Friday, January 17, 2014

Postmodern Whispers

A month ago I wrote about an article that appeared in First Things by Dana Gioia titled "The Catholic Writer Today," in which the author bemoans the scarcity of good, contemporary Catholic writers.  Gioia contrasts this to the scene a half century ago when writers such as Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh were all the rage.  Gioia's article continues to create quite a stir.  In the latest issue of Image, editor Gregory Wolfe weighs in with a far more sanguine appraisal of Catholic writing in the 21st century.  In his essay, "The Catholic Writer, Then and Now," Wolfe asserts that "the loss of a Catholic presence in mainstream literary culture is not because we are suffering from a dearth of gifted Catholic writers, but because ideological blinders have prevented religious and secular people alike from perceiving and engaging the work that's out there."  And there is a lot of engaging work being done.  The list of current writers Wolfe cites - Alice McDermott, Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff, and Louise Erdrich - stacks up well with the list of mid-century authors Gioia names.  Why then aren't these artists getting the same recognition as their forbears?  Well, for one, the cultural context has changed.  Influenced as they were by "the grand gestures of modernism and sensitive to the aggressive early twentieth century attacks on religion," Catholic writers of the 1950s were inclined to "shout." As Flannery O'Connor put it in her essay "The Fiction Writer and his Country," "“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures."  And so O'Connor did, but as modernism has given way to postmodernism, the Catholic writer of today is more apt to whisper than shout.  The "master narratives" of the midcentury have given way to the more "intimate, domestic tales"of writers like Alice McDermott.  There is another reason Wolfe believes these writers are not being heard.  To see what it is, check out his essay.  And while you're at the website, consider subscribing to Image.  For my money, there's not a better journal out there on religion and the arts.
- Mark


Anonymous said...

Are you not also talking about a different "variety" of Catholics, now as compared to O'Connor's generation? Think about all that has changed in the Catholic church since her time. It is not only culture at large (the march from modern to postmodern secular progressive thinking), but it is also the culture of the Church. O'Connor, I think, would not be successful now. For that matter, O'Connor could not be O'Connor now. To bemoan the paucity of Catholic writers now is perhaps a bit like bemoaning the paucity of romanticists (another species lost to history). Of course, I could be quite wrong. What do you think?

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor said...

Thanks for your comment, R.T. The type of Catholic writer I am thinking about is one who - then as now - views reality through a sacramental lens (even if he or she is no longer connected to the institutional Church). In spite of the cultural shift, Flannery O'Connor is more popular now than she was during her life. Could O'Connor be O'Connor were she writing today? I doubt it, but I don't think any author could who was yanked from his or her social and cultural milieu.