4.04.2011

Here there be Mormons

Christian author Mike Duran posted a piece on the sudden proliferation of Mormon novelists, asking what Protestant and Catholic authors can learn from the Mormons' success. This topic has fascinated me for some time, and since I discovered Mr. Duran's intriguing piece too late to get in on real discussion in the comments—and I actually have a fair bit to say—I'm responding here.

First, a list: Orson Scott Card, Shannon Hale, Stephenie Meyer, Aprilynne Pike, Ally Condie, Kiersten White, Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull. Eight published members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, off the top of my head. I'm impressed. They're doing something right, and I'm all for it.

Second, almost all of my favorite authors are religious. Mormons Card and Hale are joined by the Catholic G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, the Anglicans C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen and Robert Jordan, and the Scottish Episcopalian J.K. Rowling. If you go down my list of Fifty Favorite Books, you'll find more. There are multiple reasons for this, some of which I may get into below—but that's not the point of the day.

Mr. Duran asks three excellent questions that got me thinking:
  1. Does the unity of the Mormon church provide a better support system for aspiring young writers?
  2. Is the Mormon faith of mainstream authors recognized and celebrated where traditionally Christian authors' faith goes unnoticed if they (like the Baptist John Grisham and the Catholic Nicholas Sparks, for instance) write for the mainstream?
  3. What can Christians learn from the Mormons' success?
Disclaimer: I'm not a Mormon, and what little I know about the LDS I've learned out of interest in and appreciation for Card, Hale and Meyer. (I haven't yet read most of the others.) While I disagree with aspects of LDS theology, I respect the church, its people, and its values. If I say anything offensive, it will certainly happen unintentionally.

Now, onto Mike Duran's points:

Does the unity of the Mormon church provide a better support system for aspiring young writers?

This question arises from the fact that Brigham Young University offers classes and workshops specifically to aid and encourage aspiring writers. Props to them for that. Mr. Duran notes this and follows it with the comment that "As a Christian author, I wonder if our community is far too fractured and divided to have such a concentrated influence on aspiring authors."

Where the key fracture lies, in my opinion, is outside the lines that mark denominations. Catholic union and division is a complex question, but we've had great writers: Tolkien, Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor. They wrote honestly, depicting life as they saw it, and that was good enough. You can still do that and be Catholic, but with the fracture between people who think the church needs to get with the twenty-first century and the people who think the twenty-first century needs to leave well enough alone, there's not a lot of unity for building up new artists. We look to the secular schools or the evangelicals.

Protestants have done differently, with evangelicals leading the way in making a very specific choice to have their own publishing industry. Christian music and the Christian Booksellers' Association rarely cross over into the mainstream precisely because they target an audience that has rejected the mainstream. That's the key point, right there. And young Protestants are often discouraged from getting involved in the mainstream rather than the Christian categories. Secular romantic music and secular novels—with certain genres, notably fantasy, held in high suspicion—are treated as spiritually inferior and possibly dangerous to the young person's faith.

Now, I'm not at all against the CBA or the Christian music stations. More power to them for what they do. I wish I could go to my favorite bookshelves in the library and know that when I pick up a book, it won't mock and stereotype my core values. The CBA gives people that chance. But it is, for that reason, innately—and I suspect, permanently—separate. I grew up evangelical, and I don't even fit. Why? I'm a Catholic Harry Potter fan. Though standards have eased, I think, both those items can turn off a significant section of the CBA audience.

One thing this separation from the mainstream does, though, is open up the opportunity for Mormons and anyone else who wants to go mainstream and still write books containing respect for sexual morality and other family-centered values (respect for parents, anyone?) Christian readers want books like this, and the CBA doesn't have a strong genre selection. Sci-fi and fantasy fans are definitely out of luck once they've finished all Lewis' books, unless they like demon-fighting mysteries. But turn the corner in Borders, and hello, hot chaste vampire boy.

Is the Mormon faith of mainstream authors recognized and celebrated where traditionally Christian mainstream authors' faith goes unnoticed?

Maybe. Here's how it happened for me: Whoa, Stephenie Meyer is Mormon. Interesting. Shannon Hale is, I knew that. WaitOrson Scott Card is, too? That guy's my hero. Never would've guessed it from Ender's Game. It snowballed from there. But Card, Hale and Sanderson have been around for awhile, and I really don't think their LDS membership was widely considered a big deal until Meyer came on the scene with her post-Harry Potter blockbuster YA series.

Meyer was open about her faith, at least at first, but her books were not. She didn't hesitate to write about an irreligious, mouthy teenage girl who wanted nothing more than to jump between the covers with her sexy vampire boyfriend, who gently and persistently kept his body off limits. There is Mormon imagery, but it's organic and subtle—subtle to the point of Bella making her big Fall while drinking Cokes. (Thanks for the explanation, John Granger.)

But there was enough Mormon correlation there to talk about, so when Condie and White and Pike came on the scene, it got talked about. And Pike's first book came with a front-cover endorsement by Stephenie Meyer. Mormonism was different enough to come out of nowhere and be interesting. For most Americans, evangelicalism and Catholicism are reasonably familiar. Misunderstood and wrongfully despised, but too recognizable to easily spark discussion.

That's my theory, anyway. It may be wrong. But I don't see anything about Mormon doctrine or tradition or iconography that provides any kind of literary superiority or interest over Catholic or Protestant traditions.

What can Christians learn from the Mormons' success?

Getting personal: here's what I take from it.

As noted, Orson Scott Card is my hero. The man observes human nature to perfection, and his work is intellectual and fascinating. He writes believably human heroes, sidekicks, anti-heroes, and villains. From the Ender and Bean books I've read, he doesn't fear to let his characters disagree with his ideals, or to treat them honestly and fairly when they do. He can carry the reader through tragedy and offer them a resurrection of hope. Religion isn't avoided or pushed, it's simply part of the story. Did I mention that he writes beautiful prose?

Ender's Game is great. Speaker for the Dead isn't just some of the best science fiction on the planet, it's one of the best novels I've ever read. I rank him with Lewis and Austen, without hesitation. Reading him teaches me how to write a good book.

That is what I learn from one Mormon, at least. If there's a secret, though, it doesn't belong exclusively to the LDS; not unless I've made a stupendous mistake in understanding religious truth. But I do think that Christianity, when properly practiced, directs the believer's focus to charity—to true, pure, tough, compassionate, unyielding, infinitely tender love. That charity toward humanity and creation can actually help an artist, because it inspires things like respect and wonder that make for good art.

And if the Mormons show signs of it, God bless them.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful and well thought out post, Jenna. Again.

    But, as much as I respect Mike Duran, I think these are all the wrong questions. The real question is, how can I as an individual artist write well, and succeed in my field?

    It's sweet that these Mormon ladies have time at home whilst raising the kids (???) to write and write and self-promote--but I'm raising a kid and working as a full-time researcher. Frankly, all issues of faith aside, their model isn't going to help me very much. And frankly, I'm working with rather different aims than many of these authors seem to be.

    So I think question, and its underlying assumption, is a red herring. Frankly, an artist's faith has little or nothing to do with an artist's skill. All embrace different faiths. They're all capable in different ways. It's silly for us to think we're succeeding (or not) because of one belief or another.

    There's much, much more I'm thinking about this, and it might either become a blog post or(more likely) a private email.

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  2. First of all Jenna, I'm LDS, and I think you handled the topic well. Thanks because we fit into the "misunderstood and wrongfully despised" category, too. I do think that the strength of the LDS support system in the lives of its members is an important factor to the extent that encouragement from people who care about us personally helps us succeed in any of our goals. That's on the community level and applies to anyone with a personal support system in or out of a religion. Globally, it would be interesting to know how many LDS people ardently follow and read Card, Hale, Meyers, Mull, etc. I think they all have become successful mainstream authors because they are great writers first and foremost. The same goes for Lewis, Chesterton, Rowling, etc.
    So where does a person's religious preference fit in? It doesn't add to their skill as Mr. Pond says, but it does add to an essence in their stories that strikes a cord with the reader. I love your final comment about charity.

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  3. I'm thinking statistically. In a given sample of about 5 million people (number of Mormons in the USA per a quick Google search), it feels about right that eight of them would be successful mainstream authors. (I haven't got any real figures though; that perhaps deserves more consideration.)

    So perhaps the question shouldn't be "Why are there that many successful mainstream LDS authors" but "Why aren't there that many successful mainstream Evangelical authors?" The sample pool is even bigger, but I can't think of more than a couple. (Plus I doubt that Left Behind counts as mainstream.)

    Answering that would take quite a bit, but I think you're on to a lot with "young Protestants are often discouraged from getting involved in the mainstream rather than the Christian categories."

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  4. Mr. Pond, I'll look forward to that post or email. I agree that the question of how to write well and succeed is more important. But I do think it's worthwhile to consider what a community does to help or hinder its members from success, as individuals rarely succeed alone.

    You are, of course, absolutely right that belief is unrelated to skill level.

    Kathy, I didn't know you were LDS, and it means a lot to have your thoughts. The LDS faith definitely belongs in the "misunderstood and wrongfully despised category," and I have an immense respect for the church's encouragement of its young people to get a good education and succeed.

    Thanks also for your final notes, which did a good job of clarifying what I tried to say. Belief doesn't affect skill, "but it does add to an essence in their stories that strikes a cord with the reader". Well said.

    Eric, good points. I think the focus of Mr. Duran's article was that very question about why evangelicals aren't pulling the same numbers. And I strongly believe the direction of young Protestant artists away from the mainstream is an enormous part of that. I'd be interested in other ideas, of course.

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  5. You got me thinking and researching. Two more well known LDS authors: Richard Paul Evans (for sure) and Jessica Day George (pretty sure).

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  6. Good to know, Kathy! I wondered about Jessica Day George for some reason recently. I've never read either of their work, but will note down their names.

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