Saturday, July 02, 2011

Critiquing a Critique: "You Catholics always focus on the sex..."

Update II: Novelist Andre Jute weighs in on the Each Angel Burns controversy with this article on his blog "Kissing the Blarney Stone": Should your Church tell you how to write your novel?


Update: Last night novelist and historian Maureen Gill (who did her post-graduate work at the Jesuit-run Loyola in Chicago) posted a rebuttal to the review on CatholicFiction.net's web site. With her permission I am posting it below.)


Years ago I belonged to a book discussion group that met in an ice house in Houston. One evening while we were talking about a book someone said to me, “I bet you're Catholic, aren't you?” I admitted that, yes, I had grown up Catholic and attended Catholic schools. She laughed and said, “You can always tell, Catholics always focus on the sex in everything. You guys don't know about the other Commandments.” Naturally, I was a little stung but it was an instructive remark and I've paid attention to it ever since.

I thought about this last night when I read a review of my book Each Angel Burns posted on a CatholicFiction.net. First let me say, I have written reviews for them and I submitted Each Angel Burns to them for review. The reviewer warned me in advance she would have to mention the sexual themes in the book because they are not in keeping with Catholic teachings and I said I understood that. Then I waited for the review and, when it was posted, I was nervous but that's okay – every author is nervous when their book is about to be reviewed.

The good news is the reviewer complimented the writing, complimented my style and said the story was a good one. She, like reviewers before, compared my style to Daphne DuMaurier which always thrills me. So I was pleased by that.

The less-than-good news is that a.) two fairly important plot points that do not occur until over halfway through the book are revealed (prompting me to write and ask that a “spoiler alert” please be added)[Update: I was contacted by the reviewer and assured the spoilers were removed. Thank you.], and b.) other than the compliments on my writing, the rest of the review was all about the sex in the book. 


Now, there is a lot of talk about sex in the book because, of course, these are people in their middle years still struggling with why sex is still such an issue for them. There is plenty of kissing and touching but there are really only three love scenes, and only one of those is graphic. One involves a strip-tease ending in an embrace; one is a very dreamy and poetic meditation on what these two people have brought to each other; and one involves foreplay (that does NOT lead to intercourse) and is explicit but explicit for a purpose. I made it explicit to illustrate the naivete of the male partner and the sophistication of the woman he is about to become involved with. I thought it served the story – opinions may vary.

Now, lest it sound like the book is all about sex, here are a few of the other issues this story deals with:
  • love and support among a group of middle-aged men – and two brothers – who don't always agree with one another's choices but still try to be there for one another
  • a husband's struggle to avenge his wounded wife
  • a father's choice to risk his own well-being to prevent his son from suffering the effects of that vengeance
  • an abused woman's fight for dignity by bringing art and employment to young women in an impoverished community
  • a man's painful struggle to recover from a foolish mistake made as a young man and to understand how this has damaged his marriage
  • an elderly man grieving the loss of the only woman he ever loved even though she did not return his love
  • a dedicated priest's struggle to stay true to his vows when faced with great temptation (the reviewer referred to him as the "fictional priest" which made me wonder what other kind of priest she expected in a work of fiction.)
  • a bunch of murdered young women (this never even gets mentioned in the review, proving Commandments 6 & 9 are more interesting than 5 is [Catholic version].)

There is more, of course, but you get the idea. However all those issues got overshadowed by the great monster of SEX.

In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Flannery O'Connor writes:If the Catholic Writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. She goes on to say that describing truthfully can, in point of fact, make such writing difficult for Catholic readers to read. I thought of that when I was reading this review.

The reviewer actually mentioned O'Connor's observation about “Catholic decor” and there is no doubt lots of that in Each Angel Burns, but it is always, in my mind, in keeping with O'Connor's statement that The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction, of any depth. These moments happen throughout the book -- one character watches a pair of hawks swooping over a valley and thinks that his soul is like those hawks waiting for that unseen current that will lift him out of the ordinary and into the sublime; another character compares her struggles with desire to those of Heloise for Abelard; an old monk tells a young priest about how he was able to reconcile his physical longings after the loss of his beloved wife. It is my hope that these sacramental glimpses of these characters inner lives is more than just décor.

So, the review is out in the world – complete with what the reviewer admits was a rant. I am not unhappy about that. And I will continue to write believing in what Fr. Andrew Greeley called “the Catholic Imagination”. I have one consolation, Fr. Greeley is not shy about writing about sex either but I do think my sex is sexier than his.

Thanks for reading.




  1. “…this is not a Catholic novel, either in its theological approach, its narrative voice, or its treatment of marriage and sexuality…. In terms of the latter, the Catholic reader is likely to have significant trouble.”
    If the reviewer is talking about adult Catholics in the above remark, then the only Catholics I could imagine who might have “significant trouble” with Each Angel Burns would be the Village Idiots.
    I’ve been a Catholic for sixty years and am both Benedictine and Jesuit educated and I cannot imagine how any Catholic could be anything but proud after reading how lovingly Valentine speaks of her Church, honors the priesthood, and intelligently writes about what all of us know to be true — which is the real elephant in the living room in this book (and not the “Catholic décor” that Flannery O’Connor referenced); i.e., that not all Catholic marriages are even remotely sacramental. It is those most flawed of marriages that Valentine examines and while the reviewer may consider this a mere literary artifice of which she claims to have her fill, they are the stuff of both good fiction and sad reality.
    What exactly is a “Catholic novel”? I’ve never heard of such a thing, any more than I’ve ever heard that Catholic fiction writers need to adhere to a “theological approach.” That’s absurd. Theologians may need to adhere to a theological approach but since when have Catholic fiction writers, or Catholic historians or Catholic writers of any other discipline been required to further a theological agenda or ideology, let alone be judged in light of a papal encyclical?
    Such orthodoxy will be the kiss of death for American Catholicism — a denomination more than any other contemporary Christian church that is known for its vibrant unfettered intellectualism. There are already far too many “litmus test” Christians and one of the things that I believe separates modern Catholics from many of their Christian brethren is that Catholics are not constrained by a stifling orthodoxy. We left that form of oppression behind in the mid-1950s and that it has tried to rear its ugly head in both academia and the arts, if not at times in politics, is not at all promising nor, in my opinion, desirous.
    All this, however, moves us far afield from the issue at hand and falsely suggests an inherent lack of Catholic integrity in Valentine’s fiction and nothing could be further from the truth. The irony is that Kathleen Valentine is quite possibly one of the most Catholic contemporary novelists in America; she writes about the Church as it is, not how some wish it still were — and to not see this demonstrates a disconnect from the vibrant intellectual culture that continues to respect and support the Catholic Church while at the same time gives beautiful voice to its many challenges.
    I admire Valentine’s writing because she doesn’t take the cheap shot; she is no Catholic-hating voyeur, nor slavish shill for its dogma. One cannot come away from Each Angel Burns without a sense of wonder about the miraculous; Each Angel Burns is so alluring that it beckons one to return… to return to Home where our sins can be forgiven and we are loved. Further, and I think this is the singular burden of a Catholic writer if one were to place such burdens on Catholics who write fiction: it does not shame or ridicule the Church. Rather it educates and informs both Catholic and non-Catholic alike and I find this most laudable.
    Finally, if there actually is such a thing as a “Catholic novel” I would argue this: it would be the novel that speaks honestly and respectfully about the human condition, free will, and the wages of sin. Each Angel Burns does all three brilliantly.
    I reviewed Each Angel Burns on May 7, 2011 and posted my review to my Windy City Author blog as well as other places; here is the link to my review on my blog:
    http://windycityauthor.blogspot.com/2011/05/meet-kathleen-valentine.html.

5 comments:

  1. The spoilers are not good, and the review site and reviewer's goodwill will be demonstrated by their response.

    But it does seem as if they have, within their own constraints, treated you very fairly, Kathleen, for instance writing to you in advance about what they saw as a problem they could not in conscience keep quiet about.

    In any event, Catholics who are also catholic, which these appear to be, will "struggle with a straggler" forever before declaring her anathema, so you can probably look forward to a long and mutually rewarding association with them.

    You wouldn't, for instance, want to punish them by withholding your next book from them, and thereby condemn them to the dullness of reading only books that follow their rules. That would be cruel and unjust, in a word, excessive.

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  2. Thank you, Andre -- you always make me smile. Yes, I agree that for, other than the spoilers, they were fair enough but I also wanted to make sure anyone who cares to have a look will learn that the sex that is 90% of the review, is less than 30% of the book.... just to be fair.

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  3. I think this needs to be also said because it bothered me about Murphy's review on Cath Fic and I see it again here: I would not classify any of the "sex" scenes in EAB as "explicit." Sister Mary Diverticulosis from my old grade school 50 yrs ago surely would but I don't know a nun or priest today who would (and I know many, believe me).

    There are 2 kinds of "sex" scenes in this book and they are very "Catholic." First, there are the parts that are very sophisticated and very sensual but they are not, in my opinion anyway, graphic, crude, or disrepectful of woman (or men). In the other scenes Kathleen has drawn a monster who uses sex to debase and control. His treatment of his wife made my skin crawl; it was not titillating in the least. It certainly wasn't a love scene or about a healthy loving adult relationship; the sexual oppression in the book was used to demonstrate all the gravest sins. In this, it was also "very Catholic" -- no glorification of sex for its own sake; rather, a perfect blue print for depravity.

    In EAB there is a beautiful balance between the healthy and the pathological; what is grace-filled and what is evil. And yes, I believe that grace can transcend the mere "rules" of marriage; I think God judges us more fairly than Her Rule Police and knows more than mortal man when we're imprisoned in the non-sacramental relationship.

    But as one old Franciscan once snorted when we were in a discussion about Church policy & he disliked my liberal views: "Well, now that I know you were educated by those damn Jesuits, I think I can fairly say: young woman, you're no longer even Catholic!" To which I proudly say, "Welcome to the real world of the American Catholic Church; you trained us to think with your marvelous educational system and so now I guess you shouldn't be surprised when we do..."

    Kathleen -- please write on just as you always have and don't bow to the Inquisitors. God gave you a stunning talent and I think you use it most beautifully to sing Her praises.

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  4. Thank you, Maureen! I'm glad those "damned Jesuits" trained you the way they did!

    My primary concern when writing about sex in EAB was that it be first and foremost good writing. As O'Connor says, Catholic writers are obligated to write truthfully and well. The problem I have encountered with too many writers who try to be Catholic in their writing is that, regardless of how gifted they may be at writing most of the scenes, they produce dry, stilted love/sex scenes. They switch from showing to telling and it just gets dull.

    However, all that being said, I'd still love potential readers to realize that there is a LOT more going on in this book than, as Monty Python would say, "the naughty bits."

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  5. This book had everything I love in a story; intrigue, love, sensuality, friendship, an amazing setting and very real characters. Maggie is my favorite.

    The backdrop to the story is an old abandoned convent on the rural coast of Maine. Maggie has been resurrecting the abbey for three years and
    has chosen to live a solitary life as an artist in the abbey rather than wait for her mostly vacant and abusive husband, Sinclair. She has finally found her strength to live her own life with the help of her artwork and her friendship with Father Pete. (which has it's very own back story...)

    The folklore surrounding the abbey with it's many underground tunnels, caverns and crypts adds a mysterious layer to the story. While the bubbling cauldron of different love conflicts between friends, wives, past lovers, lovers and God keeps you turning the pages....quickly.

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