Mark Oppenheimer, in last Friday’s New York Times, posited that the optimistic attitude embraced by Mormons has prevented them from creating literary fiction. Sure, they have succeeded in Sci-fi (Orson Scott Card), fantasy (Stephanie Meyer), and books for teens and children (Shannon Hale, James Dashner, J. Lloyd Morgan). But how many Mormon writer’s have won Pulitzers, National Book Awards, Bookers, or Nobels?
Oppenheimer interviewed a number of Mormon writers for his article, and includes some interesting insights:
“It is a fair thing to point out,” said Shannon Hale, a Mormon who writes young adult fiction, “that there have been very prominent Jewish writers that have received a lot of accolades, and worldwide the number of Mormons are comparable to the number of Jews, so why hasn’t that happened?”
Ms. Hale’s theory is that literary fiction tends to exalt the tragic, or the gloomy, while Mormon culture prefers the sunny and optimistic.
“I’ll tell you why they write young adult,” said Ms. Nunes. “Because they don’t have to write the pages and pages of sex. They don’t want to spend a lot of time in the bedroom.”
Another author pointed out that since Mormon theology strongly identifies with the idea of a Messianic redemption, Mormon writers gravitate towards the “savior motif.”
This all got me thinking. Even though Ms. Hale correctly identified Jews as successful authors of literary fiction, Orthodox writers are not foremost among them (despite examples of some who are, like Ruchama King Feuerman and Risa Miller and even, I’d argue, Bracha Rosman and Henye Meyers). And guess what? Many journalists have commented that the reasons are largely the same as those identified with Mormons in Oppenheimer’s article.
Orthodox Judaism is forward thinking: how can we be better, improve our character, spread kindness throughout the world? The Torah mindset includes a belief in a Messiah and a time of perfect peace to follow him where humankind will receive the positive (and negative) consequences of their actions. And Orthodox Jews strongly identify with modesty.
What’s really funny, is that in my Orthodox-genre-writing shoes, the problem isn’t that Jews and Mormons don’t want to write dreary books, describe elaborate sex scenes, or focus too much on happy endings. The problem is that literary fiction is too dreary, too foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed, and is peopled by a lot of negative characters.
Not all literary fiction, to be sure. And I aspire to acquire the skill set many literary novelists have. But do I want to write the books they do? No.
And the reasons why are two causes that Oppenheimer did not identify, but apply to both Mormons and Orthodox Jews:
1) Current literary fiction tends to identify with a morality that rubs Mormons and Orthodox Jews the wrong way. (I have no desire to read or write about people who cheat on their spouses, for example, even if there is no graphic sex scene involved. And every time I read a book with the f-word on the first page, I think, “You call yourself a writer? Couldn’t you have found a better word to use than that?”)
2) Mormons and Orthodox Jews tend to identify their professional pursuits as spiritual endeavors. They are on mission. Personally, I want to write things that bring goodness into the world, cause people to feel empathy and hope. I don’t want to write books like Faulkner or Hardy that make you want to fling yourself off a balcony when you finish reading them. I’m pretty sure that most Mormon and Orthodox Jewish authors would feel the same way.
Lastly, I think that Orthodox Jewish authors (and this clearly applies only to them) make more money writing for magazines than writing books. Why slave over a novel, and really perfect it, for a small Jewish publisher who will sell just a few copies? You will not be able to pay bills. Instead, we write to a large magazine audience for more money, faster. We are forced to juggle quality with deadlines as a result. Sometimes quality loses. Not all the time. (Most of the novels that do come out for the Chareidi market were previously serialized, so the same rules apply.)