WHEN DANA GIOIA’S ESSAY “Can Poetry Matter?” appeared in The Atlantic in 1991, it galvanized a national conversation about the state of American literature and how creative writing was being taught, produced, and consumed by the reading public. That piece justly propelled Gioia to the front ranks of American letters, not only as a critic but as a practicing poet, one whose art hewed to the standards of accessibility and connection to common experience he called on others to revere and emulate.
Gioia’s latest essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” published in the December 2013 issue of First Things, bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor. It takes in a wide sweep of literary history, pointedly details a deplorable situation—“Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts”—and seeks to rally those who care about the issues he raises to action.
While the scope of the new essay may be more restricted, I believe Gioia’s arguments there ought to be of interest to anyone who cares about the relationship between religion and public life. He may have specific hopes and expectations for his own communion, but Jews and Protestants at the very least could find themselves transposing the essay’s premise to their own experience.
At the end of the essay, he speaks of culture as a conversation that a community has with itself. In that spirit, I’m adding my voice to the chorus. And I’m responding as someone who counts Dana Gioia as a friend, colleague, and co-religionist.
The short version is that while I concur with his conclusion, I don’t entirely share his sense of how we’ve arrived at this point—nor do I believe he has yet articulated a clear idea of how best to move forward.
So here’s my counter-thesis: the loss of a Catholic presence in mainstream literary culture is not because we are suffering from a dearth of gifted Catholic writers but because ideological blinders have prevented religious and secular people alike from perceiving and engaging the work that is out there. It’s like Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” except in reverse: the crowd seems to insist that the emperor is naked, whereas he is, in fact, fully clothed and in his right mind.
Or to put it another way: we are suffering from a type of spiritual and cultural anorexia: what would feed and nourish us is before us, but we will not eat.
Now I am well aware that the argument that things are not as bad as they seem sounds wishy-washy to many people. But, to be honest, what I’ve termed “the narrative of decline” is pretty lame, too. The weakest part of “The Catholic Writer Today” is its assertion that we have fallen away from a high point of Catholic literary activity in the mid-twentieth century. In the spirit of Gioia’s essay—with its insistence of grounding arguments in fact—I decided to test his narrative of decline. Here is his honor roll of fiction writers from mid-century:
[Catholic writers] included established fiction writers—Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Horgan, Jack Kerouac, Julien Green, Pietro di Donato, Hisaye Yamamoto, Edwin O’Connor, Henry Morton Robinson, and Caroline Gordon…. There were also science-fiction and detective writers such as Anthony Boucher, Donald Westlake, August Delerth, and Walter Miller, Jr….
Now here is my list of contemporary Catholic authors, mapped name for name on Gioia’s:
They included established fiction writers—Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff, Robert Clark, Stuart Dybek, Louise Erdrich, David Plante, Ann Patchett, Mary Gordon, Robert Girardi, and the late Andre Dubus and Oscar Hijuelos…. There were also science-fiction and detective writers such as Gene Wolfe, Dennis Lehane, Dean Koontz, and the late Tony Hillerman.
If I had space here, I could do the same with Gioia’s list of poets. Moreover, given the rise of memoir as a literary genre in recent decades, I would see Gioia’s list and raise him a series of nonfiction writers whose work is shot through with a profoundly Catholic sensibility—writers like Richard Rodriguez, Annie Dillard, Patricia Hampl, Thomas Lynch, and Barry Lopez.
In prefacing his list of mid-century writers Gioia asserts: “The comparison between the postwar era and today is illuminating, even shocking.” Speaking for myself, I am neither shocked nor illuminated by the comparison: the contemporary group holds up well against the earlier list.
Which is not to say that there are no differences between the two eras. A few years ago in this space I wrote an essay entitled “Shouts and Whispers” about those differences. I spoke of the earlier generation, influenced by the grand gestures of modernism and sensitive to the aggressive early twentieth-century secularist attacks on religion, as writers inclined to “shout.” That’s a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s aesthetic, famously summed up in the phrase “For the hard of hearing you have to shout….”
But O’Connor was hardly alone in setting the Catholic faith in bold relief to secularism: think of Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest” attempting to flee martyrdom at the hands of a godless, totalitarian regime, or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, set against the cataclysm of World War II. These Catholic writers may have been deeply sacramental, sensing a harmony between nature and grace, but they also understood that faith often places one contra mundum, in stark contrast to worldly values and assumptions. In their imaginative visions, God was discerned by his absence, the silhouette against the sound and fury of modernity.
The last couple of generations of Catholic writers have been far more inclined to whisper. Modernism gave way to postmodernism: the “master narratives” were replaced by more intimate, domestic tales. Walker Percy—no slouch when it came to serious Catholic philosophical thought—used to say that whereas O’Connor wrote about cosmic conflicts played out in the existential arenas of the Georgia backwoods, his novels depicted a world of shopping malls and golf courses—of despair that had been successfully distracted and amused out of people’s minds.
As I put it in that essay, recent writers who grapple with faith “are less sure they can, or should, create those big silhouettes. They’re more interested in the scrimshaw of private life.”
Wisely, Gioia avoids the simplistic, reactionary argument that the earlier Catholic writers were “muscular,” whereas contemporaries are ninety-eight-pound weaklings. Indeed, Gioia’s conviction that Catholic literature isn’t characterized by overtly religious subject matter and that sacramentalism implies the presence of grace in the mundane are strong inducements to explore the output of the current generation of Catholic writers.
Gioia is not alone in lamenting the decline and fall of the Catholic writer. Take Paul Elie, one of the sharpest Catholic writers—and writers—out there, who wrote a similar threnody mourning the novel of belief in the New York Times. Elie, who wrote with such sensitivity about Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, O’Connor, and Percy in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, seems blind to the present moment.
To take just one example, in arguing that few contemporary writers take on the fundamental question of belief versus unbelief, Elie dismisses Alice McDermott’s fiction as being merely about Irish Catholic New Yorkers from the 1950s and ’60s. But this is an oddly literal and obtuse reading of, say, Charming Billy. True, the novel is set in that earlier time period, but the novel is told from the point of view of a younger woman—a disaffected, lapsed Catholic—whose exploration of her Uncle Billy’s life slowly and quietly brings her back to faith. Billy the alcoholic protagonist is a mess, and yet he is a loving soul, a kind of saint—a man of boundless faith in spite of his woundedness.
Then, in an unexpectedly poignant turn of events, the novelist Oscar Hijuelos wrote to the Times in response to Elie, citing his own novel, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, just days before his sudden death of a heart attack. Like Charming Billy, Mr. Ives’ Christmas is another whispered tale of a wounded saint, a man of deep Catholic faith whose seminarian son is senselessly murdered. These novels are meditations on sainthood in the same vein as Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, but instead of a protagonist as priest hunted by totalitarian thugs, they show us New Yorkers as unlikely saints: an advertising executive and a worker for Con Edison.
So why do so many people—including writers of the stature of Gioia and Elie—have such a difficult time hearing these whispers? Our faith, after all, is based on the need to listen for a “still, small voice.”
To my mind, Gioia is on much firmer ground when he criticizes the state of the public conversation in serious journals, newspapers, and other venues. There can be little doubt that a type of smug, triumphalistic secularism has dominated the cultural mainstream for several decades.
And yet the blame for the absence of Catholicism—or Judaism or Protestantism—from the larger conversation must, in part, rest with people of faith—and in particular with the critics, intellectuals, and theologians who help to mediate what is going on in the arts to a broader audience. If I miss anything from that mid-twentieth-century period, it is the presence of thinkers like Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, who were equally at home in the New York Times and Commonweal. Their rich, humanistic sensibilities are sorely missed.
What happened in the intervening decades was a steady shrinking of cultural and aesthetic concerns to ideological politics, including church politics. What happened was the progressive dumbing down and crudeness of what has been called the culture wars. In the relentless pursuit of partisan politics, the endless fight against heresy or entrenched orthodoxy, Left or Right, the religious community’s arteries have hardened. The actual blood of everyday human experience—the stuff that art and literature capture, in all their ambiguity and resistance to ideological programs—is not circulating very well to the body’s limbs.
In short, what the culture warriors forgot is that the longer a war goes on, the more closely you begin to resemble your enemy.
So I agree wholeheartedly with Dana Gioia that our public conversation is diminished—and also with his insights into the deleterious consequences of that diminishment. I share his hard-nosed but realistic conviction that Catholics cannot look to the hierarchy for support (which is the result of atrocious seminary education, but that’s a subject for another day).
Whether we need a new movement of Catholic writers is debatable. Gioia overestimates the amount of camaraderie among the writers of an earlier generation. Artists need communities but not clubs. That’s why I don’t quite agree with Gioia’s conclusion: “The renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers.”
The writers need to just keep writing—and, remarkably, they’ve continued to do so. The problem is that we’re not really listening to them, whether they shout or whisper. We need to build structures whose acoustics are a hell of a lot better than the ones we inhabit now.
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