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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Moral Fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part II

Moral Fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part I 

In his new book To Light A Fire On The Earth, written with John Allen, Bishop Robert Barron talks several times about "the great Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor", and describes her as one of Catholicism's Pivotal Players: "A twentieth-century Catholic writer who radically changed our idea of what religious fiction could be."

Q: Which Catholic publishers published the novels of "the great Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor"?
A: Harcourt, Brace & Company, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Q: Okay, but what about notable Catholic author Walker Percy?
A: Alfred A. Knopf; Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Q: ...J.F. Powers?
A: Doubleday; Alfred A. Knopf

Doubleday may at least be a step toward Catholic publishing, since the Image imprint was formerly Doubleday Religion. Although some of the explicitly religious novels of Louis de Wohl were published by J.B. Lippincott Co., 1960's The Restless Heart (about St. Augustine) and 1962's The Quiet Light (about Thomas Aquinas) were published by Image. Image also published Maria Chapdelaine, the acclaimed Canadian novel by Louis Hémon, in 1956.

In 2017 Image carries eight fiction titles: two collections of Christmas stories, three sequels to the 1983 pop parable Joshua by Joseph F. Girzone, and three heartwarming novels by author Katherine Valentine.


Unlike Farrar, Straus & Giroux, that notable publisher of quality novels by Catholic authors, the Catholic presses nowadays carry a very small catalog of fiction, if they publish it at all.

Ignatius: By far the largest catalog, carrying 74 titles, many of which are reprints of older works or study editions of classics. By my count, however, it currently has listed original novels by 13 authors.

Sophia: Eight titles, three of which are reprints.

Loyola: Three fiction titles, two of which are reprints. (Not included in this count is the Loyola Classics line of fiction reprints, which are oddly categorized under Spirituality and Inspiration -- a very strange place to stick In This House of Brede.)

Ave Maria: no fiction.

Looking down the catalogs of these presses, with their strong showing of Catholic historicals or saint bios, I wonder: could O'Connor or Percy or Powers have been published by these presses? The only contender would seem to be Ignatius (to whom all praise must be given for their thoughtful cover design -- the only press to dignify their novels so), but even so it's hard to gauge the quality of many of their novels when their own authors are blurbing each other's books.

But the larger question is: should Catholic presses be publishing fiction at all? Can they provide the right mix of editorial quality and authorial freedom to allow world-class fiction to flourish? And will their core audience read the final product?


Then there's the issue of what constitutes "Catholic fiction". From Bishop Barron's book, here's his "personal list of all-time great Catholic books".

Brideshead Revisited
The Diary of a Country Priest
Divine Comedy
The Idiot
The Brothers Karamazov

(Incidentally, in discussing Brideshead, the book quotes from a 2013 column that Bp. Barron wrote about the role of beauty in Charles Ryder's conversion, citing the "beautiful" chapel as a motivating force. As I wrote at the time, this is mistaken: the chapel is specifically called out as a gaudy mess, and it's despite it's ugliness that Charles returns to pray there in the end. Waugh, like O'Connor, is an standard name to hand around if you want to sound knowledgeable about Catholic Literature. However, as illustrated by a reference I saw recently to "Julia Brideshead"-- "Brideshead" being the house, and the title inherited by the oldest son of the family, and not anyone's given name -- it's a good idea to check the text before using to make an intellectual point.)

On Bp. Barron's list, only The Diary of a Country Priest would qualify as slightly unknown. These are books drawn from the pantheon of Great Books. They're books with explicitly Catholic content. (Bp. Barron makes the point that although Dostoyevsky is writing from an Orthodox viewpoint, he shares in a Catholic sensibility.) But they draw in non-religious readers by the quality of their prose, the beauty of their imagery, the depth of their themes.

They are, in short, moral fiction. As I said in the last post:
fiction set within a framework of objective truth, a world where there is right and wrong, and characters can reach for the good or fall short of it. It's a world where even small choices have weight, and grace breaks through.
If we believe that Catholicism is not just a system or a culture, than Catholic literature must be more than books in which explicitly Catholic characters play out explicitly religious dramas. Catholic literature must be moral fiction, whether or not the characters are Catholic, whether or not it is didactic, whether or not the characters are good.

Indeed, in moral fiction, plenty of bad or ugly things can happen, because in the world people are confronted with moral choices in the midst of bad and ugly situations, and they don't always decide rightly. The weight of the human condition is something that fiction has always grappled with. Flannery O'Connor's works, held up as exemplars of an honest Catholic fiction, are full of the gritty kind of grace that stings and horrifies.

So here's what Catholic presses have to weigh in regards to fiction. Do they play it safe, bestowing a kind of non-magisterial imprimatur, so that a grandmother can pick a title from a fiction catalog with the certainty that it will be edifying and free of inappropriate content for her 12-year-old grandson? Or should they expand to provide a platform for excellent fiction with a Catholic sensibility, even when that fiction is challenging or deals with the darker, less pleasant side of human behavior? Can (or should) Eve Tushnet's Amends, with its plethora of profanity and its characters wrestling with sexual identity without finding neat answers and its essentially Catholic understanding, find a place in Ignatius's catalogue?


Between a fussy infant needing to be held all day, and a fussy toddler coming down complaining of ear pain, I've only been able to write this much by 2am (and this is more than I thought I could get done today). Part III soon.


Enbrethiliel said...


A friend of mine finished NaNoWriMo with a Dystopian novel that she would like to shop out to publishers. But she worries that it's too "niche" for everybody: non-Catholics won't like it because they won't understand the Catholic references; atheists won't like it because it doesn't actually attack religion; and Catholics won't like it because . . . it has gay characters. She seemed quite convinced that the last point would be a deal breaker for Catholics, and the discussion that that sparked seemed to back her up. Granted, she was discussing it with exactly one commenter.

But now I'm wondering . . . Who published Eve Tushnet's Amends? Are they looking for more edgy fiction? And yes, I'm truly "asking for a friend."

Enbrethiliel said...


And I just read Part 1. Amends was self-published. Exactly what my friend doesn't want to do with her own novel. She just feels that there's still something to be said for the traditional route.

Zina said...

You get more money from self-publishing. I think there are benefits to doing both routes, but if she wants to get published then self-publishing may be the best way to get started. Hugh Howey started self-published and then was picked up by traditional publishing.

Banshee said...

In this day and age, why would anybody want to publish traditionally?

To give money away to agents?

To waste time that could be spent writing novels?

I realize that you have a traditionally published writer in the family who has done quite well. But that's like having a lottery winner in the family; it's not a realistic example of a business model.

There was a nice analysis run recently of traditionally published Big Five writers of the last ten years. Basically, the field was restricted to a couple hundred people, in a world where perhaps millions of people have good novels in them. Also, almost everybody (outside some small genre niches) was an MFA from an Ivy League college, living in New York. (Often they were people with multiple pre-existing social links to the editors. But again, there are thousands of people who live in that small circle, so it's still a diceroll.)

Small presses can be a viable option, if the owners are savvy and hardworking. But you really have to trust the people, and they really have to know what they're doing. A lot of bad stuff has happened with small presses.

So yeah, you can play the lottery and suck up to your betters and plead for your rights if you win; you can besiege a reputable imprint Baen Books for its few openings (if you write sf/f) -- or you can just write, and self-publish what you write. The more you write and publish, the better you are likely to do.

Banshee said...

I should have remembered this was a friend of E's. If the friend is trying to publish in the Philippines, it may still be more viable to publish traditionally. Small presses may have more power and reach, too. (A lot of countries that have their own local languages have more widespread interest in getting more writers in print. Ireland was one such country, where it was normal for a good chunk of the neighbors to have books out in Irish and/or English.)

OTOH, in the developing world, a lot of people have cellphones who don't have libraries. So ebooks probably have more reach.

Jeff Stivers said...

I came across a great novel (read this with caution as I don't read too many novels) by Christopher Beha called What Happened to Sophie Wilder. It would be in this category of edgier subject matter but it realistically portrays a Catholic convert who doesn't find all the answers with her conversion but struggles with her faith. The author grew up Catholic but is only nominally so now. But it would be nice in a Catholic publishing house because it has a well-informed view of the faith.