Friday, June 27, 2008

Catholic fiction or fiction by Catholics?

What is "Catholic" fiction? Is it simply fiction written by a Catholic? Must it include Catholic characters and treat distinctly Catholic themes? Does it reflect a "Catholic sensibility," being a product of the "sacramental imagination"? Ought the Catholic reader -- or the general reader, for that matter -- even bother with such questions?
These are the questions that they are asking at InsideCatholic, the weblog of Crisis. I am looking forward to their discussion of Exiles, Ron Hansen's new novel about the wreck of the Deutschland and Hopkins' creation of his great poem (and I am cooking up a review of the book myself). The questions, though... is anyone else tired to death of them? Does anyone else think that they are questions that journalists ask, rather than novelists or readers? Does anyone else mutter, "Didn't Flannery O'Connor tuck these up for the night in the fifties?" Compare them with some questions that Barbara Nicolosi just proposed for a Hollywood conference on storytelling:

- Can a story offer healing to a person/a society and how?

- Ethical questions - What are people reaching for when they show up to get a story? What do we owe them? What does the world need for people to be getting from stories?

- What is a hero in 21st Century storytelling?

- Looking at character choices - irrevocable, visual, active, high stakes - what do these mean and why does the audience need them?

- The Great One: What Did Flannery O'Connor know about paradox in storytelling that we have all forgotten?

- Theme: What do we mean when we say a story needs to be universal? What does structure have to do with theme?

- A brief history of storytelling and where are we know (in terms of structure/theme/method/ dsitribution)? What is coming next?

- What makes for a brilliant/healing ending in a story? (Resolution, Satisfaction, leave work for the audience to do - what do these mean?)

- Considering Developmental needs in stories - what do little kids, adolescents, gen x, boomers each need in their stories?

- Is Aristotle's Poetics still relevant? What is a "cathartic experience of fear? of pity?" What is a "beautiful" story according to the smart Dead Greeks.

- What process do great storytellers use? (Pixar)

- In the Church: Sermon on the Mount (for the disciples) vs. Parable (for the unfriendly crowds). Is there a role for storytelling in the church?

- Darkness & Story- how dark can you go? When have you gone too far?

- Marketability for Christian content- transcendent in storytelling. What has happened since The Passion wave, and what have we learned about shopping a story with transcendent themes?


These questions have a slight Hollywood tilt, but they can apply to any medium that uses storytelling. These are questions that must have useful answers - useful for artists, I mean.

For more context: What happened to popular Catholic fiction? (by an editor for the Sophia Institute press, also on InsideCatholic) and an interview with the Senior Editor of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (by the way, was that you doing the interviewing, Santiago?). It's maddening: the comments on the two InsideCatholic threads add up to this: Catholic presses won't publish fiction and mainstream presses won't publish Catholics; "[Catholics] can't sell the genre fiction to a secular publisher without "taking the religious stuff out of it"...but a Catholic publisher won't take it, either." And the whole occasion for the discussion is Ron Hansen's novel... and NO ONE seems to notice that Ron Hansen, an orthodox and avowedly Catholic author who has seen one of his novels adapted for the screen by Hollywood, is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is as mainstream as can be! And their senior editor is as Catholic as anyone could want! Di immortales!

I understand that genre fiction (as opposed to "literary fiction") is a different story. But this defeatist attitude upsets me. And then they want to take their MSS to evangelical publishers, who are probably going to be more dogmatically opposed to them than mainstream/secular presses. The worst of both worlds. There's nothing wrong with choosing to write and market to a niche audience, as Regina Doman is doing with the JPII High series. But if you're trying to get published by a Catholic press because you're scared of the big bad secular presses - come on!

Be the best and they can't ignore you. Be a good craftsman and be surprised at how far you can go. If writing is your calling, that should make you confident.

Has anyone read any good fiction/sci fi/fantasy lately? By Catholics or non-Catholics?

Postscript: I can't actually name anyone who has published fiction with a Catholic press because they saw it as a safe, kiddie alternative to dealing with large, mainstream publishers. That was ignorant and insulting. My apologies.

17 comments:

Janny said...

"I understand that genre fiction (as opposed to "literary fiction") is a different story. But this defeatist attitude upsets me. ... if you're trying to get published by a Catholic press because you're scared of the big bad secular presses - come on! "

With all due respect...

What many of us authors have expressed is not a "defeatist attitude." It's an attitude shaped by repeated slamming of doors in our faces. Frequently this door slamming happens for NO other reason than that the "religious content" of stories is either a) not enough, b) too much, or c) the wrong kind.

Couple that with the repeated strong refusals by mainstream Catholic presses to have anything to do with contemporary fiction, and the platitudes about "write the best that's out there and they'll buy it" just ring hollow.

And no, we're not trying to get published with Catholic presses because we're "afraid" of the "big bad secular presses." That remark is both ignorant and insulting; it could only be made by someone who hasn't attempted to sell a novel with any religious content at all to a large secular house prior to the burgeoning interest in inspirational fiction...which is a recent phenomenon.

Before Jan Karon took the market by storm with Mitford, Penguin wasn't real open to spiritual content, either. Of course, that's changed--but it's changed in minuscule amounts, and it's not changing in the Catholic world nearly fast enough. The Protestant/evangelical world is "eating our lunch," in terms of good spiritual fiction out there, and with very, VERY few exceptions, the Catholic publishers don't really seem to care.

Of course there are exceptions. Ron Hansen happens to be one. But one author, or two, or five, in the mainstream does not an open market make. Meanwhile, aspiring Catholic novelists see just plain awful apocalyptic books, retellings of fairytales (that are weakly written to boot), and "books" that are actually Catholic tracts in disguise, cited for them as examples of "contemporary Catholic fiction." We have a choice of this or Andrew Greeley? What cave are these people hiding in?

The saddest part of this whole situation is, many Catholic publishing houses are floundering. They're either out of business or on the verge of it--they're in Chapter 11 and being "reorganized"--yet they won't even consider reinventing themselves to publish a little fiction here and there. Meanwhile, inspirational fiction makes Protestant houses richer, and richer, and...

It's vaguely reminiscent of the old joke about "two boats and a helicopter." Contemporary Catholic fiction, especially genre fiction, may just be both of the boats and the helicopter combined. But these publishers are allowing those rescuers to pass them by as the waters rise, and one by one, they're going under.

We say this aloud, and WE'RE defeatist?

It boggles the mind.

JB

Santiago said...

Yes it was. Food and gas prices have gone up, Meredith, and I can no longer afford to live with what you’ve been paying me as blog-commenter these past few years. I had to branch out. Seriously, though, I posted that link in the Dappled Things forum about a year ago, and it sank without a ripple. I think the only person who responded was the forum’s appointed moderator.

A better link for that interview is this one (less typos):

http://www.traces-cl.com/2007E/09/fourwriters.html

We also published a review of Exiles by Greg Wolfe, which is here:

http://www.traces-cl.com/2008E/05/anincomprehe.html

(If you’d like to see the top-secret, uncut version of that review [which we had to shorten for lack of space] email me.)

Beyond that, I absolutely agree with you. All this talk about “Catholic fiction” in InsideCatholic and other Catholic venues is reaching the point of fetishism. I cannot stand it anymore. Just sit down and write.

I think there is a lot of wisdom in the Paul Elie interview, for example:

“They framed their art in recognition of a culture that wasn’t Catholic or necessarily ready for their work, but they figured out how to get it to the public anyway.”

I appreciate what would be Janny’s retort, that the publishing houses wouldn’t be interested, because the market isn’t there. There is a distinction to be made here, however, between publishers and the market. Publishers who publish literary fiction—I detest the term, but it’s useful here—are open to publishing literary fiction written by Catholics as long as it’s good. Maybe a few have biases, but not for the most part. Second, the market is usually bad for all literary fiction, not just fiction with “spiritual content.” What sells is usually (though not always) crap—this is a law of life. Sometimes, publishers are pressured by the market, and are forced to cut down on the number of “literary” titles that they bring out a year. Add to this the fact that established novelists already have a leg up on getting published every year, because they have contracts, and so they take up room in the catalogues. And don’t even ask about the poor poets.

However, given the fact that there are opportunities out there, people should do what Meredith is saying—write well, write the best that you can. I would go a little deeper, though. I think that many Catholics who are interested in writing fiction are inspired by the idea of “Catholic culture,” especially of the Golden Age in the early twentieth century when Catholics seemed to dominate the literary scene. Some even speak of “restoration,” a word that makes my stomach churn. That is not enough of as a starting point.

It’s not enough because we aren’t trying to restore a style, nor a cultural milieu, nor a school of thought, nor even Church institutions. We are not trying to restore anything, except our own humanity. We are trying to become fulfilled by following our vocations as creators. If you want to add the right type of “spiritual content” to your work, the first thing to do is not to study Waugh or Mauriac, but to deepen your relationship with the Presence. Be touched by the Event, the way the pope describes it in Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” This new horizon, this new direction, has, for me, intensified my passion for the world, for all people; the farthest thing from it are these lame intramural discussions in the InsideCatholic blog.

Suffer for your art. Become interested in literature, not just Catholic literature; in the novel, not just the Catholic novel. How many times am I gonna hear about Flannery and Percy and JF Powers from Catholic writers? I’m bored with it. I’m all for reading the classics, of course, and knowing the history and tradition of your genre, but one has to be involved in his own time. I don’t want to read a novel written this year that is a pastiche of an Evelyn Waugh novel. His culture is dead. I want to read something set in my culture. I don’t want to read stories written in a faux-English snob style. I don’t think I even want to read stories with priests in them, unless they’re written by a.) atheists or b.) Ron Hansen. I don’t think I’ve ever read a post at St Blog’s or on Dappled Things dealing with people like James Wood, who is the best literary critic writing today, or Jonathan Franzen, or Cormac McCarthy, or Don DeLillo. Or Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq! Now there is a man with fire! I’d prefer to hang out with him!

I want to read stories written by artists who have a passion for the human person, who can teach me something about being human that I cannot learn anywhere else, who have fire. Chaim Potok, in another interview that Traces did about ten years ago:

TRACES: To do this [i.e., to write novels], it is certainly not enough to have a command of narrative technique, as people think today.
POTOK: You need a great, great passion for the human being.
(http://www.traces-cl.com/luglio01/write.htm)

That’s really what it comes down to, for me, no matter what religion you believe in.



PS I like this passage, because it encapsulates the reason why I’ve never stopped reading your blog:

“O’Connor and Percy met once for 15 minutes and swapped a few letters. O’Connor and Merton never met. Day and Merton never met. Percy met Merton once; Percy met O’Connor once. That was it. They were sustained by the knowledge that others were out there. They didn’t need an institution or a program to make it real.”

Santiago said...

Here is a good essay. Why isn't Greg Wolfe mentioned whenever anyone tallies off Catholic writers today? He's done a lot of work, both as a writer and as an editor:

http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/printarticle.html?page=al0060

Meredith said...

Janny and Santiago: Thanks for the comments. They made me realize that my small knowledge of how to sell a story is even smaller than I knew.

Janny, I am also baffled by the "no fiction, please" policy of Catholic presses. The Sophia Inst. Press is pleading for PayPal donations (and maybe a small miracle or two) to keep them alive, and one of their editors writes an article asking "What happened to popular Catholic fiction?" in which he laments that "Those of us yearning for novels with Catholic themes, supported by a Catholic moral universe, are generally forced to go back fifty years, to Waugh or Greene or O'Connor.... Or maybe we cruise used bookstores and seminary going-out-of-business sales for some of the many less-masterful but still quite solid examples of popular Catholic fiction that abounded in the first half of the last century." And just before saying this, he says that he gets tons of fiction manuscripts every year, but that "for a long time we rejected these as a matter of habit." The lame excuses: "The market doesn't want fiction" (I'm Catholic. I want fiction. I know scads of Catholics who do) and "a lot" of the proposals are dreck (Naturally. What about the ones that aren't?). The last sentence: "Now, what happened to Catholic fiction, and how do we effect its renewal?"

I dunno. Maybe you could... oh... publish some fiction?

He redeems the article by promoting two YA novels just published by Sophia. Only time will tell if they really made it onto Janny's helicopter. (I actually ordered a copy of the Chesterton steampunk novel - I'm a sucker for bizarre premises.)

Santiago said...

wait... that's it? I pour my heart out in my comment, and this is it?? WTF man. More important than discussing the market is articulating why we want to write in the first place.

I'm Catholic. I want fiction. I know scads of Catholics who do

Depending on how many people you are talking about when you say, "scads," I am not sure whether that statement would satisfy the requirements of market research. In any case, you should talk to the Murphys at Idyll's Press about how many people would buy a Catholic novel. Another good measure is to see how many of your friends are going to purchase Hansen's novel. Unlikes movies, where everyone can see almost every movie, people who buy fiction don't buy everything that comes out in a publishing season. Novels take longer to read, obviously, so sales are tougher to make. Unless you're lucky like Jonathan Franzen, who is a serious artist and also sold 4 million copies, the going is tough. James Wood, who writes for places like the New Republic and the New Yorker, published two volumes of criticism, and his sales don't add up to 10,000 copies over several years (according to an interview I read).

Santiago said...

Incidentally, I think I remember reading -- in Paul Elie's book, perhaps -- that Wise Blood only sold a couple thousand copies before it its second edition came out ten years after its original publication.

Meredith said...

Cool it, Santiago! I was too busy reading essays by James Wood to reply to you last night (see what happens when you tell me about this stuff?), but I wasn't ignoring you.

I would love to read the uncut review, if you still want to send it to me at elroquen@hotmail.com.

Incidentally, I think I remember reading -- in Paul Elie's book, perhaps -- that Wise Blood only sold a couple thousand copies before it its second edition came out ten years after its original publication.

I can top you: it took ten years for the original 700 copies of Hopkins' Poems to sell before critics suddenly decided that he was canon. "Don't ask about the poor poets" indeed.

Meredith said...

Santiago:

All this talk about “Catholic fiction” in InsideCatholic and other Catholic venues is reaching the point of fetishism. I cannot stand it anymore. Just sit down and write.

Just reading that was therapeutic.

“They framed their art in recognition of a culture that wasn’t Catholic or necessarily ready for their work, but they figured out how to get it to the public anyway." That was what I was trying to say! Of course Paul Elie says it much better. But even though his words are more nuanced than my cliched "Be the best and they can't ignore you," are they really any more useful and encouraging to an author of Catholic genre fiction? "Write stuff that people aren't ready to deal with and figure out how to get them to buy it anyway." Hmm. I'm not sure whether *that* statement would satisfy the requirements of market research. But it would be both challenging and exciting to a master writer like O'Connor or Percy, and as a reader, I can say that I've read quite a few novels I wasn't ready for or was simply disturbed by just because I was drawn on by the daunting mastery shown in their plots, their characters, their prose: The Golden Compass, The Power and the Glory, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Diary of a Country Priest... all of these were bewildering or infuriating or painful to me in high school, but I loved reading them anyway. Some of them were by Catholics and some of them were by heathens, but they all said, "I deserve to be read because I'm the best of the lot." Most writers, though, have to live with being not-one-of-the-four-best-Catholic-writers-in-America (that would make a satisfying German adjective).

Meredith said...

More important than discussing the market is articulating why we want to write in the first place.

I know. But my post was about publishing first and writing second. I was hacked off by all the creaky, never-ending discussions of "What is Catholic fiction?" and "Why ought one read it?" in which people invariably lament the absence of modern Catholic authors while showing little interest in the mainstream literary world of today. Hearing an editor for a Catholic press (which until this year refused to print fiction on principle) wondering why there is no contemporary Catholic fiction for him to buy... that was the last straw.

Become interested in literature, not just Catholic literature; in the novel, not just the Catholic novel.

That's the work that Catholic readers have to do, as well as Catholic writers.

I don’t want to read stories written in a faux-English snob style.

Neither do I. I believe I know which stories you are referring to.

I have to leave now, but I'm not done yet. More later.

Meredith said...

Publishers who publish literary fiction—I detest the term, but it’s useful here—are open to publishing literary fiction written by Catholics as long as it’s good. Maybe a few have biases, but not for the most part. Second, the market is usually bad for all literary fiction, not just fiction with “spiritual content.”

So that's... two steps forward and one step back? I'm not even going to try to calculate that. But Janny was talking about genre fiction, not literary fiction. (My own tastes run to fantasy with some science fiction and historical novels on the side, so I'm NOT sneering at genre fiction, if that's what Janny thought.) It seems to me that a Catholic author can do four things: write literary fiction aimed at a not-nec.-Catholic audience, write lit. fiction aimed at a Catholic audience, write genre fiction for a general audience, or write genre fiction for a Catholic audience. And "Catholic fiction" that only a Catholic audience is going to get is a genre of its own. Only a Catholic press will publish that, but most don't.

Meredith said...

Just because I can answer these, I will:

Depending on how many people you are talking about when you say, "scads," I am not sure whether that statement would satisfy the requirements of market research.

When I said "scads of Catholics" I meant "all my friends from CC." There are a lot of them, but they are a rather select group, I guess.

Another good measure is to see how many of your friends are going to purchase Hansen's novel.

I should think that about three of them will. One of my friends who was back on campus tried to borrow it from me, but we crossed paths.

Santiago said...

I would simplify your four options into two categories: Genre fiction and The Novel.

I think an author of Catholic genre fiction should actually feel pretty good right about now, because his constituency already exists and is growing. I don't just mean your "scads" of friends, who probably are more into literary fiction (and lattes, and trendy foreign cinema… just kidding), but I am mostly thinking about the market that Sophia Press is trying to tap into with their new YA novels, and Idylls Press with some more serious stuff. Think about the growing number of Catholic students in various new Catholic colleges that will eat up these books for their kids and themselves.

But for those who want to write litrachah, the constituency is different—it's the four million or so readers worldwide who purchased The Corrections, most of whom are not Catholic, plus a few thousand more who like literary fiction but dislike Franzen, or dislike certain American novels, plus a few hundred UD grads (heh heh), plus the people of France (the French love writers, I heard). This is the constituency that would recognize, one would assume, a great novel, so literary success is matched by a certain type of marketing success—you sell what is good, at least to this group of people. Of course, half that time it doesn't work that way, and a great author writes something great and is ignored for years—like Herman Melville, or your Hopkins—but at least you know you have an audience that is your target.

But keep in mind that the discussion about the fate of the Novel is a regular masturbatory exercise that is entertained every six months or so in some or other publication. It is similar in pointlessness to the Catholic Fiction Where Are You Going? discussions, only a little more interesting because people sometimes actually talk about literature.

I personally am not interested in catholic genre fiction, though I do like science fiction (though no fantasy, sorry). I think that, however, this discussion must end, that the next discussion must take place: why do we want to write, anyway? How many people really answer that question -- and I don't mean ambitious young litterateurs, but everyone who wants to write for a living, be it a fashion critic or a reporter for a medical journal.


ME:Become interested in literature, not just Catholic literature; in the novel, not just the Catholic novel.

YOU:That's the work that Catholic readers have to do, as well as Catholic writers.

I didn't mean this as a slight to you, by the way—I know your reading isn't provincial. And I do think that Catholic readers are becoming more and more. In DC, a few months after my interview with Paul Elie, we (i.e., the Crossroads Cultural Center) invited him to speak for the third installment of a series of talks we organized on "The Pursuit of Happiness in Literature." Elie came to speak about Flannery, and after the talk, over dinner, he was telling us how impressed he was at the 300+ people in attendance. "This is the type of audience of educated Catholics that Flannery dreamed about," he said.

Kristen said...

Cool discussion. Mostly I agree with both of you. I've been trying to read novels with a Catholic eye. In other words, I know who I am and what I believe, and I like novels that make me think harder about those two topics. I don't really care if they are Catholic novels or not.

Loyola Press has been re-printing "classics" (I think Amy Welborn is helping with this project) and some of those are ok - some excellent. Some of them are sorta recent - Hassler wrote in the 90s.

Book publishing has changed a lot since the 1950s, that's for sure. Th web and e-books are changing things as well, and the shake-out is not over yet. I look at cable TV as a model - not necessarily EWTN the dinosaur, but just the MTV, Disney, NIckelodeon, Fox and all them. THey are figurig out how to get their content to consumers in a variety of ways, and the successful publisher has to build diversified streams of income. The online delivery model bypasses some of the risk in printing tons of copies that may or may not sell. And no postage involved.

I've looked at a lot of different models, because I started my own press with an online newsletter for Catholic women who are not deeply entrenched in either the "right" or the "left" Catholic ghettos. Our monthly book reviews are not only on Catholic novels, but just novels in general, read by a Catholic trying to find the truth and be a little inspired.

www.MySecretisMine.com - the Latin name is Secretum Meum Mihi (Edith Stein's response when her friend asked about her conversion.)I'd love to see what you think.

Anonymous said...

I have posted a kind of comment and allusion to this discussion - and a link to something which may be of interest to you...

--Dr. Thursday

Sheila said...

One thing I'm afraid Catholic novelists aren't thinking about is REAL LIFE. I don't mean that they're not writing about real life. Maybe they are. But are they living it?

Here's what I mean. I'm sitting on a Greyhound bus talking with a Jewish lady about coping with death. My Catholic faith informs every word I say to her. But the word "Catholic" is only said once, in passing. And I don't generally think of myself as passing off "stealth Catholicism" either, at least not at that moment. Instead, I'm having a conversation about things that matter, from the perspective of where I am, yet aware that the person I'm speaking to comes from a different perspective.

How are we going to talk to non-Catholics in our fiction if we don't know how to talk to them in real life?

Okay, that's the first point. The second point is more cogent to me, because I'm actually writing for a Catholic audience. I'm writing for them because I'm a part of that audience and have been longing for books that are meant for me for a long time. It's not because I'm shy of the big bad publishing world. It's because even the choir needs, from time to time, to be preached to--or at least to be chatted with.

The problem is not that Catholics don't read Catholic fiction. It's that Catholics don't know there is any Catholic fiction. So when they're looking for Catholic they hunt up the Ignatius Press catalogue, and when they're looking for fiction they browse Barnes & Noble. They're not quite brave enough to buy the little Catholic fiction that appears because they're afraid it won't be good, that it won't be their kind of thing. The selection's so small their chances aren't good.

What needs to happen--and only God knows if it will--is for enough good Catholic fiction to make it into print to "train" the market. To teach Catholics that they can get fiction from other Catholics. I'm doing my best at it now. But I think we need to spend a lot more time writing our novels and knocking on doors than talking about how unfair it is that it's so hard. It is hard, and I know it--it's what comes of being in a small subgroup that hasn't been served literarily in the past 50 years or so. But I'll just keep writing my books & submitting them, and if we're lucky it might be slightly less impossible for our children's children to publish their Catholic novels.

Santiago said...

I think Sheila's absolutely right about her first point -- that conversation that she has on the bus is what a Catholic writer who is writing for a broad audience has to attempt to do. It isn't a case of staking out an ideological position but of being different because "one who hopes lives differently." Sheila is right.

Vignette Magazine said...

Tripped over this discussion while conducting market research for my next submission push for current novel: I hope someone is still out there, listening?

I'm a published Canadian author who managed to sneak Catholic themes into the secular market through Doubleday Canada and am attempting to do it again.

One of you mentioned, above, "It seems to me that a Catholic author can do four things: write literary fiction aimed at a not-nec.-Catholic audience, write lit. fiction aimed at a Catholic audience, write genre fiction for a general audience, or write genre fiction for a Catholic audience. And "Catholic fiction" that only a Catholic audience is going to get is a genre of its own. Only a Catholic press will publish that, but most don't."

I certainly didn't write the first novel with a Catholic agenda. I was, in fact, quite happily prepared to "sell out" and remove/change anything a publisher didn't want. To my delight, I was asked to enhance and add to the spiritual threads -- because they were entirely character-driven.

One member of my writers' group suggested I was "brave" with the current novel (even MORE Catholic than the other). Brave, foolhardy, whatever -- ask me again when it's accepted for publication! Nonetheless, I don't feel particularly brave because it's not my own agenda, it's the character's reality.