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Praise Be: America Extols Summer Fiction Issue

Filed under: Eustace Google   Tagged: , , ,

Martin Schneider writes:

I agree with the editors of America, the national Catholic weekly, that the most recent Fiction Issue may have represented a stealthy way of having a “Faith” issue in America’s most prestigious secular magazine. They note that “the magazine’s literary critic, James Wood, wrote a 4,000-word essay on the problem of theodicy, a term one does not often encounter in the pages of Eustace Tilley’s journal.”

America can cheer in recent hire Wood, then, because the guy has mentioned theodicy in five different articles so far! And, of course, the magazine does mention The Brothers Karamazov quite a lot, which is almost as good.

It will surely further cheer America that James Wolcott didn’t like all the wintry God stuff.

Myself, I have no objection to an emphasis on rabbinical or Jesuitical disquisition in the magazine. But June?


I found the “Faith and Doubt” issue consistent with the New Yorker’s general interest editorial voice - and I’ve been reading the magazine since the late 1960’s. I also found the issue consistent with Mother Teresa’s “Crisis of Faith” letters, which the Church wisely did not repress. I doubt the maturity of proclamations of faith that don’t at least recognize if not express doubt; I also doubt unequivocal and militant proclamations of faithlessness – people are usually more fickle and indecisive. As for James Wolcott, he has a reputation to worry about. In an Audit Bureau of Circulations study (2nd half 2006), of the top 100 magazines by average circulation (AARP –
# 1 at over 20 million, to # 100 Jet, just over 900K), only the New Yorker (# 85 at just over 1 million) comes anywhere close to producing a consistently reliable and credible general interest voice. All of the others are membership, hobby mags., purely commercial entertainment, popular news, fashion, or entertainment about entertainment. Maybe the editors of America, and Wolcott, missed Ian Frazier’s recent piece, “Hungry Minds,” in which faith and doubt mix it up in a soup kitchen in an old church – but that was a characteristically identifiable New Yorker piece. In any case, where else can you find Buckminster Fuller, Nabokov, a review of “Sex and the City” preceding “God and the problem of suffering,” – take a breath – there’s still Menand on Pound, and Sasha on recording, and Schjeldahl on Jeff Koons, all in the same issue – and all of that after opening with the horrific images recently coming out of South Africa. A mixture of faith and doubt seems the only appropriate, the only realistic, response. I don’t see anything “stealthy” about it. Beckett was once asked why he wrote so much about suffering – did it not suggest he was somehow obsessed with it. He was getting into a cab, in London, and there was some blurb on the dash advertising some faraway disaster, and he mentioned it as evidence that he didn’t go out of his way to dig these things up – they scream at you even from the cabs of London - and in all seasons, too, we might add.

Great comment, Joe. Thanks.

To be clear: the evidence of stealth lies only in the fact that the words “FAITH AND DOUBT” did not appear on the actual spine of the issue. It was notionally the “Faith & Doubt” issue, but it was technically the summer fiction issue. Of course, putting the words in red type in the TOC was the up-front part of the equation; it wasn’t all stealth. Surely both America and Wolcott have a point in that “faith and doubt” is not likely to be a big seller? Which is all the more to the magazine’s credit, really.

I didn’t know where else to say this, so I’ll say it here: I really enjoyed Lane’s review of SATC.

For those who may not wish to read the entire thing, I’ve culled what I think are the best lines in Wood’s piece and combined them in a short post.

Wood is a critic for all seasons.

Terrific post, Nigel. Indeed, your entire blog looks very stimulating. I’ve alerted my Google Reader account to its existence.

Yes, but your point is based on an assumption that a liberally lubricated well-educated secular audience will have no interest in faith and doubt matters. But first, calling it the fiction issue is an exaggeration; calling it the faith and doubt issue is equally an overstatement. It’s just another issue, but a very interesting one. The middle section in the TOC does stick out, but my point is simply that the sub-text of much fiction and non-fiction is faith and doubt, albeit written with profane, ironic, or pagan ambitions. The democratically free secular, like a tourist with an unimpeachable passport, has the advantage of moving freely back and forth across an open church and state boundary – a freedom of movement those tethered to either church or state can’t enjoy. I think it’s a mistake to assume faith and doubt issues won’t sell to this audience – they already do. But let’s see if they can solicit something from Madge Midgley – that ought surely to make for a good day for Wolcott.

Yes, Lane’s review of S&TC was brilliant. One could easily do what Nigel did for Woods and cull the best shots from even just the final paragraph: “… - by their talents, their hats, and the swordplay of their wits” – “Believe me, ladies, we’re not worth it…” “…my head a whirl of closets, delusions, and blunt-clawed cattiness.” Then ending with his subtitle.

Joe: I fully agree that The New Yorker benefits greatly from that general-interest flexibility, precisely as you say. I also agree that both America and Wolcott may be making too much of Wood’s article. Beyond that, I stand by my perception that the magazine apparently desired to accrue the editorial benefits of focusing on faith’n’doubt (such as they may be) while not suffering the promotional hit that running such an issue might entail. I don’t disparage anyone for that; it’s called “running a magazine well.”

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