Interview with Joy Buhler on Mormon literature

William talks the great Mormon novel with Joy Buhler and finds about her AML Conference paper on the subject.

When I heard that Joy Buhler was going to present on the great LDS novel at the AML annual meeting this year, I made a note to hit her up for an AMV interview. Mainly because I knew that I wouldn’t be there and so wouldn’t get to hear what she had to say. So I tracked down her email and requested an interview.

Originally from Vernal, Utah, Joy graduated from Utah State University with a B.A. in Political Science (and a minor in Spanish). She holds an MPA from George Mason University and has lived in Washington D.C. for ten years, where she currently works in HR Policy at the Department of the Interior. She blogs at Sherpa’s Wonderin’s.

What made you decide to tackle the topic of the “Great LDS Novel” for the AML Conference?

I wrote about Jerry Johnston’s column when it came out in 2009. When I read that AML was looking for papers for their annual conference, a paper on Mr. Johnston’s column seemed like a natural fit.  The paper is my introduction to LDS literature and the core concept of the paper, doubt, is fascinating to me from the LDS perspective.

For the many of us who, sadly, couldn’t attend, could you give us a taste of what you talked about and how you framed your discussion of the issue?

In 2009, my mother sent me a column by Jerry Earl Johnston, a columnist for the Deseret News and Mormon Times titled, “Great novels need doubt as vantage.” After recalling a conversation with the late Wallace Stegner who had just read Levi Petersen’s, The Backslider, Mr. Johnston declared that the Great Mormon novel written by an active, “Card-carrying” Latter Day Saint would never happen. Johnston’s reasons that the “Great Mormon novel” would never be written were the following:

  • Active temple recommend holders do not have the freedom to explore doubt without risk of being ostracized, either formally or informally.
  • Majority of LDS members would not accept the novel.
  • Active LDS writers would be too uncomfortable with criticism from other members.
  • Active LDS writers would want to promote the faith, not explore doubt.

I discussed the definitions of LDS literature, using the definition of “Great American Novel” to define the “great Mormon novel.” After I established the definitions, I discussed the above bullet points and delved into the relationship doubt has in the mainstream church.

I then talked about the current state of LDS literature and LDS writers as a whole.

I also talked about how the active LDS church is starting to accept doubt a little more.

I concluded by paraphrasing Jerry Johnston’s follow-up to me a few months ago and by giving my own thoughts.

You mention on your blog that you asked Jerry Johnston about his column from a few years back on the Mormon novel. Why did you decide to contact him and what was his response?

Mormon literature has gathered momentum since 2009. I was interested to see if Mr. Johnston’s opinion had changed. While Mr. Johnston hadn’t really changed his opinion, he stated the following:

First, I think definitions are important. I would define a true Mormon as someone who accepts certain truths and facts at face value, someone who feels the purpose of the Church is to glorify God and bring people to a knowledge of his kingdom. True Mormons are intent on performing good works.

In short, true Mormons are — overtly or quietly — looking to instruct people in the ways of God.

This works well in genre literature, because so many of the genres showcase battles between the “light” and the “dark,” “right” and “wrong.”

That’s the case with most science fiction (Orson Scott Card). Vampire stories (Meyer). Westerns (Lee Nelson). And many mysteries, romances, thrillers, etc.

We do well as Mormons in children’s literature and young adult literature because “instruction” is part of the genre. We want to enhance the lives of children.

Where we struggle as active Saints is with literary novels and plays.

It’s a Catch-22.

We cannot put enough distance between us and our faith to divorce ourselves from it.

When writers do (Brian Evenson, Brady Udall, Walter Kirn) what they produce is no longer Mormon literature, but Mormon-themed literature. It is literature about Mormons.

As I said, it comes down to definitions. (Brian Evenson once said he showed the dark side of life so people could infer the light side, but I saw that as mere spin, an attempt to hold onto his job at BYU). In my thinking, Mormon literature will not have an agenda in its art that undermines the desire to do good works.

If it does, it is — by my definition — no longer true Mormon literature, but Mormon-themed literature.

I realize I’ve set up the model so you “can’t beat the house.” But that’s how I see it.*

Now that you’ve gone through the exercise of formulating your thoughts
and research into an AML paper, what’s next?

I’m not sure. I have an idea for a Twilight paper (I know, I know). I’m planning to do more book reviews of LDS literature.

Are you done or are there other aspects of Mormon literature, and, especially, Mormon novels that you are interesting in exploring?

My goal for this summer is to read more Mormon literature. I read Dispensations, which I feel is a perfect introduction to LDS literature. I have Vernal Promises, by Jack Harrell sitting on my dresser at home and I plan to read it soon. I just read, Wasatch: Mormon Stories and a Novella by Douglas Thayer, and thought that collection was a gem.

Finally, what specific works of Mormon narrative and/or visual art and
non-Mormon-themed art are you really digging right now?

I recently read a novel by an Icelandic author called, The Greenhouse, by Audur Ava Olafsdottir. Although the book was translated, I found the story of a young Icelandic gardener in Southern Europe fascinating.

Thanks, Joy!

*Note: I have changed some of the line-spacing of the Jerry Johnston quote so that it’s less choppy.

12 thoughts on “Interview with Joy Buhler on Mormon literature”

  1. Interesting, because I just happen to be working on the great Mormon novel, though I’ll happily call it a great Mormon novel if someone else wants to take a whack at it, too.

  2. The time certainly seems ripe for a revision of the role of doubt in Mormon culture, Mark. I would hazard a guess that most of us are working on or at least, dreaming about a great mormon novel (or short story). Perhaps all of us will have venue for our work…maybe we are on the verge of a literary revolution in LDS literature.

  3. Sarah-Yes, that’s me. For some reason I thought you knew my real name.
    Mark-lovely poem. Yes, I’m not sure if it was evident in the outline, but I did discuss in my paper that there’s signs of change regarding the issue of doubt among the members.

  4. Something similar is happening with the notions of knowing and truth. That got mentioned somewhere else on AMV. I think a lot of people are becoming uncomfortable saying things like “I know the church is true” because they recognize that (a) the way of knowing is outside the usual realm and (b) it’s not really a matter of truth. I’m planning to blog about this soon, so I’ll just do that and drop a link for anyone who’s interested.

  5. Maybe we should say “I have a momentarily strong fluid conviction that the Gospel/Church/whatever satisfies my religious needs.” More on that later. Now I’ve got to teach Jason.

  6. Personally, I think it’s more powerful rhetorically to be specific when bearing witness. Give the experiential evidences. E.g.: “I have experienced the guidance of the Spirit in my life.” “I’ve received answers to prayers that go beyond my own wisdom.” “I’ve felt a confirmation that our leaders are called by God.” “The ordinances of the temple fill me with a feeling of peace and gratitude.” Or whatever your own specifics may be.

    What I think President Hinckley in particular did was to make it acceptable to say “I believe” instead of “I know.” More generally, I think that many of the General Authorities have talked in recent years about acting on the basis of faith in the absence of knowledge.

    Does all this add up to doubt now being okay in Mormon circles? I don’t think I’d go that far. I think we’re still a ways away from the time when someone could give a talk in sacrament meeting expanding on the positive value of doubt (possibly using Mark’s excellent poem as a touchpoint) and not be seen as a little off-course.

  7. Good points, Jonathan. And good taste in poetry, too.

    Yesterday, during stake priesthood meeting, I wrote a future blog post which may be the basis for a sort of manifesto (personal if not universal) for Mormon secular intellectual writers. One of the key elements was devotion. Another was balance. We need to balance devotion and doubt.

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