So long, #SmutWeek. Time to celebrate pious fiction with #NunDay.


Brittany Allen

July 8, 2024, 12:07pm

Elsewhere this June, certain readers were ripping bodices in celebration of smut—that saucier end of the romance novel spectrum. But over here at Lit Hub, we’re girding our loins. Naturally, we know there’s a time and a place for bulging members and holy palmers’ kisses. But wouldn’t we be remiss to forget literature’s buttoned-up opposites? The protagonists who toil in states of sensual repression, never to submit to venal sin?

As Claire Luchette wrote in The New York Times, women of the cloth have just as much narrative potential as their secular counterparts. And in fact, that “otherness makes for tension and rich characterization.” You’ve heard of non-fiction? Well, this here is nun-fiction. Time to sew those corsets back up and get back in the habit with these literary gems.

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Claire Luchette, Agatha of Little Neon 

This brisk, lovely novel follows a nun “who’s neither a holy fool nor a musical miracle worker nor a monster” through assorted misadventures at grim postings along the East Coast. In Agatha, expect to find a pleasantly no-nonsense narrator, who describes her trials in crisp, witty vignettes.

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Lauren Groff, Matrix

Groff’s nun is loosely based on a real one: Marie De France, a pioneering 12th century poet. This freewheeling speculative history follows De France’s eviction from the court of Aquitaine, and depicts her troubled but glorious attempts to form an intentional community.

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César Aira, How I Became a Nun

This entry is here by the grace of a technicality. (Indeed, no literal nuns appear.) But this dreamy fable is an Aira staple—surreal and luminous. This quasi-autobiographical picaresque begins with a child eating poisoned ice cream and only goes sideways from there. And in its own way, the book is devout. It captures how an artist commits himself to lifelong belief in dreams.

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Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk

Meet the book Peter Brooks once called “the aberrant masterpiece of the Gothic novel.” Another big fan? The Marquis de Sade. The Monk tells the story of the abbot Ambrosio, who finds his faith tested by a novice who may be an actual devil. Exploring sex, death, and temptation, this novel veers into surprisingly salacious corners for the eighteenth century. The intrepid reader should expect witchcraft, ultra-violence, and deals with the devil.

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Alice McDermott, The Ninth Hour

Claire Luchette praised this “excellent nun-dense novel,” for its depiction of a doggedly practical novitiate. Unsentimental but quietly luminous, this nun-vel captures the quiet acts of service that keep a moral universe moving. And in McDermott’s ever-steady hands, this is a beautiful study.

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Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy

This “deeply devout book colored by sex and suspense” was praised in circles secular and devout on its release in 1991. Tracing the arrival of the young Mariette to the Sisters of the Crucifixion, the prose in this novel continues to transfix fans decades on. Nick Ripatrazone reconsidered it in a rapt 2016 essay for The Paris Review.

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Margot Douaihy, Scorched Grace

Rare is the nun who launches a crime thriller. So thank heavens Douaihy has brought us Sister Holiday, “a chain-smoking, heavily tattooed, queer nun,” who finds herself embroiled in an arson scandal in her New Orleans hometown. Sarah Weinman praised this “showstopper” of a series debut, which introduces the Sisterhood of the Sublime Blood.

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Donna Woolfolk Cross, Pope Joan

Pope Joan is a book I’ll always associate with summer, because it’s one of those novels I plucked off my mother’s shelves in a fit of bored July rebellion and inhaled slightly before I was ready to metabolize its trickier plot points. (I vaguely recall a gruesome street death, and the nightmares it inspired.) But the key word here is inhaled. Cross’ speculative history of a young woman who passes into the papacy is a page-turner, and a true feat of historical imagination.

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Iris Murdoch, Nuns and Soldiers

This book follows the brilliantly named Gertrude Openshaw and Anne “ex-nun” Cavidge. A meditation on mourning, love, and faith, this novel is peak Murdoch—all knots and rigor. Kirkus called it “another difficult, antically crannied study of worrying.”

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Christopher Durang, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All To You

This one-act from the late Christopher Durang was big with the Young Thespians set in 2005, let me tell you. And though this Sister may be less nuanced than other novitiates on this list, she is a hilarious, satirical concoction. This six person play-let pits the cranky, judgmental Sister Mary against several “cases” who resist her harsh moralizing.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner That Held Them

This episodic account of a medieval nunnery “begins with an adulterous, post-coital scene that quickly turns bloody.” And that’s just the first unholy act depicted. Written by the queer Communist writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, this one’s a subversive thrill ride with a surprisingly radical sensibility.

Happy #NunWeek, all you assets to the abbey.

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