We are shocked and saddened to hear that our friend Jonathan D. Langford passed away on March 31 at the age of 55, apparently suffering a sudden heart attack. Jonathan has been the coordinator for this blog since 2010, soon after its founding. Jonathan was also an author, editor, and a key leader and participant for many years of the Life, the Universe, and Everything conference, The Leading Edge magazine, and the Association for Mormon Letters. The funeral will be held Saturday, April 8, at the LDS Church at 545 Stageline Rd in Hudson, WI. The viewing will be at 1 pm and the funeral at 2 pm.
Jonathan grew up in western Oregon. His first published work was a poem which appeared in The Children’s Friend when he was 8. He enrolled at Brigham Young University as a 16-year old in 1978, intending to study politics. During the Winter of 1980 he became involved in Quark, a science fiction club at BYU that was less than a year old. From 1981 to 1983 he served a mission in Italy for the LDS Church. “One of the many insights on my mission”, he wrote, “had been the realization that while in Italy, I’d had no problem setting aside my interest in politics—but that everything I saw made me think of art, literature, and culture in general. And so I decided I should follow my love, and go into literature.”
Returning to BYU in 1983, Jonathan became a leader of what might be called the “second generation” of student science fiction efforts in Provo. He got involved in the BYU-student run speculative fiction magazine The Leading Edge, serving as Executive Editor for issues #6 through #11, from 1983 to 1986, and continued to help in minor capacities for the next two years. In 1986 and 1987 he was the chair of the 4th and 5th “Life, the Universe, & Everything” science fiction symposiums, held on BYU campus. He was also an active member of the Xenobia writing group. Dave Wolverton (AKA David Farland) credits Jonathan for bringing him into Xenobia, which played a major role in directing him towards a career as a nationally known fantasy author.
Jonathan wrote about this period, “My work on The Leading Edge was without question the most influential—and positive—experience of my college career. As I mentioned above, as a result of insights about my own character and interests while on my mission, I’d decided that I was going to major in literature—English. A big part of the reason for that was my interest in writing. It was my TLE experience that gave me an outlet to start doing something with that interest. After I started working on TLE, I completed what was essentially the informal equivalent (at that time) of what would later become BYU’s editing emphasis, serving as an editorial intern with BYU Studies and the Humanities Publications Center, taking the editing course taught by Linda Adams.”
One commentator wrote that he strove to, “give the magazine a strong semi-professional edge . . . [He] emphasized that the magazine was not simply being produced for the benefit of the staff and contributors, or even solely readers at the university, but for the wider world . . . Thanks to Langford, The Leading Edge had acquired a new generation of staff and volunteers which gave the magazine added momentum. It also became financially more viable with a significant increase in subscriptions. An annual contest was established for sf and fantasy artwork. . . . Above all, new manuscripts flooded in.” (Mike Ashley, Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990. Liverpool University Press, 2016, p. 207-208).
In 1987 Jonathan married Laurel, who he met through their involvement at the BYU Quark club. From 1987 to 1990 Jonathan pursued a Masters Degree in the BYU English Department. His thesis was “Pathways into Maturity: Coming-of-Age among Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings.” The thesis argued “that for some of us, stories like Tolkien’s become an important part of our own development — a ritual of sorts, in which we vicariously experience the main characters’ coming-of-age and are thereby assisted in our own. ”
Jonathan wrote, “While working on my master’s degree, I got a job with an educational software company writing and editing teacher’s manuals, training materials, and online educational activities. After completing my master’s degree, I began a doctoral program at the University of California at Riverside, with a focus in medieval literature, where I did well and completed my coursework and exams. Over time, however, I came to realize I was better suited to expository writing and editing than to teaching and research, and so I returned to work in the educational publishing industry.” Jonathan and his growing family moved to western Wisconsin, and he worked as a freelance writer and editor from that time. He also taught freshman composition part-time at the university level. He and Laurel, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, were blessed with three children, Nathan, Rowan and Michael.
After moving to Wisconsin, Jonathan continued to stay active in the LDS science fiction community, often participating in the LTU&E symposiums. He also became an active participant in AML-List, an email discussion list of the Association for Mormon Letters. He eventually became moderator of the list, around the years 2000-2003. This helped lead Jonathan to become a critic of Mormon literature, often writing book reviews and essays on literature for AML-list and other outlets. In 2000 he began several years of service on the editorial board for Irreantum, AML’s literary magazine.
Jonathan wrote of this period, “For creative stuff, I participated on AML-List, wrote Christmas newsletters (I’m told that my “future projections” newsletter — describing the accomplishments our family would like to be able to brag about in the coming year — is a classic of its kind), and produced various other musings for the amusement of my family and friends. When that wasn’t enough, I cooked (and gained weight). And the thought of creative writing receded further and further into the background. And then I woke up one day — strangely near my 40th birthday — and it was like a timer had gone off. “Ding! Okay Jonathan, time to write. Frankly, it scared me out of my mind. There’s something to be said for starting one’s writing career during the first flush of youth, when one is too stupid to know just how bad one’s writing is. Then too, there’s the particular pressure that comes of knowing that one ought to be able to write well: as a professional writer, a wide reader, a trained critic, a careful researcher, an experienced critiquer, I really should possess most of the component skills of successful creative writing. Except, maybe, for the plotting and storytelling part. How hard could it be? Answer: very hard. For me at least.”
Jonathan wrote, “Back about 2002, there was a conversation on AML-List about homosexuality and Mormonism. Rex Goode, an AML-List member who is also one of the relatively small number of Mormons who is both an active member of the Church and open about his same-sex attraction, made the interesting point that those in his situation — those who experience such attractions but are committed to staying in the Church — typically aren’t understood or accepted terribly well either in the Mormon church or in the gay community . . . Thinking about all of that gave me the idea for a short story that might start with a teenager coming out to his best friend and end with him being publicly outed. Basically, I had the front end and back end of what eventually became the novel. I didn’t try to write it at that time, though. Fast-forward six years to Christmas 2007. I’d decided to put more effort into my creative writing, and was thinking about several stories that had been sitting in the back of my mind. One of them was the gay Mormon teen coming-out story, as I thought of it. Suddenly the idea occurred to me that the gay teen’s bishop might be his best friend’s father. More ideas flowed from there, and soon I realized I had the makings for a novel . . . My primary intended audience for this book is believing Mormons who are doctrinally orthodox but relatively liberal in their reading tastes and tolerances. I’m hoping the book will appeal not only to those with connections to gays (e.g., family members who are gay) but also to those (bishops, other leaders, and just ordinary folks) who may wonder about the kinds of challenges that those who are same-sex attracted face in the Church and how the rest of the LDS community can help support them.”
No Going Back, Jonathan’s 2009 novel, broke new ground in Mormon fiction–an honest but recognizably “Mormon” depiction of male homosexuality. It was one of five finalists for the 2009 Whitney Award for Best General Fiction. Author and WiDo editor Karen Jones Gowen wrote, “I found No Going Back to be a deeply spiritual, faith-affirming story that is neither contentious nor agenda-driven. In fact, it’s a refreshingly honest look at all sides of this issue. Paul’s dilemma and his subsequent pondering of what this means for his life now and in the future touched my heart and soul . . . The character development is incredible. Read it if only to see the artistry with which Langford creates his cast of players. Even minor characters come to life on the page . . . No Going Back is a fast read, even quite funny in places. I could hardly put it down. It is richly layered and complex, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching, a finely written tale of depth and meaning.” William Morris wrote, “By telling the story simply, tying it to a particular time and place, and focusing on the teenage protagonists, Langford is able to confine the discussion of this issue to a manageable narrative–and a compelling one. The approach Langford takes is genius. I love the way he threads the middle of American Mormon mores, doctrine, and practice in a way that is in some senses mundane–this is basically a domestic drama–but also incredibly radical . . . Any discussion of same-sex attraction makes a lot of Mormons uncomfortable. But the novel is thoroughly orthodox. Its characters are orthodox Mormons. Its tensions and ultimate solutions and resolutions are firmly rooted in active LDS life–prayer, scripture study, repentance, the priesthood, love, charity, hope, the family.”
Christian Harrison, a gay Mormon, wrote about reading the book in a review in Dialogue, “Five hours later, I was still there, wrapped up in a story both familiar and foreign — each character flawed yet sympathetic, and the whole story infused with a gentle warmth…. Langford doesn’t just put his cast in a real place and time but surrounds them with actual events and everyday brands — gracing the story with a certain authenticity. And it doesn’t end with references to video games and rainy weather. It’s in the sometimes-awkward teenage dialogue — and the different, yet somehow still imperfect dialogue of the grown-ups. It’s this candor, I suspect, that will give the story a solid shelf life…. Every reader will likely take something different away from the book. But each, I suspect, will leave feeling a little more hopeful. And if they’re anything like me, they’ll also have wept a little more than they’re willing to admit.”
In 2010 Jonathan was asked to be the webmaster and coordinator of Dawning of a Brighter Day, the Association for Mormon Letters blog. He continued as the coordinator ever since, although Elizabeth Beeton came on midway through to take over the blog’s technical aspects. He worked hard to recruit columnists and guest posters and moderate the discussions. He tried to give thoughtful comments to almost every post. He also continued to write book reviews for A Motley Vision and other periodicals.
Jonathan did several projects with Christopher Bigelow. He helped with Irreantum in the years that Christopher was the editor of that Mormon journal. His novel No Going Back was published by Zarahemla Books, a small Mormon publisher created by Christopher. Jonathan and Christopher co-edited two coffee-table books, The Latter-Day Saint Family Encyclopedia (Thunder Bay Press, 2010), and Mormon Wisdom: Inspirational Sayings from Latter-Day Saints (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015).
Jonathan’s final major project was co-editing a collection of essays by the retired BYU Russian professor and playwright Thomas F. Rogers, entitled Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty (Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2016). Jonathan co-edited the volume with Linda Hunter Adams, his editing mentor from BYU, who herself passed away in 2016. Jonathan had first met Tom Rogers when Rogers was his Branch President at the MTC. Mahonri Stewart, in a review to come out in an upcoming issue of Dialgoue, wrote, “Editors Jonathan Langford and Linda Hunter Adams have scoured Rogers’ very active and varied writing life and chosen from a huge spectrum of various different types of genres and subject matter. Essays, poems, reviews, personal letters, speeches, journal entries—Langford and Adams had a whole literary cornucopia to choose from, having been given access to a treasure trove—as eclectic as it is—of a rich and long lifetime of writing. Although that does make for a slightly cafeteria-like experience—you’re able to sample a little bit of this, a little bit of that—I, for one, have always enjoyed diversity on my plate.” Reviewer Douglas F. Christensen wrote, “Rogers provides a lifetime of critical thinking to address a contemporary culture of religious questioning and angst, not by pontificating, but by sharing his own questioning and religious angst. What emerges is a thesis of reassurance that through patience and candid investigation his readers can find answers to difficult questions or at least consolation in the face of holy mystery.”
We are heartbroken to lose our friend, but we rejoice for the time that we got to share with him. We ask for a blessing on his family, who he dearly loved.
Jonathan Langford Bibliography
“The Great Shift from Science Fiction to Fantasy.” Leading Edge, no. 11 (winter 1985): 35–39.
[with Nancy Lynn Hayes and Steven C. Walker] “Mooting of the Minds: Why Fans Enjoy Tolkien.” Leading Edge, no. 9 (winter 1985): 78–84.
“Report from ConFederation.” Leading Edge 12 (fall 1986): 87–89.
“Pathways into Maturity: Coming-of-Age among Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings.” Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1990.
“The Scouring of the Shire as a Hobbit Coming-of-Age.” Mythlore 18 (fall 1991): 4–9.
“Science Fiction and the Marvelous: Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal.” In Deep Thoughts: Proceedings of Life, the Universe and Everything XII, February 16–19, 1994, ed. Steve Setzer and Marny K. Parkin, 35–58. Provo, Utah: LTU&E, 1995.
“Sitting Down to the Sacramental Feast: Food and Cultural Diversity in The Lord of the Rings.” In Food of the Gods: Eating and the Eaten in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Eric Rabkin and George Slusser, 117–41. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
“Why the Academy Is Afraid of Dragons: The Suppression of the Marvelous in Theories of the Fantastic.” In Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy, ed. Gary Westfahl and George E. Slusser, 51–64. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
No Going Back. Provo, Utah: Zarahemla Books, 2009.
“The Garden.” Leading Edge, no. 9 (winter 1985): 26–30.
Home 2180 A.D.” Leading Edge, no. 7 (1984): 89.
[as Neil J. McMichaels] “Elegy for a Childhood Friend.” Leading Edge, no. 11 (winter 1985): 47
“Not About Mormons: A review of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America” Irreantum, Winter 2003/Spring2004, pp. 135-138.
“Will the Real Coke Please Stand Up: On the Road to Heaven, by Coke Newell.” Sunstone Magazine, Feb. 2009.
“Destiny, Demons, and Freewill in Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver Books”. Irreantum, 14:1, 2012, p. 115-120.
“Mormonism from Varied Fictional Perspectives: William Morris. Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 49:2. Summer 2016.
The Writing Rookie series at A Motley Vision.
His A Motley Vision articles and reviews.
His Dawning of a Brighter Day columns.
(Thanks to Marny K. Parkin and her “Bibliography of Mormon Speculative Fiction” for many of these references.)
For more about the growth of a speculative fiction community in the Utah Valley in the 1980s, see:
Barbara R. Hume. “Strange Bedfellows—A History of Science Fiction in the Corridor.” In Washed by a Wave of Wind: Science Fiction from the Corridor. Signature Books, 1993.
Jonathan Langford. “The Leading Edge—Thoughts and Memories Jonathan Langford, December 2011.”
Joe Vasicek. “The Class That Wouldn’t Die”. Mormon Artist, 2010.