I admire anyone who has the guts to write anything at all.” — E.B. White
The novel Cheaper by the Dozen saved my life.
Like every student who passes through St. John’s College’s Great Books program, I spent six weeks of my junior year studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Though important to the study of philosophy, the Critique of Pure Reason isn’t the most scintillating of reads, and St. John’s assigned it for January and February, the dreariest months of the year.
As the cold, damp weeks dragged on and I became more and more lost in an incomprehensible labyrinth of Enlightenment metaphysics, my spirit began to falter. Depression set in. I wasn’t the only one. Alcohol and tobacco consumption always rose significantly whenever the junior class was reading Kant.
Fortunately, a friend recognized the symptoms. She marched into my dorm room one night and thrust a battered paperback at me. “Here.”
I hesitated. At twenty-one, I was a confirmed literature snob.
“Just take it.”
I closed my hefty tome, took the novel, and began to read. Soon I was laughing, and instead of finishing my homework, I gave myself over to the stories and antics of the Gilbreth family. Cheaper by the Dozen provided the cathartic, lighthearted break I needed. The ship righted; I survived.
Reflecting on this experience, I’ve realized that Cheaper by the Dozen, for all its many flaws, ranks among the most important and influential books of my life. First, it met a human need: saving me from death by Kant. I had an undiagnosed mental illness and in the absence of proper medical care, Cheaper by the Dozen acted as a providential check to spiraling depression. The book also normalized big family life. I am not a cradle Catholic, and nearly every family I knew growing up had three children at most. That a person could be happy parenting a large family had never crossed my mind. Cheaper by the Dozen opened my imagination to other possibilities and tilled the soil ahead of my conversion. I cannot think of a single Great Book that had the same effect—at least not with regards my views on marriage and family.
Why this personal story?
Since Dana Gioia’s touchstone article, “The Catholic Writer Today,” we have not lacked for conversation about the state of Catholic fiction. Certain themes continue to emerge. The need for hard-hitting literary fiction in the tradition of early and mid-twentieth century Catholic authors. The closing of the secular market to positive portrayals of faith. The lack of readers. Fear of creating a Catholic ghetto. And, of course, the sacramental imagination and the Catholic “taste for the analogical, as distinguished from some Protestants’ taste for the dialectical,” to borrow George Weigel’s words in Letters to a Young Catholic.
The Catholic writer is an artist, not an apologist. And yet “art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God” (John Paul II, Letter to Artists). To write from the heart of the Church is to be an evangelist in the mission field of the imagination. The world needs our fiction; the challenges we face must be addressed.
As an author and editor, I’m grateful for this fruitful dialogue. Missing from the conversation, however, is a serious consideration of popular fiction.
Fostering Catholic culture requires that we not only engage high culture, but popular culture as well—or better yet, that we bridge the gap between the two. Master storytellers can write high and low at the same time, and much of what we consider literature today was originally written for a popular audience. Austen was the prototype romance author. Dickens wrote serial novels. Shakespeare’s theatergoers included both the Queen and the groundlings. I recently picked up Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers for the first time, mistakenly thinking I would be reading literature. The Three Musketeers isn’t literature—it’s a romp.
Popular fiction has the potential to spur on a literary renaissance in ways we might not expect, even artistically. It’s worth considering why and how.
Not everyone is convinced of the value of popular fiction. I have read several commentaries that, in an attempt to explain the dearth of Catholic fiction, claim that today’s writers are “too intimidated” to write fiction that “goes dark” in the tradition of some twentieth-century Catholic literary writers. This sort of complaint is not only uncharitable to writers and without basis in fact, but it misses an important point: that all genres are open to the Catholic writer.
What do people mean by fiction that “goes dark”? Dana Gioia’s description is helpful here:
Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints. (It is not only that sinners generally make more interesting protagonists. Their failings also more vividly demonstrate humanity’s fallen state.)
Gioia cites a number of twentieth century and contemporary examples: John Kennedy Toole, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, Ernest Hemingway, Sigrid Undset, Graham Greene, Katherine Anne Porter, Ron Hansen, and others.
Yet Gioia’s description of Catholic fiction is not a bounding box. Note the qualifying words: rarely, sometimes, tends, generally. He is not making an absolute statement that Catholic fiction must be comic, rowdy, rude, and violent, that Catholic writers must prefer sinners to saints. Such a statement would not do justice to the entire Catholic literary tradition, which includes everything from hagiography, the moralist novels of the early Church, medieval mystery plays, The Canterbury Tales, Le Morte d’Arthur, The Divine Comedy…the list goes on. And let’s not forget the Orthodox—also gifted with a sacramental imagination—who take up saints as easily as they do sinners (the novels of Doestevsky; Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin).
Our tradition includes a wide variety of content, forms, and styles. Still, some commentators tend to conflate “dark content” with “Catholic” and treat certain genres as being more Catholic than others. We shouldn’t. Twentieth-century fiction is a worthy part of our tradition, but it’s not our only model, nor is it deterministic of what’s to come.
Furthermore, all stories assume the reality of sin, and therefore any story is an opportunity to explore human struggle and fundamental questions. Why? Because of basic storytelling principles. Plot, character development, and dramatic tension all arise from conflict: a character badly wants something but cannot get it, and therefore takes action to achieve his or her goal. The root cause of conflict—any conflict—is sin:
Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?
We have lost Eden and want to find it again. This is the stuff of every story.
Even humor fiction assumes sin. The humorist must have a good sense of irony and discord, of what is versus what should be. Humor plays on the fact that not all is right in the world. A successful joke reveals truth—sometimes in a profound way. “Going dark” is not the only way to go deep.
Genre and the Storyteller
In order to advance the conversation, let’s momentarily set aside the words popular and literary and instead focus on genre. The better we understand genre, the broader our vision becomes.
Stories have a mind of their own. A writer might think she has control over the story, but I’ve discovered in working on my own fiction that this is not often the case. My characters enjoy surprising me with their words and decisions. They invite me to consider situations and questions I had not anticipated. As a story comes into being—guided by my authorial hand, sometimes according to my preferences, sometimes not—it gravitates toward a particular form. C.S. Lewis makes this point in his essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”:
The third way [of writing for children], which is the only one I could ever use myself, consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form.
Fiction can take many forms, depending on its subject matter, style, length, reality (realism, fantasy, absurdity), intended audience, and so on. These attributes comprise a story’s genre. Genre is the way we catalogue stories. It’s how we describe the difference between The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces—three fantasy/science fiction stories written by the same author (Lewis) whose styles, structures, and audience are nonetheless so divergent that librarians shelve them in different sections of a library. (My definition of genre follows that of veteran industry editor Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid.)
However, people often use genre in a pejorative sense: genre fiction, by which they mean, commercial fiction, which (in certain circles) is anathema. In this case, genre refers specifically to a story’s content or subject matter, in which the plot abides by established genre conventions and tropes. For example:
A mystery always has a sleuth and usually has a dead body.
A romance has lovers and rivals, helpers and hinderers. There will be a declaration of love, a first kiss or other sign of intimacy, a break-up, and a reunion following “the proof of love,” when one character sacrifices him or herself for the other, without hope of return.
A western always has cowboys and settlers, outlaws and bandits. Law will clash with lawlessness. Justice will be at stake. The clock will tick. There will be a final shootout.
Let’s take up both definitions of genre at once. If genre, broadly speaking, is synonymous with form, then genre conventions are aspects of its form, similar to poetic forms. A sonnet always has fourteen lines. A Spenserian sonnet always has a rhyme scheme of ABAB BCBC CDCD EE. So it goes with genre. A good writer knows genre conventions, plays within them, sometimes pushes on them, and sometimes inverts them. But the conventions are always assumed.
The criticism leveled at genre fiction is that, because of these conventions, the resulting stories are often formulaic. I don’t disagree. Yet genre conventions can also be wielded to produce a work of art. Consider westerns. At one end of the spectrum, we have Louis L’Amour knockoffs and an endless number of B-movies. At the other end, we have the novels True Grit, Lonesome Dove, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and classic films like High Noon, The Magnificent Seven, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. All of these examples abide by western genre conventions. The same conventions can yield wildly different results.
In truth, the pejorative use of genre is misleading. No story is an exception to rule of genre. Push on any story and you’ll start seeing conventions at play. Even literary fiction (with regards content, as opposed to literary style) has conventions: it usually features addicts, masochists, psychopaths, and the like; their victims, and those disillusioned by them. The primary drama is psychological and the story ending is usually ambiguous.
The more we understand genre, the more we realize the need to push back against any narrow understanding and expectations we might have of Catholic fiction, especially when we compare contemporary authors to their twentieth-century forbearers. Not every story written by a Catholic will read like O’Connor or Percy. To expect it of writers is to misunderstand the nature of storytelling.
Some stories are action-packed. Some are slow and philosophical. Some are subtle. Some paint with broad strokes. Some are intended for the literati. Some would never aspire to being highbrow, even if they succeed at being good. Some truly are “comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent.” Some are written for children and the child-like.
Had Lewis chucked Aslan and Company in favor of writing avant-garde short stories, we wouldn’t have Narnia. I’m glad Lewis listened to the Muse, despite his observation that
a man who admits that dwarfs and giants and talking beasts and witches are still dear to him in his fifty-third year is now less likely to be praised for his perennial youth than scorned and pitied for arrested development (ibid).
What makes a story literature has less to do with genre and everything to do with excellence. All stories have the potential to plumb the depths of human experience—and who isn’t moved by Susan and Lucy clinging to Aslan as he lies dead upon the Stone Table?
Considering the Reader
Different writers, different stories. So it is with readers.
Storytelling presupposes a relationship between writer and reader. The writer gives, the reader receives. And the reader is not passive in this lovers’ exchange. She must consent to engage the story. In this, she brings herself—her history, tastes, interests, temperament, imagination, education, faith and morals, joys and sorrows. She may come willingly. She may even become the pursuer. She may also resist coercive attempts at matchmaking, find the story unattractive, misunderstand it, or reject the story altogether.
As praiseworthy as Catholic twentieth-century literature is, many people do not read it, for understandable reasons. Flannery O’Connor’s stories are strong sauce. So too the rest of the Catholic literary crew. A straight diet of twentieth-century anything is a heavy diet indeed, and not everyone has the calling, interest, aptitude, or stomach for it.
Can we blame readers for being sensitive, or for wanting to relax in other ways? Can we blame a victim of sexual abuse for not wanting to read an explicit account of sexual abuse? Can we blame a lonely widow or widower for avoiding stories about grief? Can we blame less educated readers for not having the decoding skills necessary to tackle classic literature? Can we blame a person for not wanting to take Kristin Lavransdatter on their beach vacation?
Of course not. Yet whatever the situation, everyone deserves good stories. Stories birthed in prayer, imbued with sacramental imagination, pressing upon perennial truths, solidly written, and accessible and attentive to the needs of a wide range of readers. And when a writer sets out to achieve literary greatness but fails (and most of us do), we should not discount the story altogether. So long as it is interesting and taps into truth, then it is meant for someone. Sometimes a reader’s subjective experience has the effect of increasing a story’s value beyond its actual literary merit. Cheaper by the Dozen was important to me, and therefore it has importance.
Catholic writers and publishers can offer readers a wide range of fiction with integrity. We need not be embarrassed or disdainful of adventure, humor, romance, and fun. On the converse: we should encourage it. Who knows what lasting works we might discover if we did? Who knows what conversions we might see because of it? Who knows how the industry might grow, if we only loosen up a bit? We want a literary renaissance, but the reader gets the last say, and the industry follows suit.
In his response to Gioia, writer and editor Gregory Wolfe states that the problem facing religious writers “is that we’re not really listening to them, whether they shout or whisper. We need to build structures whose acoustics are a hell of a lot better than the ones we inhabit now.”
Whether popular or literary, a story cannot show forth its virtue without an arena. Breaking into the publishing industry is notoriously difficult for new authors. A Catholic who writes on religious themes in a faithful way will have an even more difficult time finding a sympathetic publisher. Any revival of Catholic fiction has to begin with the most amenable audience: Catholics themselves.
Fortunately, a handful of Catholic and Catholic-friendly publishing companies are addressing this need, including Ignatius Press, Angelico Press, Wiseblood Books, Raven, Slant, and Chrism Press, where I am an editor; as well as literary journals like Dappled Things and Image.
We need more. As soon as we at Chrism Press opened our doors last August, we received a flood of quality submissions, far more than we can acquire. At Dappled Things, the acceptance rate is now below five percent. They, too, receive more excellent submissions than they can accept. A low acceptance rate is evidence of a critical mass of writers who need a place to publish their work.
Will building a Catholic fiction industry create a “Catholic ghetto,” as some people worry? To this I say, “Does it matter?” We know Protestant authors can and do crossover between the Christian and general markets. New York Times bestselling author Lisa Wingate is one example, and there are others. There is no reason why Catholic authors couldn’t follow suit. As in the Protestant market, Catholic publishers give authors their start and help them build a readership before they venture into the general market. The ghetto doesn’t frighten me. The ghetto is home, where authors find a supportive family. In this, the benefits of building up a Catholic fiction market far outweigh the risk of confinement within it.
The Wind Blows Where It Wills
I have a Protestant friend, a bestselling author in the Christian market, who recently wrote a novel featuring Catholic protagonists. During the editing process, with her publisher’s permission, she asked me to read her manuscript and double-check the Catholic details for accuracy.
Her request came as a surprise. In years past, Christian publishers routinely asked authors to suppress any portrayal of Catholicism in their work, out of deference to the denominations that owned the company, and so as not to alienate readers. But in my friend’s case, the publisher not only allowed the book’s overt portrayal of Catholicism but was eager to make it more authentic. I thought it a historic moment!
After the book’s release, my friend received numerous emails from Catholic readers, asking if she is Catholic and telling her how edifying it was to read a novel that rang true to their experience. Plus, many Protestant reviewers said that the story’s portrayal of Catholicism made the faith more relatable for them. Even more surprising, given its Catholic themes, was that the book was a finalist for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s Christy Award, the Christian market’s most prestigious award program.
In short, this work of popular fiction, written by a Protestant, published by a Protestant press, and celebrated by a Protestant industry, is doing exactly what we Catholics claim we want to do: foster Catholic culture.
Let’s open up the conversation.
• Editor’s note: On Thursday, April 29, 2021, from 7:00-8:30pm, Collegium Institute and St. Benedict Institute will be hosting a virtual discussion panel on the topic of “On the Making of Books: Crafting Catholic Literature for the 21st Century”. Participants include Bernardo Aparicio (moderator) of Dappled Things, Vivian Dudro of Ignatius Press, Joshua Hren of Wiseblood Books, Karen Ullo of Chrism Press, and novelist Suzanne Wolfe. Visit the Collegium Institute site for more details and to register.
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