I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.
These writers brilliantly and movingly attest to literature’s place in modern life, as godless modernity’s last best crucible for sustaining an appreciation of human life’s value and purpose that corresponds to our inherent longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what else do they have in common? They’re all dead.
As a teacher of literature, I encourage my students to read the best that’s been thought and said down through the ages, as brace and leaven for their neophiliac tendencies. I find myself engaged in exactly opposite terms with friends and colleagues. “But who?” they always ask (a humbling question, incidentally, for a working novelist).
I always have ready some recommendations of current writers who take the life of faith seriously in their work—the novelist Marilynne Robinson, the poet Geoffrey Hill, assorted scholars and reviewers writing criticism—but I realize they have a point. While religion significantly matters in minor literary contexts today (as with the eccentric popularity of Amish romance novels) and in vulgar commercial contexts (as with Dan Brown’s books), serious literary fiction largely occupies its very own naked public square, shorn of any reference to religiously informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are, which represents a marked break from centuries of literary production informed by Christian beliefs, traditions, and culture.
Indeed, “if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature,” declared writer Paul Elie in “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” a much-discussed essay for the New York Times Book Review. Consider the absurdity of the situation: “With something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society now plays a role [akin to that of] some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.”
As welcome as Elie’s effort was as a conversation starter, he failed to answer some important questions, even while he candidly admits to be wrestling with them as he works on a novel of his own: Primarily, what constitutes “belief” or “faith” in literary terms, and how are we to evaluate the representation aesthetically, morally, theologically?
He’s also silent about any systemic reasons for faith’s diminished place in contemporary fiction, which is even more surprising, given his background: In addition to writing an acclaimed biography of four twentieth-century Catholic writers, he has enjoyed an impressive career in New York publishing, working as a longtime editor at prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Despite this pedigree and experience, he has remarkably little to say about how today’s elite publishing houses, literary publications, and university creative writing programs might operate as self-enclosed and mutually reinforcing warrens of the new American meritocracy, where secular progressivism makes its influentially positioned adherents deaf, indifferent, or antagonistic to religiously informed ideas and writing.
Nevertheless, Elie’s main point holds. Despite various idiosyncratic and veiled representations of religious experience in recent American fiction—in the works of Robinson, and also, with more qualifications, in the works of Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, and others—most great contemporary writers don’t bother to engage the wholeness of experience for the great majority of readers. “If you think, as I do,” he proposes, “that we look to literature to understand ourselves and our place on earth, then belief hasn’t been understood until the serious writers have had their say. So,” he concludes, “you keep looking for the literature of belief.”
And if you’re looking, you’re guaranteed to find a literature of belief in the past, which explains why such seekers reach for their spine-cracked copies of O’Connor instead of hazarding their way onto the “New and Recommended” shelves at Barnes & Noble. Indeed, were you to tell a clerk you were interested in reading some morally serious contemporary writing, you might be introduced to the books of New York Times bestselling author David Shields.
Sophisticated, ambitious, and widely praised as an exemplar of our age’s ethical-literary sensibility, Shields offers a polemically narcissistic, aggressively atheistic vision of how and why literature should matter to us, premised upon the willfully inward, selfish turn that follows from rejecting God and religion. If Augustine counseled us to read literature as a means of increasing our love of our neighbors and ultimately our love of God, Shields counsels us to read literature to increase our love of ourselves, because there’s no one else that matters.
As he declares in his most influential work, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, “So: no more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”
Shields won wide and admiring notice for this 2010 effort from outlets like the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian, and indeed it was named a “Best Book of the Year” by some thirty different publications. Critics collectively positioned Shields as a brave new literary prophet: “America is losing faith with its fictions,” and Reality Hunger “lays out a compelling case for the prosecution,” declared one reviewer, almost perfectly anticipating Elie’s lamentation without any of the lament, while another predicted “Shields’ book will become a sort of bible for the next generation of culture-makers,” and still another breathlessly reported that the book has “already become required reading in university spheres, galleys passed from one student to the next like an illicit hit of crack cocaine.”
Exactly what makes Shields so appealing for so many contemporary critics, readers, and, as an apparent campus addiction, future writers? I think he appeals because he’s an ethically minded atheist bookworm. He’s an exceedingly well-read provocateur and scattershot evangelizer for a fiercely anti-traditional literature of belief, one that prizes nonfiction over fiction, fragment over unity, self over all others, disenchantment, honesty, and mundaneness over the true, good, and beautiful: a literature that affirms our mortal selves and this-worldly reality as our only selves, our only reality.
Shields offers all of this in Reality Hunger, which is made up of 618 aphoristic arguments in support of his two main reasons why, as readers, we must abandon our longstanding faith in fiction. The first reason: Fiction is too cohesive and ordered to reflect or reckon with who we are and how we experience reality today. We live in an age where truth is fluid and fey; it comes in bits and pieces that we must put together ourselves because we can only believe in what we’ve constructed for ourselves or in what we can tell is obviously constructed.
Shields’ book exemplifies in form and method the argument that it advances. It’s a hyper-self-conscious collage composed of quotations and premises openly stolen from an endless array of sources.
The second reason we must abandon our faith in fiction, according to Shields: It serves as troubling evidence of a malingering crypto-faith in God, insofar as we depend upon the novelist’s capacities to conjure a whole world, complete with morally legible figures and recurring norms of right and wrong, good and evil, all of which is governed by an omniscient intelligence. This dependence needs to be overcome so that we can at last be free to find writings (like Reality Hunger itself) that, compared to the opiate authority of novels, better help us reckon with the barren basic truth of every human life, as he has it: “The final orbit is oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?”
Shields can, or at least tries to, offer us an exemplar of what this calculation involves in his latest book, the salvifically titled How Literature Saved My Life. Early on, he makes clear the higher-order question that governed Reality Hunger and this work too: “In the absence of God the Father, all bets are off. Life makes no sense. How do I function when life has been drained of meaning?”
He appreciates the stakes of his project, the nullity and nihilism that ultimately characterize a godless existence, and challenges his readers to join him in what he regards as courageous atheism: “[F]or many people in the post-transcendent twenty-first century, death is not a passageway to eternity but a brute biological fact. We’re done. It’s over. All the gods have gone to sleep or are simply moribund. We’re a bag of bones. All the myths are empty. The only bravery consists of diving into the wreck, dancing/grieving in the abyss.”
But the person writing the book isn’t done yet, nor are the people reading it, and so what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Shields wants us to seek salvation by putting our otherwise useless faith in ourselves and our reading lists, just as he has done.
“Writing as religion” he commends in a passing koan that he elaborates upon late in the book by recommending some fifty-five works “I swear by,” effectively the works that he positions as a testament to his concluding tenet: “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this—which is what makes it essential.”
As a teacher, critic, and novelist, not to mention as a lifelong reader married to a lifelong reader raising a brood of budding bibliophiles, my entire life testifies to the conviction I share with David Shields: Literature is essential. I also agree with him that it cannot assuage human loneliness, but beyond that, we break.
Insofar as it can reveal the fullness and wholeness of human experience, insofar as it can reveal ourselves in our inner lives and experiences of time and event as being created by and for love, literature doesn’t lie. It testifies to the ultimate truth of human existence: We are not, in the end, alone.
The challenge for religiously minded literary professionals like myself, Paul Elie, and many others who regularly appear in these pages is to cede no ground to David Shields and his supporters, but instead, in the books we write, teach, and review, make a case for why we should continue to have faith in fiction. But we can’t do it only for ourselves.
In other words, the matching challenge for religiously minded literary readers is to put down Flannery and her friends for a while and take a leap of faith into contemporary fiction. Incidentally, when’s your novel coming out, Mr. Elie?
Randy Boyagoda is chairman of the English department at Ryerson University. His latest novel is Beggar’s Feast.