This commentary is not a criticism of Flannery O’Connor, Patron Saint of Catholic Sass. It is not a criticism of Catholic Bookstores, of which we sorely need more, and that provide a gravely unappreciated service to our culture. This is a look into an unfortunate institutional crack into which many Catholic authors fall, a crevice for which hungry Catholic readers search and rarely find.
Let’s face it—if Flannery O’Connor hadn’t gotten lucky and famous, any self-respecting Veritas bookstore owner or Catholic school librarian would exorcise the bookshelf those pages rest upon with holy water and salt.
O’Connor is unashamedly violent and even grotesque. If there’s ever a film adaptation of her stories, Quentin Tarantino is probably the best director for it. (Though I suppose the writer of Passion of the Christ won’t do a bad job either.) While full of deep insights about faith, grace, and conversion, O’Connor made no bones about who her audience is. Her work is not for those coming to the church fresh from the trauma of secular life. Neither is it for the child who can’t sit through the heart-pulling scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
“One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and the whole reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is nobody in your audience. My audience is the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.”
O’Connor was aware of her atheist audience, but she had another audience she didn’t even expect, an audience of mature Catholics hungry for stories that challenged them to see grace in even the most secular of settings.
Recently Catholic Reads has partnered with the National Catholic Writer’s Guild so that books bearing its Seal of Approval can skip our vetting process, and we can get these books to our readers faster. I am very happy that we have found such a great organization like the Catholic Writer’s Guild with which to work.
However, as I read through the Seal of Approval guidelines, one part gave me pause.
“If your book would not be at home on the bookshelf of a Catholic bookstore, then it may not receive an SOA. You won’t get an SOA if your book is not Catholic, even if it does not contradict Catholic teachings. Merely having a Catholic character or being an author who is Catholic is not sufficient to qualify for the SOA.”
While I’m excited to see more books with the SOA seal stamp on them, I still find myself looking for the more subtle works of literature, the ones that I can read and enjoy, but also recommend to my Protestant family or even Pagan friends; Catholic fiction but subtle. Flannery O’Connor isn’t just a favorite author of mine because she is a talented Catholic writer. She intrigues me because her books force my Bible-Belt-brain to see the world through the unchurched eyes. Reading her books and other books that wouldn’t fit a Catholic bookstore forces me to practice empathy and imagination for non-Catholics. When this deed is done by a Catholic author though, I have the added satisfaction of seeing my faith translated into cultural terms and emotions even the most unchurched can understand. Reading these books don’t just improve my ability to dialogue with my un-churched friends, they remind me to be humble, to see the good in even the most ardent of pagans, and to remember that I am no different a sinner than they are.
Not every reader shares this sentiment, but my favorite thing that a book can do for me is to challenge me.
I reflected on this while reading Colleen Drippe’s book Gelen, a sci-fi book that explores the social tumult that happens on a pagan planet when a Catholic missionary succeeds in baptizing his first convert. Despite the book’s Catholic themes, most of the book is told from the point of view of good and honest pagans—near devil-worshiping pagans! Oddly enough this was something I enjoyed most about it. After all, one of story telling’s prime moral roles is to force you to empathize with someone different from yourself. I also enjoyed the sometimes-clumsy way the Catholic missionaries tried to explain their faith to a culture they are only beginning to understand. (Never mind that there’s a whole hive mind element making conversion even more complicated.) It forced me to think of how I could translate my faith better for my secular friends. For a book with so many pagan characters, I think Gelen has gone a long way towards making me a better Catholic!
Recently a Catholic scholar, Holly Ordway published a book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, about how we need apologists with imagination, but as her examples, she doesn’t point to strict nonfiction apologist words—she points to the creative novels of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. To be sure, Lewis was a great debater, but people remember him more for his fictional Narnia books than his radio apologetics courses. As for Tolkien, the Catholic, his public life was involved almost entirely with parables.
In an interview with The Catholic World Report, Ordway said, “In our modern culture, we tend to think of the imagination as if it were synonymous with daydreaming, as a fanciful ‘extra’—like icing on a cupcake, or in fact like a cupcake itself: perhaps nice to have, but not necessary. However, this is a very narrow view that misses what the imagination really is: a fundamental human faculty, as necessary and important as our capacity to reason. The imagination is what allows us to create meaning for words and ideas—and only when we have a grasp of the meaning of an idea, can we use our reason to judge whether the idea is true or false. The better our imaginative grasp of the idea, the more our reason has to work with! So, the imagination is always operating in everyone all the time—in tandem with the reason—but all too often, it is neglected in apologetics work.”
The promotion of religious storytelling is just as important as the promotion of nonfiction and apologetics works. There is a reason why people of every ancient civilization taught their moral values through myths and campfire stories- because they work to build and reinforce a culture. One just has to look at the influence of Hollywood to see how effective it has been in our own world, but to write fiction that captures the imagination of non-Catholics, sometimes means the book itself might not be suitable for a Catholic bookstore.
My team and I put those stats at the end of every book review listing the themes for this very reason. It’s why we have our Bridge Books Shelf and why I want to publish books without a Seal of Approval right next to ones that do. I understand why we need safe spaces like Catholic bookstores where we can let the kids run loose and not worry about their picking up something for which they aren’t ready. But on this site, I want to give readers the tools they need to make an informed discernment about books on a case-by-case basis.
Fifty years of college lectures, literary analysis, and even YouTube videos have taught the lay Catholic reader to appreciate O’Connor, despite the first impression of extreme violence. For myself, I hope it won’t take me fifty years to discern the Catholic geniuses of our own age.