Books bequeath a poetic knowledge that human beings simply cannot obtain in any other way. As long as souls long for the preservation of wisdom, for a shared conversation that spans time and place, we will have books…

Joshua Hren is an Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey and Editor-in-Chief of Wiseblood Books. He is also a contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and author of This Our Exile—a collection of short stories published by Angelico Press

We took the opportunity to visit on a recent retreat I made to Belmont Abbey, and discussed books, writing and the present state of publishing.

Fr. Longenecker: How did Wiseblood get started?

Joshua Hren: When I founded Wiseblood Books in 2013, I did so as a barely-employed editor with a wife and two young children, who had come across several handfuls of marvelous stories and poems written by Catholic authors who were having a hard time of it when they pitched their pieces to the New York Publishing Industry.

Why books? Aren’t they going to go the way of the illuminated manuscript? 

Books bequeath a poetic knowledge that human beings simply cannot obtain in any other way. As long as souls long for the preservation of wisdom, for a shared conversation that spans time and place, we will have books.

That is to say, writing invites the reader into a distinctive relationship with reality, something to which most of us who are literate are not typically attentive. On this point I’d direct us to Walter Ong, S.J.’s “Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought.” While epics passed down through oral tradition surely educated, delighted, and transfixed their listeners, written fiction contains an intricacy of ordering and layering, as well as a degree of interiority, that oral narratives lack.

I wonder, by the way, whether the illuminated manuscript will not return somewhat soon. Given the evident decline in literacy and the profusion and proliferation of images, if a kind of “dark ages” does emerge once again (and why couldn’t it?), maybe men will once again learn the art of illuminated manuscripts.

Maybe the graphic novel is a kind of illuminated manuscript. 

I see what you mean in that here we have an admixture of typography and images. The differences between the two are perhaps worth noting. The illuminated manuscript begins with text—the text is the source of the art, a kind of extension of the art. The graphic novel seems to contain more of an interrelationship between typography and images. The written story can sometimes extend the image, and the image can sometimes extend the written story… and still other times images alone can advance the narrative.

But would it be such a bad thing for books to go the way of cuneiform? Communication was verbal and visual first. It was the bard, the storyteller, and the dramatist who first spun tales. The written word came later, and the novel and short story are modern art forms which, arguably, are verbose and distant from reality compared to the immediacy of film. What is lost if fiction is superseded by film and television?

Chronological priority does not equal superiority. Newman makes this argument when dispelling the errors of those who contended that all practices of the earliest Church were the best because they came first.

We can see in the shift from orality and drama to literary fiction some good developments, and on the other hand it may be best to register this dichotomy in a manner that is more descriptive than evaluative. That is, in drama and oral storytelling and in fiction, we find traits that we might simply see as differences without needing to claim development or corruption (this is, of course, different from a kind of aesthetic relativism).

The novel does develop out of theatre, and this development corresponds with a kind of intensification of interiority, a “louder” consciousness. In the novel, James Wood notes in How Fiction Works, the soliloquy goes inward. With Shakespeare’s character Macbeth, for instance, when he conducts a conversation with Lady Macbeth in the presence of their guests, we have a kind of “publicized privacy,” whereas in the case of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, we readers experience a kind of scrutinized privacy: the reader is, Wood continues, “invisible but all seeing.”

Because of this development, then, the novel is able to, among other things, analyze and probe unconscious motives, as the reader must look “between the lines for the actual motive.” Of course, this heightened appeal to the interior is at least in part connected to the rise of individualism, the increased power of the private sphere, and thus the dissolution of the common—a common which theater, bards, epic recitations did much to conserve and make potent and moving. TV and movies and novels seem to have this much in common: each appeals to the individual reader or viewer, so to speak “one-to-one,” instead of to the whole, altogether.

But it is not my intention here to author a tiresome screed against vapid consumption of stories. It is true, as you note, that film can produce a kind of immediacy of which fiction is incapable. Film reaches into the ears and the eyes at once, and thus it can captivate more completely, arresting us—though hopefully not, as in the case of the film in Wallace’s Infinite Jest, literally entertaining us to death. Of course, the novel delivers immediacy as well, and does so especially well through free indirect style, what Wood calls the character’s internal speech freed of authorial flaggings.

But if a large segment of the population is un-literate (they can read but they don’t), won’t the reading and writing of books become an increasingly arcane and even elitist occupation? Will not literature become, even more, only a hobby for the cognoscenti?

Possibly, but not if we take the Canticle of Leibowitz, that is to say, a kind of Benedictine posture toward time. Perhaps the scribes who wrote down Beowulf were obscure, and the text remained obscure for a long time, but thanks to Tolkien and others it has now regained a broad readership (at least for a while, before the rota fortunae turns again!). Still, you are right, literary culture can become dangerously navel-gazing and self-serving so that literary magazines remain unread except by their editors and the authors of the stories they contain.

Again, though, you are right that writing books in our age is, on the one hand, a fool’s errand… many of us might remember Pope John Paul II’s warnings, in Fides et Ratio, against relativism, scientism, and nihilism, but he also pointed out the problems with pragmatism—the ideology which would determine whether we ought to undertake a given action based solely on criteria such as efficiency and likely output. And then, of course, there are Benedict XVI’s warnings against letting the market determine one’s decisions, as if the market becomes the sole determinant this will ultimately, he says in Ratzinger Report, lead to moral permissivism. In short, it was not a business decision, which means it required pigheaded stubbornness and a deep love of poetic knowledge.

On the other hand, my first publisher made the point that being aware of the market is another way of saying the author and the publisher are alert to the needs of their audience, and this sharpens their focus and skill in communication. But what sort of books are you publishing?

We publish literary novels such as Glenn Arbery’s Bearings and Distances, but we also publish fiction sometimes categorized as “low brow”—the kind Chesterton defends in his essay on Penny Dreadfuls—such as Karen Ullo’s Jennifer the Damned. And then we publish books like Lee Oser’s Oregon Confetti, which is simultaneously a thriller and deeply metaphysical. The poetry collections we’ve published are mostly “New Formalist.”

We also publish a series of short, readable, “middle brow” monographs called Wiseblood Essays in Contemporary Culture. Titles include Gioia’s The Catholic Writer Today and James Matthew Wilson’s The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry.

Are you swamped with submissions? 

We used to be. But now we only open the gates on occasion, at which point we become inundated immediately—inundated with the good, the bad, and the ugly. At this point in the press’ existence, we solicit many of the manuscripts we bring into being.

Given the changing technologies and shifting marketplace, what advice would you give to a wannabe storyteller now at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

It would seem unwise if we were to select our forms, or mediums of art because, or at least primarily because we expect this medium to bring us the biggest audience. I would also note that the medium of storytelling one chooses will likely lead to habitual perfection of certain ways of telling distinct to that medium, ways that don’t necessarily cross over easily from one medium to the other.

And so if a young bard, one with the soul of a troubadour, one who receives unannounced visits from the Muse, sets out to become a novelist, say, this will require countless hours spent reading novels, both because they bring poetic delight and because they contain novelistic truths, truths told novelistically. So if one chooses to become a writer of stories, he should do so soberly, not anticipating a large audience and being pleasantly surprised if several readers respond back to him from across the valleys that separate us.

If one decides to become a writer of screenplays, or sitcoms, or something that would seem to guarantee a larger audience, he should do so after an examination of conscience in which he weighs why he seeks that larger audience: Is it for vainglorious pursuit of a thousand likes or readers or a high number of viewers, which equals a higher paycheck? Or is it because he knows that if he can begin with beauty, he can bring beauty to this wide audience, in this medium, and because he is capable of this good thing he ought to put it at the service of a large audience, who, starved of real beauty, truth and goodness, yet craves the truth that frees, the goodness that spills into acts of love, and the beauty that saves?

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