By Larry Denninger
It’s been nearly a decade since Dana Gioia wrote his brilliant 10-part essay series “The Catholic Writer Today,” in which he described and decried the current state of Catholic arts, focusing on fiction and literature. In it, he wrote: “There is currently no vital or influential Catholic (literary) tradition evident in mainstream American culture. The few distinguished writers who confess their Catholicism appear to work mostly in isolation. … Meanwhile the less-established writers, who have made Catholicism the core of their artistic identity, work mostly outside mainstream literary life in a small Catholic subculture that has little impact on general culture life.”
Ten years later, the situation hasn’t improved. Catholics are still writing novels, so quantity isn’t the issue. Thanks to the advent of small Catholic publishing houses, combined with the explosion of self-publishing (how I published “Songs for Clara”), opportunities for Catholic writers have increased. These writers though, with few exceptions, fall into the “less-established” category and are thus unknown outside the tiny Catholic literosphere, and barely known even within the Church at large. Subsequently, their limited renown bears no influence upon the wider culture.
Gioia’s essays expertly explain why Catholic literature’s cultural influence and presence has waned over the decades, and there’s no need to revisit his points. I do wonder, however, whether the ascendant current Catholic literosphere is partly complicit. A gatekeeper mentality for what qualifies as truly “Catholic” literature is unhelpful. The pre-conciliar Church, for instance, was wrong in criticizing Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” due to his depiction of an adulterous, alcoholic priest. Likewise, in the post-conciliar Church there’s no place for any group — ecclesial or otherwise — to narrowly define and stipulate what constitutes acceptable Catholic fiction. If Greene published “The Heart of the Matter” or “The End of the Affair” today, would those books be considered appropriately Catholic? What about Flannery O’Connor’s dark stories, or Evelyn Waugh’s?
Heaven’s gate may be narrow, but Catholic literature should be as broadly diverse as possible and judged in the main by only one criterion: quality. Is the novel well written, with compelling characters who waver between vice and virtue and battle the demons in their lives — not necessarily triumphing over them, for instructive and identifiable drama exists in the battle, not the victory. Is the ending uncertain, yet hopeful? Is truth revealed through action rather than via debating contests among characters?
I firmly believe in Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crud”), so logic would say that some good Catholic fiction writers are getting published — Alice McDermott, Ron Hansen, and Phil Klay come immediately to mind — and the culture needs them. It doesn’t need (and won’t read) apologetics and dialectics disguised as fiction. It doesn’t need stories about saintly believers and their pietistic lives. That’s what the Lives of the Saints are for — and those are necessary, don’t get me wrong — but knowing a story’s end before it even begins makes for poor fiction.
What’s needed are stories about faithful sinners (and doubters) undergoing Jacobean wrestling matches: stories of the hard struggle of loving one’s neighbor, the harder battle of loving one’s enemy, the impossible-seeming task of loving God, and the temptation between wide and narrow paths. That’s where every human being lives: doubt in tension with faith, despair in tension with hope, hardness in tension with charity.
Our culture craves transcendence, perhaps more than it realizes, and Catholics uniquely possess a human and theological treasure trove to draw upon.Those of us who are authors must write the hard stories that come from the gray spaces of human brokenness. Publishers must be willing to publish such stories, even in the face of loud objectors. And readers must be willing to read them.
Only then might the culture be drawn into the light of truth, rather than having it shone in its eyes, blinding it from what we hope it will see.
Larry Denninger is a former Catholic blogger. His first novel, “Songs for Clara,” published in 2021, is available at Amazon.com.