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:
Do read the whole post, if you can.
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.
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.