The poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has stirred up a debate about the status of Catholic writers in the present culture. His point in "The Catholic Writer Today\" is a simple one: 50 years ago, Catholic writers were publicly recognized and honored, in spite of the fact that their faith was integral to their fiction, and they made no attempt to hide their personal commitment to the Church.
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - The poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has stirred up a debate about the status of Catholic writers in the present culture. His point in "The Catholic Writer Today" is a simple one: 50 years ago, Catholic writers were publicly recognized and honored, in spite of the fact that their faith was integral to their fiction, and they made no attempt to hide their personal commitment to the Church.
Think of Flannery O'Connor, J. F. Powers, Edward O'Connor, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Paul Horgan, Morley Callahan, Thomas Merton, Graham Greene, Julien Green, Francios Mauriac, and George Bernanos. There have been only a few Catholic writers to achieve popularity in the succeeding years - Walker Percy, Rev. Andrew Greeley, Ralph McInerny, and more recently, Ron Hansen and Alice McDermott.
I recently interviewed Gioia for my "Church and Culture" show on the Ave Maria Radio Network about both his article and the subsequent debate. When I asked him why he left the much-admired Donna Tartt off his list (The Goldfinch), he explained, "I only listed authors who were publicly known as Catholics - I only learned Tartt was a Catholic a few weeks ago." He's right, Catholic writers such as Tartt, Hansen, and McDermott are not widely known as Catholic. However, the quality of their fiction is rightly recognized, and their reputations have steadily grown.
Gioia further explained that a writer who makes a point of presenting himself or herself as a Catholic will be marginalized, perhaps completely ignored, by the literary establishment. When Gioia said this, I thought to myself that it sounds like the equivalent of carrying a pro-life sign across the floor of the Democratic National Convention. When Gioia said there are at least 20 important writers suffering that fate at this moment in time, I made a note to ask him for the list, and I will.
During the same time, I was in a discussion with a Pulitzer Prize winning book critic, very well known among the literati, about coming on my radio show sometime in the future. He knows books, especially the novel, as well as anyone I know, and his critical judgment is nearly always right on the mark. My first thought was to ask him to discuss the state of the Catholic novel, but then I thought better of it. Debates over what is and what is not a Catholic novel have grown stale, in my opinion. That I went to the recent trouble of making a list of what I considered the "Best 100 Catholic Novels" may have burned me out on the topic.
More seriously, however, I realized that there was a more important question, an obvious one, to ask when recommending books to Catholic readers: What novels, whether in the past or the present, are really worth reading, worth the commitment of time and attention, worth the exposure of mind and heart to a narrative voice? I then proposed to my friend the book critic that this be the topic of our future interview: What recent novels do you think serious Catholic readers should know about? That, I added, is much more interesting to me and more helpful to our audience as well.
Why more helpful? Lists of Catholic novels, as well as the debate about what constitutes a Catholic novel, have always had the purpose of recommending books that will inform and entertain Catholic readers from within the worldview of their faith. In other words, these lists offer both a kind of safe reading place as well as the opportunity to reflect more deeply on their Catholic faith. Although I have little sympathy for the former reason, except where young readers are concerned. The latter is compelling enough, as I see it, to keep the Catholic novel debate alive for years to come, just as Dana Gioia has done in his discussion of Catholic writers.
But the mission, if it can be called that, of recommending books to Catholic readers should be broader than that, for a number of reasons, beginning with the obvious that not all good books, or even great books, are Catholic. (Unless someone desires to pull some kind of metaphysical stunt of arguing that anything good is Catholic, by definition, which gets us nowhere in a critical discussion.) I don't think there is anyone who would argue seriously that a Catholic's contact with books, or culture in general, should be ghettoized, so to speak. As the film director Martin Scorcese has said about the culture war debates, people should spend less time worrying about the ill effects of culture "and start understanding it." I couldn't agree more. Catholics cannot know the culture by remaining inside demarcated safe zones where everything they "consume" has the Good Housekeeping seal of "Catholic" marked on its cover.
For example, I can think of two recent novels that I would enthusiastically recommend to Catholic readers, though I don't have any idea about the religious orientation of either author: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a novel by Rachel Joyce, and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. Apart from being beautifully written, both novels explore themes of love, loyalty, and courage. Yes, the traditional virtues - without ever being explicitly discussed as such - are at the heart of one narrative about a retired, and very stuffy, British major who falls in love with a middle-aged Indian widow, Mrs. Ali, who owns a shop in his small village. The other concerns an older man, inert and disheveled, who announces to his wife that he is going to walk the length of England to visit an old acquaintance, Queenie, in the hospital. Both novels, along with Joyce's most recent, Perfect: A Novel, have the capacity for bestowing wisdom and compassion on their readers. That, I conclude, is more important to determine about a novel than whether or not it can be called "Catholic."
1. The poet Dana Gioia has recently stirred up a debate about the state of the Catholic writer, concluding that writers known as Catholic are at a disadvantage in the literary community.
2. The debate over what writing is Catholic or not Catholic has gone stale and unhelpful and should be replaced with one about what novels and poetry should be brought to the attention of serious Catholic readers.
3. Recent novels such as Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are not Catholic novels, but they can cause the reader to reflect deeply on the virtues of loyalty, courage, and love.
© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.
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