Lincoln's Doctor's Dog

Back in the 30s, a publisher once remarked that there was a huge market for Civil War books (this was the era of Gone With the Wind, after all), medical books, and pet books. He suggested that somebody needed to write a book called Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog and he would make a fortune.

These days, the popular subjects are religion, royalty, mystery, and sex. So the perfect opening line for a novel is “Dear Heaven! I’m pregnant!” said the Queen, “I wonder who did it?”

As an author of books that fit into a very specialized niche with a decidedly miniscule readership, I have sometimes played with this gag. A friend of mine once joked to me that “Having a best-selling book of Catholic apologetics is like being the best opera singer in Tulsa.”

Too true, that. Although I occasionally get emails from people who clearly have no idea what the reality of Catholic book publishing is and who fantasize that Catholic writers spend their evenings swimming like Scrooge McDuck in their palatial swimming pools full of gold coins from all the filthy lucre we make from our work, the reality is that one does not become a Catholic writer if one is in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. So, as a gag, I once remarked to Karl Keating that Catholic Answers should retitle Mary, Mother of the Son as Mary Potter and the Purpose-Driven Code of Jabez, just to tap into all those diverse niche markets.

The difficulty and danger of writing, and particularly writing about the Faith, is that there is a constant balancing act to be struck between pleasing the reader while not flattering the reader by watering down the Tradition. If you fall off the beam on one side you can anoint lousy writing as “bringin’ the truth” when, in fact, you are bringing the boredom. Part of the task of any writer is to write in such a way that the reader thinks, “That’s an interesting opening. What does he say next?”

On the other hand, the world abounds with writing that is interesting by being pointlessly and falsely provocative. I could write a piece that began, “You know, I think Roe v. Wade was a great decision!” That certainly would get your attention. And it might be possible for an orthodox spin to be put on that if the article that follows it turns out to be a piece of satire. But if I simply posted a straightforward defense of Roe, merely to enrage the Catholic readers of this blog, I would likely get very high traffic to the comboxes from people wondering if I had gone mad and arguing strenuously with me (and with the inevitable trolls who would turn up to agree with me), but I would not be acting in fidelity to the Church.

All of which is to say that one of the more troubling developments I am seeing in some parts of the blogosphere (not here but elsewhere) is that writers are increasingly being paid according to how much traffic they generate. It’s an understandable development.  What publisher wishes to pay for writing nobody reads?  But the problem is that high traffic is not a measure of good writing. If it were, then LOLCATS is the War and Peace of this generation.

Again, I can see why it’s done. And I think the vast majority of Catholic writers write with integrity and not out of some desire to shock, upset, surprise, or scandalize. But I also think it’s not a secret that the blogosphere encourages a sort of wild west shoot-from-the-hip approach to facts (and I’m as guilty as anybody on that point). So it worries me that, as writers, we are tempted to go for the inflammatory rather than the informative in order to get “ratings.”

On the other hand, it has been my experience that, in our morally, economically, spiritually and sexually deranged culture, many is the time that simply stating the teaching of the Church will outrage a particular demographic (different demographics being outraged by different things). Say to one group that a preference for Harry Potter novels is largely a matter of moral indifference and you will be attacked in comboxes as though you started vomiting pea soup and blaspheming in Latin. Say to another group that there is no dogma of the Faith condemning the use of tobacco (and, no, I don’t smoke and think the habit vile) and they will assail you with various Puritan tropes. Disagree with this politician that “health care is slavery” and you bring the Randroids down on your head. Disagree with that one that gay marriage is the summit toward which all of history is laboring and somebody else will flip out and call you a bigot.

What is notable in all this is that many of our most volatile discussions center around things which are not dogmatic, but which are treated that way anyhow by being transformed into a sort of code or shibboleth which readers use as shorthand to decide who is part of the Tribe in the great game of Identity Politics. For some people, if you remark that Sarah Palin is a nice lady who should be honored for her courageous choice to mother Trig, but that she is in no way qualified to be President, you become a marked man and not just your politics, but your fidelity to Holy Church is compromised—perhaps irreparably. For others, doubts about Anthropogenic Climate Change and the hype surrounding it mean that you are not merely a stooge of the GOP, but a force for division and dissent against Holy Church herself.

My point is this: When we Catholic webheads write or talk about the Faith, it is our duty to try to apply the teaching of the Church as best we can to whatever subject we choose. But the way we do that can be done to build up the Body of Christ, or just to get a reader riled up, or worst of all build a Fortress and start excommunicating. Some readers will, of course, get riled up no matter what. (A favorite Interwebz moment was seeing a guy several years ago who responded to a rather arcane suggestion that the book of Daniel might date from the 2nd century BC with “THAT IS A LIE FROM THE PIT OF HELL!!!!”) Some people just get passionate. But there is an awful lot that we talk about which is subject for legitimate disagreement and not an index of one’s fidelity or a sure and certain proof that one is in league with the devil.

Starting a discussion by saying something like, “Here is what the Church teaches and here is where the Church leaves things open to discussion,” seems to me to be the best way to proceed here. In the words of Jimmy Akin, what do you think?