The great and present danger to American literature is the growing homogeneity of our writers, especially the younger generation. Often raised in several places in no specific cultural or religious community, educated with no deep connection to a particular region, history, or tradition, and now employed mostly in academia, the American writer is becoming as standardized as the American car—functional, streamlined, and increasingly interchangeable. The globalization so obvious in most areas of the economy, including popular culture, has had a devastating impact on literature. Its influence is especially powerful since globalized commercial entertainment—movies, television, popular music, and video games—now shapes the imagination of young writers more pervasively and continuously than do literary texts. An adolescence in Los Angeles is not much different from one in Boston or Chicago when so many thousands of hours are spent identically in the same virtual worlds. Is it any wonder that so much new writing lacks any tangible sense of place, identifiable accent, or living connection to the past? Nourished more by global electronic entertainment than active individual reading, even the language lacks resonance and personality. However stylish and efficient, writing with no past probably has no future.
If you dislike Christianity—which some readers of this essay surely do—you may regard the decline of Catholic literature as a sign of progress. It seems proof positive that contemporary Christianity lacks creativity and cultural intelligence. But even in secular terms, this position is myopic and self-defeating (not to mention undemocratic). The retreat of the nation’s largest cultural minority from literary discourse does not make art healthier. Instead, it weakens the dialectic of cultural development. It makes American literature less diverse, less vital, and less representative.
There is a temptation for members of a cultural elite to see their values as the only respectable virtues, a tendency that blinds the group to both cultural innovation and aesthetic dissent, especially from people deemed marginal to established intellectual society. Jazz, blues, film, detective fiction, science fiction, and photography were all arts that emerged without elitist approval, and yet they all made indisputable contributions to American culture. In retrospect, it seems clear that the great accomplishments of mid-twentieth-century American fiction depended on the emergence of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American voices. These distinctively accented voices—Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor and J. F. Powers, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin—opened up new vistas of American fiction by articulating the worldview of groups previously marginal. People on the margins see some things more clearly than do those privileged to live at the center. When the elite and the powerful silence the voices of outsiders, culture hardens into convention. Any secular reader who wishes Catholic voices away unknowingly furthers the narrowing and standardization of American letters.
Nowhere is Catholicism’s artistic decline more painfully evident than in its newer churches—the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies. Saddest of all, even the liturgy is as often pedestrian as seraphic. Vatican II’s legitimate impulse to make the Church and its liturgy more modern and accessible was implemented mostly by clergy with no training in the arts. These eager, well-intentioned reformers not only lacked artistic judgment; they also lacked a respectful understanding of art itself, sacred or secular. They saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational. The problem is that art is not primarily conceptual or rational. Art is holistic and incarnate—simultaneously addressing the intellect, emotions, imagination, physical senses, and memory without dividing them. Two songs may make identical statements in conceptual terms, but one of them pierces your soul with its beauty while the other bores you into catalepsy. In art, good intentions matter not at all. Both the impact and the meaning of art are embodied in the execution. Beauty is either incarnate, or it remains an intangible abstraction.