I feel pretty confident in asserting, without further evidence, that I find myself in a relatively small number of people who wake up on a Saturday morning thinking about questions of Mormon literary criticism. Possibly almost as small a number as those who might read the fruits of such questioning. (But only possibly.) Still, it is the nature of the essayist to find oneself compelled to write. And so…
Throughout most of Mormonism’s literary history (such as it is), there has I think been little evidence of Mormons taking pleasure in or valuing a different kind of literary experience than what is valued in larger (mostly American) culture. Home literature, missionary fiction, lost generation fiction, faithful Mormon realism — all find close corollaries and even direct models in the larger writing universe.
There is, of course, the writing of Joseph Smith. But I don’t see many Mormons taking his work as a literary model. Even modern prophets, it seems to me, very seldom speak in Joseph’s kind of distinctive prophetic voice. Nor, I think, would most Mormons be terribly comfortable with literature that too obviously imitates scripture. The Book of Mormon in particular remains a voice from the dust, speaking to us from another time and (as I think we now increasingly recognize) alien culture, very different even from the rest of what Joseph Smith wrote for reasons that make sense if you accept his account of the book’s origins.
Aside from that… Well, there’s our squeamishness about R-rated content, even if it’s more hypocritically evident in our expectations of literature by and about Mormons than in our general reading tastes. But again, that squeamishness is hardly distinctive to us. Nor is it sufficient in itself to constitute a distinctive literary esthetic.
It is, I think, highly suggestive that the most popular titles among Mormon readers — inspirational books, romances, historical novels, science fiction and fantasy, cozy mysteries, and the like — by and large seem to be the same as the most widely read genres among Americans of all (reading as opposed to non-reading) stripes. Suggestive, and understandable. Mormon-Americans are, after all, very much like other Americans in the content of our day-to-day lives. We may pride ourselves on being a peculiar people, but as prophets remind us each six months if not more often, we’re not nearly as peculiar as we perhaps ought to be. (Which raises the question: are non-American Mormons better suited to creating a distinctively Mormon culture, simply because they are less likely to feel comfortable within their birth cultures? I can’t even guess.)
I should at this point clarify that I don’t actually think a distinctive Mormon literary esthetic is necessary, or even necessarily desirable. The gospel, as I understand it, is less about having “a style of our own” (BYU’s depressingly unambitious goal from my undergraduate years) than about vitalizing and purifying every worthwhile style, every human culture. Do we need a separate esthetic? I very much doubt it.
And yet I would be fascinated to find that such a thing did exist. Skeptical, but fascinated. Rather to my surprise, I think I may have found some evidence for that, which I plan to describe (more or less) in part two.