Tobias Wolff

I heard that Tobias Wolff is headlining Get Lit! — the big literary festival in my neck of the woods — in a couple of weeks. Ain’t he a sort of a Catholic writer? I asked myself. And then found this excerpt of an interview with Farrell O’Gorman:

FO: You’ve expressed admiration for—though perhaps also some distance from—Flannery O’Connor as a Catholic writer, and you’ve written of your friend Andre Dubus’s “unapologetically sacramental vision of life.” Could you say a little about how Catholicism might—or might not—shape your literary imagination, maybe by reference to some other writers?

TW: Well, I didn’t really grow up in the Church the way Andre and Flannery O’Connor did. I was baptized when young and confirmed at the age of eleven, but had very little to do with the Church again until I was in my twenties. I have a very difficult relationship with the Church, though I suppose I would still describe myself as a Catholic. In all the versions of reality that are available to us, there is a certain generosity and recognition of human frailty in what I would call the Catholic vision that seems recognizable to me.

But I don’t think of myself as a Catholic writer in the way that Andre Dubus is or Flannery O’Connor is; there’s a certain allegiance even to Catholic doctrine in their work. In O’Connor’s “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” she pits Catholic theology against fundamentalist Protestant theology and has a little argument going on in the songs that they sing back and forth. I would never feel comfortable with or be particularly interested in doing that sort of thing.

Sean O’Faolain said in one of his essays that all the best writing is the writer’s argument with God. That’s interesting to me, because that locates the sense of the religious in a story out of the realm of doctrine and into the realm of a spiritual discontent, which, when sincere and passionate, is for me the highest kind of literature. I see it in Chekhov, who was an atheist. I think that there’s more true ‘religious’—if you want to use that word—power in one of his stories than in any number of more pious works that have an argumentative purpose, a persuasive purpose. Keats has that wonderful line: we resist poetry that has a palpable design on us. The key word there is ‘palpable’: when you can see the salesman coming toward you, you brace.

Flannery O’Connor was for me a very powerful and influential writer at a certain point in my life. Some of the stories I still admire tremendously. But the more I read her, the more apparent her design is to me. I’m much more interested in Katherine Anne Porter, who has more real mystery in her work than Flannery O’Connor does, despite all her talk of mystery. I love Flannery O’Connor, don’t get me wrong. Stories like “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” any number of stories. But I can see it coming, I can see her hand on the scales a lot of the time, and I don’t ever with Porter. Stories like “Noon Wine” and “Flowering Judas” are the highest achievement of a really deeply questioning spirit, a sincerely questioning spirit. Maybe that’s what I miss in O’Connor: there’s not really a question there. She’s already made her mind up, and she’s just trying to get you to make yours up the same way.

Does that make any sense? It’s a hard question. I don’t want to disavow the power of the persuasive impulse. It was the dominant impulse in literature for a long time. It’s in the very marrow and sinews of our culture.


  1. Cubeland Mystic says


    Long time no see. I am glad to see that the protestants have not yet burned you at the stake.

    I don’t get what Wolff is saying. Everyone knows that ALL writers are passive aggressive manipulative totalitarian bastards.

    The bigger question is can one read Korrektiv while listening to Tool without losing their soul?

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Hey Cube, thanks for dropping by. I think you’re right. Wolff might be onto something, but I don’t think he’s onto what he thinks he’s onto. It might have more to do with FOC’s mode of writing in the Gothic Romance tradition than with her being guilty of pamphleteering or evangelism or some such.

    Perhaps Quin could address the Tool question. He’s our resident YouTube archivist, so maybe he could dig some up for the next installment of “From the YouTube Lose Your Soul Archives”. There are so many ways to lose your soul while reading Korrektiv, I wouldn’t be surprised but this is one of them.

  3. Cubeland Mystic says

    smoke this

  4. Freder1ck says

    and Walker Percy said, contra Wolfe, that perhaps the secret of talking is having something to say… Wolfe’s comment reminds me of the comment in the Wa Po article on the pope in which a woman said that in order to expand dialogue we have to abandon our own certainties. That ain’t dialoge: it’s capitulation, giving up one’s own perspective in order to adopt the language of others. Dia-logue requires a difference of perspective…

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