Many consider The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene to be the quintessential Great Catholic Novel: a book written about faith and doubt with great courage. So far, no one has written what one would call “The Great Mormon Novel.”
What are the hallmarks of a great novel?
- Plot. There must be conflict. There has to be a climax and a denouement.
- Character development. Characters have to be full human beings, warts and all, with flaws and redeeming qualities. Protagonists must change over the course of the novel.
- Themes. A great novel will speak to the range of human experience through themes that transcend time and culture.
- Courage. An author of a great novel has to be willing to speak unsavory truths, to look into the abyss, and to expose vulnerabilities (both his/her own and those of his/her subject).
- Novelty. “There’s nothing new under the sun” as it says in Ecclesiastes, but a great novel has to feel fresh anyway. It has to say something better than those who have said it before.
What prevents a novel from being great (aside from just bad writing)?
- Censorship. The opposite of courage (in writing) is censorship, whether it is self-censorship or by others. Having one eye on public relations creates a casualty of courage. Without courage, topics like sexuality, violence, and even the topic of censorship itself can be omitted or glossed over. This can result in a work that is toothless, gutless and crotchless.
- Superficiality. Creating inauthentic or two-dimensional characters, or focusing solely on the characters or themes with weak plot development can result in a work that lacks depth. Creating depth requires having depth; in some ways, Mormons spend our lives trying to avoid depth. We know there is a “dark side” to humanity, and we stay as far away from it as we can. Writers have to write about what they know, and if you don’t know the depths of your soul, it’s hard to write about that convincingly.
The “great Mormon novel” has the added difficulty of subject matter. If you are writing a Mormon novel (in the sense that Graham Greene wrote Catholic novels or Chaim Potok wrote Jewish novels), your novel will have Mormon themes. If your novel is to have depth, it must cover the range of human experience, both the good and the bad. And in so doing, there will likely be elements that are both loyal and disloyal to the church. Those elements of disloyalty (even characters with internal conflict) can cause self-censorship as well as censorship (discouragement) by the group.
So, let’s talk about Twilight. Twilight is an enormously popular book with a specific target audience. It is a huge success by most measures. I don’t think anyone would credibly argue it has a permanent place in the canon of literature, so it is not really up for consideration as “The Great Mormon Novel.” But how Mormon is it? This is a question being debated here. A few opposing viewpoints that were shared (you can read the comments in their entirety in the link):
Andrew Oh-Willeke said: “One way to read the story allegorically is that the Cullen’s (the good vampire family, if you weren’t paying attention) are the Mormons. They, given the free will to choose between right and wrong in this world have chosen virtue and abstinance despite temptation, in their diet, and in how they choose to love. . . There are also strong associations in the books between vampires and angels, mirroring the importance of angels in LDS scripture. The vampires are described as seraphic, and glimmer in the sun. They aren’t necessarily angels themselves, but are close to angels. [I]t is a story full of LDS dog whistles.”
Mormon Soprano retorts: “I submit to you that Meyer’s books are the antithesis of Mormon doctrine, and should be disturbing to any faithful active member. . . Just reading these books causes erotic thoughts and feelings because of what the characters are doing to and with each other. . . Stephanie Meyer’s books are such a big hit with “the world” because they are titilating. . . The tragedy to me is that Meyer is continually referred to as “Mormon” and “LDS”, and her books have been given a free pass to sell at Deseret Book and Segull Book stores. Please wake up out of your vampire trances my Twilight friends! There is nothing “lovely or praiseworthy or of good report” to be found in these books or movie. Faithful latter-day Saints need to send a message that lowered standards are never acceptable. My advice is to Stop buying these books, send a letter of complaint to LDS booksellers, and refuse to spend your money in support of this new movie!
These comments go to the heart of the difficulty for Mormon authors. A Mormon’s work will be dissected for Mormon content and either praised or villified on that basis. While Andrew’s argument states that the books are a Mormon allegory, Mormon Soprano finds the message in conflict with Mormon teachings. So, what’s the answer?
Can LDS authors write books that contradict Mormon teachings? Every Mormon author has to grapple with that question, and it is at heart a question of censorship, either by the group or by the author him/herself. Authors who fear reprisal for their words, even their fictional words, will never write “The Great Mormon Novel.”