will give the reader pleasure? First of all, he's telling the truth.
Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human
condition, so that one never recognizes oneself, the deepest part
of oneself, in a bad book. And even when a bad book gives its own
sort of pleasure, either a pastime of diversion and adventurism,
or the titillation of voyeurism, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth,
like a hangover from bad Bourbon.
The truth of the novelist is a special kind of truth. What kind
of truth? It is a truth more like good carpentry than like good
reporting. Or, as the Scholastics used to say, art is a virtue of the
practical intellect. It is in the sphere of making, not reasoning, not
reporting. A good novel is like a good table. The parts have to fit;
it has to work, that is, sit foursquare and at the right level. And it
has to please. Its truth lies in the way it looks, feels, hefts---the
touch and the grain of the thing. Its morality follows from the
form and the excellence of the thing. That is to say, its morality
comes from within, follows naturally from its making and is not
imposed from without. It does not preach.
Let me say a final word about the relationship between the
art of the novel and Christianity, the Catholic faith in particular,
at least as I see it. It might appear from what I have said---that
art is in the sphere of making something---that novel-writing is
pure craftsmanship and has nothing to do with religion. Indeed,
mightn't Christianity even be a handicap to the writer, considering
the number of bad so-called Christian novels that have been
written? It can be argued that the most beautiful vases in the world
were made by Greek pagans and Japanese Buddhists.
Here I can only give my own conviction. It is that there is a
special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity
as an ethos, Catholicism in particular. It is no accident, I think,
that the novel is a creature of the Christian West and is virtually
nonexistent in the Buddhist, Taoist, and Brahmin East, to say
nothing of Marxist countries.
It is the narrativity and commonplaceness of the novel which
is unique. Something is happening in ordinary time to ordinary
people, not to epic heroes in mythic time.
It is no coincidence that in the very part of the world where
novels have been written and read, the presiding ethos, the central
overriding belief, is that the salient truth of life is not the teaching
of a great philosopher or the enlightenment of a great sage. It
was, rather, the belief that something had happened, an actual
Event in historic time. Certainly, no one disagrees that the one
great difference of Christianity is its claim---outrageous claim,
many would say---that God actually entered historic time, first
through his covenant with the Jews and then through the Incarnation.
Certainly, there is nothing new about this. What concerns us
here is the peculiar relevance of this belief for novel-writing. I
could also speak of its relevance to other art forms---drama and
poetry, for example---and to the genesis of science.
But what kind of truth is a serious writer after when he sets
out to give lasting pleasure?
It is truth of a special sort.
It is not the truth of a mathematical equation.
It is not the truth of reporting in good journalism.
Rather is it a deeper truth about the way things are, the way
people are; in a word, a truth about the human condition; and a
truth of such an order, both old and new, that one recognizes
oneself in it. Therein lies the pleasure.
But what has this to do with the reader's pleasure, with the
relationship between Christianity and the novel as an art form?
Because it is no accident, as I have suggested, that the novel is
almost exclusively a creature of Christendom.
The fact that novels are narratives about events which happen
to people in the course of time is given a unique weight in an
ethos that is informed by the belief that awards an absolute
importance to an Event which happened to a Person in historic
time. In a very real way, one can say that the Incarnation not only
brought salvation to mankind but gave birth to the novel.
Judeo-Christianity is about pilgrims who have something
wrong with them and are embarked on a search to find a way out.
This is also what novels are about.
In a word, it is my conviction that the incarnational and
sacramental dimensions of Catholic Christianity are the greatest
natural assets of a novelist.
It is not too much to say, I think, that though most current
novelists may not be believing Christians or Jews, they are still
living in a Judeo-Christian ethos. If, in fact, they are living on the
fat of the faith, so to speak, one can't help but wonder what
happens when the fat is consumed. Perhaps there are already
signs. Witness the current loss of narrative of character and events
in the post-modern novel.
It is no accident that the novel has never flourished in the
Eastern tradition. If Buddhism and Hinduism believe that the self
is illusory, that ordinary life is misery, that ordinary things have
no sacramental value, and that reality itself is concealed by the veil
of maya, how can any importance be attached to or any pleasure
be taken in novels about selves and happenings and things in an
Or take Marxism: if the events of history are seen as a
remorseless dialectic whose outcome is inevitable, who wants to
read a novel about it? Try to think of one good Marxist novel.
Or take behaviorism---which has had a tremendous influence
on the scientific mind for the past fifty years. If all behavior is a
psychological response to a stimulus, what happens to the freedom
of choice which is the meat and bread of the novelist? Read any
good behaviorist novels lately?
Same for Freudianism: if our actions, emotions, our very
thoughts arise from unconscious conflicts and forgotten childhood
traumas, how does one write a novel about anything but a
psychoanalyst and his patient on the couch talking about her
dreams? Have you ever noticed how boring it is to listen to
somebody else's dreams, let alone read about them in novels?