“What Makes a Catholic Writer?” and Other Scattered Thoughts

“What Makes a Catholic Writer?” and Other Scattered Thoughts

Or maybe the question is: What Is Catholic Imagination?

I’ve been reading mainly Catholic writers recently: Rumer Godden, Michael O’Brien, Jon Hassler, Dean Koontz, Regina Doman. Not that I planned it that way, it just sort of happened. And you know it’s kind of nice to read books about Catholic characters. (Not that all the characters in all the books are Catholic, mind you. Many of the books aren’t identifiably Catholic except that the author happens to be, others have something Catholic about them, but it’s harder to define.) But even more to the point, I suppose, it’s nice to read books with a Catholic world view. It’s sort of restful. Reassuring. Or something. I’m not exactly sure what word I’m looking for; but there’s something there, a sense of proportion, a depth, a sense of order in the chaos of the modern world.

Anyway, I’ve been wondering if there’s a distinction to make between “Catholic fiction” and fiction by Catholic writers. Plenty of Catholic writers write about characters who aren’t specifically Catholic and with nothing overtly religious in their stories. Others write overtly spiritual works but still without Catholic characters (think Flannery O’Connor). And still others write Catholic characters thinking Catholic thoughts and stories with Catholic themes. So which of the above do we mean when talking about Catholic fiction?

Awhile back when I started writing this post there was something in the air and many people were writing about Catholic art, Catholic fiction and related topics. There’s some idea dancing in my peripheral vision that I can’t quite get down. I’m not even sure exactly what I’m trying to say. But somewhere in here is a point.

Some good thoughts to get started in this blog entry at Inside Catholic which quotes from a Robert F. Gotcher piece in Homelitic and Pastoral Review.

Also see this post, which actually inspired the former: What Happened to Popular Catholic Fiction?, which has a lively discussion in the comments section.

I’d particularly like to highlight Regina Doman’s comment (I hope no one minds if I quote at length):

For years I’ve heard the question “why bother with Catholic fiction?” for many of the reasons enumerated above, including the arguments, “Why copy the Protestants?” “Why not just get our kids to read the classics?” and let’s not forget “But isn’t every really good book ‘Catholic’ in some sense anyhow?”

For myself, I am a Catholic who is a writer and who also writes for Catholics. For those who think that every “good” writer would just write for universally “good” books, I would say that I have found for myself, that is too vague. To quote or paraphrase William Carlos Williams, “I write for myself, and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.”

In my case, I have found my “friends” are serious Catholics. And yes, I deliberately write for them, the kind of stories that I know that they will particularly enjoy. This means, btw, that I can’t preach, because the choir finds preaching boring. I write stories that speak from my experience to their experience: the way I phrase it is “I write books about people like us.”

I hear people sniff at this concept all the time, but this isn’t an extraordinary concept. Almost every serious writer understands the concept of genre. Dorothy Sayer and Chesterton wrote mysteries, darn good mysteries. Hansen and O’Connor wrote/write adult literary fiction. Occasionally great works transcend the categories, as does Harry Potter, (and Tolkien, who created his own genre) but the fact is, by the time they are adults, most people choose a reading genre and stick with it. So I tell writers not to ignore the concept of genre. A book that could be read and enjoyed “by anyone” is a book that is likely not going to get read by anyone. Categories are a writer’s friend: use them! Pick the genre you like best and master it.

So for the past few three years I have been working with Sophia Press on what I have termed “Catholic genre fiction”: books written by Catholics for a specifically Catholic readership. This is, by definition, lowbrow fiction, and as Amy has noted (I love when Amy writes on this topic, because she’s so knowledgeable, btw), there used to be lots of it in the past. Some of it is somewhat timeless (Mr. Blue being one example) but most of it does fall by the wayside. That’s okay. A serious writer doesn’t produce a classic by aiming to, but by aiming to please the readers before him in the here and now. And that fiction from the 50’s did please its readership then. It succeeded.

There are many other good comments too, but this one seemed most pertinent to whatever I’m trying to get at.

And then beginning to traipse a little further afield, but still related: Mrs Darwin muses on books for children:

I’ve been looking over the Mass books that Darwin has been researching, and I’m appalled by the amateur and/or saccharine quality of what’s considered acceptable children’s illustrations. The garish, childish pictures in the modern books are certainly different from the anemic blond pansy Christ depicted in children’s devotional works of decades past, but it’s hard to argue that they’re an improvement. There’s always a place for the amateur looking to improve his craft, but the job of teaching a child to appreciate the beauty of the Mass ought not to be compromised by the aggressive childishness in teaching aids.

On a positive note, I’ve been delighted by the illustrations in Inos Biffi’s Illustrated Catechism, which seem to take seriously a child’s ability to appreciate what is beautiful. Also, Caryl Houselander’s illustrations in My Path to Heaven are intricate, detailed line drawings that inspire admiration as well as meditation. And the gentle style of Ben Hatke’s artwork in Regina Doman’s Angel in the Waters are elegant in their simplicity.

Certainly, there’s no shortage of ugly artwork in secular books. But Christians seem particularly disposed to excuse mediocrity on the grounds of devotional sincerity.

And though this is not really about fiction, it’s sort of related: Jimmy Akin asks “Why Is Christian Art So Lame These Days?”

And finally, Barbara Nocolosi discusses “our Christian shame which is the whole universe of Christian schlock which has substituted in our generation for the Cathedrals and gorgeous choral music and astounding works of literary and visual art that our ancestors in faith used to bring into the world”:

Rosin is wondering what the sub-popular culture of “Christian” novels and comedians and, I would add, movies, adds to the faith of Christians, or the good of the larger world.

…It’s for us Christians to ask ourselves why we have created a parallel universe. What turned us from being yeast in the lump, into being hoarders of the gifts we were given, fearful and disdainful of the world outside that we were supposed to love and renew?

All of which adds up to… what? It’s late, I’ve lost my train of thought. I’ll try to collect it tomorrow. Meanwhile, in the interest of moving forward and not stagnating, I’ll go ahead and post these half-baked thoughts.

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