Non-Mormon Reactions to No Going Back

I’ve had another positive review of No Going Back from a non-LDS reviewer. Heather at Buried in Books wrote in part:

I was immediately gripped by the story of Paul a sophomore in high school who knows he is gay, but also knows it goes against everything his religion teaches…. What religion? Mormon which I knew nothing about and still know only a very small part of it. But Paul is very proud of his faith and very faithful and wants to stay true to his vows to the church…. The things [Paul] reveals to [Richard, his bishop], feels comfortable telling him, feels like he has to tell him, and the way the Bishop helps him, I have to say, I’d lie like hell. Nope nothing to confess here. I’ve been very good. Never done one thing wrong. Don’t need any help at all. Especially when I’d have to face him every time I went to my best friend’s house. My sex life in my high school years was definitely my own business and I’d never have discussed it with the minister at church. It’s a very different religion than what I grew up with…. This book is not filled with religious doctrine and preachy. Not at all! I would have returned it and said I just couldn’t read it. I have my own personal religious beliefs and I’m still trying to work a few things out so anything very preachy is a big turn off to me…. Towards the last few pages, the tissue box came out. I tried to be quiet because it was 2:00 am and everyone was sleeping, except me the insomniac or reader with a great book. Mr. Langford develops the characters so well, you feel exactly what they’re feeling and at the end you can’t help but cry with Paul and the bishop as he talks to Paul from his heart. It was gut wrenching, bittersweet, you don’t want that to be the solution…. It is not the type of book I’d usually go for, but I found so much to recommend about the book. The extremely well developed characters, their growth, the various relationships and how they grow, and how faith, in something bigger than yourself, can carry you through, guide you, help you make decisions, shape you, for better or worse. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a deep faith in anything, like Paul. I hope I do someday.

I really couldn’t hope for a better response than that — particularly from a reader who doesn’t share Paul’s faith (and mine).

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Back last March, I wrote about the question of writing about Mormon experiences for a non-Mormon audience, and more specifically about whether No Going Back was well-suited for readers from a non-Mormon background. Since then I’ve accumulated a much broader set of responses. Part of that was deliberate, as I’ve targeted non-LDS book bloggers with a specific request to address the question of how approachable the book is for non-LDS readers.

Results so far have been mixed. I thought about listing here all the different non-LDS responses I’ve received, but I don’t really know that it would be all that interesting. Besides, there’s already a list of published reviews by non-LDS reviewers on the Reviews page over at my website (just click on the Reviews, interviews, etc. link in the left-hand menu). Instead, I thought I’d share a few insights and specific reactions that have been particularly thought-provoking for me.

One of the things that worried me about writing for a non-Mormon audience was that I wasn’t sure non-Mormons would care about Paul and his dilemma. How can you feel caught up in the contradiction of wanting to be faithful while also experiencing homosexual feelings if you as a reader don’t share that faith? As it turns out, this appears not to have been a barrier for a substantial number of readers (though I’m sure there’s also been some self-selection of readers who aren’t engaged and therefore never started, finished, and/or commented on the book). In order to appreciate the story, all that seems to be required is an engagement with Paul, who seems to be a character many Mormons and non-Mormons both find easy to like.

No Going Back, of course, is more than a novel with an LDS setting. Mormon belief and practice form a substantial part of the basic conflict of the story. To a great extent, it’s a story that’s about religion and religious belief. That being the case, I’ve been very pleased that some readers for whom religious belief is not a powerful part of their lives — including several atheists of my acquaintance — nonetheless were able to sympathize with Paul and his situation. I’m sure they felt his situation would be easier if he could simply abandon his faith, but they seemed willing to accept that for him, this was not a choice that he wanted to embrace. Interestingly, I haven’t yet had many readers from other religions that condemn homosexuality, so I have no idea how well the story might resonate for them. It may be that Mormonism is sufficiently alien from other conservative Christian churches that despite the apparently similar dilemma faced by youth in such churches, the specifics wouldn’t translate very well.

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There are some general patterns among how readers (Mormons and non-Mormons alike) react to the ending of No Going Back: whether they find it depressing or uplifting, positive, negative, realistic or not. Young gay Mormon readers (e.g., in their 20s) tend to find the ending realistic but depressing. (I’m using the term “gay” here to indicate those who self-identify as experiencing same-gender attraction, regardless of lifestyle choice.) Older gay Mormon readers who are still active in the Church tend to find the ending realistic but not depressing. Gay Mormon readers who have left the Church are in some cases angered by the ending, but more commonly (I’ve found) consider it realistic, even if they think it’s unlikely that Paul will be able to sustain his choices over the long term. They also tend to like the story because it depicts so well a dilemma they have experienced, even if they feel they have moved beyond it by embracing their gay identity and leaving behind their Mormon faith.

Readers who see the Church’s counsel as a viable option for gays (i.e., stick it out in this life, either by remaining celibate or by marrying heterosexually if that seems like a viable possibility, and hope for change in the next) often find the ending inspirational, which is largely as I had intended it to be for the book’s central audience of believing (non-gay) Mormons. Understandably, most such readers are themselves believing Mormons, though some readers (like Heather above) find Paul’s ability to choose the path that seems right for him to be inspirational even without sharing his faith. More often, non-Mormon readers, including those who like the book, express sympathy for Paul and his situation at the end of the story. For example, Mary Ann Grossman, book review editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote: “Your heart will break for Paul, the teen told by church leaders that it’s OK to be gay as long as he doesn’t act on it.” Again quoting Heather from Buried in Books, “[Y]ou don’t want that to be the solution.” Such readers, I believe, are likely to come out of the book with a strong sense of sympathy for young gay Mormons, but probably won’t be persuaded in favor of the LDS position on homosexuality (which was not part of my goal).

I’ve had a few highly negative reviews from non-Mormon and ex-Mormon readers (gay and not) who appeared to dislike the LDS Church so intensely that they couldn’t tolerate a book that that depicted it in a positive or even a neutral light. In some of these cases, homosexuality appears to have been their hot-button issue. In other cases, their anti-Mormon feelings appeared to be more generalized. It may be that the better a story like mine succeeded at creating sympathetic and thoroughly human characters who were also sincere about their LDS faith (and not disillusioned about it by the end), the less such readers would like it.

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One concern that was raised by some LDS and former-LDS readers was whether the book would be easily understandable for readers without a Mormon background. It’s true that the story contains a lot of specifically Mormon material, from teachers quorums (for 14- and 15-year-olds) to lay bishops, patriarchal blessings, and even the doctrine that God is married and that humans can become like him someday. Most non-Mormon readers, however, didn’t mention this as a problem. Offhand, I can recall only one non-Mormon reader who found some of the Mormon references confusing. Several other readers, in contrast, specifically made comments such as the following: “Even not being a Mormon, I did not have a hard time reading this at all” (Laura Chamberlain, Words from the Tampa Bookworm).

It may be, again, that there was some self-screening from readers who would have found immersion in Mormon culture disconcerting. It’s also true that although the book mostly didn’t include long explanations of things Mormon, I did try to include cues that would help orient readers who might be unfamiliar with specific important references. For example, prior to Paul receiving his patriarchal blessing, I included a short explanation (“A patriarchal blessing was supposed to give direction for a person’s life. Paul thought he could use that right now”), and then showed Paul’s mother Barbara remembering receiving her patriarchal blessing as a girl and then rereading it as an adult. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, I think it’s that readers are generally willing to accept even a heavy dosage of Mormon-specific references if they are provided some contextual support — and if the references occur in the context of a story they care about.

For some readers, part of the attraction appears to have been learning about Mormonism as a lifestyle and system of beliefs different from their own. Certainly that’s one of the main attractions of many different types of literature, from romances set in exotic settings to stories of the American South written by William Faulkner. Again, if there’s a lesson to be learned, I think it is that Mormon cultural elements can be an added attraction for readers who are already engaged by the story and the characters. I doubt, however, that Mormonism is sufficiently exotic to form the “main attraction” for a story aimed at mainstream American readers — unlike, say, Mormon-offshoot polygamist communities. We’re just too boringly normal.

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Proselyting for LDS beliefs was never any part of my goal for No Going Back, though I also didn’t attempt to hide LDS beliefs, whether in reference to homosexuality, the Book of Mormon, belief in modern prophets, dating standards, or the eternal destiny of humans. It’s possible that non-Mormons reading this might realize that the LDS position on homosexuality is not based on simple homophobia, but rather relates to deeply held doctrinal beliefs — but that also wasn’t really a major focus for the novel.

Of all the comments I’ve received about No Going Back, one of my favorites was from an atheist friend of the family who said the book made it really clear that being a Mormon isn’t just a Sunday religion, but that it impacts a person’s entire life. Another was from a reader, parent of one of my son’s friends who has had LDS family members but who is not LDS herself, who particularly liked the way No Going Back showed Mormons as normal, ordinary people — in contrast to venues like Big Love that she felt perpetuated misconceptions and stereotypes.

I’m not entirely sure why these are my favorites. Maybe it’s because they suggest that I succeeded in the thing I would have hoped for most in writing for non-Mormons: that is, to communicate a sense of what it feels like to be a believing Mormon, in a way that makes that seem wholly realistic and human. A more modest goal than converting the nations, perhaps, but also (I believe) one more suited to the possibilities of human fiction, and in particular to the story I was trying to tell.

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2 Responses to “Non-Mormon Reactions to No Going Back”

  1. Mary Walling says:

    I never get over how impressed I am with your thoughts and reviews. They make me stop, think, understand and appreciate more each day why I am a member of the church. I loved No Going Back and all it’s characters. Thanks for going out on the preverbial limb and writing it.
    Mary in Naples

  2. Rex says:

    What a great review!

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