Since I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more LDS/Mormon books and since I’ve started reviewing them and recommending them, I’ve realized something important: I have a litmus test for Mormon literature. I have one overarching criteria that defines all of my Mormon literary experiences–whether it’s a book, the scriptures, or a General Conference talk.
Defining Mormon literature from the writer’s/editor’s/publisher’s perspective is probably the most labyrinthine discussion in the world of Mormon letters–with most definitions leaning toward anything and everything relating to Mormons. Irreantum‘s definition is a good example. In the submissions section it says:
Irreantum seeks to publish high-quality work that explores the Mormon experience, directly or by implication, through literature. We acknowledge a broad range of experience with Mormonism, both as a faith and as a culture — on the part of devoted multi-generation Mormons, ethnic Mormons, new converts, and people outside of the faith and culture who interact with Mormons and Mormon culture.
Under the reviews section it states it more succinctly. Mormon literature is basically, “any books of fiction or poetry, films, or plays written by, for, or about Mormons, or that also may be of interest to a Mormon readership (such as books with strong religious themes).” That’s pretty open and that seems to be where most other magazines and publishers draw the line.
However, it’s also obvious that many, many readers don’t agree with that open definition. Take last year’s snafu over LDS Publisher accepting Angel Falling Softly as a contest sponsor as an example. Or AMV’s heated discussion of Brother Brigham by D. Michael Martindale. Both books are obviously by, for, and about Mormons. But many, many LDS readers were offended by the association.
So why the gap between the writers/editors and the readers? That’s where the Mormon Literary Litmus Test comes in.
Most readers will readily admit that defining great/worthy/recommendable literature is highly subjective. But, when it comes to niche marketing and writing, the subjectivity becomes limited. After all, niches by their very definition are limited and specific and in the case of the Mormon market those limitations come in the form of *gulp* morals. It is the Mormon/LDS stance on moral issues that sets its members apart from the culture at large and it is how individual Mormons relate to those moral stances that set Mormon/LDS readers apart from the the national market. The doctrinal idea that no Mormon can be a fence-sitter, that we cannot be lukewarm and still be part of the body of Christ, only makes this debate more heated.
Of course not every reader will relate to the morality the same so there is a degree of subjectivity but that subjectivity is hedged by the inherent culture expectations and pressures to make moral stands. (This, in part, explains the success of Deseret Book even though so many readers are displeased with the books they find in the stores. Deseret Book understands and caters to the cultural moral expectations.) In other words, because we are readers and because we are Mormons we each have our own litmus test, the way we take a stand,–they may all be different litmus tests, but we have them all the same. My personal litmus test: Do I identify with the work in question? Does the literature represent me, my beliefs, and experiences in some way?
At first glance this sounds almost as open as Irreantum, but I worry that it isn’t. I’m a pretty normal Mormon gal and I’ve lived a pretty normal Mormon life. Raised in Utah, married young, had kids–it’s a story that many Mormons could tell as they introduce themselves in sacrament meeting. But the Church doesn’t only exist in the Rocky Mountain west. It doesn’t belong only to born-in-the-covenant members. There are a lot of members (and ex-members) out there and each of their stories IS part of the LDS experience, but they aren’t necessarily part of MY LDS experience.
My litmus test makes it easy to like books like Bound on Earth or, because so many other LDS chicks read them, Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga, but classic books like The Backslider push the limits of my litmus test. There is almost nothing in that book I identify with. The only thing that feels even remotely familiar is the protagonist’s intense yearning to understand the nature of Christ’s love and atoning sacrifice. On the other hand, other classics, like Marilyn Brown’s The Earthkeepers and Virginia Sorensen’s Where Nothing is Long Ago don’t reflect directly on my experience, but the moods of those books feel comfortable and stretch my litmus test without trying to break it. In fact, that might be the very reason they are classics: because they push people just enough but not too hard.
A friend and ward member who is also an avid reader defines her litmus test much like Madeleine L’Engle does in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Wheaton Literary Series). In talking about her actor-husband’s roles on stage she said that if the kids couldn’t see him in it, then he wouldn’t accept the part (p 79). My friend chooses which books to buy and keep according to the kind of reading experiences they will give her children. She asks herself, “Would I ever want my child to read this?” If the answer is no then she doesn’t keep the book. L’Engle says this kind of screening and thought process is the mark of artistic integrity and I would venture that many Mormon readers feel the same.
For me, I’ve decided that a litmus test in and of itself is not bad. It is limiting but only if readers don’t recognize they have one. Of course, now I have to know, what’s your litmus test?