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Things to Seek After
An Exploration of Latter-day Saint Literature
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Albert Camus said that, though the same idea has been echoed by countless authors throughout time. Fiction asks probing questions, nurtures empathetic thinking, encourages creative problem-solving, and reflects humanity. The act of creating fiction has been for much longer than even the act of writing; as soon as humans learned to communicate, they learned to tell stories.
But even a seasoned fiction reader (or writer) might question the merits of Latter-day Saint fiction. What comes to mind is probably moral or devotional fiction, an overly-saccharine, idealized representation of humanity, rather than a true reflection. Those stories do exist. But they are not the only ones. Anyone who approaches the genre with a willing heart and a seeking mind will find that the river of Latter-day Saint fiction runs deep, and the current is strong. New authors, books, contests, and other publications are popping up every day.
Where to start? On October 16, a new collection of twenty-three Mormon stories was published by Signature books. The Path and the Gate: Mormon Short Stories, is a cornucopia of Mormon literature, featuring stories that sweep the range of possibilities. Speculative, literary, funny, poignant—each story is a representation of some of the most influential voices of Mormon fiction today.
But why, one might ask, should I even bother to read Mormon short stories? To the avid reader, is there something special about Mormonism that would warrant seeking out a “Mormon literature”? To the believing Latter-day Saint, should one even spend their precious time reading fiction, something that is not “true”? And to post-Mormons, is there something “truthful” about the Mormon experience that is worthy of literary exploration?
To chip away at that long list of questions, the editors of The Path and the Gate, Andrew Hall and Robert Raleigh, along with several of the authors featured in the collection, share their experiences.
The Prompt: Traversing Nephi’s Path and Gate
Good stories, like a good life, can benefit from having a prompt: a roadmap with goals and potential rewards. We gave the twenty-three authors of this collection the following Book of Mormon passage and asked them to write “a Mormon story”:
The gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost. And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life . . . Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward . . . Ye shall have eternal life . . . This is the way; and there is none other (2 Nephi 31:17–21).
The authors responded with a wide range of tales; some realistic, others fantastic. Many directly relate to the steps of the “path”: a lifetime of faith in a patriarchal blessing’s unfulfilled promise, a survivor of violence calling a divided community to repentance, a baptism gone wrong, and spiritual gifts that extend far beyond Paul’s list. The characters stretch from wayward bishops and helpful home teachers to cyber-Seventies searching for lost sheep in the metaverse. Settings range all over the path, from a chapel hosting a child’s baptism to a heaven that turns out to be more difficult than expected. Some characters reject the path’s restrictions and expectations, while others can second the reported words of J. Golden Kimball, “I may not always walk the straight and narrow, but I sure in hell try to cross it as often as I can.”
Taken together, these stories display the vast expanse of experiences and opportunities in a universe encoded with diversity and free will. The existence of a “vastness,” even within the boundaries of a gospel “narrow path,” does not have to be seen as a contradiction.
It is a comfort to have a roadmap, but what really excites me is to see how that roadmap can lead to limitless destinations.
—Andrew Hall, editor
Is God a writer?
A Mormon is a trained student of fiction. When we believe in God (in the most traditional sense, at least) we believe in fiction—which is not to say that we believe in something false, but that we believe in something created. We believe in ourselves as constructed characters, we believe in our circumstances as complications meant to refine and reveal us. We believe in our lives as stories, not happenstances; we believe in plot, progression, tension, climax, resolution. We believe in meaningful epiphany, we believe in convergence upon a theme. This is the stuff of creative writing 101 and the stuff of testimony meeting.
Plenty of readers will regard a story with a driving, conspicuous plot with suspicion. It’s been done, it’s simplistic, it’s genre fiction, not literature. It’s unrealistic. But pick up any copy of the Liahona, tune into any missionary’s homecoming talk, and you’ll see how nimbly we plot our realities. It’s certainly not a skill limited to Mormons, but we do it deftly, in predictable ways that constitute a genre.
Is God a novice writer? Or does he know how to give an audience what they want? He may just know what genre sells. He may be so talented that his characters write the stories themselves.
—Alison Brimley, author of “It’s A Good Life”
Three Degrees of Literary Glory
For the sake of argument, allow me to crudely map three basic literary genres onto LDS theology’s vision of the afterlife: poetry is celestial (the glory of language distilled into its purest form), literary nonfiction is terrestrial (honest, hardworking, friendly—in other words, “honorable”), and fiction, well, you know where this is headed: fiction is telestial. It lies, makes stuff up. It trails dust and grime. It feeds, even thrives, on people’s sins and mistakes. It blurs the lines. It doesn’t repent.
It's not surprising that we Latter-Day Saints have a complicated relationship with fictional narratives. They have been used to harm us in the past. We’ve been accused of trying to pass them off as scripture. Brigham Young railed against novel-reading right up to the day he died, writing in one of his last letters to “avoid works of fiction; they engender mental carelessness and give a slipshod character to the workings of the mind.”
I have no real beef with Brigham. But if reading fiction is wrong, I guess I don’t want to be right. Whatever risks it entails, may I offer the following potential benefits of good fiction: it allows us to see parts of ourselves we’d rather deny or keep hidden; it helps us practice compassion with less judgment; it fires our narrative imaginations and so offers us, by proxy, a bigger slice of all life has to offer, the best and the worst (“what some folks would do,” as Flannery O’Connor’s neighbor explained)—and this thrills us, grabs us, gets under our skin, maybe even changes us in some small but meaningful way. When undertaken with care, it can refine our moral palate, amplifying our ability to see the holiness in every life, because every life has a story. Read high and read low, I say. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.
—Joe Plicka, author of “Natural Causes”
Jesus’s Parables and Fiction
“A certain man had two sons,” Jesus said to the chief priests and elders at the temple. “What man of you, having an hundred sheep,” he said to the publicans. “A sower went forth to sow,” he said to a multitude by the sea. No one asks about the identity of these individuals. Was this sower a real person? It’s possible, but we assume the Savior made up the story to teach an important truth. These parables, like all good fiction, are true and not true at the same time. That’s the paradox of fiction.
It’s been said that Latter-day Saints prefer “true stories” to fiction. I don’t think we’re different from any other demographic on this. The important distinction isn’t fiction versus nonfiction, but good fiction versus bad. Good fiction meets readers where they are and takes them up from there. Because people are so different, this calls forth many kinds of good fiction. Good fiction is familiar but surprising, sad but funny, well-written but not vainglorious. It entertains as it challenges. It reveals without preaching. When fiction is truly good, no one cares if it’s “true.”
Jesus says, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” and we want to know more. We want to hear the whole story. In the end, that’s all that matters.
—Jack Harrell, author of “The Mathematics of God”
Grandma Gives Up On Fiction
One of the most impactful books I’ve ever read was Curtis Taylor’s The Invisible Saint—a work of Mormon lit in which I saw myself cut with surgical accuracy. I own the copy I own because my grandmother—my childhood source of Latter-day Saint-themed books—hated it. Hated it with such ferocity I have to wonder if it was the trigger that caused this lifelong lover of fiction to swear it off. She would watch us kids reading Pippy Longstocking the way someone on a sugar fast might watch kids, nine o’clock on Halloween. She loved fiction. But somehow, late in life, she decided the thing to do was give it up.
Maybe she was right. Maybe God was pulling an Abraham on her. Or maybe impending death made her take more seriously those Brighamites declaring, as he did, that you’d be better off milking cows, that if you “read on, and get the spirit of lying in which they are written, [you’ll then] lie on until you find yourselves in hell.” Cheerful stuff, Brother Brigham!
But oh, the loss to her! Dying without her greatest friend, the novel. Where was her ram in the thicket? Her third comforter?’
—Theric Jepson, author of “The Curse”
Trying To Be Like Jesus
The central belief of Latter-Day Saints is that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus experienced all the sins, sorrows, shame, and sicknesses of humanity from the dawn of time to the end of days, personally. This, the central act of salvation, absolutely necessary to make the entire creation of the universe fulfill its purpose, was an ultimate expression of empathy. Latter-day Saints are called to follow the example of Jesus Christ, and fiction that lets us enter into the hearts and minds of others to endure things we may never personally experience is one of the greatest tools available for drawing near to that salvific garden moment. I believe that fiction can help us expand beyond ourselves and open our hearts and minds in a way that nothing else can. It would be foolishness to close ourselves off from that.
—Mattathias Singh, author of “Missionary Weekly Report for 28 March–3 April, Mumbai First Branch, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”
From a literary point of view, I think Mormonism is tricky to translate. We’re eccentric; we have a lot of inside jokes and private lingo that leaves people scratching their heads. We’ve got a lot of cultural baggage to demystify: stories that have been told about us and we’ve told ourselves that need reimagining. But how to communicate two centuries of rich peculiarities—and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise: Mormons are strange in the best way possible—to the broader culture? That’s the trick.
I think Mormons who write should be like the Wayward Sisters in Macbeth (minus the prophetic impulse): weirdos on the fringe with a foot in two worlds translating the messiness of what they see for those beyond the reach of their own voice.
—Ryan Habermeyer, author of “We’re Going to Need a Second Baptism”
I’ve often felt that LDS authors have to take more risks. I once had a conversation with Pulitzer-prize-winning author Jennifer Egan. Her writing takes risks, both formally and thematically. Her characters are addicts and kleptomaniacs, musicians and groupies. People who read her think: man, you must have led a pretty wild life! No, she told me. My life is quiet, simple. Maybe too traditional. But I write to understand other people. To play “what if?” To see what would have happened had I taken another path.
This, for me, is the power of what we do as writers. Some LDS readers have criticized my writing—too much swearing! All the sex! But what they don’t understand is that my words and characters are efforts to understand others, knowing that I can never entirely get there. An LDS artist's life, for me, is a lifelong exercise in empathy. Also the most profound kind of introspection, to explore the branching paths that a life might take.
—Eric Freeze, author of “Holy Ghost Power”
Still Praying Through My Writing
For my part, I’m less and less concerned with whether the truth comes through autobiography or what might be called truthful fiction. I’m hunkered down just now in the last month of a Florida summer (give or take a few months) and reading Augustine, his Confessions —
And now, Lord, it is in writing that I confess to you.
That sacrament of word-making, that implicit faith in the worthiness of language to convey awe . . . And thinking, too, how Marilynne Robinson once described writing as a state of deep, careful attention akin to prayer. I like that. It means I’m still a praying man.
Once, my seven-year-old came to visit from Arizona where he lives with his mother and the rest of his “Arizona family,” as we call it. It was warm that night, pleasantly warm—a wheel of stars overhead, the sweetness in the air. “Why did Jesus make this night so beautiful?” Liam asked me, and I said something between “Huh” and “Hmmm.” Then I said, “It is beautiful, isn’t it, love?”
We were using different words, but then again, we weren’t.
—Ryan McIlvain, author of “1A: Literary Pals; or How Not to Double Down”
Liahona Literature: Using Our Inner Compasses
The historian Richard Poll, in a talk that was later adapted into an article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, cleverly drew from Book of Mormon stories to create two contrasting metaphors for how to be a Latter-day Saint: the Liahona and the Iron Rod. The Liahona was a type of compass designed to lead people across a landscape. Though it points in a general direction, it does not dictate an exact path. The Iron Rod, on the other hand, is a very rigid, straight guide. To use it, one must only cling to it and move in the right direction. One needn’t pay attention to, or even see, where one is going. Poll proposed that Mormons tend to be drawn towards one or the other end of this spectrum.
I propose that the group of amazing writers in this collection strongly represents the Liahona side of Poll’s spectrum. These are writers who recognize the danger of Iron Rod fiction: which is to say, fiction dominated by overt didacticism. I would offer this collection as evidence that Mormonism has left its imprint on the “world,” not just as a religion but as a cultural force, and that the directions of its cultural expressions, including but not limited to literature, have also extended outwards in positive, exciting ways. They embody the Liahona metaphor, showing us how to use our own inner compasses to find our way through the modern landscape.
—Robert Raleigh, editor
Andrew Hall is an Associate Professor of East Asian History at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan. He co-edited A Craving for Beauty: The Collected Writings of Maurine Whipple (BCC Press, 2020) and is the Literature Book Review Editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. In his academic life, he writes on Japanese colonial education in China and Korea, including editing and contributing to Education, Language, and the Intellectual Underpinnings of Modern Korea (Brill, 2022).
Robert Raleigh edited In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions, another short fiction collection published by Signature Books, and recently had an essay published in Revising Eternity: 27 Latter-day Saint Men Reflect on Modern Relationships. He is currently working on a documentary about the Indian Student Placement Program. He lives with his wife and kids and many animals in Happy Valley, Utah.