My attention to this blog has been scant, but I’ve had many changes in my life over the past year or so: closing down my independent consultancy and returning to full-time employment, rearranging my life commitments to accommodate that change, helping with an increasing crew of grandchildren, and so many other things that accompany getting older.
One thing I haven’t had much time for has been new creative writing. I was fine with that, though, since the past couple of years (as the tech consulting work was slowing down) afforded me time to pen and edit five full novels – From Afar and the four works of the Watchful Sky series. Furthermore, I had found a publisher who had agreed to publish them, so for me it was just a question of time and assisting the publisher in getting them out.
Or so I thought.
A little over a week ago I heard from my publisher that they’d changed their mind and decided not to publish the second through fourth books of the Watchful Sky series after all. Needless to say, this was disappointing, but the whys are irrelevant. Having worked with a couple of publishers, I’m better appreciating the fact that publishing is first and foremost a business – publishers exist to serve their market, whomever that may be, and make their decisions primarily on business criteria. In the case of the Watchful Sky series, this publisher decided that proceeding with the later books would not serve their business (they were not the first publisher to come to this decision.)
One thing this turn of events has me doing is more pondering along the lines of definitions. I’m supposedly a “Catholic” author, and the last two publishers I’ve worked with have identified themselves as “Catholic”, but what exactly is “Catholic” literature? It’s easy to look at theological or devotional works and understand why they would be “Catholic” or “Christian”, but what makes fiction “Catholic”? I think this question gets knottier the more closely you examine it. Let’s examine three well-known writers of fiction from the 20th century, and one lesser known one, and consider whether their works are “Catholic”, and if so, what makes them so?
Probably the most well-known is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose masterpiece The Lord of the Rings nearly invented the fantasy genre single-handedly and changed the course of literature. Tolkien himself was an honest and honorable man, and his works are thick with honor, courage, and many other virtues. But there is not only no mention of Christianity, but no hint of organized religion of any type. Granted, his origin mythology revealed in The Silmarillion clearly echoes the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but that was not published until after his death. But The Lord of the Rings is unquestionably hailed as a masterpiece of fiction that can rightly be claimed as Catholic. But what exactly makes it so?
Another renowned author is Flannery O’Connor. Here was another person of exemplary virtue, whose personal devotion and scholarship was so impressive that I understand there are some who want to start a case for her canonization. Her fiction is masterful, bringing her characters to vivid life and very much putting the reader in the story, experiencing it alongside the characters. Yet the content of her stories ranges from puzzling to shocking. We don’t find a noble Aragorn or heroic Samwise, but rather ordinary people in all their weaknesses, abrading and even abusing each other, even committing acts of base cruelty and treachery. Personally, I can deeply appreciate O’Connor’s literary artistry but have a very difficult time reading her work, not least because it does put me in the story with her characters – only they’re characters I don’t want to have anything to do with. (I am a bit comforted that I’m not the only one with such reservations – apparently T.S. Eliot viewed her work in much the same way.) O’Connor rarely mentions religion of any type, and if she does, it is usually portrayed as a superficial social veneer rather than anything of any depth. Masterful as she is, O’Connor is so subtle that many cannot get the points she is trying to make – yet she is hailed as an author of great Catholic fiction.
Another renowned Catholic author was Graham Greene. Here was a man who did not live the kind of moral life that Tolkien and O’Connor did – in fact, he was something of a scoundrel, enslaved to drink and neglectful of his family. There is no question that his writings were artistically superb, but his characters somewhat reflected his life: struggling with weakness and often immorality. Though some of his characters are related to the Church, such as the “whiskey priest” of The Power and the Glory, they usually fall well short of any kind of heroism or true devotion – in fact, they’re often contemptible. Redemption is only hinted at, and elusive. But for all that, Greene is not only recognized as a Catholic author, but an influential one.
Yet another author of fiction whom I would consider truly Catholic is Russell Kirk. Though mostly known for his political and social writings, Kirk also wrote a couple of novels and some short story collections. Kirk was not raised Catholic (indeed, his family had something of a spiritualist bent, which comes out in some of his stories), but converted later in life and was a dedicated Catholic until his death. His stories didn’t explicitly deal in religious themes, though the morality of them was transparent. Kirk also had a wide variety of characters, ranging from the heroic to the depraved, and had a chilling ability to bring them to vivid life, which was not always a comfortable experience for the reader. Though not as well known for his fiction as his other writings, I don’t think anyone would question the deeply Catholic nature of his stories.
Before exploring what common threads might unite such diverse authors, let me briefly address what we might safely say doesn’t define Catholic or Christian literature. I have a brother who’s an evangelical pastor and an author as well. He wrote a book and was considering having it published, which brought him into contact with the evangelical publishing world. He was surprised to discover that the biggest money-making arm of most “Christian” publishing is what is known in the trade as “bonnet fiction”. These are romance stories set usually either in 19th century America, often on the frontier, or modern Amish country. The characters, being of that time and culture, are all churchgoers and the women wear bonnets (hence the name.) The advantage of the setting is that the entire story can stay safely away from the unchaste speech and behavior that a more modern setting would involve. But beyond those superficialities, these are simply romance novels with some Christian trappings draped across them (perhaps the heroine is a missionary’s daughter, or the secondary suitor lingering in the background aspires to be a pastor.) There’s nothing specifically Christian about the stories. What is present is a strong dose of nostalgia, a yearning for a time when life was simpler and choices were easier thanks to the innate bent of the culture. And to be honest, it seems to me that there’s a bit of a streak of this in much of what is offered as Catholic literature. Oh, there may not be the exact equivalent of “bonnet fiction”, but there are the stories that yearn for a simpler time, when either the parish or the entire culture were “safely Catholic”. There might be the simple, wise priest (who might even be a detective!) or the hard-headed but golden hearted school principal (always a nun), or the usual parish types with their shenanigans, but what the made the story “Catholic” was the comfort it offered the reader by evoking these familiar characters. Beyond that there was nothing that would differentiate it from a secular detective or school story.
So, if that isn’t what makes fiction Catholic, what does make it Catholic? I think it’s hard to say exactly, but if we examine the four authors mentioned, I think we can cull a few distinctives. One would be that they all held a true theology, however poorly their characters (or they themselves) followed it. Even if theology or religion isn’t explicitly mentioned or plays no obvious role, the presence of God and His order is assumed, and forms the framework for the story. This is why, though the stories might take the reader to ugly and distressing places, there is not the confusion and hopelessness that haunts so many modern novels and movies that lack such a framework.
Equally important is that because their imaginations are informed by a Christian understanding, the authors portray a true anthropology. As a creation of God rather than just a random accident of nature, man has a purpose (a telos) and participates in an order, and problems occur when he defies the order or his purpose. This above all is why I think that the works of these authors ring so true even when they’re difficult to read. Because of these two factors, these Catholic authors could address some of mankind’s thorniest dilemmas and most desperate circumstances without giving in to despair or sensuality, and do so in a way that resonates with the heart of every reader – because of who we truly are.
This is the filter through which I view my work as Catholic. Some of the stories are easy to classify as Catholic or Christian – From Afar was based on a story in Scripture (though it gets a little rough at times). But what about my works such as The Accidental Marriage, or Under the Watchful Sky? Accidental’s protagonists are about as secular as they come, and though there’s a brief scene in a church toward the end, religion doesn’t play an explicit role. Watchful Sky is similar – while it’s true that the faith of the farm community plays a more explicit role and is specifically discussed toward the end, the story revolves around two non-religious people and the moral dilemmas they face. Things get dark and even brutal. The later stories in the Watchful Sky series plunge even more deeply into hard realities of both the seen and unseen real. Bad things happen to good people, and there is pain and loss and suffering. But there is also redemption, redemption that goes beyond someone finding a marriage partner or getting right with God (though there’s some of that as well), redemption that comes at a high cost and demands heroic obedience.
One thing my fiction has never played upon was nostalgia. Readers expecting a comforting visit to a long-gone past, be it parish environment or a national culture, will find themselves disappointed. If anything, I’m trying to do the opposite, particularly with the Watchful Sky books: envision a future that the Faithful might have to face in the very near future, social conditions that are hostile to believers and anything but comfortable. There’s no returning to a familiar parish environment, and one of the tensions of the story arc going forward is envisioning just what the life of the Faithful might look like in such a world. There’s certainly little market for such speculative fiction, especially among those who look to Catholic fiction for a comforting does of nostalgia, but it’s what I write. That gets into the difficult terrain of the personal vocatio, and the user of our gifts and talents in obedience to that.
Which leaves me now with the question of what to do next. I’ve got these manuscripts complete, edited, and nearly ready to go, but no publisher. And given the history and nature of the books, I’m not likely to get one, unless there’s a really daring publisher out there willing to take a risk. Many authors I know are going the self-publishing route, and that’s tempting. But self-publishing has challenges and expenses of its own, and would mean navigating a new world (though I have others I can ask for help.) Many these days self-publish just to see their names on a book, but that’s never been a big motivator for me. I write the works I’m given and get them out there, if possible. Anything beyond that is up to Another.
But even given that, it would might help my decision if I could hear from any of my readers who might have anything suggestions or encouragement (or reality checks) to offer. All prayers appreciated, of course, but practical counsel will not be turned down. My main wish in all this is to be obedient to whatever direction I should be taking.
Thank you all.