Good Catholic Fiction That Isn’t So … Catholic?

… I’ve always wanted to write a book. A modern day collection of cautionary tales for young people offering up anecdotes from my own life. Hey kids, you don’t want to end up like your crazy Auntie Kat. But I fear what ever I compose might not be suitable for Catholic publishing’s delicate sensibilities.

Why, oh why is Catholic publishing so boring and sanitized?

Just today I got a catalog in the mail from a publishing company, that shall remain nameless, whose collection of works contained titles like The Tome Of Overly Pious Devotions, Hell Is Hot, Fun Is The Devil’s Plaything, Lives of Martyrs And Their Gruesome Deaths, Making Penance Fun, You’re Probably Sinning Right Now, and Immoral You. Oh, and can’t forget the classics; Summa this and summa that.

Catholic fiction? Fuggedaboutit! About as riveting as EWTN programming.

Why does Catholic fiction have to be so … Catholic? Like the only way it will appeal to other readers is if it takes place in a monastery and the main character is a priest. As rich with symbolism as Catholicism is I cannot understand the desire for publishing companies to prefer to sell books that are so clumsily obvious. Sure Catholics pray and junk. We love Mary and the Sweet Baby Jesus. But we love to laugh too. And cry. We have jobs and hobbies… besides going to adoration and making handmade rosaries. And not every vacation is a retreat taken at a convent.

When I start to read a book and right away the main character is “sitting in a pew clutching his well worn Douay Rheims Bible while the clicking sound of rosary beads fill his ear” I’ve already lost interest. Not that there’s anything wrong with sitting in church clinging to a Bible but it’s just soooooo cliche. It’s not even trying.

Oh well. Not every writer can be a Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the meantime, here’s some stuff that doesn’t suck; Dappled Things and Korrektiv Press.

I will now take your non-obvious Catholic fiction suggestions.

PS – For something to be Catholic it doesn’t necessarily have to be Catholic. Kind of the point of this post. You know, books like Children of Men or The Reapers Are the Angels. Oooo. Speaking of apocalyptic fiction, someone mentioned A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is obviously Catholic but still fantastic none the less.

PPS – If your interested, check out Happy Catholic’s review of the Reapers book. It’s an entire book about ordinary and unexpected beauty… with zombies. If that doesn’t scream “Catholic” nothing does.

About Katrina Fernandez

Mackerel Snapping Papist

  • AMoniqueOcampo

    Regina Doman was always recommended by my friends.

    • Maggie

      She’s a nice light read, but she’s definitely overtly Catholic. Haven’t read her Rapunzel book yet, though.

  • SDG

    I’ve written a pretty decent children’s fantasy novel that’s not too Catholic (indeed, not overtly Catholic at all, though thematically it’s somewhere between Middle-earth and Narnia). It’s been read and praised by Catholic publishers, but apparently it’s not Catholic enough for them.

  • Lisa S

    I thoroughly enjoyed both NaNoWriMo serials from “If You Can Get It” and “Profiles in String” :)

    • Mary H.

      Mrs. Darwin has also been serializing another novel titled “Stillwater” on their bog which is very, very good. Though installments have currently been suspended due to morning sickness.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.

  • Billy

    Hoping Dorothy Cummings’ Ceremony of Innocence (forthcoming) will fit your bill, but obviously, I haven’t read it yet.

  • Elisabeth

    Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness is one of the best books I’ve ever read, but Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, G. K. Chesterton… If it doesn’t need to be Catholic Catholic, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson is wonderful. I could pontificate on this subject for a long while, but that’s a good start anyway!

  • Sophie Bean

    Fr Malachy’s Miracle is one of my all time favourites, along with the little world of Dom Camillo.

  • Fr John Corrigan

    Maybe we need more of this:

    In July 1965, Graham Greene had a private audience with Pope Paul VI. They talked about how his novel, The Power and the Glory, had been condemned by the papacy and placed on the Index two decades earlier. The new Pope asked who in the Vatican actually condemned it, and when Greene told him the name of the cardinal, the Pope smiled and then said, “Mr. Greene, some parts of your book are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.”

    (This story is told in the article, “Graham Greene’s Vatican Dossier,” by Peter Godman, in The Atlantic Monthly from July/August 2001.)

  • JMC

    I like “The Edge of Sadness” by Edwin O’Connor. It’s about a priest and his struggles, but it’s very “real.”

  • Christine Hebert

    I enjoyed Angela’s Song by AnnMarie Creedon, and Critical Mass by Susan Howard.

  • Joseph L. Grabowski

    Some modern choices would be “Charming Billy” by Alice McDermott. Fantastic book, and William Kennedy’s Albany Trio too, especially the fantastic “Ironweed.” Both are kind of “Catholic haunted” more than the cliche kind of Catholic lit.

    One I read recently that was really fascinating if you’re into sci-fi is “Canticle for Liebowitz,” which is all about the Church and thus maybe not what you’re looking for, but it’s also a post-apocalyptic thriller which changes things a bit.

    And for an older choice that’s truly realist and Catholic without being preachy, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, if you haven’t read it.

  • katieokeefe

    “The Power and The Glory” is excellent, as is “The End of The Affair” (also by Graham Greene.) I also highly recommend “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh.

    • Danny

      And there’s a bit in “The Power and the Glory” that makes fun of overly-sanctimonious Catholic books, too.

  • Allison@TotusTuus

    You should definitely write a book! You’ve identified a niche.

  • Joseph Moore

    Along the lines of Canticle for Leibowitz, there’s a number of great Catholic SciFi writers alive today who don’t clobber you with their Catholicism: Mike Flynn, John C Wright, and Gene Wolfe.

    Flynn wrote Eiflelheim, an alien encounter novel set in the Middle Ages, and The Country of the Blind, an historical mystery/international conspiracy story where the Catholic themes are only subtly present in the moral dilemmas the characters face. These are not totally hard core SciFi, meaning they do not require geeking out over the science to appreciate (not that you can’t if it’s your thing – Flynn’s plenty geeky.)

    On the other hand, John C Wright, who converted only a few years ago from rabid evangelical atheism, writes much more geeky scifi, but loves, loves loves him some space opera – so, if grand sweep and galactic-level drama is you thing (imagine Star Wars written by somebody really, really smart) then you might like his Count to the Eschaton series (which he is 2 books into, and I haven’t had a chance to read yet – but the reviews are good.)

    Gene Wolfe I know only by reputation – it is said that he is the finest living writer of English in any genre.

    So, basically, you’re kinda looking at my reading list, once I get through this philosophy crap I’m working on – ETA 2016. Ish.

    • Catherine Costanzo

      I second the recommendation for Michael Flynn. I just finished reading Eifelheim and it is excellent. Another SciFi novel along the same lines, though more light-hearted, is The High Crusade by Poul Anderson.

  • Maia

    THANK YOU for writing what I’ve always grumbled about in my head (and always felt kinda guilty grumbling about).

  • Fr Joe

    I get leery of anything that has “Catholic” before it concerning literature, music, film and any other artistic endeavor. It’s like when I was growing up my Baptist relatives said I shouldn’t read Marvel Comics because the Devil wrote them so they got me those Religious Heavy-Handed Archie Jesus comics. So awful.
    But a writer who happens to be Catholic and a very complicated one that is one of my top 10 favorites: Anthony Burgess. He died out of the graces of the Church, so I read but I think he was one of those discontented after the early 60′s.
    Highly recommend him.

  • M.B. Ryther

    Dean Koontz is a practicing Catholic and drops bits of Catholicism into his books in such a way that if you’re not Catholic, you might not even get it.

  • Sally Thomas

    Anything by Rumer Godden. In This House of Brede and Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy are overtly Catholic (hard not to be when your setting is a community of nuns), but I would also recommend The Greengage Summer, An Episode of Sparrows, and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita.

    And people have already listed my other faves: The Edge of Sadness and Kristin Lavransdatter.

    • Christine Hebert

      Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is an absolutely wonderful book! Not all of the story takes place in the convent…

      • Sally Thomas

        Right — that was my thumbnail description. A good bit of it takes place in a brothel, and another bit in a prison. But Godden’s writing is always . . . well, “insightful” is too mundane a word, but her understanding of human complexity, and the capacity for grace which can coexist even with depravity in the human heart, drives all her novels, I think. As a child I adored her writing for children — The Dolls’ House, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Fairy Doll — there’s a kind of unstinting truthfulness to her writing which makes even her stories about dolls not sweet but a little unsettling. And even in her “adult” novels, she writes children very well, particularly misfit children and those who suffer for the sins of the adults in their lives.

  • terentiaj63

    If you are open to a set of books that take place in a monastery and the lead character is a monk, try out “Brother Cadfael” by Edith Pargeter . Great murder mysteries. The PBS Mystery! series made from the books and starring Derek Jacobi are also pretty good.

  • Martha

    Katherine Valentine’s A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s series is awesome! Loved them!

  • Jenna St.Hilaire

    I. Loved. This.

    Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite books, but like nearly everything else mentioned in the combox, it’s been around awhile. I’d love to see some of today’s Catholics writing good fiction like that. Like Orson Scott Card’s approach to writing from his Mormon faith–it may have an overt presence in a book, or it may not, but the work turns you Godward whether or not you see the Mormonism and whether or not you’re Mormon yourself, as long as you have ears to hear.

    On that note, most of my favorite living authors are Mormon (come on, Catholics, let’s catch up here!!!) They’re doing a splendid job with this sort of thing right now. ‘Course, the ones I know are mostly in sci-fi and fantasy, which isn’t everybody’s mug of mead.

    Am waiting on Cummings’ book myself and am interested to see how she handles the matter. Also, as per commenter Joseph Moore, John C. Wright is worth mentioning, and I should probably read some Mike Flynn and Gene Wolfe.

  • Neal

    Michael O’Brien “Island of the World”

    check it out

  • Mary H.

    Read “Declare” by Tim Powers.

  • Beth

    Well, cliché could be reversed if you throw in some sci-fi :P

    He was sitting in a pew clutching his well worn Douay Rheims Bible while the clicking sound of rosary beads fill his ear. Normalcy. Prayer. Normalcy. Prayer. Normalcy. Prayer.

    The mantra pounded away within his brain. There was no normalcy here, and certainly no prayer. Some had prayed and some had lived normal lives, but him, never; he was abnormal, a slave to the system. He must stop thinking about it–at once! They would find out…they had found out before…they had found out about Summer, and now they were going to find out about him. And in the name of all self-interest, he must not be found out!

    His breath escaped him in a chilly cloud. The building was cold and filled with ice. Dark. Closed. Was there life beyond it? He felt there was. Some shadowy memories told him so. Some remembered sensations of a feeling in the stomach that rose to the chest and came out in a great light burst of happiness. Maybe there was something beyond it. But a slave in a trap has no hope, and so he had no hope.

    Plot: It is a thousand years from the present, and the System, a regulated half-computerized group of communalized beings, is seeking to capture the last leader of the resistance by luring him into a mocked-up church that is a trap. The Catholicky stuff doesn’t happen till the end, and then it’s not gratuitous, it makes sense. Don’t ask me how, I’m totally never writing more of this.

    And yeah, been watching too much Dr. Who :P

  • Patrick Button

    Read Andy Nowicki. He’s a Catholic, an English professor, and an excellent writer. His O’Conneresque work is dark, violent, and certainly never dull! If you have an ebook reader you can pick up his novels for cheap.

  • Jonathan Francesco

    Excellent article. It speaks to something I’ve been feeling for a while now. As an aspiring (if very self-critical) Catholic writer myself, this has much relevance to me. Catholics have lost their influence in the culture, and especially in the arts. Catholics used to rule this but lately, it seems you have liberal Catholics either assimilating to the point where they are indistinguishable from anybody else or loyal Catholics isolating themselves so much that they are irrelevant to the culture. I don’t believe assimilation or hiding is the calling of a Catholic, but rather, influence. Furthermore, our work shouldn’t be some mediocre or cheesy effort because God’s work should be the best and not just have some mediocre composition fall back on it’s message.

    As Catholic writing goes, I always find that Catholics in fiction are portrayed as hypocrites, zealots (aka, nuts), able to selectively portray elements of their faith for temporary pleasures on a regular basis, or, at best, there’s a religious portrayed as a bastion of wisdom and is essentially a flawless character there solely to guide the protagonist. While all of these may actually exist, what I really do not see any of is a modern Catholic lay person who is living a normal life and still being active and loyal to the Catholic faith. There are Catholic cops living their faith actively every day. Ones who practice chastity. (unlike many you see in popular media) Where are the stories about them? What about the Catholic youth who are abstinent but are still normal teens? What about the every day family who lives their faith? I just do not see stories about these kinds of people. Either the faith is an afterthought or it is beaten into the reader so much that it makes the faith look almost phony.

    And why are so many Catholic stories about other time periods? I think Catholic authors unintentionally give credence to the false secular notion that Catholicism is some outdated worldview when they only write about Catholics who would’ve lived centuries ago. There are lots of Catholics alive today who live their faith and are going through trials like the rest of us.

    For me, this is what I feel called to write about. Modern Catholic families, parents and children, who live their faith out in the midst of unbelievable trials and threats. There’s a lot of darkness and a lot of violence. So perhaps, this isn’t just your “every day Catholic.” Yet, they were everyday Catholics. I understand that stories thrive on conflict which usually calls for something more than just the ordinary. And there is much conflict in this and challenges to their faith. They aren’t perfect. They are flawed and they struggle. But they are committed too, and I see so little genuine portrayals of commitment to one’s Catholic faith anymore. I see so few characters who I can truly relate to. I think it’s less that stories are “too Catholic.” It’s just that art requires a balance with the theme and the content that I think faith-based art has lost sight of. And I think the message is dulled in the process.

    And yes, this is getting long-winded so I shall stop. But I am glad I am not alone in this. I’ve written drafts of several novels and I always feel like it’ll be unfit for both sides. It’s too dark/violent for Catholic audiences and yet too Catholic for the secular world. There’s a lot of people going through very horrible things in my stories but what I always want to do is tell stories about people I can relate to, DEVOUT everyday Catholics thrown into horrible situations. And this is something I’ve just felt has been neglected by Catholic literature for a while.

  • Lurker Bee

    After reading the Vince Flynn collection, MacFarlane’s “Pierced…” felt cliche, lazy, and uninspired. I need some fiction which won’t plunge my soul into the depths of darkness like Stephen King but doesn’t seem to be written by an amateur.