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A conference at University of Southern California next month, co-sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies, looks to be an important event for Catholic novelists, poets, critics, and editors, one that may give us a sharp assessment of Catholic literary expression at the present time. 

The title is “The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination.” Speakers include Julia Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent and In the Time of the Butterflies), Ron Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Alice McDermott (Charming Billy and At Weddings and Wakes), Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army), and poet Dana Gioia, organizer of the conference. (A full schedule is here.)

First Things readers may recall Gioia’s from December 2013, “The Catholic Writer Today.” It began with a sharp admission:

For years I’ve pondered a cultural and social paradox that diminishes the vitality and diversity of the American arts. This cultural conundrum also reveals the intellectual retreat and creative inertia of American religious life. Stated simply, the paradox is that, although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting. This situation not only represents a demographic paradox. It also marks a major historical change—an impoverishment, indeed even a disfigurement—for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role in the arts.

It is likely that much of the discussion at the plenary talks and panels will take a position on the question. Is Catholicism a significant positive inspiration to a critical mass of writers on the American scene today?

I am serving on one of the panels, but I plan to attend all the speeches and other panels, and I shall report here on the answers.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

More on: Catholic art

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