A couple weeks back Jerry Earl Johnston, a columnist for the Mormon Times, wrote about a conversation he once had with the novelist Wallace Stegner. Stegner suggested that Johnston try his hand at writing the Great Mormon Novel:
“I don’t have the scope or range to do it,” I said.
“You don’t have to make it large,” he said. “Just get things right.”
He said he thought the “Great Mormon Novel” would eventually be penned by someone who was born in the church, left the church, then made it “part way” back again. He seemed to think that would be a perfect vantage point. Being away from the church would give the writer perspective, while coming part way back would guarantee his empathy for the culture.
From there, Johnston speculates that there’s little chance that an important novel about Mormonism would be produced by somebody within the church—unlike, say, Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic who still felt free to explore the boundaries of her faith. This has stoked some crankiness among a couple of writers at A Motley Vision, a Mormon arts blog. William Morris makes the valid point that the Great American Novel in general is a “worn out cliche that barely anybody has the energy for anymore and for Mormons to take up the idea is for us to prove yet again our status as belated moderns. S.P. Bailey, meanwhile, notes out that Graham Greene and O’Connor “were serious Christians who refused to speak the language of their own flock. They told Christian stories in the terms of 20C fiction, and gained literary acceptance in the process.”
That’s another good point; you could combine Bailey’s and Morris’ assertions and also realize that O’Connor was free to write an excellent novel about sin and faith, Wise Blood, without feeling much pressure to write a Great Catholic Novel. What’s left undiscussed, though, is whether there’s any competition whatsoever for the title of a Great Mormon Novel, or even great Mormon novelist. Orson Scott Card is the only mainstream Mormon fiction writer I know of, but I’ve never read his work; some commenters on Morris’ post mention Brady Udall‘s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, a novel I haven’t looked at since I read it in 2001 and evokes no strong memories of greatness. Is there a novel that addresses Mormonism with thought and care?
Housekeeping note: I’ve been away for the past few days, recovering some of my very rusty French in Montreal. I had a very good time, but that meant a few things around here have gone neglected—most prominently the D.C.-area readings listings, which should be back to normal by the end of the week. Thanks for your patience.