On Being an Orthodox Novelist

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Russian novelist Eugene Vodolazkin, author of Laurus and The Aviator and an Orthodox Christian, was asked in an interview if he considers himself an Orthodox writer. “A writer should just be a writer,” he said. “There are no Orthodox writers, just as there are no Orthodox hairdressers. Faith is an intimate thing.”

Faith is an intimate thing. And if your occupation is cosmetology, I imagine it’s possible, maybe even advisable, to keep your faith close to you, to cut and style with skill and unique flair without your clients ever knowing that you are an Orthodox Christian. But the same is not true of the novelist. In fact, it is precisely because faith is such an intimate thing that Vodolazkin is not just a writer, he is an Orthodox writer. As Flannery O’Connor states in Mystery and Manners, “We write with the whole personality, and any attempt to circumvent it, whether this be an effort to rise above belief or above background, is going to result in a reduced approach to reality.” There is nothing inferior, nothing reduced about Vodolazkin’s approach to reality. As a novelist, his approach is fully Orthodox.

So many agenda-driven novels (mostly secular, but sometimes religious) are published each year it’s tempting, even for the writer of novels, to think of novelists as apostles, but they are not. And this may be all Vodolazkin meant by saying there is no such thing as an Orthodox writer. If we are called to be fiction writers, then that is all we must be. The fiction writer who is deeply, honestly, religious will not write novels in order to sell his faith. He will also not change the way he writes or alter the crafting of his novels in order to “reach” a wider audience. To those who look to fiction for “profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused…improved, or encouraged, or frightened or shocked or charmed…” Joseph Conrad said, no. Novelists must “first write from a clear conscience”, or in other words, be free of all these reasons for writing. And if we succeed in our task, he promised, “you shall find all you demand—and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

I’m sure it’s this seriousness toward the art of writing, the belief that in its best form fiction can and should offer a glimpse of eternal truth, that makes Vodolazkin deny the term “Orthodox writer”. We live in a time of quick and narrow organizing, of dropping people into designated slots, and readers of literary fiction today are not believers, for the most part. Encountering faith in a novel today is like encountering a Komodo dragon. It needs a very good reason for being there. The danger for a Christian novelist today who openly admits to having faith (unless you also admit to having lost it in large portion along the way), or writes about characters who have it, is that you are likely to find your book pigeonholed on a bookstore or library shelf as Christian Fiction, which means having your work forever associated with that genre’s evangelical, sinner-to-salvation formula. (Unless, of course, you are Marilynne Robinson, and then people won’t notice, won’t care, that your beautiful novel is laced through and through with your Calvinist theology.) And this alone is reason enough for me to join Vodolazkin in denying the term “Orthodox writer”.

But I can’t help feeling that since I am Orthodox, and a writer of fiction, a crafter of words that deal with the nature and experience of religious faith in America, particularly as I have observed it in Orthodox Christian people, I may be protesting into the wind. Also, I’m aware of something in myself that is not as strong as it should be by now. I’m just a little bit afraid that below all my conscientious objecting, my insistence that faith is personal and not an adjective to be fixed to an occupation and publicly declared, I’ll hear just the faintest, triple crowing of a rooster wafting back to me on the breeze. 

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