Writers Blocked?: The state of Catholic writing today
Midway through Richard Rodriguez’s recent spiritual autobiography, Darling, the author offers Catholic readers a useful catechism: “I stay in the church because the church is more than its ignorance; the church gives me more than it denies me. I stay in the church because it is mine.” Rodriguez identifies as a Catholic, gay Chicano writer of nonfiction, but his name is rarely mentioned in discussions about the fate of the Catholic writer today. Perhaps he is too much of an outlier, too much of an “other” to be lumped in with the names that have been tossed about by Paul Elie, Dana Gioia and several other literary critics and writers, who for many months have been conducting a kind of round-robin debate about the “Golden Age” of Catholic writing. When did that Golden Age end, and why? Was it the rising tides of secularism, the loss of a centralized literary culture in the United States, the Second Vatican Council or all of the above?
Let’s go with all of the above. A common thread in the essays by Elie and Gioia, published in The New York Times (“Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” 12/19/12) and First Things (“The Catholic Writer Today,” 12/1/2013) respectively, is their overwhelming tone of nostalgia. These writers seem to pine for an age of faith that no longer exists. In the era for which they yearn, Catholicism had not only a distinctive literary culture, but a distinctive culture: a sense of “otherness” that set it apart from America’s Protestant majority, a set of gestures and a creed that formed a wall around its adherents and kept them safe. That nostalgia runs through Rodriguez’s memoir as well, but it is tempered by Rodriguez’s knowledge of his doubled and tripled “otherness” as a gay Chicano. Rodriguez is unquestionably a Catholic writer, and one with plenty of mainstream literary and media clout, but because he is not a novelist, he is only mentioned in passing in the ongoing debate.
The novel, it seems, is the apex of Catholic literary art. Mention “Catholic writing” and the same names come up over and over and over again: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J. R. R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and G. K. Chesterton (whose novels and short fiction are arguably read more often than his essays and theological work). Thomas Merton is, of course, included in the canonical grouping of Catholic authors, even though he did not write novels, but he was a bestselling writer who led thousands of men and women into explorations of monastic practice and consecrated life. So Merton gets a pass, but the novel is mentioned over and over again, even in a time when nonfiction outsells fiction and fills the pages of magazines and literary journals, and when literary fiction is increasingly difficult to publish and is read less and less.
Famous and Dead
The fact is that no matter the genre they worked in, the Catholic writers most often brought up in this debate have one thing in common: they are dead. In this line of thought, Catholic literary culture today might best be described as a funeral for multiple corpses. This, for living Catholic writers, makes for a rather depressing set of circumstances to enter into. Gioia recently tempered this nostalgia in an interview with The Jesuit Post and offered a list of living Catholic writers he considers highly influential. For me and many other readers, however, the age of the writers on the list only further cemented the notion that Catholic literary culture is the property of a different generation. Gioia names Tobias Wolff, who is 68; Ron Hansen, 66; Alice McDermott, 60; Cormac McCarthy, 80; Don DeLillo, 77; John Guare, 76; John Patrick Shanley, 63; Rhina Espaillat, 82; X. J. Kennedy, 84; and George R. R. Martin, 65, as the most vital examples of Catholic writers, both practicing and lapsed. With all respect to the vivacity, talent and skill of this group, all of whom I look up to and admire, something is missing. In addition to the lack of gender or ethnic diversity, Gioia’s list also has no one under the age of eligibility for A.A.R.P. membership.
Elie, 49, and Gioia, 63,—as well as Angela Alaimo O’Donnell recently in the pages of America (“Goodbye to the Catholic Writer?” 1/20)—all agree that emerging or younger Catholic writers have an uphill battle, at best. In a blog post at Good Letters, David Griffith agrees with Gioia’s statement that there is a “torpid indifference among precisely those people who could change the situation.” Griffith’s first book, A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America, was published in 2006 by a well-regarded secular indie press, Soft Skull, but many of its essays had an explicitly Catholic and theological framework. Nonetheless, Griffith’s book was not reviewed in a single Catholic publication. Griffith’s book won raves from the secular press, but the rejection stung. And for me, his story was painfully familiar.
When my book Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church was published in 2012, I was grateful when an excerpt ran in Commonweal and was happy to read endorsements in secular magazines. But no Catholic magazines reviewed the book. Like Griffith’s, my book was published by a well-regarded independent press, but even the most successful independent presses can struggle to garner the attention for their books that they frequently deserve. (Full disclosure: my last publisher, Counterpoint Press, is the parent press of Griffith’s publisher, Soft Skull, but Griffith and I have never met.) Perhaps that, in addition to my “otherness,” meant my book was not Catholic in a recognizable way. Female, feminist, young(ish), a lecturer at the most secular of secular universities, born and raised in the post-Vatican II church, and a nonfiction writer and journalist rather than a novelist or poet, I, like Richard Rodriguez, would fail in many ways to make the checklist of what many people engaged in the current debate about Catholic writing think a Catholic writer should be.
Old Rules No Longer Apply
But the core problem with this debate is that definitions of what made writing “Catholic” in the past no longer apply. Secularism surely plays its part, but if you are a Catholic writer under the age of 50, odds are that you have spent most of your life building your closest community among writers who are not Catholic. Some authors have argued that this may be another symptom of anti-Catholicism, but my sense is that it is something different. Percy, O’Connor and the rest of the usual suspects had Catholic classmates, Catholic editors, Catholic publishers who worked in powerful publishing houses and Catholic literary agents. My literary agent is a lapsed Catholic turned agnostic; so was the editor on my last book. My colleagues in the writing program at Berkeley are not Catholic, nor are most of my students, nor were my classmates in graduate school. Many Catholic writers of my generation are simply writers who happen to be Catholic.
So it makes no sense to picture only a Catholic reader (I imagine here a stock photo of a woman with a rosary wrapped around her hand), turning the pages of one of my books. Nostalgia for the Golden Age of Catholic writing makes me think of the rhetoric of nostalgia for the church before Vatican II. But for Catholics under 50 who have never worn a mantilla to Mass, do not understand Latin and grew up with the priest facing the congregation, the faith lives of previous generations can seem distant from the faith lives we live today. I am always moved by the scene in The Seven Storey Mountain when Merton stumbles into a church during eucharistic adoration, but I read it the same way I read many scenes from history, as a glimpse into a moment of universal transcendence framed by a ritual with which I am barely acquainted.
In ethnographic fieldwork, anthropologists talk about “fixed positions”: the necessity that the field worker go into the study of a subculture with awareness of the unchangeable things about herself—gender, race, age, social class and, yes, religion—in mind. But that does not mean that the anthropologist is a missionary, present only to convert her subjects to her own point of view. It means that she must be aware of how her positioning will affect her observations. Elie recently argued on his blog, “Everything That Rises,” that Catholic writers should not settle for “whispering” about our faith, but that he, as a reader, is “holding out for the phenomenal.” Fair point. But Elie is holding out for the phenomenal from the position of being a distinguished writer and literary critic. He was an editor for Farrar, Straus and Giroux before starting his current role as senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Gioia calls for a more centralized Catholic literary culture from the position of being the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a tenured professor at the University of Southern California. These are positions of power and privilege. From the older to the younger, the new to the more established, most Catholic writers agree that change needs to happen, and that younger Catholic writers need support, but concrete action has yet to occur.
The positioning of emerging Catholic writers is dramatically different from what it was even 10 years ago. Not only do we lack a centralized Catholic literary culture, the literary culture prevalent when today’s established writers were emerging in their own careers has been fragmented beyond recognition. Writers today move from publisher to publisher. Tenure has become a rarity; many writers survive as adjunct instructors or freelance journalists, moving from job to job and writing in snatches of time. Online reading often replaces paper books, magazines and newspapers, and this brings with it different reading behavior: more skimming, less focus. Many of us write for secular publications about secular topics and teach in secular schools. And the faith of younger Catholic writers is perhaps fragmentary in its own ways: open to other faith traditions, flexible about the idea of community and critical about issues of gender and sexuality that have caused a large number of younger Catholics to drift from the church.
For many of us, this fragmentation and questioning are good things because they force us to examine what keeps us Catholic in an age and literary culture in which Catholicism, to many outside observers, makes little sense. But we are still writers. And we are still Catholics. Faith shadows and colors our work, but must our faith dominate every word that we write in order for us to be considered “Catholic” enough? As a call to action, the current debate about Catholic writing is an important one. But when it degenerates into inflexible rubrics or pining for past ways of writing and believing that are not likely to return, it becomes a long gust of hot air. It becomes a breath that fails to give life.
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