Every now and then those contemplating the literary aspirations of Mormonism will quote Orson F. Whitney, “we will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” and then ask when or how that can become possible. That musing has now gone national thanks to an article in the New York Times with interviews of current and former Mormon writers about why this hasn’t happened yet. The result is condescension toward both Mormon literature and popular genre fiction. The answer, even by some of the Mormon writers, seems to show the usual academic bias in favor of the nebulous literary fiction.
Although artists should stretch the talent given to them, Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares are not going to exist. That dream needs to be retired. This is not because Mormons are incapable of great literature, but because the expectations are ridiculous. The New York Times article said it best while ignoring the implications, “In the United States, Jews, blacks and South Asians, while they have produced no Milton or Shakespeare — who has, lately? — have all had literary renaissances.” The nearest to the two contemporary “Bards” in prestige is Homer who lived about a thousand years before them. By that reckoning, time is on the Mormon side.
This fascination with literary perfection has been going on since the foundation of the United States. How many American Miltons and Shakespeares are there? The closest that exist are Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, and the latter is undoubtedly a genre author. The beloved early American writer James Fenimore Cooper was dismissed by his English contemporaries as too common. He is seen by some modern literary critics as a type of Tom Clancy of his day. Despite this, his prose is better than almost any current writer simply because of the Romantic style of the time. Interesting enough, his prose was heavily criticized by Mark Twain who is the only American author best worthy of the “Bard” mantle. The proclamation of Orson F. Whitney is a distinctive American desire for cultural recognition among more established traditions.
There is also the problem of definitions and the modern publishing world. The nickname “Bard” that belongs to Shakespeare no longer exists. It is a medieval term for those who were hired by wealthy patrons to sing or write poetry or prose usually to celebrating the family heritage. Today’s publishing houses seek out artists to make money, not to finance vanity works. Great modern literature is more an accident of circumstance controlled by a few guardians of public productions. Mormons are outside the cultural niche of major publishing houses that do literary fiction. Besides, drawing the line between literary and genre fiction is an illusion. Not only do publishing houses own different divisions that encompass a wide variety of markets, but writers themselves knock on genre doors. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example.
The irony of the genre and young adult criticism is that more than likely the next great classic will end up to be the Harry Potter series. It has more going for it than most beloved literary fiction authors writing today. All flaws aside, the hero and villain are fully fleshed out characters who grow and develop as people; while still retaining much of the black and white good and evil dichotomy. More of the population has both loved and been exposed to these books than to Milton or Shakespeare. Families have been known to pass down the books to each new generation. In effect, it has enough literary complexity and staying power to best books that many academics would hope survive. For the record, it’s not American.
What many critics of Mormon literature miss is that there is arguably already a Milton and Shakespeare in the faith. Orson Scott Card has been recognized more for his literary achievements than any other Mormon writer or artist. His book Ender’s Game alone has won acclaim from critics, spawned a huge fanbase, has become required reading for the military and academic institutions, been featured on many must read lists, and finally made into a movie. Despite the recent controversy, his work draws wide appeal that no other Mormon has ever reached. More importantly is that he has inspired others, both Mormon and non-Mormon, to become better writers. That said, the prolific Brandon Sanderson is the person to watch for to take his place and perhaps eclipse him. Mormons need to stop comparing expectations to see the greatness that already exists. Call that the optimism derided by the New York Times article, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
Pick up your pens or type the words, dear Mormons. Care not for accolades and promises of literary immortality. Stop worrying and love the genre you are in. It is better to have loved the craft of writing than to have never written before or ever again. Fear is the book burner. The point is that we should be writing because we love and not to be loved. That way lies madness. Tomorrow’s Mormon Miltons and Shakespears shall take thought for itself. Sufficient for the day is the writing thereof.