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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why I Read Realistic Mormon Literature



by Scott Hales (bio)

image via streetballblog.com

Two years ago, despite being a self-proclaimed fan of Mormon literature, I could count the number of Mormon-themed novels I had read on one hand. And even then only one of them—Douglas Thayer’s The Conversion of Jeff Williams—dealt with contemporary Mormon characters in a realistic way. Everything else was either historical fiction or fantasy or sanitized fluff.

At the same time, thanks to Christmas money from my wife’s grandpa, I had a single shelf full of unread Mormon titles recently published by Zarahemla Books and Signature. My plan was to read them eventually, but I had other books to read at the time. I was also beginning work on my Ph.D., which was another easy excuse for leaving them untouched on the shelf.

Basically, I was a big fat poser. When it came to Mormon lit, I was acting like I had in junior high, when the Chicago Bulls were big, and I pretended to be a huge Scottie Pippen fan even though I hated basketball and had never even seen the Bulls play.

Except it was easier.

Back in the day, everyone at the lunch table knew more about Scottie Pippen than I did, so it took about two minutes to blow my charade. But since most people I talked to about Mormon literature knew jack about it, all I had to do was sound like I knew what I was talking about and I could pass as an expert. Sometimes, I even fooled myself.

Late last year, though, I decided it was time to quit acting like a seventh grade poser in over-sized hightops. After my fall quarter grades were submitted, and I had nothing to do until January, I cut myself off from family and friends and started reading as much Mormon literature as I could get my hands on.

To be honest, the first two books I tackled less than impressed me. The first one, a memoir, was entertaining but a bit on the light side. And the second one, which came highly recommended, had a lot going for it until the main character went on his mission. Then it got that “Let’s-Swap-Mission-Stories-until-Three-in-the Morning” feel to it and I lost interest. I’ve never been a fan of mission stories.

So, I began to panic. I had finally decided to read serious Mormon literature and the first two books I picked up had fallen short of expectation. Was I going to have to renege on everything I had ever said about the high quality of Mormon lit?

I still had a little more than a week before classes started up again, so I put every effort into finishing a third book, Long After Dark, Todd Robert Petersen’s collection of hard-hitting stories about modern-day Mormons. At first, I worried that the book would be nothing but a bunch of stories about rural Utahns. Then I read the second story, “Now and at the Hour of Our Death,” about an Argentine Mormon who has a crisis of faith when he fatally shoots a home invader.

Could you get any further from rural Utah?

By the time I finished Family History, the provocative novella that closes the collection, my anxieties about Mormon literature had thumbed a ride on the first bus out of town. All my life I had been reading about characters whom I identified with in many respects but the one that meant the most to me—my religion, my culture—the thing that I felt most set me apart from them. In Long After Dark, with its realistic depiction of weekday Mormonism, I had finally found stories that got me.

A lot can be said on the value of reading literature by and about other kinds of peoples and cultures. But just as reading “non-Mormon” literature can help us become more understanding and compassionate toward others who choose not to see the world as we do, realistic Mormon literature can aid us in seeing beyond the narrow definition of “Mormon” that we enforce—often unconsciously—on ourselves and others.

In other words, in its pursuit of the scuffed and unscrubbed Mormon story, realistic Mormon literature helps us see and accept what we should already know: that all of us, even the ones who seem so perfect, fall short of the impossible Jello-molds that we frequently impose upon ourselves. It assures us, too, that each of us, no matter who we are, stumbles through the lone and dreary world, often with little more than a pen light to help see through the mists of darkness.

So, if Mormon realism does anything, it helps us know we aren't alone in our stumblings. And it shows us how to be better Mormons--real Mormons who aren't posers.

Which is why I read it.

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