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A Foray into Fiction
Have we ever even had any “capital-L Literary” Mormon fiction on the national stage?
This is the question my younger brother asked me as we drove home from the airport on a Sunday morning, drowsy from a 6:00 am flight and a little loopy from low-blood sugar. It took a few pulls of the rip-cord to restart my brain. I think my first answer was, “Huh?”
“You know,” my brother added, “like Vonnuegut. Or Catch-22.”
Ah, yes, that’s what he meant. My brother had recently become obsessed with postmodern American literature. He was asking about that. Was there any Mormon fiction that could be called a “Classic,” packed away into widely-accepted boxes like “Romanticism” or “Naturalism”? Anything worthy of being added to the western literary canon, to be studied in schools and roundly loathed by high school students for generations to come?
Of course, Mormon fiction—written by, for, or about Latter-day Saints—is not a new field of literature. Since the foundation of the relatively-young religion, there has been an emphasis placed on artistic expression of all kinds. There is so much Mormon literature to study that Eugene England famously divided it into four unique categories: Foundations, Home Literature, The Lost Generation, and Faithful Realism. And since England’s death, the world of Mormon literature has continued to grow and expand in a category that England referred to as “new Mormon fiction.” Authors like Orson Scott Card, David Farland, Brandon Mull, Ally Condie, Shannon Hale, and Brandon Sanderson have garnered so much attention on the world stage that the New York Times recently ran two simultaneous articles about the Latter-day Saint hotbed of Young Adult and Fantasy/Science Fiction authors. Contemporary Latter-day Saint authors who make the leap from “Faithful Realism” into, perhaps, “Faithful Surrealism.” Writers who are rooted in a life of faith and spiritualism, and from that strong, grounded base, are unafraid to reach into the world of the weird, the fantastic, and the otherworldly. Or maybe the argument could be made that it is the faith itself that primes the pump for such explorations. The Latter-day Saint teachings of miracles and angels and prophets and eternities might just open minds to a higher level of enchantment than is usually encountered in this world.
So when my brother asked me about “Capital-L Mormon Literature,” I wasn’t quite sure where to start. He wanted to know if there was any Mormon literature that had been widely adopted into the western canon. He was asking me if the mysterious man standing behind the curtain could ever accept Mormon literature into the very exclusive (and white-male-dominated) club that we call “the Classics.” But I think a more useful–and more interesting–question is, has Latter-day Saint culture produced any literature that has merit and value? Any literature that asks hard questions and reflects humanity? That makes us weep and laugh and sigh and tremble, and marvel at the expansive nature of the human soul, how it could possibly be capable of holding such profound darkness and such brilliant light at the same time? Literature that leaves us wondering how so much of the divine could possibly be contained inside each and every person standing in line at the grocery store?
And the answer to those questions is: yes.
Creation is a fundamental aspect of Latter-day Saint teachings. We are called to do it. Some of us can’t help but do it. And even if those creations haven’t yet garnered attention on an international stage, they still serve a purpose. As Eugene England wrote in his culminating essay on Mormon literature:
An increasing number of faithful Latter-day Saints are developing the skill and courage to write well in all the genres. The challenge they face—which must be faced as well by their readers, both Mormons and others—is to find ways to reach out to and unite the extremes of experience . . . and to accept the role of art in assisting in the central human purpose Brigham Young described: “We cannot obtain eternal life unless we actually know and comprehend by our experience the principle of good and the principle of evil, the light and the darkness, truth, virtue, and holiness, also vice, wickedness, and corruption.” To gain such comprehension, we must be willing, both as writers and readers, to do as Joseph Smith did—and called us to do: “Thy mind, . . . if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity.”
The world of Latter-day Saint literature is extensive and diverse—and still growing. We at Wayfare want to do our part to encourage that growth, and to draw attention to the breadth and depth of literature that currently exists. To that end, and in honor of the holiday season, we will be sharing some spooky Mormon fiction this month. We hope you enjoy. This small offering represents just a taste of what is available, and hopefully whets your appetite for the buffet that awaits.
Jeanine Bee is a writer of short fiction and creative non-fiction, and the fiction editor for Wayfare Magazine. Her works have been featured in Irreantum, Dialogue, and the Mormon Lit Blitz.