I love the youth of the Church. I realize I can't entirely understand their struggles into adulthood, but I remember mine and write about them, and hope that sometimes I hit a common chord between them and me.
-- Jack Weyland
I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that Jack Weyland is one of the most well-known LDS writers of all time and is probably the most famous author of Mormon teen romances.
I know that upon hearing his name Mormons and exmos alike will roll their eyes and say “Jack Weyland? Puh-leaze!” However, it's not just some sort of crazy fluke that his stories are as popular as they are. So I'd like to talk a little bit about his work.
I think the two principal criticisms of Weyland are the following:
1. A highly idealized (rather than realistic) portrayal of Mormon life,
2. Too much simple remixing of the same story elements, leading to repetition and a lack of narrative richness.
These weaknesses aside, Weyland's stories have a lot of wit and charm. His portrait of growing up Mormon is upbeat and positive, and – as indicated by the above quote – affectionate and sincere.
His treatment of adolescent issues isn't as simplistic as some might claim. For example, he does a good job of expressing the central importance of popularity. In his stories set in high school, he shows a range of social types and explores how they interact with each other. He has popular kids thinking about how they should treat unpopular kids, righteous kids concerned about how they should treat naughty/rebellious kids, etc.
In my opinion, Weyland's stories are more accurate and nuanced regarding teen popularity and social status than, say, Louise Plummer's in The Romantic Obsessions & Humiliations of Annie Sehlmeier, which is a novel about a new girl who moves into town the summer before her senior year of high school and apparently waltzes right into the middle of the most popular clique in the school with hardly a thought about it, giving the impression that her school has maybe twenty real live kids attending it and the rest are some sort of scenery. I'm not saying this to slam Louise Plummer, whose work is very strong overall. The only reason I mention her is because another of her novels is listed on A Motley Vision as potentially being a part of the canon of Mormon literature. So since Weyland's work is usually dismissed as fluff, I thought I'd mention one point where his stories compare favorably to those of another LDS author. In Weyland's universe, the kids are aware of the social structure, whereas in Plummer's book, the characters are concerned about relationships among the principal players, but the more general question of the characters' social place within the larger student body is completely absent.
Regarding Weyland's weaknesses, the repetitiveness is a little annoying, but the key is not to read too many of his books in a row. For your convenience, I've isolated the common elements of the batch of Jack Weyland stories I've read:
* a guy and girl express their love through doing silly, goofy things and/or through some church-related activities and good deeds; they proceed directly to the temple
* fishing or possibly hunting
* somebody dies or is dead, and everyone feels better about it because of Mormonism
* somebody joins the LDS church
* a priesthood blessing
* a guy is going on a mission or is just back, a girl is waiting for him
* the one and only thing that tempts the LDS youth not to choose the right is social pressure (note that temptation here is temptation to do something like not be nice to the unpopular kids – temptations like sex, for example, do not exist in his universe).
The fact that right always prevails and leads to happiness in his tales (while wickedness leads to misery) is pretty hard to miss. His stories are orthodox enough that they could appear in a lesson manual if they weren't sold for entertainment, which is probably why he was a staple of The New Era for a time. He doesn't even pay lip service to being fair to the opposition. For example, in Punch and Cookies Forever Weyland writes from the perspective of a rebellious guy who has apparently become some sort of bearded proponent of peace-and-love – in order to spite his church leader dad – and is brought back to the fold by the love of a righteous woman. The character is unbelievably shallow and devoid of any sort of convictions. Similarly, lots of people in his stories have experiences that confirm the truthfulness of the gospel; nobody has any serious issues with it.
Basically you have to accept that this is the perspective that he's writing from if you want to read his work. It is written as light entertainment and instruction, and as such it is intended to be pleasant and affirming to the sensibilities of LDS readers.
In Weyland's idealized Mormon world, he ends up portraying rather realistically aspects of Mormon culture that some might see as negative. In particular, he show young people who barely know each other (and don't even give the impression of being especially compatible) rushing into marriage. He shows submissive LDS girls completely submerging their identities into the goal of becoming a (temple-married) wife and mother. Virtue and spirituality are second nature to the Mormon girls in his stories, not a struggle. This is realistic in that a Mormon teenage boy might see Mormon girls this way, but in my opinion this image is as harmful and potentially damaging to girls as the unrealistic images of models in the fashion magazines that give them a negative body image.
Probably the ugliest thing I've seen in Weyland's work is the plot-line where an obnoxious guy “helps” a fat girl by being brutally honest with her (i.e. repeatedly telling her what a repulsive lardo she is), and she responds by changing her ways, losing weight, and being eternally grateful to the guy. This plot appears in a short story and is also a sub-plot in the novel Sam (where the formerly-fat girl actually marries the guy who “helped” her). This is wrong on so many levels, I don't even know where to begin. All I can say is that it was a product of a different time, and hopefully this sort of thing wouldn't fly even in Mormon circles today. Of course it's hard to say since I hear that people still stand up in Sacrament Meeting and tell the one about the single sister who asks her bishop if she needs to become more spiritual in order to snag a husband and the bishop replies that she's spiritual enough to be translated on the spot but too fat to get off the ground...
These criticisms aside, Weyland's work is fun for the most part with lots of great details about what life is like for LDS teens and young adults. Reading his stories, I can't help but speculate about what Jack Weyland was like in high school and college himself. Given that he seems to relate better to the dilemmas faced by the popular kids and the fact that he clearly sees courtship and dating as a fun adventure (not something painful and frustrating), I would guess that he was a popular guy, a scholar/athlete, and a catch. :D
I get this idea by contrasting his work with my own novel Exmormon. I've admitted to having had a difficult time fitting in as a teen, and you can see the result in that my portrait of the LDS dating scene is incredibly cynical (although hopefully still entertaining).
Now I can hear all of you collectively sighing about how it always comes back to my novel eventually, doesn't it? Well, to steal a favorite blogging quote from Rebecca, “If you want something interesting, read a less self-indulgent blog.” ;-)
But seriously, it makes sense to compare my novel to Weyland's work since Exmormon is more an LDS-interest teen romance novel than it is anything else. And aside from the obvious overlap in subject matter, there are some stylistic similarities in that – like Weyland's stories – the focus is on the social interactions among an array of characters and the action is largely driven by ridiculous/humorous dialogs.
However, if Jack Weyland were ever to read my novel and then discover that I claim it has some common elements with his writings, he'd probably have a heart attack and die on the spot. So I'll mercifully stop here.