Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Great Mormon Novel--Can It Be Written?

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I was reading a blog on the Mormon Times recently about how, in the blogger’s opinion, there can never be a Great Mormon novel because there isn’t enough wiggle room in the Mormon religion and gray areas to be explored. He felt like the Mormon religion demanded so much of its members that a true Mormon surrendered their “egos, ideas, and ambition,” to promoting the faith. And so, if you want to promote the faith, you can’t write the Great Mormon novel, and without the blessing of the church, it wouldn’t be a true Mormon novel, anyway, so we’re stuck more or less.

I’ve thought about this a lot and I wondered, first of all, do we need a great Mormon novel? Apparently one of the criteria of a great Mormon novel is to delve into gray areas that wouldn’t promote the faith. Why would anyone want to do that and call it a great Mormon novel? And, honestly, do people really think that authors who consider themselves “true Mormons” surrender their ego, ideas and ambitions to promote the faith in their writing? I know plenty of authors with healthy egos and just as many authors with incredible ideas that have nothing to do with Mormonism and yet, they are still good Mormons. Promoting the faith isn’t all there is to Mormon authors and I don’t believe that being a good Mormon would hinder any author from writing the great Mormon novel

One sentence in the blog stood out to me and made me wonder a little more. “In the future, I’m sure LDS writers will produce wonderful novels.” Hmmm…that makes it sound to me like this blogger doesn’t read LDS works currently. (Or else he hasn’t liked anything he’s read.) I don’t know if he does read what’s out there now, but that one sentence stuck out to me. He is making judgments with his opinion of whether or not the great Mormon novel could be written by LDS authors in good standing, and yet, he feels that wonderful novels by LDS writers are something for the future. Frankly, I think LDS writers have produced some wonderful novels and they just keep getting better and better. LDS fiction has improved by leaps and bounds, but mainly I’ve noticed so many LDS writers doing national work and doing an incredible job. If there is to be a great Mormon novel, there is no doubt in my mind that we have the talent for it among us. I guess it comes down to someone wanting to write it. Or perhaps there are currently literary masterpieces out there that could be termed the great Mormon novel, but who is to be the judge of that? How will we know when the great Mormon novel has been written?

Near the end, the blogger says, “the great Mormon novel is a dream held by literary types in the church.” I disagree because of the generality of the statement, but even if it is the dream of some literary types, why stamp on it? Why tell them they are dreaming the impossible dream? (Now I have that song going through my head . . . to dream, the impossible dream, ah, Don Quixote). In my opinion, the generation with us and before us are some of the most talented and capable men and women I’ve ever seen. If there is a great Mormon novel, or one that is yet to be written, I have no doubt it can be achieved and still stay true to the author’s convictions and maintain their egos, ideas, and ambitions. It may take courage, empathy, and perspective, but I definitely think it's possible.


At 6/25/2009 4:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Jerry Johnston is the Mormon Times author who wrote the article that inspired Julie's post)

Dear Jerry:

The Great Mormon Novel is possible. It will happen. It will be faithful, uplifting, and embraced by those in and outside of the church for the very reason that it completes the now incomplete definition of the great novel by mending our broken stories where evil is personified as good, and completing our incomplete dramas where good is lampooned as evil.

The great Mormon novel won't chart new territory or break new ground as much as it will lead the reader to rediscover the storytelling path to our fullest potential--the path that is lost in so much secularization.

The great Mormon novel will reacquaint men with the divine. It will celebrate the demands of gospel centeredness. It will rediscover what has been lost. It will restore faith in men, reverence for God and it will uncover the revelatory connection between heaven and earth. It will find joy in the work of building the kingdom. It will portray the shedding of one's ego and ambitions. And it will find its voice, not in the surrendering of one's ideas as you suggest in your article, but by celebrating the divine creativity that flows from discovering that the will of God is an infinitely more holy road than is the dead-end of half way back authorship. The community of great Mormon novelists isn't limited to Mormons who leave the fold and come half way back to the church. There is a more complete ending to every story than coming half way back.

The literati of our time celebrate redemption in the half way back story. The world finds comfort in those first redeeming steps. There is a certain worldly familiarity in the Aaronic Priesthood approach to redemptive storytelling, and since all storytelling is about redemption, the great Mormon novel will plumb the depths beyond those first preparatory steps and carry the reader into the restored fullness of the redemptive human drama.

The great Mormon novel will be a Melchizedek novel that takes redemptive storytelling through to is fullest, most complete, entirely natural dramatic high point. A temple climax set in the figurative tops of the mountains. It will give us hope that men are that they might have joy. Divine. Eternal. Joy.

The great Mormon novel won't be the investigator turned convert King Lamoniesque story. It will be the disciple, final stage, Enosesque story. The story of an active, bishop-like, tithe-paying, Relief Society President-like, moral, obedient, humble, temple-going, ecclesiastic supporting soul, who finds redemption not in the preparatory steps of coming back into the fold, but in the sanctifying graces of the life of discipleship, adopting God's will as his own. Isn't that the message of the restoration? Restoring an understanding, not of the first principles and ordinances, but of the divine potential in each of us? The great Mormon novel will give the reader a glimpse of their divine end while they are yet living in the earthly pages of their mortal beginnings.

It will happen Jerry. New wine will be poured into new bottles. The great Mormon novel will be written. The old rules of literary critique will be discarded for new ones. The old ways of viewing a novel will become new. The world will unwrap our literary gift left under the tree and know us better. The pages will be salted with inspired inklings and prophetic foreshadowings and when the reader arrives at the last page, she will close the book and say, "I knew it was going to end like that." And by knowing us better, the world will know that though the end is foreshadowed in the beginning, the satisfying climax isn't in the first steps of coming half way back along the narrow way or the opening scene of chapter one, but in enduring to the sanctifying conclusion. Which is, as in all great stories, The End.


Name Withheld

At 6/25/2009 11:17 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

I've read many fine novels from many LDS authors who haven't sacrificed their skills just to be a writer in the world.

Sometimes, you just can't please everyone.

At 6/26/2009 10:26 AM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

I'm getting tire of hearing about the Great Mormon Novel. I think it's been written in many many forms. Already. Ironically, I sent Jerry my books to be reviewed, and he said he probably wouldn't review them because they were "too Mormon." Also, I can't even "pay" KSL to have live-read advertising because my books are too Mormon. Maybe in Colorado or Arizona they are more friendly to Mormon writers.

At 6/26/2009 10:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


What is live-read advertising on KSL? Is it different than the ads that currently appear on KSL TV and Radio for Deseret Book and sometimes for Covenant?

At 6/26/2009 11:49 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Why is it a requirement that a novel delve into gray areas in order for it to be considered "great"? I think we've got a very narrow definition of "great" here.

At 6/26/2009 2:20 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

One great Mormon novel already written is a series of novels by LDS general authority Gerald Lund called The Work and the Glory. These are incredible works. Just my opinion.


At 6/26/2009 3:59 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Anon: A live-read ad on KSL is when you have someone like Doug Wright or another personality read an advertising blurb for your book/product. They came back with: "It's too Mormon and it would sound like Doug Wright was endorsing a Mormon book." Yes, that was exactly the idea ;)

At 6/26/2009 10:27 PM, Blogger Molly in the Jello Belt said...

Anon from comment #1: I really liked what you had to say. I especially liked the second to last paragraph about how the story would be about the sanctifying graces of the gospel, rather than a story about an initial conversion. That was powerful.

At 6/27/2009 9:27 AM, Blogger Kent Larsen said...

I must say that I'm very surprised about several comments that were made here. Perhaps I have misunderstood the post and comments on this page?

* Julie, your post makes it sound like you don't know that Jerry Johnston is the principle book reviewer for the Deseret News! Is that right? He reads plenty of LDS fiction.

* Julie wrote "Apparently one of the criteria of a great Mormon novel is to delve into gray areas that wouldn’t promote the faith. Why would anyone want to do that and call it a great Mormon novel?"

I think you have misunderstood a few things here. The "Great Mormon Novel" or "Great Amerian Novel" idea. It doesn't have anything to do with the Gospel at all, so there is no reason to expect that a "great Mormon novel" would "promote the faith." BUT, there is also NO REASON TO THINK THAT IT WOULDN'T!

You might look at the Wikipedia article for "Great American Novel" and simply substitute Mormon for American in the concept. The idea behind a "Great American Novel" is simply a work that "perfectly represents the spirit of life in the United States at the time it is written." The "Great Mormon Novel" then would represent the spirit of life as a Mormon at the time it is written.

Please note that this is an academic concept, mainly talking about novels that are considered to have literary value, not necessarily entertainment value. [For example, I think that George Orwell's novel 1984 is important and has literary value. But I can't say that reading it was a particularly enjoyable experience. I wouldn't read it to escape from my day-to-day troubles.]

To be honest, virtually every novel in what is often called "LDS Fiction" is NOT in this category. They aren't written to change the world, or potray Mormon life as it is today or to get Mormons to consider great ideas. "LDS Fiction" is written primarily to entertain. These works are even sometimes well written, showing real talent for storytelling and expression. But that isn't what the "Great Mormon Novel" idea is about. And, unless you are actively trying to create great literature and express great ideas, you can safely ignore the whole issue -- Jerry isn't really talking about your kind of book, and he isn't saying that your kind of book can't be among the best storytelling or the best writing.

This all may be moot in a lot of ways, even if you are writing literature for the academic audience. As William Morris on A Motley Vision observes, most of academia has given up on the idea, wondering, as Julie does, whether the concept has any value in the first place.

Having said all that, I do think I need to mention something about the idea of a "gray area." This is, I think, something that Jerry gets very wrong. A "gray area" doesn't necessarily mean something that "wouldn't promote the faith." It can, but doesn't have to. A "gray area" is really just an area where we aren't sure where the truth is.

Depending on your view of Mormon theology, there can be just a few gray areas, or there can be many, many gray areas. Personally, I lean towards the latter (and I haven't lost my testimony). My own view is that we MUST have gray areas in the gospel--because without them we don't need as much faith. Without the gray, we KNOW, and therefore don't need FAITH.

(continued in next comment)

At 6/27/2009 9:28 AM, Blogger Kent Larsen said...

Now, I do think that Mormonism offers more knowledge and answers than elsewhere, but I don't think that this can ever eliminate the big question: What is the truth? We continue to need faith, so there mus be some doubt, some gray areas to explore, right?

Now, it is true that "LDS Fiction" doesn't generally explore doubt. It is written as entertainment, and most people don't find the hard effort required to work out their doubts entertaining. So that doesn't appear in these works.

But, personally, I don't see any reason why Mormon literature can't try to express the process of working out and resolving one's doubts in faith and belief, if only to be faced with new ones. But I don't think that its likely to be entertainment in the same way that "LDS Fiction" is entertainment.

* Heather B. More wrote: "I sent Jerry my books to be reviewed, and he said he probably wouldn't review them because they were "too Mormon." Also, I can't even "pay" KSL to have live-read advertising because my books are too Mormon." Surely you don't think that the Deseret News and KSL only serve LDS audiences? You might want to read some of the reactions to LDS stories in the comments to the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune (especially the latter). There is a vehement audience in Utah (presumably non-Mormon) that dislikes too many Mormon stories in the newspapers and radios in Utah. Either the personnel in these media that you corresponded with are trying to give you a polite brush-off, or they are communicating a real problem: that when they run more than x number of stories about Mormon books, they start getting complaints and losing audience. Mormonism so dominates life in Utah that some non-Mormons are overwhelmed by it and get bent out of shape as a result.

* Charlie, while I'm sure that The Work and the Glory series is very entertaining, they do not rise to the level of great literature. They simply don't fit the definition of "representing the spirit of Mormon life" today (and with their oft-criticized record of historical inaccuracies, I'm not sure they even represent Mormon life of the time they are set in).

I'm not even sure that academics are going to jump on your bandwagon of calling the series "one great Mormon novel" even without the definition above. I can't recall a single academic review calling the series great literature.

Sorry, but I don't buy it. The books are popular, yes. But that doesn't make them great literature.

At 6/27/2009 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Is a gray area where details were held back because the saints weren't ready to recieve the information, or where another prophet was foreordained to reveal something (see Nephi and John), something like what Moroni wrote about revelations given to Ether:

12 And when these things come, bringeth to pass the scripture which saith, there are they who were first, who shall be last; and there are they who were last, who shall be first.

13 And I was about to write more, but I am forbidden; but great and marvelous were the prophecies of Ether; but they esteemed him as naught, and cast him out; and he ahid himself in the cavity of a rock by day, and by night he went forth viewing the things which should come upon the people.

Is this what you mean by a gray area?

At 6/27/2009 3:58 PM, Blogger Kent Larsen said...

Is this what you mean by a gray area?

Well, it might be a gray area to some. But I was referring more to areas where commandments might seem to be in conflict as well, or areas where we have been given general principles but no clear guidance on how to act.

For example, we are told to preach the gospel in all the world, but we are also told to keep ourselves clean from the world. There is a lot of gray area or uncertain territory in how to handle that.

Beyond this, there are also areas where our current practice and culture don't appear, on their face, to follow specific commandments -- for example, we're told not to kill, but many Church members support the death penalty and Church policy allows abortion in cases of rape and incest. I'm NOT suggesting that Church policy is wrong, nor am I suggesting that the death penalty is against the commandments. I am saying that, depending on how you interpret the command "Thou Shalt Not Kill," a number of actions could be seen as either sins or moral acts. [The truth of exactly how moral these acts are will only be decided in the final judgment, I think.]

The bottom line here is that we don't always have exact answers on how to act, what is moral or what the truth is. We don't even have a perfect knowledge of the truth of the gospel--we are here to learn by faith, which is defined as something short of perfect knowledge.

How we deal with this puts us in gray areas--areas where we need faith. And it is precisely these areas where we have conflict and drama--things that lead to good storytelling and great literature.

At 6/27/2009 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...Or Nephi slaying Laban? Another Thou Shalt Not Kill paradox.

A coupld more questions:

Is it possible that Christ taught in parables to remind us of things we already knew? Where the "Great Novel" is desiged to propose something new--an alternative to the gospel plain that resonates within us as something known but forgotten.

And also this:

Is is possible that referring to these gospel paradoxes as points of doctrine for which we don't have a perfect knowledge of gospel truth is maybe misslabeling the gray areas? Maybe a little overkill in word choice?

I think of coming to a perfect knowledge as parting the veil and seeing Christ. Certainly a lot of those gray areas will become more black and white once we pass through the veil. But when we discuss the paradox of Thou Shalt Not Kill, and Preach the Gospel to the entire world in the same breath as seeing Christ, it seems to be a poor symantic choice. Did you notice that you keep having to declare that you have a testimony, that you're not apostate, that you okay with the gray areas. Once you explain them they make sense, they are very rational in a faith discussion. It seems to me that using the phrase "perfect knowledge" there is enough confusion of terms, that you end up having to reassure your readers that you are, indeed, a faithful member of the church. Isn't there a more technically efficient way to express the idea of gray areas without raising everyone's blood pressure and then having to calm them down again?

Just saying....

At 6/27/2009 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I really like your explanation of gray areas. And it gives a lot of material for good novelists to run with. Nice job.


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