The Great (Ex)Mormon Novel

Mormon Chick
Sorry, this image was just too funny to pass up, even though it doesn't have much too do with my post. Via The Good Atheist (http://www.thegoodatheist.net)

Apparently this summer there was a mini-brouhaha over the question of whether “The Great Mormon Novel” would ever be written, and if so who would write it. A non-Mormon writer named Wallace Stegner said he thought it hadn’t been written yet, and it would probably be written by someone who’d left the Church and then come halfway back to it.

I came across that mini-brouhaha in the course of looking for examples of literary novels about people leaving the Mormon Church. At one level, that’s what my current book in progress is about, and I thought it might be helpful, or at least interesting, to see what else has been done in that vein. It’s a drag to spend a lot of time writing a book that someone else has already written, so it’d be good to make sure I wasn’t doing that. I’ve looked high and low and haven’t turned up much.

A number of blogs, as well as Stegner himself, mentioned The Backslider, by Levi Peterson. I keep seeing it called things like “an unjustly neglected regional Western masterpiece.” I have it on order from Amazon and am looking forward to reading it, but I hear that it ends with the main character repenting and finding God, i.e. staying Mormon, like in The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, which is not what I’m looking for. What I’d really like to find is something like the (ex)Mormon equivalent of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus wrestling with Catholicism, lust, and philosophy, chasing truth, beauty, freedom, and art.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to write the ex-Mormon equivalent of Portrait of the Artist, because good as it was—gods of literature forgive me for this—I thought that book also had a lot of faults, both artistic faults and personality faults. Dialogue often confusing. Too much local Irish politics that doesn’t carry well into future times and other countries. Too much untranslated Latin. Too many boring parts left in. You could probably have shortened that sermon. And so on. And as for personality faults, you get glimpses every now and then through the fictional veil into the author’s psyche, and you have the sense he’s this sullen rebellious teen who’s not that great at interpersonal relationships, has a bit of a superiority complex, and needs to get a sense of humor. But I’d definitely want to read such a book, if it existed.

I’m surprised it doesn’t exist. You’d think it would be an obvious thing that someone out there would have wanted to write. I’m still wondering if maybe I’ve overlooked it—if any of you out there on the internet knows anything about it, please tell me. It seems like Mormons (and ex-Mormons?) write sci fi (Orson Scott Card of course, of whose books I’ve read maybe four or so and was a bit creeped out by that one where the girl has sex with a big snakey monster-type thing), vampire books (Stephenie Meyer), YA fiction involving ninjas (Natalie Whipple, over there on my blog roll), mysteries, and so on. They write inspirational books, and they write books that aspire to be literary, in which the characters stay Mormon. But they don’t write that many books about leaving the Church, at least not that see the light of publication and that have serious literary aspirations. I did come across a novel, Exmormon, by C.L. Hanson, that was published serially on a blog and then self-published via Lulu.com, and I’ve started reading that. [SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who are not faint-hearted about such things, there is a very funny bit about teenage Mormons having sex in an empty baptismal font.]

As for my book in progress, it would be nice if it turned out to be The Great Exmormon Novel, but mostly what I’m aiming for at the moment is for it to be done soon and for it not to suck. That’s my big New Year’s Resolution, I guess—to write A Nonsucky Literary Exmormon Novel.

21 thoughts on “The Great (Ex)Mormon Novel

  1. i truly believe that some of the greatest mormon novels and the greatest mormon movies, musicals, and plays will be written by non-mormons. as it stands, mormon authors/directors/playwrights don’t have an objective pen/lens.

    as for the great ex-mormon novel, there seems to be a serious shortage of ex-mormon writers who want to take a crack at it. which means, the ex-mormon novel writing world is your oyster! 😉

    when it’s finished, will you send me a copy?

  2. ha! you go. i’ll totally read it, promise. (re: the Regional Singles etc–i keep picking it up and wondering if i should buy it, and i think you’ve nudged me over!)

  3. Regarding the hunt for the great Mormon novel in your blog, let me know should you find it. Unfortunately, as one of my Mormon in-laws puts it, she doesn’t like unhappy stories. If that is representative of Mormon literary consumption, that precludes a lot of opportunity for dramatic tension and interesting story lines. (Well, we always have celibate teenage vampires to fall back on, I guess.) For a while, I thought filmmaker Richard Dutcher might get close to lifting Mormon cinema to an art form (especially “States of Grace”). We need more Dutcher-style figures in and out of the Church, willing to craft thought-provoking works of artistic merit that feature Mormonism as a backdrop or a main character. I’ve toyed with some short story themes that feature real-world, less-than-perfect Mormonism, but I’m much more an academic writer than a novelist. It’s a delicate art to keep the outsider interested and the insider unalienated. I’m not there in my writing yet. It would be nice to write something that showed how real people deal with real problems amid the backdrop of Mormonism with sometimes good but sometimes bad outcomes. We’re only human, and no religion can forfeit the tragedies and triumphs of life. The interesting thing is how the religion interplays with those tragedies and triumphs.

  4. On the whole question of Mormon/religious art, it makes me think of that thing Stephen Dedalus say in Portrait of the Artist – “The soul … has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets thrown at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” The question for the Mormon artist is how to fly by those nets while still retaining his or her identity as a Mormon, although I won’t go so far as to say it’s not possible …

    Chanson – I’ve added Main St. Plaza to my RSS feed so will probably be popping by from time to time!

    Josh – Of course you can read it when it’s done, but bear in mind, it might still suck despite my resolutions! 🙂

    Moonrat – omg omg, Moonrat, on my blog!!! We are honored by your lofty presence here.

    Boron – I completely agree re: the challenges & goals of writing that involves Mormonism & religion generally. I’m not sure if I’ll manage either the not alienating people part or the keeping people interested part, but you are right that it’s that balance one has to keep in mind. I definitely am not out to shock or offend anyone – I’m hugely sympathetic about the aspects of faith that comfort and sustain people.

  5. The great exmormon novel will be the great mormon novel. The literary story of Mormonism is leaving, and the literary mormon writer will almost necessarily be an exmormon. But Mormonism doesn’t grant us exmormons a cultural mormonism claim. It should, or we should reclaim it. I mean, how can being raised as a believing mormon not frame an exmormon’s worldview? I’m starting to think of myself as a mormon writer. I—like you (just admit it!)—intend to write the great mormon novel. It’s called The Door-to-Door Mormon Pest Control Salesman. (:

  6. Hi John! Thanks so much for joining the conversation. I’d love to read your Pest Control Salesman novel! The title alone is fantastic. Also, your website is very cool and I am jealous. Hopefully you won’t object if I put you on my blog roll? Let me know if you ever want to trade Great (Ex)Mormon novel critiques. (Sadly I think am coming to the conclusion that some experiments I undertook in writing my novel did not really work well in the end, and those part of the book would have to be completely redone in order for the whole thing not to suck, let alone for it to become the great Mormon novel. But that’s neither here nor there …)

    It’s interesting you say you’re starting to think of yourself as a mormon writer. I just can’t seem to do that, myself, although there is no doubt about the cultural influence on me. It just feels too much like thinking of myself as a Mormon, and every atom of my being leans away from that ….

  7. In July of this year, I published a novel which I think is path-breaking in various ways. The title is Blacktime Song by Rosalie Wolfe. It’s post-modern. Sometimes I wonder if I have published the first post-modern Mormon novel, and then I remember that Levi Peterson turned a cowboy into Jesus, so perhaps The Backslider is post-modern?
    Between you and me and the rest of the blogging world, I think he got that idea form me. There is no sense in which he stole it because I had already published my own Cowboy ( a bad guy) in the 1979/80 issue of “CoEvolution Quarterly” in a short story. But then later, in the 1980s, Levi and I corresponded a lot; I sent him a ms. to look at, and my Cowboy was a significant character in it. The last thing Levi would have thought is that I, a Catholic, would write a Mormon novel myself or turn my ms into one, which I did, having joined the Mormons in 1989. He introduced me to the literary crowd.
    I am not an ex-Mormon, but attend, and am on the Vestry of, an Episcopal church. I think of myself as a free agent. I’m a 6th generation Mormon, but grew up Episcopalian, so that makes me SORT OF LIKE AN EX-MORMON. But I assure the Episcopalians I’m still Mormon. I am. Mostly.
    I hope you will take a look at my novel. Maybe you could find a way to put a cowboy in your novel, and then we will have a trend going? I look forward to reading yours.
    My blog is anaccidentalmonk@blogspot.blog
    Marylee

  8. Marylee,

    Thanks so much for writing in! I will definitely take a look at your novel and blog. I’m actually in the exploratory phase now of possibly setting up a publishing imprint (Strange Violin Editions) that would focus on Mormon and former Mormon authors whose work falls outside the parameters of literary or religious orthodoxy. I know there is Zarahemla Books, but they are still geared to believing Mormons. My imprint would be willing to look at works by believing/current Mormons, but it would also take on the work of unbelievers and secular or “cultural” or former Mormons, etc. Maybe you’d have something that could fit in with that venture if I manage to get it off the ground eventually …?

  9. Have you ever heard of Tupelo Press? (www.tupelopress.org) They put out such wonderfully beautiful thin poetry books; I don’t know how they do it. It must feel like you’ve really accomplished something to make another writer’s poems look so great. You buy a subscription to the Press, and then are sent books on a regular basis. It makes me wish I was a poet just so I could work with them. I say all this thinking how huge it seems to attempt one’s own imprint. Your thinking is very brave!
    What I would like to see as an outcome from my one novel is a next novel with some of my characters being developed by another, younger writer. The character Meadow Wolfe Dent is particularly worthy of living on, and I can see her going all sorts of directions. Does she leave the Church or not? Does she meet her lost father or not? I tried to leave a lot open.
    She is an English professor at BYU. How do I know what it’s like to be one? I don’t. I can’t take her any farther. But now, at least, there is a female BYU professor in the canon of Mormon Lit.
    I’m so glad to have stumbled into your meaty blog! Marylee

  10. Have you ever heard of Daft Wooley, a book reviewer? I need permission from that person to use some good remarks from an Amazon book review I saw online. I need permission! I think a message could be left on Facebook (Marylee Mitcham)

  11. I stumbled upon your blog while trying to find out who Marylee Daniel Mitcham is. This straightens it out a little for me. Thanks! I am, by the way, a fourth-generation Mormon, active, and thoroughly interested in the philosophical and literary work of free-thinking people of whatever persuasion. I ordered “Blacktime Song by Rosalie Wolfe” after seeing the flier in “Dialogue.”

  12. I’m Marylee Daniel Mitcham. A few days ago I received a copy of the “Notre Dame Review”, current issue (Winter/Spring 2012/ $8 US). On page 262 it’s reviewed by one of the editors of the magazine. This is the first sentence of the review:”An utterly original novel focused on the possibility of spiritual healing, Blacktime Song By Rosalie Wolfe is also a meditation on the potential impossibility of narrative truth.” It goes on in a similar positive vein that makes me blush. Joseph, Mary and Jesus! I think I did break paths as a Mormon!

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