Destroy the Walls: Modest Proposals for a Renewed Catholic (and Christian) Literary Imagination

Destroy the Walls: Modest Proposals for a Renewed Catholic (and Christian) Literary Imagination June 26, 2016



A few weeks ago, a friend called me a “blue collar writer” and then backtracked a bit, thinking he’d offended me. I smiled and said I took it as a compliment. I do.

I didn’t major in English, nor did I get my MFA. The model for my writing career is my grandfather, who told the craziest stories. He was a working class Catholic who probably hadn’t read any Flannery O’Connor. All he cared about was entertaining his grandchildren and maybe teaching them something along the way. Like him, I just want to tell good stories to anyone who will listen.

I come to the Catholic literary discussion very late in the game, but I know that in the past few years, there has been much handwringing over the loss of Catholic novelists and influencers of culture. Whether it’s the USC Catholic imagination conference last year, or Dana Gioia’s piece in First Things, or Jon Sweeney’s article for America Magazine, Catholic literary types are lamenting that we no longer have a place in the contemporary literary pantheon.

I share their concerns but I wonder about the proposed solutions. In fact, there are no proposed solutions. Instead, we seem only to hear laments, sadness and gazing back at the past. As Randy Boyagoda pointed out in his excellent piece in First Things, we have a group of literary types writing to other literary types to make themselves feel important. And we wonder why nobody else is reading?

It seems like one of our biggest problems is that writers want to avoid the death label, “Catholic Writer,” because they don’t want to be “pigeonholed” by the cultural establishment. Instead of seeing this as a defect to rebel against, we act like whipped dogs sniffing at the feet of our masters. The problem with Catholic writers is not the lack of talent. It’s lack of courage. In order to produce amazing art, one has to be courageous, bold and be willing to give the finger to the Spirit of the Age.

All the Catholic writers we revere–like O’Connor, Percy, Waugh, Tolkien and Greene–had one thing in common: they really believed their Catholicism, whether they liked it or not. They would have scratched their heads at the self-hating modern Catholic writer who seems ashamed of their faith background even as they exploit it for story ideas and atmosphere. They really believed, and they really struggled. In the crucible of that fiery furnace, they built some of the world’s most enduring literary work.

The time has come for Catholic (and Christian) writers to stop lamenting the past and letting other people (Christian or otherwise) establish the rules for us. It’s time for a true artistic rebellion. And by that, I don’t mean a bajillion dollar Christian entertainment complex. No, I’m talking a raw, honest, literary Catholicism that shatters genre boundaries and seeks to make people “behold” in the old Testament sense.

But do we recover the spirit of our most beloved writers without repeating what they’ve done? How do Catholics make great literary art again? To be sure, I’m not as educated on all the angles and issues of this debate as some others. That’s a lifetime of work. But I’m going to propose some ideas for others to kick around.

First, Catholic writers need to stop being ashamed and apologetic about their Catholicism. Good art has a point of view.  Catholic writers need to go all in–or even all out–with our Catholicism. Again, this is not a blind and unthinking faith. Instead, it should stand in the long tradition of Catholics trying to live their faith in their particular context. When we do that, there’s enough tension to create reams of literary imaginations.

Second, we must bust the arbitrary boundaries forced on us by publishers, literary critics and others who seek to shove writers into marketing categories. A few years ago, I read a quote by Michael Chabon–in my opinion, our greatest living American writer. How often do you find authors who can win a Pulitzer prize (The Amazing Adventures of Kavlier and Clay) and then write a book for kids (Summerland). Chabon is one of the few who has.

He provided a roadmap for a Catholic literary revival when he said,

“Entertainment … means junk…. [But] maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted—indeed, we have helped to articulate—such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment…. I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period.”

Basically, he is saying that writers should never care about the genre boundaries just because people think they produce “low brow” fiction. Chabon is challenging writers to elevate their own game and genre books. They should bust the boundaries and categories by seeking to reach out the widest audience possible while remaining dedicated to being an excellent writer.

Chabon motivated me to not only be the best writer I can be, but also reach out to as many people as possible. I have an adult paranormal series, a nonfiction book in progress, and a YA series currently in front of a major publisher. I blog, I write magazine articles, and I’m developing a podcast. I’m never going to win a Pulitzer Prize like Chabon, because I don’t have a tenth of his talent. There are other Catholic writers who could do this and do it well. But I work hard to live into the spirit of what he said.

Finally, I’m going to propose the radical idea that the Catholic writer doesn’t write for their own personal satisfaction and/or for accolades from their colleagues. These are nice things and I confess, I like receiving them, especially considering I’m a blue collar writer who often feels vastly inadequate to my writer friends. But I don’t exist and create art for myself.

Dorothy Sayers writes in “The Mind of the Maker” that the writer reflects the work of the Trinity. Conceiving an idea comes from the Father; incarnating by writing it is a reflection of the Son; and getting it out into the world where it can interact with people is a picture of the Holy Spirit’s work in the church.

It’s a beautiful metaphor, one Catholic writers must embrace, especially the idea of putting our writing into the world. Our should communicate to the largest number of people possible and speak to their concerns. The Catholic writer must be concerned with wanting and allowing people to interact with their work.

I hope this starts a conversation, debate and wrestling with all my modest proposals. I don’t claim to have all angles covered and I’m certainly ignorant of many nuances of this debate. In reality, I might be the least qualified person to step into this conversation. But that’s okay. Let’s talk, write, and revive what is not dead, but only asleep.




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