by Joshua Hren
Four years ago today, I flung Wiseblood Books out the window of a small apartment in a bohemian neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; located—as is everything in Milwaukee—between a bar and a church. It was little more than a blueprint. I was sober. And I was praying. No windows broke, and I didn’t hear it hit the ground. In the days that followed it was clear that a fair wind had caught the thing and scattered pieces of it across the States. I suppose you could say that I founded the press singlehandedly, alone, but you could say a lot of silly things. In Dependent Rational Animals (which is more invigorating than the title suggests), Alasdair MacIntyre argues that “each of us achieves our good only if and insofar as others make our good their good.” We cannot flourish in any full, deep sense of the word independently of the flourishing of a whole tangle of relationships. While it would be impossible to name here all the persons who contributed to the flourishing of Wiseblood Books, it is obvious that I was onto something that day in Milwaukee four years ago. With startling frequency others began to join in.
I recall with great lucidity combing through the editorial slush pile of Dappled Things literary magazine and coming across truly well-made, beautiful, truthful stories that seemed to contain inklings of a new idiom in the Catholic literary tradition. When I corresponded with these authors, I came across a familiar refrain: we can’t find a publisher. Many claimed that the faith-charged vision that governed and grew out from the very hearts of their stories set them at a disadvantage against a publishing industry that is immodestly secular. I set about to scouring the neon pages of the world wide web; and just as they said, so it was. When conversations surrounding this problem of secularization, and of the seeming decline of “Catholic” (and more broadly Christian!) fiction emerged in the pages of The New York Times, or in The Wall Street Journal, some began to contend that secularism is a myth. Others openly wondered whether Catholic writers who failed to get their “great” novels published weren’t merely nursing the wounds of their bad artistry in the comforting arms of the Mother of God—blaming their failure to write good fiction on the big bad wolf of secularism at the door of the Cathedral. The argument continues, Deo Gratias. In Whose Justice, Which Rationality? MacIntyre offers a definition of tradition that may help us to characterize the debate concerning Catholic letters. Tradition is:
an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and refined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal interpretive debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements came to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.
We situated ourselves within the Catholic literary tradition by the very name of the press. I taught Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood this past semester. It’s a good novel, but I’m not dogmatic about her work. The seams show in parts. The police officer who throws Hazel Motes’ car over the cliff is an almost entirely unexplained deus ex machina that decidedly does not grow out of the novel’s integrated action. And yet Flannery O’Connor, in spite of her crutches, gave us legs to stand on. She gave us, in spite of her bad eyesight, a vision. She raised some crucial problems: in literary works written in a world that lives as though God is dead, do we need to shout so that the deaf can hear, draw large and startling figures so that the blind can see? Does not grace feel like violence, sometimes, and is not fiction particularly capable of dramatizing the awful conversions that can come of such disruption? Certain things have changed a great deal since O’Connor’s time. And yet things have largely stayed the same. When we try to say “God” in contemporary fiction, should we fake a sneeze at the same time? Lest it actually sound as though we were narrating some of the eternal questions of religion—of the nature of grace acting upon human life, of the problem of suffering, of the sacramental dimensions of nature, of conversion—even here in the Year of Our Lord 2017.
But it is not my intention, here, to contribute a rational argument to the debate concerning faith and fiction, Catholic vision and narrative art. I’m grateful to Gregory Wolfe and Paul Elie and Dana Gioia, among others, who have given that debate visibility and intelligibility. What I have contributed, over the past four years, is one literary vessel through which the question of contemporary Catholic letters is being worked out in the form of living literature held out to be read and reckoned with. What “I” have contributed. No. What we have contributed. From novels such as The Oracles Fell Silent by Lee Oser, or Bearings and Distances by Glenn Arbery to Collected poems of Helen Pinkerton or James Matthew Wilson’s Some Permanent Things or The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking. From Annabelle Moseley’s A Ship to Hold the World and The Marionette’s Ascent to Kaye Park Hinckley’s short story collection Birds of a Feather to Karen Ullo’s vampire novel Jennifer the Damned. And there is Dana Gioia’s The Catholic Writer Today, which has become a sort of constitutional document for our press. The last lines of it read thus:
If the state of contemporary Catholic literary culture can best be conveyed by the image of a crumbling, old immigrant neighborhood, then let me suggest that it is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination and move back to the big city—where we can renovate these remarkable districts that have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition. It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition. Starting the renovation may seem like a daunting task. But as soon as one place is rebuilt, someone else will already be at work next door, and gradually the whole city begins to reshape itself around you. Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay to have the right home.
Wiseblood Books has become a home. Soon after I started renovating in my little corner of Milwaukee, Charles Schmitt came by and said that he’d like to help do a bit of editing on the side—the way you tell your friend you’d be happy to help him sand those floors that are stained where mold spots block gorgeous hard wood. Now he’s the Director of Marketing. Louis Maltese ordered a few of our books, and an extensive correspondence was evidence of a deep fit. Now he is one of our editors and he has brought his knack for translating spiritual questions into the contemporary idiom. Angela Cybulski abdicated her throne over at Dappled Things and has been putting her uncannily painstaking editing skills at the service of our authors ever since. Renovation has been hard work. But we have the right home. And I hope you’ll stay a while, sleep on the couch if you’d like. No need to help cover heating costs, or to keep the lights on. Though if you’re inclined, we’re tax-deductible now. And, while you’re here, pick up a book.