An unexpected hotbed of YA authors: Utah
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An unexpected hotbed of YA authors: Utah
Mette Ivie Harrison, a writer who said her work was flagged by a church committee, in Syracuse, Utah, Aug. 24, 2023. A tight-knit community of young-adult writers who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has yielded smashes like “Twilight.” But religious doctrine can clash with creative freedoms. (Kim Raff/The New York Times)

by Abby Aguirre

PROVO, UTAH.- American book-reading habits have been in decline for decades, but you wouldn’t know it from sitting in on a young adult literature class held in the winter at Brigham Young University. The professor, Chris Crowe, arrived with a box full of books. When he announced they were free for the taking, some two dozen students rushed to the table.

There were reminders that the class was taking place at “the Lord’s university,” as BYU is known in the Mormon world. (The university is owned and run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Class began with a student-led prayer, and the syllabus cited the school’s mission statement: “The full realization of each student’s divine potential is our central focus.”

But the reading list consisted of mainstream titles any YA fiction fan would recognize, like “The Outsiders,” by S.E. Hinton; and “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson. And the discussion, which that day focused on “Make Lemonade,” Virginia Euwer Wolff’s verse novel about two teenagers living in poverty, came to a familiar head.

To Laurel Scott, a senior from Sachse, Texas, the book’s main characters — Jolly, a 17-year-old single mother of two, and LaVaughn, their 14-year-old babysitter — seemed rather adult. Their lives were difficult, and yet, when they got upset, they didn’t let their emotions erupt. “Neither protagonist acted like what I would expect a teenager to act,” Scott said. “The story just didn’t read to me like a YA novel.”

Andrea Amado-Fajardo, a senior from the San Francisco Bay Area, raised her hand. “But I think we have to take into account LaVaughn’s circumstances,” she said. “When I read this book, I was like, ‘These were my teenage years.’ This is what it was like to not have generational wealth.”

Her voice started to shake. “Sorry, I don’t want to get emotional, but, like, this is how it is. This isn’t ‘The Hunger Games.’ This isn’t a dystopian novel. This is just the fact of the matter. People who don’t have generational wealth are forced to grow up faster.”

‘The Hero’s Journey’

Latter-day Saints are some of the most enthusiastic readers of YA and genre fiction in the country. And many become fiction writers themselves, aided by a network of writing programs, conferences, workshops and publishers in the community.

BYU is an incubator, and the young adult class currently taught by Crowe, English 420 — a literature course, as opposed to creative writing — has been around since 1958, predating by almost a decade “The Outsiders,” a turning point in the evolution of contemporary YA.

The literary scene in Utah fosters a workaday approach to fiction writing, akin to that of the songwriting rooms of Nashville, Tennessee, and it has produced some juggernauts. Stephenie Meyer, whose “Twilight” series has sold over 100 million copies, is a Latter-day Saint and BYU graduate. So is sci-fi and fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. His Kickstarter campaign to self-publish four novels he wrote during the pandemic raised more than $41 million last year.

Mormon authors who have written bestsellers include Ally Condie, author of the “Matched” trilogy, and Shannon Hale, author of the “Princess Academy” series. Orson Scott Card, who wrote “Ender’s Game,” is a BYU graduate and a great-great-grandson of Brigham Young. The 1971 bestseller “Go Ask Alice,” billed as the real diary of a teenage drug addict, was actually written by a Mormon housewife, Beatrice Sparks.

Sanderson now teaches a creative-writing class at BYU and runs Dragonsteel Books, a publishing company he founded in Provo, Utah. He attributes the robust output of Latter-day Saint fiction writers to an especially supportive literary culture but also to an emphasis on reading in their homes, a view shared by many of the two dozen authors, educators and publishing professionals interviewed for this article. “A lot of LDS folks grow up with their parents having them read the Scriptures,” Sanderson said.

He added that the visibility in sci-fi and fantasy is striking in part because the genres are not associated with religious temperaments. “When people find out that Stephenie Meyer, who wrote vampire books, is LDS, they’re like, ‘Whaaaaaat? That doesn’t mesh with my view in my head of a conservative religious community.’”

If outsiders regard sci-fi and fantasy as incongruous with the faith, many writers who are church members don’t. “Fantasy is often a way that you can explore ideas of, you know, trust in something bigger,” said Rosalyn Eves, an author of several YA novels that blend fantasy and romance with historical fiction. “I’ve always felt like religious faith and belief in miracles is not all that different from magic in some ways.”

This sentiment was echoed by Chris Schoebinger, publishing director of Shadow Mountain, an imprint of Deseret Book (the publishing arm of the church).

“One of the core doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what’s called the plan of salvation,” Schoebinger said. “Which takes us from, first, living with our father in heaven, and then coming to Earth, going through this battle for good and evil, this atonement where we’re changed, and then returning to God, or wherever we started, a changed person. That is the hero’s journey.”

Schoebinger is known for discovering fantasy author Brandon Mull, who offered another reason writers in the church are drawn to middle-grade and YA fiction. “Big families,” he said by phone from his home in Highland, north of Provo. “We grow up with that kind of stuff. Disney’s huge in this community. All things family entertainment is pretty big.”

Every author said that a key reason Latter-day Saints tend to write for teenagers and children is a church-encouraged distaste for explicit material that can be found in adult fiction. They prefer to write books that are “clean” — the church’s term for content without graphic sex or violence. It’s one reason Mull sticks to middle-grade, he said: “I’m like a little kid that way. I like an old-timey classic adventure story.”

The preference for clean fiction is shared by adult readers in the church community, said Gene Nelson, a longtime director of the Provo City Library. “There’s a lot of people who are tired of the detailed sexuality and violence that occurs in a lot of adult fiction,” he said. “They don’t want to see the F-word bandied about. When the book almost becomes erotica at some point, where do they go? They go to YA fiction.”

The church has no official guidelines for what constitutes clean fiction, but the cover of the Provo City Library’s “So Fresh! So Clean!” booklet — a list of its approved books — warns, in part: “Books on this list may have some occurrences of the tamest expletives. Sexual references might occur but nothing explicit.”

The histories of Mormon publishing, church-backed children’s education and Utah statehood are intertwined in the biography of one early settler.

George Q. Cannon, a writer from England, was among the first Mormons to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley, in 1847. He became the church’s chief storyteller in the West. He edited, and at one point owned, The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. He started a weekly church newspaper in San Francisco.

He was also the first general superintendent of the church’s Sunday schools. Cannon editorialized against “trashy” literature, which he said was one of the greatest threats to the religious education of young people. (Brigham Young said novels were “falsehoods got up expressly to excite the minds of youth.”) To spread “uplifting” stories, Cannon created the church’s first magazine for children, Juvenile Instructor, and later founded the bookstore and press that became Deseret Book.

Mormons started writing fiction in greater numbers in the 1880s in what’s known as the “home-literature movement,” spurred when church leaders, still vexed by the growing popularity of novels, urged adherents to write their own. “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” apostle Orson F. Whitney declared.

Today Deseret Book comprises three imprints, 40 bookstores, a record company and a film distribution company called Excel Entertainment. Its corporate offices are in a complex of glass buildings not far from Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Deseret’s main imprint publishes Scripture, church curriculum, inspirational guides for missionaries, self-help, biographies and histories. Shadow Mountain, the general trade imprint, has a different mission: to publish “values based” fiction and nonfiction that may appeal to readers who don’t share the same faith.

The imprint was established in 1985, Schoebinger said, but a turning point came in the early 2000s, when a survey revealed that customers were reading “Harry Potter” books in droves. Editors combed the slush pile for fantasy manuscripts. Shadow Mountain soon had a bestseller with “Fablehaven,” Mull’s first book, about an enchanted refuge for magical creatures.

When “Fifty Shades of Grey” came out (itself inspired in part by “Twilight”), Schoebinger and his colleagues wondered if they could find a market for G-rated romance, an opportunity other publishers had also tapped. “We wanted a book that mothers and daughters could read together and just feel good about,” he said. The result was Proper Romance, Shadow Mountain’s line of clean romance novels.

Shadow Mountain has had more than 10 books on one of The New York Times’ bestseller lists. Many are by Mull. Another is “The Romney Family Table,” a cookbook by Ann Romney.

The Church and Gay Rights

Since the “Twilight”-fueled boom of the 2000s, it has become more common for contemporary YA to contain sex and violence. At the King’s English, a popular independent bookstore in Salt Lake City, steamy novels like “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” by Sarah J. Maas, about a teenage huntress who falls in love with her faerie captor, sell fast. And novels like “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender, about a Black trans teenager, and “Camp” by L.C. Rosen, about a summer camp for queer teenagers, are also sought after.

Latter-day Saints doctrine officially declares same-sex relationships sinful. “The church distinguishes between same-sex attraction and homosexual behavior,” its policy states. “People who experience same-sex attraction or identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual can make and keep covenants with God and fully and worthily participate in the church.” People who act on same-sex attraction, however, cannot. “Sexual relations are reserved for a man and woman who are married and promise complete loyalty to each other.”

There appears to be evidence of a correlation between the church’s treatment of LGBTQ members and research showing that more younger Latter-day Saints are leaving the church.

According to polling by Jana Riess, author of “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” the church’s position on LGBTQ issues ranks seventh out of 30 reasons that former Mormons cite for leaving the church. Among millennials who have left, it’s third.

In fact, six of the authors contacted for this article responded that they were no longer active in the church.

One, Matt Kirby, said his allegiance started to crack when his brother came out as gay in the late ’90s. “There was no question that my family and I would continue to love him no matter what,” Kirby said. “My concern was: In this context, in this religious context, what will it mean for him?” The breaking point for Kirby was the church’s push to pass Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. (It was later struck down.)

Kiersten White, who has written more than 20 books for young adults and children, including “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein,” also cited the church’s support for Proposition 8.

“One of the things that Mormonism teaches you is that everyone is entitled to personal revelation, that you have a direct line to God,” White said. “He’ll either give you a burning in your bosom if things are correct or a stupor of thought if things are incorrect. I still remember being at my polling place, looking down at my ballot, and knowing that our church had not only campaigned for Prop 8 and donated significant amounts of money, but specifically over the pulpit asked us to vote for it. And I felt sick.”

Mette Ivie Harrison said the church’s opposition to gay rights was one of many factors. “The Bishop’s Wife,” her adult mystery published in 2014, involved domestic abuse, and its protagonist, Linda, a devout Mormon, experiences doubts about some church beliefs. Deseret Book did not carry it in its stores.

The book was received positively outside church channels, including a review by Janet Maslin in the Times, and HuffPost asked Harrison to write a column about Mormonism. Her essays drew the attention of a group called the Strengthening Church Members Committee, she said, and her local bishop called her in to discuss them.

The conversation was friendly, she said, and she was not threatened with discipline. But she found it unsettling that her writing had been flagged. A spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment for this article.

In 2015, the church passed its so-called November Policy, which declared members in same-sex marriages apostates and barred their children from being baptized. At that time, Harrison had close family friends in the church community who had a child who had come out as transgender. To signal that she was in mourning over the church’s treatment of LGBTQ members, Harrison started wearing black clothes and a rainbow ribbon to services.

Although the November Policy was later reversed, Harrison stopped attending church in 2019.

A ‘Forced Innocence’

It’s unclear how often fiction writers are pressured by the church to change their work. When it happens, it happens in private.

But Brian Evenson did have a public confrontation with BYU in the 1990s. He was teaching creative writing when his first book, “Altmann’s Tongue,” a collection of horror stories, came out. A student objected to the violence in the stories on moral grounds. “I feel like someone who has eaten something poisonous,” the student wrote in an anonymous letter to church leaders. This prompted a review of the book.

He was informed that he could not publish another book like “Altmann’s Tongue” and keep his job at BYU. He resigned. “The pressure was, if I want to keep on writing and not have to constantly be thinking about these people who want me to be writing in a different way, I’ve got to leave,” Evenson said by phone from his home in Santa Clarita, California.

He soon started writing a novel that was more directly about Mormonism than any of his past work had been. “One thing that happens when you grow up Mormon is that you have this system of self-censorship that’s built in,” Evenson said.

The novel, “Father of Lies,” which came out in 1998, has been described as a “patriarchal horror.” Evenson ultimately resigned from the church in 2000.

White, the prolific teen horror and paranormal romance author, said she was never pressured by the church, but her writing did change after she left. Previously, she wrote fiction for young adults and children. She has since written two novels for adults.

“There’s this sort of forced innocence,” White said of being a devout Mormon. “Even though you’re an adult and you have children, you have to engage with and move through the world in a PG way, as though you are still a child.”

Her second novel for adults, “Mister Magic,” was published in August. It’s about a religious sect in the desert in Utah.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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