Franzen/Giraldi Fiction as Religious Text

With near-unanimity, [Shirley] Heath’s respondents described substantive works of fiction as, she said, “the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically. From Agamemnon forward, for example, we’ve been having to deal with the conflict between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to the state. And strong works of fiction are what refuse to give easy answers to the conflict, to paint things as black and white, good guys versus bad guys. They’re everything that pop psychology is not.”

“And religions themselves are substantive works of fiction,” I said.

She nodded. “This is precisely what readers are saying: that reading good fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text. What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren’t there, there isn’t closure. The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading. But unpredictability doesn’t mean total relativism. Instead it highlights the persistence with which writers keep coming back to fundamental problems. Your family versus your country, your wife versus your girlfriend.”

“Being alive versus having to die,” I said.

Jonathan Franzen. Originally published in Harper’s, April 1996, under the title “Perchance to Dream.”

In Nietzsche’s account of the “birth of tragedy,” which remains pretty much unbeatable as a theory of why people enjoy sad narratives, an anarchic “Dionysian” insight into the darkness and unpredictability of life is wedded to an “Apollonian” clarity and beauty of form to produce an experience that’s religious in its intensity. Even for people who don’t believe in anything that they can’t see with their own two eyes, the formal aesthetic rendering of the human plight can be (though I’m afraid we novelists are rightly mocked for overusing the word) redemptive.

Jonathan Franzen. Originally published in Harper’s, April 1996, under the title “Perchance to Dream.”

Writing about Waugh [Graham] Greene suggests that “art is function of the religious mind” which is entirely accurate but entirely different that being a “function of religion.” Regardless of how many masterworks were fired in the hearth of piety and praise. A novel should indeed be a groping after some form of the metaphysical; a benediction of the unseen powers; an upholding of the mysterium tremendum. Those insistent inklings of the numinous. But a novel should not be a tract, an apologia, dogmatism attached like strings to the limbs of characters. It should not seek to convert or persuade or indoctrinate. And when we tag a writer a Catholic novelist we attribute to him the agenda of the Catholic and not the aim of the novelist. You can try to reconcile the agenda of one with aim of the other. [Francois] Mauriac grappled consistently with this reconciliation. As did O’Connor and Greene himself. But it’s a fraught enterprise. Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” became faith-forged manacles, when the purely imaginative and linguistic motive of the novelist was sullied by the believer’s allegiance to Catholicism. That’s the pinch. Catholics already have the truth; whereas novelists write novels, in part, because they don’t. The church has all the righteous answers; a novel is after the right questions. “We Catholics,” says O’Connor, “are very much given to the instant answer. Fiction doesn’t have any.”

The Problem of the Catholic Novelist. William Giraldi. Originally published in The New Republic July/August 2015. Collected in Giraldi’s “American Audacity.”

Poem Published: Elegy on a Former Student’s Dying

The lovely Ekstasis Magazine published one of my poems “Elegy on a Former Student’s Dying“. Soon, they will also be publishing a companion poem called “A Conversation with a Firefighter” so keep your eye out for that. While you’re over at Ekstasis, check the poems “Vertebrate Grove” by Paul Pastor, and “Biblical Proportions” by Casie Dodd, a member of my cohort at University of St. Thomas.

Essay Published: An Indispensable Conversation

Fathom Magazine has recently published an issue centered around friendship. They asked me to contribute to this issue, which also happens to be their 5th Anniversary. Over the last five years, they have published several of my poems, essays, an interview, and even a fictional story. This essay on friendship is entitled An Indispensable Conversation after how Wendell Berry described his friendship with James Baker Hall. I’ve posted the opening paragraph below. If you’re interested, then click through in the link.

My first friend in kindergarten was a girl named Jenny. Her dad emigrated from England to America, so she spoke with a half-British accent. After my mom had coaxed me, crying, out of the car, Mrs. Townsend placed me across from Jenny at a tiny table using a seating chart divined by some alphabetical, last name lottery. That alphabet was an unintelligible matrix for me at the time, so my and Jenny’s little friendship formed out of a mysterious proximity as we traced cryptic symbols. “Hello,” she said, strangely. I still had tears on my cheeks. 

https://www.fathommag.com/stories/an-indispensable-conversation

Also, in this issue are an essay on friendships ending by John Graeber and a poem by Tommy Welty that I enjoyed.

Thanks for reading, as always.

Patrick Kavanaugh – Provincialism vs. Parochialism

Parochialism and provincialism are [direct] opposites. The provincial has no mind of his own; he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis – towards which his eyes are turned – has to say on any subject. This runs through all activities.

 The parochial mentality on the other hand is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish. All great civilizations are based on parochialism – Greek, Israelite, English.

 In Ireland we are inclined to be provincial not parochial, for it requires a great deal of courage to be parochial. When we do attempt having the courage of our parish we are inclined to go false and to play up to the larger parish on the other side of the Irish Sea. In recent times we have had two great Irish parishioners James Joyce and George Moore. They explained nothing. The public had either to come to them or stay in the dark. And the public did come. The English parishioner recognizes courage in another man’s parish.

Advising people not to be ashamed of having the courage of their remote parish, is not free from many dangers. There is always that element of bravado which takes pleasure in the notion that the potato-patch is the ultimate. To be parochial a man needs the right kind of sensitive courage and the right kind of sensitive humility.

 Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals.

Patrick Kavanaugh (h/t to Jeffrey Bilbro)

Provincialism in James Wood

Speaking of Fluellen in Shakespeare’s Henry V

“…There is something piquant about a man who is at once an omnivorous roamer of the world’s knowledge and literatures, and at the same time a little Welsh provincial. His monologue on how Monmouth resembles the classical city of Macedon is both funny and moving.

I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the worlds I warrant you shall find, in the comparisons between Monmouth and Macedon, that the situations, look you, is both alike. There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river in Monmouth.

“I still meet people like Fluellen; and when a garrulous guy on a train starts talking up his hometown, and says something like “we’ve got one of those”–shopping mall, opera house, violent bar–“in my town, too, you know,” you are apt to feel, as toward Fluellen, both mirth and an obscure kind of sympathy, since this kind of importuning provincialism is always paradoxical: the provincial simultaneously wants and does not want to communicate with you, simultaneously wants to remain a provincial and abolish his provincialism by linking himself with you.”

James Wood. “How Fiction Works.” p. 125. 2018.

If There is a Reason for a Novelist

If there is a reason for the existence for the novelist on earth it is this: to show the element which holds out against God in the highest and noblest characters–the innermost evils and dissimulations; and also to light up the secret source of sanctity in creatures who seem to us to have failed.

“God and Mammon.” Francois Mauriac. Sheed & Ward Inc. 1936. p 79.

Dissimulation means to conceal one’s thoughts or emotions; pretense.

Newsletter, A Year In

A little over a year ago, I began a newsletter called “In Solitude, For Company” after a line in W.H. Auden’s poem “Horae Canonicae.” I promised that it would include:

  1. A lo-fi layout
  2. Something I’ve written (usually published by someone else first)
  3. Pencil sketches
  4. A review of a local artist or author
  5. A bi-weekly schedule

I have nailed the lo-fi layout. I’m a writer, but I could tinker with code all day if it was available to me, which would eat the time that I wanted to write. So apologies that it isn’t pretty, but it keeps me in the sentences and out of the back end.

It has morphed into an opportunity for me to discuss artistic vision, so it has mostly become short (~1,000 words) essays about the ends for which art should strive. Occasionally that means I take a look at someone else’s work, whether a visual artist, an author, or potentially a songwriter. Although, reviews of local authors have been tricky. Discussing honestly a person-I-know’s art–successes and shortcomings–in a public forum didn’t have quite the effect that I was hoping for. I’ll figure it out at some point; maybe I’ll get a thicker skin about other people’s thin skins.

The pencil (or ball point or sharpie) sketches aren’t good, and I’m ok with that. They’re staying.

I’m currently working on Issue #20, which means I’m averaging a newsletter once every three weeks. I’m also ok with that. No one needs more emails just for the hell of it.

If you’d like to subscribe, toss in your email address by following this link.

Or if you’d prefer to browse the archives to see what you’re signing up for, check here.

New Essay about Larry McMurtry

Front Porch Republic published an essay of mine (Larry McMurtry and Wendell Berry at the Dairy Queen) remembering Larry McMurtry and his influence on our local imagination. Below is the opening of the essay; if it intrigues you, then go ahead and click the link above.


Amarillo, TX. On a pre-Covid Saturday afternoon in Amarillo, I was having a beer with the poet Donald Mace Williams at a bar that was otherwise empty—save for one cowboy drinking alone. At 90, a lifelong newspaperman with a Ph.D. in Old English, Don has contributed his fair share to Texas letters, including an  adaptation of Beowulf set in our forgotten section of Texas called the panhandle. Around Beer #2, we began discussing the works of Larry McMurtry. Don proclaimed loudly that he believed Lonesome Dove was a farce. The cowboy down the bar perked up at the mention of the novel. 

Lonesome Dove is the greatest book ever written,” said the man, pushing back his Stetson. 

Don, undeterred, said it again. “It’s a farce. McMurtry thought the Western was dried up, and then he wrote one!” 

The cowboy squinted down the length of the bar, sizing up the old poet. For a moment, I felt Don had just drawn me into a fist fight with a stranger.

“I don’t know about all that,” the cowboy mumbled. “It’s just a great book.” He pulled his hat down and returned to his beer.