The National Catholic Review

The December issue of First Things features an essay well worth a long morning on the porch and a freshly brewed pot of coffee. The essay, written by Dana Gioia, is titled "The Catholic Writer Today" (subscriber only). It begins with Gioia highlighting a paradox: "although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts -- not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting." If one asked a critic "to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect, would be unable to offer a single name." 

This paradox, he says, "marks a major historical change--an impoverishment, indeed even a disfigurement--for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role for the arts." Among the examples that confirm his thesis, Gioia provides this fascinating fact: "Between 1945 and 1965, Catholic novelists and poets received eleven Pulitzer Prizes and five National Book Awards (six NBAs, if one counts O'Connor's posthumously published Complete Stories in 1972)."

Gioia, himself a Catholic, is an exception to the decline he laments. A graduate of Harvard and Stanford, he is former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and currently professor of poetry at the University of Southern California. He has published four collections of his own poetry and three works of criticism. 

Aware of the breadth of the topic, Gioia focuses his reflection on literature, "which provides a useful perspective on all the arts." But not just any Catholic literature; rather, "Catholic imaginative literature -- fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir -- not theological, scholarly, or devotional writing."

Gioia's extensive meditation is too long to analyze fully here, but there a few excerpts worth sharing. Early on, Gioia writes that what "makes writing Catholic is that the treatment of these subjects is permeated with a particular worldview." What are the distinguishing characteristics of a Catholic worldview? According to Gioia:

Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ's passion and death Catholics also generally take the long view of things--looking back to the time of Christ and the Caesars while also gazing forward toward eternity. (The Latinity of the pre-Vatican II Church sustained a meaningful continuity with the ancient Roman world, reaching even into working-class Los Angeles of the 1960s, where I was raised and educated.) Catholicism is also intrinsically communal, a notion that goes far beyond sitting at Mass with the local congregation, extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead. Finally, there is a habit of spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience--one source of soi-disant Catholic guilt.

Gioia goes on to describe "three degrees of literary Catholicism" and to scale the heights of these inquiries: "How can the current decline of Catholicism in American letters be accurately characterized? By what standard is it best measured and judged?" 

In the answers that follow, Gioia makes no effort to mollify or spin. He knows he treads in delicate territory, which leads him, in the second half of his analysis, to make this acknowledgement:

By now I have surely said something to depress, anger, or offend every reader of this essay. It depresses me, too, but I won't apologize. If I have outlined the cultural situation of Catholic writers in mostly negative terms, it is not out of despair or cynicism. It is because to solve a problem, we must first look at it honestly and not minimize or deny the difficulties it presents. If we want to revitalize some aspect of cultural life, we must understand the assumptions and forces that govern it.

The collapse of Catholic literary life reflects a larger crisis of confidence in the Church that touches on all aspects of religious, cultural, and intellectual life. . . . In only fifty years, the patron has become the pariah.

Gioia rightly perceives that his essay will unsettle, and there are claims of his that I'd like to hash out over a Guinness (notably his assessment of the influence of Catholic magazines, including America and First Things, as "limited to a shrinking subculture"). Those questions aside, Gioia's piece is enlightening, thought provoking and worth a careful reading or three. It is an excellent piece to give to educators at all levels, and not just English or art teachers. In its historical overview and in its admonitions, there is something for everyone. 

Comments

Beverly Schneller | 12/5/2013 - 7:35pm

" First Things" has lifted the subscriber only access on Dana Gioia's essay. If you are interested in reading the piece, and joining the conversation on his ideas, please go to the "First Things" webpage.

Artur Rosman | 11/23/2013 - 4:16pm

I don't think there was a Golden Age of Catholic literature either in the States or in Europe. We only see the great writers influenced by faith in retrospect. That's not fair to the emerging talents in the present.

I'm worried Mr. Gioia's comments are part of a much bigger problem: the perennial Catholic addiction to the narrative of decline.

For those who have some extra time I've written about Paul Elie's almost identical alarmism: http://cosmostheinlost.com/2013/08/12/a-fish-rots-from-the-head-down-on-...

And here: http://cosmostheinlost.com/2013/08/14/fresh-caught-fish-top-10-living-re...

Then Randy Boyagoda's version of the same old, same old: http://cosmostheinlost.com/2013/08/15/fresh-caught-fish-ii-top-10-living...

Joshua Hren | 11/23/2013 - 4:49pm

Artur,

I think your cautionary response tempering talk of "a Golden Age of Catholic Literature" is important, as you are right that idealization of a utopic past can readily quash contemporary talent. However, is it fair to say that we only see great writers of faith in retrospect? Dostoevsky was recognized before his death (consider his Pushkin speech), Greene received awards from the Church in the first portion of his writing career, O'Connor had gained considerable stature at the time of her death. That being said, perhaps "Golden Age" is not the best term, as it suggests a sort of change in the cosmos which allowed ontological changes that were more favorable toward Catholic literature. I by no means mean that! I suppose I am just pointing to those great writers of faith whose works--even if they are talked about too much and sometimes elevated to absurd degrees--did come out during a distinct period of, say, about fifty years. [Finally, I'm glad you brought up the Elie-Wolfe-Boyagoda thread, which I've been following as well. Further, THANK YOU for linking to your own more extensive writing on this subject!].

Joshua Hren | 11/23/2013 - 1:16pm

My name is Joshua Hren, and I am editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books, a publishing line that fosters works of fiction, poetry, and philosophy that render truths with what Flannery O'Connor called an unyielding "realism of distances." Such works find redemption in uncanny places and people; wrestle us from the tyranny of boredom; mock the pretensions of respectability; engage the hidden mysteries of the human heart, be they sources of either violence or courage; articulate faith and doubt in their incarnate complexity; dare an unflinching gaze at human beings as "political animals"; and suffer through this world's trials without forfeiting hope.

I wanted to offer the following observation and announcement:

The 20th century saw a remarkable renaissance in what critics call "faith-infused fiction" or “literature of belief”: Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh in the UK; Leon Bloy, Francois Mauriac, and Bernanos in France; Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and J.F. Powers in the United States—to name just a few giants. We love these writers, read them, and are deeply indebted to them (for goodness' sake, our press takes its name from Flannery's first novel). Yet conversations about faith and culture have often wound dizzying circles around them, in part because many do not know where else to turn. In Paul Elie's New York Times article "Has Fiction Lost its Faith?" he asks “Where has the novel of belief gone?” For years we have been fast on the trail of an emerging "literature of belief”—consider, in addition to works published and championed by our better-known friends at Image and Dappled Things, just the contributions of Nick Ripatrazone, Brian Jobe, and Uwem Akpan—and if our first year's publishing catalogue is any indication, the renaissance of literature by writers of faith is here.

Rooted in the tradition of O'Connor and other “Golden Age” greats, Wiseblood Books is forging a new idiom in faith-fueled literature without shrinking into the "ghetto" of Christian culture. We publish works that find redemption in uncanny places and people; wrestle us from the tyranny of boredom; mock the pretensions of respectability; engage the hidden mysteries of the human heart, be they sources of either violence or courage; articulate faith and doubt in their incarnate complexity; and suffer through this world's trials without forfeiting hope. Within the first year of our existence we will have published six original works of fiction, including Micah Cawber's The Unfinished Life of N. , Amy Krohn's A Flower in the Heart of the Painting, Holy Cross professor Lee Oser’s second novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, Robert Vander Lugt's short story collection Sand, Smoke, Current, and Geoffrey Smagacz's A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills (the first chapter of which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize). The 2014 publication calendar is expanding in production and genre: Elena Maria Vidal's historical novel The Paradise Tree; F.J. Rocca's Master of Wednesday Night; a cinematic play by Christopher Yates; and Charles Hughes' poetry collection Cave Art.

Launching and sustaining a small press requires a fortitude that borders on pigheaded stubbornness. It means countless late nights at the desk, as well as a dangerous willingness to take risks so that brilliant new books may be brought into being. We may not have fully established ourselves outside of the Catholic/Christian cultural "ghetto" just yet, but within the first eight months of our existence we have been placed by critics on the level of New Directions Press, have received encouragement from Greg Wolfe and First Things, and have garnered reviews of our forthcoming books from National Review, Morris Dickstein, and others. Please visit our Wiseblood Books website to encounter an emerging idiom in the literature of belief--literature largely written by Catholics and Christians living today and practicing their faith.

Beverly Schneller | 11/23/2013 - 3:02pm

Mr. Hren, what connections would you make to Gioia's essay in relation to your remarks above? And perhaps as regards the publishing climate in general in relation to authors who write from a faith-infused or avowedly denominational perspective?

Joshua Hren | 11/25/2013 - 12:40pm

Thanks for the question, Beverly.

I am basically arguing that we are witnessing the emergence of a handful of Catholic authors--I think especially of Brian Jobe and Lee Oser, but we have others in the queue--who are writing fiction that makes one believe in the possibility of an emergent "Golden Age" of literature written by Catholics. Gioia is most definitely correct in noting that, at this precise moment, we cannot identify a "great" Catholic writer, in the tradition of Flannery O'Connor or J.F. Powers, at least in terms of what the authors I have mentioned have published, but I do not think that Jobe or Oser are far away. I agree with Gioia's contention (some of what I am about to write points to implications of his contentions) that Catholic authors have tended to respond to pressures from the dominant culture by either becoming great writers who abandon their faith commitment or by writing what O'Connor would call "pious trash." Then we have publishers who are explicitly Catholic. I see this as a sign of submission to the "ghetto" of Catholic culture. I very much doubt that O'Connor or Powers or Greene would be content with limiting their readership by publishing with an explicitly Catholic press. Wiseblood Books is responding to a body of writers whose fiction and poetry is of the highest artistic quality but whose stories contain enough implicit or explicit presence of Catholic vision that they may have a hard time garnering the attention of the New York Publishing industry (which most everyone has a hard time garnering the attention of, as, according to editors I've spoken with who work in that industry) it is an old boys and girls club: you typically have to be an insider or know an insider to make it. By making room for stories that are gritty, morally complex, and artistically excellent, stories which also are profoundly influenced by faith--we are working to foster a literature that Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and non-Christians can approach with a sense of appreciation. Further, we welcome fiction with a "postmodern" aesthetic that forces faith to emerge in the same manner it is forced to emerge in our wider postmodern culture--through fragmented, often labyrinthine, but VERY REAL ways. We see this in a novel like Jobe's Bird's Nest in Your Hair or Cawber's The Unfinished Life of N., Oser's The Oracles Fell Silent (forthcoming) or Smagacz' A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills (forthcoming Dec 15).
Thanks so very much for this exchange!

Beverly Schneller | 11/21/2013 - 10:18pm

A particular strength of Gioia's essay is its carefully researched survey and chronological overview of Catholic writers and writing in America from the 1940s to the present. By this act alone, he is able to advance our knowledge of Catholic writers at a time when, as he notes "the cultural establishment views faithful Catholics with suspicion, disdain, or condescension." In tracing the prevalence of anti-Catholicism, Gioia demonstrates that Catholic writers have needed to suppress their spiritual identities in order to thrive in the secular marketplace in a way that mirrors the decline of the influence of the Church as a whole in America. Yet, Gioia strikes a note of hope in the concluding paragraphs of the essay as he makes a truly catholic claim for Catholic writers "to create powerful, expressive, memorable works of art" which give voice to the authentic nature of truth and beauty. As noted in Mr. Emerson's review, Gioia has composed the kind of closely reasoned and fully developed essay that warrants not only re-reading to capture all the nuances of his argument but also wider exposure in both academic and artistic circles. This essay may well be the most important commentary on faith, culture, and the arts that we have as Catholics today.

Matt Emerson | 11/21/2013 - 11:04pm

Beverly, thanks for your insightful comments. I appreciate you taking the time to voice them. And you're right: Gioia's essay bears the mark of long immersion in the history of this topic. 

STEVEN NOGA | 11/20/2013 - 11:05am

The loss of an aesthetic sensibility within the Christian journey certainly contributes to the concerns that Gioia raises here. Encounters with beauty and wonder are often relegated to spaces outside of the Catholic Church. A distinction I find helpful here is thinking about the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist. A pilgrim sees from the inside, gently gazing on the wonder; the tourist encounters art, music, and literature often at a cursory level, staring at it for the time that the tour guide gives to the piece. This distinction seems to echo Rahner's famous quip that Christianity will have to rediscover its mystical element or it will soon die. Building space and finding time to encourage beauty, wonder, and awe within the Church and its various institutions is paramount. This is how future pilgrim artists are formed and transformed.

As an aside, off the top of my head, I'm pretty sure that Alice McDermott ranks as the one contemporary author whose Catholic roots heavily influence her writing.

Matt Emerson | 11/21/2013 - 11:15pm

Steven: the distinction you identify is a helpful one to consider, and I actually haven't reflected on it for quite some time. The tourist makes me think of what Plato describes as "the lover of sights and sounds," the person who thinks he's worldly and knowledgeable but who's really just deepening his immersion in the trivial.