Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Catholic Literature and the "Trying To Say God" Conference

It's been several weeks and one baby since we sent the kids off to stay with Grandma, piled into the car with my real-novelist sister, and drove out to Notre Dame to attend the Trying to Say God conference on Catholic literature. MrsDarwin and I have each already written posts inspired by one particular panel (on Jane Austen's heroines and on Women's writing), but there was a lot more to the conference than just that one panel. It was a full schedule and MrsD and I made it to 13 talks and panels as well as an amazing concert of sacred music by the Notre Dame Vocale.

We also had a chance to catch up with people we hadn't seen in some time (including Elizabeth Duffy, Eve Tushnet, and several members of the Korrectiv) and to meet people we'd known online but never met in person before, such as John Farrell and Leticia Adams. I was also excited to meet and get a chance to talk several times with novelist Tim Powers, whose books I've long enjoyed. Eating and drinking and talking with a wide variety of other people interested in both writing and Catholicism was a really enjoyable experience. Writing is a very solitary process, and even at a conference you're still only talking about writing and about reading which is not at all the same thing as actually writing, but it is still a wonderful experience to spend some time with at least some overlapping interests and experiences.

It's hard to cover such a wide ranging three days, so I'm going to give it my best shot by writing a post in several sections, which I hope will capture something of the nature of the conference.


If I can get you to read one book based on my experiences at the conference, it's Suzanne Wolfe's novel Confessions of X. It's a novel about St. Augustine's concubine, the woman he lived with for seventeen years, had a son with, and was heartbroken to leave (initially to seek a marriage to a woman of high social standing) not long before his conversion to Christianity. Augustine does not give her name in Confessions, and Ms. Wolfe maintains that anonymity in this lushly stylistic first-person novel. We attended a session in which she read two excerpts from the book and talked about her process of writing it. I proceeded to buy a copy and MrsDarwin and I both read it with great enjoyment. I plan to write a full post with a review and excerpt later, but really, it's good. Tolle lege.

Frustratingly, another book which I heard a reading of, Randy Boyagoda's forthcoming novel Original Prin, is not yet out. The selection he read was clever and well-written. I'll be keeping an eye out for it when it does release, but in the meantime I ordered a copy of his debut novel Governor of the Northern Province, in which an African warlord retires to small town Canada. (I haven't had the opportunity to read it yet, so I can't tell you more than that I bought it and enjoyed the selections of his next novel.

Mary Karr gave a very good long distance keynote, which made me curious to read her memoirs Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit.

Heather King also gave an outstanding keynote address about writing as a vocation. I read her first two memoirs Parched and Redeemed. They're both outstanding, honestly written books.

Finally, one of the big draws for me was getting to meet Tim Powers. He writes fantasy novels in which the supernatural bubbles below our world's surface and breaks through in surprising ways. To my mind, his best two (the ones which I brought my copies of to have signed) are Last Call, which mingles the Fisher King and archetypes summoned up by tarot cards with Bugsy Siegel and Las Vegas, and Declare which deals with Djinn, cold war espionage, the Middle East, and the murky history of Cold War turncoat Kim Philby. Tim Powers' style is best summed up by something he said in his talk about Catholicism and the Rules of Fantasy: [roughly paraphrasing from memory and notes] Sometimes people ask him why he doesn't write a realistic novel, but if he wrote an ordinary novel about, say, a kid growing up in Brooklyn, by the third chapter the kid would be getting telephone calls from his dead grandfather. It just comes up.

Why Are We Here?

One of the things that struck me over the course of the conference is the variety of reasons that people found the question of Catholic literature interesting:

Will a Catholic magazine or publisher want to print what I write or will they think it's too edgy?
Will a mainstream press want to publish my work, or will they think it's too religious?
Who are the good Catholic writers out there today?
What does it even mean to be a Catholic writer?
How should I, as a Catholic, write?

Some of these various strands came together in an interesting way in the Future of Catholic Publishing, where a couple of professionals who'd spend many years in Catholic publishing had to tell a room full of would be fiction and memoir writers: You need to understand that where we make money by selling hundreds of thousands of copies every years is putting out catechesis texts used by parishes all over the country. The next highest selling type of book is popular apologetics/theology books by writers like Matthew Kelly.

This latter name lead to some groans. I haven't read any Matthew Kelly and can't speak to whether he is groan-inducing. But I think what was pretty clear was that a lot of those present would have preferred Catholic publishers to be more committed to putting out fiction and soul-baring memoir. The latter does sell to some extent, apparently, but when it comes to sales volume, the more pat conversion stories often sell better than the grittier ones. It would have been interesting to hear from someone at Ignatius Press who deals with their fiction, since to my knowledge they're one of the few Catholic publishers who are actually publishing fiction (even some new fiction) at this time. Maybe at some future conference. However, it's also important to realize that a lot what what we now talk about as Catholic Literature in fact came out from mainstream presses. Which leads to the question...

What is Catholic Literature Anyway?

You would think that as someone who's just attended a Catholic Literature conference, I should be pretty clear on what Catholic Literature is, but I think in many ways that was the underlying (and at times explicit) question throughout the conference, and it's a surprisingly difficult one. Is Catholic literature:

- Literature written by Catholics
- Literature about Catholics (but perhaps not by Catholics -- for instance, Robert Bolt, who wrote A Man For All Seasons, is an atheist)
- Literature which evokes Catholic themes

For those of us who are Catholic, who think about choices in terms of Catholic morality, who share basic common experiences of lived Catholicism such as trying to operate cheerfully and energetically with others while fasting on Good Friday, it's natural to sometimes want to write about characters who share some of our experiences. And why not? Characters have to be from somewhere and they have to believe something. And yet at the most basic level, some mainstream publishers don't want to see that set of experiences or that vocabulary in books they publish. Perhaps they think it's boring, perhaps it has associations in there minds with painful or oppressive experiences. But Catholic writers do at times get told to that there's too much Catholic content in their books. Randy Boyagoda talked about this in relation to his upcoming novel. After two moderately successful mainstream novels, his latest involves a character who is much like him in some ways: A Canadian college professor who is Catholic, though in this case one who recommits himself to his faith after a bout with cancer. Boyagoda talked about how his editor told him that this book "wasn't commercial" like his other two. This didn't mean going with a Catholic publisher. (Again, most of those don't do fiction.) Instead he ended up with a small, independent press where an atheist editor nonetheless saw what was interesting in the character story that Boyagoda was telling.

Perhaps similarly, I was a bit surprised that Confessions of X was published under Harper Collins' Christian imprint, Thomas Nelson. Yes, the novel tells the story of a woman we know of 1600 years later because she lived with a revered Christian saint. To the extent that Augustine, his Christian mother St. Monica, and Augustine's struggles with religious ideas drive some of the plot events, it's a story that involves Christian characters and events. But the main character herself is pagan, and her relationship with Christianity and its God is somewhat ambivalent -- perhaps unsurprisingly given the way in which her life suffers collateral damage from Augustine's. Why isn't this just a mainstream historical fiction novel? The Rome of Late Antiquity is a historical place and time. Augustine is a real historical character. It's not as if this were some kind of "I became Christian and then everything became easy and good" narrative with a heavy handed lesson. But apparently, while Harper Collins though the book would sell (and thus put it out) they thought it would primarily make it with a niche Christian audience and so published it under their Christian imprint.

So from some sort of externally imposed perspective, there's a "Catholic literature" which consists of novels which have too much Catholic content. But is that all Catholic literature is?

I think clearly not, and people had various ideas of what beyond that Catholic literature might be. And yet, these ideas were often more implicit than openly discussed. In the talk “Trying to Say ‘God’ without Sounding like Marilynne Robinson”, Randy Boyagoda talked about how religion is sometimes rendered "safe" for the mainstream by putting it in a sufficiently 'other' time and place. Thus, Robinson's reader can to some degree think of the religion portrayed in her 1950s Iowa is a product of its place and time and need not seem threatening to the reader.

In the "cupcake" panel, the panelists talked about ways they would like to see the experience of women in the Church discussed other than what they perceived as the predominant style of narrative.

Other panels talked more straightforwardly about specific Catholic books, or the experiences of certain kinds of Catholic writers and artists.

I think at some level, a key point people would have to figure out is whether Catholic Literature consists of:

- Books which attempt to actively convey the the truths of Catholicism
- Books which are written with the underlying low key assumption that Catholicism is true
- Books which accurately observe the struggles of Catholics (and others) without

My first instinct is to recoil against the first of these, but I had an interesting conversation with a good friend who writes mainstream YA for a secular publisher, in which she mentioned that one of the interesting things about being "under cover" as it were in circles populated by progressive, secular YA authors is that they actually spend a fair among of time quite openly talking amongst themselves about how best to convey the lessons which they think young readers need to learn. She said that while some of the results are preachy, others are quite well written and effective.

Should Catholic writers, at times, be thinking on similar lines?

I don't think there needs to be a single answer to these questions. One of the things which struck me reading Anne Applebaum's history of Eastern Europe, Iron Curtain over the last few weeks is that quite literally totalitarian insistence of 1940s and 1950s communist governments (radiating out from Stalin's own beliefs) that there was a single acceptable style of socialist painting, a single acceptable style of socialist novel, etc. The Soviets most definitely believed that culture was political, and so they believed that as there was only one party which supported the workers, there was also only one form of art and culture which did likewise.

Catholicism, however, is not totalitarian. There is not only one way to produce art as a Catholic any more than there is only one way to be political as a Catholic.

Nonetheless, even as there are many ways to create Catholic literature, I think it's probably valuable to try to be more explicit in what we individually mean by Catholic literature when we talk about how and where and why to create it.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference. There were a wide range of voices there. I have no idea if I'll be able to attend when they next hold one (in 2019 in Toronto, CA) but it was an interesting experience and if it works out I'd be happy to be able to go to another. Hopefully, by 2019, I too can be talking about my "forthcoming novel" rather than just tapping away at my drafts.


bearing said...

I really enjoyed your synopsis here.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Thinking about "Books which attempt to actively convey the the truths of Catholicism" and

"My first instinct is to recoil against the first of these, but I had an interesting conversation with a good friend who writes mainstream YA for a secular publisher, in which she mentioned that one of the interesting things about being "under cover" as it were in circles populated by progressive, secular YA authors is that they actually spend a fair among of time quite openly talking amongst themselves about how best to convey the lessons which they think young readers need to learn. She said that while some of the results are preachy, others are quite well written and effective."

Two of the books I've enjoyed reading with the kids the most this past year are St Patrick's Summer and Sun Slower, Sun Faster. Both are books that are clearly constructed to actively convey the truths of Catholicism in a quite obvious way. And yet both are very well written and quite enjoyable. The kind of books I could read again and again.

Both books involve children time traveling to various points in history and through that and conversations with saint in St Patrick's Summer and historical characters in Sun Slower Sun Faster, the children learn about the faith, but more than that they have a conversion experience.

I wonder if this works better in children's lit and YA lit than in adult fiction?

I suspect it's a rare writer who can pull this off.

Thinking about the time travel genre and how it is often used didactically in children's lit. The Magic Treehouse series, for example. Even Dr Who was originally conceived as a children's show with a strong didactic element.

Ladyhobbit said...

How lucky you are to have met Tim Powers! My favorite novels of his are the same as yours. Several years ago I won an online contest; the prize was some autographed Powers books. On the title page of Last Call, he wrote: "This book will teach you to play poker. But make sure to bring plenty of holy water."