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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Forming the Soul

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

When my children were young I received from a friend a copy of an essay written by a nun titled “Forming the Soul”. The essay explained the importance of good quality fiction in the spiritual education of a child. I’ve lost it, unfortunately. Or, I can’t find it temporarily. I do, however, remember the nut of the essay:

As parents we find it important to feed children good food to ensure their bones and brains are forming well and growing strong. We should find it just as important, if not more so, to feed their minds in a way that considers their taste buds and interests their pallets, and yet ensures they are forming strong, healthy souls. We laugh to think of children choosing their own diet. It’s not hard to imagine the empty calories that would be eagerly consumed at every meal. The analogy is clear, I won’t press the point further because this post is about the forming of an adult soul: mine.

In an email discussion the other day, I mentioned to a writer friend that fiction had played (and continues to play) an important role in my spiritual journey. That friend asked if I would share a few titles. Below is the list of books that emerged from our conversation.

When I considered fiction that in some way changed or helped to form my soul, certain books leapt to mind. These are the titles I decided to include, with no other criteria. There aren’t any political or dystopian novels—no Ralph Ellison or Elizabeth Atwood. You might also notice the lack of titles usually found on lists of spiritual novels: no beautifully written sermons by Wendell Berry or Marilynn Robinson or C.S. Lewis, no Walker Percy or Flanner O’Connor or Toni Morrison prodding the darkness to expose the light. This is not because I don’t admire or respect the work of these authors, but when I thought about them I had to admit that they simply had not pierced the tough skin of my soul, however much they challenged my mind and pricked my conscience. So this, again, is a personal list, a sampling not of books that should have, but of books that did. Most are classics. A few are more recent (growth, hopefully, continues). All are novels that have what I call “the gospel spark”, stories (mostly told in traditional style) with characters who through their fictional struggles and triumphs illustrated for me the Resurrection—the joy unspeakable and full of glory that comes only, incomprehensibly, from accepting to shoulder my cross and follow Christ.

I’d love to hear from you. What titles would be on your list? Which stories or authors have helped form your soul?

The Dollmaker by Harriet Simpson Arnow

Nickel Mountain by John Gardner

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein

Tales from a Greek Isle and The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamandis

Wonderful Fool by Shusako Endo

Bleak House and Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

The Sojourner by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Middlemarch and Silas Marner by George Eliot

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Promise by Chaim Potok

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Crime and Punishment and The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

Laurus by Eugene Vodalazkin

Faithless Fiction: Imagine

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

A few weeks ago I discovered an essay, published in 2012 in the New York Times by resident writer Paul Elie. The title asked, ‘Has Fiction Lost its Faith?

It’s a good question, and sparked another for me: What if? I tried to imagine a world in which literature never had any element of religious faith. Not the world of Fahrenheit 451, mind you,  in which books are illegal. No, this world has plenty of literature, just none with the slightest element of religious faith, no God-seeking. It’s a world without Jane Eyre, Monseigneur Myriel and Uncle Tom. There has never been a Binxs Bolling or a Reuven Malter, a Calpurnia, or an Atticus Finch. A world, I argue, less interesting than ours.

In modernist fiction there seems to be an idea that to be serious a novel must be devoid of any element or reference to faith in God, especially in the Judeo-Christian sense, unless the element is pejorative or comical. In other words, serious fiction must be atheistic in all its aspects. With some bright and shining exceptions, such as Eugene Vodalazkin’s ‘Laurus’, or Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Abide With Me’, a new canon of literature is developing out of this assumption, literature that is not only paler and flatter for the most part than its vibrant, multi-faceted predecessor, it has become conscious of itself in a way some readers find frankly juvenile.  As one novel-loving friend expressed it to me: modernist fiction is largely dark and depressing, its characters are sullen and sex-obsessed. Hearing this description, I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of the moment in the movie ‘Harvey’, when Veta, Elwood’s sister, feels similarly about her world, and asks, “Why don’t they get out? Take walks!”

Literature, fiction as art, has always been born of the desire to discover, to find out the how and why, to learn by creative means what evil exists in the human heart, and what good. The novelist is a spelunker, an explorer of caves, moving through the labyrinths of the human experience, seeing what can be seen by the light of a headlamp’s beam. I can’t help but see fiction without faith as dishonest discovery, which in my mind is no discovery at all. For the novelist who refuses to acknowledge the crucial role of serious faith, noble faith, in the human experience, is one who trains their gaze on a small corner of the cave and keeps it there. That novelist will never know, or be able to show us, what lies out of reach of the headlamp’s beam. It might be a vein of pure gold. Meanwhile, the reader is left to stare at a wall of stalagmites and wonder, however vaguely, what lies just out of the light. And this is where my writer’s heart begins to hope. For as long as the wondering continues, I believe there will be faith in fiction.

*Thank you to David Haigh and Marianthe Karanikas, fellow members of the Good Seed Literary Society, who so generously and thoughtfully considered this subject and shared their ideas with me.