Doug Thayer on Mormonism as a faith that invites novelists

As I mentioned in my post Doug Thayer sums it all up, Thayer’s “About Serious Mormon Fiction” is remarkable for the in-depth and broad look he takes at the field. There are a numerous passages that I could quote that would lead to fruitful discussion, but I’m just going to focus on one.

After covering a lot of ground and then going in to some specific ideas for the types of Mormon novels that he would like to read, Thayer writes:

Contemporary Mormon life itself helps to create this need for a serious fiction. A faith that believes in perfection, a life filed with attainable goals, large beautiful families, the near Second Coming, personal revelation, daily guidance from the Holy Ghost, eternal life with an eternal family, righteousness materially rewarded in this life, and degrees of glory invites interpretation, explanation. In short, is a faith that invite novelists. Because we as faithful, intelligent Mormons want to help to understand it all, to see how it works, or might work. And this is often best done in the privacy of a novel that the readers enter into imaginatively to experience vicariously with the protagonist all that he or she experiences, understands, and learns in the process.

For example, what is spiritual experience? We Mormons talka lot today about the spirit — feeling the spirit, being guided by the spirit, following the spirit, seeking the spirit, losing the spirit, being filled with the spirit, leading a spiritual life. We don’t talk much about living a religious life, but living a spiritual life. So what is a spiritual life, to folow the spirit? Are we really talking about experiencing the Holy Ghost, and therefore should write spirit with a capital S? If so, what does it feel like? How do you know if ou’re leading such a life? Is it only feeling, emotions, impressions? Is the intellect, the mind, objectivity, reason a part of spirituality? In what ways are our spiritual lives powerful, compelling, directing, satisfying, divine? As Conrad said, the novelist’s task is to make experience, something to be tasted, seen, heard, felt, and smelled. A realistic serious novel could create characters, images, situations that would help readers experience spirituality, help them hear, feel, and see it, know what it is and is not. (39)

I don’t know how well we accomplish this, but I like this notion of making experience and helping understand a lot.

Doug Thayer sums it all up

I’ve finally got around to reading Irreantum 12:2, the fall/winter 2010 edition of the Association for Mormon Letters literary journal. Okay, so, how come none of you have mentioned that Doug Thayer sums up the entire field of Mormon fiction in its pages? Maybe you did, and I just wasn’t listening. And I don’t agree with everything he says. But still, his essay “About Serious Mormon Fiction” (which is a revised version of his 2008 Eugene England Memorial Lecture* at Utah Valley University) is remarkable for its breadth. In it he discusses:

  • Why he writes Mormon fiction
  • What he means by “serious” Mormon fiction
  • What he thinks about the “great Mormon novel”
  • Why serious Mormon fiction will offend Mormon readers (but in a useful way)
  • What he defines as the Mormon audience and how thinks it can be reached
  • The state of Mormon publishing and what he thinks is missing (in particular he sees a need for “a major popular web site for serious Mormon literature” [and also suggests that it might need a rating system, which we have also discussed around these parts])
  • Some theories on why Mormon literature “doesn’t flourish as it might be expected to”
  • How he answers LDS-centric criticism of serious fiction
  • Possible “themes, conflicts and plots” for Mormon novelists and some of the types of Mormon novels he would personally like to read
  • How Mormon doctrine might inform the themes of serious Mormon fiction
  • Who is going to write these Mormon novels (not his creative writing students, he says)
  • The craft of fiction writing
  • The fact that the novelists he is hoping for are likely to be Mormon women (and why)

That’s a lot of ground to cover and Thayer basically tackles here all of the major issues of the field and ties them together and sums it all up, and it’s well worth seeking out.

*It’s a pity these aren’t better documented.