The Catholic Writer and the Skating Boom, Or Every Day Is Self-Parody Day

“[Kathleen] Hanna wanted to become a writer. But Kathy Acker, a counterculture writer Hanna admired, told her that no one listens to spoken word, and instead she should be in a band.”

–as recounted in The Punk Singer

Alan Jacobs weighs in vs. me vs. Dana Gioia, on the past, future, and subjunctive tense of “the Catholic writer.” A few scattered thoughts follow.

* Jacobs’ second point is really important: “Why should we not simply think of the generation of Percy, O’Connor, Lowell et al. as a curious aberration in the history of Catholic writing in America, one we should not expect to be repeated?”

There’s a style of discourse in figure skating fandom (you can feel it lurking here, for example) which takes the American skating boom of the 1990s as the normal state of figure skating in this country, and asks things like, “If Gracie Gold wins in Sochi, will we see a revival of skating shows on tour and on TV?” In other words, will figure skating regain its cultural influence? And this question gets tightly bound up with the controversy over “the new system,” the scoring system which replaced 6.0, in much the same way that discussions of Catholic art/writing often get bound up with controversies over Vatican II and its effects and its “Spirit.” If you can’t stand the new system, it’s easy to assert that it is responsible for the decline in skating’s cultural prominence here. (Didn’t seem to hurt skating in e.g. Japan, though.) I have various problems with the new system and its implementation, and also I would love for there to be more skating shows; but it seems likely that the 1990s were a very strange time for US figure skating, and 6.0 vs IJS explains relatively little of the decline in skating’s popularity.

This issue of what counts as a normal amount of influence is important because it affects how harshly we judge the success or failure not only of our own efforts, but of others’.

ETA: Uh, obviously we shouldn’t be judging other people’s success/failure, or caring super much about our own. But acknowledging how tough a situation is often serves as a first step toward being less judgmental about how people handle that situation.

* I was going to clarify that my point about O’Connor & the Chrysler plant was more about her influence than about her lifestyle, but Jacobs’s point is more important than mine, so go read him.

* “The sacramentality of nature” is a phrase I think I’ve heard pretty often to mean “objects in the world are words spoken by God,” or, “physical objects have an inherent meaning because they are infused with the sustaining love and presence of God.” It doesn’t mean “all objects are Sacraments,” any more than “Christian writing often has an incarnational sensibility” means “TS Eliot thinks a cab horse is Jesus Christ.” I think we do need a word for this feature of Catholic/Christian thought; maybe “sacramentality” is too easily misunderstood? No idea. I will just register my surprise at how this phrase hit Jacobs’s ears.

* Re his final points, I generally treat “Catholic” or “Christian” as essentially a genre label. It gives you some sense of what this writer’s community might be–labels in general often help to create and sustain community, though I suppose that’s a separate argument–and community as a spur to artistic accomplishment was one of the best insights of Gioia’s initial piece.

A genre also helps the reader know what kinds of questions or atmospheres might get explored in a work, and therefore can serve to pique interest. That’s a reviewerish approach, not a critic’s approach, but guess what I do for a living, you know?

Or to put it another way, when I talk about why I like what I like, often the fact that something is in some sense Catholic writing, or e.g. gay literature, will help me explain what is good about it and what I liked about it. Genre can even enhance our experience of an artwork–I’m really glad that I read Sean Collins’s discussions of Eyes Wide Shut and Barton Fink as horror movies before I watched them, because watching them with a horror fan’s mindset made them (I think) especially powerful. “Horror” and “gay lit” have boundaries at least as fuzzy as “Catholic lit”; I don’t think the contingent, flailing, haphazard quality of all our genre labels should count against them as long as we know they’re contingent and flailing and haphazard.

* I do think there’s a tendency within contemporary Catholic fiction to try to fit itself into this genre. “Here I sit, writing Catholic fiction, in the tradition of Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor!” The writing becomes formulaic because the writer is practically setting out to be an epigone. But a) I may be wrong about the internal mindset of these authors–maybe they’re just not very good!, b) this is probably an inevitable consequence of having a genre. There are plenty of rote or archly self-conscious horror flicks out there, but there are also ways to use the horror genre to do something startling and sublime.

* So I would replace Jacobs’s challenge for me with the question I was actually trying to answer, lol: “If we want good audiences for great art, and great art for good audiences, how can we make that more likely to happen?” Obviously not a Catholic-specific problem, but that was literally my main point: that many of the difficulties facing Catholic writers face all writers in the current audience/artist structure.

* In conclusion, two videos: Nicole Bobek at Ice Wars in the good old days…

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…and today, with extraordinary artistry:

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