Beyond “Jack Fiction”

Recent Achievement in the Mormon Novel, A Review Essay

Review

Only fourteen years ago, Karl Keller called most Mormon novels to that point “jack-fiction.” With that play on the familiar term “jack-Mormon,” used for one whose faith and activity have lapsed and who is loyal to Mormonism only as a culture, Keller was claiming that Mormons had produced fiction essentially irrelevant to the doctrines of Mormonism and therefore removed from the heart of the faith. He offered as a model for what genuinely religious literature could be the work of Flannery O’Connor, whom he quoted as claiming, “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.” It surprised and disappointed Keller that his fellow Mormons had not been similarly engaged in creating fictional worlds based on the unique ways Mormon theology and experience would lead them to see the world.

Keller was right. To that point nearly all Mormon fiction was jack-fiction. The first main outpouring, the “home literature” of the 1880s and 1890s (which continues today in the popular Mormon romances published by official and semiofficial presses and magazines) was consciously intended to strengthen young Mormons and convert others. But in blatantly serving religion, such writing has not been good literature, and in trying so hard to be more “Mormon” it has become less so, often narrowing, or even subverting, the complexity, freedom, and generosity of Mormon thought and life in its preachy didacticism. On the other hand, the outpouring of nationally published and honored fiction of the 1930s and 1940s was too often provincially antiprovincial, regional in focus, and nostalgic for the heroic Mormon past, but ignorant of or hostile toward the richest dimensions of Mormon theology and contemporary life.

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