Essaying in the Age of Unbelief

January 25, 2013 § 2 Comments


griffOver on the Image blog, David Griffith, author of A Good War is Hard to Find, offers a fascinating look at what he (and others) see as a scarcity of Christian or Catholic beliefs represented positively in the contemporary literary novel and suggests nonfiction may be the more compatible venue for spiritual searching:

… the kind of search for meaning that the novel offers has, over time, naturally and understandably drifted away from religious ways of understanding who were are and why we are here, just as the culture has.

Perhaps this is why I, a writer with an MFA in fiction, have turned almost exclusively to the personal essay and memoir. My first publication appeared in the “Confessions” section of Image, a section that is set apart from the “Essays” section. While I never asked about that distinction, it seems clear to me that it is a nod to spiritual autobiography, the genre started by St. Augustine.

My sense is that confessional nonfiction helps the writer (and the reader) to examine his conscience. The examination of conscience is a very important spiritual practice for Catholics. Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander come to mind, as does the late Joshua Casteel’s book-length essay Letters from Abu Ghraib.

… I am drawn to the genre because it allows for spiritual self-evaluation in a way that fiction performs either at a remove, or in a secret deeply personal way, possibly known only by the author.  …

For me, writing essays is a means of understanding how my actions are in keeping or at odds with my faith, and how I can maintain faith in the face of tragedy and atrocity. For me, these are the questions of our day.

Given the attention memoir—and confessions—have received in the last ten years (James Frey and Tiger Woods) and even last ten days (Lance Armstrong, and now Manti Te’O), might it be that personal narrative, and not the novel, has become the most relevant cultural—and spiritual—form?

You can read all of Griffith’s posting here.

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