Some Definitional Thoughts About YA (Mormon) Fiction

Author’s note: This started as a post on my own blog on whether or not No Going Back is a YA novel. I showed it to William Morris, who suggested that I post it here. I quote from his comments: “I know you are worried about readers tiring of hearing about No Going Back, but this blog entry a) is literary criticism, which is the heart of AMV and b) tackles what is becoming a core question for Mormon fiction, imo, because of the huge number of authors finding success with YA and/or work for middle readers — that is, is YA capable of providing real literary value to Mormon letters and if so what level of “˜mature/explicit’ content can it deal with without alienating Mormon readers.”

So I’ve posted different versions (with different titles) in the two places. The version at my blog focuses on the original question of whether No Going Back is a YA novel. The version here retains most of that content, but also considers some more general questions about the nature and status of YA novels, particularly in the Mormon universe.

Who’s the intended audience of No Going Back? In particular, does No Going Back fit the definition of a young adult (YA) novel? That’s proved to be a tricky question — one that raises, for me, broader questions related to the teen market in general, and in particular the market for teen Mormon fiction. And other fiction too, for that matter.

As best I can tell, “young adult” is a label used by publishers and librarians in trying to target books to an early-teen to mid-teen clientele (sometimes stretching down to preteens in practical application), whether by appealing to kids themselves or to the adults who buy, recommend, and/or assign books for them to read. There’s also a general perception (whether justified or not) that such books tend to be shorter, focused on teen protagonists dealing with teen issues, and often written in a simpler style, compared to novels labeled as adult fiction.

Chris Bigelow (my publisher) and I didn’t label No Going Back as a YA book, for reasons that made sense to us at the time. Evidence continues to accumulate, however, that many readers — including some who almost certainly know better than Chris and I — see it as a YA novel. For instance, there’s the review in the spring 2010 newsletter of the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered Round Table, which evaluates No Going Back as an example of Mormon YA literature.

I’m happy, of course, with people buying and reading my book, whatever they choose to call it. Let’s pretend for a moment, though, that this question of definitions has some importance, and look at some arguments each way.

First, reasons why No Going Back is a YA novel:

  • Most of the action centers on a teenage protagonist, his best friend, and their agemates at school and Church.
  • The central story arc is about growing up.
  • The central issue is how the teenage protagonist will deal with his increasing awareness of the conflict between his homosexual attractions and the religious beliefs he’s been raised with, together with a large side helping of questions about popularity and peer group loyalties — classic teen issues, just the sort of stuff you might have seen in those much-dreaded After School Specials of yesteryear.
  • Much of the story is taken up with details of teenage life, from lunch-table conversation to video games.
  • The style is relatively simple and straightforward, with a lot of space devoted to dialogue and internal monologue.

On the other hand:

  • Not all of the characters are teenagers. One of the three characters who gets a lot of air space is an adult, the protagonist’s bishop and father of his best friend.
  • There’s a major subplot (seen as irrelevant by some readers, but praised by others) about that adult character and his relationship with his wife, which has been strained by the demands of his calling as bishop.
  • The book is grittier and more realistic in areas such as teenage language than titles that are sold as standard Mormon YA fiction.
  • Although it reads quickly, the book is actually longer than typical size for a regular novel, let alone a YA novel, weighing in at about 110,000 words (standard adult novel size is considered 80,000-100,000).
  • Perhaps most important, the book wasn’t written with a teenage audience in mind. So far, in fact, the only teenager I’m aware of who’s read it is my own daughter. (No, I didn’t twist her arm.) To be honest, I don’t think it’s a story that would interest many teenagers (unless they’re dealing with this issue personally) or that they would enjoy.

Readers so far have been divided in whether they think it’s suitable for a YA audience. A criticism some readers have made (both from a faithful LDS perspective and from a gay perspective, interestingly) is that the book could easily be depressing for teenage readers who are themselves same-sex attracted (SSA) and Mormon. Certainly it doesn’t spell out any easy answers for them. And the main character gets hit with a lot of hard things, partly as a result of choices he makes but largely as a result of things that are completely out of his control. When it comes down to it, I’m not sure I’d want a same-sex attracted teenage Mormon kid to read this book. (Though I think it might be good if his bishop had read it.)

Perhaps more to the point, as I indicated above, there’s little evidence so far that teen readers will want to read the book, or will like it if they do read it. This, however, raises a broader question to me: Who actually is buying YA novels? Who is reading them? Who is choosing who reads them?

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There’s a key definitional question that centers, I think, on differences between the Mormon YA market and the category of YA fiction in the larger non-Mormon world. Mormon YA titles are expected to be pretty much squeaky clean as regards language and what is considered inappropriate behavior, especially sexual behavior. You might have a (pretty daring) YA Mormon novel where a character or a character’s friend slips and falls morally, but all of the inappropriate behavior — and the feelings leading up to that behavior — would happen offstage. You could never (for example) allude to a straight teenage boy’s physical reaction to being next to a pretty girl — at least, that’s my perception — let alone a SSA teenage boy’s physical reaction to seeing a cute guy, as No Going Back does.

This is far from true as regards YA fiction nationally. In fact, YA fiction in general takes a certain pride in tackling the issues that are most relevant (if often embarrassing) for teenagers, like unwanted and socially distressing physical reactions. The very scenes in my book that would horrify buyers and editors of Mormon YA fiction actually increase its qualifications as YA fiction, judged by a national standard.

I think part of the reason for this — on top of a general prudishness in what’s usually referred to as the Mormon market — is that YA Mormon fiction, unlike YA fiction nationally, is a category that’s been created largely by publishers and booksellers, not librarians. Furthermore, it’s being sold largely to parents, grandparents, etc., not directly to teenagers themselves. The primary marketing niche for Mormon YA fiction, as I see it, is as an alternative to mainstream YA fiction, for those who are horrified by the very realism that mainstream YA fiction is so proud of. Marketing No Going Back as a YA novel in a Mormon market would have targeted it at precisely those buyers least likely to like it, while guaranteeing that it would have been overlooked by many who might have liked it but who know what the code of “Mormon YA fiction” generally means.

But then I have to wonder: Do teenagers really like all those issue-oriented YA books that are being sold and praised in the national market very much? Are they books that teenagers generally choose to read? Or do they read them because they’re assigned in classes and pushed on teenagers by librarians?

From my experience, when teenagers read at all by choice, they usually read genre fiction: science fiction and fantasy, mysteries, romances, or whatever their particular preferred flavor may be. (Adults aren’t much different in that respect.) I think there’s some evidence that teenagers tend to like books with teenage protagonists, dealing with themes related to growing up and coming of age. It seems to me, though, that they tend to like them in works such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game — a book with younger-than-teenage protagonists for most of the book, which resonates for many sf nerds with their experiences of unpopular brilliance, but not written, marketed, or (mostly) read as a YA novel, though it has many of the generic markers I mentioned above.

On the other hand, searching online, I found the following:

Orson Scott Card is the recipient of the 2008 Margaret A. Edwards Award honoring his outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens for his novels “Ender’s Game” and “Ender’s Shadow.” An accomplished storyteller, Card weaves the everyday experiences of adolescence into broader narratives, addressing universal questions about humanity and society. The award was announced January 14 at the 2008 Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) in Philadelphia.

So maybe Ender’s Game really is a YA novel, even if he and most of his readers don’t think it is. Kind of like No Going Back. Wait…

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Teenagers, I would argue, of all of us, very often most live in a fallen world beyond their ability to change. What good is done with stories featuring lives so unreal that their happy endings happen to people utterly different from those our teenagers know themselves to be? Of course, that’s assuming that teenagers do or will want to read such books at all, which as I’ve pointed out above is something I just don’t know. This, however, is an approach that conventional Mormon publishing absolutely cannot take, for market reasons.

I should acknowledge here that there are, by all accounts, some positive and fairly groundbreaking things that have happened in Mormon YA fiction. I’d be interested to know more about these, and to know if the experimentation that I heard about 5-10 years ago is still happening today. What drives Mormon YA fiction? What are its potentials and possibilities? Where is it headed? Clearly it’s not going to be the entering wedge for gritty realism within Mormon fiction, but are there other ways it might help push the boundaries? E.g., genre categories? I’m under the impression that a lot of the sf&f that’s coming from mainstream LDS publishers is YA fiction, though I’m not sure how much of it is distinctively LDS. Are there places Mormon YA fiction is leading (or has the potential to lead)? Inquiring minds want to know!

#####

There are, within the Mormon universe, a great many stories stories about growing up that are clearly intended for an adult audience. For a few examples off the top of my head, I need only think about The Tree House by Doug Thayer and On the Road to Heaven by Coke Newell. Not to mention The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall.

What marks these novels as non-YA is a combination of things, but style perhaps more than anything else. In some cases, such books are written from a clearly backward-looking stance: adolescence recollected from adulthood, as in the case of On the Road to Heaven. In other cases, the sheer sophistication of language and approach makes it clear that the expected reader isn’t teenagers. Doug Thayer does a particularly neat trick with this, writing with a highly literary style that nonetheless reflects the internal “voice” of the character, as in the following paragraph which starts The Tree House:

Harris walked out the back door and down through the dark garden past the antler pole, chicken cook, rabbit pens, and fruit trees. Lady, his dad’s big golden Lab, followed him. Harris looked up at the starry night. He walked down to the big, thick sycamore, which his dad said was at least seventy-five years old and one of the tallest trees in Provo. He climbed the rope ladder up to the tree house, climbed the trap door ladder, and crawled onto the low-pitched roof. He lay down on the old rug, his hands under his head, looking up into the sycamore just to watch the leaves move. He and Luke liked to do that.

The style is spare and lean. On a sentence-by-sentence level, there’s nothing you couldn’t expect teenage readers to process. At the same time, the prose is also dense, composed of short but thickly laid verbal brush strokes. It demands processing. Internal thoughts and feelings are reported simply but indirectly, creating a portrait of a young man that is at once intimate and somewhat distanced. It’s a very good, possibly great novel with an effective style, but not one (book or style) that I expect to attract young readers who would be looking to see their current selves in the adolescent protagonist.

I wonder whether it’s generally true — possibly even a requirement for such writing — that “adult” novels about a YA protagonist move so quickly to establish a literary distance of some kind between the protagonist and the expected age and sympathies of the readers? That would be an interesting question to look at more broadly. Examples, anyone?

Let’s take, by way of contrast, the first paragraph from Kristen Randle’s Slumming, a YA novel with a highly Mormon storyline, but from a national publisher:

There’s something about traveling to another country: you can never see your own home quite the same way again. I believe it was this experience that inspired by Great Philosophical Idea. Not that I am necessarily blaming the French. Or my mother.

The style is far more immediate than Thayer’s. Thayer’s first paragraph sketches a picture of a teenage boy; but Randle’s first paragraph is written in the voice of a teenager, and not just because it’s in first person, though I think that choice (highly typical of much YA fiction) is also not an accident.

And then just to round things out, let’s take the first paragraph of No Going Back. This, by the way, is a real-time experiment: I’ve written the foregoing without actually looking at my own first paragraph, and don’t have quite that good a memory for my own work. It will be interesting to see what comes out. Double-click the file… waiting… waiting…:

Paul had no intention of telling Chad that he was gay. Not anytime soon. Not ever, if he could get away with it. Eight years as Chad’s best friend told him Chad’s reaction wouldn’t be good. So why did he keep thinking about doing something he already knew was really, really stupid?

Even though this is in third person, it seems pretty evident to me that it’s a lot closer stylistically to Randle than to Thayer, particularly in the aspect of voice: you hear the adolescent character (at least, if I’ve done my job right). So maybe it’s understandable that readers are confused about whether or not this is supposed to be YA fiction.

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I can’t really be unhappy about the choices I made for No Going Back. I think it does what I wanted it to do, for a large part of my main intended audience: that is, believing adult Mormons with a tolerance for realism in their reading, without a particular investment in the issue of same-sex attraction but willing to consider how we as Church members can be more supportive in this area. I think, though, that for future ventures I shall try to be more cautious about the dividing line between YA and adult fiction, and work more clearly to stay on one side or the other — if only to keep from confusing the heck out of everyone. Then again…

12 thoughts on “Some Definitional Thoughts About YA (Mormon) Fiction”

  1. .

    Write the book first, then worry about marketing. That’s my view. But once it’s written, market it.

    Ender’s Game is now published with two covers in English: one for adults, one for YA. Same words, different marketing.

  2. Dan Wells talks about this in one of the Writing Excuses podcasts (which I’m too lazy to look up). He has had a similar issue with I Am Not a Serial Killer — that is, dealing with a more adult theme but with a younger protagonist. In fact, he had to do a major rewrite and up the age of the character from 10 to 14/15 so that it moved from middle grade to YA. In addition, in some markets (I think he mentions England specifically) his book received the same treatment as Ender’s Game with two different covers.

    The advice Dan and Brandon Mull (who was guest starring on the podcast) gave was to write what you love — but then once it’s written, be open to rewriting that will solidly place the work in a specific market. Of course, that still wouldn’t have solved the fundamental issues for No Going Back which have much more to do with the Mormon audience and expectations related to theme/explicitness.

  3. William’s (or Wm’s) comment leads me to question why I felt so adamant, as an author, about not using a more sophisticated and/or distanced style that would have pushed NGB more firmly into the realm of adult fiction. Certainly a retrospective approach would have undermined the uncertainty that I wanted to keep in place regarding Paul’s future. I also think I felt that a more sophisticated stylistic approach would reduce the natural sympathy readers felt for Paul. I suppose that I wanted to enact Paul’s youthful (relative) innocence onstage.

  4. And I think that was the right choice. In choosing sympathy over sophistication for this novel, sympathy was the needed tone.

  5. I think teens like to read a lot of different things. My teenage sister-in-law has read Allyson Condie’s books so many times that they are falling apart. I’ve also seen her walk into a book store and buy her own YA novels with her own money. So, teens do actually have a lot of choice concerning what types of books they read. Most high schools and communities have libraries where they can also have valid options.

    I don’t know why you seem to think that having a “clean alternative” to grity fiction is somehow distasteful and unhelpful. I would instead argue that this is a good thing. The teenage market is deluged with gritty issue driven novels. They are a dime a dozen. There is nothing new or unique about them. Though teens do like to read them. I teach at a high school and one of the kids favorite series is Crank by Ellen Hopkins which deals with drug abuse and teenage prostitution.

    I think it is important that LDS teenagers are offered the choice to read about good LDS teenage protaganists. There are a lot of faithful latter-day-saint teenagers out there who do their darndest to keep the word of wisdom, law of chastity, and live the gospel! Why can’t they read about people like themselves? I think with all the peer and media pressure that encourages teenagers to make bad choices. That it it a relief and comfort to read about LDS characters that make good choices and live clean lives. At least they can feel normal and not feel like they are crazy. Always being the one who says no to making bad or immoral choices can make you one lonely teenager in a high school environment.

    And LDS YA novels aren’t free from teens facing hard struggles. Ally Condie’s Being Sixteen deals with a main character whose sister has an eating disorder, and as a result lives through a school year that nearly breaks her testimony. Kay Lynn Magnum’s When the Bough Breaks includes teenage drinking and alcoholism.

  6. Gamila,

    I appreciate the information you provided about some Mormon YA novels that present hard struggles. It’s interesting to see what can be done and is being done within the confines of the Mormon YA market as presently constituted.

    I don’t mean that as an insult, by the way. Every market has its limits, and good authors very often must push against those limits in various ways in order to tell the stories they want to tell. For example, it’s my sense that the national YA market often doesn’t do a terribly good job of addressing sincere religious belief as a motivating factor in young people’s lives, especially for those who are addressing issues like same-gender attraction.

    A recent article in Mormon Times reported on at talk by Kathryn B. Jenkins, managing editor of Covenant Communications, at the recent LDStorymakers Writers Conference. (For a link to the article, go here: http://www.mormontimes.com/content/single/15018 ). According to the report, Jenkins stated (about Deseret Book and Covenant), “Our books need to be clean…. We also don’t tackle certain topics that the national market can tackle without any problem whatsoever.” Among those topics was homosexuality.

    It’s certainly possible that Jenkins’s remarks as reported here were more broad than she necessarily intended, and that a good novel about an LDS youth who is same-sex attracted could indeed by published by one of these publishers if the book otherwise adhered to the standards they expect from their books. If that’s not the case, though, then it suggests that while there are some tough topics that can be addressed in conventional LDS YA fiction, other topics–topics that real LDS kids are struggling with–can’t be addressed. And in fact I don’t know of any mainstream LDS YA fiction where any of the protagonists even has a friend who’s dealing with the issue of same-gender attraction, whether from a perspective that’s faithful to Church teachings or otherwise.

    I have no issue with literature that’s offered as an alternative to the national YA market, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression. For that matter, I still mostly think that my own book — which is rather gritty and realistic in some ways, but which also depicts an LDS youth trying to do what’s right — is mostly not YA fiction, Mormon or otherwise. But I also think that if we say Mormon YA fiction can ONLY deal with certain issues and not others, and can ONLY deal with characters who make the right choices, and can ONLY show situations that are PG or better, then we’re limiting the good that can be done by those books.

    I’ll end with an invitation to you to read my book and let me know what you think about it. Is it YA fiction? Is it adult fiction? Does the grittiness and realism (which is actually pretty moderate by national standards, as best I can tell) undercut the attempt to show a teenager making a tough choice in favor of what he feels is right (and what his LDS values teach) over what is easier and what his non-LDS friends are urging him to do? I’d be glad to send you an electronic review copy — and I look forward to your opinion.

  7. Gamila,

    A final thought. You asked, “There are a lot of faithful latter-day-saint teenagers out there who do their darndest to keep the word of wisdom, law of chastity, and live the gospel! Why can’t they read about people like themselves?” I think it’s a good question. I would add, though: What happens when they read those stories and DON’T find ones about Mormon teenagers who are dealing with the same kinds of pressures they’re dealing with? When all the LDS kids in those Mormon YA novels, whatever other challenges they may experience, are utterly unconcerned about their heterosexuality? I’m worried that the message such kids may get is that there’s no place for them in the Church. Hence my concern that Mormon YA fiction should deal with a full range of issues, including same-gender attraction. In that sense, I actually think I’m arguing for the same thing you’re arguing for: an inclusive YA literature that shows Mormon teens that it is possible and okay for them to live the gospel, regardless of the challenges they may experience in doing so.

  8. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Colins comments: “I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess; — for certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction.” In other words, Young Adults have not necessarily been reading what older people think they should read for a long time now.

    There are plenty of “teen-age problem novels” out there. And some young adults really like to read them. Perhaps they are looking to see that other people have worse problems than their own, or perhaps they are looking for a mirror of their own problems. Then there are other people of the same age who really aren’t interested. They want dragons or magic or time machines. But a large number of young adults have problems with people telling them what they have to read.

    Based on the reading I do in childrens and YA fiction, I would consider No Going Back to be YA fiction. It’s grittier than children’s fiction, but not monotonously sleazy like a lot of adult fiction. But in a way you HAVE written yourself into a corner. It’s too . . . something . . . to be really big in the Mormon YA department, but it violates the last taboo of the rest of the YA world in taking religion seriously. That is something I’ve read about in literature on contemporary YA books–the complete absence of religion. One reveiwer wrote “where are the church youth groups, the church retreats, the Sunday services, and the picnics that are so much a part of many kids’ lives?” There have been attempts made to break that taboo, but it still exists.

    So you may be stuck as a voice crying in the wilderness. I wonder if it’s possible to tie-dye camel hair.

  9. Jonathon,

    Thanks for claifying that you were not criticizing the LDS YA market, and I think you are right that we would both be proponents for a larger selection of high quality YA LDS fiction that dealt with all kinds of issues and topics.

    I’m afraid that there is very little contemporary realistic LDS YA themed stories for boys. I know that Jack Weyland has come out with a few books recently and other reviewers have commented that several Jerry Borrowman novels could appeal to teenage boys also. There are a lot of options in Book of Mormon retellings and time travel stories. But as I said again not a whole lot of contemporary realistic fiction.

    I would agree that you are correct in stating that homosexuality is taboo in the current market and so also is polygamy (it can be difficult for the historical novelist to gloss over such a signigicant part of early church history). I would merely object to the entire market being looked down on or demonized for not choosing to portray these topics and themes. Authors such as Ally Condie try very hard to portray LDS teenage life and concerns in an honest, realistic, and entertaining way. These authors know and respect their audience, and part of that respect includes providing stories that align with that audience’s own moral standards.

    And that last statement is not meant to imply that because your novel is grittier than LDS market fare that you don’t respect your audience. There is something to be said for the fact that it took a lot of courage to tackle such a taboo subject, and that you tried to give a voice to those that may often feel that they have no voice in our culture.

    I think where we would mostly disagree is on content, and it will not be a problem that is solved in this comment thread because our opinions will probably always be different. I do not agree that immoral content has to be portrayed in detail (or in all it’s gritty realisim) in order for storytelling to be effective.

    I am flattered that you offered me a review copy of your book, but I must be honest and say that the topic of homosexuality is not interesting or intriguing to me, and I fear that I would not enjoy the book. I hope you are not offended at my refusal. I am comfortable right now knowing that this book exists and if the need should arise I could use or suggest it as a resource, but as there is no present need for me to explore homosexual topics I do not feel comfortable doing so only to give an opinion.

  10. Hmmm….there is certainly a definitional barrier that you’re working against, Jonathan. What the ALA (which is somewhat liberal) would deem “queer young adult fiction,” conservative America considers “adult fiction featuring young characters with the theme of homosexuality.” Basically, the contention is that homosexual behavior is believed not suitable for children, which includes “homosexual thoughts”; the notion of “same-sex attraction” as something more than aberration is not willing to be considered. In other words, there’s still a feeling prevalent in Mormonism that dwelling on same-gender attraction causes same-gender attraction (or at least, does nothing to “alleviate” it). From my perspective, this is heteronormativity at work (which includes the assumption that people are essentially heterosexual); a paper for which I’m seeking publication will be clearer about how this situation came about for Mormonism and how it’s played out over the last 30 years. I’ll let you know, since I hope to spark some dialogue on my new-found blog.

  11. Alan,

    I think you’re right that there’s a contingent in the LDS Church who feel that talking about homosexuality increases its likelihood. Another contingent, I think, believes that gritty realism is simply not ever justified, particularly for impressionable youth. Others (including myself at times, as I noted above) may doubt that this is a story particularly well adapted to the interests, circumstances, and desired outcomes of teenage readers. All of these, I think, may be contributing reasons why some Mormons may not want to make this book available to teen readers.

    I just posted an interesting review from the mother of a gay ex-Mormon who very much disliked the ending of the novel, I think because she saw it as so negative. To read it, go here: http://www.langfordwriter.com/FFFreview.html

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