Sunday, December 8, 2013

DANA GIOIA AND G.M. HOPKINS ON THE FAILURE OF THE CATHOLIC WRITER


Here's the link to a First Things piece by poet Dana Gioia entitled "The Catholic Writer Today: Encouraging Catholic writers to renovate and reoccupy their own tradition."

Basically what he says is that Catholics today have no coherent, visible presence in the arts, which is true.

One reason is that publishing houses, both Catholic and mainstream, are driven by "the market." Thus, all must tend toward the non-"threatening;" all must fit into one of the "dull categories" Pope Francis is urging us to break out of.

Another is that the writer, if published by a Catholic press, is invited to live in abject poverty. The average advance from a Catholic press is three to seven thousand dollars. That's for a year or two of the blood, sweat and tears required to write a book. You'll earn that back, if at all, on an 88-12 net royalty split (that's industry-wide, and in favor of the publisher), which works out on every, say, ten-dollar book, to 60 or 70 cents to the writer.

The people who can subsist on those kind of wages are generally priests and nuns; those otherwise supported by foundations, orders, for-profit organizations, or families; the independently wealthy; or the truly crazy beggar-fools for Christ.




Flannery O'Connor once said "I'd trade ten readers now for one reader a hundred years from now."

I feel that way, too.


AREN'T GINGKOS AMAZING?

23 comments:

  1. As far as I'm concerned, you are one of the best contemporary lay Catholic writers I've encountered, and one of the few I keep reading. Your writing is real and your faith is alive. I'm grateful Magnificat publishes you too.

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  2. Holy smoke! I thought the University of Portland was in Maine.

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  3. Interesting post, but it seems like we've had a market-driven market for hundreds of years. Has the Catholic dry spell been that long?

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    1. No, and Dana Gioia beautifully enumerates many of the reasons for our current dry spell. I just thought to add my two cents' worth, as a Catholic writer who has chosen/is trying to stay the course.

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  4. Well I am simply grateful that you write, Heather. You DO sacrifice already and give so much just on this blog. You make think, and think BETTER. So, thank you! And congratulations on your book news! I will be right in line when it comes out.
    Merry Christmas,
    Dana

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  5. Thank you so much, folks, and with all the minor frustrations, the fact is that writing is a total total gift to me. I'm a bricklayer, like my father, a journeyman, and truly it is the crown jewel of my life that I get to write at all. Probably the one thing worse for my ego than being a more or less unknown writer would be to become some kind of Catholic literary celebrity. I always get the sense that Christ gives us just about as much "success" as we can handle...

    Also I don't know about you but I find myself just a tad...emotionally overwrought this time of year! So I hope I didn't come off as a complete jackass--though if so, it wouldn't be the first time...

    Wishing all a blessed Feast of the Immaculate Conception...Praying for humility. Praying to turn my ENTIRE will and life over to the care of God...

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  6. I can't help noticing as well, that memoir very rarely gets a seat at the literary grown-up table. Just off the top of my head though, there's you, Amy Welborn, Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, I could come up with more...carrying Saint Augustine's torch and doing a ripping job.

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    1. Nevermind, I see (now that I've read it) that he did mention Karr and Wolff, though he does refer to Karr twice as a poet, but not once as a memoirist.

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  7. Having written a book of meditation and reflections recently and being one who also gives spiritual talks, I can totally attest to the fact people do not want to pay, yet they want quality Catholic writing, etc. It is a justice issue to pay a fair wage. I am appalled at the unwillingness to pay a fair stipend for someone as gifted as you are! Or to anyone who is willing to do all you do because you are love God. It is amazing, but there is a mentality out there that needs to change. Thanks for hanging in there and for all you sacrifice to follow the call to write. Blessings to you, Heather.

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  8. Maybe an author is more worried about being judged the 'good Catholic' than to be known as a 'creative Catholic'?

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    1. If your vocation is writing, of course they are one and the same...

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  9. Thanks for alerting us to that article by Gioia. Lots of food for thought in it.

    One thing it left me wondering is: where are the well-heeled Catholic patrons of the arts in all this? Such people have always played a huge role in fostering the secular arts, like the French Symbolism and English Romanticism "transformative international movements" Gioia mentions.

    Maybe such patrons could start Catholic versions of something like the MacDowell Colony or Yaddo, for instance.

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    1. Lydia! Excellent idea! I've been to several writer's colonies (though a few weeks after getting rejected at MacDowell last year, I read a NYT review of a virulently anti-Catholic book by the woman who currently heads up or helps head up the place...). In one way I have never liked the idea of sequestering myself from the non-Catholic world but as Gioia pointed out, the mainstream literary world finds Catholicism beneath contempt...The miracle for me is that I have always managed to write, and to find beautiful places to get away to once in awhile to write even more...

      At any rate, you're right--plenty of food for thought. Thanks for weighing in, Lydia...

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    2. As for a Catholic Yaddo, there's the Glen Workshop (more diverse than just Catholics too): http://imagejournal.org/page/resources/the-glen-online/

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  10. And yet, there is humor in the general stinginess one so often encounters when it comes to paying people for their artistic contributions: one of my bands was offered (if I remember the amount correctly) fifty dollars to play at a ...wait for it....picnic trying to gain support for a local living wage ordinance.
    Merry Christmas, Heather!

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    1. Oh that is rich! "They" also don't understand I actually have to buy the books I sell at events and have thus been known "walk off" with (i.e. steal) them.
      God bless us, every one! And all the best to your band(s)...

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  11. And then there is this trail of ink...
    http://ctkblog.com/2013/12/05/why-switchfoot-wont-sing-christian-songs/

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    1. "I do have an obligation, however, a debt that cannot be settled by my lyrical decisions. My life will be judged by my obedience, not my ability to confine my lyrics to this box or that.

      We all have a different calling; Switchfoot is trying to be obedient to who we are called to be. We’re not trying to be Audio A or U2 or POD or Bach: we’re trying to be Switchfoot. You see, a song that has the words: ‘Jesus Christ’ is no more or less ‘Christian’ than an instrumental piece."

      Yes, Cay, and I do think Gioia makes this point in his piece. To me Catholic means treating of the human condition, the existential dilemma St. Paul nailed when he said The thing I don't want to do, I do, and the thing I want to do, I don't do...

      No one could accuse Flannery O'Connor of being "devotional" but her work is about as Catholic as you can get. In the preface to her novel, Wise Blood, she writes:

      "It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations. That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to."

      To be a follower of Christ is to search ceaselessly and at whatever cost for the truth, knowing that the truth is a matter of life and death. And realizing that the search takes place whether we're cleaning the toilet, toiling over an essay, or kneeling at Mass..

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  12. Thrilled that you sold a book to Franciscan Media as well! Those Franciscans know good material when they see it! ;)
    Pax et Bonum,
    brenda ofs

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  13. You nailed it, sister. Thanks for your honest and candid perspective. Keep at it! :)

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  14. Dear Heather, a few things

    1. So much of what you say, perhaps all of it, is à propos of the Catholic in the arts whether those arts are letters (you) or painting (me).

    2. I was saying only yesterday to my wife and daughter that I have my 2014 reading laid out [books bought and not read, books unfinished, books that I am still waiting to arrive] such that I hope Heather King doesn't publish next year because I am planning on not buying one book. So, for purely selfish reasons, I hope that Franciscan Media deal does realize until 2015 ;-) And on that note I echo the congrats above and the comments of those who indicate your value to we the readers

    3. I have been thinking deeply of late about what has been called the principle of reciprocity or in Buddhist thought, "dana" and that is so prevalent in the Gospels and the epistles that one must work very hard to ignore its presence. I have been thinking about this in regard to "selling" and "pricing" my artwork. The hard part is not in my being able to understand the principle of generosity -- of, to use a contemporary idiom, the pay-it-forward, of the tension between a worker being worth her wage and freely giving as one has freely received, of allowing a "buyer" to pay what they feel my work is worth to them rather than an equally arbitrary "art-world" pricing model -- but of daring to step out and live it. To find the balance between Providential abandonment and being paid whatever it is I am "worth" and further by being mindful to not allow what I am paid be my "worth".

    4. I appreciate writers and other artists who are profoundly Catholic yet who do not necessarily produce quote-close quote Catholic material. A related side topic for another time, though in my mind the writers you've noted above whom I have read do fit in that grouping [and some not mentioned like good old Fannery, and Percy . . . I wonder, in that so called golden era of Catholic writers, was it really that different?]

    So your article above brings me back to ground, challenges notions, presents realities I have lived in my own setting [formerly as clergy and presently as someone who is working toward being a "working-artist] and inspires me to press on to into 2014 experimenting with this idea of a principle of reciprocity.

    P.S. I bought your last book in paper and in e-format. Doesn't sound like you will have made much from either sale but now that I've given my paper copy away I am glad I have the other.

    And thanks always for your work, writing thrice weekly on this blog.

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  15. Publishing today is about fast money and often lack of quality and good editing. I don't get to read you as often as I would like-but, Heather you write from the heart. It's honest writing. Sure, you deserve more money and yes, people like Mary Karr are extraordinary memorists as well as poets. But, even she must teach. Glad to know you sold another book. We need to get Heather King out to the world.

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  16. Sorry, I'm coming to this late. I just got around to reading Dana Gioia's article and your response last night. Something I haven't seen mentioned is the general collapse of education and reading in recent decades. It isn't only talented 'Catholic writers' who are living hand to mouth and/or working other jobs to make ends meet. Moving beyond literature and talking the arts generally, it continually frustrates me when I'm away from home and hear pop radio and it's abysmally stupid lyrics - and to know that those singers (so-called) are very wealthy. And then there's the vast amount of money spent on crummy movies, etc, etc, etc.

    It's completely natural that you want to be materially rewarded for your work. You have to pay your bills and eat and get from place to place just like everybody else. As a subscriber to Magnificat, I'm glad they provide a big part of your support.

    You quoted Flannery O'Connor's line about hoping to have 1 reader in 100 years' time and applied it to yourself. I'll go one better, Ms. King. I'm confident there'll be at least one person in heaven who's there in part because of something you wrote that encouraged, inspired and nudged him or her in the right direction. I know you'd agree that that's worth more than all the corruptible cash in the world.

    A merry Christmas season to you and God's abundant peace and joy to always (and maybe a little coming your way in 2014?)

    Randall

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I WELCOME your comments!!!