Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has now sold more than 25 million copies.
A movie is in the making. Millions of duped fans are convinced the book's far-fetched conspiracy plot — involving who else but the Catholic Church? — is based on well-founded facts.
The even sillier Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have distorted Church teachings to the tune of more than 30 million books sold.
Catholics are left wondering why good fiction illuminating the truths of the Catholic faith can't seem to carve out similar success stories.
“It has to do with the appeal of the story and with marketing,” says Amy Welborn, an Indiana-based Catholic writer and weblogger (amywelborn.typepad.com/openbook). “Andrew Greeley has been very successful, and a lot of people don't want to talk about him. But if you're talking about a Catholic fiction writer, there's been no one in the past 15 years who has done what he's done.
“Part of it is the novelty that he's a priest and his books are controversial,” she adds. “How about a story that is positive about the faith?”
Mark Brumley, president of one of the country's largest Catholic publishers, Ignatius Press, notes there is a growing market for Catholic fiction — but Catholics still lag well behind evangelical Protestants in overall interest in faith-related books.
“We're always keeping an eye out for good Catholic fiction,” says Brumley. “But there is a fine line between fiction with a message and fiction that raises certain questions. We don't want propaganda.
“On the other hand,” says Brumley, “we do believe in the power of telling good stories, stories in which a dimension of faith is expressed or questioned that the Christian faith has the answer to. There are times when a novel can address some theological questions more directly, but you have to be careful because it can quickly degenerate into propaganda and the people you're trying to reach are apt to dismiss it.”
Artistry Is Job One
Having published numerous nonfiction works with Catholic publishers, Welborn now wants to pursue fiction. Part of her desire stems from her appreciation of storytelling's power to stimulate readers’ imagination.
She also sees an ideological divide separating many Catholic writers from the Catholic press. She says she wants to help bridge the gap by offering good stories anyone — believers and non-believers alike — can enjoy.
“The new fiction I've read the past few years that touched on religious or explicitly Catholic themes has not been evangelistic in nature,” she points out. “Like Flannery O'Connor says, ‘Leave that to the evangelizers. Your job is artistry.’”
It's a tricky balance to present good fiction with Catholic themes and sensibilities, but Welborn sees an enormous potential market ready for the developing: more than 60 million Catholics in the United States. She notes that the Pulitzer-winning novel Gilead, by Marianne Robinson, is a “deeply religious” book. Released last November, it's still selling strong.
Ignatius Press has published fiction by Ralph McInerny and Louis de Wohl, and currently publishes Catholic author Michael D. O'Brien, whose Children of the Last Days series has broken through to secular and international audiences.
O'Brien says he's been surprised that his novels have become bestsellers: He is primarily a painter of religious icons out of his home in Ottawa, Canada, and only started writing “out of obedience to an inner prompting by the Holy Spirit.”
“As far as climbing up the cultural ladder, that's just simply not part of my personality,” he says. “My primary motivation was to tell a story, and I did it as an act of love.”
His books are about the sufferings of man in exile from God. (See the Register's review of his latest, Sophia House, on page 12.) He also tries to place the human struggle in the larger context of what is happening in the Western world vis à vis the secularization of man and the banishing of God and faith from public life.
“These are ominous signs, and part of the reason anti-Christian forces have assumed so much power to themselves is that we Christians have done little to resist it,” says O'Brien. “Catholics have too long lived with a kind of timidity. We haven't believed in the power and the beauty of our own message as much as we should have. But the whole thing is changing now.”
Write and Trust
Joan Mahowald, a Catholic writer from Baxter, Minn., recalls the rich Catholic culture she grew up with in the 1950s, when the media was more open to the faith. Authors like Evelyn Waugh, A.J. Cronin and Graham Greene graced store shelves; Archbishop Fulton Sheen had a popular television show. Movie classics like The Song of Bernadette, On the Waterfront and The Bells of St. Mary's played regularly on the big screen.
“Now we have works filled with distortions and actual hatred [of the faith],” she says. “When John Paul II became Pope, here was an actual leader of the Church who recognized the value of the media. He himself was an artist, playwright and poet. He stressed the importance of art and writing in the culture.”
Mahowald believes Mel Gibson helped open a new door with The Passion of the Christ, but feels the Church can do a much better job engaging the culture through books and other media.
After getting rejections from secular and Catholic publishers, Mahowald turned to AuthorHouse to self-publish her first novel, The Longing, a classic romance story set in the 1950s. She presents Catholic elements through the main character, a young Catholic girl who practices her faith and turns to God and the Church for help with life's struggles.
Mahowald expects the book to appeal primarily to members of her own generation but doesn't dismiss younger audiences, as she believes they are hungering for wholesome material. She has also heard from Protestants who want her to write more.
“There is a large market out there,” says Mahowald. “I'd like to see it tapped by the mainstream media, but I think it's a shame the Catholic publishers are ignoring it.”
O'Brien offers this advice to aspiring Catholic literary artists: Trust in God.
“Whatever your art is, do it well and consecrate it to the service of Christ and his Church,” he adds. “Let God do what he wants to do through your life and through your gift.”
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.