February 13, 2011

Reflections on a Novelist

I don't have anything else to post, and I feel like posting something. I wrote this for English class.

Many negative book reviews in publications such as The National Catholic Register share the same error. The reviewers assume that a novelist cannot be Catholic because the morals he presents are too loose, the lives he portrays too pagan, or the universe he describes too full of despair. These reviewers mistake a novel for something else. Those who require a picture of perfection, ideals, or moral uprightness should not look to a writer, but to a preacher; to a homily, not to a novel. “The writer uses his eyes on what he happens to be facing,” states Flannery O'Conner in a discussion of the Catholic novelist, “... He does not decide what would be good for the Christian body and proceed to deliver it.” It is the preacher's job to deliver a wholesome meal to the faithful, whereas the writer merely attempts to portray human existence. An in-depth comparison of these two roles, preacher and writer, perhaps will help determine what a Catholic writer really is.

The confusion between preacher and novelist is understandable. After all, both men seek to put the truth into words. They must follow the limitations of their linguistic art form. Further, both the Catholic novelist and the priest are, in fact, Catholic. Their world views should be very similar, if not the same. To be truly Catholic means to start every action, especially writing and teaching, from Christ and His will. So the Catholic novelist and the Catholic homilist both start from the same place, and use the same tool – language – to accomplish their task.

However, the things they make are very different. A homily and a novel are two separate literary forms, with different purposes and rulebooks. The priest, before he pens his sermon, must first focus on what his flock needs to hear – the homily's basic purpose is to nourish. He then begins his role as an exegete, expanding upon and explaining Scripture to improve the spiritual health of his parishoners. He does not create, and he does not explore uncharted territory – he merely helps those who listen to understand what is already there. The priest is also responsible for the moral edification of the faithful. He needs to tell them what they should do. He deals with the ought – the moral right – not necessarily with the is.

The novelist, on the other hand, is supremely and fundamentally focused on what is in front of him. In his writing, he attempts to show nature accurately to those who read. The moral question of what ought to be done is not quite so relevant to him as to the pastor; what a specific character would do in a given situation is the novelist's focus, not what that character should do. The right and the wrong, as well as the good and the bad are laid open for observation, exploration, and internalization without any forced message. In a truly unique role, the novelist can almost create life for his readers to watch, marveling along with the author at its intricacy. In a novel, the utilitarian function of a homily – the need to nourish the faithful ear – fades as human experience, perhaps even life itself, becomes the focus. As proof, the novel is appreciable by any reader, independent of his circumstances, but the homily must be tailored to its audience.

A novelist, then, serves as a prophet of sorts. He stands in front of all of mankind, not with a convincing, heartbreaking moral, nor with a fabulous picture of eternity, but with a mirror. He shows humanity to itself in all of its sin, in all of its despair, in all of its pagan hedonism, and in all of its hidden jewels. The novelist who is truly Catholic, then, is not the one who produces a good, nourishing feeling, but the one who makes us think, for one moment, about who we really are.

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