Falling Through The Catholic Literary Cracks

Over at The Catholic Herald (UK), Roy Peachey has an intriguing piece on a number of Catholic writers he fears are being left by the wayside — not for any fault in their craftsmanship or in their ability to be relevant, but simply for geographic reasons:

Most English language studies of the Catholic novel – and, I would guess, most readers – tend to focus on a very small group of western writers. More often than not that group is based around either Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene or G K Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and J R R Tolkien.

Some critics and readers, it is true, are more daring in considering Bernanos, Mauriac and Undset – after all, it’s hard to ignore two Nobel prize winners entirely – while others read Flannery O’Connor and Rumer Godden. More recent writers like Michael O’Brien, J F Powers and Piers Paul Read may even get a look in.

But very rarely will you see any mention of writers from outside Europe or North America. The only exception is Shusaku Endo, and one suspects that this was largely because he received Graham Greene’s imprimatur.

 

Of the 25 recommended works of fiction, for example, only two (by the Australian novelist Morris West) break the North American and European stranglehold. Not one novel from Asia, Africa, South or Central America is recommended.

Mr. Peachey goes on to critique a particular booklet put out by The Catholic Truth Society, “100 Books You Really Should Read.” At times, his criticsm seems to suffer a bit from self-inflicted wounds. Much of the latter part of the article deals with the difficulties of finding translations (or even current prints) for the works of many of the authors — a fact which would seem to lessen the sting of his objection:

Even when authors do manage to find translators, their more explicitly Catholic works are often neglected. Japan’s leading Catholic novelist, Sono Ayako, has had two of her novels translated into English but her non-fiction work about Maximilian Kolbe can still be read only in Japanese, despite its being described as a “minor classic” by the renowned critic and translator Philip Gabriel.

Still, says Peachey, enough non-Western writers’ works are available for literary lovers to start taking them more seriously:

One of the glories of the Catholic Church is its catholicity and we can only benefit from reading widely among our co-religionists, if only because, as C. S. Lewis put it in that same essay with which we started: “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

I may be Exhibit A in support of the case Peachey is trying to make. I’ve read my fair share of Greene, Waugh, and Belloc. Chesterton, Tolkien, O’Connor, Undset, and Godden? Check. I’ve even dabbled in a bit of O’Brien. Manuel Gálvez and Su Xuelin? Never heard of them. And while I recognize this might say more about me than it does about others who roam a bit more freely in Catholic literary circles, we’re definitely a long way from “household name” territory.

Is that a geographic thing, though? Or is it more a matter of saturation, or of the strength of the Catholic Writer Brand of such folks as Chesterton and Tolkien? And for those who have already branched out a bit into the non-Western literary world, are there any works that you would particularly like to recommend?

Joseph Susanka

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Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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