I know, I know, that’s a bold title. Who am I to say what the duties of any author are, right?
Well, as a Catholic and an author — even just one who writes blog posts and a few successful short stories — I think the topic needs to be addressed. We have to know why we do what we do, for ourselves, not for the masses of people who may read what we write. Our reasons are important, because they shape what we do and how we do it.
The purpose of fiction: to entertain and instruct. Everyone can agree on the first part — what other reason is there to read fiction? It’s entertainment. And that’s a good place to start. But what about the second half of that little statement — to instruct?
Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of us tend to abandon the first in favor of the second, all in the name of “good Catholic literature.” But abandoning the entertainment aspect of fiction is just as bad as abandoning the instruction aspect. In the first case, you get Piers Plowman. In the second, you get Fifty Shades of Smut.
But there are worlds of possibilities between those two extremes. The trick is figuring out how to write them.
We can’t be Piers Plowman writers. Once was enough. The world doesn’t need that kind of preachy, barely-fictionalized morality tale. And more importantly, the world doesn’t want those stories.
So, what do we do? Do we suppress our Catholicism and write the kind of stories that sell, like the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Smut? Do we sell out and become part of the world?
We certainly do not. We’re Catholics; we’re supposed to be in the world, but not of the world. If we’re not different from those around us, we’re not doing it right.
He told us: “If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:19).
But that doesn’t mean they have to hate our fiction.
There is a happy median between writing for the world because we’re interested in selling stories that the world can read, and writing only for others like us. As Catholic writers, we don’t have to limit our audience to other Catholics.
I know that some members of a certain organization are no doubt going to come out of the woodwork and attack what I just said. How dare I say that we shouldn’t write specifically Catholic fiction? There’s a market for it! Why shouldn’t we write stories that homeschooling moms know are safe for their kids, that teach good Catholic lessons about prayer or temptation or finding one’s vocation, that are free from any occasions of sin for the reader?
I never said we shouldn’t, so shut up for a second and let me finish.
There isn’t anything wrong with “specifically Catholic” fiction. There is a market for it. But good fiction written by a Catholic that is appropriate for the world to read is also appropriate for the Catholics to read, and will meet all the aforementioned criteria from homeschooling moms. We are part of the world, after all.
The market for “specifically Catholic” fiction is a little tiny puddle compared to the bigger, wider, and deeper market for fiction in general. Why should we play only in the puddle when we can swim in the ocean with the sharks (and while doing that, also improve the quality of the puddle)?
For, yes, there are sharks out there. Lots of them. And we can either avoid putting one toe in that ocean with the sharks, or we can jump in and fight them off before they eat everyone, including us.
And that is what our fiction should be for.
“For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Ephesians 6:12).
“Fight the good fight of faith: lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art called, and hast confessed a good confession before many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12).
Nobody ever told us to run and hide from the world. Just the opposite. We’re supposed to go out into the world and change it. Some people do so with preaching, missionary work, assisting in hospitals, or any one of a number of other things. We might think that we’re not called to those overt paths to changing the world, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have one of our own.
We’re writers. We picked that path, and now we need to follow it.
They say that the pen is mightier than the sword. That may be true in some cases, because the pen, that is, words, have the unique power of changing how people think.
There’s a great line in Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston:
“Oh, you can break a man’s skull, you can arrest him, you can throw him into a dungeon. But how do you fight what’s up here? How do you fight an idea?” . . . “Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well, I’ll tell you how: with another idea.”
We have good ideas. The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is in possession of the very best ideas — the Fullness of Truth!
Why are we telling those ideas only to each other?
Those ideas can change the world, and if we refuse to do so, that’s on us, not on the world. We can’t sit around and complain about how it’s going to hell in a handbasket if we don’t stand up and try to keep that from happening. We do that with ideas.
So how do we tell people who aren’t Catholic, or who aren’t even Christian, about those ideas without boring them out of their skulls, or offending them so much that they never trust us again?
Nobody wants to be preached at. I wrote a review of Old Fashioned, which was released on Valentine’s Day last year, trying to compete with Fifty Shades of Smut. It is the best example I’ve seen of a good idea that was completely ruined by the message it was trying to present. It wasn’t a movie. It wasn’t a story. It was a sermon disguised as a movie, and it failed miserably.
We shouldn’t write stories like that, the ones that have no plot, no good characters, no humor, nothing but a message. The only people who will read stories like that are the ones that already agree with us. We don’t need to preach to the choir. It’s a waste of our time and the choir’s time, and we could be spending that time influencing the people that need it most.
We need to write stories that are universally popular, not because they cater to the vices of the society we live in, but because they tell stories about universally acceptable things. Even the ancient Greeks admired the virtues, like courage, perseverance in hardship, and selfless love. If the Greeks can love those things in the thousands of years before Christ, so can a secular society, and that’s how we catch them.
Just look at the popularity of the Marvel movies. Those are the fairy tales of our generation, telling us stories about dragons that can be beaten by the bravery of heroes, even heroes with faults of their own. They struggle against their own faults, as well as the outside attacks of the dastardly villains, and they emerge victorious. I addressed some of these points in another fisk.
There’s a lesson in there, and nobody saw it coming. People who don’t care for lessons can ignore it, and still be entertained, while people who are open to those little things will see it and appreciate it, and integrate it into themselves.
Yes, those stories affect people, especially young people. And there wasn’t a preachy word in any of them.
How about Cinderella? It’s a perfect example of a movie with a message hidden in a classic story. I wrote a review on that one, too. The messages are ones we can all learn from: how a good person deals with being bullied, how kindness is rewarded, and how about “just because it’s what’s done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.” And not an overtly Christian or Catholic word in the whole thing.
That’s not a bad thing!
The Catholic message is in there, but it is accessible by everyone, not just Catholics. We can substitute Cinderella for any one of a number of saints who were treated badly or had a hard life. The first one I can think of is St. Bernadette. She lived in abject poverty (which is pretty much how Cinderella lived while her stepmother was in charge — the household servant), and no one believed her story about “the beautiful Lady.” She was mocked and derided, and even threatened by the authorities in Lourdes. Sound familiar?
So, in this case, a similar story is told to the whole world, not just Catholics who know who St. Bernadette was. Cinderella is the fifth most popular movie of 2015 so far. That alone should be enough to convince us that the best stories aren’t catered to only one audience.
And look at the popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those movies busted box office sales records left and right (and held them until Marvel came along, I believe), and made the books more popular than they had ever been before. Tolkien was a Catholic. The symbolism is in there (Aragorn as the Christ-like king; the day the Ring was destroyed was the Feast of the Annunciation in the regular calendar; the evil of Sauron and the One Ring; etc.), and yet those movies would never have achieved the popularity they did if Tolkien had written his stories only for Catholics.
We should not hide our faith from the world. Nor should we present it in such a way that makes people roll their eyes and ignore us. “No man lighteth a candle, and putteth it in a hidden place, nor under a bushel; but upon a candlestick, that they that come in, may see the light” (Luke 11:33). That’s true, but He didn’t tell us to whack “they that come in” over the head with said candlestick, either.
This is not an argument in favor of “message fic;” it is the opposite. Message fic only survives in a puddle; the ocean will sweep it away, and the sharks will still be there.
We shouldn’t be writing “message fic” stories like Old Fashioned, that fade from the public consciousness before they had a chance to change anyone. To continue that example, we need to write love stories that are beautiful, moving, and appropriate, the kind of story that makes those readers drop Fifty Shades of Smut like a hot potato and come and read our stories instead. We can’t pull them away from that evil with a sermon; if they wanted sermons, they’d be going to church (any kind of church), and they wouldn’t be reading that utterly evil tripe in the first place. They’d already know better.
Like the Catholics. They already know better, so why are we preaching to them? They don’t need those lessons; they get them elsewhere. The lesson needs to be given to the world at large.
How do you fight an idea? With another idea.
In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton said:
God has given us not so much the colours of a picture as the colours of a palette. But he has also given us a subject, a model, a fixed vision. We must be clear about what we want to paint. This adds a further principle to our previous list of principles. We have said that we must be fond of this world, even in order to change it. We now add that we must be fond of another world (real or imaginary) in order to have something to change it to.
We need not debate about the mere words ‘evolution’ or ‘progress:’ personally I prefer to call it ‘reform.’ For reform implies form. It implies that we are trying to shape the world in a particular image; to make it something that we see already in our minds. Evolution is a metaphor from mere automatic unrolling. Progress is a metaphor from merely walking along a road. But reform is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means that we see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape. And we know what shape.
Yes, we know what shape. We know better than anyone the shape the world is supposed to have; why are we wasting our time puttering around with the part that already has the right shape, instead of using that skill on the out-of-shape parts?
The world will never change unless people like us commit our talents to changing it, just a little at a time. You never know what kind of impact a good story has on a person, or a family, or a society.
We don’t need to fight the evil in Fifty Shades of Smut with petitions asking people to not buy it or movie theaters to not show it, or blog posts about how horrible it it. All that does is give it notoriety, and as the old cliche goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The more controversy it generates, the more money it makes.
We also can’t hide from the world in our Catholic bubble, keeping ourselves safe, and waiting for everything “other” to go away. Eventually, someone from the outside will burst the Catholic bubble, and we will be lost; and given the current political and social climate, that won’t take long at all.
Even if that doesn’t happen, what about those kids who grow up reading only that “specifically Catholic” fiction? To return to my previous metaphor, they can’t live in the puddle forever. The current in that ocean is going to start pulling on them eventually. Do you want it to capture them and sweep them away? Do you want them to become food for the sharks?
There’s so much more at stake here than a few books; the world is changed with the ideas in fiction.
We need to play their game and beat them at it. We need to speak to them about our beautiful, wonderful, timeless, ideas in a language that they can understand.
We must be fond of those people, and fond of our own faith, so that those two things can meet. We may not be able to change them; but we just might be able to show them that they can change themselves.
What we need to do is write beautiful stories and say, “Hey, I have something even better for you over here!” It might be enough to pull them away. Once they read that good romance, they might pick up another by the same author, this time about superheroes. They will slowly absorb those lessons, like perseverance in the face of adversity, courage under pressure in society, kindness even to those who hate you, and what real love is like. It might even make them want those things.
And that is how we win. That is how we change the world. That is how we make it safe again.
Get out of the puddle. The battle isn’t in there; it’s out here in the ocean with the sharks.
I’m planning on punching out a few sharks.
Follow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.
Two words. Dean Koontz.
He didn’t win this year’s Impacting Culture Award at John Paul the Great University for nothing. Multiple best seller, very Devoutly Catholic in the “show don’t tell” mode of Tolkien and Garper Kee and Dickens. Shows it can be done.
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I wasn’t aware of that! Very good to know.
Koontz is pretty boss. I feel his stories don’t have the strongest Catholic presence, but it is true that many of them are still filled with a sense of the divine, insofar as thrillers can do that. His Odd Thomas series is most definitely an excellent depiction of the trials that a good soul can be tested with; Brother Odd in particular.
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That’s Harper Lee*. Autocorrect, what were you thinking?
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