How Not to Do Literature

…is how a disturbing percentage of Christians think all art should be done.

  • Alexander Anderson

    That modified Beowulf sounds at least 40% cooler than most “Christian Fiction”.

  • Dale Price

    Too many earnest Christian writers need a come-to-Parker meeting:

    “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

  • Dale Price

    Or, as I said in response to the information that a certain popular Christian author wrote 10,000 words a day:

    “I’m not surprised.”

  • http://paxchristi.timothyputnam.com Timothy Putnam

    They’re called, “Southern Baptists.”

    • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

      No, they don’t have a monopoly on such things. Funny thing, it’s strange how easy it is to recognize such heavy handed and goofy attempts to ramrod faith into a story when from a religious perspective. And yet, how many mainstream works do the same, just the opposite POV, where the evil priest/evangelist/fundamentalist who hates puppies and rapes kids (when not busy burning books and torturing heretics), is finally overthrown, the enlightened and hip secularist (or possible new-age neo-pagan) strolls in to save the day, everyone realizes God is whatever we want her to be, and all live happily ever after?

  • http://znfrey.com/blog/ Zach Frey

    J. R. R. Tolkien wept.

  • http://www.jasonnegri.com Jason Negri

    Absolutely! Piety is no substitute for technique.

  • Michelle

    Yuk it up about Evangelical “inspirationals,” but Catholic “inspirationals” are no better. I’ve seen a few in recent years, published by respected Catholic publishing houses, and they’re just as bad (if not worse, given the rich Western literary heritage Catholics should aspire to). These last few years, I’ve thought of Michael O’Brien as the Catholic version of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

    • ivan_the_mad

      ” These last few years, I’ve thought of Michael O’Brien as the Catholic version of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.” Bingo.

    • c matt

      O’Brien may be a bit heavy handed, but he’s not quite as bad. At least his stories do have character development and decent enough plots.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    Whereas if each of the examples ended with “rejects Jesus,” it would count as High Art.

    • Mark Shea

      Indeed. As “The Testament of Mary” attests. Has NPR ever been so gaga for a dreary book?

  • Vicke

    Maybe these literary works are better read listening to Christian Rock…. while on a Retreat cruise….

  • Mark R

    Do you know how hard that is to read on my stupid tablet? That aside, all one has to do is tell a good story…which hiiting one over the head with a message is not. I don’t understand why Tolkien and Lewis seem to be The Only Christian Writers for a good chunk of the literary Christian reading audience. Dickens excelled at portraying humility and goodness rivalling any hagiography. Even A. Trollope, who was mosly concerned with money in his works, was a master of moral dilemmas, and was adept at portraying solid Christian goodness in some characters, and flawed goodness in others — which most of us can relate to.

  • http://gloriaromanorum.blogspot.com Florentius

    The real problem is that too many mainstream critics automatically consider any book with even a vaguely Christian message to be “schlock” while novels that trash Christianity, no matter how awful, are “incisive” and “edgy”. Too often, they become classics merely because they trash Christianity, not for any literary merit they possess. The real “schlock” Christian fiction is most often found in Protestant circles because more of that stuff tends to get published. What is badly needed is more truly outstanding *Catholic* fiction.

    I encourage people all the time to attempt to become the next Louis de Wohl or Michael O’Brien. It is possible to write outstanding fiction with strong Christian content. But to do so, one must have a firm grasp of Christian history/spirituality/literature/morality AND the ability to tell a great story. Such writers are few and far between in my experience but I always encourage folks to try.

    • Michelle

      Louis de Wohl should not be mentioned in the same sentence as Michael O’Brien, or even the same essay. De Wohl wrote very good saint novels that avoided the sentimentality of the worst strains of hagiography; Michael O’Brien writes apocalyptic schlock.

      At one time, soon after my conversion, I liked “Father Elijah.” Never liked any of O’Brien’s other books, but I liked that one. Recently I went back and tried to re-read “Father Elijah” and realized it was “Left Behind” for Catholics. As one small sample of its awfulness, I realized that Father Elijah was a Carmelite in name only (a CINO of a different sort). There was no indication of Carmelite spirituality having formed his character, spirituality, or perception of the world. O’Brien simply thought it would be A Cool Idea to have a Jewish-convert priest living on Mount Carmel take on the Antichrist.

      • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

        Too bad about O’Brien; never heard of him. R.H. Benson’s 1906 “Lord of the World” was a far more interesting version of what it sounds like O’Brien was attempting.

        • http://attheturnofthetide.blogspot.com Caspar

          I have to put in a word of defense for O’Brien here. While I agree that his formal style can be off-putting and his writing is not the best, I would argue that he does far, far more good than harm. There are depths to his books which the Left Behind series never begins to dream exist, let alone expose. He manages sympathetic portrayals of people who have fallen very far and very hard–for all that he tends to be rather black and white about things (see the whole Harry Potter brouhaha), in his novels, at least, you have some very sympathetic portrayals of gay characters (Smokrev), of atheists and agnostics (Ann Delaney), of even architects of the reign of evil (Maurice L’Oraison). The characters are given reasons for the wrong they do that transcend the simplistic style of LaHaye and Jenkins by far, and actually ground and round out the characters in a manner far beyond the sort of awfulness I hear people accuse him of perpetrating.

          O’Brien writes icons, both with paint and with his pen. The books are the product of fairly substantial prayer, I think, and reflection, as well as study. Are they great literature? No. Are they good books? I think so. Are they capable of saving souls and turning lives around? Yes, and I’ve seen them do it. Do they answer a substantial need in our time? Yes. For all that they may be obvious to the experienced practicing Catholic, they came as a great light to me when I was in college and trying to figure out what the heck had happened to the Jesuit universities. He does a great exposure of the illnesses of modernity, answering some of the deepest questions asked by contemporary man, and does it well. He gives answers many people will never have heard before in a readable context. Don’t discount what a great contribution that is. Until we have better Catholic fiction writers working in the world today, O’Brien fills a major void, and I think his work has the potential to endure because it’s so thoroughly grounded in eternal things, telling archetypal stories.

          My two cents.

          • Michelle

            Not a bad apologia for O’Brien, but your apologia is better than he deserves. O’Brien’s a culture warrior who peddles his propaganda through painting and fiction. (While his paintings done in a quasi-iconographic style may appeal to some tastes, they are *not* true icons. Iconography is a very specific discipline following very specific rules. O’Brien is no more a true iconographer than I am.)

            As for O’Brien’s novels, they’re really treatises that push his personal ideology, strung together with plot bits. If you want to read very good novels with solid religious themes by an experienced writer who happens to be Catholic (he resists the idea that he writes “Catholic novels”), I recommend Deacon Ron Hansen. Although “Mariette in Ecstasy” is arguably his best novel with the most overt religious themes and imagery (not to mention vowed religious as characters), his most popular work is probably “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” which was turned into a major movie.

            • http://attheturnofthetide.blogspot.com Caspar

              I agree that he intends to be a culture warrior–I think, given some of his life experiences, it’s more understandable than in many others. (see http://www.studiobrien.com/articles/victims-scandals-truth-compassion.html) His adamantly militant stance on some issues make him tone-deaf occasionally (the whole Harry Potter affair), but he also conveys a great deal of the richness of the faith in his books.

              I don’t know nearly enough about icons and so forth to judge his art, but I think his method is the same–praying, writing, with a greater concern for fidelity to the truth and the light given than perhaps for the highest standards of literature and art. He’s contributing a great deal more to the Church and the world than he’s being given credit for in many of these comments. Is he as good a writer as Walter Miller (Canticle for Leibowitz), John Wright, Michael Flynn, or the others listed here? Probably not. But I think his work will last because his books reflect the reality of the struggle within the Church right now.

              He has accurately and sympathetically held up a mirror to certain great problems in the modern age. He has listened to the teachings of John Paul II, among many others, and translated them into readable, workmanlike stories (even if he’s not a great writer). Christ calls us to do good work–I think O’Brien has done good work.

              Not all Christian literature needs to be at the level of the Divine Comedy, the work of Sigrid Undset, Harry Potter, or the Lord of the Rings. There has always been and always will be the kitschy and the clumsy. All of it is part of the rich texture of a living culture. We need great art, yes. But of course, there has been and will continue to be merely good art, merely decent art, serviceable art, and bad art. And I think there’s a place for most of that.

    • RFlaum

      I think part of the joke here is that every one of the works mentioned in the comic already contains pretty strong religious themes, they just don’t beat the reader over the head about it. The least religious is probably Sherlock, but even there Doyle makes it clear that Holmes is quite devout. Chapter 31 of Huck Finn features probably the most famous temptation-and-redemption scene in all of American literature, for instance.

      • enness

        I have always found it surprising that Conan Doyle wrote Holmes as a God-believer (I don’t remember offhand any explicit references to Jesus Christ, but definitely to God) and a patriot, when he was idiosyncratic and nonconforming in so many ways. Perhaps that is the error of looking at everything through 21st century eyes.

    • Rachel K

      “The real problem is that too many mainstream critics automatically consider any book with even a vaguely Christian message to be “schlock” while novels that trash Christianity, no matter how awful, are “incisive” and “edgy”. ”

      YES! Yes yes yes! I wrote a grim post-apocalyptic short story a few years ago that was basically about a Christian woman trying to reconcile the world in which she lived with her faith. I couldn’t sell it to a single mainstream market because it was too Christian; I suspect that if she’d failed to reconcile the two and become an atheist, I wouldn’t have had a problem. And then the flip side was that it took me forever to find a good Christian market for it because it was too bleak (the final message basically boiled down to, “OK, lady, you’re suffering and wondering why God’s forsaken you? So did Jesus. Suck it up.”). I will readily admit that it wasn’t the best story I’ve ever written, but no one who rejected it was focusing on the quality of the writing; they were focusing on the fact that you apparently can’t write a story that’s Christian and not relentlessly upbeat. Sigh.

  • http://sherryantonettiwrites.blogspot.com Sherry

    So…Mark….when are you entering into the literary world of fiction?

    • Mark Shea

      I’m dinking around with a novel when I have time. When I get the first chapter drafted, I might post it. Shaping up to be fun.

  • IB Bill

    God save us from our friends. Catholic and Christian literature is NOT GENRE LITERATURE! We do not need amateur marketers telling us how to write for a Christian audience.

    The Christian story is the archetype of archetypes in our language and culture, yes, even now and will always be, forever. In any honest or compelling art, it will just show up. An author must come to terms with that archetype. He/she will be almost compelled to use it, subvert is, change it … come somehow to aesthetic terms with it. Darth Vader ultimately is redeemed and sacrifices his life. Neo absorbs the evil of Agent Smith. Harry Potter. The Christian message is already everywhere. What we need to do is teach people to see and read.

    There is no such thing as an inspirational or compelling post-Christian literature. It will always feel empty and boring. Even the stuff that attacks the Church needs the Christian message to push against.

    • c matt

      Exactly – fiction writers should write Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Dystopia, etc., not Christian Sci-Fi, Christian Fantasy, Christian Dystopia, etc. That’s a sure-fire way to create schlock. One of the great laments i have is the demise of Caprica. Not Christian in any patricular way, but very good production values and explored very deep themes (what makes us human, use and abuse of power, etc.). Of course, because it had a level of intelligence beyond the average Kardashiaphile, it naturally got cancelled after one season. In the end, it may have answered the questions in progressive approved fashion, but at least it was exploring them.

  • http://www.lightbankmedia.com Rob MacMillan

    How about Flannery O’Connor or Walker (“I dare you to show me a Hittite”) Percy?

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Gene Wolf is one of the most respected SF writers today, and he’s Catholic.

    • Reactor

      Started reading Gene Wolfe recently — an exceptionally fine writer.

    • http://pavelspoetry.com Pavel Chichikov

      TENT OF MEETING

      He called upon wise Bezalel
      To undertake the Tabernacle,
      Frame and socket, gold and wood -
      Between the cherubim God stood

      The cosmos is a holy place
      Though it is death to see God’s face,
      He has revealed Himself since then
      As one of us, the Christ of men

      Now see the world, how perfectly
      The sky befits the tallest tree,
      And how the ocean fills the bowl
      Of measurement as day the soul

      Compare the mortis and the tenon,
      The wool of stars and velvet heaven,
      Say that where the Glory dwells
      Gave paradigms to Bezalel

      Pavel
      January 7, 2013

  • kath

    I read the first O’Brien book and I concur with the “Catholic LaHaye” sentiment. Some good sections surrounded by a lot of schlock.

    Some suggestions from my old book list when I started a Catholic Book Club several years ago. We had great fun because we read great lit, not “spiritual” or “Catholic” writing (it also led me to Chesterton, which was not a bad thing at all).
    Graham Greene’s “Catholic” novels
    Evelyn Waugh
    Flannery O’Connor (her stories, of course, but don’t forget The Habit of Being)
    Georges Bernanos
    Chesterton
    Tolkien
    Willliam Peter Blatty (yes, The Exorcist)
    James Joyce
    Thomas Merton
    Dostoevsky Dostoevsky Dostoevsky!!
    And anything on this list EXCEPT O’Brien
    http://marysaggies.blogspot.com/2010/05/top-20-catholic-novels.html

    • Mark Shea

      Don’t forget Mike Flynn and John C. Wright.

      • Dante Aligheri

        Amen! Yes, to both the Spiral Arms and Eifelheim!

        • Noah D

          If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Wright’s ‘Golden Age’ trilogy. This from someone who loved Eifelheim and the Spiral Arm – Golden Age is very different, but very good.

    • Dale Price

      Blatty also directed a very intriguing film, The Ninth Configuration, which was his “answer” to his previous Exorcist novel. Basically, it explores the question of “Good,” (in the form of a quest for redemption, and an act of self-sacriice) and what impact our experience of goodness has, especially on the question of God. A great film, but there are a couple of horrific scenes–one of violence and an interrupted rape.

  • kath

    What I love most about most of these novelists are that they aren’t afraid to laugh and they aren’t afraid to get dirty. Good Catholic lit is incarnational. And Catlicks ain’t Puritans (THANK GOD!!).

  • kath

    Thanks!! I need to add those guys to my reading lists — I see you mention them all the time and make a mental note to do so, but haven’t yet.

  • kath

    Oh yeah, and listen to Springsteen and U2 :-)

    • Margaret

      Kath, check out Mumford & Sons sometimes. They aren’t a “Christian” band explicitly, but they wrestle with themes of grace and redemption and free will over and over again. Good stuff.

  • Heather Price

    To quote a very wise woman (Simcha Fisher), “I just wish that today’s religious art had more art in it, and today’s secular art had more God in it. I wish religious people loved beauty more, and good artists loved truth more.”

    She was writing about painting and sculpture, but literature is art too. It applies.

  • kath

    Margaret – funny you should mention Mumford & Sons. I just bought one of their albums! Haven’t had time to give it a thorough listen yet but thus far love them!

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    Jerry Pournelle is Catholic too, and INFERNO (w/Niven) is an interesting read. And R.A.Lafferty, of course.
    See this article:
    http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/735/the_cross_and_the_stars.aspx
    and some interview questions here:
    http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/261/a_conversation_with_catholic_sf_writers.aspx

    • freddy

      Some would deem it odd that Catholics should be so excellent at writing science fiction. Sci-fi is supposed to be the land of athiests, don’t you know! I would find it odd; however, if Catholics *couldn’t* write good sci-fi, given our unique understanding of time, science itself and humanity.
      .
      One of my older boys is reading Mike Flynn’s “Firestar,” and having trouble putting it down. Another is a fan of everything by John C. Wright, and I don’t think anyone’s mentioned Tim Powers yet: a fine writer; his “Three Days to Never” is fascinating.

      • http://sherryantonettiwrites.blogspot.com Sherry

        Sci-Fi is perfect setting for a person attempting to come to grips with their own place in the universe and having a proper understanding of things because the conflict –of being out of place with the natural world is already established. Glad to hear you are working on a novel Mark, look forward to seeing what it is about.

  • A.M.

    A world of saints and preachers may be unrealistic, but so is a world where everyone is a morally wavering, veritable agnostic, or a bloodthirsty, perverted serial killer.

    Poison always kills, regardless of who is administering it. No person has the right to write things that are in and of themselves sinful, and/or sinful for other people to read. That would be a sin in and of itself.

    And that is just about the most unpopular truth for Catholic writers, today.

    Evidently the two strategies Catholics have envisioned for fighting the battle on the fields of the arts, is either to run away without a fight (writing things so unrealistically whitewashed or ridiculously that even the Catholics cringe in embarrassment), or to do exactly what the enemy is doing… which amounts to working for the enemy, while hoping that the color of the flag in your hand somehow sanctifies the evil you do. Neither strategy will ever work. We have now had almost a century of unbridled “realism” in Hollywood, on the bookshelf, and just about everywhere else. Realism as defined by the devil, that is: unbridled and graphic (portrayal of) sin. Never mind the other 99% of reality. For these, “realism” basically means sin. If that’s your idea of fighting… throwing another burning log on an already blazing building… I wonder about your powers of observation! Yet that is the vision that almost every Catholic writer I have ever met, has embraced: do what the enemy is doing, and hope that somehow doing those evils works out to our advantage. Never mind the spiritual casualties of doing as the devil does.

    It’s a shame that more Catholics can’t find that other 99% of reality, with God in it. (Eg, everything that exists outside of sin, which is the whole world of knowledge, arts, sciences, morally upright interests, etc.) If reading and writing about blood and guts and smut is your vision of good writing, or of reality, you have far greater problems than just being a good writer. I certainly doubt Mary or St. Joseph would find those kinds of books very enjoyable, and if the saints wouldn’t have enjoyed them, or would have found them revolting, than we, who are called to be saints, ought to find them no less so. Sainthood is, after all, an “all the way” proposition. The moment we say, “I’m all for being holy, but not about this” or “but not to THAT extent”, we have already chosen not to try for our sainthood seriously. We’ve become hypocrites, just kidding ourselves… trying to satisfy our consciences by going “so far” … but no farther, so that we can continue to live like everyone else.

    The saints also lived in the real world (reality), but you can be sure they didn’t make a point of wallowing in the worst that real world had to offer in the name of “edification.” On the contrary, virtues like purity are built up only by keeping as far away from the opposite vice as possible. The devil knows this, and you can bet that’s why it’s nigh impossible to find one modern video game, one modern movie or one modern book written by non Catholics without immodesty and impurity in it… if not saturated with it! Likewise, you can’t destroy charity and encourage murder and violence, without exposure to violence and the apparent justification of, and encouraging the enjoyment of, violence. All of which are also present in most modern media. Or to put it differently, there’s a reason why people who “enter religion” sometimes go out of the world into a convent or monastery. You can bet they’re not in there solemnly contemplating play-by-play murders and the like, to get closer to God.

    Nothing is accidental. But if you ask yourself how Jesus, Mary or St. Joseph would have seen something, you can bet that’s pretty much the Catholic truth of the matter, morally speaking, and that like it or not, that’s the truth we need to follow. Of course, the biggest objection to this is we know that they would not have approved of easily most of what’s in modern movies, books and games. And that’s a truth hard to hear, and even harder to live by.We can’t write (or live) just like people who don’t believe in God at all. That we actually have to consider morality, and the effects of what we do, on our own, and others’ souls. It means that yes, there are even things we cannot write about without sinning. But the sooner we acknowledge that truth, the sooner we can start looking for truly interesting and edifying things to write about that might actually be worth reading about… unlike the garbage the modern world is passing off as writing.

    There can be no progress without first admitting one’s mistakes. An evil tree cannot bear good fruit, and you will never get good or holy writing out of a vice-filled soul, nor pure truth out of an error-filled, ignorant soul. By their fruits you shall know them! Frankly, I think this obsession with smut and violence in Catholic writing is telling… and what it tells me is that in the war against the devastation in the arts, our side is in big trouble! All our side is doing right now is pretty much exactly what the enemy is doing. We just call it Catholic when we do it, because we’ve thrown in a few Catholic things. But the rest of it is the same, poisonous garbage in reality, regardless of who’s writing it.

    The tragedy of all of this, is that unlike what the devil wants us to think, giving up the evils of the devil, the flesh and the world, does not leave us empty handed. It does not mean we will be left with nothing to write about. On the contrary, it is only through true virtue, sanctity and the study and pursuit of real perfection in all things, that we can ever hope to approach the best of life or of works. Outside of God, there is only sin and death.

    But then, this pitfall to men shouldn’t be all that surprising. What did the devil tempt Eve with? To eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and EVIL… Today, men continue to tell themselves that wallowing in “knowledge” of sin is some kind of enlightenment, and therefore justified, while the saints who now reign in heaven spent their whole (or at least their whole converted) lives running as far away from sin and vice as possible, not making a detailed study of every act of sin men can commit in graphic, play-by-play detail. Certainly, I’m betting none of them considered explicit acts of sin to be the most noteworthy aspects of reality, and therefore worthy of constant contemplation.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m willing to bet that the saints had it right. That though we live in a wicked world, wallowing in that wickedness, even intellectually, is not a good thing. (See recent school-related history for details.) The proof is in reality, and in history. So long as Catholics continue to believe they can fight the devil by writing for him… even with their occasional Catholic truth, or preaching puppet thrown in (who is usually preaching errors or sin mixed with truths, at that!)… our side can never win. When we get serious about our own sanctity and Catholic (moral, theological, ethical) education, and the sanctity and perfection of our works, and our eyes begin to open to the other 99% of reality that exists outside of sin… then, I wager, the real battle will begin.

    Perhaps a good start would be for people to put down the violent and smutty movies, novels and games, and go in search of the rest of that reality. The rest of the world, knowledge and life, you will find, are far more interesting than rolling heads and bedroom activities. It is a world where, as they say, only the boring get bored.

    More likely though, they will prefer to defend their smut and/or gore writing to the bitter death. Everyone has an ego to stroke, and by far the easiest way to convince oneself that one is a real artistic genius, is to convince oneself that even garbage passes for real art. But take away impurity and gory violence, and an awful lot of writers suddenly get a terrible case of writer’s block. Yet which is more important? Our egos? or souls?

  • kath

    A.M. — is your comment aimed at the comments you see here or at certain Catholic authors or artists? You say (I paraphrase) that evidently Catholic authors have opted to “join ‘em” (rather than “fight ‘em”).

    To what or whom are you referring with that assertion?

    • A.M.

      To the up and coming, currently unknowns, and to the idea that Catholics can write copycat fiction of the immoral sewage now passing for literature, and that somehow this is perfectly fine morally speaking.

      I’ve always said that the opening of the book of Wisdom gives us about the best idea of what it will be like to live a truly Catholic life. Basically, if you’re not hated, attacked and generally loathed… you’re probably doing something wrong. You cannot live according to Catholic morality uncompromisingly, and somehow manage to find yourself living exactly as the atheists do.

      Curiously, no one seems interested in discussing the possibility of writing about anything else, as if the only thing that matters is what Hollywood (etc) and the devil have given us: sin, sin and more sin. Unless you want to write a novel (they’d joke) about prayer meetings.

      Fact is, we don’t have to write unrealistically whitewashed things, OR focus on sin. There is an entire world of interesting things out there to see, learn about, experience and write about, and plenty of them would make refreshingly original novels if written by people with the talent and determination to try. There are also countless profound truths that do not involve someone’s personal vices, that would likewise make wonderful material for a novel. But you do have to have the vision and the willingness to go looking for them.

      So long as Catholic writers want to keep writing like atheists, they will continue to bear the poisonous fruits that atheists so often do. Which will help turn things around morally… not at all. If your role model is a writer who denies God, how good is your own writing going to be? I suggest rather that people look to the Supreme Creator if they want to know how to do something the right way. His work, which writers are to explore, was an absolutely amazing and colossal thing, before sin ever came into the picture. Yet suddenly writers can’t seem to look at anything else but sin… and that, with the biggest microscope their consciences will allow. To know human nature is one thing. To focus obsessively on only the very worst in fallen human nature, is another. The former is edifying, if the truth is portrayed in a sane, realistic and balanced manner. The latter (focusing on sin) is pessimistic at best, and often sinful at worst.

      In recent years, I produced a whole cast of traditional Catholics… but while none of them are literal saints, it helped me to realize just how edifying and uplifting, if not refreshing, it is, to simply deal with realistic Catholic characters living realistic lives. They have their problems and their moments when they don’t quite do the right or best thing… but it didn’t take blood and guts, gunfights on every page, or paragraphs of filth to make them interesting. We don’t have to wallow in or focus on every mistake in detail. Nor is there a sermon on every other page. There doesn’t have to be, because living a truly Catholic life is edifying in and of itself, no additional words required, no running commentary on every act of virtue, or every temptation overcome. It’s there, you see it, it stands on it’s own: men trying to live the Faith to it’s fullest, in all sincerity, in spite of all of their faults… even in this gritty kind of world. And the quiet heroism that living a Catholic life in this gritty world requires, is, I think, something worth contemplating and admiring (unlike the sins so many writers want to defend writing about) . But for all of that, my work is not whitewashed. It manages to be plenty frank about what is frail in man, and where that frailty leads. But it manages to do it without having to rub the reader’s nose in the sins of the cast graphically, on every other page, as if the reader didn’t have the intelligence to comprehend or appreciate it otherwise. It also manages to be equally frank about what is GOOD in man (or what can be). It boldly asserts, for instance, that not every Catholic is a wishy-washy wuss who can’t find his conscience with both hands.

      I believe it was a bishop I heard lamenting that the problem with the history of literature, is that when men got to calling sin “reality” (I’m very roughly paraphrasing here), they eventually lost sight of everything else more and more, and that as you go down the line of Catholic writers to today, they got almost progressively worse and worse (morally speaking), because of it, until you had authors pretty much doubting their own Faith on the page.

      But the world praises them simply because they were Catholic, or simply because they wrote all about sin, which was “being realistic.” (Eg, regardless of the actual moral problems of the work.)

      It is nonsense to say that without wallowing in sin (even if sins do happen), a writer is doomed to be “unrealistic.” That’s just where the rest of reality comes in. But talking to writers, you would think there were only two choices: absurdly whitewashed, and morbidly sinful. (And most of the writer’s I’ve spoken to will defend to the death the practice of focusing on sin, under the pretext that the alternative is just that.)

      I’ve been a writer now for probably around 17 years. I’ve spent much of the last 10-12 of those years morally ironing out my own work (after a worldlier past), and trying every chance I got to search out the concrete morality of this craft. Providence and God have been the best teachers. But I realized pretty early on that most of the people I encountered who called themselves writers couldn’t seem to write anything BUT smut and violence, and that those two things, while producing a cheap (albeit typically sinful/wrong) thrill, were in fact the crutches of pretty much everyone who didn’t want to (or couldn’t) write something better, more interesting or more important. In other words, if you took the trash out of their stories, there was nothing left but flat dialog, even flatter characters, and usually embarrassingly stupid premises… if not lots of errors to boot. I realized before I was 18 that I didn’t want my writing to be like that, and upon getting more serious about my Faith, I began looking no less seriously for the moral compass of that Faith in my writing. After all, no good Catholic pretends that he can personally invent what is right or wrong in any other question of morality. Instead, he rightly looks to God and the Church. Well, so did I. I concluded that while I didn’t have to write stories of worlds inhabited by absolutely perfect saints, I also couldn’t write what the world has written for a very long time now, but that happily, there was an awful lot of “everything else” just waiting to be written about.

      Or as I’ve said many times in the past, the most brilliant material, in the hands of someone without talent, will fall flat, while those who have talent (and passion, I might add), can take virtually anything and make it truly interesting… no smut or bloodbaths needed. (Meaning, it’s possible, even if it’s harder.)

      But in the end, it is not our talent, or lack thereof, which determines what is or is not good writing (eg, the measure of writing). As with all human action, the compass is already there, steadfast and concrete, as definite as death and judgment. The only question is how high any one of us can reach upon that lofty measure of perfection, the infallible compass of every human action: God, God’s law, the Church, the divinely written nature of things as they are (truth), and the Lord’s own example.

      Alas, gone are the days when men looked at a great mountain and set out to see whether or not they could make it to the summit, or even halfway up it , by honest work. (The mountain being the measure of the man.) Today, we prefer to blow the mountain down to our own level, pat ourselves on the back, and carry on congratulating ourselves as if we had really reached it’s peak through some heroic and praiseworthy effort. (Or, the man trying to be the measure of the mountain.)

      Here, the mountain in question is a matter of the art, of the talent, of the nature of both, of their purposes as God intended them, of the moral laws regarding what we may or may not expose our neighbor to, of our catechism, of truth and so forth. Man, having looked at himself and having found himself wanting, has decided that instead of looking at those things, he would much rather attempt to reinvent them according to whatever is in his reach without so much stretching to the tips of his toes… let alone attempting to climb by the sweat of his brow to any height.

      Personally, I would prefer the honest satisfaction of making it one quarter of the way up the mountain as it stands, and to know certainly the worth of my work, than to cheat and try to bring it’s peak down to me. Especially knowing that I will be morally accountable for that cheat. After all, one might say that the bottom of that moral measuring stick dangles above hell, just as it’s top touches heaven. I only hold that it is the measure of US, and not we the measure of it.

      As for the writers that came before us… the measure is as eternal as it is absolute. We cannot invent, or reinvent morality to suit our whims or our age. It is an external, fixed thing. I speak of the measure every man of every age will be judged by, regardless of how popular or unpopular his works may have been. In eternity, we may see some of the “greats” quite differently. We may also see some very surprising people who where almost unknown, who measured up there with some of the giants. But the measure is God’s, not man’s. We cannot invent or reinvent it. We can only find and hold ourselves up to it. Which is why I make a point to count a man’s fame as nothing, and instead take his works as what counts. The masses are easily swayed by what the majority have declared to be great. By that measure, there are “classics” full of anti-Catholic sentiments if not outright errors, that are hailed by the world as brilliant! In the field of science, the rule of popular greatness is an even more embarrassing failure as a right measure of goodness or truth. The question is, was the work good in the light of eternity, or was it evil? Some “classics” were so bad they were even blacklisted by the Church!

      Measure by the eternal measure. Fame is too often given to the wicked, and disdain to the just, in this world.

      Today, many men want a thrill, and they do not want anything else, even if what they really need is light, hope and truth rather than blood, smut and despair. There is more than enough sin and darkness on our shelves, and in our world. None of it has enlightened man out of his deadly love affair with sin, yet. I expect that is why wise men advise us to get away from going by what we are drawn to with our passions, and to learn to develop a taste for things that are higher and more important than an adrenaline rush.

  • Mark R

    All classic Catholic novelists mentioned are great, even the C of E writers I mentioned….but none of them, I daresay all in aggregate, come even close to Dostoyevsky.

  • Rodney

    Much appreciate this entry; I have been an avid reader all my life, and having converted to Catholicism from “non-denomination” Christian a couple years ago, it’s been a bit rough finding good Catholic fiction to the point where I’ve been tempted to sent hand-written letters to Michael O’Brien pleading him to write better.

    As everyone says, Elijah is good, could use some major editing in my opinion (he stops the story for tangential short stories sporadically for little apparent reason as in his other books), but good. Strangers and Sojourners, I finished solely because I assumed that whoever wrote Elijah would show up eventually and the story would begin, but at the very end it had not. Eclipse of the Sun was much better; at parts downright poetic, but very…(searching for an adjective to describe my revulsion at the hero publicly burning catechisms with muddled theology)…hmm, pointlessly grandstanding I suppose. I read Plague Journal again in the hopes that it would be another Elijah, but this book made me plain angry. It’s barely a book at all; it’s primarily a collection of sociological essays where the main character broods over the social structures that got them into the mess they’re in, meanwhile thinking of how to save his children from a concentration camp receives one short paragraph (we’ll hide out at grandpa’s, they’d NEVER ever think to look for us at my Dad’s house!) Guess what, he gets caught. I wanted to reach into the book and yell at the man to put his diary down and run to Mexico.

    The man has shown no ability to write characters who aren’t devout Catholics, and it boggles the mind why he insists on making most of his characters this way. Elijah and Father Andrei are great characters; the rest are barely human.

    But yeah; I’ll take Tolkien thanks. God is hardly ever actually mentioned ever in The Lord of the Rings, but His presence is felt on every page. As my English teacher (and C.S. Lewis) used to say, never tell someone something when you can show them.

    Books I’d recommend; Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (few of his others though), Louis de Wohl of course, C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy (the main character is based on Tolkien just like Tolkien based Treebeard on C.S. Lewis), Frank Herbert’s Dune, Tim Power’s ‘Declare’ I’m in the middle of now, ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop”, Chesterton of course, Charles Dickens especially Tale of Two Cities, and a wonderful Sister at our church has a vast collection of 70′s Star Trek books.

  • John McNichol

    Is this really being done?


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