as a good stand-in for Fundamentalist Christianity and as a result their deployment of Mormon characters often ring false because they get so many of the facts and so much of the lingo wrong. In fact, the Paul Rudnick New Yorker humor piece linked to in the T&S sidebar suffers from this problem.

    And our fellow AMVer Jonathan Langford has been a critic of Kushner’s use of Mormonism in “Angels of America.” Certainly, it’s a more sophisticated version, but Langford has argued (in Irreantum and on the AML-List) that the Mormon characters in the end just aren’t convincing as Mormons which weakens (at least for a Mormon audience) the play (as good as it is — and it is a fairly powerful play and I certainly understand the acclaim it has received). I mainly agree with his analysis.

    Oddly enough, one of the few national market Mormon novels of recent vintage to get it right — Brady Udall’s _The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint_ was rather bizarrely attacked for its use of a Native American main character. Never mind that for all its complicated and sad and messed up history, because of the Mormon interaction with the Native American groups (especially via the Indian Placement Program), Udall’s status as a Mormon and a resident of Arizona gives him fairly direct (or at least one degree removed) experience with exactly the subject matter of the novel. My quibble with Edgar Mint is less with the authenticity of either the Native American or Mormon parts and more with the ending. But that’s a post I’ve been promising to write for years.

    And that’s all beside your point (and thanks for bringing it up — it’s a great comment). I am of the opinion that, yes, literature taints Mormon culture. That any form we work with comes with baggage (literary history, genre parameters, ideological underpinnings). And because it is a restorationist religion rather than an ethnies with a long narrative history (oral or written), there was never a time when we didn’t have that baggage. We are all converts, after all. And recent ones at that — less than 200 years. So Mormon Literature comes ipso facto tainted. I see no way for that to be changed nor do I long for some unattainable (by us — the Lord is a different matter) state of cultural purity. The sanctification of us as a people comes from the ordinances and the practive of living the Gospel and not cultural production. And as we have seen, attempts to purify Mormon cultural product of the world tend to be didactic failures or pallid copies of what the world produces. Not very satisfying at all — which is why very few Mormons live without some indulging in the fleshpots of Egypt.

    What I’m most interested in, though, is how Mormonism can taint back, can muddy, undermine, contest, bloody, nip at the heels of “prestige” literature (and other artistic forms). I think American (or even Western) Mormon authors are in a good position to do so because of the bizarre way in which we were and weren’t/are and aren’t assimilated in to American society. I don’t know what that means for authenticity except that one of the few beautiful things about our separation, brief status apart from and then semi-reassimilation in to American culture is that most of us are so hybridized that our authenticity is a spectrum rather than a fixed thing.

  23. (A long comment, but I think it may be fairly “scanable”/”skimable”!…):

    What art could be, is, or should be considered truly inspired or inspirational within a Mormon context?

    What expressions of or by Mormons could be, is, or should be considered particularly good as “art,” from a secular context?

    To answer these questions, we must step back and simply define generic expressions of Mormon culture.

    Hmm, Well, let’s see…
    – sermons? (called “talks,” of course)
    – testimonies, as born in fast and testimony meetings?
    – fireside addresses?
    – I dunno: girls camp presentations?
    – families’ religious “lore” of various kinds?
    – and related to that: religious folk narrative of other types, as well, such as, I dunno, that among missionaries, armed servicemen, and so on and so forth?
    – Church magazine articles, of course?
    – and: religion/Institute/seminary/Know Your Religion lectures/presentations, too?
    – the kind of popular, inspirational stories, pieces of verse, or what have you that are well-wrought, according to their own particular criteria, even though they’re considered not truly to be works of art, for various reasons, by some/many Mormons who consider themselves to me more “cultured” than average, maybe? (There is, I’m sure a shorthand way of describing these pieces, but I can’t think of what it is, at the moment.)
    – theological lectures, etc.?
    – Bloggernacle posts?
    – discussion among Mormon friends?
    – the Restored Gospel itself, in the various ways it is conveyed and taught: Mormon customs, beliefs, culture, practices, teachings, forms of art, hymns, choral compositions, treasured histories?
    – Mormon movies, novels, poetry, songs, slide shows?
    – Mormon themed jokes, satire, riddles or games?
    – … … …
    – what else?

    – – –

    And then we must define generic expressions of secular culture, such as —
    – TV shows (low- and highbrow)?
    – popular and art novels and non-fiction books?
    – magazine articles (“low” and “high”)?
    – films (L&H)?
    – popular and art music?
    – funny or sad stories (/urban “legends” etc.)?
    – games, holidays, customs, shared beliefs, foundational stories, history?
    – political commentary?
    – scholarly works?
    – humor and jokes?
    – journalism?
    – …
    – what else?

    – – –

    A subset of each grouping could be defined as not generic expression of Mormon culture, but particularly inspired or inspirational expressions of Mormon culture. And ditto for the grouping of generic expressions of secular culture, there woudl be a sub grouping within this greater group that we could define as especially good, as art, whatever our criteria for establishing this question might be.

    – – –

    Picture in your mind a pair of circles overlapping each other somewhat (along with an intersecting part whose shaded area belongs to both circles).

    Additionally, within each circle is a much smaller, inner circle.

    And the pair of overlapping circles overlap to such an extent that inner circle found in the leftward larger circle also overlaps a teensy-weansy bit with the inner circle of the rightward larger circle.

    As you’ve already figured out before I have to tell you, one of the pair of large cicles, say the lefthand one, represents “Generic Expression Specifically Within Mormon Culture”; while the other circle, which would now be the righthand one, represents “Generic Expressions Within Secular Culture.”

    The inner part of the lefthand circle would be “good Mormon art” and the inner part of the righthand circle would be “good secular art.”

    Pornography would be in the righthand circle, some of it in the “center “good” art inner circle and some in the “not good art” circle. But no pornography would intersect with the Mormon circle whatsoever.

    Mormons hymns would be in the lefthand innercircle, but not intersect at all with the right circle.

    But some stuff would be in the area where both circles intersect. (aspects of Jer3miah? of Glenn Beck? of Twilight? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic…)

    And a subset of these aspects would be where the two inner circles intersect.

    What, if anything much, should be considered to be in this area? Is what should be considered to be in this mutual inner area something that is difficult to define? Or is this area impossible to even exist, due to their putatively mutually exclusive pair of generating criteria?

  24. (Then, again, according to the 13th article of faith, of course, all TRULY good art (the best of the inner secular circle) would by definition be sought after by faithful Latter-day Saints, of course; so at least THAT would be “good” according to both LDS and secular definitions, right? — )

  25. Perhaps the great Mormon Novel will be written by a Brazilian, a Nigerian,or a German, etc. Is any of this literature starting to emerge?

  26. Opening Post ” Stanford University Professor Wallace Stegner, the western regionalist author who knew Mormons well and wrote about them. But despite Stegner’s claim that someone who left the LDS Church and then returned could write the “Great Mormon Novel,” Johnston came to the conclusion that LDS readers would never accept such an author, and the “Great Mormon Novel” is therefore impossible.”
    See my #24. I am sure Stegner was talking about Vardis Fisher, and the others I listed. (1925 Fisher was Stegner’s writing professor at UoU). These were good novelists, they just had some negative things about the Church in their novels.

  27. Thanks for the link to Jer3miah–I hadn’t heard of it yet. Watching it now tonight, and it’s good so far for what it is (Sanctuary the SciFi show, after all, started as a webisode as well, and the quality of production and acting of the main characters with the early webisodes of that were about on par with what I’m seeing in Jer3miah).

    Interesting story, and I really do like how they’re incorporating Mormon belief story-wise. Perhaps my opinion doesn’t count as much as the literati, given that I edit the genre fiction that so often isn’t considered “great” merely because it’s genre, but I really think that the “great Mormon novel” will come through storytelling efforts like this, and like that of Orson Scott Card in Lost Boys (wow, that’s a freaky book), and through the efforts of Mormon writers in the mainstream, especially in fantasy and science fiction.

    We’re pretty interesting to look at as a culture when it comes to fantasy and science fiction, actually. We believe in many supernatural occurrences–the Holy Ghost prompting us and manifestation of spirits can come in many ways–but we seem to split as a culture, as someone said above, when it comes to fantastic allegorical storytelling. We have a really great tradition of F/SF in our culture, but we have just as many people jumping on the evangelicals-against-Harry-Potter bandwagon, which puzzles me. I’m not sure what it arises from, because I have just as many staunch conservative Mormon friends who love F/SF as I know staunch conservative anti-HP people (though those anti-HP people tend to be from an older generation, come to think of it–is it a generation gap?).

    At any rate, there are a number of faithful LDS writers out there in the mainstream who are writing great books, whether or not they’re writing in the LDS market (LDS Storytellers, by the way, honors both LDS-market writers and LDS writers writing in the mainstream; this year was the 2nd year for the Whitney awards, which honor Elder Orson F. Whitney. What he prophesied regarding Mormon art, I think, is extremely relevant to the discussion at hand:

    Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of “Mormon” literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no “sisters nine,” no “blue-eyed maid of heaven”; no invoking of mythical muses that “did never yet one mortal song inspire.” No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God’s supreme design.

    We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth. Let the smile of derision wreathe the face of scorn; let the frown of hatred darken the brow of bigotry. Small things are the seeds of great things, and, like the acorn that brings forth the oak, or the snowflake that forms the avalanche, God’s kingdom will grow, and on wings of light and power soar to the summit of its destiny.

  28. Stacy:

    What’s interesting is that none of the so-called Mormon literati I know have a disdain for genre fiction — or at least not for science fiction/fantasy (and many not for young adult and mystery either — romance is a different story). One thing that Orson Scott Card’s work (and not just him — but also the same market and literary forces that led him in to speculative fiction) did is create a whole generation (or two) of Mormon writers and critics who read speculative fiction and see it is a very valid way to explore Mormon themes. Indeed, many of the short story writers you see publishing literary fiction with the Mormon journals write/have written (and even published) speculative fiction.

    As for the Orson F. Whitney quote: well, that’s a big discussion in and of itself. Here’s a brief reaction — I’m highly influenced by Whitney. At the same time, that quote of his needs to be understood within the context of the time and one of the major issues I have with it is not that it is, that Whitney said it and how he said it, but rather that it has created an anxiogenic atmosphere that past several decades among Mormons who want to look to (and talk to death) the prospects of greatness while ignoring or paying cursory attention to all the minor triumphs and works of interest that our culture is producing.

  29. I’m not sure if I understand you correctly–you’re saying that the quote has created that atmosphere in the past several decades now, or it created it back when Whitney said it?

    I can see that kind of discussion going on now, but I’m not sure if the conversations around me, at least, grew from the quote itself–I’m afraid that Mormons (at least in my experience) seem to have this inferiority complex that always invites such discussions (“Steve Martin is really a Mormon!” and suchlike). I do think it’s an inspiring quote for those of us who are actually working in the arts and striving to be our best, independent of whether we are known to the world as a “Mormon artist” or whether the LDS world regards us more highly because we’re somehow “cleaner” than the world, not because we’re actually good at what we do.

    (That drives me crazy–I love how some girl got on the Jeremiah boards and lambasted them for the “scantily-clad girl”–i.e., the girl wearing a short dress in one episode–that we wouldn’t even NOTICE in a Hollywood movie. As I watched that same scene, I knew that girl was on the “bad” side *because* she wasn’t paying attention to the BYU dress code: “Oh, she’s wearing a ‘short’ skirt! She MUST be giving in to Satan!”)

  30. I’ve had a little experience with this topic in another setting (that of music). When I created my website, the idea was to feature LDS musicians who don’t write LDS music. The result has been a (wonderful and inspiring) headache. I still haven’t figured out where to draw the line with lyrics. Do I offend my constituency? Do I give the artists free reign? More often I pick the latter, but I’m lucky that most of my listeners are the artsy types anyway.

    It’s strange. I know many musicians who felt they had to choose between good art and the Church, and chose art. Why do our artists feel there’s a dichotomy there? I know one musician in particular who just returned to the church a couple years ago after a lifetime of inactivity simply because his mother told him when he was a teenager, “You can’t be a rock musician AND in the Church.” So he said, “Okay, I’ll be a rock musician then.” His journey back has been difficult and painful, even hard to watch.

    I’m less interested in whether the Great American Novel is possible, or will be written. I’m more interested in the artists themselves, and whether they ever feel like they have to choose. I’d rather see our artists TRYING their best than actually succeeding. I’d rather see our artists staying in the Church, at least, and still feeling they can give it their best shot.

    I’ve written a book of my own that deals with a very edgy topic in a very edgy way, but I probably won’t publish it simply because I hope to maybe one day get into CES. Ha. There goes my credibility.

  31. #39: My thinking is the Church see “Art” as a tool to illustrate it’s beliefs. Any use besides this is either time wasting or leading one’s/or others faith astray.

  32. Maybe they do. I don’t see The Church as quite so monolithic, however. I think it’s a false dichotomy.

    No, I don’t think it’s true that The Church sees Art as a tool to illustrate its beliefs, and any use besides this is either time wasting or leading faith astray.

    Even if they think it’s “time-wasting,” wouldn’t they see it as the same as sports, putting models together, stargazing, painting landscapes, Nascar, or whatever other hobby we’re allowed to have? Is Nascar just “wasting time?” Uhh, well, that’s a really bad example.

  33. I see the Church using painting and sculpture only to tell it’s story. Dance, to showcase it’s youth. Music, drama, football, etc, only as PR.
    I don’t think the Church is anti-hobbies, as long as they don’t detract from the building of Zion.

  34. Well the fact of the matter is, human beings have many needs, only some of them being spiritual. The Church knows and understands this. Art satisfies the emotional needs of human beings, in the context of the Church and out of the context of the Church. It seems that perhaps you and I might have irreconcilable differences in our definitions of what the “building of Zion” is. I’m not a sports person, but I don’t, for instance, think the Church just uses football for PR. There are many people who “need” football, in that it helps them improve their bodies, and feel like their lives get satisfaction and meaning from that activity. I think reducing all activities to either those that “build Zion” or don’t is needlessly oversimplifying many activities that fulfill basic emotional needs for human beings.

    And if you’re just saying that’s the perspective from “The Church,” I don’t think you’ve made a strong argument either.

  35. The question of the post was “where is the great Mormon Art?” I am just trying to give my answer. My son choose baseball over the Church Boy Scouts. I think you will find the Church “monolithic” in it’s view of not doing this.
    To be clear, I am not blaming the Church for the lack of good Art of the modern world. But, I personally, would like BYU known as a great “Art” school, than as a great Law or business school.

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