There are two kinds of people—those who want authoritative, definitive answers to life’s questions and those who question anyone’s authority to give those answers. In religious terms, the first group are considered the faithful—those who rely on the authoritative church hierarchy (Roman Catholic, Mormon), or on the inerrancy of the scriptures (evangelicals). The other group, depending on your point-of-view, consists of either devilish doubters on their way to hell or rational humanists who believe that unquestioning followers are in hell.
I realized I was in the second group when I attended 1st Unitarian Church in SLC on Mothers’ Day. The Reverend Tom Goldsmith gave a sermon on women’s issues. He quoted traditional and feminist authors’ opinions on children’s need for nurture versus women’s need for personal fulfillment. He also addressed men’s responsibilities in nurturing and expressed appreciation for the difficulty of individual families attempting the balance. He raised valid questions and provided food for thought but presented no one-size-fits-all solution.
While I enjoyed contemplating the issues Goldsmith raised, I realize most of my Mormon friends and neighbors would be uncomfortable with this kind of open-ended discussion. Knowing God’s will is available to them through the teachings of present and past prophets is an iron rod to steady them in an ever-changing world.
Now, a minority of Mormon’s actually chafe at receiving authoritative guidance for their lives. They grouse about women’s subordinate role, discrimination against gays, and the right-wing political bent of ward members. I’m not quite sure why they stick with a church which apparently irritates rather than uplifts them. Of course, my original premise may be flawed. Maybe there are really three kinds of people: authoritarian, non-authoritarian, and attend-a-church- with-which-I-disagree-and-gripe-about-it kinds.
Stephen Carter’s recent Sunstone editorial and Annette Lyon’s recent blog at Dawning of a Brighter Day both express optimism that an audience for realistic Mormon fiction is developing. I hope they’re right, but I suspect it’s mostly wishful thinking. I spoke with a book editor from a conservative Mormon publisher recently. She said their readers are Mormon women who want escapism from their lives of kids, cooking, cleaning, church callings, and empty checking accounts. They choose to read either YA fiction or romances involving a 24-year-old LDS girl meeting her eternal companion.
So I wonder, are Mormon women’s lives more stressful than those of other women? Maybe not, but I do suspect my neighbor—struggling with house repairs, kids, and yard-work while her husband watches TV and yells for quiet—wouldn’t reject an offer to trade her eternal companion for an adoring admirer with pointy teeth and a lust for virgin throats. Maybe a realistic novel about a wife dealing with a less-than-perfect, but active-Mormon husband would give this neighbor useful insights for living with her prince who’s turned into a frog. Stephanie Meyers doesn’t seem to benefit my neighbor for more than a brief period of escape or possibly daydreams about “If I knew then what I know now.”
Is it unhealthy for a grown woman to be stuck in a high school mind-set? Is it living in the past? And are romances for women like porn for men—a way of comparing the spouse with an unrealistic model? I don’t know. Probably neither YA novels nor romances are particularly harmful, but I doubt they do much to provide greater understanding of the human condition and possibilities for a fulfilling life.
I hope the editor I spoke with is wrong and Stephen Carter and Annette Lyons are right. I hope Mormon readers will try realistic Mormon fiction. Some really good authors are out there. But I’m not holding my breath for any of them to sell 10,000 copies.