The Persistence of Stories; or, why LDS Public Affairs Should Commission Popular Books*

Massimo Introvigne and Michael Homer tell the interesting story of an Italian author — Oriana Fallaci  — who spoke to them about her novel on the 19th century American West. Her story was to include the Mormons and she asked Introvigne about her research. Introvigne introduced her to Homer who gave her important works of the New Mormon History.

Fallaci’s book, in the end, retold the familiar polygamous/cultic tropes one finds in works such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. The New Mormon History may be more accurate than Doyle’s, but sex sells and Arrington is boring.

The persistence of these views of Mormonism — Deseret-bound, Danite-led, harem-centred — cause modern Mormons to wail and gnash. They wonder why the public cannot differentiate between Mitt Romney (nice) and Warren Jeffs (not nice). The answer is simple: once a view is popularised, it is almost impossible to shake. (It is said that Doyle came to regret his depiction of the Mormons, but it was too late — the damage was done.)

So it seems the contemporary LDS cannot escape an outmoded view of their religion. But it gets worse. What images of Mormonism are today seeping into the public’s mind? Here among the Mormon chattering classes, we swoon over RSR or the JSPP. Our Deseret Book-reading cousins have their own staples. But all this is small fry compared to today’s Studies in Scarlet: Martha Beck (Leaving the Saints) and John Krakauer (Under the Banner of Heaven). These are the kinds of popular works that are informing people about Mormonism today (along with the pervasive Christian counter-cult poo).

Beck and Krakauer are the purveyors of the Mormon brand and their wares will live on for decades. Wail and gnash some more. The next one hundred years of bad PR may already have been written.

________

*Or pray for a popular and friendly Hollywood film.

Comments

  1. Great post! Question: What sort of branding should we be looking for? I think that anti-consumerism could be, with a little fairy dust, quite amenable to Mormonism.

  2. Alas, commissioning popular works may be tougher for the Church now than was commissioning good history 50 years ago.

    I think that in places like the Pacific NW, there is a critical mass of normal LDS folks, that much of the popular idiocy is rebuffed. Unfortunately, that is not so in most geographies.

  3. This is a propos nothing, but I had an acquaintance who decided to learn more about the church and even started reading the Book of Mormon after reading Leaving the Saints. She didn’t end up joining or anything, but her impression of the church was much more positive than I think anyone would have predicted, considering what her initial exposure was. Since then I have not gotten too worked up about lurid accounts of Mormonism. Not that I kid myself that these “Studies in Scarlet” are doing us any favors, but I do kid myself that people will trust their experiences with real Mormons over what they read in books. Of course, meeting real Mormons is where folks always run into trouble.

  4. More Tom Clancy-type books where a minor–or major–character is a straight-arrow Mormon (I can think of a couple Clancy novels where this is the case) would certainly help. I think you could argue that any mention that Clancy made about Mormons has certainly helped with any PR problem.

  5. This issue is particularly stark in areas where people are unlikely to come into contact with Mormons, i.e. virtually everywhere. It’s certainly the case in Italy, where Introvigne assures me that years of expensive PR efforts could be topped if only there were ONE famous Mormon to tell Mormonism’s story. And when one appeared in Italian consciousness — the wildly popular Stephenie Meyer — “the church banned her books” (thus the Mormon church *is* just like Doyle’s Mormons).

  6. I have also noted that when Mormons do find their way into the media on their own terms it’s often to celebrate some Pioneer event (e.g. handcart treks up English hills), thus serving the stereotype of bebonneted Mormons.

  7. In the last six months, I have had two conversations with intelligent educators, both British, who believed mainstream contemporary Mormons were polygamous. One asked how many wives I might have, with a look meant to convey an open mind toward that kind of thing. Another (online) worried about her female Mormon students (in a European city that rhymes with Spankbert), that they will just throw away their educational zeal and efforts by being married off to some old man as a third wife. (‘What a waste! I wish I could kidnap them!’) So there you go.

  8. Yeah, whether you like his politics or not, I love that Harry Reid is in the public sphere. His presence — as a normal Mormon — can do a lot to dispel incorrect myths about Mos, especially for that random welder in Boston, or that secretary is Louisiana, or as Ronan said, pretty much everyone in Europe. That does it, Ronan — you need to run for public office. A Mormon at 10 Downing Street would be nice.

  9. Narrative is a powerful, powerful tool. Just try convincing anyone who has seen Amadeus that Salieri didn’t actually kill Mozart. sigh.

  10. Harry Reid’s Mormonism is invisible, don’t you think? As Cynthia says, narrative is the key and the only popular, contemporary Mormon narratives are Beck’s and Krakauer’s. Underestimate their impact at your peril.

  11. Spankbert.
    Salieri did not kill Mozart, he stole his immortal soul!

  12. Doyle may have regretted fictional extremes of “Scarlet”, but if he did, it was not in the second decade of the 20th century. When Doyle came to visit Salt Lake then, promoting his spiritualist cause celebre, he was pelted with letters from one local Mormon who wanted him to recant his view of 19th century Mormonism displayed in A Study in Scarlet. Doyle wrote back on Hotel Utah stationary that such things were a matter of historical record. But he did offer that perhaps they were best left to the past. (After all, he hoped to get an audience.)

  13. Yes, Harry Reid’s Mormonism is largely invisible. But not you, Ronan. As Prime Minister, you will solve reverse the popular myths and display your Mormonism proudly. I can see it now: you will openly wear your CTR ring to the opening of parliament; you will make reference to the book of Alma when discussing British foreign policy, etc. Heh.

    Back to the OP, I cringed hard when I once heard Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” make comments that revealed that she had bought into a lot of Krakauer’s images/descriptions of Mormons. Oh, Terry, I had hoped you were more enlightened than that!

    Incidentally, Dan Brown in his latest “The Lost Symbol” makes a reference to the Mormon story in a somewhat complimentary way. During a discussion about science and religion, the narrator says something to the effect that archeology/science cannot prove that Moses got stone tablets from Mount Sinai anymore than it can prove that Joseph Smith translated by the use of “magic spectacles” an ancient record from tablets found in Upstate New York. Hey, if Joseph Smith is even in the same discussion in pop culture with the likes of Moses, we’re in good shape, no?

  14. I had a partner at the law firm I worked at 20 years ago tell me that he “knew all about Mormons” because he had read Prophet of Death, a book about Jeff Lundgren, an RLDS member who had broken off and organized his own cult and then murdered a bunch of people in Kirtland, Ohio. If the story of a dissident member of a different religion, and a completely insane one at that, is enough to tell someone that he knows “all about Mormons,” we have proof either that (1) you don’t have to be that smart to be a partner in a Wall Street law firm (having known a lot of them, I’ll not argue on this one) or (2) winning the PR battle is a lost cause.

  15. I just finished reading Shannon Hale’s new book ‘The Actor and the Housewife’, which is a chick-lit book published by a national publisher. The story is a little crazy (not any crazier than other chick-lit stuff like Sophie Kinsella)–a Mormon woman from Layton, UT ends up selling a screenplay to a producer in Hollywood and meets a handsome actor who ends up being her best friend for a number of years. I don’t read a lot of that particular genre, but I actually enjoyed the book quite a lot. The main character, Becky, is very thoroughly Mormon and the book gets into a lot of different issues that this presents. Granted, the genre makes some of the conflicts/situations a little weird and plays up the differences between Utah and Hollywood, but I thought it was generally a good example of how to have a Mormon character in a mainstream book. (I’ll be posting a more full review of it on my blog in a few days if anyone’s interested).

    The interesting thing that I kept noting when I read the book was that I sometimes thought “I’m not really like that; not all Mormons are like that” Which is true–we are all individuals. But I think having a positive, Mormon character who isn’t a polygamist or fundamentalist is a step in the right direction.

  16. This nonsense is pandemic, if you will. I remember picking up as a teenager my older brother’s copy of “Advise & Consent”, a very popular political potboiler by Allen Drury from the late 50’s or early 60’s. Turns out that the fictional Senator from Utah, Brigham Anderson, had a major role in the book (and later movie). As luck would have it, though, he was a closet homosexual, and ended up committing suicide when someone threatened to out him.

    The problem is that someone like Krakauer, a good writer, gets some wind in his sails over a couple of pretty good, fairly well researched books like “Into Thin Air” and “Into the Wild”, and then totally ignores common sense and the tools he has used in those other books, and assumes the Lafferty brothers are mainstream Mormons. He sells lots of books, and his shoddy scholarship perpetuates a gross misrepresentation. It would be like assuming that Stalin represented the mainstream Russian Orthodoxy.

    Then again, our most visible LDS personality these days is Glenn Beck…..
    We can’t win.

  17. Lest anyone misunderstand my comment about the Advise & Consent characters homosexuality, my point is that we never get portrayed for what we are. Which is…boring? Maybe if it weren’t for polygamy, Danites, and our lock-step mindless subservience to a hypnotic and fanatical leadership, to mention just a few of the current stereotypes, we really aren’t very interesting.

  18. There have been several small books that have helped overcome this phenomenon. One recent book is “The Shakeress,” which got some favorable reviews in places like the NY Times. Orson Scott Card’s popularity has helped. We definitely need more authors out there presenting a positive image of the Church.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=arhDD0GqhSkC&dq=The+shakeress&source=gbs_navlinks_s

  19. Advise and Consent is likely unknown to most of the readers of this blog. But it made a big splash when it was published. Won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1960. A movie came two years later, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Henry Fonda (not as the Utah senator, though).

    Still, I don’t think that anyone came away from reading that book wondering if Wallace Bennett or Frank Moss (Utah’s senators in 1960) were closet homosexuals. Whether anyone thinks that of Robert Bennett or Orrin Hatch is beyond the scope of this comment.

    As to kevinf’s comment about “boring” I was thinking of some literary characters I thought were boring: [I deleted their names, and the names of the books they appeared in lest you think me a Philistine.] Boring characters make for dull literature–so boring Mormons aren’t likely to show up anytime soon. At least not in anything that anybody will read.

  20. #10: “Harry Reid’s Mormonism is invisible”.
    Mormons have made it that way.
    I thinks Mormons need to think smaller. Start a few good rumors that Jason Bourne was a retuned missionary and was only looking for a noble job when they brainwashed him.

  21. Never underestimate the power of media. I recently spent a year at the UN in Vienna. One of my colleagues is from France and a few months later in Africa I was having dinner with him and his wife. They mentioned that Big Love was one of their favorite shows and they shyly asked me what it was like to be a Mormon. It turned out that they thought that’s what kind of Mormon I was. They also informed me that the two secretaries back at the UN thought I was a Big Love Mormon too. They had always treated me a little coolly and formally compared with the way they got along with everyone else. But now I wonder how far that rumor had spread. Did all my colleagues think that that is the only kind of Mormon there is? Yes we need some more appropriate pop culture exposure. Especially where our presence is not as well known and understood.

  22. On a tangent, Ronan said, “And when one appeared in Italian consciousness — the wildly popular Stephenie Meyer — “the church banned her books” (thus the Mormon church *is* just like Doyle’s Mormons).”

    Huh? What did I miss?

  23. What did I miss?

    Deseret Books pulled her books. Sure, you and I know DB isn’t The Church, but do the Italians?

  24. #21: I would love to the thought of as a Big Love Mormon at work. I would do everything to keep the rumor alive. Or maybe, they might start mistaking me for James Bond!

  25. I don’t think I underestimate the impact of the Krakauer and Beck narratives as much as I think there’s not much to be done about it except go about our own business as honorably as possible. There aren’t that many of us, and we can’t force anyone to write nice things about us (or accurate things, for that matter).

    I was the only Mormon at my (Southern Baptist) college, and people would come up to me and say, “You never told me you were a Mormon”–and I guess I hadn’t because a) I barely knew them and b) it never came up. For most of these people I was the first Mormon they’d ever met. I started out feeling burdened by people’s preconceived notions about my religion, but after the incident in the dining hall when someone tried to cast the demon out of me–or cast me out because I was the demon (it was never really clear to me which was the case)–I started thinking that other people’s prejudices and ignorance weren’t really my responsibility, and I just haven’t managed to work up much angst about it since.

    In my opinion, if someone has wildly inaccurate perceptions about Mormonism, it’s their embarrassment, not mine. It’s not like they couldn’t find out the truth if they were interested enough. I don’t think that I’m an expert on something just because I read one book about it. That’s just arrogant.

    I’m also uncomfortable with this pre-occupation we Mormons have with our image, as a church and as a people. I hesitate to call it pride, except that I think that’s what it is. Frankly, I’m more embarrassed by the totally-accurate perception of us being image-conscious and wanting to manipulate this image than I am by inaccurate perceptions of us as polygamists or whatever.

  26. I should have been clearer: I certainly appreciate the church’s right to control its own image. I just think we obsess over it a little too much sometimes.

  27. I’m also frustrated that I’ve said so much and still not addressed the issue of producing popular books with positive or at least accurate portrayals of the church and its members. Part of the problem is when we insist on something being fully-positive instead of fully-authentic. You want positive images of Mormons, but part of people having a positive image of you is them being able to relate to you as human beings. Mormons seem to have a hard time being seen as anything less than exceptionally awesome. Someone should make a film about a Mormon superhero.

  28. Deseret Books pulled her books. Sure, you and I know DB isn’t The Church, but do the Italians?

    Thanks for the explanation. Of course, I only know DB as a publisher (and not her publisher), and in that context this makes absolutely no sense. I assume this means they pulled them from the shelves of their physical bookstores (which I guess exist in UT)?

  29. Um I think Introvigne is mistaken regarding Stephanie Meyer. I think her Mormon Faith is generally invisible outside the Mormon Corridor, and evidence shows that no one really cares that Anne Rice is now very Catholic, or that Anne Perry is LDS. If Italy didn’t swoon for Donny Osmond as the one famous Mormon to tell Mormonism’s Story, I don’t think they’ll be impacted much by an author who doesn’t directly mention it in her books at all.

    Personally, I think if someone can right a highly readable book (Stephanie Meyer) and throw in a Mormon Character who is assumed to be all the negative characteristics but it is revealed throughout the story that Mormons are none of those things, I think that would do more, in that it would be a memorable way to display that false information for what it is- i.e. false.

  30. Thomas Parkin says:

    “I hesitate to call it pride, except that I think that’s what it is.”

    I think the church has had its childhood, and we’re now going through our collective adolescence – the preening and fretting about whether others like us, and the worry about being misunderstood. Someday we’ll be grown-ups, and that will be something.

    “I’m more embarrassed by the totally-accurate perception of us being image-conscious and wanting to manipulate this image than I am by inaccurate perceptions of us as polygamists or whatever.”

    Amen to that.

    I wish we would just teach the basics of the gospel and let the chips fall. But, like you, I understand the need for the church to protect its image.

    “Part of the problem is when we insist on something being fully-positive instead of fully-authentic.”

    Agree 1000% ~

  31. #27: “..the issue of producing popular books”. I agree with you.
    Here’s a start: Why not write all you can to p—off the most popular authors of the day? You know the ones. The ones who know lots about Mormons, Masons, etc.

  32. So the Mormon Black Guy that was on House is basically the best thing to happen to Mormonism in years?

  33. #32: Your right in that the Church can not always pick the way it is used by the popular culture.
    I thought the Black Mormon role on ‘House’ was just odd. I feel the same about ‘Big Love’.
    Take the 1940 movie ‘Brigham Young’. The film was made by Hollywood/Jewish producers. They wanted to talk about the persecution of a religious group without talking about themselves.

  34. I don’t buy the argument that worrying about the church’s image is to be dismissed as so much adolescent fretting or unmitigated pride. You may not like it, but how the church is perceived by the larger culture affects the church’s effectiveness as an institution, as well as its missionary efforts. We are right to be interested in its image.

    We like to pretend that if we as individual members just live an admirable life, and just keep plugging along obsessing over internal matters like what to call the Relief Society Meeting, that outsiders will somehow someday run into a copy of the Book of Mormon at the library and suddenly be converted. Memo to everyone who think talking about public affairs: the world already knows we’re here. They have already formed an opinion. We are not a clean slate. In the absence of our creating the image, the vacuum has been filled and our neighbors know about us (whether accurate or not). And for the most part, they don’t want anything to do with joining up with us.

    So, let’s pull our heads out of the sand, and let’s take a wide view all around us, assess the damage, and make positive steps to support the church’s image in the broader culture.

    Sheesh.

    [stepping off soap box]

  35. In the absence of our creating the image, the vacuum has been filled and our neighbors know about us (whether accurate or not).

    Do you really think there was a vacuum? Maybe in the beginning when we were too busy trying not to get run out of our homes or put in jail for being polygamists, but the church has been pretty careful about the image it presents to the world–and pretty active about cultivating a positive image, more so with each wave of new media. And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the church has a PR department; it definitely needs one. From what I can tell it’s a pretty darn competent one as well, all things considered. I just don’t think it’s any match for what Ronan is talking about here–scary stories that have lived on for generations largely because most people aren’t interested in studying Mormonism. We’re a a relatively small group of folks, and let’s face it, there’s no sexy angle to work since we outlawed polygamy.

    I am starting to think that RJH is onto something, though. I was going to say that stuff the church commissions just comes off like a commercial and at times has a strong tendency toward…artistic ineptitude, let’s say. But lots of people out there like commercials and crap. Maybe there’s an easier way of doing missionary work than sending people out two-by-two to interrupt folks eating dinner. We could upgrade our image from “crazy cultists” to “harmless salespersons” in not too much time.

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