Writing Mormon Literature for a non-Mormon Audience

It’s always interesting seeing what non-Mormon readers of No Going Back have to say about the book. For one thing, it includes an awful lot of Mormon detail. Since I never imagined that it might have a large non-Mormon audience, I didn’t go to any trouble to explain that detail. No real accommodations for any readers who don’t happen to be Mormon.

At a more basic level, I’ve wondered if non-Mormons would even be able to identify with the characters and their motivations. Sure, there’s a lot of universality to the basic conflicts in the book. Every teenager struggles with issues of identity and peer pressure. Every married couple struggles with issues of communication and priorities. But that doesn’t necessarily make the particulars of one person’s conflict easy to identify with on the part of readers whose lives are very different.

I particularly wonder if there’s much possibility for non-Mormon readers to identify with the main characters in No Going Back in their Mormonness. Granted, there are other conservative churches that reject homosexuality as a lifestyle, and even some that embrace the delicate balance of viewing the attraction itself as not a sign of sin but rather as a trial that must be resisted. It’s my perception, however, that being a Mormon is rather different on an experiential level from being a Baptist or a Catholic or what have you. Certainly on a theological level the reasons why Mormons reject homosexuality are quite different, so far as I know, from the reasons given by any other religion — because we’re the only ones who believe that (a) it is human destiny (if we accept it) to become like God, and (b) that the definition of God includes, and is indeed partly defined by, heterosexual marriage. That’s far more than just rhetoric for Mormon teenagers; it’s a fundamental part of how we view ourselves. One of the first songs we learn in childhood starts, “I am a child of God” — and for us, that’s literal.

So I’m always interested to read or hear what non-Mormon readers think about No Going Back, and whether it makes sense to them. All of which made me particularly interested in a review that showed up earlier this week on Amazon.com by Amos Lassen, a veteran Amazon reviewer (almost 3,000 reviews!) who apparently tries to read as many GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) titles as he can and who also has strong interests in religion, but not specifically LDS religion. Awarding No Going Back 5 stars (out of 5), he writes in part:

“Everyone tries to understand [Paul’s] feelings and provide him with love and support but he remains somewhat in pain…. He doesn’t try to cure himself but he feels he needs the support of others but he does not want to come out and he knows that gay sex is forbidden by his religion. He wants a life of virtue and to be accepted for the person that he is…. The struggle between desire and faith seems to always be with us and the author has us examine ourselves closely so that we can be more understanding and accepting of others. The book is not an attack on gay people and is just the story of a boy who understands that he has the right to make the choice about how he wants to live his life.”

After reading Lassen’s review, I emailed him to thank him for his thoughts and find out more about how he’d become aware of my book. (Answer: browsing Amazon.) He mentioned that he teaches a class in gay literature at the college level, and is thinking of adding No Going Back. I’d love to find out what his students think.

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It’s a perpetual question among many Mormon writers just how we as Mormons can effectively present Mormon experience to a national audience. Examples that are frequently held up for emulation from other traditions include the novel The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, depicting the coming-of-age of a Jewish boy during World War II, and the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I freely admit that No Going Back isn’t a terribly good candidate for that. It’s got too many other things going on to really be a good depiction of Mormon experience for non-Mormons — including the gay issue, which kind of overshadows everything else. But the positive responses I’ve received from a few non-Mormon readers — including the one from Amos Lassen, and one from a non-LDS retired literature professor published in my Wisconsin hometown newspaper, and even the surprisingly positive response I got from a vehemently atheist gay British acquaintance — make me wonder if maybe the target isn’t a little closer than I’d thought.

Looking at what I’ve seen of Mormon attempts to portray our experience in literature intended for Mormons and non-Mormons both, I find that a lot of it suffers from one or more of the following problems:

– Eccentricity — showing characters that would be oddballs in any Mormon ward (or anywhere else, for that matter)

– Over-the-top slapstick

– Whitewashing

– Focus on superficial elements of Mormon experience

– Attempts to convert

All of these have their place, but they get in the way of helping non-Mormon readers come away from the reading with a better understanding of what it means to be Mormon.

Some characteristics of a Mormon literature that would speak meaningfully to non-Mormons are obvious inverses of the problems I listed above. Such a literature would present its Mormon characters as being fundamentally ordinary, in both good and bad ways. It would show them as flawed, but sincere in their beliefs. It would take the Mormon context seriously enough not to exaggerate or turn things into a joke. It would not shy away from showing some of the deeper aspects of what it means to be a believing Mormon — the spiritual experiences and such —but would do it in a way that invites readers to accept those elements as part of understanding the character, rather than demanding that readers make a decision as to whether they personally accept Mormonism as true. It may be that such a literature will be more successful if it doesn’t attempt to explain elements of Mormon culture, but simply puts the reader into the middle of it.

Certainly we’ve seen some examples of this. Personally I think the first two Dutcher movies (God’s Army and Brigham City) did this quite well. (I haven’t watched States of Grace and so don’t have an opinion on it.) And Orson Scott Card’s Lost Boys is, bar none, the best depiction of modern suburban Mormonism that I’ve yet read, though I suspect the supernatural element in it functions kind of like homosexuality in No Going Back to distract non-Mormon readers from the Mormonness of it all.

But I think there’s a lot more that can be done. And reading the responses of non-Mormon readers to No Going Back gives me, I think, a clearer idea of what that might involve.

Note: This entry was cross-posted at A Motley Vision Mormon Arts and Culture blog, where it’s received some nice comments on the general question of writing about the Mormon experience for a non-Mormon audience.

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