Gregory Wolfe is the editor-in-chief of Image Journal, one of the top five American literary journals of any kind in terms of circulation, and one of the chief protagonists of the debate that Paul Elie started with his piece “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” and continued at the Villanova conference on criticism that I attended in November. He has vigorously pushed back against Elie’s strategy of downplaying the quality of contemporary religiously inflected literature.
Gregory Wolfe: Ideology. And the blinders that ideology imposes. What I find fascinating is that the two most prominent critics articulating the “decline and fall of Catholic literature” argument—Dana Gioia and Paul Elie—emerge, respectively, from political right and left. You’d rarely find them agreeing about public policy, but they’re certain it’s all been downhill since Flannery O’Connor.
Ideology thrives on what I’ve called “declinism,” the notion that things are not only bad but well-nigh apocalyptic. That’s because the bad guys are at fault and we good guys are the only solution.
For one, the “bad guys” are “the 60s and the post-Vatican II mess,” while for the other it’s repressive papacies and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Okay, perhaps that’s a little extreme, but caricatures are based on real features. I have great respect for both men and count them as friends, but this is my challenge to them: Take off the blinders and look around. There’s a lot of good work out there that needs your critical engagement and thus support. Writers are starving in garrets. Let’s give them a meal.
Elie has suggested that because I publish and edit a journal of contemporary literature I have a vested interest in arguing against the decline and fall thesis. But we all have vested interests. I have tried to not only point out who the writers and artists are but to articulate why I believe their achievements are enduring and worthy of deeper engagement.
I think Alice McDermott is an outstanding Catholic writer (on multiple levels) and in a fashion that reflects the culture of the present moment. Elie thinks that she’s merely a historical and regional writer. These are the kinds of judgments that people ultimately have to make for themselves.
In the answer to the first question you concentrated upon the work of the critic in promoting original literature. I would like to ask you a question I asked a Villanova conference panel on Christianity and criticism that consisted of Paul Elie, William Giraldi, and Kevin Hart. How much should we trust critics to move out of their comfort zones and recognize new and strikingly original talent? I mentioned Kierkegaard, Norwid, and Hopkins as literary figures who eluded critics for decades (Giraldi accused me of critical nihilism).
I don’t know about you but to my mind the definition of the literary critic (as opposed, say, to the literary scholar or historian) is someone focused on the present. The literary critic is both bloodhound and curator, scanning the horizon for new work and interpreting it for a broader audience. It is a risky business, of course, as your examples point out. Strikingly original talent comes in forms that even the critics may not recognize or do justice to in the short term. And yet the best critics are those who by nature have an intense curiosity about, and openness to, the new. A crucial part of what they do is understanding how the current set of cultural circumstances shape contemporary literature.
What concerns me is the way that ideology has infected the business of criticism so that politically driven critics have a vested interest in the narrative of decline. Just to stick to the debate about Catholic literature: Does anyone actually know what the Catholic press said about Flannery O’Connor when her books were first appearing? From what little I’ve seen, it wasn’t pretty. Or how about Graham Greene? I have a long enough memory to laugh at the conservative Catholics who extol Greene nowadays because I remember how vitriolic conservative Catholics were in their denunciations of Greene as a Communist stooge back in the 1970s when he was alive and well and still publishing novels.
Since we’re on the topic of ideology: What do you make of Paul Elie dressing your “still small voice” take on contemporary religious fiction as “neo-conservative” at least four times (I stopped counting) at the same conference?
I’ve always found that bizarre—not only a complete misreading of my argument but one that serves only to befuddle the larger discussion. Let me try to untangle this Gordian Knot.
First, if there is a common theme among conservative commentators on contemporary literature, it is precisely that the current crop of Catholic writers are 98-pound weaklings in comparison to the muscular, counter-cultural titans O’Connor, Greene, Waugh, et al. (I actually had this debate with Jody Bottum, the former editor of First Things.)
My picture is different, mostly because I’m trying to take little things like history and cultural change into account. The mid-twentieth century Catholic writers tended to “shout” rather than “whisper” for several reasons. For one thing, Modernism in literature loved the big gesture. For another, it was an era when the newly ascendant “master narratives” of modernity—Marxism and Freudianism among them—were clashing with the Judeo-Christian narrative in an intense way. Add to this that for the Catholic writer of the time the Church seemed adamantine (no shadows of dissent), a “sign of contradiction” against modernity itself.
Now flash forward to our own time. Postmodernism questions any and all master narratives, favoring smaller-scale, intimate stories over epics and dramas. Secularism, pluralism, and hedonism have brought about a huge loss of trust in authority, not to mention the authority of the Catholic Church (and that includes its adherents). People have lost touch with the teachings and traditions of their faith. Many people are really starting from scratch.
What kind of fiction would someone write out of this experience of reality? Novels about heroic martyrs to Communist totalitarianism? No, they would be writing out of this confused culture—one where God is discerned only in the still small voice: the whisper, not the shout.
Now exactly how does this play “into all sorts of neo-conservative ideas about what we’re not allowed to say in the culture,” to quote Elie? My point has nothing to do with what might be allowed. It’s simply about people not knowing what to say—about their attempt to find a language.
The weirdest thing about all this is that Elie has spent a couple decades writing not only about the danger of Church authority oppressing people but also about the need for each individual to experience life as a pilgrimage, not a victory march. I find myself in the odd position of expressing what, in theory, Elie himself should be arguing.
For readers who might not be familiar with your biography: What is your relationship to the neo-conservative movement?
Let’s get some terminology straight. neo-conservatism is a branch of the larger conservative coalition, which includes traditionalists, libertarians, and a couple other exotic species. It loses any value if it is simply used to mean “modern conservatives.”
If anything, my background is “Paleoconservative,” meaning Burkean traditionalism. My father became involved in the conservative movement in the early 1950s, working for various think tanks and non-profits. I attended Hillsdale College, a bastion of conservatism. My first boss out of college was William F. Buckley. Jr. at National Review.
But at a fairly early age I walked away from the conservative movement, in part because my conservative colleagues had little time for the sorts of questions I was asking. When I pointed out that some very modern writers, like Flannery O’Connor and T.S. Eliot, were also very conservative—and why shouldn’t we be looking for new Eliots and O’Connors—they scoffed at the idea. They were what I’ve called “declinists.”
My gut told me that such pessimism was unwarranted—that new artists would arise who would work in contemporary forms while embodying a vision nurtured by ancient traditions. That’s why some friends and I started IMAGE.
It’s very ironic your paleo-friends were so stuck on literary modernism, which, more often than not, was anti-religious. Yet, would it be fair to say you’re something of a postmodernist? Is postmodernity, as a historical moment, more open to religion than modernism, or, is it only open to religion differently than modernism?
Well, if you ask me, they’re not paying enough attention to even perceive the relationship between literary modernism and the writers of faith writing during that period. I mean, Evelyn Waugh constantly praised James Joyce (and considered him a major influence) but Waugh is held up by conservatives as some sort of neo-Victorian, which is just nuts.
As far as my own relationship to these movements of thought—I’m a both/and sort of guy, definitely not either/or. For one thing, philosophy is over my pay grade. I’m a dabbler at best. For another, I’m just convinced that there’s truth to be found in both.
What makes me want to drink vodka out of a cat dish (to steal a phrase from Anne Lamott) is the type of critic who expects the art of her time to be made according to the model of a past time. Lamenting the art of your own era is intellectual laziness at best and a serious dereliction of duty when it comes to engaging the world around you, at worst. If it’s all bad, then you have no motivation to get involved with the nurturing of new work. So writers starve in garrets.
There are dimensions of postmodernism that dovetail nicely with someone who, like myself, has religious concerns. I’m thinking of things like the suspicion of master narratives, the sense that our knowledge is limited and contingent, that we must always be scrutinizing and purifying our motives.
The same goes for the sort of postmodern literature and art that are imbued with this sensibility. This goes back to my point about contemporary writing that hears God in the “still, small voice.” One might say that the best writers of faith today—the ones whose faith is so deeply woven into their vision that there’s nothing obvious in the work that “shouts”—are practicing a deeply incarnational understanding—one in which grace comes to us through nature.
Who knows what literary styles and forms will be prevalent in 2035? All I know is that if I live that long I won’t be wishing they were the same as 2015 … or 1955.