Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Thursday, February 12, 2004  

Catholic Writers Conference

I just returned from the Retreat and Conference near Tucson, Arizona. I drove there and back and was amazed at the enormous amount of desert there is in California and the Southwest..

I went to this conference as a last gasp at trying to discover what it would take to get my fiction published. I knew Catholic publishers avoid fiction, and secular houses rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts.

I need an agent to promote my work, but had always failed to entice any. But this time I was able to get a personal interview with a publishing consultant who gave me the names of three people to contact on his say so. So that's what I paid for and got. We'll see if I can write a seductive enough cover letter, and if my fiction appeals to three particular folks.

For others, though, the conference offered an excellent overview of the Catholic press and its particular needs, standards, markets, styles, and people.

The attendees were mostly women, say about 35 women to maybe 8 men or so. This is not unusual given that most readers are female, it stands to reason most writers would also be. People ran the gamut from neophyte to professional, published authors. The amount of very talented writers was refreshing to encounter, and a number presented excerpts of their material at briefy critqued sessions. The quality of the prose was breathtaking in a few instances.

Anyone who might be interested in supplying the religious market would be advised to attend. The contacts made there are invaluable along with the knowledge gained about the nuts and bolts of the industry in one lump sum rather than piecemeal over time.

It is also a very pleasant event in a beautiful place. There is a daily Mass and prayer session, along with roundtable explorations about writing, the soul and faith which give this conference a unique quality. There is a great deal of mingling with others at mealtimes with lively conversation and marvelous exchanges.

Most of the writers were non-fictionalists, and a surprising number were composing memoirs (one of the unfortunate trends since Angela's Ashes provoked a thousand imitations). But every kind of spiritual genre was represented by someone. Many people were promised success in getting contracts because of the quality of their work, and it had been mentioned that ten published books had already been the result of three previous conferences.

There is a less sunny side to the religious press, though, which I found a bit distressing. Vinita Hampton Wright, an editor with Loyola Press, discussed the nature of prose that was essential. She talked about clarity, and that no one should ever read a sentence twice. Nothing should interrupt the flow of the reader's attention. This is good general advice, but I asked her about stylists such as Chesterton; people who write in an elegant manner who often cause you to halt and reread for both greater sense and pleasure. I mentioned that I knew of a young man, a Catholic writer (Paul Cella) who also wrote in a dense and verbally packed way that often required attention and a different pace. Could such writers be published in the religious press?

"Absolutely not," she replied. Clearly, she was referring to a standard that had sunk. Newspapers were once written to the eighth grade reader. They have sunk since then to, perhaps, a fourth grade ability. Vinita was insisting that their books had to reflect both a newspaper style of prose, and a fourth grade level of comprehension.

It was also disturbing to see just how imitative of secular business models the Catholic press is. Although many are non-profit organs of various religious Orders, they are pressed to do better than break even; and having defined their mission and business plan narrowly, are ready to reject any number of excellent works simply for their being outside the mold they have shaped for themselves.

What this means both literally and literarily is that none of them would publish a book they knew to be beautiful if it didn't fit their agenda. They act, in essence, much like the two Jews who passed by the waylaid Jew on the road to Jericho since he was outside their program or project of the moment.

I recognize that like the Dishonest Steward, Christians should be crafty at business, but I see the tail wagging the dog here. Christians should publish the best and the most beautiful regardless whether it is profitable or not. The purpose of Christian publishing is not to make money, but to raise and spend it for the sake of the Gospel - for the sake of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.

Towards the end of the conference, I began asking people at meals - What is Truth? No one could give me the direct answer that a Catholic ought to be able to give. Christians do not seem to have confidence in the simple answer that - God is Truth. They are clearly embarrassed by the idea they might be perceived as simpletons (as I surmised from the subsequent conversations which followed).

I also wanted to ask people if they read the Bible everyday, but had to stop at two. I wanted to know because I wondered how many of these writers were more influenced by a Biblical manner than by current literary fashions. I doubted that many attending the conference read the Bible assiduously and daily. The two I asked confirmed that, and I'm willing to guess the great majority were not frequent consultants of The Word.

One of the prime motivations for most of writers was their desire to help others. Americans are just so darned earnest. People thought their books would prevent or assuage suffering of various kinds, or clarify various aspects of the "spiritual journey". After awhile, it seemed as if people were suggesting that others would be better off if they read all the new books rather than the very old book: The Bible; that they wished others to benefit from their Commentaries rather than that of The Text.

As for my own book, Brightness Springs, which I distributed free to all there, I did not get a strong response. I was hoping to find out if other Catholic writers would take pleasure in the story, but only two people actually read the brief story, and told me they enjoyed it. I'd expected that most would crack the book open, browse through the variety of things in it, reading maybe this bit or that, but I'm afraid that most of the people probably thought it jejune.

As I said, the people were earnest, and well schooled in contemporary prose. They did not seem susceptible to flights of fancy such as I prefer to offer readers. Realism has seduced the modern mind that people are incapable of recognizing "realism" is purely a literary device itself with no more substance than romance or heroic fantasy. There is no more "reality" present in a mainstream novel necessarily than in a science fiction one.

And to say a book is "non-fiction" is something of a misnomer. All memory is interpreted, all history is revision, all scholarship is modelling.

Correction - Paul Cella is not a Roman Catholic but a Presbyterian.

posted by Mark Butterworth | 3:49 PM |