Here's the link to a First Things piece by poet Dana Gioia entitled "The Catholic Writer Today: Encouraging Catholic writers to renovate and reoccupy their own tradition."
Basically what he says is that Catholics today have no coherent, visible presence in the arts, which is true.
He failed to mention a couple of facts, probably out of reluctance (which I of course share) to bite the hand that feeds us. One is that publishing houses, Catholic and mainstream, are driven by "the market" and thus like work that is reduced to its lowest common denominator. The cover, the subject matter, the title, the way the book is presented--all are presented to the marketing department. If you actually write of things Catholic, all must tend toward the non-"threatening;" all must fit into one of the "dull categories" Pope Francis is urging us to break out of.
To be fierce; to cop to anger, conflict, loneliness, ongoing compulsions/obsessions, deeply imperfect families and friends, not to mention ourselves; to simply raise the point of how profoundly far away we are as a culture and a Church from the Christ of the Gospels; to find joy in the crazy paradoxes, unresolved tensions, and messiness of our daily, mostly deeply painful lives....all these are messages that Catholics often don't want to hear any more than the rest of the culture does.
[Perhaps this is the place to mention that I am THRILLED to report that I just sold a book to Franciscan Media, of which more later...]
Gioia (who I'm going to hear read next week, so that's something to look forward to) also failed to mention that the Catholic writer, like all writers, is invited to live in abject poverty. Not that a Catholic writer necessarily writes directly of things Catholic, but if you do, and want to, or have no other choice but to sell to one of your own, the average advance from a Catholic press is three to seven thousand dollars. That's for a year or two of the blood, sweat and tears required to write a book. You'll earn that back, if at all, on an 88-12 net royalty split (that's industry-wide, and in favor, naturally, of the publisher), which works out on every, say, ten-dollar book, to 60 or 70 cents to the writer. The people who can subsist on those kind of wages are generally priests and nuns; those otherwise supported by foundations, orders, for-profit organizations, or families; the independently wealthy; or the truly crazy beggar-fools for Christ. Whose stuff no-one tends to want to publish...
Catholics themselves tend to have no conception of the time and effort required to write the books through which they know of you, of the inner preparation required to get out from behind your desk and speak, of the years of preparing the ground it takes to have anything worthwhile to say; no conception what they are asking when they offer, say, a $300 stipend (that includes travel) at a venue that's a four-hour one-way drive from home.
They figure it's fun for them, it must be fun for you, so why would you expect to be paid for it? A man who clearly thought my speaking fee was outrageous recently took me to task for not being willing to "sacrifice." I thought Does the ten or twelve years of living on 20 grand or so a year before I even began to make a 'living wage' as a writer count as sacrifice? After five books, a stint on NPR, and a regular gig with possibly the world's most widely-read Catholic magazine, I finally feel comfortable asking 1500 to 3000 (depending on how much travel is involved) to speak, if for no other reason than that I have to support myself somehow, and it sure as hell is not going to be through my writing. (By the way, can anyone imagine offering a politician, or a scientist, or a professor with similar experience, accomplishments and credentials $300 to drive four hours and give a talk?).
In spite of the fact that I am unabashedly, unapologetically, exultantly Catholic, in fact; that I've published two memoirs with divisions of Penguin, and another memoir with Paraclete Press, that I appear regularly in Notre Dame Magazine and Portland Magazine, that my Magnificat writings (and glory be to God for Magnificat, which provides a good part of my support) have been collected into a book, that for three years I've maintained a Catholic/catholic blog on which I post every other day, I notice Gioia didn't mention me--(sorry, I couldn't resist) but that's just the point. He didn't mention Brian Doyle, Joe Hoover, S.J., the late Andre Dubus, or poet Rita A. Simmonds either--top-notch Catholic writers I tremendously admire. Not to mention the slew of other folks I'm sure are out there who I've never even heard of for pretty much the same reason they've never heard of me...
Maybe that is what it really is to be a Catholic writer today. Maybe in a world of branding, followers, fame, the real Catholic writer necessarily carries the flame in silence, in obscurity. Maybe those of us who write from a Christ-centered literary vision in this era are destined to be tiny solitary lights, sparking here and there in the darkness.
Flannery O'Connor once said "I'd trade ten readers now for one reader a hundred years from now." I feel that way, too. If only one person reads my work--now; in fifty years--and says, She believed, and she ordered her life to it, how beautiful is that. And if Christ doesn't need for even that to happen, that's okay, too.
The good news is that the enforced exile, poverty, insult, marginalization, loneliness, and failure of the Catholic writer bring him or her very close to Christ. Plus, these days, there's self-publishing.
Here's Gerard Manley Hopkins, from a wonderful piece on his letters, on the power of failure: "Christ would have wished to succeed by success—for it is insane to lay yourself out for failure. . . . [but] was doomed to succeed by failure; his plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone.”
With all that, you rejoice at the slightest connection, the slightest "success," the slightest success of another.
You fall to your knees before good writing.
You cling to your sense of humor like a drowning man clings to a raft.
You realize, all over again, that you're the luckiest person on earth, that you really would write,speak, or whatever else is wanted for free, that you often still do and forever will.
You convict yourself, ceaselessly, of pride.
And with Gerard Manley Hopkins, you continue to pray:
"Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain."
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