- Does Belief Matter in Fiction?
THE Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a long way from Milledgeville, Georgia, but Flannery O’Connor felt at home during daily Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on East Jefferson Street in Iowa City. She was completing a thesis of stories and drafting Wise Blood, a novel that would contribute to her unique position as a deeply religious writer studied in secular classrooms across America. O’Connor’s piety has never been a secret, but the recent publication of her prayer journal reveals the strength of her private exhortations: “Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to think about You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.”
O’Connor said her kin were “given to such phrases as, ‘Let’s face it.’” Let us face it. There will never be another Flannery O’Connor; not in deed, and certainly not in word. Her literary works included only two novels and two collections of short stories, but that small oeuvre has achieved canonical status. When the Library of America released her collected works in 1988, she was the first writer of her generation in the catalog, and the only woman from her century. Roughly a hundred book-length studies of her work have appeared, as well as over a thousand articles, chapters, and essays. She earned a posthumous National Book Award for her Complete Stories, which was later voted the best work of fiction ever to receive the award.
She supplemented her fiction with a sharp critical sense formed by her Catholic identity. She added nuance to the connection between dogma and literature. Rather than a hindrance, dogma was for her a means of freedom. Dogma is “not a set of rules which fixes [what the writer] sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.” She was aware that her passionate belief would not be shared by the majority of her readers, southern or otherwise: “You have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing [End Page 314] you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” O’Connor did not shout to convert readers or to “prove the existence of the supernatural.” Such “low motives” become obvious when a story’s “pertinent actions have been fraudulently manipulated or overlooked or smothered.” She held fiction to a higher standard.
That standard either makes O’Connor a template for the writer of faith or as Paul Elie has surmised, “our oppressor, whose genius makes clear what we lack.” Now, fifty years after O’Connor’s death, what has become of the literature of faith? Are Catholic American writers relevant to the wider literary and cultural conversation, as O’Connor was in her lifetime? Are they published in the major mainstream literary magazines? Do they receive prestigious secular awards and fellowships? Or are they instead considered marginal, irrelevant, and antiquated because of their beliefs? Do contemporary Catholic writers produce work that even merits serious literary consideration?
Dana Gioia’s recent essay, “The Catholic Writer Today” (2014), investigates American Catholic writing, testing these questions of faith in contemporary literature. Gioia identifies a “cultural and social paradox that diminishes the vitality and diversity of the American arts”: despite having more than 68 million members, Roman Catholicism “currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts.” Gioia’s bold claim is methodically explained: this decline is a post-Second Vatican Council phenomenon, and it is particularly striking when considering the previously “active role [Catholic voices] played in shaping the dynamic public conversation that is American literature.”
Gioia’s examination is notable because he applies the highest secular literary standards of craft, form, and function to the literature of faith. And while he recognizes the significant contributions of “dissident” Catholics, he is most interested in the stark contrast between “practicing Catholics [who] remain active in...