I was not surprised that a large number of the participants mentioned, in registration, that they were Wiccans or interested in other forms of neo-paganism. However, it was clear that at least half of the crowd of readers with marked-up Harry Potter books were mothers — often homeschool enthusiasts — who were Catholics, evangelical Protestants or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It was important, some said, that author J.K. Rowling had outed herself, early on, as a communicant in the progressive Scottish Episcopal Church. She told a Canadian newspaper: “Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said, ‘yes,’ because I do. … If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader — whether 10 or 60 — will be able to guess what is coming in the books.”
Now, this brings us to that fascinating New York Times feature that ran with this double-decker headline:
An Unexpected Hotbed of Y.A. Authors: Utah
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
Yes, it’s interesting that Mormons play a major role in the world of fantasy fiction for children, teenagers and family-reading circles. I also thought it was interesting that editors at the world’s most prestigious newspaper have never heard of some other religious believers who have excelled as fantasy stars.
Right. Has anyone out there heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, George MacDonald and many others? In the past decade or two, how about Stephen Lawhead, Andrew Peterson and Donita K. Paul, among many others? Oh, right, and that Rowling lady has sold a few books, too.
Mormon authors who have written best sellers 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 B.Y.U. graduate and a great-great-grandson of Brigham Young. The 1971 best seller “Go Ask Alice,” billed as the real diary of a teenage drug addict, was actually written by a Mormon housewife, Beatrice Sparks.
Mr. Sanderson now teaches a creative-writing class at B.Y.U. 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 L.D.S. folks grow up with their parents having them read the Scriptures,” Mr. 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 L.D.S., 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.
Note that the crucial “religious temperaments” quote is a paraphrase attributed to Sanderson. Did he really say that religious believers have rarely excelled in writing fantasy fiction? Or was he — facing a New York Times grilling — suggesting that people with “religious temperaments,” whatever that means, are not “associated” with success in this kind of literature, when it comes to some cultural elites? Just asking.
How, the first half of this Times feature (before the team veers into LGBTQ+ issues) does make valid points about the impact of Latter-day Saints culture on reading and writing. For example, congregational leaders urge — strongly urge — that parents build “family night” activities into their schedules. For millions of believers, this includes reading aloud to their children.
What do they read? I’ve spent some time in Utah, speaking at Brigham Young University, and have visited local bookstores. Let’s just say that parents there (and professors) have heard of Narnia, Middle Earth, etc.
This is also a valid point:
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 that doesn’t contain graphic sex or violence. …
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 Y.A. fiction.”
I’ll end (please listen to the podcast) with another observation and then a related question.
Anyone who has studied fiction — in any era — and trends in modern screenwriting is familiar with the term “hero’s journey.” Think “Star Wars,” for one classic example.
The Times article offers this observation from Chris Schoebinger, the “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,” Mr. 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.”
That’s a valid point, but the same logic would also apply to religious believers in many other traditions.
Here is a question that I think would have interested many readers (maybe half of the United States population): Why have Latter-day Saints been so successful, in terms of producing fantasy/fiction bestsellers, while religious believers in other pews have not? In particular, where are the culture-shaping novels by evangelical Protestants, for example? I can think of nationally known evangelical experts who would be logical voices on that topic.
As the great actor Robert Duvall once told me, evangelicals and other conservative Christian believers know that subjects like “sin,” “repentance,” “redemption” and “salvation” are important realities and can be found in many gripping stories about real life.
This is one reason, he said, that Hollywood pros struggle to write scripts that connect with ordinary people in the Heartland and the Bible Belt. Click here to read what else Duvall had to say.
So it’s understandable that Hollywood types struggle with that kind of classic story arc. But why are evangelical Protestants not producing novels and scripts that connect with the masses?
What do Latter-day Saint writers “get” that others conservative believers do not?
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FIRST IMAGE: From the cover of the 20th anniversary edition of “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card, for sale at Amazon.com