Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Catholic writing rant

I really liked this post today from Catholic Phoenix:

In the non-fiction writings of Flannery O’Connor, who could probably be said to have “advanced American literature,” whatever that means, Cardinal Spellman’s Foundling seems to serve as a watchword for all that she found defective in mid-century American Catholic letters: dreary prose, implausible characters, a sentimental plot built upon moral pieties about what ought to happen, all derived from an underlying mistake: the confusion of subjective intentions, however noble, with artistic skill, which is the only thing that can justify a work of art.

Spellman’s Foundling was by no means unique in its day as an example of Catholic kitsch. And in our own age of mass-produced culture, in which Catholics have half a dozen reliably orthodox publishers and distributors trying to sell us Catholic books, films, and music, O’Connor’s warnings about bad art hiding behind orthodoxy are as needful now as fifty years ago. There is more Catholic kitsch for sale than ever before, and one-click internet ordering renders us especially vulnerable to it.

There are perhaps Catholic readers and critics who would say that an earnest attempt to write fiction by a robustly orthodox archbishop like Cardinal Spellman should be respectfully welcomed, that aesthetic or literary criticism of such a book would be out of place; he has, after all, furnished his readers with a story that has a positive message about the Faith, and that is a rare thing in the modern age.

This would not be Flannery’s view.

It's true, isn't it, that far too many Catholic fiction publishers these days seem to want exactly what the blogger here excoriates: "...dreary prose, implausible characters, a sentimental plot built upon moral pieties about what ought to happen..." People who are willing to be ruthless in discussing what's wrong with Thomas Kinkade's works will preserve a discreet silence when talking about the works of various contemporary Catholic fiction writers, especially the ones whose works are published by the handful of Catholic publishers who still take the risk of publishing fiction at all; there's a sense that, sure, perhaps the books are lacking, but we wouldn't want them to be evil like so much contemporary fiction, so it's fine if they're a bit weak or even totally lame, so long as they are safe and well-intentioned.

About that, from the same post above:

In this same speech O’Connor tells of an “old lady in California” who wrote her in a scolding letter “that when the tired reader comes home at night he wishes to read something that will ‘lift up his heart.’” O’Connor’s response: “I wrote her back that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up…one old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn’t be so bad, but you multiply her 250,000 times and what you get is a book club.” [...]

Both the old lady in California who wants to be uplifted and the Catholic critic who wants novels to be “positive”—the Scylla and Charybdis of the Catholic public, demanding sentiment or utility, but blind to art—, are confused about what a work of literature is in its essence: they expect it to DO something specific for them and are from the beginning uninterested in its representation of any unpleasant realities, which is to be uninterested in at least half of reality. To want only simplistic sentimental stories is really to want to be lied to, and while there is no shortage in our age of those willing to lie to make a buck, the Christian artist, bound by his theology to see the world as it is, and sanctioned by his morality against deceiving anyone, cannot in good conscience join in.

Do read the whole post, if you can.

I really could not agree more with the ideas expressed above--and this, even though my fiction aspirations are to write children's fiction, not adult fiction. The writer of children's fiction has, in my view, a special task: to tell the truth, to tell a good story, to create a realistic world in which good and evil both struggle--but to do so in a way that respects the veil of childhood and that does not unduly breach the trust of parents who allow their children to read the work, to show some restraint in scenes of violence, and to practice reticence most especially of all in terms of sexual content. Some writers for children, especially in this day and age, disagree with those principles and most of all with the last one. But the world of a child is not the world of an adult. The dawning awareness a child ought to have about certain types of evil and some kinds of sin on the one hand, and of certain greatly good gifts which properly belong to marriage on the other, must, I most firmly believe, be treated with a great deal of respect by the writer who aims his or her work to audiences as young as age eight or so (as I do in my writing).

But I can't, and don't, write the kind of children's fiction that most Catholic fiction publishers today would be at all willing to publish or sell. I don't proselytize, I don't preach, and my characters are not wells of unadulterated goodness. My main character is, in the beginning of the book, a thief (though not a very good one). Some of the other characters struggle with selfishness, laziness, guilt and fear, and the character who is in many ways the most morally admirable has a serious fault, which leads to considerable trouble in the not-yet-finished second book. And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the book is not overtly Catholic. The only way to bring religion into the fictional galaxy where the story takes place would be to drag it in, kicking and screaming, and then to club it into submission--and that's just to make some quiet little mention of Christianity; to have the characters attending Masses or praying the rosary together etc. would be to reduce the story to the lowest sort of pandering.

I feel sorry for those Catholic writers I know who write fiction for adults. Their Catholic worldview shapes everything about the way they approach their art, and yet they are far less likely to be published by a Catholic publishing company, no matter how talented they are, than a secular one (and we all know how hard it can be to get a secular publisher even to look at a manuscript) unless they are willing to write a Kinkade-esque fantasy about a sweet Catholic family in a little roseate cottage whose main conflicts involve being nice to the neighbors who let their daughters wear jeans. Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating--but not by all that much.

Which major Catholic publisher today would publish O'Connor? Or Walker Percy? Or Graham Green? Would any of them?

I've heard Catholic publishers say, in essence, "Look, we have to publish safe fiction that our readers like, because nobody buys Catholic fiction anymore except for the 'old lady in California' or the reader looking for a positive, affirming tale." But maybe nobody buys Catholic fiction anymore because there's so darned little of it being published.


Anonymous said...

It's not just the little old lady in California anymore.

It's the "orthodox" Catholic blogosphere that will go over any piece of writing with a microscope to see if it's "faithful to the Magisterium" AND will go over the writer's personal life to see if he/she meets their standards of acceptability and morality and work hard to publish blog post after blog post after breathless article on Catholic news portals to excoriate said work and author and drive them into the ground.


Erin Manning said...

Amen, Maureen. You are so right.

Flannery O'Connor was once asked whether she'd recruited some actors to play angels in a stage version of one of her stories based on their "moral character." She replied that she had recruited actors who were six feet tall and could stand still for hours holding whatever it was they had to hold. Moral character didn't come up.

Liz said...

Actually, Erin, it was Dorothy L Sayers who was asked that question. You got the whole situation correct, just not the author.

Years ago I taught a literature class for some homeschooled kids in which we studied C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy. One of the moms actually told me that her sons would never be allowed to read those books because of the bad language in them (it turns out that one of the villains of used some profanity). She would have been totally upset if we'd done what I later did with a group of mostly Catholic homeschoolers and studied Dante.

I do think there are some authors who are attempting to create believable characters within a Catholic framework (Regina Doman and Michael O Brien come to mind as authors who are making an attempt at that). I think that it's not easy, and the temptation to create characters like Pollyanna to please the market is pretty great.

One of the best specifically Catholic novels of the twentieth century, Brideshead Revisited, would probably not pass muster with some folks today because of the sins that the main characters fall into. Yet it is one of the most heart wrenching stories of conversion that you'll ever encounter. It doesn't have a syrupy happy ending, but conversion doesn't always result in one getting exactly what one wants.

Geoff G. said...

Liz, thanks for bringing up Brideshead Revisited. I've always felt a little bit of a kinship with Sebastian, and in some moments rather wouldn't mind ending up as he did. I rather doubt I'd feel that way if Waugh had written him as a moral talking point instead of than the flawed, damaged, all-too-human man that he is.

Edward Shuman said...

You know, I don’t see why it should be a problem that Catholic writers can’t publish their non-religious fiction by Catholic publishers. Why would such a publisher want to print, say, a detective novel that had no Catholic identity? You could just as reasonably expect a cookbook company to publish a novel whose plot had nothing to do with food simply because its author was a chef.

For that matter, it isn’t clear to me why an author or even a reader would desire such a thing. You’d get a limited distribution of your work, and it would be likely to be put in the religion section of the bookstores that did carry it, thus missing out on a massive chunk of the target audience, who, regardless of their religious views, are likely to persist in looking for their mystery novels in the mystery section, fantasy novels in the fantasy/sci-fi section, etc. People who go to the religion section looking for mystery novels are, I imagine, most likely to be looking for the blatantly religious variety of fiction.

Speaking of which, I don’t doubt that the sort of thing being ranted about here is in fact bad literature. But there seems to be an implication that for this reason Catholics are morally required to avoid it, and with this I disagree, to a certain point. A confectioner specializing in cotton candy would perhaps not be considered by gourmets to be a serious chef, and cotton candy is obviously not a satisfying and wholesome meal. But the fact that it doesn’t contain all four food groups, is not fortified with eleven vitamins and minerals, and is not in fact a part of a nutritious breakfast doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with it. I think that the same principle should apply to certain types of fiction: they’re the literate equivalent of candy. They may not be to everyone’s taste, and you’d be unwise to read them all the time, and they certainly aren’t Great Art, but then they aren’t meant to be. They don’t need to depict the fullness of truth. They don’t have to deepen our understanding of life, the universe, and everything. They don’t have to have a point. That’s why they’re candy.

Erin Manning said...

Ah, Liz, thanks. I heard the story attributed to O'Connor somewhere, and it stuck. Sort of like the ever-enduring "Bible or Shakespeare" game. :)

Ed, it's not necessarily a problem that Catholic authors who write totally secular fiction can't get published by Catholic publishers. The trouble is, so little fiction written by believers is totally secular fiction, either. The Catholic writer then has a choice: submit a manuscript in which flawed characters learn transcendent things even if they fail to go to Mass or say the rosary (such as O'Connor's works, or Walker Percy's) to a Catholic publisher who will reject it out of hand, or submit it to a secular publisher who will send it back saying the sex is far too tame and that they need to add certain types of characters for diversity if they want to sell the book.

In other words, a Catholic writer who attempts literature (as opposed to the children's books I write, or genre fluff which is fun but not especially important) has the dubious honor of living in an age when the Catholic publisher will reject his work for being too evil, and the secular publisher will reject the same work for not being evil enough. It's a paradox, to be sure.

JMB said...

I haven't read the comments yet, but why on earth would a Catholic publisher have to publish a Catholic author's work, not just a publisher? Are there Jewish publishers who publish Jewish writers? This doesn't make any sense to me. If a book is good, it will be published by someone, Catholic or not.

Larry Denninger said...

Tim Powers is a Catholic author whose novels aren't overtly Catholic at all, but they contain themes which are detectable if you pay attention. I've read four or five of his novels, and in each one, there are shadows and threads of the faith throughout his books. He's a great storyteller. Two of my favorites are Declare and The Stress Of Her Regard.

Edward Shuman said...

It sounds like what's needed, then, is a third option: not Catholic publishers who are willing to print secular material, but secular publishers with a better-developed sense of decency. We need a publishing company with its heart in the right place.

Edward Shuman said...

Er, I might add that from the sound of things, something else that's needed is a better quality of Catholic fiction being published--though there's a difference between Christian fiction (within which I would classify Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and "Space Trilogy") and religious fiction (by which I mean stories that make a point of characters engaging in religious activities like saying their prayers and going to church).

So (lest my earlier comments lead anyone to think otherwise) I do agree that it would be a good thing if Catholic publishers (and perhaps readers as well) would worry less over how Catholic a story seems, and focus more on how Catholic it is in substance--and on its artistic merit.

Anonymous said...

Basically, "Catholic fiction" explores the same themes as Catholic theology: sin, failure, redemption, holiness. The difference is that it doesn't have to become confessional. And that was the case years ago when Catholicism was more mainstream than it is today. It was even more the case when Dante wrote in a living Catholic culture. He could make allusions and metaphors that were comprehensible to the culture at large.

Now, the situation is such that themes such as sin and redemption are no longer recognized or at least not acknowledged as such by the culture at large. And the distinctively Catholic aspect to those concepts is certainly not obvious to most people. That's why we get the so-called "kitschy Catholic novels": because everything has to be spelled out and there's little, if any, room left for artistic vision.

Anonymous said...

Regina Doman's stuff is cheezy and it's just a Catholic-copy of the wizards/Potter craze. There's way better literature out there to give to teenagers to read.

Charlotte said...

I agree with Edward in that we're really probably talking about bad literature. (Agree with the anon Doman comment, as well.) I also agree with "Anonynous" who says that Catholic fiction (which I'm not even aware of) is probably bad because it all has to be spelled out, like everything else these days (except sex.)

While we should probably try to avoid reading pure trash, I firmly believe that most fiction out there is just fine to read by those with a moral compass and who have properly formed consciences: Having something to think about, contemplate, and discuss in terms of where characters went wrong and made wrong decisions and the impacts their wayward ways had upon their lives and the lives of others is a much more intelligent and worthy endeavor than reading squeaky-clean pablum that offers no challenge and is likely bad writing to boot.

All age appropriate, of course.

Edward Shuman said...

I tried one of Regina Doman's "Fairy Tale" novels once, under the impression that it was meant to be a fantasy novel, only to find it wasn't any such thing. Are some of them actually fantasy stories, then?

scotch meg said...

I think there is room for all kinds of writing under the rubric of "Catholic". Novels that are purely literary, in the sense that no one is explicitly Catholic; novels that are explicitly Catholic, in the sense that Catholic characters embody the struggle to live faith, successfully or not so successfully; "light" or "summer" reading; children's books of all kinds. What I would look to find underlying any "Catholic" novel is the sense that there is such a thing as goodness and hope. Graham Greene gives the reader this sense, for instance; so does Waugh. Even in the darkest of novels written by someone with faith, there should be this sense. We don't do happy endings well these days - serious readers seem to take them as unrealistic - pity the Dickens or Austen of today! And we don't see much in the way of the underlying goodness of God, either.

CST Katherine said...

From what I have heard from friends who have connections in the Catholic Publishing world...is that it's hard to get Catholic Fiction published at all...because the catholic publishing houses don't "do" fiction. It's all self-help books by people who want to be taken seriously on the Catholic Speaker circuit. Because apparently, you don't have anything interesting to say unless you've said it in a book.

On another note, as a woman who reads all kinds of literature, I HATE most "christian" romance, because the characters are one-dimensional and the books are just designed to get me to "pray the sinners prayer" - however, those books make MILLIONS of dollars for protestant publishers. There is a market there if someone is willing to tap it.