Parsing the “Mormon” in Mormon Literature

Ever since Scott Hales announced his plans to edit a new anthology of Mormon literary criticism, I’ve been thinking off and on about my own past grapplings with Mormon literature and where I’d want to take them — had I world enough, time, money, and the requisite academic chops. What follows isn’t that essay, but comes about as close as I can manage at present. Consider this my submission!

Why do or should we — as readers, writers, and/or literary critics — care about whether a text is Mormon? Potential reasons are legion, as varied as readers themselves. Among the most typical and (it seems to me) important are the following:

  • To understand Mormonism better — as a culture, religion, historical movement, or what have you
  • To investigate specific elements of Mormon experience, thought, and culture through literary works
  • To explore the purpose(s) and role(s) of literature in Mormon experience and worldview
  • To articulate ways that literature has influenced Mormonism
  • As a test case to investigate the interrelationships of literature and religion, literature and identity, literature and culture, and a host of other potential intersections
  • To understand better particular literary works that incorporate manifestly Mormon elements
  • To assert our own membership (or non-membership) in the Mormon community
  • To explore what it means to be Mormon and a reader, Mormon and a writer, or Mormon and a critic
  • To seek out and encourage literature we think is worthwhile, in whatever particular relationship to Mormonism we endorse: celebratory, investigatory, critical, or other[1. The purposes listed here include many I have seen explicitly or (mostly) implicitly pursued via published essays, blog posts, discussions on the email discussion list once sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters, and a variety of other venues — plus a few I’ve not seen much of (such as the influence of literature on Mormonism) but that seem like logical and potentially interesting possibilities.]

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Some Definitional Thoughts About YA (Mormon) Fiction

Author’s note: This started as a post on my own blog on whether or not No Going Back is a YA novel. I showed it to William Morris, who suggested that I post it here. I quote from his comments: “I know you are worried about readers tiring of hearing about No Going Back, but this blog entry a) is literary criticism, which is the heart of AMV and b) tackles what is becoming a core question for Mormon fiction, imo, because of the huge number of authors finding success with YA and/or work for middle readers — that is, is YA capable of providing real literary value to Mormon letters and if so what level of “˜mature/explicit’ content can it deal with without alienating Mormon readers.”

So I’ve posted different versions (with different titles) in the two places. The version at my blog focuses on the original question of whether No Going Back is a YA novel. The version here retains most of that content, but also considers some more general questions about the nature and status of YA novels, particularly in the Mormon universe.

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Review: No Going Back

NoGoingBack-LgA while ago I finished reading Jonathan Langford’s new novel, No Going Back, which is a coming-of-age story about a fifteen-year-old protagonist, Paul Ficklin, who is Mormon and who is attracted to boys. I was actually debating about whether or not I was going to read this novel when I heard Jonathan was writing it, because homosexuality is an issue that hits really close to home for me. When I got the chance to read Langford’s novel, though, I felt like I should. I had to take a couple of emotional breaks in the middle, but I got through it, and I’m glad I did.

I have some limited experience when it comes to reading gay Mormon narratives. I used to follow a lot of MoHo (Mormon homosexual) blogs, I’ve read most of the personal essays on Affirmation’s website, I’ve listened to Melissa Leilani Larson’s play “Little Happy Secrets” and some talks by Carol Lynn Pearson, etc. I wouldn’t say my consumption of gay Mormon writing has been comprehensive by any means, but my education in this genre is probably higher than your average Mormon. One of the things that always concerned me when reading these narratives was the lack of any kind of well-balanced position from a faithful Latter-day Saint perspective. Very few of the voices I read said anything really helpful for Latter-day Saints who are same-sex attracted and want to keep their covenants. Most things written on this subject tend to say one of two things: (a) “Keeping your covenants isn’t possible, so give up now” or (b) “You have to keep your covenants, but we can’t really tell you how to do that in practical terms.” That’s what’s so remarkable to me about No Going Back–Jonathan Langford knows exactly how to address this issue in practical terms. Paul is hit with most of the things a Mormon kid struggling with homosexuality would be hit with nowadays: coming out to his best friend and his family, confessing sins to his bishop, becoming depressed, getting disowned, questioning his faith, and challenging popular notions about sexuality. The journeys that his mother and his bishop take in supporting Paul through everything are also particularly illuminating and helpful. I agree with Linda Hunter Adams that this novel should be required reading for Mormon religious leaders.

With all of the practical advice, though, what impressed me even more about the story was the charity and compassion with which Langford portrays his protagonist and his other characters. He does this by being honest. Jonathan doesn’t gloss over the difficult, emotionally dissonant position Paul is in. He doesn’t pretend like it’s a struggle that has easy answers. He doesn’t vilify the students in the Gay Straight Alliance at Paul’s school, and neither does he portray the youth in Paul’s ward as being saintly (both communities in Jonathan’s novel end up causing Paul a lot of grief). But Jonathan also respects Paul by not pretending that his struggle can’t on some level be resolved in a way that brings internal peace. He presents Paul with the option of finding joy in keeping his covenants with God. To even say that that’s a possibility is a pretty unpopular statement to make in modern mainstream American culture. To say that that’s an option but also show how uniquely difficult and messy that looks when practically applied is not a very popular thing to do in Mormon culture. I know that it’s kind of cliché to use the term “brave” when describing a work, but in the case of No Going Back, the word applies in a very literal way. It’s not easy to write about something so controversial in an honest way–in a way that will risk your reputation in your own tight-knit religious community as well as in the larger American community. That puts Jonathan in a position very similar to Paul Ficklin’s. Thanks for taking that risk, Jonathan, and giving Mormonism something that will help a lot of people who are struggling.

On Writing a Realistic Novel

I’m cross-posting this from my blog partly because I think it’s relevant to our site focus — and relevant to some other recent posts — and because I don’t think very many people even know yet that my blog exists. Thanks for your indulgence.

It’s interesting being the author of a novel about a topic that matters so much to a lot of readers. Sex and religion are topics that people care about passionately (if you’ll pardon the double pun), and when they intersect, there’s little that’s more potentially volatile.

That’s all to the good when people like my book. I’ve gotten some amazing comments from people, not just about how the book affected them as a story but about the positive good they think it can do in the world. I’d like to believe those comments are all true. But it can be especially unpleasant when people don’t like my book — especially those who share my religious beliefs.

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