Restoring Faith in Fiction

Joseph O’Brien

Editors’s note: On December 19, 2012, Paul Elie’s essay, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” was published in the New York Times, sparking a year-long conversation that this journal has followed with great interest. Now, exactly a year after the original article appeared, we are following up with Elie on the many responses to his piece. This interview is an online preview of our upcoming Christmas edition.

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Paul Elie

There is an indistinct moment of passage on the north-south corridor of U.S. Interstate 55 where the Midwest becomes the South—and it’s located somewhere in the lower middle half of the state of Missouri. It is a place that is no place, as the novelist Walker Percy might have put it; somewhere between the last scattering of hay bales, left where they fell from balers, basking in the mid-autumn sun, and the first maculation of cotton bolls bursting forth with pallid punctuation from their russet-rusted shrubs. It is a moment on the perpetual roll of asphalt ribbon where upland’s gentle roll exhausts itself into a certain undeniable flatness, a place where tasseled corn rows surrender to tow-headed cotton fields.

This past October, on my way to New Orleans I found this indistinct moment of North yielding to South. My brother-in-law and I were presenting at the second biennial Walker Percy Conference, Oct. 11-13, sponsored by Loyola University. For five years I had lived in Dallas—which has more in common with the Midwest than most people would care to admit—before settling in southwestern Wisconsin—which has more in common with the South than most people would care to notice. But this recent journey through Cotton Country was my first look at the South, at least by car and it shouldn’t have been a surprise that in making the trip I experienced the same sort of recognition-through-displacement common to many of Percy’s works.

Conferring honors

The Walker Percy Conference was first launched in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Percy’s debut novel The Moviegoer being published and winning the National Book Award. A cadre of like-minded Loyola University academicians and personal friends and associates of the late novelist organized the first conference at the school’s newly opened Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. Now, two years later as an encore the organizers sponsored a conference on his 1983 work Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Perhaps Percy’s most intriguing work, Lost in the Cosmos is a weird yet satisfying book – a hybrid of philosophical inquiry, satire, cultural analysis, multiple choice questions,  thought experiments and (“What the hell, why not?” you can hear Percy say) even fiction. Perhaps the book most closely resembles Melville’s own loose but not-so-baggy monster, Moby Dick. But Lost in the Cosmos stands well on its own. The quality and quantity of presenters at the conference attested to its enduring worth—with more than 40 papers covering everything from liturgy to pornography to interstellar exploration to mimetic theory to Marshall McLuhan.

For its challenge to the status quo of the modern milieu, Lost in the Cosmos stands as a whip-smart lion in the path for anyone seeking to understand the subjects which most crowded the late novelist’s mind—death, sex, sin, redemption, immanence, transcendence, man’s coarse and always transparent ways, and God’s sublime and often hidden ways. By analyzing and satirizing the self as alienated from itself, Percy draws an exact—and exacting—diagnosis of man’s place and purpose in the universe.

“The self becomes itself,” Percy writes, “by recognizing God as a spirit, creator of the Cosmos and therefore of one’s self as a creature, a wounded creature but a creature nonetheless, who shares with a community of like creatures the belief that God, who transcends the entire Cosmos and has actually entered human history—or will enter it—in order to redeem man from the catastrophe which has overtaken his self.”

Some have called Percy the last of the Southern novelists; others an American Dostoevsky. For editor and writer Paul Elie, Percy makes up one of a vital quadrumvirate of writers who have helped define the mid-20th century American literary experience and the Catholic contribution to American letters. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003) is a “group portrait,” as Elie says, of Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Until 2012, he was senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing home for all four writers at some point in their career. Although his physical address is still located in New York City, Elie takes up intellectual residence at Georgetown University—where he holds a senior fellowship at the school’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where he is coordinating a partnership between Georgetown and the non-profit StoryCorps to gather, record and share with the public stories on religious belief in the lives of ordinary Americans. He also writes for his blog, “Everything that Rises” (everythingthatrises.com).

Group shot

Because of his advantageous view from high atop the FSG eyrie, Elie is particularly well qualified—perhaps more so than any other writer of our day—to draw the portrait of this writing quartet. The critics seemed to think as much, too, because The Life You Save May Be Your Own was nominated for the National Book Critics Award soon after it was published. He was nominated again eight years later for Reinventing Bach (2012), which explores how technology has helped reimagine the way we listen to music.

By striking a harmonious balance of biography, history, theology, and literary analysis, Elie’s extensive volume on Percy, O’Connor, Merton, and Day provides a long (overdue) view of these four writers, their individual contributions to the 20th century literary and cultural context in which they wrote, and an apologia for their lasting impact in America and in the Church.

Credentials and expertise aside, Elie was an odd choice for delivering the keynote address at the 2013 Walker Percy Conference. Conspicuously critical of Lost in the Cosmos in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Elie found the work “airless and wearying,” noting that “Percy hectors the reader sarcastically until the book becomes not a test so much as a trap, a test only the all-knowing author can hope to pass.”

“In his novels,” Elie writes, “and in the essays published as The Message in the Bottle, Percy had artfully sketched a recognizable postmodern self—fractious, confused, a pilgrim searching for a path and a destination alike—and had led the reader to identify with it. This time [in Lost in the Cosmos] he reached out of the book and declared the reader bored, lonely, phony, and trapped in a meaningless existence. The reader winds up silently insisting otherwise.”

In his keynote address, Elie acknowledges this criticism of Lost in the Cosmos, but also notes that ten years after writing these words and rereading the book again he is prepared to reappraise the work not as a challenge to the reader but as one to the self—specifically Percy’s own self.

“In its style the book is phenomenally indirect,” Elie said in his keynote, “but in subject, Lost in the Cosmos is a very direct book; it’s a book about the self . . . . It’s a test, yes, but it’s the author, not the reader who is being put to the test. When Percy asks, why is it possible to know more about the Crab Nebulae than it is about the self?—he is saying, ‘Why is it possible for me to know more about the Crab Nebulae than about myself?’ . . . It’s a self-help book and it’s meant to help the self who wrote it first of all. ‘Who are you?’ Percy asks. And he asks because he, whoever he is, needs help.

“I thought, and I’m not saying I’m wrong, that Percy was hectoring his reader and his obtuseness made him impatient. Now, a dozen years later I see that the self who is being addressed in the book, the who, is the self who is writing the book. It’s a polemic with the self . . . inside Percy’s head. The test he’s giving is the one he’s taking; the questions posed for the self are posed by the self at the self.”

Call to pens

Perhaps it was something of this same frustration which led Elie to put down on paper his own concerns about the modern world and religion—and not just on any paper, but America’s self-proclaimed paper of record. “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” was published a year ago in The New York Times Sunday Book Review with immediate and overwhelming response from readers and writers alike.

“Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time . . . as something between a dead language and a hangover,” Elie writes. “Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”

In response, readers, writers, and fellow editors sought to correct or demand qualification from Elie on his thesis. Surely things are not that bad? There must be plenty of fiction out there which takes on God—sincere, honest, sympathetic, even profound attempts to reckon with omnipotence? Suddenly Catholic fiction—and fiction concerned with religious belief in general—became all the rage on the editorial pages of the great American newspapers and journals. Gregory Wolfe’s counterpoint appearing in The Wall Street Journal a month later is characteristic of the reaction Elie’s original bow-shot elicited. As founding publisher of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, Wolfe has an understandable hound in the hunt when it comes to Elie’s claim.

“Our instinct when launching [Image] was that the narrative of decline was misguided, but we honestly didn’t know if we could fill more than a few issues,” he writes in his January 10, 2013 response to Elie.

“Sometimes when you look, you find. Over the years Image has featured many believing writers, including Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, Christian Wiman, Marilynne Robinson and Mark Helprin. But these writers of religious faith and others are not hard to find elsewhere. Several prominent American authors—Franz Wright, Mary Karr and Robert Clark—are Catholic converts. Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer last year published ‘New American Haggadah,’ a contemporary take on the ritual book used by Jews on Passover.

“In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.”

It was with some sense of serendipity and good fortune that Dappled Things had an opportunity to sit down with Elie at the 2013 Walker Percy Conference to talk to him about his controversial essay, his response to those who replied to it and what it means for his own writing projects, past, present and future.

 

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Dappled Things: You were baptized and raised Catholic?

Paul Elie: Yes, in upstate New York. I went to public high schools with a strong sense of Vatican II Catholicism in the family, but very much unmoored from city or ethnic culture. It was a very good suburban Catholicism that left me really perplexed by the Catholic experience rooted in being an Irish American or Italian American or ethnic resident of certain parts of Philadelphia or whatever.

I wrote an essay for Commonweal in 1991 about being a young Catholic who had to reckon with two churches at once—the John Paul II Church and the Pre-conciliar Church [“The Everlasting Dilemma: ‘Young’ Catholics and the Church,” Commonweal, 9/27/91]. Andrew Sullivan read that and invited me to write for The New Republic so I caught a break there.

DT: Why did you write the New York Times essay in the first place?

PE: Prior to leaving FSG, I’d had some conversations with some editors at the New York Times concerning various things, such as about who should review which book, etc., and it led me to say first in conversation what I eventually said in the article. At the time I couldn’t write for the New York Times Book Review because I worked for a publisher. The Times is pretty strict; they don’t want people in the publishing community to be writing reviews and essays. I could be pushing FSG authors and taking down authors from, say, Knopf. So I knew that this was something to dig into but I couldn’t do it at the time. When I left FSG I had the opportunity. I knew it would be opportune to do it for December because historically they’ve run pieces of this kind around this time. So around this time last year I presented the idea to them and they went right for it.

DT: In your article, you admit that there are rare exceptions of fiction being written today with faith integral to the story. But why do you feel you have to qualify even these works?

PE: I feel I can’t find them and if I do find them characteristically they’re set in the past. Gilead (2004) [by Marilynne Robinson], for instance, is a wonderful book, but as I say in the essay, it’s a book that’s the exception that proves the rule in that it’s set in 1950s and the man who’s telling the story is already old. The plausibility of his account has to do with the fact that at some level it’s quite believable there were pastors who were thoughtful readers of the classics in 1955. It’s an incredibly challenging novel but it’s somewhat less difficult to imagine such a character into existence when he is said to exist from the 20s to the 50s I think.

Rather I would want to see novels about the quandaries of belief—whether to believe in this religious stuff. Here’s where FSG comes into the picture. I’d been at FSG for about 15 years by now and people knew my interests, so I figure at this point if these kinds of novels are out there, I felt strongly that some of them would have found their way to me. The fact that they haven’t suggests that maybe they are not really there. I felt in a position that I could generalize after reading about 10,000 manuscripts.

DT: After writing the Times article, though, it sounds like you’re ready to qualify that generalization to some extent as well.

PE: Yes, there is a whole shelf in my office in Georgetown of authors who have written me saying, ‘Well, you’ve left out my novel—here it is.’ And I’m hoping to read them and write something about it as a follow up piece. Also, it’s important to say, there is a certain novel of every kind that is just not very good. So the unstated point in the Times essay is that there are no exceptionally good works of fiction in which the quandaries of belief are front and center.

DT: So other writers sent you manuscripts or published novels. What was your response to their response?

PE: The piece came out and one writer said, “Oh, you got my book exactly! It just came out last year.” It turns out I had just left FSG when it came out . . . . Then someone else told me, “You never heard of me, but I’ve been writing a novel, and it sounds like you would take an interest in it. Can I send it to you?” I haven’t read it yet. In fact, I have a lot of work and read so much stuff just because people send it to FSG. But I’m burned out. I lost the habit of reading people’s manuscripts. I try to get to them, but for now I’m not getting to them.

DT: Let’s talk about the people who responded to your Times essay—in particular Gregory Wolfe of Image in the Wall Street Journal last January.

PE: Greg and I are friends and I had seen him last October in Seattle. I think that he’s publishing a lot of interesting work in Image, but a lot of the work he publishes lies outside what I was discussing. What I tried to say was not that there aren’t Catholic novelists or people who write out of the Catholic milieu or background, but there’s a pretty conspicuous absence of novels in which questions of belief as they’re felt in the present time are central to the novel. So it was an active definition. So that leaves out Alice McDermott, who was Greg’s counterexample in his Wall Street Journal article. I went to her book party a month ago—I love Alice. I’ve read all her works, we swap books as Christmas presents, but she writes about the 50s and 60s. It’s just a fact of her work. It changes a bit with her new book, so for Greg to say Alice McDermott? I say, she’s not what I’m talking about.

DT: How does your approach to fiction differ, then, from Wolfe’s, at least when it comes to a faith component?

PE: I think that a lot of Greg’s approach involves what he calls the whispering generation—the present Catholic generation of writers. If Flannery O’Connor said that for the hard of hearing you shout and for the nearly blind you draw in large and startling figures, Greg took that and about ten years ago said, the present generation of Catholic writers are whispering. To a certain extent I think he’s right. I don’t like the formulation though because I think it’s not catchy. Why are they whispering? It’s not like we’re in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted. It plays into all sorts of neo-conservative ideas about what we’re not allowed to say in the culture, which I just don’t think is really true. At the same time, some of these people are whispering so softly that you have to ask whether we would recognize their work as having a religious dimension if it wasn’t part of their biography. There is a lot of work, for instance, that exists in Image that has to do very obliquely or peripherally with the question of disbelief. I think that’s perfectly OK. I’m a complete Vatican II-type of Catholic who says, “Let’s not have a narrow view of culture but the broadest most latitudinarian view of culture possible.” But that said, let’s acknowledge that many of those novels don’t deal with questions of religious belief. It comes in around the sides or it’s not really there at all. This is a non-judgmental active definition. There are a lot of great things out there by the community of Catholic writers in the largest sense, but the question of whether I should believe this religious stuff doesn’t really feature.

DT: The faith is in decline in culture—at least on the face of it anyway. After all that’s one of the reasons Pope Benedict called for the Year of Faith. That same lack of faith, it seems fair to say, is reflected in at least three kinds of readers out there. You have a readership with a fragile faith, a readership antagonistic to the faith, and a readership that’s simply indifferent. So if you produce a fiction that seeks to challenge the reader—the first sort of reader will pull away from the work because he feels threatened; the second will reject it outright as either unbelievable or even inhuman; and the third will simply shrug their shoulders and remain unmoved. How does a work of fiction which proposes a fictional component then capture these sorts of readers?

PE: I don’t go along with that idea at all. I’m not sure I got it from publishing or writers, but I see the book is something written by one person sitting alone in a room and read by one person sitting alone in a room. To ponder that is to realize the variety of readers. Not only is it hard to break readers down into three groups in terms of their religious disposition, and many readers don’t know where they stand on these issues. The view there is a more Thomistic analysis that is very powerful but I’m not sure it’s useful in this sense. Flannery O’Connor says you can do whatever you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much. She also said about her novel Wise Blood, “That belief in Jesus Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think of it as a matter of no great consequence.” She was writing from the situation you speak of but she figured out how to do it. She figured out how to shape everything in the novel to sympathize with Hazel Motes, who is indignant about the abuses of Christianity which then lead to his attention to doctrinal impurity in Christianity. In so doing, he gives us a grasp of what an authentic Christianity would be. It makes you identify with that in spite of yourself as the reader. That’s what O’Connor was trying to do anyway.

DT: So taking our lead from Flannery O’Connor, what strategy ought the Catholic writer take in seeking to be published—and published widely?

PE: Instead of making blanket assumptions about what is possible and what’s not, you get in there and try to figure out how to get it done. You have to be savvy about what the obstacles are to getting your work read, but your big blanket statements about what you can or can’t do—it wasn’t easier in the 50s. For every better aspect then, there were also worse ones in the culture. You had more believing readers but you had a lot of teachers pushing pious pap on people. You had Cardinal Spellman writing a novel; you had Madame Bovary on the index and on and on. You’re getting me on one of my soapboxes here, but I prefer to work at a more specific level whether it’s in The Life You Save or the Times essay. Let’s look at the works and the twenty ways in which religious belief figures into some recent novels. Instead of saying the stuff doesn’t exist, I’ll work through 20 examples of how it does appear and then wind up by saying but still the central religious experience isn’t there in the way I yearn for. So what do we do? We look to non-fiction, other countries’ authors, we keep hoping, and we try to make the work ourselves.

DT: Have any of the responses to your essay caused you to change your mind on any particular point?

PE: Oscar Hijuelos1 wrote me a letter saying I should look at his novel Mr. Ives’s Christmas— which I should . . . . Jeffery Eugenides thought I hadn’t done full justice to his novel, the marriage plot. One plot in his novel involves courting a woman and he’s a manic depressive and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The other plot has to do with another man courting this same woman who is having deep religious yearnings that lead him to India and working with Mother Teresa. So the man who is the manic depressive is the serious major story and the guy who is having the religious experience is the comic story. The fact that it’s put together in that way—is suggestive of our time. The religious plot is the source of comedy and the guy with the supreme nervousness is the serious plot, instead of the other way around. But the summary of the book got suppressed [in the editing process at The New York Times] and doesn’t make the point as clear as I would have liked. Jeff said he didn’t think I did justice to the religious side of the novel. But I know him so we’ll patch it up.

DT: Why was it important for you to see it published in the New York Times and not say First Things or Commonweal, some publication at any rate, which would be friendlier to the idea?

PE: Oh, it’s a different conversation at the New York Times. The paper is much more widely read and there is a need to develop points for people who don’t share certain assumptions. For example, in Commonweal you wouldn’t have to keep open an eye for the idea of whether there ought to be a place for religious belief in fiction. So it forces you to go down to the root and it’s a more challenging piece if you do have to write an article that is easily found convincing by the people who read Commonweal . . . . I think that among sophisticated religious people there is a hangover mentality from the culture wars that there is a censorious secular elite who won’t allow certain ideas into their publications in any form. I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think it ever was. In every age it’s taken a certain amount of cunning on the part of the writer, and moxie and shrewdness.

DT: Which is something that you touch on in your book The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

PE: Yes, that story is the story of The Life that You Save May Be Your Own in many respects. For instance, Thomas Merton would figure out a way to write about monastic life that made sense for a literary publisher. To find a way to write poems about the monastic hours that would resonate with the people who bought City Lights books. My experience of my four protagonists in that book is one of people who don’t accept blanket statements about the hostility of the culture and the possibility of doing certain things with their writing. They went and found ways of doing them. In that respect, I thought I could get this piece into the Times. All I needed was to get the right person to read my email and that’s what I did.

DT: Was faith and fiction always in the forefront of your mind as an editor for FSG and a writer in your own respect?

PE: I went to Fordham and a Jesuit professor at Fordham . . . taught literature courses where he brought in the notion of Christian humanism. He said I should read Flannery O’Connor. I was a freshman. I went to get O’Connor’s stories but I thought Flannery O’Connor was a man—her name like Tennessee Williams’s, one of these Southern names. Then I read (founding FSG editor) Robert Giroux’s introduction to her complete stories where he evokes Flannery so vividly and unforgettably that I was off—and he compared her to Thomas Merton. Right from the beginning, the moment I encountered O’Connor I encountered Merton at the same time. I was about 18 years old. So already this group portrait was emerging.

DT: How did O’Connor become the entrée into the picture that would eventually emerge for you in The Life You Save?

PE: Time passed. I didn’t get the O’Connor stories at the time I was a freshman at Fordham. Then in London I bought Mystery and Manners, which had a photograph of O’Connor on the cover, not like the American editions. It was a Baber Edition. I bought it at a bookshop and read it in a square in London. I was so knocked out by the sense of surprise that this was the religion in which I’d been raised. Yet she was setting the Catholic faith out in a way that was different from ways that I’d come to know. I was already most of the way through a Jesuit education. It shocked me into life. I was approached by a woman in the square who asked me for money. I didn’t have much money; I was a student abroad and gave her a ten pound note—such was my sense of what Jesus, Francis, or Flannery O’Connor would do at that moment.

DT: That sounds more like something inspired by Dorothy Day than Flannery O’Connor.

PE: Yes, so then I somehow followed the connections to Dorothy Day and bought her selected writings in the basement of the Corpus Christi Church bookshop in New York. It was the church where Merton was baptized near Columbia University. I volunteered at a Catholic worker near there. Then to finish the portrait, I didn’t really discover Percy until I was actually working at FSG. I tried to read The Moviegoer on a really hot summer day. I sat on a fire escape in a New York apartment and I just didn’t get it. Then I went to work at FSG where Percy’s nonfiction works were on the walls with his secondary works and commentaries and things like that. So I found that through his interviews—such as the Esquire interview—Percy explained what he was trying to do and that made his work intelligible to me.

DT: With all the writers in your basket, so to speak, how then did you proceed?

PE: As I began to plan the work I thought, ‘Let’s not be so strict and straight and New Critical about this.’ If O’Connor’s essays and letters opened her fiction to me, and the recollection by her publisher opened her fiction to me, and Percy’s essays opened his fiction to me, I have got to figure how to put all these pieces together and not consider their non-fiction as secondary work. Let’s look at it all and one thing led to another before I figured out that these four people were connected in certain ways and if you figured out when things happened you could put the pieces together. Look, for example, in Lost in the Cosmos for a reference to Flannery O’Connor as a certain kind of artist . . . It became fun to do it—and I’m still having fun.

DT: It seems this concern for faith in fiction is something that’s been on your mind since you began down the road of literature in the first place. Were your book and the Times article inspired by things you saw magnified at FSG, a publishing house with a well-known sympathy for fiction that includes a faith component, or did you write it in reaction to the general drift of culture?

PE: It wasn’t magnified by what I saw at FSG but it was confirmed there. I wrote the Life You Save out of a sense that there ought to be a book of this kind. It doesn’t exist. So following the example of certain writers I thought I had to do it myself. More specifically, there was this Catholic generation that were obviously connected and working the same questions from different angles. The books they were writing could be about Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Walker Percy—but where was the book that tells their story as one story? It doesn’t exist, so I boldly decide to try it. In the same way, I feel the lack of books that address religious quandaries and the works of fiction.

DT: Was there a certain sense of frustration working at FSG or the publishing world in general that led you to this next phase in your life as a fellow at Georgetown?

PE: No, FSG was a great place. It was my Fulbright and ultimate graduate school and family in some ways—and still is my family in some ways. The simple fact is there are only so many hours in the day. I left 45 books behind that were in process, and I edited 15-20 books a year, many of them over 500 pages. Editors at places like FSG are doing more editing than ever. So writing two long books, I have three children, we homeschool them, and I was teaching a course at Columbia at night after the recession hit. It was madness to try to sustain all that. So when Georgetown had the imagination to figure out how to do something like this [the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs] and make it central to a faculty member’s efforts . . .

DT: In September, Ignatius Press’s fiction blog “Novel Thoughts” celebrated the new presses appearing around the country—including Labora Editions, Wiseblood Books, Tuscany Press, and Korrektiv Press. Do you see these new presses as a sign of hope? What sort of hurdles do they need to overcome—and are they a viable way of getting out the sort of fiction-cum-faith that you’d like to see published?

PE: It is a sign of hope definitely. Not just as a functional way of getting the books out there, but also as a calling forth the work and creating currents for these energies to run down. Because these presses exist, works will get made that didn’t have a prospect of getting made. We forget now how many small presses and projects there were at midcentury. It wasn’t just Robert Giroux editing everyone’s work. There were lots of small presses [such as] Jubilee Magazine . . . . In his essay on Hawthorne, Henry James says it takes a lot of culture to make a little literature. So the existence of so many presses in this one area—that’s the lot of culture that it takes to make a little literature.

There’s a danger, however, in losing the sense of discrimination. In that sense for me to work at a press that had a Catholic element in its tradition but is not a Catholic press, such as FSG, was a good challenge. I still had to convince other people who didn’t give a hoot about the somewhat subcultural thing we’re talking about—faith and all that entails—unless it was a really good book. Damned, if they really loved Gilead, but they don’t need to reflect how it would play out among the Calvinists in Michigan, they just read it as a work of fiction. We don’t want to engage in special pleading for our kind of book at the expense of a tough minded disinterested judgment about whether the books are good.

Stanley Kaufman died the other day. He was 97. The film critic for The New Republic, he was also the editor of The Moviegoer. So here’s this Jewish guy from Manhattan who’s worked in publishing, and he winds up editing The Moviegoer because it’s about movies. The agent sends it to him because he’s a movie critic. Kaufman forced Percy through two or three rewrites, helping him fix the title, bring out parallels between The Moviegoer and [Albert Camus’s] The Stranger, and urging him to write the epilogue which becomes a sort of final accent and flips the book back around and makes its Catholic dimension more explicit. All of this was through tough insistent editing. This guy didn’t care if Caroline Gordon said Walker Percy was going to be the next great hope for American Catholic fiction. He just kept pushing and pushing and we have the book we have today because of it. The best way we can move this forward is to have presses, journals, and conversations, but also to really insist on celebrating the great work and calling out the bad work and making the stuff in the middle the best work it can be.

Postscript

Time did not permit the interview to explore Elie’s current project—which attempts to address the lack of faith in fiction about which his essay complains. However, after his keynote address, Elie once again acknowledged what he had done in his Times essay—that he was working on a novel.

“I am tremendously excited about it,” he says. “I love doing it and I have a lot of journalism down and oftentimes writers set their nonfiction against their fiction as the true thing. Having worked full time for eighteen years at FSG, I now have something like a writer’s life. It’s tremendously exciting. To be able to give this talk and not writing it from ten to midnight but writing it during the daytime is really exciting. This is my main work now . . . .

“I’ve tried to be attentive to the kind of book I want to write and the one I ought to write. I’m trying to write the kind of book my kids will read when they’re 17 years old, when they’re reading adult books but still won’t suffer an adult book any longer than they have to. When they put it down it ceases to be interesting; I guess that’s what I’m trying to keep in mind.”



1. The day after I interviewed Elie, the Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos died of a heart attack while playing tennis. We couldn’t know this at the time, of course, but in retrospect it seems to add a particularly bittersweet flavor to Elie’s response—and serves to remind us that while writing seeks an immortality of sorts it remains, no matter how urgent, a project tied as anything else human to our own individual and mortal timelines.

Joseph O’Brien is editor of Tuscany Press, as well as an award-winning journalist and a poet. He lives with his wife and nine children on a homestead in the Driftless region of rural southwest Wisconsin. He is the staff writer for The Catholic Times of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The Gift Of One Book

“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” – Marcel Proust

The book was small, hard-covered, with a broken binding. My grandmother held it carefully as she told me the book had belonged to my mother when she was my age. She had discovered it when she was cleaning out “the little house” – a small cottage on the back of their property filled to the brim with heirlooms spanning generations – and she thought I might like to have it.

The book was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I had no idea then what the story was about. But the fact that it had belonged to my mother and that it was something she and I could share was exciting.  And this bequeathal initiated me into a sort of curatorial community as far as the family was concerned, for I was being given an artifact, a treasure, from the mysteriously off-limits “little house” which meant it had to be worth something. My 10-year-old mind couldn’t possibly know in that moment what a treasure that book would in fact become, but I felt as though I had been given something truly special.

LittleWomencoverIt wasn’t an old book, but it had been well read. The mellowed cover had a color picture of a young woman, reclining on a candy-striped sofa with books strewn around the floor at her feet, thoroughly absorbed in reading the book she held in her hands. The sofa looked to be located in a sort of attic playroom, with the back of the book’s cover depicting old trunks, bookcases and an oil lamp surrounding a window laced with a flowering vine. It looked like a lovely place to wile away the day. The cover alone captivated my imagination and to this day I often look to a book’s cover as one way of determining whether I will or will not delve into the pages enclosed therein. The pages were brittle and brown all along the edges, which gave them a warm inviting glow. These might be off-putting to some readers, however, due to the musty breath they exuded when they were riffled, an aroma carefully cultivated over the course of many years by the damp beach air and the close proximity of older and wiser heirlooms. But to me those pages smelled glorious, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. A scent I would say now was a blend of heavy dust, smoked old cedar and mothballs and which I will forever associate with a certain kind of comfort and rest that comes from the pleasure of reading.

Little Women was the first novel I ever remember loving like it was a living thing. I read it over and over and over again and this lingering dwelling within its pages brought with it not only the gift of many life lessons, but friendships I’ve continued to carry with me. The story of the four March girls – Margaret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Beth and Amy – struggling at home alone with their mother while their father was away fighting in the Civil War taught me there are various wars and battles that need fighting in every facet of a life. Spending time with the Marches, I learned a lot about anger and jealousy, sickness and love, poverty, worldly riches, and the unexpected joyful wealth of a rightly ordered soul. Their stories made me cry, but they also made me feel safe and helped me to make sense of the loss and joy and pain of life in its many stages. The girls and their Marmee taught me about forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and detachment from the vanities of the world.  Whenever I was sick or felt alone, I opened the pages of that novel and lost myself in its world. The book became a boon companion, never far from me, no matter where I moved. It is here next to me even now as I write this, days and years away from the moment my grandmother entrusted it to my care.

One of the novel’s themes was discovering one’s vocation in life and developing one’s unique gifts. There was a sense that each girl was meant for something, had a purpose to fulfill in the world and, though never overt, the gift of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a Christmas gift and the virtuous actions of the March family suggested an upbringing rooted in the Christian faith. Part of the fun of reading the novel was watching each girl find her way along her own path to realizing and developing her gifts. Gentle Meg had a talent and a love for homemaking, mothering, and everything that went along with it. Jo was a tousle of contradictions, loving an active life as much as the quiet life of the mind. Beth was a natural musician with a generous heart, and pretty Amy loved fashion and art. Like many young women before me and since, I fell in love with the tomboyish, headstrong, literary daydreamer Jo. Watching her pursue her path towards a life lived in writing and study, I began to conceive of a writing life and the sacrifices it would demand and the fulfillment it could bring. Every book, in some way, must necessarily change us, for we can never be the same person we were before we allowed the story and its people, places, and conflicts to enter into our lives for whatever amount of time they occupy. I think it is safe to say that my involved and repetitive experiences with Little Women at least in part defined my choice to become a writer and to surround myself with books and learning. Jo’s character and her journey in the novel made it possible for me to consider a life as a writer, that this was something I could choose. As any true friend would do, Jo seemed to give me the encouragement that I was seeking and in doing so helped me to attend to nurturing the gift that truly made my soul come alive.

And this is the gift of literature as an art – it has the potential to speak to our deepest human emotions, longings, fears, and dreams. It has the ability to push us into becoming who we were meant to be by exploring the urges that spring from the seeds of our unique talents and gifts. It has the power to make connections over generations and across time, showing the continuum of human experience and the power of story to move hearts and minds to truth and goodness, acceptance and understanding, awareness and compassion. It has the power to point us towards something higher than ourselves, to the One who bestows our unique gifts, and provides the channels of grace which allow us to recognize and develop them. My grandmother gave me a great gift the day she gave me Little Women, because she placed into my hands a key that helped to unlock the door to my heart, my mind, my talent, my future, and part of my purpose. And that gift is priceless.

What book have you been especially gifted with in your life?

Violence and Tragedy in Literature

When I hadn’t yet finished Light in August, some of my friends saw what I’d been reading and asked, “Do you actually like Faulkner?” Well, yes. I think so. I don’t know. Should I? Well, hm.

One friend noted that the explicit nature of some of the happenings in Faulkner’s stories, often described in very communicative detail, presents our minds with an occasion to be soaked in something unhealthy and possibly harmful. My response was that those less than pleasant elements of his novels are not gratuitous; good literature is truthful, is an accurate representation of our world, and not everything in life is shiny and rosy.

When I was in college, I went through a serious Hemingway/Woolf phase, and I’m still not really out of the Fitzgerald phase. Granted, there is a difference in tone among these three novelists, but they’re all part of that Lost Generation. Ultimately, as my much loved and wonderful mother worriedly assured nineteen-year-old me, they’re lacking something. Their novels are not the answer. These authors are not called “Lost” for no reason. They don’t realize that, all things told, the story of the universe is essentially one of comedy, not tragedy. Nevertheless, I maintain my position that there is a place for such novels; there is a place for such darkness.

If you object, I have a few things to say to you: King Lear. Hamlet. Sophocles. Dido. The Book of Job. “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful death.” We will all of us meet our wicked sisters, our blinded fathers, our conniving Uncles, our own damning Hubris, our physical and spiritual trials, and, many of us, a death of love that makes us want to kill ourselves. As a friends once said, “The theme of Oedipus Rex is: Life’s the pits, and then, you die.” Of course, experience is in many cases the best teacher. But it doesn’t hurt to have some vicarious experience and knowledge of the depths before you fall into them yourselves. In the good and the bad, this, I think, is a summary of the value of literature. It teaches us enormous truths in human terms, and so teaches us how to cope with our day to day human lives. Christ taught in parables, not syllogisms; He was, He is, a storyteller. And, if you recall, there was death and damnation in some of His stories.

All of that being said, we all know that virtue lies in moderation and balance, not in extremes. I am quite thankful that I had the foresight to do my senior thesis on Willa Cather rather than Hemingway, as I had first thought that I would. Too much dwelling in darkness isn’t a good thing. It’s easy to forget about the light if we never read comedies. However, the experience of life as a solitary vale of tears is only compounded if a soul never has the cathartic purging of living tragedy in art. Misery loves company is not a jesting and trivial phrase. It is deeply profound, deeply human, and speaks to the nature of man being a social animal and needing to know that there is someone, anyone, who understands and can help him through the dark night in which he finds himself. Even if that help is only in the form of companionship, even if it can’t give all the answers, that standing together is necessary for survival. This is, at least in part, why tragedies are necessary.

three little boys

Back to my friends’ question on Faulkner. In thinking over it more since finishing the book, I wonder if perhaps I was wrong. Not in theory, but in the particular instance of this book, perhaps the darkness was too explicit. Balance is difficult to achieve (Yes, that is my profound statement of the century. Duh.), and it is possible that art that is in many ways excellent can be over-the-top in others. This is how I feel about Bruckner’s Christus Factus Est, which I’ve sung with one of my choirs a few times. Just chill, buddy. And then there is some art, there are some stories, that I think can never be justified. Movies about demonic possession, for example, are incredibly foolish. Not in the, “This is dumb,” sense. No; Because such things are far more real than most people want to acknowledge, voluntarily dwelling on Satanic powers is unnecessarily putting oneself in real danger. To a less immediate degree, dwelling intensely on any sort of wickedness or darkness for extended periods of time is a danger. When the enemy is smarter than you, stay away from him.

When I discovered that both my mother and my older brother had stopped reading Light in August partway through, citing the intensely immoral parts of it as one of their roadblocks, I naturally began to question my previous position that it was not gratuitously, well, messy. I had defended the inhumanity of some of the characters to my questioning friends by saying that part of Faulkner’s purpose is to highlight the grace and beauty that still can exist, in characters like Lena and Byron, in a society that has been conquered and is fallen. I still think that this is true, but I do wonder if he needed to focus on the fallen part of that world as much as he did. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Even if you haven’t read this particular novel, where do you come down on this question?

This post appeared previously on Taking Back Our Brave New World and AltCatholicah.

Flashes of Light in a Dark World: Why We Need Super Heroes

“I’m hyperventilating right now,” my 12-year-old son whispered to me and gripped my hand hard. He was waiting excitedly (and obviously breathlessly) for Marvel’s newest superhero film, Thor: The Dark World, to burst onto the screen in all its glorious action.

Photo credit: Marvel

Photo credit: Marvel

It’s no secret to anyone who knows our family that the Marvel heroes are preferred to the DC group and that my son measures time by when the next film, Lego set, or Nintendo game is scheduled for release. Thor was autumn’s happy milestone and now he has set the April release of Captain America as his spring marker. Not only does he spend countless hours reading his classic comics digests, lost in imaginative fantasy and wrestling with hefty issues of good and evil, but he hones his memory skills by memorizing intricate plot patterns and character details, regaling us with various character back stories, correcting egregious errors in the film or cartoon adaptations, while also filling in weak or missing elements in those same story lines. (And no, concerned reader, my son’s literary diet is not confined to comics. He gets plenty of classic literature, so have no fear. Also, consider how memorizing intricate story lines via the comics preps him for memorizing long passages of Shakespeare to rival Kenneth Branagh and you will see there is a method to this seeming madness.)

As we sat waiting for Thor to begin, I was excited that he was excited, remembering how much of an impact similar cinematic experiences had on me when I was his age. Some of those, like seeing the original Star Wars trilogy films for the first time, are impressed indelibly in my memory, not only bookmarking a certain time period in my life, but providing a back drop of classic stories, meaningful themes, and complex characters which have provided much food for thought and analogous comparisons throughout my life. I can see the same thing happening with my son through his fascination with super heroes, both in the comics and the films. Thor: The Dark World, as well as some of the other films in the Marvel franchise**, is like a modern fairy-tale, an entertaining and often gripping lesson about life, morality, virtue, and, ultimately, living a life of faith, hope, and charity.  Here are a few we’ve gleaned from our many forays into their strangely familiar worlds:

Super heroes teach us:

  • What it means to live with, embrace, and work with perpetual weakness;
  • That weakness is not only a strength, but a gift, because through it we learn humility;
  • The temptation to power and the drive to feed the ego is a constant battle that must be fought within each individual, even in the very best of men;
  • Possessing compassion for the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless among us is an essential character trait of a hero, as are bravery, courage, perseverance, and teamwork;
  • There are things worth making deep sacrifices for, even to the point sacrificing of one’s life, including the defeat of evil, freedom from tyranny, the ideals of one’s country, overcoming oppression and brutality, and putting the health and safety of one’s friends and loved ones before your own. Super heroes revive the nobility of authentic martyrdom in a world which has lost its faith;
  • That each individual is possessed of unique gifts. Some of these gifts do not conform to what society perceives as valuable; sometimes society says the person and their gifts don’t matter or are expendable. However, the super heroes remind us that each individual has value and is particularly charged – as a debt of honor – with perfecting and using his gifts for the greater good, regardless of the value society attaches to them;
  • Gifts used to serve self end in disastrous consequences – it is often this “school of hard knocks” which a super hero needs to experience before he or she can be ready to finally use their gifts to help others and perhaps atone for the wrongs they have done previously through their pride and self-serving ambition;
  • To recognize the varied faces of evil, a reality which a world without faith is apt to forget. Satan was first Lucifer, the angelic being of Light; thus
    Photo credit: Marvel

    Photo credit: Marvel

    Shakespeare is right to remind us in King Lear that the Devil is of noble birth – he is a gentleman. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of the super hero: evil often does not appear “as evil,” but is often masterfully disguised, playing out its machinations and temptations under genteel subterfuge, blending carefully, attractively, and seemingly innocuously into the surroundings, ready to strike when least expected;

  • A spade is a spade: darkness IS darkness in the world of the super hero and the edges are distinctly not blurred. There is no confusion between light/true goodness and darkness/true evil. When a character experiences a moment of grace which involves an opportunity to make the choice for good or evil, that moment is clear, as is the character’s responsibility for freely choosing that good or evil. Free will is dominant and the consequences following the exercise of it are clearly defined;
  • Evil within a character is ultimately manifested without — one becomes on the outside what one is on the inside. This visual depiction of the
    Photo credit: Marvel

    Photo credit: Marvel

    perverting, deforming effects of choosing evil is a powerful message in helping young people develop a moral sense of the damage moral evil causes to the one who chooses it, as well as the ways in which it can pervade the lives and environment of others;

  • Conversion is possible, even in the most seemingly hopeless situation. Even is a character who seems to be a lost cause, there can come the flicker of light, evidence that goodness is not yet entirely extinguished. Super hero stories remind us that it is never too late to change your mind and turn away from the path of darkness towards the light;
  • That if one is still alive on this earth, even after experiencing the most traumatic and painful events, then that means one still has a purpose to fulfill and a reason for being and one must persevere in hope until that purpose achieved.

The ultimate lesson the super heroes have the ability to teach, perhaps without intending to, is a profoundly spiritual one. While it is not clear that every super hero believes in God, every super hero believes in something higher than himself: a higher power, a greater good which points towards truth, light, peace, and justice. In general, these comic figures operate in the realm of natural law in terms of morals. To read or watch the super heroes is not to be preached at. But it is to encounter characters with very real moral struggles and weaknesses in constant pursuit of goodness and truth and in battle against the forces which would erode those virtues — and this truth is not the relative truth the secular world preaches. Watching Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and others wrestle with these dilemmas and the influence of clear and present evil helps us examine how we handle our own moral crises and why. It forces us to ask what we believe and to question if how we live reflects those beliefs, or if we are living a lie.

Photo credit: Marvel

Photo credit: Marvel

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the great line that Stan Lee (via Voltaire) wrote for Spider Man — “With great power comes great responsibility”  – and Jesus’s words in Matthew 13:12 — “To whom much is given, much will be asked.” Thor, the X-Men, and the rest of the Avengers don’t need me, or anyone else, to defend them. Their stories – both in words and actions – are flickers of truth, light and grace in a dark world. Their stories, and the reasons we need them, speak for themselves.

**This is not an endorsement of the comic genre as a whole, nor am I suggesting all of the superhero-comic-to-film-efforts are appropriate for young children. Obviously, extreme prudence is required and parents must vigilantly supervise what their children see and read. In addition, parents need to take responsibility for discussing whatever venues they do allow their children to experience, demonstrating clearly how these stories relate to daily and spiritual life. If a parent is willing to take the time to do this, and the child has the requisite maturity to handle and discuss these issues and connections, there is a unique value in certain niche characters and series that cannot, in my opinion, be denied.

Giving Thanks for an Atheist

               ShostakovichDuring this season of thanks, I would like to take a moment to praise God for all the artists who have brightened, enlightened, beautified, and shaped my experience of living.  I hope it’s true for you, as it is for me, that men and women long dead, from other parts of the world, people with whom it would have been rather awkward to try to have a civil dinner conversation if we could somehow have arranged it, have nevertheless contributed to forming my worldview.  There is a wonderful sense of universality (literally, Catholicism) in being connected to distant lands and distant ages through the works their artists leave behind.  However, as I reflect upon my gratitude for the geniuses who paved my way toward becoming who I am, I cannot help but notice that many of them lacked the one thing for which I am most grateful: faith in our glorious Triune God, or, indeed, any god at all.  As a Catholic music director, I am constantly challenged by the fact that the composer who changed the way I understand the emotional power of sound–the man whose music scrapes the calluses from my soul in a way no one else’s ever has–was an atheist.

 I first encountered Dmitri Shostakovich in one of my college music theory classes, where the instructor played a snippet of his Fifth Symphony.  Nothing in my life had prepared me to discover such raw, immediate intimacy.  Fairy tales tell us this feeling is possible when Prince Charming meets your eye across a crowded room, but falling head-over-heels for the music of a dead Communist?  Really?

Really.  The composer who won my ears at first hearing was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1906 and rose to the height of his artistic prowess during the height of the Stalinist regime.  He spent the last fifteen years of his life as a member of the Communist Party.  He dedicated his Second Symphony “To October” and his Twelfth “To Lenin.”  He composed scores for Soviet propaganda films and received such awards as Hero of Socialist Labor, Order of Lenin, Order of the October Revolution… you get the idea.  However, the subject that dominates scholarship about Shostakovich is his rocky relationship with the Soviet government and Stalin in particular.  There were times in his life when he slept with a suitcase beside his bed, expecting the secret police to arrive at any moment to haul him off to a Siberian Gulag.  Why?  Because, as conductor Mariss Jansons says, “[His music] was in essence exploring people’s personal tragedies and dramas; it was a statement against the regime.”  Jansons is one of only many who speaks about a “dual code” within the music, who listens to the supposed “victory parade in Red Square” at the end of the Fifth Symphony and hears instead “[that] the optimism is contained in the fact that the true hero… was ready to fight.”

It was this true hero who stole my heart: who twisted it in gorgeous, brutal ways to shine a light upon its brokenness, its vulnerability, its capacity to overcome.  The Fifth Symphony sings of a battle between hope and despair.  Melodies as delicate as snowflakes lilt upon the air, struggling to breathe against the brassy onslaught of iniquity, whirled through a confusion of strings scraped in vicious frenzy.  Great art transcends its historical climate, and in the coded musical war wherein the Russian people weep against the oppression of Stalin, I hear Jesus overcoming temptation in the desert as well as Judas being lured away to give the fatal kiss.  I hear the one great battle that takes place every day, in every human heart.  Part of the genius of the Fifth is that it’s never really clear who wins.  Shostakovich lays bare the truth and then sends his listeners forth to write their own finales.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a great deal more than just the Fifth Symphony, and although the work through which we met remains my favorite, his insight into the war within the human soul shines through all of his best compositions.  How he could write such spiritual music without recourse to prayer, I do not know.  I do know that when the truth comes from an atheist’s lips, it is still God who speaks.  The challenge for us Christians is to find the humility to listen.

So, among the many blessings I praise God for this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the atheist who inspires me to hope.  I am grateful for a God so generous, He pours out his love upon our world through every available conduit–even the ones who deny that He exists.  I thank Him for the mercy that allows me to believe Dmitri Shostakovich and all the other heretics who have brought goodness to our world still live beyond the grave through more than just their works.  Above all, I thank Him for giving me the privilege Shostakovich was denied: that whatever little beauty God allows me to create, I can do it without codes, freely and openly, in His name.

 

Great Poetry Performances

Not actually Keats, but close enough

Not actually Keats, but close enough

The experience of hearing a poem recited is very different from that of silently reading it on the page, and ideally the performance should enrich our experience of the poem. Alas, many poetry readings fail to deliver. Naeem Murr fisked them all in a hilarious essay: “Why is it that so few poets think about the importance of leaving their audience wanting more—or at least not wanting to self-harm? We’ve all experienced it. A lively, engaging, funny person takes the podium. We adore her; we’re ready to adore her work. And then it’s as if someone has pulled a string in the back of her head to release the “poetry voice” from her abruptly expressionless face.” Now, it’s kind of unfair to attack poets too harshly for not being great performers. Composing and performing are two very different skills. But some performances are better than others, and it’s worth seeking them out. With that in mind, here are some of my favorites.

The Three Year-Old Who Memorizes Poems

This little guy is not only ineffably adorable, he also has serious interpretive chops. This is his performance of Billy Collins’ Litany. See how he tumbles forward when he says “the evening paper blooooowing down an alley”? An adult couldn’t pull that off, but it’s perfect for him. The way he modulates his voice, rising and falling, is more sophisticated than Billy Collins’ own recitation. The way he plunges down again at the end of the poem (“But don’t worry…”) makes him sound like a miniature Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas, “Poem in October”

You can’t talk about great poetry performers without bowing down before Dylan Thomas. Whether he’s reading his own incantations or the war poems of Wilfred Owen, you won’t think about anything else while you’re listening. I could recommend many selections: “The Hunchback in the Park,” A Child’s Christmas in Wales ( a short story)… Or you could just spring for this 11 CD collection of his recordings, which is worth way more than $25.

This High Schooler Reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth”

You have to scroll down a ways to find Kareem Sayegh. I’m sure all the girls in his class had a huge crush on him. The way he interprets this delicate, Tim Burton-ish poem, with wry coolness and little fraying moments of vulnerability, is enchanting.

A Seriously Disturbing One By–Who Else?–Sylvia Plath

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. In this poem, Plath is Nurse Ratched, Mommy dearest, the HR lady from hell. Or something. Her voice is lye and honey.

Robert Hass, “Faint Music”

I didn’t expect to like this. I’ve not read much of Hass, and had a vague understanding that he was yet another academic hippie lefty poet. But I stumbled across these recordings and listened to them without reading the poems first – and I liked them better that way. There’s the faintest hint of gravel in Hass’s voice, and the poems slip through transitions as dreamlike as San Francisco in its states of light and fog.

Seamus Heaney’s Poem for His Mother

He wrote this sonnet after her death. His voice, so kind, so Irish, is always a pleasure to listen to.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reading Keats No I Can’t Stop Myself

I will let the women of YouTube speak for me: “I like this more than I like the crème filling of an oreo…” “BOOM my ovaries are gone.”

7 Reasons To Read A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor

Have you ever read something ineffable? Something so sublime that it was hard to talk about with anything resembling coherence? If so, then you’ll understand why it is so difficult to articulate my experience of reading Flannery O’Connor’s intimate and soul-baring A Prayer Journal. I closed the book with a combination of awed silence and heart-soaring joy. I’m afraid no critical, dry-as-dust objective review is possible for this reader. My sincerely heartfelt appreciation of this uniquely personal book by one of America’s greatest writers can, however, illuminate seven reasons why you need to read this book now.

APrayerJournalCoverFirst, some back story . . . Flannery’s friend, the scholar William A. (Bill) Sessions, was doing his own research in the O’Connor archives when he discovered the writer’s old Sterling composition book tied up in a stack of papers.  The journal, to be released November 12 by Farrar Straus Giroux, Flannery’s long-time publisher during her lifetime and the first new title FSG has had the privilege to issue by the author in decades, has been carefully edited by Sessions. The slim hardcover is exquisite, quietly simple and graceful in its presentation, and includes an Introduction by Sessions, as well as a facsimile copy of the entire journal so interested readers can read the prayers Flannery composed in her own hand. The journal’s contents, as well as its very existence – coming first now in the chronology of her published works – make clear that Sessions’ find will change the face of scholarship on Flannery’s life and work. But that, significant though it is, isn’t one of the seven reasons why you should stop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy of A Prayer Journal as soon as possible.

Reason #1: You will encounter a side of Flannery you’ve never known. The journal is a cry of the heart so deeply intimate I wondered at times whether I should be reading it at all. Indeed, to do so is a thorough privilege for it is the account of a soul’s singular yearning for God and is wholly different from any other published work of Flannery’s – it is the raw, plaintive voice of a young woman thoroughly in love with her God, who seems to behave with His beloved like the elusive bridegroom in the Song of Songs. Not one of her letters collected in The Habit of Being compares to the intense honesty and painful sincerity of the writer’s voice in these prayers to God. We may think we know her well from her letters, but we will come to know her more deeply and in a different way through this journal.

Reason #2: The journal echoes the gorgeously stirring mysticism of some of our greatest spiritual writers. Reading certain sections of A Prayer Journal call to mind the resplendent descriptions of the spiritual life written by St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, and others. It is the rare 22-year-old who describes God as “the slim crescent of a moon . . . [which] is very beautiful,” while viewing herself as “the earth’s shadow . . . [which threatens to] grow so large that it blocks the whole moon.” Flannery confesses to being “afraid of insidious hands . . . which grope into the darkness of my soul,” begging God to be her protector, shielding her against those things which would tear her away from Him. In her fervor, she begs for an all-consuming desire for God that would essentially cause her to die of love:

“Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be Fulfillment.”

Is this not the numinous language of a mystic, who in the intensity of her desire already possesses that which she so longs for? In Flannery’s prayer, we are reminded that the intensity of our faith is not measured so much by feeling or emotion, but by the depth of our desire. The saints teach us that the desire itself is indeed the answer to the prayer. I confess to wondering, as I read: if the cause for canonization for G.K. Chesterton is successfully opened, can the cause for the little hermit of Anadalusia be far behind?

Reason #3: Flannery’s prayers offer a model of the rightly ordered use of one’s gifts. Wholly honest with God about what she wants in life – to be a great writer and to write a great novel – Flannery is also thoroughly convinced that her gifts come from God and should therefore be directed to His service. She asks God to “let Christian principles permeate my writing” and that she be given a “strong Will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father.”  She is very aware that it is God’s spirit moving within her that allows her any success in the practice of her craft, asking God to “take care of making [the story she is working on] a sound story because I don’t know how.”  She acknowledges repeatedly her understanding that without His grace, she will never achieve what she hopes to accomplish with her art, stating simply “God must be in all my work.” Ideally, the rightly ordered use of our gifts would help us along the pathway to sanctity. Flannery knew this when she prayed: “Dear God, help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.” The journal offers a portrait of the artist humbled and prostrate in the face of her gift – “Don’t ever let me think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story” –truly, a model for us all.

Reason #4: You will see the genesis of a novel. This is no small thing. Flannery’s first novel

Flannery O'Connor holding a copy of her novel Wise Blood.

Flannery O’Connor holding a copy of her novel Wise Blood.

Wise Blood was published in 1952, five years after she ceased keeping the prayer journal. However, the novel grew out of several shorter pieces published previously. In the journal evidence of her repeated pleas to God to help her to write a novel, and the brief articulation of a controlling idea with which she is preoccupied, call to mind the components of what would eventually become the saga of Hazel Motes. Thus, it appears that the idea for Wise Blood was already germinating during the time Flannery was writing the journal. Interestingly, the prayer journal predates the earliest letter in the volume of her collected letters, which is dated June 19, 1949, two years after writing in the prayer journal ceased. In that letter, Flannery is on the lookout for an agent to represent her novel Wise Blood.

Reason #5: Flannery articulates the need for a clear Catholic worldview as the thread with which to weave a novel. Towards the end of the journal, Flannery is immersed in pondering her literary philosophy and the role of the Catholic artist. Clearly she recognizes, perhaps through the grace of her prayer, that she must be accountable for her use of her gift in relation to her faith. She writes,

“To maintain any thread in the novel there must be a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of the world is conception of love – divine, natural, & perverted. It is probably possible to say that when a view of love is present – a broad enough view – no more need be added to make the world view.”

She articulates clearly here the acceptable separation between the ways in which a purely secular view of love (pure physical desire) would be realized in a novel against the realization of love in the work of a writer inspired by an awareness of Divine Love. Flannery was never shy about her devotion to her Catholic faith, clearly evident in from her collected letters and numerous essays. When asked to speak publicly she emphasized the truth that her faith was the reason for everything she did and the perspective from which she viewed the world. The existence of the journal solidifies this view in a unique way, ensuring no one will ever be able to look at her work in the same way again.

Reason #6: Here you will find a kindred spirit in the experience of suffering. In her letters, Flannery’s tone is often no-nonsense and, if one does not understand or appreciate her dry wit, she might come off as harsh or abrasive, potentially causing the casual reader to forget how much she suffered over the course of her life. The prayer journal shows this suffering in all its nakedness. She suffers doubt and anxiety about her life and her vocation. She suffers from an acute awareness of her “mediocrity” and her pride’s inability to cope with it. She suffers torments of the flesh and the mind. She suffers because she cannot suffer well. For love of God and for the sake of those others – “the dead people I am living with” – she repeatedly asks for the grace necessary to handle suffering.  The journal shows the truth of her inner struggles and makes her more approachable, opening the door to the possibility of true friendship with someone who knows the difficulty of living an authentic spiritual life amidst great suffering.

Image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Reason #7: Flannery models and emphasizes the need for simple entrustment to Mary. There is a sense throughout the journal that the goal of the artist is to practice her craft with the heart of the tax collector.  Flannery’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a consistent prayer throughout the journal. The focus of her devotion to Mary as Our Lady of Perpetual Help is significant, expressing the necessary awareness that the need for perpetual help supposes a corresponding acknowledgement of perpetual weakness in oneself. The image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is of a protective mother, carrying her child. When one considers the extreme suffering of mind, body, and soul Flannery experienced throughout her short life, one is reminded of the need to admit one’s helplessness and weakness, to trustingly allow another to carry you in her arms to your final destination. The journal is a beautiful reminder of the truth that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and that it is He alone who works in us and through our gifts to the extent that we are able to admit of our need for help in dealing with our weaknesses. Flannery lends her voice to the chorus of many saints who have for generations emphasized that entrustment to Mary is the safest, surest path to Christ.

The existence of A Prayer Journal is surely cause for great rejoicing.  It is safe to say that no one who reads A Prayer Journal will ever be able to look at Flannery’s work in the same way again and that pondering it will shed light on the many beautiful and challenging ways it appears her

Flannery O'Connor, 1947 -- during the time she composed A Prayer Journal.

Flannery O’Connor, 1947 — during the time she composed A Prayer Journal.

prayers were answered throughout her life. It is quite fitting that the gift of this journal comes during the month of November, a time when we celebrate our belief in the communion of saints. Surely, as a faithfully departed soul, whose writing in A Prayer Journal and throughout her life testifies to her intention to live a life of holiness, we can count Flannery as one of our friends in heaven who, along with the recognized saints of our faith, stands before us as a model of what it means to live a life consecrated to Christ and His Church and who provides guidance and encouragement so that we who are left behind will have the strength to persevere. A late encounter with this stalwart friend in faith has the potential to change your life, which is the very best reason for reading it.

 

Contemplating a Literary Relic: Reflections For Writers

The écritoire (writing desk) of St. Therese of Lisieux has been making a quiet and brief pilgrimage to a smattering of parishes across the country. While the humble little desk might not be cause for much excitement for those devoted to St. Therese, devotees of the Little Flower who are also writers will find much to ponder and pray over in contemplating this literary relic.

The writing desk of St. Therese of Lisieux. Photo used with permission: Archive du Carmel de Lisieux

The writing desk of St. Therese of Lisieux. Photo used with permission: Archive du Carmel de Lisieux

Long before she became the saint we know and love today, Therese was both a writer and a painter. Known the world over for her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul, Therese’s other writings are virtually unknown; yet she was a talented writer who dabbled in many forms. According to the Lisieux Carmel Archives, Therese wrote eight theater plays, 62 poems, 95 letters, and 21 prayers, in addition to the three manuscripts that comprise her spiritual autobiography. Her plays were produced in the Lisieux Carmel for the entertainment of the sisters and novices – there are even photographs of Therese in the leading role of her heroine, Joan of Arc. Her poetry is deeply moving and introspective, its style reminiscent of the consummate poet and Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, whose works inspired and influenced Therese. And a majority of her written works were composed on this little desk, making it a uniquely literary spiritual relic.

Sadly, I learned the desk visited a parish in my diocese, just 8 miles away, the day after it departed. But as Therese says, “Everything is grace,” and simply knowing the relic existed and had been near held some special gift for me. As I pondered what I know of Therese and her life as a writer, I realized there are graces to be gained from contemplating the relic, whether or not I was privileged to see it. The desk is is a reminder that Therese’s little way of spiritual childhood is not only appropriate for living our daily lives, but for living our writing lives as well. Following are some things I reflected on while contemplating the desk which serve as a reminder that there can be no separation between daily living and my writing life.

Effort

Therese’s desk is a reminder that God is pleased with my effort. She always said that since she is such a little child, she could never be expected to do great things; rather, it was enough for her to trust in God and allow Him to work greatness through her, if He desired. Just as a parent is pleased when she sees her daughter make the great effort to take her first steps before falling down, so God is pleased when I take the gifts He has given me and do my best to practice my craft and bring ideas and inspirations to fruition. But without God’s help, my effort won’t come to much. The desk reminds me to do the best I am able, trusting God to handle the rest and to make up for everything I lack.

Embracing crosses

Therese suffered greatly—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—during much of the time she spent writing her autobiography, poems, plays, prayers, and letters. Her simple desk reminds me that the practice of my art will be paved with crosses. Sometimes these will take the form of simple irritations—my son may need my attention during my scheduled writing time, or perhaps my writing time is fraught with paralyzing “writer’s block.” Other crosses will be more humiliating and challenging—perhaps my work will not be well-received or will be misunderstood or mocked, perhaps the birth of a particular piece of writing will bring with it great pain, perhaps in spite of my “effort,” all of my work will come to nothing. The life of the artist in any field is fraught with struggles, uncertainty, and often pain. But the desk reminds me that my art is a key part of my pathway to sanctity and holiness. I can expect nothing less than to meet the cross of Christ; Therese reminds me to ask for the grace to embrace it.

Entrustment

This charming watercolor from the Lisieux archive shows Therese writing, overshadowed by the

Watercolor of Therese writing Manuscript A. Used with permission of the Archive du Carmel de Lisieux

Watercolor of Therese writing Manuscript A. Used with permission of the Archive du Carmel de Lisieux

Holy Spirit, with the statue of Our Lady of the Smile looking on from the doorway.  The little écritoire is a reminder that the practice of my literary art must come from an attitude of entrustment (especially to Mary) and prayer. In his book My Vocation Is Love, Jean Lafrance points out that for Therese writing was an act of prayer:

“She did not merely write for the sake of writing or to be read, but to pray . . . The book of Therese’s writings brings home to us in a particular way how writing can help us to pray . . . Therese does not write to look at herself but to contemplate Jesus’ privileges in her soul.”

I may not be called to write a spiritual memoir, but as a Catholic writer I am obligated to reflect the workings of grace on the human soul through the characters I realize in my work. Contemplating the desk reminds me of the need to entrust the right exercise of my literary gifts to the One from whom they come, so that my work might reflect His work and presence in the world.

Enthusiasm

Therese approaches her writing with a childlike simplicity that leaves no room for anxiety, stress, or doubt. She writes: “I am not breaking my head over the writing of my little life. It’s like fishing with a line: I write whatever comes to the end of my pen.” (Last Conversations 63) In his beautiful book Journey With Therese of Lisieux: Celebrating the Artist in Us All, Michael McGrath suggests the importance of modeling Therese’s attitude in our own work and posits that Therese was only able to create her masterpiece because she did not have “the distraction of perfectionism lurking over her shoulder.” Little children do not worry about being perfect—little children give themselves over totally to the experience of creating art. They revel in paint, they babble unselfconsciously, excited by the new sounds and words coming from their mouths. The desk reminds me that God has blessed me with the talent to write and that part of showing my gratitude for this gift is to share it unselfconsciously with others. Pride of perfectionism has no place in the right exercise of my gift. The desk reminds me to approach the practice of my art with the enthusiasm of a child at play.

Eucatastrophe

Therese, in her simplicity of faith, knew the truth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s principle of “euchatastrophe” (or the joy of a good ending) before he ever explored it in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” The principle is present in the Word of God itself and so is a foundational principle of faith. Therese knew that, if done in the proper spirit of love for others and devotion to God, her words had the power to help lead souls to Christ. There are many stories of conversions and healing via one individual’s experience of another’s written work. One has only to recall Edith Stein’s powerful encounter reading the life of Teresa of Avila. More recently, as efforts are underway to open a cause for his canonization, we are hearing stories of people moved to conversion by the works of G. K. Chesterton. John Keats, who lost his Christian faith, still never lost his belief in poetry’s power to heal a weary soul. As a Catholic writer, I need to be conscious of the power my words have to effect change in each person who encounters my work. Therese’s desk—and her works—remind me of the truth of the joy of the happy ending and inspire me to follow Tolkien’s principle of eucatastrophe in my own writing.

It is an intensely intimate and inspiring gift to observe and contemplate the tools and products of another writer’s commitment to the craft, to witness and study the fruits of their dedication to their gift. Therese’s writing desk reminds us all that the path to holiness and the practice of one’s art go hand-in-hand. Each rightly-ordered effort at practicing our given artistic gifts can become one more opportunity, one more moment of grace, in which God can work to baptize our imaginations.

For thorough and continuously updated information about the tour of Therese’s writing desk, the cause for canonization for her parents Louis and Zelie Martin, and everything related to St. Therese, her spirituality, and the Carmelite heritage, please visit Maureen O’Riordan’s excellent site St Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway.

Introducing the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction

jf-powers-001

J.F. Powers

“One foot in this world and one in the next”: that’s how J.F. Powers described the Midwestern priests he wrote about in his fiction. Having one foot in another world can be awkward, and Powers’ characters are known not for their graceful mysticism, but for the humiliating and mordantly entertaining stumbles they make while trying to live their faith. We’re looking for carefully crafted short stories with vivid characters who encounter grace in everyday settings—we want to see who, in the age we live in, might have one foot in this world and one in the next.

The judges will be Eve Tushnet, Andrew McNabb, and Matthew Lickona, and the winner will receive $500. There is no entrance fee. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. Please submit your short story (no more than one, no previously published work) to our website by November 29.

Click here to make your submission and see the writer’s guidelines.

Glyph

I think it’s possible to write something, for me to write something, that even God might like. It’s possible for me to hit a note, to get in a mood, to write something that is worthy even of God’s attention. Not as a soul seeking salvation, but just as entertainment for God. This may be blasphemous to say, but I believe it. I don’t think God is there and we’re here, and there are no connections. I think there are connections, and I think art is certainly one.        

- J. F. Powers

‘Banned Books Week’ Winding Down

book-2aI just realized that Banned Books Week is almost over and I haven’t celebrated it with a banned classic yet. I’ve been so absorbed in Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence that I almost missed the celebration altogether. Thankfully, I checked the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (KVML) website yesterday to see what they were up to, or I would have missed out completely.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Banned Books Week but want to know more, the KVML’s website and the American Library Association’s website are great places to start. My interest with the movement is not so much in saving the Captain Underpants books of the world (no matter how funny they are), but rather with celebrating the once—banned classics which have become a part of the literary canon. I don’t always agree with what the authors have to say and some go a bit further than I’m willing to follow, but I fully support an author’s right to express his/her view of existence, so long as the point is made intelligently and the piece itself has been well crafted.

Some of my favorite books can be found on the ALA list of “Banned Classics.” For instance, there’s Joyce’s, Ulysses, which (among so many other things) showed me just how unfocused and multi—threaded the thoughts in my mind truly are. There’s also Updike’s, Rabbit, Run, which opens with a wonderful illustration of a married young man confronting the enormity of his vocation (of course Harry doesn’t respond as we’d hope he would, but then would the story still be worth reading if he did?). There’s also the “Banned Classic” I most recently read, Slaughterhouse—Five, by Kurt Vonnegut — a writer that both Graham Green and Walker Percy held in high esteem.

Catholic authors have also fallen victim to censorship. The ALA list contains both Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (this one baffles me), and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I can see why Brideshead would upset some, but that’s only when it’s been given a superficial and/or incomplete reading. A deep reading reveals a work so totally infused with the workings of God and Grace toward the salvation of the (very flawed) major characters, that you would be hard pressed to find another comparable piece of fiction. The extremely powerful deathbed scene in particular is one of my favorite moments in all of literature.

So which “Banned Classic” am I going to choose? Every time I scan the various lists, I seem to find one that I hadn’t noticed before. This year’s surprise came from the KVML website where I found John Gardner’s, Grendel. Who could have banned this book? Haven’t they seen the picture on the cover of the Vintage edition? Grendel looks like a harmless kitten, mewing softly for a saucer of milk. A Google search lead to a page that claimed the book was banned for the usual reasons, such as complaints that it’s a bit to graphic, and it’s told from the viewpoint of a viscous monster whose thoughts/feelings contradict the standards of traditional morality. With the last item, I would assume that (given an appropriate reading) we will find ourselves on safe ground, as Gardner was responsible for polarizing so many people with his insistence On Moral Fiction (a work Tuscany Press approves of, but the great Frank O’Connor did not). At any rate, my interest is piqued, and I’ve found my choice.