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Jerry Earl Johnston on Great novels need doubt as vantage

New Harmony

There are perks with this job — perks like the chance to spend quality time with quality people.

And a perk I'll always cherish is the afternoon I spent with Wallace Stegner talking about Montana, Mormons and modern writing.

Stegner was the guru of all things Western. And he understood Mormons about as well as someone not of the faith can. Yet even then, he missed things. He told me that in his novel \"Recapitulation,\" he had a chaste, young Mormon couple getting married in the backyard of a friend. Someone had to point out to him that chaste, young Mormon couples get married in the LDS temple.

He didn't know.

And he didn't know when \"The Great Mormon Novel\" would show up. He said he'd been reading Levi Peterson's \"The Backslider,\" but didn't think that was it. Then he said, \"Maybe you'll write it.\"

He was joking, of course.

\"I don't have the scope or range to do it,\" I said.

\"You don't have to make it large,\" he said. \"Just get things right.\"

He said he thought the \"Great Mormon Novel\" would eventually be penned by someone who was born in the church, left the church, then made it \"part way\" back again. He seemed to think that would be a perfect vantage point. Being away from the church would give the writer perspective, while coming part way back would guarantee his empathy for the culture.

Since that day with Stegner, I've thought often about LDS novels. And I've reached the conclusion that Stegner hadn't found the Great Mormon Novel because ... there can never be one.

I have known some marvelous Mormon wordsmiths. But being a Mormon is not like being Catholic or Jewish. There is precious little wiggle room for devout LDS writers. There aren't a lot of gray areas to explore.

The Mormon religion demands a lot of people. At its core, Mormonism demands all of one's talents to the furthering of the Kingdom of God. That means a complete surrender of one's ego, ideas and ambitions.

A true LDS writer would not want to be on the outside looking in. He wouldn't want to be defiant.

He'd want to promote the faith.

Great Catholic writers, like Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene, could follow their muse and stay in the Catholic fold. They could give us all kinds of flawed and distorted character. They could write graphically about sin, reel off heretical theological speculations and even lampoon Catholic authority figures, yet remain in the bosom of their church.

Mormons — card-carrying temple Mormons — can never have that luxury.

In the future, I'm sure LDS writers will produce wonderful novels.

But a grand and glorious literary novel that is heralded by both the LDS faithful and the literary world?

I don't think so.

Without the blessing of the church, it would never really be a Mormon novel — anymore than \"Angels in America\" is a Mormon play.

The Great Mormon Novel is a dream held by literary types in the church.

It is also the Great White Whale pursued by devout Mormons who can't understand — in this day and age — just how uncomfortable, exposed and betrayed an authentic literary masterpiece would make them feel.