For my regular readers, I wanted to let you know I’ll be on retreat for the next six weeks, spending some much-needed time on my novel, reflecting on my plans for the blog, and generally getting my head screwed back on straight. I’ve been finding I’m spread a bit thin, perhaps losing some perspective, and need to spend a bit of time regrouping and prioritizing better. A retreat is definitely in order. I’ll be back posting again around the first or middle part of April.
Daniel McInerney recently sent me a link to his thought-provoking piece considering the role and aim of the Catholic writer on his High Concepts blog. It’s a subject to which I continue to give a great deal of thought and have written about here. This topic is also one around which Persephone Writes was conceived and is one of its reasons for being.
Because of this (and because Blogger refused my repeated attempts to post a comment to Daniel’s site), I have decided to provide links to Daniel’s article here, along with my intended comment, in an effort to open up the basis for discussion on this very important issue in Catholic arts and letters today. Please do visit Daniel’s site and read both his article, and this piece by Emily Stimpson which he references, in their entirety.
“I agree with your point about the dearth of great Catholic literature having much to do with the ways in which Catholic writers today approach their craft and you are right in saying we need to choose mentors to whom we can apprentice ourselves in the learning and mastery of our craft — this is essential. Devotion to and growth in the practice of one’s craft is of absolute necessity. The great Catholic writer is simply a great writer. The greatest works of fiction are great because they deal with the truth of the human condition, because the writers of great literary works practice their craft to the greatest depth and breadth possible. The greatest Catholic writers do not need to rely on pious subject matter or overt references to their Catholic faith. They rely instead on something much deeper — this devotion to the perfection of the craft of which you speak, and the assurance that their faith gives them a clear perspective from which to work. It is in this way we can see Sophocles, Keats, Chekov, and George Eliot stand in community with Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, O’ Connor, and Tolkien. Faith does not separate them; devotion to the craft and their common search for truth bring them together.
Great writers write from a world view that looks at the whole of human experience, both the good and the bad. The Catholic writer cannot shy away from difficult topics, characters, or issues. To do so would be to ignore the very great impact these things have on real human beings every day. But the Catholic writer who truly tries to live her Catholic faith and who tries to view the entire world, events, human experience, and history through the lens of that faith, will see God moving and working in every event, will see light and beauty amidst the darkness. This vision and world view will imbue the work, regardless of the difficulty of the topic at hand.
To walk through this interplay between light and darkness and to examine it in truth is a huge responsibility. But it is arguably the responsibility of the Catholic writer in all cases, because the Catholic writer is possessed of a faith which is the fulness of truth. Thus, the problem confronting the Catholic writer is certainly one which reaches beyond craft, to deal with issues of faith and world view and how to articulate these without alienating modern sympathies. To be successful in this endeavor, the Catholic author today must be fearless, as Flannery O’Connor was, in venturing into the darkness to name and expose it. But she did not do this unarmed. And to your point, Daniel, we need to make a commitment to be devoted to our faith first, live and breathe our faith first, educate ourselves and make ever stronger attempts to practice our faith first, before we can even begin to realize what it is to be fully devoted to the practice of our craft. O’Connor and other great writers in the Catholic literary tradition serve, then, as both mentors to the craft and the lived practice of the faith, without which we cannot practice our craft to the fullest extent intended. It is the project of a lifetime and the two — devotion to the lived practice of the faith and devotion to the right practice of the craft — must walk hand-in-hand.
I have no answers, but I believe conscientious purposeful dialogue on this topic is absolutely essential to any revitalization of the Catholic arts. Quite simply, there is no excuse for dropping the baton handed off to us by the generations of mentors who have gone before. There is a sense in which we have betrayed and abandoned our tradition and our history. For my own part, revitalizing change has to begin with me: I must make a daily commitment to grow in my devotion to my faith and my craft and to bind myself ever more closely to those great artists who have gone before, both Catholic and secular, who will teach me to best use the gift with which I have been blessed. And secondly, I have a duty to participate in the conversation and be an active member of the community of which I am a part. It is not a coincidence, nor is it insignificant, that this is an issue now, today, at this point in time. It is a clarion call to action. What are we as humans without great art? We need to ask ourselves what we are going to leave behind us for the generations to come, and what message those works are going to send.
Thank you so much, Daniel, for this post, for raising awareness, and providing an impetus to deeper thought and discussion.”
The newest edition of Dappled Things is devoted to Flannery O’Connor — lots there to provoke thought and encourage readers to make renewed visits to this amazing author’s fictional works and letters. Stop by and take a peek at the offerings and consider taking a subscription to this worthwhile literary endeavor.
Briefly, the 1897 novel chronicles the toxic fallout resulting from the divorce of two beastly, self-absorbed parents and the fate that befalls their little girl, Maisie of the book’s title. While the subject matter may seem redundant and uninspired in our divorce-ridden culture, it was revolutionary at the time it was written. Divorces happened infrequently and when they did were not discussed in polite company. Certainly, they were not common subject matter for the fiction of the time and were in no way a life path to be emulated. That James chose such a subject was intriguing to me, and as a survivor of childhood divorce myself, I was curious as to how James would handle it. He apparently was inspired by a real-life case told to him by a friend, the details of which can be gleaned from reading the introduction to the novel.
I tend to like Henry James for the way he telescopes in and intensely examines a thing, person, or event much like the way a scientist examines some unknown organism under a microscope. I admire his detailed narratives that follow a person over the course of the many events and minutiae of their lives. In James, every event is significant. Every event impacts a person in untold ways and I love this about him because I see this as a truth of human life experience. No event is insignificant.
In What Maisie Knew the events, unfortunately, are significant in a directly damaging way. The child is the ultimate victim of adult vagaries and selfish impulses that are never once curbed. In nearly all instances, Maisie is used by the adults as a pawn to get what they want. This is done while assiduously assuring her that her own interests are being taken to heart, but the child’s interests are consistently buried and forgotten and the reader has the sense, by the end, of total and complete abandonment. There is a cloying, hideous awareness that what Maisie now knows are things no child should ever have to know, things she will carry with her into adulthood, which she will bring to each person and event she touches. This reader, at least, was left with the appalling sense of the truth about the theory of the domino effect, and a very concrete manifestation of the ways in which the sins of the father (and mother, as well) are begotten upon the children. Perhaps even more startling is that the damage indicted on the child goes beyond that done by her parents and succeeds to damage being done by those with whom her parents both have relationships after their divorce. In Maisie’s, world no adult is safe.
I hesitate to recommend the novel, though perhaps it should be read, lest there are still people in the world who persist in the deluded belief that divorce has no lasting effect on children and in some cases can even be beneficial. The novel is unique of its kind in the time period in which it was written. Ultimately, I found the book disturbing and sad, and the prose more than unusually dense — which considering it’s James, says a lot. I was at times overwhelmed by a constant sense of unease and insecurity, fearing for Maisie and what was to become of her at the hands of these indiscriminate people. The back cover of my edition says the novel “abounds in dark humor and savage wit.” For my part, I found no humor here and the wit was lost amidst the monstrous behavior of the adults and the sheer sense of abandonment and brutality the child endured.
James doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. He excels in examining things in minute detail — a character’s idiosyncrasies, the innuendos in spoken words, the uncertainty evoked due to perception, and the conflict between and among perceptions based on each character’s personal experience. His structure is impeccable and he doesn’t waste time on things the reader can solve for herself. For example, it is enough that the characters go to a French cafe. The reader can paint in all the details based on how the characters interact with one another in the place, without his getting in there and painting first. His chapter breaks are continuously evolving a singular narrative arc, deftly picking up where the previous left off. I found myself paying attention to how he moved the story along both through structure and an interesting use of a limited omniscient point-of-view that remained on the page and did not follow the characters off-stage, picking them right up again when it was time for them to reappear. The ultimate recommendation of the novel, for me, would be as a study in craft, as opposed to any affection for its subject. It’s a lesson in how to do difficult things exceedingly well.
*My main reason for participating in the Classics Challenge is to study the craft of fiction at the hands of the masters. It is my intention to include a “Craft Point” for each book I review.
Recently, I wrote about the value of reading poetry as part of my daily writing practice, only to find the thought echoed — and much better stated — in Walter Mosley’s little book This Year You Write Your Novel. Mosley’s not the first author to mention the importance of regularly reading poetry for the aspiring novelist, but he is the first to explain it in such a lovely way.
“Poetry is the fount of all writing. Without a deep understanding of poetry and its practices, any power the writer might have is greatly diminished . . .
Of all writing, the discipline in poetry is the most demanding. You have to learn how to distill what you mean into the most economic and at the same time the most elegant and accurate language. A poet must be the master of the simile, metaphor, and form, and of the precise use of vernacular and grammar, implication and innuendo. The poet has to be able to create symbols that are muted and yet undeniable. The poet, above all other writers, must know how to edit out the extraneous, received, repetitious, and misleading. A poet will ask herself, ‘Why did I use that word, and how will that usage affect meaning later in the poem when the same word is used again? A similar word?’
The poet seeks perfection in every line and sentence; she demands flawlessness of form.
If the fiction writer demands half of what the poet asks of herself, then that writer will render an exquisitely written novel.”
To create an exquisitely written novel…..that is my dream, and poetry is my daily vitamin.