The New Critics and the Barbarians

Thomas_Stearns_Eliot_by_Lady_Ottoline_Morrell_(1934)The poet and writer Dana Gioia penned an essay for the December 2013 issue of First Things titled “The Catholic Writer Today: Catholic Writers Must Renovate and Reoccupy Their Own Tradition.” The essay does not inspire much confidence in the state of “Catholic” writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Our own Gregory Wolfe wrote a response published in Image issue 79, called “The Catholic Writer, Then and Now.” Mr. Wolfe’s essay consists in a broadening of the discussion to all Christian writers (Jews too). It also contains a strong pushback against Gioia’s mostly negative assessment.

In pushing back, Wolfe argues, against Gioia, that the problem is not so much that we lack good writers of faith, but that there is a general cultural unwillingness to recognize these writers of faith for what they are. Writers of faith, in short, are producing as many brilliant works of art as they ever were. It’s the public discussion that has gone silent.

In essence, Wolfe flips Gioia’s argument on its head. For Gioia, the primary factor in the decline of Catholic writers (and Christian writers more broadly) comes from the fact that the writers themselves “ceded the arts to secular society.” [Read more…]

The Contemporary Literature & Faith Debate: Weblinks

As many of our readers know, there has been a lively debate over the past year concerning the condition of contemporary literature as it engages religious faith.

Because that debate has been conducted over many different venues, we’ve received requests for a list of weblinks that would enable readers to follow the conversation.

That’s what we’ve done below. Feel free to add further thoughts about this conversation in the comments section.

Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”

D.G. Myers, “The Novel of Belief

Gregory Wolfe, “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World

Dana Gioia, “The Catholic Writer Today

Gregory Wolfe, “Cultural Anorexia: Doubting the Decline of Faith in Fiction

Gregory Wolfe, “The Catholic Writer, Then and Now” (expanded version of “Cultural Anorexia”)

Paul Elie, Dappled Things interview (include comments on Wolfe’s “Whispers of Faith” article)

[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…]

Writing in the Age of Unbelief

Years ago I was at a panel discussion featuring several Catholic authors when someone asked the question: “As artists, do you struggle with orthodoxy?” The panelists leaned forward in their seats, looked at one another, and began nervously laughing.

When they regained their composure, the answers were not memorable.

That’s not to say the writers were not thoughtful or up to the task—they were all at least a generation older than me, very well published and well respected—and it was kind of a punk question to ask—but my heart was burning for at least one of the panelists to say no.  [Read more…]