Salt and Seed
Oxymormon: LDS Literary Fiction and the Problem of Genre
Mormon culture values the superior performance of shared forms over originality of artistic vision. I'm using "performance" here to mean an affirmative partaking of a traditionally-valued form, without irony or subversion. Most Mormon contributions to American popular culture fall firmly within this category. Think about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the multitude of Mormon contestants in square reality show formats like "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance," or Mormons' over-representation in the modern craft and design communities. These phenomena share the same essential structure: the performers inspire and delight their audience through the superior rendition of familiar forms and formats. The prevalence of Mormon genre fiction, I'm suggesting, should be understood in the same spirit.
For some Mormons, the relative popularity of Mormon genre fiction over serious literary fiction is reason for embarrassment or despair. For others it's merely an accident of the structure of the Mormon publishing industry. I suggest that it is neither an embarrassment nor an accident, but a natural extension of the communitarian ethos and the homely ritual practices of Mormonism. The experience of powerful identification and unity with the faith community is central to our religious practice, and we love to build (occasionally kludgy) institutions, programs, domestic rituals, and community events that facilitate that experience: think of Family Home Evening, road shows, testimony meetings, Girls Camp, firesides. To read a novel in which a familiar narrative structure is affirmed and shared among readers and between author and audience is to reproduce that powerful experience of communal identification and unity within a discursive institution.
What this means is that most Mormon literature can be defined right out of the category of "literary fiction," which privileges individual vision, subversive irony, and an alienated perspective. For the Mormon writer, by contrast, it is precisely the accessibility of the genres that makes them successful cultural figures for an affirmative performance. The value of the approach I've been outlining—that is, a critical attention to the Mormon relationship to artistic form—is that it allows us to understand these writers and interpret their work as meaningful in a Mormon context, rather than merely inert, or mere assimilation, or, worse, embarrassingly low-brow. Mormon writers embrace received forms through the superior performance of the same to affirm a cultural ethos of communal partaking. And it certainly doesn't hurt if the love interest takes off his shirt now and then.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.