It was Thanksgiving break of 2001 when I first saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with my mom and her friend. They had both read the first book; I had not. The movie was fun and magical. I enjoyed it.
At that time I was volunteering as a mentor for a teenage girl who had told me she found Harry Potter “boring.” I laughed out loud. Everyone had been gushing over the unique characters and the imaginative world. During my study abroad to London in summer 2000, one of my classmates woke up before dawn and waited outside a bookshop to get her hands on one of the first copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
How could such a phenomenon be considered “boring”?
I soon found out. I started reading a borrowed copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone not long after I watched the movie.
It was boring.
I only managed to make it through the first thirty pages. Now maybe it’s because I had just spent the last four years reading Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Geoffrey Chaucer, Hamlet (over and over), and Edgar Allen Poe that the young adult genre voice bored me so much.
But I have another theory: as a novice writer J. K. Rowling felt that she needed to explain every little thing in her magical wizarding world. She knew she had to incorporate the exposition somehow, but it was revealed through conversations and explanations that felt like every reader must be the eleven-year-old Harry Potter looking for answers.
She repeats this awkward exposition in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when after a charged exchange in the Dudleys’ household, Rowling reveals, “Harry Potter wasn’t a normal boy. As a matter of fact, he was as not normal as it is possible to be. Harry Potter was a wizard —a wizard fresh from his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.” She follows up this moment with Harry’s reminiscence of Hogwarts: ghosts, classes, spells, and Quidditch—with an unclear parenthetical description of the mechanics of the sport. (Imagine someone describing American football in a dozen words.) Rowling also makes a similar move in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Harry Potter is special; he’s a wizard.
It’s not until the fourth book in the series that Rowling realizes her audience will either intimately know and love her magical wizarding world or be okay to step into the middle of an unfamiliar space and let the story take them there.
Writers who wish to explore the complex world of Mormon culture may find themselves a similar situation. Uniquely LDS characters and settings may seem as eccentric to non-LDS readers as Dumbledore and Hogwarts are to muggles. So instead of easily stepping into Diagon Alley or, for that matter, an LDS sacrament meeting, writers feel like they have to describe, often in pace-killing detail, the quirks of the space, whether that means emphasizing that there are no muggles in sight or explaining that the plastic cups of whatever being carried by adolescent boys are what many Christians call communion.
In her article in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Irreantum, Helynne Hansen describes this as “Mormonism 101.” She specifically examines Elna Baker’s memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. Baker stops her narrative several times to explain Mormon practices, such as wearing temple garments, the plan of salvation, and the LDS emphasis on chastity. Doug Thayer’s Hooligan actually delays beginning the story while he describes the ward boundaries and layout of 1930s Provo before explaining how the collective “Second Ward Boys” behave in and out of church.
While it may be tempting to hold the audience’s hand when exploring an unfamiliar landscape, a writer who assumes his or her audience is unable to accept the unusual or look up more information about unique traditions or practices can actually discourage some readers. However, LDS writers do have other options.
Eric James Stone’s Nebula Award-winning short story “That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made,” for example, gives readers the opportunity to explore the world of the story and LDS beliefs in tandem. Maybe it’s because Stone knows he’s writing to a science fiction audience who knows as much about the LDS religion as they know about the giant plasma-based Swales that inhabit the center of stars. Maybe it’s because Stone is more interested in describing the details of the story he’s created rather than the religion he lives.
After all, careful readers will always do their homework. Or simply get caught up in the story while the meanings of peculiar traditions and practices unfold. And in the end the richness of the world will linger.