Some years ago a priest who was worried about my formation and the dubious orthodoxy of the books in my reading list, recommended me to mix my peculiar novels and poems with something good -good meaning here instructive, solid and doctrinally sound-. So I took a couple of novels about the first Christians hoping to have a good time while being edified by their example. The start was promising: I read Quo Vadis and I liked it a lot, then I went for Fabiola of Nicholas Card. Wiseman and… my love affair with the novels about the first Christians came to a sudden end.
Fabiola is instructive, positive, etc… but as a novel it is just terrible. If you do not follow my advise and insist in reading it, you will meet Saint Sebastian, Saint Pancras, Fabiola and Saint Agnes among others. But all these Saints are as alive and human as a barbie doll. Each time Saint Agnes opens her mouth she utters a prayer, a sermon or a mixture between the two. I cannot believe Saint Agnes was like that, that’s a caricature of holiness, and because it is not real it is laughable. Saints are attractive. You just have to read their autobiographies to discover human beings with tons of grace of God, good humor, shortcomings and virtues: a truly human and supernatural mixture. Wiseman’s Saint Agnes is made out of plastic.
I think the main problem -leaving aside the Cardinal’s talent for fiction- is he wanted to write something about the first Christians. He did not have a story, but just wrapped a sermon in a novel bag. He had a series of nice thoughts and said “yeah, let’s make sweet Agnes spit them out…” -most probably he used better language-. The result is bad sermon and a fake novel. Ideology was the real engine of the book, not the story itself nor literature as art. The outcome of this approach cannot be positive because you are making use of art and not seeking beauty as its end.
The case of Fabiola is somehow extreme but there are others. Cardinals are not the only guilty ones of an excess of zeal. Think of 1984. Orwell had a good ideology -showing the perversions of totalitarianism and lack of freedom- and at the same time he had a story, and a good one. The book is very engaging, you are afraid of Big Brother, you are totally inside the story and suffer together with poor Winston Smith…, but as the book goes on the story fades away and you are left with pages of pure ideology. 1984 could have been perfect if Orwel had concentrated more on the plot and a little bit less in doublethinking. A writer has to show people throughout their actions or thoughts (or whatever method he chooses). Through these actions he can get across the ideas he has in mind -in case he has any-. But he has to avoid the temptation of taking shortcuts, because they lead nowhere.
So if you -zealous reader- want to write a novel in order to change the world or to get across a message, please don’t do it. Write an essay or spend sometime thinking in a story: your ideas will naturally flow in it. Not the other way round. Then join me in my prayer through the intercession of Saint Agnes. From Ideological Novels, libera nos Domine!