“Never deny; seldom confirm; always distinguish.” That formula for disputation—Flannery O’Connor by way of Thomas Aquinas—was in mind often in 2013, a year in which I devoted a lot of attention to distinguishing.
After the New York Times ran an essay of mine about Christian belief and contemporary fiction, the disputations began. How could I say there are no believing novelists, or novelizing believers? Why, there is X, of course, Y pointed out. Z wrote to the paper to say, “What about me?” Then came file attachments and plus-size printed manuscripts from A, B, C, D, and E…most of the way to Z again.
Now, I hadn’t said there are no believing novelists, or novelizing believers. In an essay of a couple of thousand words, thick with examples, flagrant in the naming of names, I set out my strong sense that there is relatively little current American literary fiction set in the present in which the central questions of Christian belief are taken up dramatically. I spent most of the essay distinguishing between the fiction I say is missing and the kind we do have: set in the past, or treating religion as a cultural inheritance, or gesturing toward those questions through the faintest of signs and whispers, or engaging people of cloth and collar as agents of the quirky and inexplicable. And so on.
At the end of the essay I suggested where, lacking...