Written in a high register of literary technical vocabulary which PhD students taught by leftist professors in English would understand more than the average man or woman, Hren’s collection of essays is still worthwhile as substantial reading to understand the idiocy of much contemporary fiction.
Although the 463 pages contain few mentions of fictional literature concerned with the pro-life issues (my central research concern), Hren’s essays can help readers who are forced to suffer through LGBTQ and transgender accounts of quasi-fictional gender dysphoric literary diarrhea. Moreover, readers will appreciate that the bizarre, sinful, and often laughable elements of those two categories of fiction (among others in the leftist realm of American publishing) are topics which Catholic readers must analyze, evaluate, and even teach.
Hren relies heavily on major Catholic saints and literary figures to justify why not only Catholics, but even secular persons should read novels exploring ideas contrary to ingrained natural law beliefs, including Dana Gioia, Jacques Maritain, St. John Henry Newman, and Flannery O’Connor.
For example, Hren quotes St. John Henry Newman often: “literature is largely a record ‘of man in rebellion’” (2; internal quotes in original), and another quote soon after expands on this idea: “You cannot have a sinless literature of sinful man” (4-5). With such assertions, it is easy for Hren to conclude that “Catholic thinkers should and even must analyze and teach, appreciate and criticize the sinful literature of man. Why? Because most men are not destined for the cloister” (5). The most significant words from Newman for Catholic writers which Hren quotes may be the following: “Take things as they are, not as you could wish them” (29).
O’Connor’s words about writing fiction can assuage the horror that many moral and righteous readers may feel when they delve into novels deemed important new works by young authors, but which to them seem not merely naughty, but often outright pornographic. Hren cites O’Connor’s “pious trash” (33) comment, and one can understand how many “religious” novels are often boring, making their hero characters flaccid caricatures or allegories instead of fictional characters meant to represent living human beings. This is especially true if the “good” characters end the novel with a “come to Jesus” moment, Evangelical Christian fiction being particularly disposed to resolve plot conflicts with such a righteous yet saccharine denouement.
On these bases, for example, the good priest’s famous (for me), infamous (for some) masturbation scene in Brian Moore’s novel Black Robe as he witnesses coitus by two youths is justified. Whether a reader delights in the prurience of the scene or not is something which he or she should consult with his or her priest in the confessional. For me, Moore’s novel goes beyond pornography to bring my attention to God’s deeper truths about not only sexual sins, but also sexual delights which should obtain between a married man and woman (since they are unmarried, the young people are committing the sin of fornication). While it’s odd that Hren doesn’t cite Moore’s novel as a solid example of Catholic fiction which depicts challenging matters, perhaps a future edition will include this novel and others.
Hren does, however, examine works by many twentieth- and twenty-first century authors, Catholic all (whether devout, lukewarm, or fallen-away), and his criticism of the various works can overwhelm readers with a literary load that seems insurmountable. Reading Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future (which concerns euthanasia); Katherine Anne Porter, a “sometimes-Catholic writer” (133); David Foster Wallace, who “took his own life in 2008” (139); James Joyce, whose work includes short stories about altar boys most likely molested by priests—a topic considered long before the current pedophile and pederast scandals; Walter M. Miller, another suicide, whose major work, A Canticle for Leibowitz, examines euthanasia; Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which also contains a euthanasia element; and Michael Chabon’s short story about abortion may seem suitable only for those lucky English professors who achieved early retirement ten years ago and have time to sit back, crack open a book from interlibrary loan that no one reads, and annotate at his or her leisure. (Ahem!). Hren, however, thinks we all should read these works to show the great expanse of Catholic fiction.
And why we should read such works is answered well. Hren argues that “Good fiction helps us better grasp the fact that everything we deliberately do—from amusements to our acts of mercy—assumes moral significance” (2). Thus, “we ought not dismiss or underappreciate the importance of well-rendered sin in good literature” (4)—the phrase “well-rendered” not being ironic.
Hren further claims that the purpose of Catholic fiction differs greatly from a purely secular understanding of the art. If “the Catholic literary tradition has been marked by writers who understood that human nature finds its final cause not in mere beauty, not in mere inclusion, but in salvation” (48), then, he states, “a Catholic literary culture that works in continuity with its rich heritage will give us a contemporary literature that both gazes unflinchingly at the messiness of our present moment and artfully works out its characters’ salvation or damnation” (48). This conclusion is necessary because “Christian love is never aimed at the neighbor in-and-of-herself, but at the Imago Dei that is found in every human being” (199).
To bolster his conclusion, Hren quotes Dana Gioia at length about a “Catholic aesthetic”:
Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death. (342)
Unfortunately, the volume does not have an index, so the reader must guess that the various chapters may contain what he or she is seeking. Sometimes, the content of a chapter is obvious; sometimes, chapter contents are ambiguous from the title. The volume does contain two reading lists which can help the reader, whether faculty member or student, check off those items which Hren suggests as required reading to appreciate the depth of contemporary Catholic fiction.
Finally, since Amazon collaborates with cancel culture zealots and bans conservative and pro-life material, purchase this book from TAN Publishers directly: https://tanbooks.com/products/books/liberal-arts/literature/how-to-read-and-write-like-a-catholic/. Instead of paying $34.95, purchasing it from TAN through its $5 a book program makes this scholarly tome a deal.