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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Debate: Has fiction lost its faith?

There is a very interesting debate currently under way about how and if belief figures into contemporary fiction. The debate to date has been summarised well by David Griffith who explains how the debate began with Paul Elie’s New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”:

"Elie reveals something I had never known about Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, one of the first works of literature I read on my own: In a 1973 lecture (over a decade after the book’s publication), Burgess “describes his best seller as a work about free will written from a Catholic perspective.” Elie goes on to write:

This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.

Less than a month later, Image’s Gregory Wolfe, writing in the Wall Street Journal, rebuts Elie’s exaggeration. Citing over two decades of experience publishing a who’s who of what he calls “believing writers” (Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Elie Wiesel, Mark Helprin, and Mary Karr (a Catholic convert), Wolfe asserts:

The myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.

I see it both ways.

I agree with Elie that these days, when writers reference scripture and theology, or evoke explicitly religious imagery and symbols, it often falls on deaf ears and blind eyes. I also agree that we’ll never again see a confluence of writers like O’Connor, Merton, and Percy having such a broad cultural impact.

I’ve found sustenance in the community of writers and readers of Image and enjoy acceptance among a group of writers my age who are not religious.

That renaissance of Catholic writing I once hoped for may not have happened, but however secularized our culture has become, issues surrounding faith have not been, and will never be banished from literature.

Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University, writing in response to Elie’s article, is excellent on this point. Prior, whose scholarly work centers on the novel, reminds us that as a form, the novel has always been about unbelief.

She writes that the novel “was the outgrowth of the passing of the age of belief into the age of unbelief…. It is the form of an unbelieving epoch, even if it took a few centuries for that latent feature to surface.”

In other words, the kind of search for meaning that the novel offers has, over time, naturally and understandably drifted away from religious ways of understanding who were are and why we are here, just as the culture has.

Perhaps this is why I, a writer with an MFA in fiction, have turned almost exclusively to the personal essay and memoir. My first publication appeared in the “Confessions” section of Image, a section that is set apart from the “Essays” section. While I never asked about that distinction, it seems clear to me that it is a nod to spiritual autobiography, the genre started by St. Augustine.

My sense is that confessional nonfiction helps the writer (and the reader) to examine his conscience."

One thing to note about the limitations of this debate to date is that it is primarily US-centric; where is the mention of writers such as Rhidian BrookP.D. JamesDavid LodgeSara MaitlandNicholas MosleyJames RobertsonSalley VickersNiall Williams and Tim Winton, for example? This same focus is found in the 'golden age' of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy to which some of this debate looks back without much by way of reference to the European Modern Catholic Novelists, the InklingsShusaku Endo and William Golding, among others. 

Second, its focus is predominantly about 'literary' fiction and therefore it also misses much that is viewed as 'popular' fiction e.g. John GrishamSusan HowatchMary Doria RussellPiers Paul Read, Ann Rice and Morris West, among others.

Third, there is limited mention of the extent to which theological themes and practices of faith continue to be explored in contemporary fiction. The work of Douglas Coupland or novels such as Patrick Gale's A Perfectly Good Man and Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry being a few examples.

Fourth, there is the extent to which novelists have been re-examining the life of Christ and his followers through novels such as: Jim Crace's QuarantineNorman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son, Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Ann Rice's Christ the Lord seriesColm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary, and Niall Williams' John, among others. Jesus remains a figure of fascination for many contemporary novelists.

I would also want to add that in my view some of these novelists - such as Nicholas Mosley, Marilynne Robinson and Tim Winton - stand shoulder to shoulder with past greats such as O'Connor, Greene, Endo, Golding and others. We are not therefore entirely bereft of great novelists dealing consistently with issues of faith.

As a result, I line up with Greg Wolfe in this debate when he states that "the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that — a myth."


Michael McDermott - Great American Novel.

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