A Q&A with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone is an author, poet, and teacher living in New Jersey. He is a staff writer for The Millions and has had his work published in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, and Shenandoah. His new collection of short stories, Good People, will be published later this year.

Nick wrote or was featured in a number of insightful pieces over the last couple of months, including an essay about writing as a sacramental act, a beautiful list of reflections on teaching English, and an interview on the state of Catholic writing with The Jesuit Post. We reached out to Nick to ask a few additional questions about literature, art, teaching, faith, and New Jersey, and he graciously accepted our request.

In “Sacrament of Fiction,” you wrote: “The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.” Why did you return to New Jersey after college? To what extent does a sense of place influence or weave its way into your work? Given the political and economic tumult that our state seems to face rather consistently, what role (if any) do you believe art and literature can have in shaping public policy?

There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each with its own culture and power structure. That observation would apply to any state, but New Jersey is unique in that this fragmentation occurs in a small state with marked economic inequalities in bordering towns and counties. I grew up in a suburban area of the state, my family is from an urban section, and I live in a rural part–Sussex County–which looks like Vermont.

I came back to New Jersey after college for family, and for those geographic and cultural diversities. I actually think being from New Jersey forces one’s imagination to be on high alert, because of all these stratifications. But I don’t often write about this state in my fiction. Place is essential to my work, but not exactly this place. I’m attracted to fiction in which topography dictates culture, so I lean more toward pastoral writers like Ron Rash, Jayne Anne Phillips, Thomas McGuane and Cormac McCarthy. My fiction tends to be set in the West, Midwest, and Southwest, for those reasons. I can write essays about this state, but my fiction is set elsewhere. Our truths are strange enough, I guess.

Now, that’s an interesting question about art and literature in relation to public policy. I worked in a county elections office one summer, and watched all of the handshake agreements and constant “meetings” between local officials and election officers. That made me incredibly skeptical of politicians, and the idea of parties, especially. Unfortunately, I think New Jersey is a place of endless squabbles and backstabbing (or frontstabbing?), so a scene from Hamlet might be most appropriate for what happens at the Statehouse.

I think art and literature can help people transcend the ephemera of the political world. That doesn’t result in the governor’s administration actually making a pension payment, nor does it lower our property taxes, but it might give some solace. More practically, art and literature adds nuance and texture to single-column, talking-point style reporting. There is a great political and social novel to be written about the theater that is Chris Christie’s New Jersey: from Xanadu to closed lanes, we’ve got high drama for low reasons. I tend to think writers and artists do better helping make sense of policy rather than directly shaping or building it.

In what ways is teaching similar and/or dissimilar to writing as a vocational, devotional endeavor?

Although I get paid to teach, if done well, it is also a selfless pursuit, focused on helping students discover themselves intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Teachers are only a part of this process, but they are an important part. At some level, teaching is a kenotic activity. Writing is an inherently selfish activity. I hope that my teaching somehow evens-out my tendency to write (since I think writing for publication is, effectively, the claim that my words are somehow worth the time and money of an audience). There is certainly a penitential aspect to the teaching-writing equation.

Both endeavors require an absolute attention toward an audience, which includes mediation between performance and genuine feeling. Since I write two essays a month for The Millions, an online magazine that covers books, writing, and publishing, I need to craft pieces that are worth reading on the screen. We have a wide audience, but they are a discerning one. When it comes to teaching, I have had students who took several different courses with me, say that I seemed like a different person in each course. I’ll take that as a compliment. When Thomas Merton said “what we have to be is what we are,” I think he was more concerned with our internal than external selves. As a teacher, I play to the audience while trying not to get played (Flannery O’Connor said if a student doesn’t find a teacher’s methods or content to his taste, “Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” She’s funny, but she never taught high school English. There needs to be some compromise.). There’s a difference between being emotionally raw, wearing your emotions on your sleeves and slacks, and being genuinely interested in the well-being of your students. Many teachers leave the profession because they take it too personally. The same goes for writers.

You’ve published novellas, nonfiction books, poetry collections, and essays. Does your writing and composition process differ for each of these forms?

Yes. My novellas have been pared down from novels. This Darksome Burn, which was published last year, is more than 200 pages less than its longest version. I’m a big fan of almost maniacal line-revision on the printed page (with as sharp a pencil as possible). I like to pare away, clear the chaff, and add more.

I take the same approach to short essay writing. My book of literary criticism, The Fine Delight, was a different beast. That required so much research and sourcing and comparing that I held-off on worrying about the prose until the content was finalized. It was a weird feeling to not write a paragraph and then revise it, but the book was meant to impart information, not be lyric.

I can draft a poem very quickly, but I always put those manuscripts in a desk drawer and let them sit for a few weeks before thinking about revision. I print one poem per page at 14 point font (the errors jump out a bit more there, and it also forces me to make sure my lines aren’t too long). After a line-edit, I do one more run-through since I sometimes am too heavy on concision. I have to resuscitate the rhythm of a line before the poem is finished.

If you had to choose one writer and/or theologian who most influenced the way you think about belief and your craft, who would you select?

This is such a difficult question! Let me start with the runners-up. The only theologian who has really formed me is Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, but he has not had as much influence as Flannery O’Connor, Andre Dubus, Thomas McGuane, Ron Hansen, and Don DeLillo. If I had to pick a runner-up, it would be DeLillo. Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school and university. His work is profoundly Catholic, but he does not appear to have practiced the religion as an adult. We differ in that sense, but I often learn best from writers who are not quite like myself.

I would choose DeLillo over Dubus and O’Connor because, ultimately, even though I write about the West and Southwest, my soul is from Newark. I’m a Northeast guy with that sensibility, and it’s a sentiment DeLillo captures in everything, from Underworld to Point Omega to my favorite work of his, End Zone, which is set in Texas but is narrated by a character from New York.

The writer who has lived a life of faith that I try to emulate is Ron Hansen. I love his range: he moves from historical fiction like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to a postmodern theological thriller, Mariette in Ecstasy. His collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, has helped me as a writer, and has been a spiritual document for me as a Catholic. He’s been the model of a Catholic writer who publishes in the secular world not to proselytize, but to widen the cultural conversation.

The Church has seen a significant amount of change since Francis became Pope. You’ve written about your youthful aspirations to become a priest; do you think we’ll see more substantial changes in Church policy or doctrine in the coming years on subjects such as married priests? Would these kinds of changes be good for the Church?

I think we have seen changes in delivery and tone under Francis, more so than we have seen doctrinal shifts. He appears to be more self-aware of the theater of his role than Benedict. Outside observers, particularly lapsed Catholics or those who have never had a faith, expect swift dogmatic moves. His humble gestures are in the tradition of the name he has taken, and have certainly improved the face of the Church. Fr. James Martin, one of America’s most known Jesuits, has been in magazines, on websites, and on television and radio stations with a consistent refrain: Pope Francis is a brilliant, compassionate man who will likely not deviate from traditional church teachings.

In regards to married priests, I think Francis’s presence will hopefully create more reasonable dialogue about priestly celibacy (and, really, the emotional and physical identities of priests overall), but I do not think the Church will shift its stance here. While still a Cardinal, Francis said that celibacy is “a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.” Some media markets have run with that statement, but to again echo Fr. Martin, it is important to remember that Francis is both a theologian and a Jesuit, prone to extemporaneous thinking. I think that is a positive trait. He is open-minded and dynamic. I don’t think it means he is necessarily malleable. It’s not my place to say whether priests should be married are not. There are instances of Lutheran pastors (and those of other rites) converting to Catholicism and remaining priests, but this gets into theologically murky territory that I don’t have sufficient background in to comment. I think the best thing for the Church is to view the laity as “their people,” not a separate entity. That seems to be happening more under Francis.

In response to Dana Gioia’s essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” you noted the following in an interview with The Jesuit Post:

The ultimate problem is that we are lacking a Catholic critical infrastructure…. Without this critical infrastructure–without conversation and contradiction–we are left with a provincial literature. Catholic stories published in Catholic magazines for Catholic readers, or Catholic books reviewed on Amazon by Catholic reviewers who gauge the writer’s fidelity to Catholicism as you would rate a vacuum.

This quote suggests an aversion to literature that falls in an exclusively “Catholic” genre. Would you say that “Catholic literature” should instead be more of an approach, a movement to interpret and discuss all secular art from a faith-based frame? What steps could we take to initiate conversations on a broader scale? What kind of infrastructure would you want to see created?

I do have an aversion to literature that forcefully identifies itself as Catholic in a genre sense, as if self-identification is an affirmation of aesthetic quality. I like the idea “approach” much better, for the reasons you mention; articulating Catholicism as a worldview. I happen to think it is a wonderfully nuanced worldview. Catholic faith and Catholic Mass are intrinsically analogical and performative. Catholic schooling and upbringing are excellent preparations for sensitive artists. As Catholics, we are taught close reading, the power of song to transform story, the possibility of something being simultaneously a symbol and a real thing, the wealth of community, the models of saints, and more—all experiences that translate well into the creation of, and appreciation for, art.

In order for a return to a significant presence of Catholic arts and letters in the wider secular discussion (as in the time of Flannery O’Connor), we need a recognition of certain aesthetic standards, and the acceptance that not all work written by Catholics (or about Catholics) is necessarily good. There is a difference between private and public literature. Private literature is cathartic, personal, immediate. It does not need an editor. Public literature needs an editor, a publisher, an audience. It needs distribution and discernment. In order for these Catholic conversations to reach a “broader scale,” we need men and women writing from a Catholic worldview articulating that aesthetic sense in the largest and most influential markets, magazines, and locations. I think of Mary Karr, Dana Gioia, Gregory Wolfe, and Paul Elie. But four is not enough.

The infrastructure component you discussed was well-covered in “The Catholic Writer Today” by Dana Gioia, but I would add that we need to bring the private versus public conversation to the undergraduate and graduate classrooms in creative writing. We need top-notch writing programs at Catholic universities, training young writers to also write criticism for wide audiences, not simply peer-reviewed journals (which are excellent, but don’t reach enough readers beyond the academy). These movements will be slow, but they are necessary. Catholicism is a tremendously misunderstood and misrepresented religion, culture, and intellectual space. Catholic writers need to do the work of correcting these errors while inspiring adherents to look at their faith with new eyes.

Thanks again to Nick for responding to our questions. Check out his latest novella, This Darksome Burn, here. For more information on Nick, visit www.nickripatrazone.com.

The State of the Humanities, Part I

This is the first part in a short series on the state and health of the humanities in higher education and American society. 

2013 has seen a remarkable and extended debate over the current status of humanistic education in the United States.  One of the latest additions to this debate was a New York Times article from October 30, which examined Stanford University’s increasingly disproportionate student enrollment in humanities classes against its support for humanities disciplines.  “Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students,” the Times reports, underscoring an increasingly urgent question that liberal arts faculty must address: are the humanities dying in American education?

The June release of The Heart of the Matter, a committee report on the state of the humanities and social sciences in America, spawned a swath of commentary that sought to answer this question.   Additional 2013 reports from institutions such as Harvard University provided further depth and possible metrics to judge the success of humanities-based education.  Interestingly, the various articles and essays written by journalists and academics have largely coagulated into two broad sub-debates: what the ultimate goal of a humanistic education should be, and whether or not participation in humanities classes has been in decline over the past few decades. 

In this installment of our series, we’ll take a look at the latter facet and address whether humanistic education is in a death spiral amidst increasing enrollment in STEM and professional degree programs.

A report from Harvard University showed that between 1966 and 2010, the total number of students nationwide majoring in a humanities discipline – including English, philosophy, languages, religion, and general liberal arts; NOT including the social sciences – fell from 14% to 7%.  Harvard’s own case study indicates that among students intending to major in a humanities discipline at the start of freshman year, over 50% graduate in another discipline, generally one falling within the social sciences.  Additional Harvard data reveals a 10% increase in STEM enrollment from 2003 to 2012 and a 10% decrease in female enrollment in humanities majors since the early 1980s. 

The statistics don’t paint a terribly optimistic picture for the current state of humanistic disciplines, though Harvard’s report emphasizes that this isn’t so much a “crisis” as “a challenge and an opportunity.”  But a number of analysts dove further into the data to see the extent to which a decline was actually occurring.  Nate Silver looked at the state of the English major and finds that increased college enrollment numbers account for part of the decline’s face value: 

The relative decline of majors like English is modest when accounting for the increased propensity of Americans to go to college. In fact, the number of new degrees in English is fairly similar to what it has been for most of the last 20 years as a share of the college-age population.

In 2011, 3.1 percent of new bachelor’s degrees were in English language or literature. That figure is down from 4.1 percent 10 years ago, 4.7 percent 20 years ago, and 7.6 percent 40 years ago, in 1971.

But as a proportion of the college-age population, the decline is much less distinct. In 2011, 1.1 out of every 100 21-year-olds graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English, down only incrementally from 1.2 in 2001 and 1.3 in 1991. And the percentage of English majors as a share of the population is actually higher than it was in 1981, when only 0.7 out of every 100 21-year-olds received a degree in English.

At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Bérubé checked the Digest of Education Statistics, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, and finds the following:

The most recent edition of the digest goes up to 2010. Table 289 lists all degrees by field of study, and it reveals a most curious thing: In 1970 the humanities accounted for 17.1 of all bachelor’s degrees (143,549 out of 839,730). In 2010 the humanities had indeed fallen—to 17.0 of all bachelor’s degrees (280,993 out of 1,650,014).

How can that be? Here’s what the NCES considers to be humanities disciplines: “area, ethnic, cultural, and gender studies; English language and literature/letters; foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics; liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; multi/interdisciplinary studies; philosophy and religious studies; theology and religious vocations; and visual and performing arts.” The huge (and also underacknowledged) increase in enrollments in the visual and performing arts—from 30,394 in 1970 to 91,802 in 2010­—is covering for declines in English and foreign languages.

Bérubé also noted that the 1970s were anomalistic when tracking humanities enrollments from the 1940s through today.  The early part of the ‘70s saw 64,000 students enrolled in humanities majors, which dropped to around 34,000 by 1985-1986.  Enrollment today stands at almost 54,000, indicating a nearly 60% increase in humanities majors in the preceding 30 years.  

It becomes clear that the current “state” of the humanities is dependent upon the metrics used to qualify the departments they encompass and the student population they are serving.  This makes it difficult to draw an absolute conclusion on whether the humanities are healthier or worse off than a half-century ago.   While more students are majoring in applicable disciplines overall, general student participation is losing degree share to other areas of study.   Given these contrasting interpretations, it seems Harvard’s assertion that this is not a “crisis” is thankfully correct.  While an ideal situation would see interest trending closer to the halcyon days of the ‘50s, participation in the humanities has not seen an inescapable death spiral.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at the other major question that has been asked in the debate over humanities education: what should a modern humanistic education strive for, and how should that be reflected in its curriculum?