The Second Coming of Flannery O’Connor

The ongoing conversation about contemporary literature and faith that I have been having with Dana Gioia and Paul Elie across half a dozen print and online venues, though it has touched on a dozen different issues, ultimately comes down to one: “absence” versus “presence.”

The question Elie has raised, you may recall, is whether we currently have novelists who “treat the main themes and the big claims made for religious belief.”

That claim has been subject to a series of challenges. Why does Elie focus on fiction to the exclusion of other literary genres, such as poetry and creative nonfiction? Why does Elie eliminate from consideration novels set in the past, like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead? Why won’t he concede that a writer like Alice McDermott, who writes about the past, nonetheless presents us with contemporary narrators whose struggles to believe come in the form of trying to understand the faith of the preceding generations? Why won’t he examine in detail the lists of books that fulfill his rather restricted criteria—lists that include a number of books he says he hasn’t read?

It is very tempting at this point to rush down the rabbit hole in pursuit of various minor issues. It is also tempting to point out that we are living in a time when any cultured person’s “Top Ten” lists of greatest living artists would contain world-class artists of faith or those who grapple with faith: Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy in fiction, Sir Geoffrey Hill and Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer in poetry, Richard Rodriguez and Annie Dillard in nonfiction, Arvo Paert in classical music, Bruce Springsteen and U2 and others in popular music, and so forth.

But I think the deeper question has to do with why so many people feel that we live in a time of absence.

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The Contemporary Novel of Belief, Part 2

In yesterday’s post I wrote about author and critic Paul Elie’s contention that few contemporary writers depict characters struggling with religious belief in novels with contemporary settings.

Among other things, I argued that his conviction that having a contemporary setting is somehow supremely valuable is both short-sighted and literalistic—that Elie has a rather narrow understanding of what “contemporaneity” actually means.

Of course, another possible response to Elie is to simply marshal another list of writers who have, in fact, written books that fulfill his requirement to the letter of the law. Say, a list that would include Ron Hansen’s Atticus, Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe, Haven Kimmel’s The Solace of Leaving Early, Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars, Larry Woiwode’s Poppa John, and Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Not to mention stories and novels by the recently deceased authors Oscar Hijuelos, John Updike, Andre Dubus, and Reynolds Price. (Or the rise of novelistically-rich memoirs.) [Read more...]

The Contemporary Novel of Belief, Part 1

Writing a response to a published essay can be seen as public service, a way of contributing to the larger cultural conversation. On the other hand, writing several responses within a relatively short period of time can easily come across as carping or sour grapes.

That consideration is very much at the forefront of my mind as I set out here to extend a running dialogue I’ve been having with Paul Elie, the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a braided biography of four American Catholic authors: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.

A year ago, Elie published an essay in the New York Times, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” to which I replied in the Wall Street Journal. In an interview just published at Dappled Things, Elie was asked to respond to my WSJ piece. I’ve engaged in a similar exchange with Dana Gioia, whose “The Catholic Writer Today” appeared recently in First Things, with my response, “Cultural Anorexia,” following on their website.

Because Elie and Gioia are not only friends of mine but writers I admire—and because the debate has been eminently civil so far—I’m hoping to avoid the charge of carping if I thwack the tennis ball over the net just one more time. [Read more...]

Making It New: The Image Fall Appeal

Consider the coffee table. It’s a venerable and eminently practical piece of furniture. Most of us have at least one. It’s a great place to put centerpieces, books, even literary journals. Some of us may put our coffee mugs on it from time to time.

But have you ever noticed how often these days that coffee tables aren’t coffee tables? Walker Percy did. In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Guide, Percy noted that a home and garden magazine had listed fifty ways to make coffee tables…out of something else. The examples cited included: a polished Cypress stump, a lobster trap, a large spool for telephone cable, and a stone morgue table, with the runnel for blood used as an ash tray.

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Opting for Paradox: 25 Years of Image

The poet Ezra Pound made the phrase “Make It New” the rallying cry of artistic modernism. In one of life’s little ironies, he obtained the phrase from an ancient Chinese text.

It seems that every time you get excited about making it new, you are forced to recollect the words of another ancient, the moralist Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

So which is it?

I believe I’ll opt for paradox.

To be sure, there isn’t much novelty beneath that burning ball of gas in the sky, but in another sense each day that I wake the world is made anew—and I find myself in need of re-creation. I forget so many important things, things that would help me live a fuller, richer existence. And because I much prefer living in the past or the future to the present, which is precisely where each new moment arrives.

Cultures and societies are no different from me. The individual and the collective alike get stuck in solipsism; we fear what new thing might disturb our settled ways and make demands of head and heart. We fear the stranger knocking at our door or crossing our barbed-wire fence.

Truth, when I do manage to glimpse it, flits away, never to alight in quite the same place. A single sighting won’t do for me—perhaps it was a trick of the light. I need to see that truth flash out from many different forms and circumstances before it gathers a cumulative weight, a gravitational attraction. While each form and circumstance is new, each points back to something old and known.

I am thinking these thoughts because Image is about to launch its 25th anniversary celebrations and because our year-end fund-raising appeal will determine what sort of resources we have to pursue our mission next year—and launch us into our next 25 years.

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