NEW YORK — Could a Catholic literary revival for the 21st century be in the making?
A recent trend of Catholic awards and prizes for literature — including one for $25,000 — suggests the groundwork is slowly being laid for a Catholic literary renaissance.
Since Tuscany Press launched its Tuscany Prize for literature in 2012, more awards and prizes for writers of Catholic literature have appeared on the scene each year.
On Oct. 13, America magazine announced the launch of the $25,000 George W. Hunt Writing Prize to recognize authors under 45 whose body of work represents “the finest literary work of Roman Catholic intelligence and imagination.”
The prize, administered jointly by America and Yale University’s St. Thomas More Chapel, goes to an author whose body of work may involve the genres of “journalism, fiction, poetry, drama, music, memoir, biography, history, art criticism and academic scholarship” — the topical areas of interest to former America editor Jesuit Father George Hunt.
“We want the prize to recognize somebody who has done great work and has the promise of even greater work,” said America’s editor, Jesuit Father Matt Malone. “This prize can help bring them to the next level in terms of attention and interest in what they are doing.”
Father Malone said the prize is funded by former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent to commemorate the life and work of Father Hunt, his friend.
“The idea is that you may not have heard of the recipient when that person is announced,” Father Malone said, “but you will hear from him or her for the rest of his or her career after [having] won the Hunt Prize.”
Father Malone noted that the large cash award puts it among literary prizes of the first rank, noting that the Pulitzer Prize bestows a cash award of $100,000, along with the accompanying prestige. But he said the prize is part of an effort to move the Catholic discussion out of the academy and into the lettered arts.
“It’s important as Catholics that we are able to celebrate a culture that is distinctly ours — not in any way that it is over and against the larger culture — but informs our own self-understanding, nourishes us and gives us a sense of our place in this country and where we stand in relation to the larger culture.”
“Also, in a time of increasing secularization, it is increasingly important that we celebrate, recognize and reward works that are engaging faith, and the Catholic faith, across a range of topics,” Father Malone said.
Dana Gioia, an internationally recognized U.S. Catholic poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said the Hunt prize is “an important development” in the promotion of the Catholic arts.
“To my knowledge, there is no comparable award in existence,” he said.
“I wish it had focused on a single art, because that would, over time, have created more visibility for its winners, but the award will surely make a powerful effect upon the individual careers of its winners and help them move into the next stage of their careers.”
Promoting Catholic Arts
The Hunt Prize comes as an important milestone in the contemporary Catholic literary movement that has felt a keen need to revive and promote heirs to a tradition once defined by authors such as Catholics Flannery O’Connor, G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh and non-Catholic Christians like C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot.
But the cultural climate has shifted since these greats were writing. Gioia noted the contemporary Catholic writer “struggles to make a living and make a reputation, when there is almost no critical attention.”
Gioia said Catholic culture has suffered “not only the dearth of writers,” but also the lack of a Catholic literary establishment “in supporting and recognizing writers.”
“It’s quite possible for a young Catholic writer to get no reviews, no fellowships, no prizes; therefore, it is immensely important to offer Catholic writers publication, critical attention and the recognition of prizes,” he said.
The recent development of new prizes to reward Catholic literature, beginning with the Tuscany Prize, is a first effort to fill that gap.
Since 2012, the Tuscany Prize has offerered a top prize of $5,000 for best novel, $3,000 for best young-adult novel and $1,000 for best short story.
The Catholic literary journal Dappled Things followed Tuscany’s lead in 2013 with its annual J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, offering an award of $500 for first place and publication in its magazine.
This year, the English writer Joseph Pearce announced that Aquinas College’s Center for Faith and Culture had begun the Aquinas Award for Fiction, with an award and cash prize of $1,000.
Pearce, who directs the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., said he has seen a “definite increase” of good Catholic writers of novels, short stories and poetry over the past 10 years. He added that the Aquinas Award would “endeavor to act as a catalyst for a Catholic revival in the arts,” where its contributions have been largely marginalized in the mainstream.
“It’s becoming clear to me that there is something of what we might call and hope is an embryonic renewal of the Catholic literary revival of the last century,” he said.
The Aquinas Award will be decided on the basis of literary merit by five independent judges appointed by Pearce. He expected the winner would be announced at the Tolkien and Lewis Conference, to be held September 2015, in Nashville.
The Beginning of More
Part of the intent of such prizes is to generate more activity on the Catholic literary scene, where greater competition spurs on greater literary excellence.
“The more people who try, the better quality the manuscripts will be,” noted Peter Mongeau, publisher and founder of Tuscany Press, who said he had seen a difference in this year’s submissions compared with those from the previous year.
“The quality of manuscripts has gone up tremendously. The more people know about these Catholic prizes, the more people are going to try their hand at the craft of writing a novel or a short story,” he said.
Mongeau said that Tuscany Press’ dedication to Catholic fiction “opened an outlet” for Catholics that encourages them to “create fiction from a Catholic perspective.”
But Mongeau said the goal is to create Catholic fiction that can enter the national conversation and “hit a national bestseller list.”
“We need, as Catholics, to recognize that the Catholic perspective is unique — it’s held by a billion people in the world, with 75 million in the United States — and that perspective should be seen and encountered in the culture.”
Bernardo Aparicio, president and founder of Dappled Things, said the cash prize with an award sends an important message to potential authors.
“It’s important to put your money where your mouth is and show that you see this as valuable by being willing to pay for it,” he said. “If people are doing good work, and it attracts readers, then that is worth rewarding and incentivizing them.”
Aparicio added that writers also need readers who will both support them and help them to raise their profile in the broader culture. The more readers are willing to pay for this work, the more resources publishers have to promote, incentivize and reward Catholic writers.
“The more we can encourage this as something worth pursuing, the more people will do it,” he said.
Laity Key to Culture
Meanwhile, Gioia suggested that more could be done to promote those already engaged in the Catholic literary arts, and not just those trying to break in.
“What Catholic letters needs is a series of annual prizes: the best book of fiction, the best book of poetry, the best book of essays, where people, perchance, have already been published and bring recognition to it,” he said.
Gioia will be joining other Catholic and non-Catholic authors to speak at “The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination” conference, sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California, in February 2015.
However, Gioia also observed that the Church already has “tremendous infrastructure” to promote the Catholic arts through its parish churches.
“There’s a national network where Catholic writers could appear and talk about their work,” he said, noting that parishes could provide forums for Catholic writers of literature by hosting cultural series.
“I wish we saw more of that,” he said. “We need to create the culture we want to live in.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.