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 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.

[Read more...]

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...]

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...]


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