Weâ€™ve all heard something like this before: â€œI canâ€™t really claim credit for what Iâ€™m about to read, because it came to me as inspiration. God is the author.â€ The follow up is usually a poem which compares faith (or some other virtue) to a gate/ not a fate/ Spiritsâ€™ bait/ please donâ€™t waitâ€”or something Edgar A. Guest might have composed.
You do not say anything. You do not voice the words in your head (â€œGod mustâ€™ve been having a really bad dayâ€) because you respect the sincerity of the writerâ€”and maybe you recognize your own arrogance. (Surely the Spirit can inspire good thoughts, even if the instrument of expression is untrained.)
Suppose that person then announces that they feel â€œinspiredâ€ to become a writer, and plan on quitting their day job to follow that inspiration. They will be writing romances, of course.
Is there anything wrong with this? Well, no. Not technically. Except that Mormon fiction usually sells badly, and the person might blame God for their economic failure. And, in truth, we have enough romances. We need something else, something profound, even challenging. Sometimes you want a full meal, not another hit at the dessert buffet.
Sadly, if we are to seek wisdom â€œout of the best books,â€ we will probably not be shopping at Deseret Bookâ€”not for fiction, anyway.
Itâ€™s not that I donâ€™t recognize good writers like Dean Hughes, Doug Thayer, and Louise Plummer (to name only two of many); itâ€™s that I donâ€™t see a promising arc in Mormon letters. I see a lot of â€œbite-your-lipâ€ suspense, dramatizations within supposed Book of Mormon settings, romances, and pioneer-based historical fiction, but (with some notable exceptions) I donâ€™t see much fiction which is really GOODâ€”well-crafted, rich in detail and ambiguity, not just uplifting but life-changing. We donâ€™t have a Mormon equivalent to Marilynne Robinson and her beautiful _Gilead_, though the musings in that book could well have come from a Latter-day Saint. We donâ€™t have a Saul Bellow willing to follow the faith and slowly surfacing doubts of a _Deanâ€™s December_. And we certainly donâ€™t have a Fyodor Dostoevsky or a Toni Morrison.
Why donâ€™t we? Are we too easily persuaded that sweet stories/poems are usually inspiredâ€”especially if they make us feel good and certainly if they make us cry? Are we fearful of where the best fiction might lead us? (Do we really want to challenge Jesus Christ, as Dostoevsky does through Ivan, about the events on the Mount of Temptation? And if we did, would our books ever sell?) Are we, accustomed as we are to correlated lesson manuals, unwilling to plumb deep? Are we consciously contented with easy plots and predictable characters (not to mention predictable rhymes)? Are we lazy readers and therefore lazy writers? Is the problem inherent in the concept of Mormon literature itself? Does such a label invite the literary equivalent to what weâ€™ve seen on the screen: a series of inside jokes, or situations relevant only to Mormons? (Will they get to the temple? Will he quit drinking coffee? Will they manage to camouflage the basketball net for the reception?)
I was in the audience when President Spencer W. Kimball issued his famous challenge to Mormon artists everywhere to â€œstrive for perfectionâ€”the best and greatestâ€ and never be â€œsatisfied with mediocrity.â€
That was in 1977. Thirty years later, I gratefully acknowledge fine Mormon authors and recognize that we have come quite a ways. But my office bookshelves have no books written by Mormons. (Not even by ex-Mormons.) My fiction reading choices are consistently from national markets, not LDS ones. I suspect I represent many lovers of good literatureâ€”who also happen to be Mormon. And with the merger of Covenant Communications and Deseret Book, Iâ€™m afraid my reading choices will not change. And sadly, though Iâ€™ve published a number of books with LDS presses, I doubt Iâ€™ll do it again.