Being a Writer, Being Catholic

Sometimes the Twain Can Meet

In a recent talk to a group of Catholic writers, artists, and academics, book editor and journalist Paul Elie argued that the most distinctive thing about the contemporary Catholic writer is his or her "aloneness," and that any distinctively Catholic writing must come to terms with that fact. "What makes the Catholic writer feel so fixed in isolation? Why do we feel, each of us, that we are working alone in the dark?" Elie asked. The answer he gave was multifaceted and nuanced, but finally settled on the "nature of writing as much as the nature of American Catholicism today." Writing is first of all a solitary pursuit. The Catholic writer, like all writers, "hopes to make himself or herself understood to one other only. A single convert will do." Contrary to much of the communal rhetoric that attaches itself to the church, such an individual emphasis is not foreign to Catholicism. "The Catholic writer’s independence means, too, that this writer can focus on the individual person’s struggle with the act of faith," Elie said. "For many modern Catholics, the stumbling block to faith is religion, and even 'the faithful' have to ask themselves constantly whether religion is a way to God or stands in the way of God—if God exists."

My assessment of the problems facing the Catholic writer and my hopes for the future of fiction written by Catholics are slightly different from Elie’s, although I do not fundamentally dispute his thesis. Let me begin with a little autobiography. I was raised in the Deep South where Catholics banded together in large raucous groups, the better to flaunt our drinking and dancing in the Bible Belt; I spent a good chunk of my adult life in an equally social parish in Brooklyn, where even our little homeless shelter served as the site of all-night doughnuts and yacking; and I am currently employed by the University of Notre Dame, where I only have to holler down the hall to find another Catholic writer or two. And yet I think Elie’s emphasis on the loneliness of the contemporary Catholic and the solitude of the Catholic writer is absolutely correct. Here we are in an age defined, simultaneously, as postreligious and hyper-religious. In such a time every writer is acutely aware, as Elie says, that "the religious question of our time is whether religion itself is legitimate." The very question, perhaps, is enough to make us feel alone.

At my university, as in other religious and political spheres, there is currently tremendous emphasis on answering that question by announcing religious identity repeatedly, by insisting on it. I sometimes worry that the concern over self-identity obscures a far bigger problem. Easy enough to practice identity Catholicism, to say I am Catholic, or a Catholic writer; while that sort of name-tagging provides succor and support, as we Catholics in the Protestant South knew, it can also lead to the worst kind of front-pew breast-beating. Far harder to be a Catholic writer. Catholicism calls us to re-imagine our lives by looking outward as well as inward, by identifying with the poor and the suffering and the least among us, and that is sometimes hard to remember in the comfy little enclaves of Catholicism, whether they be universities or jolly parishes. Certainly it is hard for the writer sitting alone at a blinking computer screen, engrossed in describing this glitzy world of ours in all its hyper- and post-religious manifestations. We can all recognize a piece of writing that uses Catholicism as subject, or even as background; far more difficult to define writing that is Catholic.

I don’t believe that a Catholic writer needs to be writing about explicitly Catholic subjects, but I don’t object to the most prickly of them either. I’m all for novels in which Catholicism is a problem, if that is where the writer must dig. It’s also fine with me if a novelist chooses a religious crisis or an institutional crisis or abortion or the death penalty or parish scandals or all or none of the above. Writers choose their subjects in pretty much the same way all of us choose our dreams: subjects pursue writers, not the other way around, and often it is the least tasteful and/or the most threatening subject that insists on being explored. That subject may or may not be identifiably Catholic, but certainly a Catholic vision of the world will inform every word a writer chooses. If we aspire to Catholic writing, then we had better let the Gospels propel us. Let me invoke a non-Catholic, Eudora Welty, who says that the act of writerly imagination she holds highest is the act of identification with others: "What I try to do in writing of any character," Welty says, "is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself."

This act of identification, it seems to me, is a writerly affirmation of the Gospels and their call to see ourselves in others. Christ’s story, after all, is the ultimate act of identification, the narrative of God’s willingness to take on human skin. Yet identification is useless if it is sentimental or deluded; writers have to be clear-eyed and they need to achieve that distance we know in literary terms as ironic. Perhaps the greatest danger for a Catholic writer is a projection of a personal spiritual struggle onto the subject at hand. But when a writer is able to simultaneously enter a subject’s skin and see the subject clearly, from a distance—even when the subject is the self—then we have some hope of a connection between writer and subject and reader, a link, a shared vision which challenges the writerly solitude about which Elie spoke. Those are connections to be relished. Let me give an example. My eighty-two-year-old mother was hospitalized recently with heart fibrillations; when I called the hospital, she said (with some spirit): "I’ll tell you what landed me here. I was reading Flannery O’Connor and boy she really set me off." (I am not making this up.) Naturally I asked which O’Connor she had been reading. "Everything that Rises Must Converge," she said. "When they take the grandmother off to shoot her..." She had confused Everything that Rises with A Good Man Is Hard to Find, but she said exactly what she needed to say to me, because it was I who recommended Everything that Rises, and that is yet another story in which an older woman dies at story’s end. My mother’s identification with these old mothers was so complete that her heart went a little wild; I think that would have pleased O’Connor, especially since my mother is one of those readers who not only won’t miss the religious significance of the fictional physical crisis, she will take it upon herself. (Besides, O’Connor was uncharacteristically soft about that grandmother the Misfit shoots: "She lacked comprehension," O’Connor said, "but . . . she had a good heart." So, it seems, does my mother.)

Several years ago I spoke to the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs on the subject of the Catholic writer who chooses to portray the church. I ended that address with a little catechism for Catholic writers: Question 1: What is the duty of the Catholic novelist? Answer: The duty of the Catholic novelist is to write a good story. Question 2: What is the duty of the Catholic novelist who chooses to write about the church? Answer: The duty of the Catholic novelist who chooses to write about the church is to write a good story. I stand by those words, however much I recognize the wise-guy tone of my younger self. When the subject is the church itself, Catholic writers open their eyes wide and often find themselves describing—as O’Connor and J.F. Powers and Walker Percy did—the superficiality of much activity described in our culture as religious. We may also see unexpected images of the church: my Notre Dame colleague Sonia Gernes, for example, recently published a story in the Georgia Review about nuns on roller skates. Certainly we Catholics may have particular cause to concentrate on the physical, on the body—on the roller skates, perhaps—in our writing. My Protestant friends in South Carolina found it shocking that we kept Christ’s body up there on the cross; we wallowed in suffering, they thought. Their own crosses were tastefully empty, the better to concentrate on Christ’s triumph and not on his agony. But Catholics insist on the body, on the word incarnate, and that is just as likely to involve a depiction of suffering bodies as it is to involve suffering souls.

But most crucially, Catholic writers write knowing that, as Isaac Babel said, "No steel can pierce a heart so icily as a period in the right place." The Catholic writer’s duty is not only to subject but to form: to affect a reconciliation between subject and form, to practice the art with responsibility and delight, to give fully of the writerly self in the service of the work. In that sense, we ask of the Catholic writer precisely what we ask of the Catholic carpenter and nurse and funeral director. There is certainly no guarantee that we as writers will give any clearer demonstration of what it means to be Christ-like than that carpenter or nurse or funeral director will; in fact, there is considerable evidence that writers, like the rich, may have farther to bend. Writing is not a higher calling; many argue that it’s not much of a calling at all. The standard coy interview response to the question, "Why do you write?" is: "It’s all I know how to do," but for many of us that’s the sorry truth. When O’Connor was asked, she said: "Because I’m good at it," and then, she says, she "felt a considerable disapproval in the atmosphere. I felt that this was not thought by the majority to be a high-minded answer; but it was the only answer I could give."

But what, exactly, qualifies as "Catholic" writing? For many years a popular teacher at Notre Dame taught a course on Catholic writers whose reading list included Kafka. I think I understand what he was trying to do, and perhaps it’s not necessary to be Catholic to be a Catholic writer, but I wonder then how useful the label itself is. There are Catholics who are writers, and there are writers who concern themselves with the church, and the intersection of those two groups sometimes looks tiny, especially since there are so many former Catholics (bad Catholics, we used to say) writing about their institutional experiences. I find that I am a poor guesser about who belongs in what group: when, as a young woman, I first read Muriel Spark, I was astounded to discover that the possessor of that cold eye was a practicing Catholic. Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, on the other hand, is so reverent a novel that I was certain only a non-Catholic was capable of achieving the distance necessary to describe ecstatic religious experience; that will tell you far more about my own cynicism than it will tell you about Hansen, who is indeed Catholic. Larry Woiwode’s great American novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, is so suffused with Catholicism that I never would have guessed from its pages that its author would leave the church for Protestantism. The formerly Catholic—and here I think first of Robert Stone, Louise Erdrich, and (I guess) Maureen Howard—show us the church anew, sometimes in terrifying ways, and while it is fascinating to speculate about their current religious beliefs, the speculation isn’t nearly as fruitful as the reading itself. Some writers—Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr—hardly give themselves away. In the latest Best American Short Stories, Tim Gautreaux, who lately seems to be in the volume every year, has a story about an alcoholic priest and in his commentary mentions his own Catholicism: a delight to discover another from the fold, even though I didn’t much like the story. One of the problems with discovering new Catholic writers is the problem with discovering writers at all: the consolidation of the publishing industry, the mega-corporate bodies unwilling to commit to a novel they can’t pigeonhole or guarantee to be an eye-popper.

When trying to define Catholic writing it’s also impossible not to notice how many self-identified Catholic novelists—Spark, Waugh, O’Connor, Percy, Powers—have been drawn to comedy and how often that comedy challenges the limits of realism, as if our faith itself so challenges the limits of rationalism that realism becomes inadequate as form. I am working my way through the novels of Hilary Mantel, two of which, An Experiment in Love and Fludd, concern themselves directly with the Catholic experience. I am convinced (again, I’m guessing, and I’m a poor guesser) that Mantel is an ex-Catholic, but in Fludd the voice is so driven, the comedy so ecstatic, the form so enticingly close to surreal, that I see her literary connections to Spark and Waugh and I cannot but speculate. We should certainly also keep our collective Catholic eye on Latino and Latina writers-here I think of Cristina García, Junot Díaz, Ana Castillo. They offer us another vision of the way Catholicism makes its presence known in culture, and so too will emerging African and Asian writers.

One thing that a range of Catholic and once-Catholic writers from different cultures reminds us of is that it is a writer’s formal impulses, and not just a writer’s subject, that lead us to wonder whether Catholicism has a hand at the writer’s elbow. For those of us who remember the Latin Mass, the effect of that liturgy on our formal concerns is a given. Among my undergraduate students, who’ve grown up on some pretty bad so-called folk music, I think I see the effects and I think they’re pretty scary. They often include a fake sense of community, a gooey and repetitive blandness of voice that I find utterly depressing. And this is where we come full round to Paul Elie’s insistence on the singular act of the writer, because much as we need community—Catholicism is community—the word comes out of one mouth at a time. For the writer the obligation is to make that word precise and pleasurable and challenging and true.

Elie also asked his audience to imagine what a great contemporary memoir of adult Catholicism might be like. I back off a little at the word memoir: the sheer volume of these self-reflections in the last decade or so has been overwhelming. When I think of the great spiritual memoirs, of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, I think of the communities in which they lived, the lice in the Worker houses which Day could use as the contrast to her own life story, the background of monastic life against which Merton could consider his own nonreligious upbringing. Those writers achieved a balance between the time spent looking inward and time spent looking outward. We, on the other hand, are living in the Age of the Self, and it appears to be harder for a memoirist to achieve that. In this age of the first person—look how shamelessly I have used it here—we can hope for a memoir of a spiritual life, but we might, if we are lucky, get other kinds of writing too, writing far stranger. Harold Bloom’s whimsical notion that the great writers are also the odd writers seems tailored for contemporary Catholics, whose religion so often looks odd to the culture. If we look for idiosyncrasy from Catholic writers—and I think we should—we might get characters like Charmian Piper in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, whose Catholicism is confused and imperfect but nonetheless unwavering and joyful, and not in the least perturbed by divine voices ringing up on the telephone. We might get the moral tales that Eric Rohmer gave us in two forms, story and movie, each unashamed to be Catholic and unashamed to be sophisticated and worldly and witty. We will get, I hope, a surprise, something that is as angular and gawky as Wise Blood or as starkly poetic as Mariette in Ecstasy, something as hard to believe and as inescapable as the Gospels themselves, something which makes its way to the self through an examination of other lives. I hope we get writing with forms that comment on this computer-video-comic book-virtual reality age of ours. I hope we get writing that does not have to trumpet its Catholicism because it will be so Catholic. I hope we get writing created in isolation and loneliness that, as it reaches its readers, achieves communion.


This article is adapted from a talk given at a colloquium on Catholicism and literature sponsored by Commonweal's "American Catholics in the Public Square" project and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.


Related: What Flannery Knew: Catholic Writing for a Critical Age, by Paul Elie
Two views on "the Catholic novel": Peter Quinn and Bernard Bergonzi
Confessions of a Reluctant Catholic, by Alice McDermott

Published in the 2001-05-04 issue: 

Valerie Sayers is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of six novels, including The Powers.

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