February 26, 2024

Novels and ‘the holy contour of life’

In his 30 point Belief and Technique for modern prose Jack Kerouac exhorts writers to ‘Believe in the holy contour of life’ and to be ‘Writer-Director of earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven.’ It seems almost impossible to dream of a modern, adult novel that contains no element of spirituality or moral questioning. Yet many (if not most) modern writers seem to deliberately avoid writing about religion, and certainly avoid talking about writing about religion, even if they accidentally find themselves tied in knots by the spiritual lives of their characters. In a world in which religion appears as a driving force behind much that happens on the world stage, it seems absurd that so few novels (and not much more poetry or theatre) address questions of religion and the role it plays in today’s society. Why is this the case?

The first reason may be this predominance of discourse about religion in itself. The more a topic is worked over the harder it is to approach it with artistic ingenuity and to avoid cliche. It is also true, unfortunately, that a lot of the voices we hear discussing religion are from radical standpoints of one sort or another (radically pro-religion or radically-atheist). The majority of people are neither – the majority of people are earnestly seeking answers to their questions, and a way through life with the best possible results for themselves, those around them and the world as a whole. For some reason people from both sides of the religion fault-line (or from every side of the religion/atheist hexagon) all paint one another as intolerant and intolerable. Sooner or later we are all liable to start believing that, and thinking we too must be extreme if we are to enter into a discussion about religion.

It is true also that amongst artists and liberal-minded, educated people there seems to be what someone I know referred to as ‘a general atheist miasma’. From the ‘liberal press’ (whatever that is) we get a general sense that ‘we’ (whoever we is), don’t believe in God or gods, people who do are stupid and/or right wing (whatever that is) and that’s really all there is to say on the matter. As you can see this subject matter demands caveats and questions and careful wording. All of which are a pain if you’re writing a novel.

The third major reason I can decipher is the rise in ‘religious fiction’. This is not as big in the UK as is in the US, but these are books which purport to be true, to one level or another, such as The DaVinci Code, and the Left Behind  series and countless others. There is also a thriving, if marginal, genre of books explicitly fictionalising traditional theological concepts. In such a climate an author might feel it would be detrimental to write a ‘religious’ book for fear of closing off large swathes of the market (though it must be said some of these books are massive sellers, especially in the US).

And yet – it’s not true that religion doesn’t feature in stories being told today. In fact, I think we are seeing a resurgence of questions being asked about faith, if in fact they ever really disappeared. Despite the relative silence in literary fiction discourse about religion, it has featured noticeably in one form or another in every novel I have read so far this year (albeit not all of them were written recently). That can’t be complete coincidence?

One book which I think manages particularly well with the bleary edges and confusingly personal implications of faith is The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam. This is a book ostensibly about religion, but which is really about family, freedom, grief, trauma, love and morality. Anam just understands that for many, if not most, of us religion is intricately woven into all of those aspects of life. On this planet religion is still intricately woven into every question we ask of ourselves as human societies. Whether we think it should be or not is neither here nor there, it isn’t going to disappear. And it hasn’t disappeared from literature. Whether we want it to be there or not, religion and it’s place in the world is screaming questions at us from every page, and we cannot help but write about it. The challenge is not to run from it, but to embrace it when it marches into our work, as it inevitably will at some point. What Anam succeeds in doing so well is in taking religion and holding it up to the light and then juggling with it; just when we think we have a hold on her characters and their faiths, they do something a little different to what we expect, because religion and faith are complicated, many many many stranded things. And just when we find a place that is acceptable or unacceptable to us, something edges in to cloud that view. What will distinguish literary attempts to write about religion in the 21st century from those ‘God Fiction’ books many writers are keen to avoid being teamed up with will be the ability to evisage difference.

As religion increasingly polarises the world, I long to see the space for discourse reclaimed, not just by theologians and clergy, and not just by the radical responding to the radical, but by all those in between who ponder and seek and write about religion, even when they don’t mean to. Of course, not every book warrants religious characters or religious themes, but religion – in the broadest sense of that word, exorcised from any creed or organisation – is a part of the richness of human experience, and a world of novels without it would only be poorer.


Should novelists write about religion? What are your favourite books with religious themes? Post your comments below.

2 Comments on Novels and ‘the holy contour of life’

  1. Hi Alexandra. I know that when I write fiction and poetry I am always aware of some slight religious influence when making decisions on where the story or characters are moving from and to. This comes from a lapsed Christianity standpoint and thus manifests itself in helping the alignment of characters moral standpoint (on a very simple level). I also base a lot of fiction in the area that I grew up which has quite an apparent Catholic undercurrent. I don’t, though, look to write religious fiction and any religious influence would be 20th/ 21st century if I did.

    What interests me in literature is when society and religion collide, my interest starting circa Thomas Hardy and Modernist literature and the points at which the rules of society started to out-way the rules imposed by religion. This certainly wasn’t the death of religion but I see it as the shifting of religious importance. The recent novel ‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller highlights this, with Jean Baptiste (John the Baptist) employed by the Palace of Versailles to exhume the bodies of those interred in the cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris, an act that happens on the cusp of the French revolution and shows the paupers living in the shadows of this dominant ecumenical structure, whose bursting boundaries are poisoning the very streets they live in, that the old regimes of the rich, hidden in their opulent palaces and religion, which dominates through superstition and fear can be dug up and dumped elsewhere by hard work and education. It highlights the archaism of religion (or at least Catholicism), the removal of which allows society to burgeon.

    Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ is another certainly religious novel (and also my favourite book ever written) which features a society in which religion is being ‘muted’ by modern life. It features a triad of ‘taboo’ relationships and how religion and society affect and view these relationships. The first Baby Kochamma at 18 falls in love with a Catholic priest and converts to Catholicism to pursue him only to identify the futility of this action afterwards and convert back, to then live her life embittered by the experience and desperate to uphold societies laws. This flirting with religions possibly highlights the capricious approach of someone able to make religious choices due to their position in society (again brought by wealth and education). The second ‘taboo’ relationship being Ammu (a woman of high caste) and Velutha (an untouchable), this is a relationship forbidden by society and its gender issues as her brother is actively encouraged in sexual relationships with many women irrespective of their caste. The third ‘taboo’ being the sexual relationship between Estha and Rahel, twin siblings, described as the reunion of a ‘Siamese soul’ which is very much a socio religious wrong. The relationship that goes most punished being the inter-caste relationship of Velutha and Ammu, but society does not punish either of the religious indiscretions. The trilogy of relationships happen over three different generations and thus might also highlight how society has moved from a stronger religious society in Kochamma’s case to one with a more live and let live attitude, having more of a loose moral compass, in the time of the twins.

    These may seem like sweeping synopsis of these novels but I am trying not to hijack your comments box with them. I agree that literature and religion are inseparable, though, whether covertly or not, look at the sales figures for Harry Potter which is just a re-telling of the bible, isn’t it?

  2. Andrew – thanks so much for the comment and your thoughts. Funnily enough I just finished ‘Pure’ yesterday, and ‘The God of Small Things’ is also one of my favourite novels! I think these novels have are so successful – both in literary terms and in more ‘commercial’ terms because they tap so skilfully into that conflict narrative you have highlighted, and talk about that which so many of us cannot disengage from in our lives. Another fantastic book in this vein which I would recommend is ‘Maps for Lost Lovers’ by Nadeem Aslam, I suspect you would like it if you’re a fan of the above.

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