The renewal of Catholic literature is happening before our very eyes through the efforts of many very good Catholic writers. The problem is that our eyes are closed. We do not see the glorious fruit of this literary revival because we are not looking for it.
I am presently in the midst of reading and very much enjoying The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays by Dana Gioia. I have also just finished reading, for the second time, A Hunger in the Heart, a wonderful novel by Kaye Park Hinckley, which was published in 2013 by the now defunct Tuscany Press. Reading Mr. Gioia’s essay on “The Catholic Writer Today,” having just finished reading Mrs. Hinckley’s novel, has prompted this plaintive plea for more passionate engagement by readers in the presence of the good, new and beautiful works being written by contemporary Catholic writers. It was this particular passage at the conclusion of Mr. Gioia’s essay which prompted or provoked me to take up my plaintive pen:
The renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers. Culture is not an intellectual abstraction. It is human energy expressed through creativity, conversation, and community. Culture relies on individual creativity to foster consciousness, which then becomes expanded and refined through critical conversation. Those exchanges, in turn, support a community of shared values. The necessary work of writers matters very little unless it is recognized and supported by a community of critics, educators, journalists, and readers.
Although the whole of this passage merits close attention, it is the first and final sentence which provoked my pen into action. The fact is that the renewal of Catholic literature is happening before our very eyes through the efforts of many very good Catholic writers. The problem is that our eyes are closed. We do not see the glorious fruit of this literary revival because we are not looking for it. Our eyes are elsewhere, focusing on things far less worthy of our time and attention. As Mr. Gioia says, the “work of writers matters very little unless it is recognized and supported by a community of critics, educators, journalists, and readers.” Why are works of contemporary Catholic literature not being critiqued in the Catholic media? Why are they not being taught in Catholic schools and colleges? And, most important of all, why are they not being read?
It is not because they are not any good. Apart from Mrs. Hinckley, there are many other good Catholic novelists writing today. There are a handful who have enjoyed a measure of success in mainstream culture. One thinks, perhaps, of Tim Powers, Ron Hansen, Piers Paul Read, Antonia Arslan, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, and Michael D. O’Brien. But there are many who are known only to a few (a happy few!). Amongst their number are Dena Hunt, Arthur Powers, Chilton Williamson, Jr., J. Augustine Wetta, Lee Oser, Eleanor Bourg Nicholson, Lorraine V. Murray, Paul McCusker, Brian Kennelly, Barbara Golder, and Lucy Beckett (and there are others). In addition to these good novelists, there are a burgeoning number of fine poets, only one of whom (the aforementioned Mr. Gioia) has gained mainstream attention. Amongst the new generation of Catholic poets, those who are worthy of particular mention are Mark Amorose, Mike Aquilina, Ruth Asch, William Baer, Kevin Bezner, Pavel Chichikov, Jake Frost, Lou Ella Hickman, Brendan D. King, Philip C. Kolin, Dwight Longenecker, Denise Sobilo, and Paul Thigpen (and there are others). These are published by an intrepid band of small and adventurous Catholic publishers and/or by a small and adventurous band of Catholic journals.
The problem is not a lack of talent, nor a lack of good, new and beautiful works of literature; the problem is the woeful indifference towards such beauty on the part of those who could and should be helping to nurture and nourish the literary revival with their practical support. This includes the “critics, educators, journalists, and readers” of whom Mr. Gioia speaks, but it also includes, and crucially, the potential patrons of the arts who could be helping to transform our culture through their generous benefaction and patronage. With the help of such patrons, we can renew our beleaguered culture with the beauty of new Catholic literature; without their help, the handful of adventurous publishers who are giving the new generation of writers a voice might go the way of the now defunct Tuscany Press, which published the novel by Mrs. Hinckley that I’ve recently finished (re)reading.
Why is it that those with the material means do not do as their ancestors did and patronize the arts? Dante had a patron and it’s possible that we would not have the majesty of his Divine Comedy had he not received the patronage he needed. Shakespeare had a patron and we might not have had the glories of his Muse had he not received the support it needed. Think of the great masterpieces of art. How many of those would have been painted if some patron had not paid the artist for his work?
Almost all that’s necessary is in place for the transformation of our decadent culture through a new and vibrant Catholic revival in the arts. There are the writers. A blessed abundance of them. And there are the publishers, such as Angelico Press, Wiseblood Books, and St. Augustine’s Press, which are struggling to survive in the face of the indifference of readers and benefactors to the new works they are publishing. All that’s lacking is the patronage of those who could help but are failing to do so.
Where are the literary prizes that could be offered for the best of what’s being written today? Where is the support for those publishers who are supporting the new generation of writers? Where are the financial resources to enable these publishers to market their products effectively, thereby enabling potential readers to know of the new works being written and published? In short, where are the true and noble souls who can make the Catholic literary revival a major force in contemporary culture, transforming it with the power of beauty and the grandeur of God that such beauty reveals?
It is time for such noble souls to step forward. Now is the hour for the Catholic patron of the arts to play a role in the reclaiming of culture and the rebuilding of Christendom.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Passion of Creation” by Leonid Pasternak, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.