Although Jerry Johnston’s column is provocative, and Dallas’ post (salty language warning) and Shawn’s AMV post in reply are very interesting, I have to admit a bit of weariness over this whole Great Mormon Novel trope. As Shawn points out, the whole idea that Mormons can’t produce great literature goes way back. It’s always a good one to bring up when you want to stir up debate, and it’s particularly delicious in the Mormon context (for let’s be clear — the whole idea that of whether a people can or can not produce literary genius is by no means unique to Mormonism) because you have the excommunication thing to work with.
Here’s why the whole idea is completely misguided:
1. 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.
2. The novel itself is almost dead. Or to restate: the novel as the great documenter and supporter of bourgeois life, as the polyphonic captivator of discourse in text and the great indoctrinator in to the norms of the emergence of the modern, democratic state is dead. For anything to be “the” and “Great” it would have to unify and receive acclaim (even if it’s years after it was published) from most of society or at least most of reading society. I don’t know that novels can do that anymore. As I have mentioned in the past, if there is going to be a “Great Work of Mormon Narrative Art” it’s more likely to be a film, game, graphic novel, or some new or hybrid form (perhaps one with collaborative authors/creators) that those of us with a literary bent may misunderstand or miss out on entirely.
3. We don’t and won’t and can’t know genius. A few of us perhaps can (or can get in early enough in the game as fans to boast about it after the fact). But genius is rare and making any claims about it (and one would have to be a literary genius in order to write the Great Mormon Novel) is a sucker’s game. Who could have predicted a lawyer working for an insurance company from a middle-class background could do what Kafka did? Or that one of the greatest works of literary fiction of the 20th century (and one of the greatest works of Christian fiction ever) would be secretly written by a depressed Russian playwright and former doctor and not emerge until a quarter of a century after his death as The Master and Margarita did? Or that two of the best sensual poets of the 19th century would be a Jesuit priest and a reclusive spinster? I could go on, but I think you get my point.
4. The whole excommunication thing is simply stupid. I would submit that since we can’t predict what form a genius work of Mormon art would take, we can’t predict who the creator is going to be, nor how the LDS Church is going to react, nor how the broader American society is going to react. And even if we want to extrapolate future returns from past results, well, Orson Scott Card’s work is scandalous, absolutely scandalous if you really look closely at it, and as far as I know he’s kept his membership intact (and in spite of the letters that I’m pretty sure have been sent in to the Church Office Building). What’s worse, I think the whole excommunication thing is an unnecessary distraction a way for LDS fiction folks to justify non-literariness and a way for Mormon fiction folks to justify disaffection with the institutional church and a way for non-Mormons to put us in a box.
5. This trope also needs to be ignored because it distracts from the minor victories in Mormon narrative art. The major frustration I have had with the Mormon arts/studies (and I share some blame here) community over my 10 years in it is how much excellent, praiseworthy work comes out with very little recognition. We’re good at engaging in the Big Discussions; we’re not so good at digging in to the minor lovely moments here and there that capture something cool or interesting or breathtaking or tragic or comic about Mormon doctrine, practice, culture and life. Everybody wants to be a theorist or a Svengali or a critic; nobody wants to be a (literary) critic. And there’s no shame in being a minor literature. Wear it like a badge because in this post-modern world, everybody is minor.
6. Don’t be distracted by Orson F. Whitney. Whitney’s pseudo-prophecy is neither a true prediction nor a goal to be aimed for. It’s a piece of post-Romantic wishful thinking and belated modern political positioning. Now, this is not to dismiss Whitney. I think that he is a fantastic, seminal Mormon writer whose works need to be paid more attention to. And yet I would submit that most people who invoke him only know him by that one quote or at most that one essay the quote came from.
7. And finally, and I’ve said this before but it can not be repeated enough, Mormonism doesn’t need a literary genius. It already has one. His name is Joseph Smith. Yes, I am aware that there are all sorts of complications that arise from this claim. Isn’t that cool? It leaves open a hundred avenues for exploration through narrative art. Could you imagine being saddled with a Shakespeare or Homer or a Dante or Milton or a Tolstoy or an Eminescu or a Cavafy or a Neruda, etc.? Joseph Smith has given Mormon artists a great gift — he has removed the need for a writer to be a foundational genius, but did so without creating “great narrative art.” We don’t have to worry about the anxiety of influence because our influencer provides amazing bits of language and huge grand narratives, but he didn’t set a language and a mode of writing as solidly as “pure” literary geniuses did. And yet he didn’t leave us without anything to work with. I have read Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard (it’s a long story — but the short version is a non-Scientologist friend gave it to me as a graduation gift) and I gotta say that it’s a big relief not having to work within that literary tradition. Joseph Smith as our founding genius creates a pretty sweet space for us, and I wonder some times if we’ve been so assimilated by American culture that we forget how much there really is to work with and how its inherent messiness (cause the Prophet’s literary and theological legacy is messy) cries out for a multitude of dramatizations and interpretations. I mean, how cool is that? Would you trade it for some pallid suburban or pseudo-urban white middle/upper class 21st American literary legacy? I wouldn’t. And yet so often we do.
Now, of course, Mormon creators of narrative art may feel part of these other literary traditions. That’s fine. And I do. But I also say that a little Joseph Smith-style iconoclasm in the face of such traditions may be in order for some of us.
So I have no worries about this whole Great Mormon Novel thing. I suggest you drop them too. The opportunity to create Mormon narratives, Mormon aesthetics, Mormon discourses, Mormon criticism is the only “great” thing we need to worry about. And I would submit that should there some day be a great Mormon artist, a true genius, the best thing we can do is cut and polish a bunch of minor gems so that he or she will have some glows and radiances to play off of.