A little over a year ago, the writer and editor Paul Elie dropped a literary bomb.
In an article in The New York Times, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” Elie claimed that the era of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, when Catholic novels exploring deep questions of faith flourished as mainstream literature, is dead. Fiction writers no longer create worlds in which, to paraphrase O’Connor, “belief is believable.” In current American fiction, Elie concludes, readers see “belief as upbringing, belief as social fact, belief as a species of American weirdness: our literary fiction has all of these things. All that is missing is the believer.”
Like most bombs, this one was answered with others. Writers, editors and readers have engaged in a mini-war over the state of contemporary Catholic writing for the past 12 months. Many disagree with Elie and list Catholic writers who provide exactly what he claims is lacking—only their books are not published by big presses like Farrar, Straus & Giroux (O’Connor’s publisher and the press where Elie worked for 20 years). Writing in an era in which faith traditions are many, each as viable as the next, and secularism is the religion of choice, most fiction writers who depict struggles of faith in Catholic terms have been swept to the margins.
These arguments make sense to me. Some years ago, I was in a reading group with some friends, all from various religious backgrounds. When I suggested we read Ron Hansen’s new novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a book about a young nun at the turn of the 20th century who receives the stigmata, my friends rebelled. They did not share Mariette’s belief and would have found it difficult to enter into the imaginative world of the novel—where belief is palpable, the condition of the lives of the characters and, to my mind, eminently believable. As the only Catholic in the group, my ability to sympathize with Mariette was regarded as a function of my narrowness. It did not help matters that my friends harbored a profound distrust of the church—knowing its long history of persecuting Jews and Protestants—so what might have looked like a form of anti-Catholicism was rooted in the church’s own excesses and abuses. What could I do but respect their wishes and suggest another book?
A recent contribution to this conversation is Dana Gioia’s ambitious article in the December issue of First Things, “The Catholic Writer Today.” Among his many observations, Gioia acknowledges the anti-Catholicism that lies at the root of the problem Elie identifies. Writing in a Protestant nation, American Catholic writers have always existed on the margins and endured prejudice against their work—but this is truer now than ever before. Gioia quotes the British novelist (and former Catholic) Hilary Mantel: “Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.” As Mantel demonstrates, some of the most strident criticism of the church comes from within its own ranks. For various reasons, many Catholic writers have distanced themselves from their tradition. Those who do claim their faith find themselves in a difficult circumstance. Forced to work in isolation from mainstream literary culture, they enjoy a limited readership and participate in a small Catholic subculture that has little impact on literary life.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule—Alice McDermott comes to mind. Why are her very Catholic novels read widely and praised in the mainstream media? McDermott’s stories are set in the past, the mid-20th century mostly, when faith was still considered a respectable option. Most secular-minded readers regard her characters’ Catholicism as a historical condition that no longer holds, even as Catholic readers recognize that the faith she depicts is very much alive.
This dual perception is instructive. Perhaps the successful Catholic writer is the writer who depicts belief by stealth, flying under the radar to avoid detection. I’m reminded of England during the Reformation, or the English colonies that would one day become the United States, where Catholics practiced their religion covertly while outwardly conforming to the expectations of their culture. Like her comrades of old, the successful Catholic writer has not disappeared—she’s just hiding in plain sight.