Saturday, April 11, 2015

James Wood on "the impossibility . . . of writing a great Christian novel"

James Wood
Photograph by Jared Leeds
The Guardian

On the blog of the liberal Catholic Commonweal website, Anthony Domestico has posted an entry titled "James Wood, Religion, and the Novel," in which he notes that Wood - in a recent Guardian interview with Peter Conrad, "Literary critic James Wood: 'I'm taking a religious view of an earthly form'" (April 8, 2015) - confesses to doubts about the possibility of a great Christian novel:
I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene's. There are mystical novels - To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway - and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who's dying - though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel's innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it's about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.
As for today's Gypsy Scholar blogpost heading, which borrows Domestico's words to summarize Wood's position on the impossibility of "writing a great Christian novel," maybe there's truth to the view that writing a full-scale Christian novel isn't possible, but what about a great Christian novella? I humbly offer The Bottomless Bottle of Beer as exemplar.

Or am I once again just joking?

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