I start by acknowledging a point of agreement. (I’m sure Jerry Johnston is a nice guy. I want to be charitable here.) I agree, as Johnston puts it, that “an authentic [Mormon] literary masterpiece” would make some Mormons feel “uncomfortable, exposed and betrayed.” Fair enough. As for the rest of the article … Dude! Come on!
The column presents this argument:
(1) Only a partial Mormon outsider can achieve the perspective necessary to write “great” Mormon lit.
(2) Only a Mormon insider could write lit that qualifies as “truly Mormon.”
Great Mormon lit is impossible.
The first premise in Johnston’s argument was supplied by Wallace Stegner. Ordinarily, I would be a sucker for this kind of appeal to authority. Stegner is top notch. Read *Angle of Repose* and *Crossing to Safety* if you haven’t already. Heck, read everything else Stegner wrote and his biographies too. However, I find Stegner’s opinion on whether (and how) Mormons might be capable of literary greatness rather suspect. It is true that Stegner liked Mormons as people. He understood them to a point, and he wrote about them in complimentary terms. However, Stegner also preserved his own precious respectability by dismissing Mormons as embarrassingly gullible mystics. “Benighted” is a term he used to describe Mormons. He underestimated our cultural riches (he had a low opinion of Joseph Smith), and he misread our potential (faithful Mormons were lightweights to him). Why should I care what Wally Stegner thought on this point? I don’t!
Johnston’s view of Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor also fails to persuade. Some “true Catholics” considered them heretical, irredeemably worldly, and decidedly un-Catholic. Just read O’Connor’s letters! Here’s the thing: they 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. What stops Mormons from doing the same? Nothing. Really! Mormons that go this direction may not be loved (at first) in their own country. But what minor prophet is? Johnston’s assertion that there was no tension between Greene/O’Connor and their faith community is simply false.
Finally, and perhaps most troubling, 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? Contrary to Johnston’s grim view, I think Mormons and the church are maturing culturally in ways that will lead to not just “wonderful” art (man, that sounds condescending), but widely-appreciated “great” art.
Not that we should lose much sleep worrying about “greatness” anyway…