A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Being a writer is never easy. But being an ex-Mormon writer of Mormon fiction must be one of the more thankless callings in the Church. As non-Mormons, we’re not even eligible for one of the biggest literary awards given for Mormon literature, the Whitney Award. As excommunicated or disenfranchised Mormons, we no longer matter to Mormons, and therefore even as writers of Mormon literature, we don’t matter to the Latter-day literati.

Perhaps I should give some background here, for evaluation purposes. I’ve earned four degrees, one of them an MFA in fiction writing from Louisiana State University. I’ve published stories and essays in many traditional publications, such as Newsday, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Humanist, The Progressive, The Army Times, Medical Reform, Religion Dispatches, Glimmer Train, The Massachusetts Review, Christopher Street, Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, Drash, Sunstone, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and in the anthologies Queer Fish, Off the Rocks, and In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions. I helped edit a collection of gay Mormon fiction, Latter-Gay Saints. One of my essays was included in the textbook Critical Thinking and Critical Reading. I’ve been interviewed on KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station, and there are two articles about my work in DNA, Australia’s leading gay magazine. And last, and quite probably least, since public speaking is not my strongest point, I’ve spoken at eight different conferences across the country. I may not have published in The New Yorker or had a best-seller by Knopf, and it’s clear the Pulitzer will never be within my grasp, but I do have enough credentials to warrant some very small degree of notice.

One of the main reasons I’m ignored, of course, is because all sixteen of my books are self-published. To many people, self-publishing is a pathetic attempt at validation by those no respectable editor would ever bother with. Having read a few other self-published books myself, I can understand the knee-jerk disdain. And I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my own books would clearly have benefited from professional editing.

That said, I have to ask the question: how can those who dismiss me be so sure my books are being turned down by traditional publishers because of the quality of my writing, and not because of the Mormon content?

If I can’t get Mormons to read my Mormon books because Mormons are so disinterested, why should a mainstream publisher believe he could get any respectable reading audience for my work if he invested in it? To disqualify my books, or those by other independently published authors who have left the fold, solely because of our small audience isn’t the same as saying these books aren’t actually good.

But how will anyone know, if they discount them before reading them?

My book, The Abominable Gayman, about a gay Mormon missionary in Italy, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2011. The reviewer concluded that “this well-paced work” was “rich and satisfying,” “an extremely important contribution to the field of Mormon fiction.” And yet I’ve given complimentary copies of the book to several Mormon reviewers, and not one of them will even open it. I’ve read anti-gay articles by some of the most prominent LDS reviewers, and this naturally disturbs me. How can I hope to get an objective review from someone whose agenda is to eliminate me?

Reviewers are certainly not obligated to like me, of course. I freely admit I’ve gotten some negative reviews over the years for my writing as well. Some reviewers will like my work, and some won’t. That’s life. What irritates me is hearing constantly that I’m not even worth evaluating in the first place. I can’t help but feel that Mormons are thinking, “If we just ignore him, maybe he’ll go away.”

I’ve received some good reviews from Sacramento News and Review, Phoenix New Times, The Short Review, Publishers Weekly, and Latterdaymainstreet, but it’s hard to find reviewers for self-published books anywhere. I simply believe that Mormon audiences are missing out on valuable additions to their libraries if we don’t acknowledge that self-publishing is a real, viable source of literature.

An LDS reviewer on Amazon gave one of my books a negative review because the book was filled with characters who wouldn’t pass a temple recommend interview. It’s one thing not to like the content and therefore choose not to read a book, but it’s another to say the book is poorly written just because you disagree with the morals of some of the characters.

I know, I know. I’m beginning to sound like a petulant child complaining that no one has chosen me to play on their softball team. It’s always a sign of weakness to be on the defense rather than taking aggressive offensive action. But I have a few other questions to ask those who would automatically disqualify me from consideration.

How would Church members treat a schizophrenic woman in their ward who has a terribly annoying personality? Would we be Christ-like, or something less?

What would electroshock therapy for a gay BYU student do to him?

What kind of life would a dedicated polygamous Mormon in 1855 Utah have, ordered to take a fourth wife, when all he really wants is to be with another man?

If all gods are married eternally, and some gods have more than one wife, is it a sin for a Mormon woman to fantasize sexually about being married to Jesus?

If children under the age of eight go automatically to the Celestial Kingdom, what would happen if someone set out to deliberately murder young children in order to “save” them?

These may be outrageous questions, but I don’t think they’re insignificant ones. A reviewer can claim I don’t do these ideas justice, but they can only claim that if they actually read my work to find out. One LDS publisher refused to consider my book, The Circumcision of God, because he said the title alone made him uneasy. He never got as far as reading the actual book. You can imagine reactions to my next titles, Mormon Underwear, Sex among the Saints, and Zombies for Jesus.

I would suggest that fear is not an adequate measure of literary quality.

I received an email from a Latter-day Saint who said he’d seen my books online and understood that I was anti-Mormon. He was willing to discuss Mormonism, he said, and see if I could persuade him to become anti-Mormon as well. I wrote back that he was mistaken, that I was not anti-Mormon, and that I had no desire to participate in such a discussion. On our mission Facebook page, one of my former missionary colleagues admitted to never having read any of my books, but feeling, in his opinion, that “when you exploit [the Church] for your own sinister means…that’s wrong.” Far too many Mormons perceive me in this manner, which I find distressing. It is not my desire in any way to attack the Church. I write about real problems that exist for real Mormons. I want people to think rather than to follow blindly. This does not make me an enemy.

Someone else asked how I would feel on Judgment Day if I found out that my writing had led people away from the Church. I find the question puzzling. If something I say makes a person doubt and ponder, I do not think that is a bad thing. Jews don’t feel that doubting is a sin. Many famous rabbis unashamedly proclaimed their doubt. I daresay that any truly thoughtful person can’t help but doubt once in a while. Doubting is not the end of the world. What is important is how one lives one’s life, despite the doubt that is a necessary part of a mature faith. Too many Mormons, though, are downright afraid to pick up books such as my own for fear that doing so will somehow cause their testimonies to self-destruct.

I wonder about the strength of a testimony that can be shattered so easily.

“It’s not that I’m scared,” one faithful Latter-day Saint protested stoutly when I brought up this point. “It’s just that I don’t care to read about such people.”

You don’t care? Well, I’m afraid I completely believe you on that point. But you should care. To be worthy of the name “saint,” we can’t simply turn our backs on the people who “bother” us, people we find “distasteful,” people who are “beneath” us. Yet that is what happens consistently time after time.

But it’s not only my own work I see tossed aside so casually. By a Thread, by Marty Beaudet, is quite a good novel, yet it has been ignored by Mormon academics as well. Could it be simply because the main character is a gay Mormon? Likewise, Donna Banta’s novel, The Girls from Fourth Ward, doesn’t get noticed, because her plot has four Laurels murdering their tyrannical bishop. Is it faith-promoting? No. So apparently it isn’t worth reading. Her follow-up novel, False Prophet, details another murder in a Mormon congregation. Jews have no trouble accepting the Harry Kemelman series where the rabbi solves murders in his community. But Mormons are astonished and thoroughly disgusted at the very idea of a similar Mormon series. Is it any wonder that Jewish literature is superior to ours? I’m sure there are plenty of other good Mormon books I’m neglecting to mention, but how can I mention them if I don’t know they exist? And how can I know they exist if the gatekeepers keep them away from me?

And it isn’t even just ex-Mormon writers who are suppressed in the Mormon literary world. When Tom Rogers wrote his play Huebener, about a faithful LDS teen in Germany who opposed the Nazis and was killed for it, his play was censored by Church authorities immediately after it was performed at Brigham Young University. Why? Because they were worried about the reception the Church might receive in Iron Curtain countries if the Church was seen opposing tyranny. Well, the Church should have been perceived as an institution that wouldn’t put up with tyranny, in Iron Curtain countries or anywhere else. That would have been a good thing. But instead the Church felt that censorship was better. Ironic.

In that play, we see stalwart Mormon Solomon Schwartz, seventy-six years old, a member for sixty years, whose parents were converted to the gospel by John Taylor before he became the third president of the Church, being barred from entry by the branch president, who fears the Nazis will come after the Mormons if the Mormons aren’t as awful to the Jews as the Nazis are. The real Solomon, of course, ended up dying in one of the camps, completely abandoned by his fellow Mormons who gave him up to protect themselves. It was a terrible betrayal and is depicted by the Church today as the result of the actions of the sinful, misguided branch president acting alone. But the rationalization the branch president used (we mustn’t upset the Nazis) was the same that Church leaders in Utah used decades later to censor the play (we mustn’t upset the Communists). That branch president wasn’t “going rogue.” He was following established thought patterns set up by the Church that are still in effect today.

Margaret Blair Young, longtime member of the Association for Mormon Letters, published through Deseret a trilogy of books detailing the lives of Black Mormons in the early Church. The problem with these faithful accounts of faithful members is that they made current members uneasy. So the books went out of print. They’ve been reprinted now with another publisher and are being marketed instead to African-Americans, who care more about these people than their fellow Mormons do.

While it is a sin in Mormonism to commit adultery or murder, it sometimes seems as if the biggest sin is daring to make someone “uncomfortable.”

Reviewers of my stories have commented more than once that they can’t tell if I’m pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon. It’s because I’m really neither. I am merely trying to tell the truth, even when it might be “awkward.” I am deeply saddened that Mormons view me the same way Huebener’s branch president viewed him when he decided to excommunicate the young man. That “misguided” official was far from the only Church leader to behave very poorly toward the “undesirable.”

Yet if the Church is going to censor even faithful members writing about other faithful members, what chance do I have to be treated fairly in the LDS literary community?

My book Marginal Mormons received a starred review from Kirkus and was then named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2012, and also put on the list of Top 25 Indie Books of 2012. At the same time I learned about this, I read a venomous letter to the editor in DNA accusing me of “outright hatred” for the Mormon Church and of spouting “flat out lies.” And all this from another gay Mormon! A homophobic one, of course, who confessed that he hadn’t actually read any of my books. (I’m sensing a theme.) It’s as if Mormons have to say, “Shh! The Gestapo might find out we’ve been reading your work!” They can’t read people like me, publish people like me, because they might get in trouble with “the authorities.”

Are the members of the Mormon Church so weak in our faith that we can’t even read about people who make choices we wouldn’t make ourselves? My sister-in-law in Salt Lake told me of a “terrible” incident that happened with her LDS book club: “We had selected the book and all of us had bought it and started reading it, and then we discovered it had profanity, so we had to rush out really quick and look for something else.” If we are so delicate that we can’t even read a four-letter word without swooning, I don’t know that we’re strong enough to write literature that will be enduring. It’s like asking Steven Spielberg to tell the story of Schindler’s List without putting anything “upsetting” in it.

We need to create an atmosphere where Mormons feel comfortable reading about and discussing all the different ways Mormonism affects people’s lives. We need to accept the verifiable fact that some of these experiences are negative, and not be so unsure of ourselves that facing that truth destroys our faith. Hearing a different perspective only threatens someone who can’t defend his own position. And to call learning about our valid life experiences a “waste of time” suggests a callousness that is not indicative of true Christian living.

It’s clear that mainstream Mormon scholars are ignoring the works of many marginalized Mormons not only because we’re self-published, but also because we don’t write the testimony-building stories they believe Mormon literature should be. They see us as wolves, evil apostates out to corrupt the good sheep of the fold. But we’re still Mormons, too, still part of the flock, whether those academics want to accept it or not. Ignoring us won’t make us go away, and neither will a few deliberately spiteful reviews specifically created to hurt our feelings. We write what we do because it matters to us.

I would suggest that moral disapproval is not an adequate measure of literary quality, either.

At least twenty libraries around the country, and three outside the U.S., house some of my books, but I find it interesting that the Salt Lake City Public Library system is the only one that won’t even respond to my requests to accept any of my titles.

Writers like us should be acknowledged for the hard work we do to develop and promote Mormon literature. To exclude us from the club because we didn’t go to the temple last week to do endowments is short-sighted, and it diminishes those defining the canon as much as it does us. The censorship that occurs in the Mormon literary world is led by the same impulse which led Catholic priests to hack off the penises on Roman statues. It’s the same impulse that led those priests to burn all Mayan books so that the knowledge and literature of an entire civilization was lost forever. That impulse leads solely to the destruction of valuable art, and it does nothing at all to build faith.

When I wrote my story, “Edited Out,” a fictionalized account of the true story of a Mormon actor carefully excised from the temple film when it was discovered he was gay, I was writing the story of all Mormon artists who are excluded from inclusion in the LDS artistic community.

One very thoughtful reviewer of Marginal Mormons said what I think the few LDS readers who pick up my books honestly feel. “I don’t know if I want to peel back the stereotypes and dwell with the darkness, the conflicts, the misery and the mayhem that the natural man exhibits. Can I focus instead [on] Hawthorne’s world by day in the town square and turn a blind eye to the antics that occur by night in the woods? I think I prefer my fiction to show a version of humanity that’s a little higher than the angels, even if it’s a window dressing version of our species.” Then she says quite explicitly that she would rather surround herself with “pretty lies” than read my stories which she admits “ring true.” She politely declines to read any more of my work.

My response would simply be: Until your faith can adequately deal with real life, it is of little use to anyone. And if learning about life makes you uncomfortable, then you probably shouldn’t be reading books in the first place.

What I am afraid of is that the Church will wither away and become less and less significant over time if leaders insist on always offering pretty lies in place of truth, or as they euphemistically put it, “milk before meat.” This program promises meat but never delivers on it. If the members can’t at some point begin eating meat, they will forever remain immature, both literary and spiritual infants. Catholics need Jesuits, Jews need Kabbalah scholars, and Mormons need more than authors who write “faith-affirming” versions of Pollyanna. I want a Church that is a healthy, vibrant adult, and I believe that reading mature Mormon fiction can help bring that about. This is my “sinister agenda.”

Elder Orson F. Whitney, later to become one of the Twelve Apostles under President Joseph F. Smith, said in his talk on “Home Literature” in 1888: “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” I certainly don’t claim to be the answer to that prophecy, and yet I fear there will never be an answer to it if Mormons remain so terribly afraid of the content those great writers addressed. Shakespeare, for those who have bothered to actually read him, has characters who commit adultery, lie, betray others, and even murder. It’s no Disney version of The Little Mermaid. But then, I’ve heard some Mormons complain about that work, too, because Ariel is wearing a bikini top, not a one-piece bathing suit. “It’s so hard to find family-friendly movies these days,” one LDS woman lamented.

Milton and Shakespeare, huh?

I’m not saying we need to write pornography, but we do need to grow up, unless we want the emulation of Peter Pan to be our highest aspiration. Once during a Single Adult movie night at church, our group of twenty-somethings was watching Ladyhawke. At one point, one of the young women jumped up and blocked the television screen, her arms spread wide. “There’s a scene here where we almost see Michelle Pfeifer’s breasts!” she warned.

Almost.

The Mormon fiction audience is by definition small, and authors dealing with unorthodox interpretations or uncomfortable questions, or who may even use a four-letter word or two, have an even smaller audience. But that does not make us unimportant. In its first 36 years of publication, Moby Dick sold only 3000 copies. Even today, if it wasn’t assigned reading for students, it would hardly be a best-seller. Yet it is still one of the most important novels produced in America. Likewise, those of us on the edge of Mormonism deserve at least to be seen and evaluated. We are part of Mormonism, too. Much of our work may in fact prove to be unimpressive. But there may also be a few gems just waiting to be discovered.

We will never know unless someone looks.

 

 

 

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