Last week, on the same day the Literary Helpdesk published, Chapter House featured a piece by another regular columnist, Niall Gooch, with the hook The need for more Catholic authors. In it, Mr Gooch highlights the importance of the literary arts in shaping culture. He notes that there are figures on the other side, like Philip Pullman, seeking to undermine the future of Christian culture at its impressionable foundations, offering young readers shiny persuasive images of atheism. He lists the giants of Christian literature — viz, Chesterton, Lewis, Sayers, O’Connor, Greene, and Tolkien — and mourns their passing. These are the broad strokes of Mr Gooch’s broad strokes, and I broadly agree with them.
But before you start rolling your eyes at this Chapter House love-in, read on, because this is when things went sideways: “[T]here is a danger in relying on the old classics, rather than seeking to create new works that address the unique dilemmas of our modern world. To do so creates a temptation to look backwards, to wallow in a comforting but impotent nostalgia rather than looking at our own time – its opportunities and risks – through the eyes of faith.”
Surely, I thought, surely he doesn’t mean what it sounds like: that not a narrative Catholic word has been written since Tolkien and Greene. Surely he doesn’t mean there are no Catholics in the culture trenches of the 21st century, and that he is truly without any contemporary works to hand his children alongside the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy? I notice that Mr Gooch names only two living persons in his article: Philip Pullman and Chris Pratt. I am surprised by his indication of the danger in nostalgia in the midst of what is a nostalgic meditation. I am struck by his his closing remark that “All of us need to think about how we can support and promote Catholic artists, so that we can once again capture the public imagination,” which sets in high relief his failure to do the one thing that more than any other action would support living, active Catholic artists: to name them.
The truth is, it’s not more Catholic authors we need most desperately: it’s more Catholic readers. Authors we have, but grumbling malcontents mourning the death of the Catholic arts outnumber Catholic readers by some margin.
Of course, Mr Gooch is not alone in his call for more Catholic fiction. Of the people I spoke to before writing this column, about ten percent were on his side: one cannot just walk into Waterstones and find Catholic novels on the 3 for 2 table and there are no identifiably Catholic shows in primetime (or any other time) TV. This I grant. It is an uphill battle, this hearts and minds business.
To demand this level of success before picking up a Catholic novel is to put the cart before the horse. Whether they have risen to the attention of Mr Gooch or not, there are myriad authors out there tapping their Catholic fingers diligently on keyboard night and day. I can attest to this because I edit for some of them, give a theological health-check to some of their texts, and receive their submissions at the Catholic publishing house where I work. We don’t even publish fiction, but I receive two or three enquiries or blind submissions of novels a month.
It’s damned hard work getting fiction published, for anyone really, and pedalling overtly Catholic stories makes it even harder. Most commercial publishers won’t even look at a submission that doesn’t come through an agent, and representation is difficult to secure. Even having one is no guarantee to publication: I know more than one author whose agents have never managed to secure a publishing contract due to overt and unfashionable religious themes in the author’s writing. The gatekeepers to the kind of success Mr Gooch wishes for Catholic authors are largely hostile to the project of the authors. And they aren’t stupid: even stealth Catholic fiction can be hard to sneak through. There are some smaller Catholic presses that take direct submissions, but they are just as hard to get into, their print runs are smaller, and rarely end up in prominent main-stream shops. (This is not intended as a criticism of Catholic publishing; simply facts about the biz.)
Many Catholic authors end up self-publishing, either after an unsuccessful or disappointing stab at traditional publication, or because they decided at the outset it is the best way to exercise their vocation as Catholic artists. There are mixed views of this route. For every unflattering stereotype there are myriad authors, Catholic and otherwise, who prove it. To be clear, there is some terrible self-pub Christian fiction out there. But there are also some very talented writers to be found amongst the self-pub ranks. Some even manage to make a living at it, though given the difficulties, I have often speculated they must be very light eaters.
When Mr Gooch enjoins his fellow Catholics to “become writer[s] for film or TV or novelist[s] and portray the pro-life viewpoint sympathetically and faithfully,” many have already done so. The point is: becoming a household name as a Catholic author is much more than a matter of writing a book, more even than writing a good book. It’s a matter of getting people to read your book.
This is where the real challenge is: how, as a Catholic novelist, do I get people to pick up my book? Keep in mind that if it is too loudly Catholic, no one will read it except committed Catholics, and if it is too subtly Catholic then a certain proportion of my audience will deny it is Catholic at all. If it is commercial, it will be called thinly-veiled propaganda and be accused of putting people off the Faith all together, and if it is literary it will be called pretentious and be accused of putting people off the Faith all together. After all of that you might just wake up one morning to find a column in a popular Catholic publication claiming there aren’t any Catholic writers anyhow.
Catholic authors are not going to get any easier to find until Catholics start taking an interest in them, and indeed demanding a Catholic flavour in their reading and other entertainment. Fortunately, we live in an age of marvels, including searchable social media, scores of blogs devoted to the topic, and all manner of searching out good Catholic fiction.
If you are interested, you can find scads of online information to help. However, to get you started I have asked around, and a number of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances of good will have provided me with lists of their top-five favourite living Catholic authors. At least that was what I asked them for. They found it hard to stick to just five, but what follows are lists of five-or-so must-read Catholic authors from five people who should know. There is truly something for everyone there: commercial and literary fiction, poetry, teen and YA. Almost no one will like everything on their lists, but if you like to read, I suspect you will like something.
Dip your toe in. Make these lists the basis of your Christmas gift-giving or your New Year’s Resolutions. It doesn’t matter how much good Catholic fiction is out there if Catholics don’t read it.
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Katy Carl is editor in chief of Dappled Things, a quarterly of ideas, art, and Catholic faith. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Wiseblood Books in 2021. She writes:
Any list of this kind must be a springboard, not a fence. It is meant as an expansion, not a limitation. I could add still more living writers — Tobias Wolff, Christopher Beha, Randy Boyagoda, Fanny Howe, Liam Callanan, Andrew McNabb, Arthur Powers, Suzanne Wolfe — to name just a few, and to say nothing of the many winners of our J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction and the many emerging writers whose work is yet to be broadly discovered.
Corinna Turner, author of the Carnegie Medal nominated I Am Margaret, as well as many other works of Catholic teen fiction, and a recent adult novella, Three Last Things, recommends:
Corrina recommends the webpage Catholic Fiction and Where to Find It for more recommendations, and also notes that the Catholic Writers Guild offers a seal of approval, which guarantees their books meet a minimum level of written quality and moral and theological orthodoxy. It can be a good place to discover harder-to-find self-pub Catholic authors.
James Matthew Wilson, is a critic, poet, and scholar of philosophical-theology and literature. He offers insight into both prose and poetry:
“Of Catholic novelists, Lee Oser and Glenn Arbery are little-known but have published important novels with Wiseblood. The better known such novelists include the marvelous Ron Hansen, the less patently Catholic Tobias Woolf, and Alice McDermott, whose work is of obvious importance and well received.
“In poetry, Paul Mariani and Dana Gioia are important poets late in their career. Angela O’Donnell is a good poet whose work on Flannery O’Connor has given her prominence. Ryan Wilson has managed to publish a great deal in both explicitly Catholic places and in the broader literary world. Samuel Hazo and Andrew Frisardi are two poets published in my Colosseum Books series who are first-rate talents, one at the sunset of his career, the other in his prime as a Dante translator. William Baer is one of the lesser known but more influential poets and editors in American poetry.
Steven McEvoy describes himself as a dyslexic bibliophile, adding: “When I learned to read between grades 7 and 8 it was a whole new world I never knew existed and I have been a book addict ever since.” Steven’s website, the brilliantly eclectic Books and More, features book reviews, author interviews, and recommendations for passionate readers.
Joshua Hren, as well as being a Catholic author himself, Joshua is the assistant director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey and the editor-in-chief of Wiseblood books. His latest book is In the Wine Press, a collection of short stories. He writes:
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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