CHICAGO — Gone are the days when Catholic authors ruled.
In the first half of the 20th century, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and J.R.R. Tolkien saw their writing as key to their Catholic identity.
Major publishing houses saw these authors as key to their success.
These days, for a Catholic novel to get noticed, it seems that the work has to be covertly Catholic, salacious or outright dissenting.
Aside from a handful of houses, few publishers seem willing to bring out what might be described as overtly orthodox Catholic literature. There are those who are trying to change that.
Loyola Press had moderate success reprinting out-of-print fiction classics last year. This fall, the publishing house plans to print its first original work of fiction. The novella, The Shoemaker’s Gospel: A Fable by Daniel Brent, is set in Biblical times.
Acquisitions Director Joe Durepos wrote The Shoemaker’s Gospel for a simple reason: “I just want people to draw closer to Jesus,” he said.
The book is to be released with an announced 10,000- to 15,000-copy first-print run. Loyola will release the title simultaneously in English and Spanish. Yet, acquisitions director Joe Durepos says the book is a trial.
“I’m under no editorial direction to develop a new fiction line,” said Durepos. “I am under direction to help people pass on their tradition. If I find fiction that helps me do those things, we’re open to it.”
Durepos doesn’t believe that great Catholic fiction has to come from Catholic publishing houses. “The greatest Catholic literature is the most popular literary fiction of its day,” said Durepos. “I can’t publish The Power and the Glory or The Great Gatsby. All over the place you can find extraordinary Catholic fiction. It’s found in the culture at large and is not the province of Catholic publishers.”
Still, he’s open to future manuscripts.
“I think it will be very organic for us,” said Durepos. “If it’s successful and someone offers us something else, we’ll go forward. All the stars will have to be in the right place in the sky.”
One of the difficulties with Catholic fiction is defining it. Another problem is finding a market for it. “To be an authentically orthodox Catholic is to move in the face of the modern culture,” said David Craig, professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. “Most writers want to be intensely accepted.”
Catholic author Debra Murphy agreed.
“Anti-Catholic and dissenting Catholics can get published,” said Murphy. “The literary types can get published if they are quiet or if their faith is overt or it’s historical fiction. What is really hard to publish is our equivalent of Brideshead Revisited, where the faith is the center of the theme.
Craig added that overtly Catholic novels often have to be written in “code” to get accepted. He described such work as “stealth Christianity” and offered Catholic novelist Ron Hansen’s novel Atticus as an example.
“Atticus is a story about the prodigal son,” said Craig. “Hansen said that the New York critics missed it altogether. Those unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor don’t get the fact that she’s religious as well.”
Hansen admits that his own work, which began with Westerns, has become more Catholic as time has gone on. “Many [writers] are afraid that agents will reject them, so they disguise it,” said Hansen, who serves as the Gerard Manley Hopkins professor in the arts and humanities at Santa Clara University. “At a certain point, I thought I had achieved the level where I thought they would accept it despite its more Catholic message.”
But can an overtly Catholic novel be synonymous with good literature?
“Without question,” said Hansen.
Added Craig: “I believe it’s possible for a book to be overt and still be great literature. There should be room for it. The problem with the English faculty is that it too narrowly defines what is Catholic.”
Craig teaches a contemporary Christian fiction course at Franciscan as a way of helping students understand Catholic fiction.
“I’m looking for stories that are overtly orthodox and very good,” explained Craig.
That excludes some authors.
For example, Craig will not use J.F. Powers’ Wheat that Springeth Green because he finds the third chapter “pornographic.”
“He’s typical of the problem,” said Craig. “I don’t do that book at all.”
Instead, he has students read stories by O’Connor, Greene, Waugh, Hansen, Shusako Endo and Debra Murphy.
Her Own Press
Author Debra Murphy said her agent didn’t realize how much trouble they would have trying to find a mainstream publisher for her first novel, The Mystery of Things. She sees the difficulty as a marketing issue.
“If a story has a strong religious element that is not controversial, it’s seen as needing to be in a niche market,” said Murphy. “Aside from Ignatius Press, there was no Catholic niche market up until a couple of years ago. A book like mine is too Catholic for the Catholic Book Association and a bit too graphic in its theme (theology of the body) for orthodox Catholic publishers.”
Unable to find a press, in 2004, Murphy and her husband, Dan, created their own — Idylls Press. While she can’t put out 10,000 to 20,000 copies like a major publisher, she uses Lightning Source, a print-on-demand printer, to publish inexpensively and build her list, and distribute through Ingram, a major book distributor.
“While the major publishers do a three-month splash, the rest of the market is divided by small presses that maintain their lists over time,” said Murphy. “The things we publish won’t be time-bound. They’ll be just as interesting five years from now.”
Idylls plans to publish two additional fictional books this year.
While Murphy noted that it’s going to take some time before Catholic fiction hits the mainstream, she is hopeful about even the minor movement she’s seen.
Bethlehem Books publishes books for children and young adults. Arx Publishing is doing fantasy and science fiction. Ignatius publishes Michael O’Brien, with Loyola and Idylls thrown into the mix.
“Any Catholic fiction publishing is good,” said Murphy. “It indicates that things are bubbling.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.