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Who is a Catholic Novelist?

December 3, 2013 8:50 am | 12 Comments

Among the many challenges of Roman Catholic life since 1963 is the tension between fidelity and inclusiveness.

On the one hand, to be a Roman Catholic is to be faithful to Christ–not in some vague way, but in loving knowledge of Scripture, the sacraments and the teachings of His Church.

On the other hand, to be a Roman Catholic is to dislike shutting people out of the Church.

This is particularly poignant in Germany, where the bishops seem to be turning themselves into theological pretzels in order to communicate the excommunicated divorced-and-remarried.

It is also poignant in the case of Catholics who have consciously turned their backs on Christ, or have become de facto Protestants by consulting only their own consciences concerning Mass attendance and family life. Faithful Catholics would prefer that unrepentant heterodox Catholics not present themselves to the world as Catholics. (“Well, I’M a Catholic, and I think [mortal sin du jour] is FINE!”) But at the same time faithful Catholics do not want these Catholics to feel so alienated that they never return to an authentic practice of the faith. Perhaps all these people need is time, kindness, prayers and our books.

And this is why I am beginning our discussion of “Who is a Catholic novelist?” with some care. I want to be both faithful and inclusive, especially when it comes to novelists. Novelists are not, after all, theologians. My first book, which is a work of non-fiction, was printed with an Imprimi Potest in the USA and with a Nihil Obstat in Poland. My novel Ceremony of Innocence has not got any such mark of theological approval. And that’s okay: it isn’t theology. It’s an adventure story about theology.

It isn’t a bishop’s or provincial’s job to decide if a novel is “Catholic” or not; that’s the job of the Catholic critic and the Catholic scholar. It was Evelyn Waugh, not a bishop, who questioned the underlying theology of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, a book Waugh otherwise admired.

Greene famously chafed under the label “Catholic writer” although he was a Catholic—a very conflicted Catholic, mind you, by the 1970s. He wrote about Catholics, about Catholic themes, about a universe ruled by God. Not all Catholics approved, however: in 1951 his The Power and the Glory was condemned by the Holy Office. (Paul VI subsequently told Greene that he had read the book and liked it.) Nowadays The Power and the Glory is considered a Catholic classic.

Greene’s problem with the “Catholic writer” tag was that it suggested an external authority, not his art, set the lines in which he had to color. And just yesterday I saw the phrase “Catholic novelist” used in a pejorative way, as if it denoted something saccharine or second-rate. However, I do not see why it should be worse to be called a “Catholic novelist” than an “American novelist” or a “Canadian novelist.” An American novelist writes from his own specifically American experience, and a Catholic novelist writes from her own experience as a Catholic.

That said, there is a difference between a faithful Catholic novelist who writes as if he has found living in Christ through the Church good wine, and an apostate Catholic novelist who writes as if she has found the attempt bitter gall.

My personal view is that a Catholic novelist is a novelist who writes out of her living faith in Christ, informed by the teachings of His Church. Such a novelist is neither ashamed to be a Catholic, nor reduces Catholicism to an ethnic group to which he belongs by birth. If he is a good Catholic novelist, he will present our God-charged universe with a deftness that precludes propaganda. If not…

Well, that is a topic for later.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

Tags: Catholic literature Evelyn Waugh novelists

12 Comments

  1. December 3, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    What an excellent definition!

    ~”And just yesterday I saw the phrase “Catholic novelist” used in a pejorative way, as if it denoted something saccharine or second-rate.”

    I think perhaps people have the wrong idea of what it means to be a Catholic author because of a number of modern ‘Catholic writers’? I don’t want to name names here, but I know a number of Catholic YA and adult books that are just very poorly written. The writers seem to think that as long as they stuff their books full of Catholic homeschoolers, episodes in which the characters demonstrate chastity and references to the sacraments, they are producing something wonderful. They aren’t skilled in their chosen craft and their books aren’t likely to appeal to anyone who isn’t a strong Catholic looking desperately for book that he/she can relate to.

    Not that all modern Catholic authors are such! There are talented and wonderful Catholic writers out there, definitely including you! :) However, I think that perhaps the first kind of author tends to spring to mind when people think ‘Catholic writer’, just because the books seem so very ‘Catholic.’

  2. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 3, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Thank you for the compliment!

    You bring up some interesting issues, one I suspect is shared in part by contemporary “Christian fiction.” Not every Reformed tradition YA writer is Madeleine L’Engle or C.S. Lewis.

    I wonder if the problem is that these Catholic authors (whom I have not read) aren’t really writing novels but propaganda. But now I confess I want to read some to see how their characters exhibit chastity. I hope in some cases it is by actually fleeing, as St. Paul advises (1 Cor 6:18). Scenes of being tempted to wear the sexy outfit could be fun.

    One solution might be for Catholics who already write to strive to write better and to read more widely. Someone who likes to write homeschooling stories might profit from studying “Jane Eyre” or “The Blackboard Jungle.” Maybe “Jane Eyre” is due for an update–not another “Wide Sargasso Sea”, but “Jane Eyre” meets “The Blackboard Jungle.” Say, Jane was a homeschooler herself, when you think about it.

    Another might be for Catholic teachers, journalists and critics to come up with extensive reading lists of critically successful Catholic authors. That might make a useful apologetic tool, too, for Catholicism on the one hand, and for novel-writing on the other.

  3. December 3, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Stories must first work on the natural level and then open up another realm of meaning through signs and symbols and an “anointed imagination”. One of the best articles I have read on this is from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “The Anointed Imagination,” which you can find at http://www.communio-icr.com/files/leiva18-1.pdf

  4. December 3, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    I think, Leah, part of the reason for the propagandism in some parts of Catholic literature, especially YA, is a fear that if they portray a flawed character as a sympathetic protagonist (say, one engaging in grave acts) the reader might be inspired to emulate the protagonist’s vices. It’s the same spirit that animated the more extreme aspects of the Hays Code in America.

  5. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 4, 2013 at 5:10 am

    I can see how that would be a problem, especially in YA literature. (My own book, because of the moral complexity, is most definitely for adults.)

    But a careful writer could show the truth of how sin makes the sinner and those around him suffer and deteriorate. For example, habitual shoplifting–a real problem among teenage girls–is something that could be addressed in fiction, with its thrills truthfully shown to be base and its chills most terribly chilly. But even if the shoplifting protagonist were never caught, her habit would do something nasty to her personality: make her more furtive, less honest, and unhappy. Skillfully and truthfully done, such a story would not at all tempt readers to start stealing.

    The real damage, and what separates Catholic writers from non-Catholic writers, is when a sin is displayed with all the glamour of evil and none of its realities. A Catholic writer will never write a book making adultery look glamorous and free of consequences; a Catholic writer may have adulterous characters, but he will tell the truth about the effects of their sin. I don’t think adultery is a good topic for YA fiction, however!

  6. December 4, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Most YA fiction these days tends to be rubbish, though, even secular stuff. Twilight being the most obvious example, but if you look at any bookshop with a Teenage section, it’s nearly all Twilight cpoycats, which is even worse, if that’s possible. But then, teenagers are incapable of seeing past the end of their noses.
    Maybe if some enterprising soul would undertake to write something genuinely good that young people could understand and identify with without needing an English literature degree, then we’d become nicer and the world would be saved from the evil of handsome vampires . .

  7. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 4, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Argh! Don’t say “even secular stuff”, say “including secular stuff” or else you are falling into the trap of assuming if something is for the Catholic or Reformed Christian market, it is more likely to be rubbish.

    Are teenagers that dumb? I recently read an amazing book by a Polish author named Antoni Libera in its English translation–called “Madame”–and the teenage protagonist was gobbling the classics of Polish, French and German literature.

    Well, I certainly wasn’t when I was a teenager although I think I would have if I had been told it was cool and hip and super-intellectual to do so.

    When I was thirteen or so I did read the trashy YA vampire stories of the time until one scared me so much I promised God I’d never do so again. But in the 1980s, vampires were still usually evil, not sexy and misunderstood. My mother would have hit the roof had I brought home an Anne Rice novel.

    A cool novel would be about a girl who fell in love with her guardian angel, who gently explained that although she thinks of him as male, angels don’t have gender, and what she loves in him is really the reflection of the glory of God. Meanwhile, he will never leave her and do his best to help her choose heaven. You could get a dozen books out of that. The continuing adventures of Mary Kate and her handsome, of course unattainable but faithful guardian angel. Ultimately Mary Kate learns to have a properly ordered relationship with him and is thus spiritually and emotionally free either to join a Benedictine convent or to marry. This would be a great project for someone who is fascinated by angelology.

    Naturally, it would have to be done very skillfully, and with unswerving respect for the integrity of angels, of whom Catholics properly have great respect, but it would take elements teenage girls love (supernatural beings, beauty, faithful love) and make them think about holy angels who serve God and also what properly ordered love looks like. The challenge would be not making it all so saccharine. A serious study of angelology should help with that.

    Catholic vampire novels would work if it were understood that vampires, as reanimated corpses, can be understood only as demonic. A Catholic vampire novel might show how a girl’s relationship with a vampire ruins her life, endangers her soul and makes her treat others horribly. Like in, you know, “Dracula”. That said, Bram Stoker was far from being a Catholic.

  8. December 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Dorothy, I love this post and I look forward to your future entries!

    This touches on so many pet peeves of mine. :) I have so many things I want to say, but will keep it short.

    I’ve worked in film and TV and am now writing a YA novel series. I’ve read a lot of other Catholic YA titles and most of them suffer from the same problems that most Christian films suffer from… good intentions drowned by bad execution.

    I’m writing a YA series that could be called Catholic fiction, but I prefer to consider it YA fiction about a character that happens to be Catholic. Not because I’m ashamed of the Catholic term, but because I think most people will use it, as you mentioned, in a negative way to dismiss it without consideration.

    And, as Leah mentioned, the quality of the work should come first, the “message” should come second. A good message delivered poorly can be perceived as a bad message.

    What I love about the Catholic view of life is that the struggle, the challenge to be faithful and holy, to overcome our fallen nature, never ends. It is our faith journey. It is the gift of time that God has granted us that allows us to try again. My main character in the YA series “hopes one day to use her God-given gifts in a way that doesn’t offend him.” She fails a lot, like we do. She’s imperfect, like us. But she keeps trying, like we all should.

    That’s the universal struggle.

    I think if we focus on overcoming our human nature to do holy acts, then we can rise above any limited “Catholic fiction” title, if that happens to be portrayed in a negative way, and just create good fiction about characters that happen to be faithful Catholics.

  9. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Wonderful comment! And yes, Leah is absolutely right. Craft comes first. We owe God our best efforts and that means doing our best to perfect our craft. And you touch on something interesting: our lives are stories, quests even. The Christian narrative is one of salvation or damnation, of human choice and struggle. It is linear, with a beginning, middle and an end, and end that opens the door to something beyond story. Rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and ultimate justice is beyond the threshold and out of our hands.

    I wonder if it isn’t important to style to use the name of God as rarely as possibly, or as un-self-consciously as possible. When I write fiction, I assume my audience is Catholic (as it usually is), and so a lot of “God talk” could be taken for granted and not necessary. (I managed to write a story about a cathedral choir boy that was deeply Christian, and ultimately Marian, and I don’t think I used the words “God” or “Mary” once.) Robertson Davies was an Anglican, although perhaps and eccentric one, and he managed to discuss Christian belief beautifully, if eccentrically, without clunks in the gas tank or alienating “freethinkers.”

  10. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 4, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Aw. Please forgive the typos. So much for craft!

  11. December 4, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    Dorothy,

    What about premarital sex? Or does that fall under adultery? Because I was a young man once, and a character that struggled, even momentarily stumbled over thst, would have spoken to my generation then.

  12. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 5, 2013 at 4:58 am

    To be honest, I’m not sure. On the one hand, anything that is part of teenage reality belongs in a book about teenagers of that time. (Antoni Libera brilliantly conjures up a Polish high school of the 1960s in his “Madame”, including the unfulfilled sexual longings of the students, who could find out information about “the facts of life” only from highly romantic pre-Communist literature and a Picasso exhibit.) On the other hand, a writer needs to write very carefully about anything sexual, first so as not to sound stupid, and second so as not to outrage modesty. An older teenager might profit from reading James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, and Catholic writers of YA might profit from examining how Joyce describes his hero’s fall into sexual sin.

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