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Perhaps the Most Important Catholic Writer who you’ve never heard of…

And his name is not Walter Percy or Walker Miller – or even this guy’s name – but it could be

wolfe

Something I Just Sent To A Fellow Catholic Writer

Do you happen to own a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s collected works? if so, I absolutely recommend that you read her essay, “The Church and the Fiction writer.” A couple of snippets: “What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them. Henry James said that the morality of a piece of fiction depended on the amount of ‘felt life’ that was in it. The Catholic writer, in so far as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for. But this should enlarge not narrow his field of vision…When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete observable reality. If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his Faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly and his sense of mystery and his acceptance of it will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God…A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it…If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God…It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the Truth in the Church, we can use this Truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are forever being scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit. It is when an individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life…”

Catholic Writers

I ran across a couple of things last week that has me back on one of my favorite hobby horses. The first was this article by Joseph Bottom in First Things. He has some interesting things to say about Morris West, “the most popular Catholic writer of the twentieth century” and author of the novels Shoes of the Fisherman, The Clowns of God, and many others besides. My favorite quote: “Christian belief is not always a comfort but a bleak acceptance of a dark mystery”, which has the ring of … well, the ring of dark mystery, actually.

These days, when we talk about Catholic fiction, we talk about the classics, and those books that we think or hope will one day be regarded as classics. And for good reason. After all, these are books that have changed us, or at least changed the way we thought about whatever it was we thought. Various works of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor foremost among them. Morris West aimed for something different. As Bottom goes on to say,

Here was a bestselling author writing on things specifically Catholic—not the lives of Catholic people, not the real moral implications of Catholic theology, but the sheer technicalities of the Catholic Church: the process of canonization, the ordination of priests, the internal bureaucracy of the Vatican.

This probably reflects a different era, when people were happy to inform themselves about a subject by reading a novel – even if that subject is the religion in which they’ve been raised. I’d guess that this is less true now, probably because there are so many different sources for that same information. Blogs, for example.

Bottom also mentioned Mario Puzo, and this stirred up thoughts about the mid-range Catholic novel. There’s Andrew Greeley, of course. And John R. Powers; he’s a bit better than that, isn’t he? Brian Moore and Paul Horgan. But what about Edwin O’Connor, Myles Connolly and Evelyn Waugh. Hmm. There not exactly mid-range though, are they? Not to mention Graham Greene. With Greene you get the convert, the dutiful, the miracle-seeker and the apostate, all rolled up in on. ‘Fair-to-middling’ is a bit of insult for him, I’d say.

What about Francois Mauriac? Julien Green? Flann O’Brien? Rumer Godden? They’re pretty good. Not to mention Georges Bernanos and J.R.R. Tolkien. Walter Miller. No list would be complete without Chesterton or Sigrid Undset. You could also include Brian Moore, Anne Rice, Tony Hillerman, and Piers Paul Reid. Carlos Fuentes. Gabriel García Márquez, come to think of it. Even Oscar Wilde (trying to show it’s never too late). To continue, in no particular order: Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Ronald Knox. Paul Horgan, J.F. Powers, David Lodge, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, Shusaku Endo, Andre Dubus, and Ron Hansen. William F. Buckley. His son Christopher Buckley. Evelyn’s son Auberon Waugh. Jules Verne; did you know he was Catholic? Wallace Stevens (a deathbed conversion, if you didn’t already know). Off the top of my head, there’s also Sherman Alexie, Hillaire Belloc, Karel Čapek, John Dryden, Gustave Flaubert, George Santayana, Seamus Heaney, Marcel Proust, Jack Kerouac, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Allen Tate, and Eugene O’Neill. Paul Claudel. Katherine Anne Porter and Ernest Hemingway. Robert Musil. He brings to mind other Germans: Alfred Döblin, Erich Maria Remarque, Elisabeth Langgässer, and Joseph Roth. Leon Bloy. Never mind Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce. Going back a ways: Stendhal, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas More, Erasmus, Jonathan Swift, Miguel Cervantes, Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio. Chaucer. But not, repeat NOT, Jeffrey Ford.

The Fifth Annual Thomas Aquinas College Catholic Writer’s Conference, Part 1

A couple of people have asked me how it went…so in case anyone else is curious, here’s a little bit about last Saturday’s gathering.

Saturday was a typically gorgeous June day in SoCal: sunny, just warm enough to notice the heat. My friend Darin, with whom I was staying in Santa Paula, drove me up to campus. We listened to an NPR report on George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead – an entirely silly piece of fluff, but it did make Darin wonder why we didn’t bring Romero to campus to talk about the Catholicity of zombie movies…

Movies (and television) have a hold on the conference, its name notwithstanding. Past conferences have featured screenwriters. Our keynote speaker this year was Steve McEveety, producer of, among other things, The Passion of the Christ. (He wasn’t taking scripts.) We had a panel on film from a Catholic perspective which included me, Jim Bemis, and Robert Brennan – Brennan writes for the Register, but his career has been in television. (After the film panel came the panel on getting your book published – I was on that one, too – and we must have lost half our audience in the break between sessions.)

The bulk of the conference was held in the library – a semicircle of chairs oriented sideways in the long entrance hall under the magnificent ceiling that was donated to the College back when I was a student. Attendance was good – over 80 this year, an interesting mix of young and old and even a few folks in the middle…

More to come.

The Greatest Living Catholicish Writer of Verse Is No Longer…

RIP.

“The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night, dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest.”

Compostela*

for Seamus

When you close your new eyes on old ceilings,
You would perhaps dream, my son, pilgrim dreams
And lights behind your lids will shoot like tracers.

Through star fields and Spanish architecture
You would perhaps dream your body’s floating
And squibs of light sear your lids like comet trails.

But as you close your new eyes on these old days,
A light beyond sleep hints at what is to come,
Wants you to go. Will you wait for us to catch up?

*I wrote this for my son (yes, named after the poet) when he was born – but seems appropriate here too.

 

What’s the difference between a Catholic short story writer and a short story writer who’s Catholic?

Eve Tushnet has a new story in the latest Doublethink!

“The only clean sweater was at the bottom of her suitcase, of course. Sarah stood in her jeans and bra, throwing clothes onto the bed. Outside, the rain picked up, falling hard into the swimming pool. The heightened rhythm sounded suddenly like the spatter of her father’s fingertips against the computer keyboard all through her childhood, dappling the screen with words from mid-afternoon until evening, when she fetched him for dinner. Sarah stood for a moment, listening, and felt a surge of anger and resentment: All the furniture in her old room had been replaced, but she still had the memories that tied her to her father’s house. She was partly here, a guest in the guest bedroom, and partly still thirteen years old and at home…”

Inspired by faith, Catholic businessman seeks to underwrite beauty in Catholic fiction

(This article first appeared in the August 23 issue of The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse)

The modern Catholic fiction writer has a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, he is expected by his fellow Catholics, at least those unfamiliar with the complexities of modern literature, to write simple moral stories where good wins out over evil, the princess is saved and happily ever after becomes the only acceptable conclusion to a story.

On the other hand, the Catholic fiction writer is also hoping to reach out to the modern non-Catholic and mostly non-Christian reader with the assumption that his story is worth hearing – and yet he must not say too much about the “R word” (religion) lest his readership begin heading in a panic for the exits.

The 20th century southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor puts the dilemma this way in her 1957 essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer:”

“Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is. No one in these days, however, would seem more anxious to have it become detached than those Catholics who demand that the writer limit, on the natural level, what he allows himself to see.”

In fact, besides being pressured by secular and Catholic readers to fit into their own notions of what fiction should be, the Catholic writer’s row is made all the tougher to hoe because of the dearth of publishing houses willing to give Catholic writers a chance to show that they can write compelling, well-written and grace-infused stories for the Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

But Boston businessman Peter Mongeau is doing his best to make sure that the Catholic writer does find a voice within the milieu of today’s bestseller lists.

Fed a steady diet of good Catholic fiction throughout his life – including works by O’Connor, Graham Greene, G.K. Chesterton, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh – Mongeau has started Tuscany Press, a startup publishing company which seeks to provide the Catholic fiction writer a platform and the Catholic fiction reader a lodestone for quality storytelling. He’s also announced an annual prize through the press which pays winning fiction manuscripts in cash and publication contracts.

A graduate of Boston University, Mongeau received his master’s in business administration from Boston College. After working in New York City for a time in the investment field, he returned with his wife and four children to Boston.

Boston bookworm

It was in Beantown that Mongeau first got the itch to enter the publishing business.

Before starting Tuscany this past June, Mongeau had already founded Christus Publishing, a Catholic press which specializes in books on traditional Catholic spirituality, with a strong emphasis on Carmelite writers.

As coordinator of his parish’s book club, Mongeau became familiar with Catholic publishing and noticed a demand for books on Catholic spirituality – which led to his starting Christus. Developing plans to expand the number and kinds of Christus’ titles, Mongeau noticed the hunger for quality fiction.

“As I looked into expanding Christus, I kept running into two things,” he said. “First, that people were looking for Catholic fiction along the lines of Flannery O’Connor, Chesterton, Percy, and Graham Greene, the Catholic literary novels of the 50s and 60s,” he said. “Second, there was a dearth of modern-day Catholic fiction.”

Talent and treasure

Consulting publishers, literary agents and writers, Mongeau undertook an analysis of the publishing industry which led him to recognize an underserved market of writers and readers.

“I thought there was a definite need from a reader’s perspective in terms of Catholic fiction and from a writer’s perspective with people writing Catholic fiction but couldn’t get published,” he said. “So that’s how Tuscany Press was born.”

Mongeau also took his cue to start a Catholic fiction publishing house from the writings of Blessed John Paul II. Quoted on Tuscany’s website (www.tuscanypress.com), the late pontiff’s 1999 “Letter to Artists” encourages writers to use their talents to promote a culture of life.

“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art,” John Paul II writes. “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable…. The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force.”

In Tuscany’s light

It was another Christian writer – Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky – who led Mongeau to naming his foundling press after the picturesque region of central Italy.

“Dostoevsky said that ‘Beauty will save the world,’” Mongeau said. “God is beauty and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been has been Tuscany. That’s why I chose the name – it’s where I found beauty. When I was out in Tuscany, it epitomized the beauty we have in art – and the beauty that God provided us in this world.”

While Mongeau is banking on beauty being a bestseller, he also wants to sweeten the deal for writers – by attracting them to Tuscany with a literary prize. With cash awards and publication in the novel, novella and short story categories, the Tuscany Fiction Prize has four criteria, Mongeau said.

“Is it a good story? Is it well written? Does it capture the imagination of the reader? And does it have the presence of God?” he said. “If a book doesn’t have these four things, it’s not going to be good Catholic fiction.”

This last criteria – the presence of God – Mongeau acknowledges, isn’t a matter of making sure God is a character in the novel so much as the writer sees in a fallen world a possibility for redemption. He stresses that the Catholic imagination seeks to bring God to readers “symbolically, subtly and deliberately.”

“The Catholic imagination takes into consideration the whole world as we know it, as we live it, as we believe it,” he said. “God is present in the world and events don’t just happen. There is a God, a living God who is active in the world in which we live.”

The deadline is Sept. 30, he said, and already he’s being inundated with manuscripts in all three categories.

“The prize is there to encourage writers to take up the craft of writing Catholic fiction and stories, to promote Catholic fiction and to recognize the talent when it comes along,” he said.

Rewriting the market

Optimistic about the success of Tuscany Press, Mongeau said the publishing world is vastly different from what it was before the so-called information age dawned.

“The barriers to entry are lower today in publishing than they’ve ever been,” Mongeau said. “Technology has provided the ability to start a publishing company on short dollars. While it’s still significant dollars, it’s not like it was years ago. The industry has changed dramatically in 15 years.”

In those 15 years, Mongeau said, the advent of online distribution through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the creation of e-book platforms – Kindle, Nook and I-Book – have led to an explosion of independent publishing houses.

“The distribution channel alone has changed dramatically,” he said. “If you’re selling books through Barnes & Noble, Amazon and electronically [through e-books], I’d say you have over 50-60 percent of your distribution channel. Plus you have global worldwide distribution that way also.”

In addition, it goes without saying, Mongeau said, that Tuscany Press is also taking advantage of the social media empires to spread the word about Catholic fiction – including Facebook, Twitter and a blog which Mongeau maintains on Tuscany’s website.

“We have to go out there and prove that Catholic fiction works, and is written well, and there is a market for people to buy Catholic fiction,” Mongeau said. “But we do believe we can do this.”

For more information about Tuscany Press or the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction, call (781) 424-9321 or contact Peter Mongeau at publisher@tuscanypress.com.

Sunday Snippets – A Catholic Carnival

(Thanks to RAnn for the invite – I think I’m doing this right…)

Last week, I released Alphonse, a comic book I’ve been working on for a while.

I also had a fun chat with Joseph O’Brien and Katy Carl at Catholic Radio International about Catholic writer Andrew McNabb’s very fine book of short stories, The Body of This.

Catholic Letters: The Last Shout

After my last exchange with Greg Wolfe about Catholic letters, I promised to let him finish before responding further. He has finished. So – a brief response:

Let me begin by agreeing with several things Wolfe writes. “Catholics should understand the dangers of a sectarian existence.” Amen. “One might say that the most Catholic vision is the most thoroughly incarnational, the most firmly anchored in common human experience: grace through nature.” One might indeed. “Percy didn’t wait for the culture to be ready for his art, nor did Merton, O’Connor, or Day.” No, they certainly didn’t.

I do take some issue with the following: “The myth of decline is essentially a form of self-pity and ultimately of self-importance. Once again, the notion of belonging to some embattled, saving remnant is a profoundly un-Catholic idea. It is also an excuse for intellectual sloth; if the big, bad world out there is tainted and poisoned by whatever is bad about modernity, why bother to read the signs of the times, to actually sense what’s going on in the culture at large?” I’m not sure it’s so un-Catholic to believe that one belongs to an embattled, saving remnant – viz. Benedict’s reference to the creative minority. What seems un-Catholic is the idea that it’s okay for the remnant to just hide behind the ramparts while the world goes to hell. One must needs be embattled and saving – out there in the world. So we must sense what’s going on in the culture at large.

But here’s my big disagreement: Wolfe cites O’Connor’s use of drowning to convey the meaning of baptism, the martyrdom of Greene’s whisky priest, and the melodrama of Brideshead as examples of the “shouts” and “large gestures” that Catholic writers used in the mid-twentieth century in response to aggressive secularism. These shouts, he writes, “tended to describe an absence – the outline of the missing presence of God.”

Against these wild men and women, he sets Walker Percy. “Percy put it quite bluntly: the world he lived in was not the stark world of his Southern friend Flannery. His wa a South of golf courses and gated subdivisions, not bleak homesteads set off in the woods. For Percy, the absence of God was still an issue, but he felt that it had been submerged by prosperity, that modern belief and despair had become domesticated, anesthetized by shopping malls, new-fangled pills, and inane movies. In such a world, God is not likely to be heard in shouts but in whispers.” Later, he writes that “Percy wrote about affluent Southerners who played golf, not wild-eyed prophets from the backwoods.”

I disagree with the distinction. Let us consider O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In it, the Misfit enters the life of an ordinary, wretched old woman to teach her about grace by shooting her with a shotgun. His remarkable line: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” is as fine a “shout” as any. Violence and horror breaking through to open the eyes of the spiritually blinded – in O’Connor’s world, this happens all the time. Yes, indeed: O’Connor shouted.

But consider Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. Under the aegis of human happiness and scientific progress, we get a grown man “holding a child aloft as a father might dandle his daughter, except that” – except that he is penetrating her, and has altered her brain chemistry so that she is numb to the horror of it. Consider Lancelot, in which a man, in his rage against the lie that prosperity equals happiness and morals be damned, commits murder in his search for the unholy grail of sin. Consider The Second Coming, in which a father attempts to murder his son with a shotgun his son to save him from the horror of modernity, and in which the son attempts to call God out through attempted suicide. (And in which salvation shows up in the form of a woman subjected to electroshock therapy.) Consider Sutter’s notes on pornography in The Last Gentleman. Heck, the devil himself shows up in Love in the Ruins. There’s plenty of prosperity-soaked golf in Percy, it’s true – but that’s not to say that God operates in whispers. Just as in O’Connor, the spiritual life makes itself known in the midst of violence. Indeed, this is Percy’s great observation in Lost in the Cosmos: that we are happier when life is dangerous and difficult – violence and horror breaking through to open the eyes of the spiritually numb. I don’t think Percy’s God is whisperful.

This is not to say that Catholics must shout, nor even that everybody shouted back then. I rather like Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, and I adore J.F. Powers’ Morte D’Urban, and neither of those books does much shouting. (Indeed, one of the great spiritual battles of Urban is played out on a golf course.) These novels had the rather obvious Catholic earmark of featuring priests as protagonists – men who made God their life’s work. (Which is, in itself, a kind of lowering of religion to the mundane, whispering level. Dispensing grace is your job. Very incarnational.) Having the devil show up would be overkill. Wolfe writes of Alice McDermott’s 1997 novel Charming Billy that “there is little explicit discussion of faith.” Ditto Morte D’Urban and The Edge of Sadness. Instead of martyrdom, Billy’s existence is suffused with “what the Basque Catholic philosopher Unamuno called ‘the tragic sense of life.’” The same could be said of any number of Powers’ mid-century priests.

What I’m saying: I disagree with Wolfe’s notion of trajectory from shouting God to whispering God. We had a whispering God back in the ‘60s, and a shouting God as late as ’87, when Thanatos was published. We still have a whispering God, as Wolfe ably attests. And, I would argue, we still have a shouting God. Read Silence (or Scandal) from Endo – the outline of the missing presence of God is marked out with some pretty large gestures. And Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy features a possible bearer of the stigmata – the bleeding wounds of Christ are a shout if ever there was one, even if their origin is shrouded in mystery (as faith must be). But Endo’s work is set far from America’s shores, and Hansen’s stigmatist story is set, perhaps tellingly, in the past. Here and now in America, it seems to be all whispers and no shouts.

I suspect this is the frustration of those Wolfe is criticizing: we’ve had both shouts and whispers in the past. Why not now? Why must faith always be treated as a whispering thing, instead of a dread matter of life and death, the question upon which everything hinges? The dehumanizing horrors Percy decried have, if anything, multiplied. One need not be a propagandist to engage this culture, any more than Percy was a propagandist to engage his. Writers need merely model Percy et al, as Wolfe notes, by “taking account of their surroundings but not surrendering to them.” (If anything, the venom one may find directed toward religion in general would make the moment ripe, thinks me.) I think maybe this is what Father Neuhaus was getting at when he bemoaned the lack of “bold and imaginative Christian writing” – emphasis on the “bold.” (Which is not to say artless.)

But enough. Wolfe is right that there are really fine Christian writers at work today. (If I were a better man, I would write an essay on why I think Richard Russo’s Straight Man is an excellent example of a modern Catholic novel. Oh, how I love that book.) Go, read them. And if you miss the shouts, write some.

Catholic Fiction – One. More. Time.

Over at the Image blog, Greg Wolfe has a post about the state of Catholic Letters. I like Greg Wolfe, and I have great regard for what he’s done with Image Journal. So I thought it worth a response – my comments are in brackets.

In the conservative Catholic press—and blogosphere—there has been much harrumphing about the decline and fall of Catholic letters.

[This whole entry sounds rather more like a shot across the bow – “there they go again, those silly conservatives” – than an engaged argument, and that “harrumphing” is as good an approximation as any for the sound the shot makes as it leaves the cannon… But there’s no reason why it can’t become an engaged argument, so: Mr. Wolfe, what means harrumphing? This forum at Inside Catholic? Heck, the folks there can barely even agree on what Catholic fiction is. The front is not nearly united enough to constitute a proper target. It’s not a harrumph of conservative Catholics (sort of like a gaggle of geese) so much as it’s a bunch of confused souls trying to sort things out. Which is why a few of us got together on the same site to discuss Ron Hansen’s Exiles in particular and Catholic fiction in general. We had a lovely time, and there’s hardly a harrumph in the bunch, though I don’t know how many of us would characterize ourselves as conservative Catholics…maybe we should define our terms on that one. (Nota bene: one fellow tried to pull the old “Hansen’s a liberal, therefore not worth reading” line, and was promptly shushed.)

Now, all that said, you may be reading other stuff, stuff that does qualify as harrumphing. Lord knows, there are harrumphers out there in the Catholic blogosphere. But you need to show your work. I don’t think the post from Amanda Shaw that you mention below qualifies as harrumphing. If you disagree, please make your case.]

Of course, the question of whether Catholic writing is alive, much less well, is really just another skirmish in the larger culture wars—perpetuated largely by those with ideological axes to grind.

[C’mon – if you’re going to call folks out as ideological axe grinders – particularly in the literary realm, in which such a charge might call for laptops at ten paces at dawn – you need to give an example!]

I am not so naïve as to believe that I or anyone else can put an end to such posturing.

[How do you know it’s posturing? Why can’t it be distress at the disappearance of the religious sensibility – particularly, the Catholic religious sensibility, with all its incarnational character – from much of modern literature? Why can’t it be sadness that the literary establishment was all agog, after the publication of Gilead, at the notion of a religious character in literature who was good and intelligent and serious about his faith? People still believe in God, and even in the Catholic Church, so why doesn’t literature, which begins in the observation of real people, reflect that? I think it’s a fair question. Calling it posturing is pretty harsh.]

To be sure, on one level, the logical inconsistencies and blinkered vision behind this attitude call out for some response.

[Maybe even a response that doesn’t accuse folks of blinkered vision?]

But in the end, what gets me so worked up is that this attitude ultimately trivializes and emasculates the Catholicism it seeks to vindicate.

[Well, that certainly seems worth getting worked up over. Lord knows the conservative Catholics I know lament the trivialization and emasculation of the Catholic faith, and I understand their lamentation. So, let’s dig in.]

In a recent post at the First Things blog, Amanda Shaw quotes an admiring New Yorker review of a Graham Greene novel by George Orwell. In the review, Orwell writes: “A fairly large proportion of the distinguished novels of the last few decades have been written by Catholics and have even been describable as Catholic novels.”

Orwell is presumably referring to such writers as Evelyn Waugh, Georges Bernanos, and François Mauriac who, with Greene, were the major figures in the mid-century “Catholic literary revival.”

Ms. Shaw goes on to say:

“In the sixty years since George Orwell was reviewing Graham Greene’s novels, the phenomenon of the Catholic novel has shriveled into virtual nonexistence. I just returned to noisy New York after attending the third annual Southwell Institute creative writing workshop, and on the first evening Orwell’s observation was presented to a group of us young writers. “Who are the great Catholic novelists, poets, and playwrights of today?” we were challenged, and there was no quick response. As silence grew, the question was amended: If the human conflicts described by Orwell remain, and if art really can “hold a mirror up to nature”—showing us both good and evil, in all their power and glory—then why is “Catholic fiction” such a musty old phrase?”

The ignorance of that particular crowd really doesn’t prove much of anything—after all, it consisted of young writers.

[Gosh, I know I read more novels when I was young and free than I do now that I’m old and encumbered. I don’t think you should necessarily hold their youth against them, especially since the question was, ‘Who are the great Catholic novelists…of today?” Presumably, even the youth would know about the great ones – the ones whose stature and significance were sufficient to merit that word. So while the charge is fair enough on one hand, it does come off a bit grumpy on the other.]

But the leaders of that workshop should know better.

[Why? Say more.]

As they say in the business world, it’s all a matter of “optics.” What are people seeing and what are they missing? Who is admitted into this particular canon? And what are their qualifications?

[Good questions!]

The conservatives’ myth goes like this: writers like Greene, Waugh, Bernanos, Mauriac, along with the Americans Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, were both famous authors in their time and “muscular Catholics.”

[Where have you seen this said? I don’t know anyone who has ever characterized Greene as a muscular Catholic. (The man’s struggles with questions of faith are pretty well known. By the end, it was all he could do to suppose that it might all be true – though it’s worth noting that he carried with him a picture of Padre Pio.) If there is a myth, I would say it is this: that for all these authors, the Catholic faith was a vitally important thing, a thing not to be ignored, a thing that permeated all of existence, and lent drama to that existence. Have you really seen people treating these authors as defenders of the faith in the manner of Fulton Sheen or even Chesterton? Where?]

What’s crucial to this myth is that these writers were real Catholics and held a position of eminence (read: power) in the public square. The subsequent story is one of disenfranchisement and apostasy.

[Where is this myth written down? I’ve never seen the Catholic fiction of any era touted as having power in the public square. Trust me, conservatives know that novelists make lousy politicians.]

The problem is that this is nearly all wrong. Some of these writers were politically and theological conservative, but others were anything but.

Take Greene himself. He was always a man of the Left and never an apologist for the Magisterium. The novels the conservatives most admire—The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter—were roundly condemned by the conservative Catholics of the mid-twentieth century. The prevalence of adultery, substance abuse, and highly dubious moral dilemmas that characterized these novels was the subject of much mid-century harrumphing.

[As for the mid-century harrumphing – maybe so; you are no doubt more aware of these things than I am. As O’Connor – who was rather an apologist for the Magisterium – noted, there are an awful lot of folks, Catholics included, who lack the fundamental equipment required to read a novel, who suppose that if they can read the phone book, they can properly engage literature. But don’t tar the young with the harrumphs of their forbears. If they can see in Greene’s work an appreciation and exploration of the force and mystery and power of religious belief – including religious belief that clings to peculiarly Catholic dogmas such as the Real Presence (I’m sure you’ve read Greene’s short story “The Hint of an Explanation”) – and if they don’t get their noses so bent of out shape about the adultery and other moral dilemmas that they lose sight of the traces of the transcendent, then isn’t that a good thing?]

Even as conservative a writer as Evelyn Waugh had to write a long, impassioned letter defending his satirical novels to the Archbishop of Westminster, after he had been attacked in the British Catholic magazine The Tablet. Poor Waugh had to do the worst thing possible for a satirist and comedian—he had to explain his jokes. (In his novel Black Mischief he had described a campaign by white colonialists to bring contraception to the native African population, with hilarious and unpredictable side effects—as a form of undermining anti-Catholic thinking.)

[But this is no argument that Waugh was not a public and even a “muscular” Catholic – merely that the Archbishop didn’t know how to read a book. Conservative Catholics know well that being a “muscular” Catholic is not to be equated with being adored by the ecclesial authorities.]

Waugh’s irony, Greene’s venal protagonists, Mauriac’s thoroughly nasty cast of characters, O’Connor’s violence and grotesquerie—all these were subjected to ridicule by the predecessors of today’s conservative tut-tutters.

[Again, don’t tar the “conservative” youth of today with the sins of their forbears. You’ll miss their virtues if you do. The youth aren’t saying that their tut-tutting predecessors had it right. They’re saying that there’s a problem, and a different sort of problem, today. And that’s what you should be addressing.]

And while we’re on the subject of irony, it’s worth noting that every one of these writers hated being classified as a Catholic novelist. They wanted no adjective before that noun. Nor did they see themselves as a bloc, flexing their Catholic muscles in the public square. To do so would have reduced their work to propaganda.

[Maybe so, but in this case, it was Orwell doing the classifying, no? The Southwell question wasn’t asking after a bloc, it was wondering about holding a mirror up to nature – a nature that includes a religious element.]

If these writers were muscular it was because the Catholic faith enabled them to write incarnationally, which is to say sacramentally. This entails a highly defined sense of paradox, since it is grounded in the mysterious yoking of heaven and earth, spirit and flesh. That’s why these writers employed irony and ambiguity: in order to convey a sense of how sin and sanctity can co-exist within the same person, how violence can model grace, how suffering and loss can lead to a sense of the lightness of being. There were edgy writers, unpredictable and dangerous, causing frequent flutters among the church’s hierarchy.

But to contemporary pronouncers of gloom, all that forgotten.

[What is your evidence for this forgetting? What is your evidence that the conservatives don’t get incarnational, sacramental writing? Where have you seen these novelists held up as apologists – which seems to be your accusation? Where do you get the notion that conservatives don’t think that sin and sanctity can co-exist in the same person, or that violence can model grace? The contemporary pronouncers of gloom, I suspect, would be grateful for an edgy, dangerous, identifiably Catholic novelist… What they lament is the dearth of Catholic fiction, not its edginess.]

Next time I’ll explain the cause of that amnesia.

[You also need to detail the emasculation you mentioned above. You haven’t made your case yet. I know conservatives who value these authors precisely for their clear-eyed vision of the human condition and the reality of the world.]