I've been reading a lot of Mormon literature over the past couple years, after realizing that there's good Mormon literature to be read. In spite of a few disappointments, I've mostly just been overwhelmingly blown away by the amount of truly great writing that pretty much no one outside the Mormon arts cliques ever talks about. And I'm still plugging away. There are dozens and dozens of books on my To Read list, and just this week I started Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist, released this year, a New York Times Bestseller, and already being heralded as "The Great Mormon Novel" with probably more frequency than any other book besides The Backslider. Big-name national reviewers are even trotting out "The Great American Novel," which seems kind of ridiculous, and like a phrase you shouldn't be allowed to use unironically anymore, but two-hundred pages in, it really is one of the best American novels I've ever read. It'd be on this list in a heartbeat if I wasn't only a third of the way into it. But yeah. it's great.
Anyways. Here's the list:
The Backslider, by Levi Peterson
Again, I will invoke Eric Samuelsen, a) because he is awesome, and b) because he's the person I know who knows the most and has the most worthwhile stuff to say about Mormon letters. I recently listened to an old session of the Sunstone symposium (they're all online and anything over three years old is free to download, which is pretty much the best) that was a celebration of The Backslider on its twentieth anniversary. Eric told a story about a screenwriting class he taught at BYU. A lot of the students were interested in writing about Mormonism, but they hadn't read any real Mormon literature (unless you include Chris Heimderinger or Jack Weyland, which you don't), so Eric made an assignment for the class to pick a book from a list of about thirty or so that he came up with, read it, and do a little in-class presentation on it. So one girl picked The Backslider. She presented on it, saying she hated it, it offended her like crazy, and she thought it was rotten and depraved and horrible. Which I can, I suppose, understand, and respect. A couple weeks later, another guy started to present on The Backslider. Eric mentioned that someone had already presented on that one, but the kid said, "You don't understand. After that presentation, I went out and read the book, and it's my favorite book I've ever read, and it changed my life." So Eric was like, "OK, you can present on The Backslider." I think this is a rather representative anecdote--The Backslider is definitely an R-rated book. It deals with sexual repression in Mormonism frankly, it has characters who swear sometimes, some pretty grotesque descriptions of violence, and I'm sure many people would have problems with the way it depicts extremes within Mormonism, and maybe even a problem with its depiction of grace. I love the book though. I love it dearly. It is funny, it is disturbing, it is heartbreaking, and it has one of the most sweet redemptions I've ever seen in a book or movie or anything else. It's glorious. The Cowboy Jesus, for me, is one of the most real and moving and accurate artistic representations of Christ that exists (the Jesus in the play WWJD that Bianca and I are directing--and also adapting for film--next year would probably tie with the Cowboy Jesus; the Jesuses in The Miracle Maker and The Last Temptation of Christ would, respectively, probably tie for second). Anyways, I think The Backslider is great. It's the Huckleberry Finn of Mormonism. It captures a voice and a culture, it is very funny in a very Mark Twain sort of way, and it is, to my mind, extremely important. I love it. It's wonderfully entertaining, and it helps me know and love Jesus more. Which I like to do.
Heaven Knows Why, by Samuel Taylor
One of the sweetest, funniest books I have read. Absolutely delightful. I want to turn this into a movie someday. This is undoubtedly some of the best comic writing this side of Wodehouse, with delightfully colorful, well-rounded, and sympathetic characters, and an ingenious plot involving some romance, intrigue, and some possibly-bungled divine intervention in small-Mormon-town Utah. Like Levi Peterson, Samuel Taylor's willingness to show real and flawed characters is what makes this story as involving, as funny, and as moving as it is. Everyone here has some weakness--with swearing, with the Word of Wisdom, with sex, with their faith--and these obstacles make them believable, and also give them character arcs, without ever feeling tidy or formulaic. Anyways. I love this book. This book is a joy. I've read it more than almost any other book. You should read it too.
Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams
This is another all-time favorite book of mine. It's about Bosch and about nature and about Mormonism and about travel and about many other things--it's transcendent creative non-fiction poetry, I guess, if you want to put it in a genre. Some of the most beautiful, spiritual prose I've ever read--Terry Tempest Williams can put words into sequences that make my soul thrill and that make me want to weep.
Under the Cottonwoods and Other Stories, by Douglas Thayer
Douglas Thayer is one of the real talents in the world of Mormon literature, and short stories are what he does best. Some of the recurring themes here are the relationship between religion and nature (he's fascinated with hunting as a part of Mormon culture, and its relation to blood atonement), the loss of innocence, and the development during the mid-20th century of rural Utah County into a young suburban college town. When he's at his best, as he is in almost all of these stories, Thayer is amazing, getting into the heads and the skins of his characters, capturing images and moments with peerlessly poetic grace.
Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom
Bound on Earth began as a few short stories published in Dialogue and elsewhere; soon it turned into a novel, although it still more or less takes the form of a short story collection (a sort of "concept album" short story collection, I suppose), with each chapter profiling characters and detailing events in a single family over decades of history (though the majority of the stories concern themselves with the parents and siblings in the 21st century). This book is about the family as an eternal unit, and all the complications and messiness and confusion that goes on in every family, but also all the love and joy that is shared. Ultimately, it seems to be both the good and bad times that bind this family together. Excellently drawn characters and great writing--and it manages to capture the complexity of life, and still be PG-rated enough to be friendly to the Deseret Book crowd, so that's cool.
Love Chains, by Margaret Blair Young
More short stories by another one of the shining stars of Mormon literature, Margaret Blair Young. "Zoo Sounds" is probably my favorite--and one of my favorite short stories ever--but all of these are excellent. Young writes in short, direct sentences, and she excels at character and voice. These stories are all principally about people and relationships--relationships between parent and child, between husband and wife, between young men and women, between divorcees. She explores the connections and the schisms of family and friendship and religion, and each of these stories is a wonderful slice-of-life--messy and real, and often redemptive. (Young would also appear to be a major influence on Hallstrom's Bound on Earth.)
Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, edited by me
I was going to include Little Happy Secrets, by Melissa Leilani Larson, on this list, but then I realized, "Hey, it's in this book I just published, along with a bunch of other really good plays too." So this is me being shameless, including a book on this list that I edited with three of my plays in it. It really is a good collection though. I like some of the plays more than others--an anthology of my own favorites would look just a little bit different--but all of them are good at the very least, and at least half of them I think are pretty great. Little Happy Secrets is about a BYU return sister missionary who has a crush on her roommate, and it's a wonderful, bittersweet play (and you can listen to the whole thing here--I like it even better as a radio play than a stage play, in fact). Some other favorites of mine: "Prodigal Son," "On Gonoga Falls," "The Exact Total Opposite." You should buy the book and read it, and tell me yours! (Hint hint.) (Also: Half the money we get goes to NPP so we can keep doing stuff. And a good chunk of the rest goes to me, Bianca, and Steve, who illustrated the book, including this cool cover.)
Peculiarities, by Eric Samuelsen
Eric is, without question, the best Mormon playwright, past or present. He's so ridiculously prolific that I'm still catching up on all the stuff he's written over the past couple decades, but so far I think Peculiarities is my favorite of his many Mormon-centric works. It's a series of scenes about different couples dealing with the oddities and some of the extremely unhealthy repercussions of repression in dating, romance, and sexual attraction at and around BYU. As always with Eric's stuff, the play is funny and interesting and challenging. You can find the play in serial form in some of the back issues of Sunstone on their website, free for download.
Greening Wheat, edited by Levi Peterson
Though there are a number of great and important novels, it seems that the short story (probably thanks mostly to Dialogue) is the bedrock of Mormon fiction. There are a number of important short Mormon fiction anthologies--Dispensation, edited by Angela Hallstrom, was just released a few months ago, and I can't wait to get to it, and Eugene England's collection Bright Angels and Familiars is available for free in its entirety here--but this is the first I've read cover-to-cover thus far. And it's a great collection. Lots of excellent, thoughtful, well-written stories dealing with different aspects of Mormon culture and belief. As with all anthologies, some I liked better than others, but all of them were worthwhile. Peterson's own contribution, "The Gift," is pretty wonderful.
Harvest, edited by Eugene England and Dennis Clark
This amazing collection of Mormon poetry shows how the best Mormon poetry of the past 100-150 years (like, in my opinion, the best Mormon fiction and film) deserves comparison with some of the best poetry of the past 100-150 years. Again, I don't like all of these poems, but I do like most of them, and the best of them (and there are lots) are pretty amazingly great. One thing this collection in particular does is represent a very broad diversity--from the simple didacticism of early pioneer poems and hymns, to the more complex, expressionistic, abstract, and modern work of many 20th century writers.