Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mormonism, Canadiana, and literature

I've been thinking about these three things lately, since they are all part of me. Here are two questions I haven't found an answer for: Can the great Mormon novel be written, and can the great Canadian novel be written (and don't be cute and tell me I'll write one or both)?

Some people, as in this column I read recently, think the great Mormon novel is impossible because Mormons are too involved with their own religion to write anything other than self-promotion. I'm not sure about that. I don't think doubt is the only kind of conflict that can produce greatness. But certainly, Mormon greatness is lacking on the literary front.

I've noticed, however, that the same is true of Canadian literature. Oh, come now, Canadians, we know there is some really good stuff written by Canadians (I read some of it in my high school English class). There's no denying Margaret Atwood has talent, for example. But world class literature that can hold rank with Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Hemingway...we're still mostly working on it. And in the case of Canadiana, you don't have any prohibitions against indulging in evil or dabbling in doubt.

So, here are three reasons that both Mormons and Canadians lag behind in literature:

1. Small population
2. Short history
3. Self-consciousness

1. Small population. I'm going to be really crass here. If the Holocaust had happened to Mormons during WW2, it would have wiped them out a couple of times over. But thankfully, there were still millions of other Jews to tell the horrific tale to their children and grandchildren and make sure it never happens again. And to pass on their thousands-of-years-old heritage.
America has ten times as many people as Canada does. The numbers game means they not only have a statistically bigger talent pool, they also have more opportunities for publication and more of an audience to reach.
2. Short history. Face it. The Catholics have a few hundred years on the Mormons. This means they have not only a much larger literary tradition, but they also have a richer cultural tradition to draw from. So do the Jews, the Muslims, the Methodists...
Same with the Canadians. I think most of the American greats started to appear at the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th. They just had more time to develop their culture. Canadians are still trying to figure out who they are (not American! We know that much, right?). I'm not trying to invalidate anyone's culture here. I'm just saying the longer you've been around, the more of it you have. And all the arts are immersed in culture.
3. Self-consciousness. Part of being a smaller culture means finding your unique place in the world around you. When you are surrounded by a larger one that's been around a lot longer, that's a challenge--to not be intimidated by the culture around you, to not let it swallow you up, to not care what it thinks of you, and to not let it take over your own. I don't necessarily think that means you have to be hostile to the bigger one (memo to Canada: the United States honestly doesn't want to invade you). I just think you have to let your culture grow. And both Mormons and Canadians worry about what everyone else thinks of them so hard that sometimes they fail to see beyond it. It's understandable. They are both overlooked and trying to get noticed. But when you're looking in the mirror or over your shoulder all the time, it's hard to see straight ahead. It's a paradox: you're trying to get attention, so everyone ignores you.

So, the question remains: Can the great Mormon novel and the great Canadian novel ever be written? My answer is: sure, but it will take a while.

1 comment:

Meyer Family said...

Well, I know it wouldn't be considered on the level of Hemingway but I absolutely love L.M. Montgomery above all others. I read the Emily of New Moon series at least twice a year. And I like the Anne books too. So even though it's not Shakespeare, my opinion is the great Canadian novel has already been written. =) Now the Mormon novel, I think we're yet to see.