Founded in 2015, and now based in Rhode Island, Cluny Media has been disseminating both a steady stream of classics, many of which have been out of publication for decades, and new titles, some of which are instant classics. Much like reviewing the Ignatius Catalog, flipping through Cluny’s offerings can be dangerous for the pocketbook but extremely good for the soul and for faith seeking understanding.
A summary of just a few of the titles that have brought me joy in recent years, offers a glimpse into the breadth and depth of Cluny’s work. It also serves as a helpful introduction to an interview with John Emmet Clarke, Cluny’s editor-in-chief, Leo Clarke, his father and one of the co-founders of the press, and Scott Thompson, CFO and COO of Cluny Media.
Five years ago I finally picked up Edwin O’Connor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Edge of Sadness. That novel too was a revelation, which I’ve written about elsewhere, but it offers a nice segue to one of the first Cluny publications I read, O’Connor’s less well-known All in the Family. When Cluny brought it to press, it had long fallen out of print. The story of a dynamic, dynastic, and dysfunctional New England family that has echoes of the Kennedys is an incredible portrait of the ties that bind and cut. O’Connor’s writing also is a helpful sociological portrait of an age often depicted as golden by certain Catholics. O’Connor’s keen eye shows that the purported health of the 1950s American Church was perhaps more on the surface than in the substance. That is not to say there wasn’t deep and fruitful faith—as there is now—but that like everything it was more mixed and ambiguous than we often let on. Edwin O’Connor, while lesser-known than Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and other 20th-century Catholic novelists, shows how the most mundane subjects can become the stuff of genius where good observation, profound story-telling, and deep understanding of the human heart are combined.
During the long Lenten quarantine of 2020, two Cluny titles helped me manage. One helped me penetrate the mystery of the Eucharist more deeply. The other helped me understand more deeply Deus Caritas Est. In The Eucharist: The Mystery of Holy Thursday, the late-French writer François Mauriac brings his novelist’s eye to the great mystery of the beginning of the Triduum. It is beautiful to read the reflections on the Source and Summit of our faith from a devout layman of such incredible artistic skill. Fr. August Adam’s The Primacy of Love, with a wonderful introduction by Professor Ulrich L. Lehner, was a formative book for Pope Benedict. In it one can certainly see the seeds of Pope Benedict’s great first encyclical. In the 1930s Fr. August Adam, the brother of the more famous Fr. Karl Adam, offered a text that grounded the moral life properly in the virtues and love. He suffered for it. His book, which in my mind clearly presages, later work by Karol Wojtyła, Servais Pinckaers, and Pope Benedict, was considered dangerous. Perhaps if Fr. Adam’s beautiful text had been internalized by more some of the convulsions of the post-Vatican II era could have been avoided. The Primacy of Love is a clear antidote to a sort of rigidity that ends in a desiccated and embittered faith.
A few other titles bear mentioning. Myles Connolly’s Dan England and the Noonday Devil, masterfully introduced by Professor Stephen Mirarchi, is a delight from beginning to end. Who knew that the battle against acedia could provide for such interesting novelistic material! Mauriac’s novella A Kiss for the Leper plumbs the mysteries of sin, mercy, and grace as only Mauriac can do. Cardinal Jean Daniélou’s Prayer as a Political Problem is, if anything, more timely than when it was written in the 1960s. Daniélou understood the essential religious sense of man, its communal nature, and the necessity of society’s support for man’s religious dimension. Daniélou’s short treatise offers a way forward for Americans trapped in frustrating binaries regarding religion and politics. Daniélou’s approach is radical in the best and deepest sense of the word. Finally, Stephen Schmalhofer’s Delightful People, a tour through some wonderful late-19th- and early 20th-century personalities is an example of a new offering from Cluny that is destined to be a classic.
And those are just some of the Cluny titles I’ve read. Many more grace my bookshelves waiting to be read including Georges Bernanos’ Under the Sun of Satan and Liberty: The Last Essays, Romano Guardini’s The Last Things, Gabriel Marcel’s The Philosophy of Existence, Joseph Ratzinger’s dissertation The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure, Mauriac’s The Desert of Love and The Lamb and Myles Connolly’s novel, Mr. Blue.
To better understand the logic and motivation behind this impressive catalog, I interviewed Leo Clarke, John Clarke, and Scott Thompson. Leo Clarke is a lawyer who received his B.A. from Stanford and his J.D. from UCLA. Leo has practiced law since 1975 in a variety of areas and also taught at a number of law schools. He is also the author of Man and the Economy: Understanding Capitalist Economics and Catholic Social Teaching. Leo and his wife Kathleen are the parents of eight children including John Emmet Clarke, the Editor-in-Chief of Cluny Media. John is a graduate of Providence College where he earned a B.A. in Philosophy along with a Liberal Arts Honors Program certificate. John began his career in publishing with firms in New York and Washington, DC, before his tenure at Cluny. Also a graduate of Providence College, Scott Thompson holds a dual Bachelor’s degree in Theology and Finance and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. After almost a decade of experience in the financial sector with Bank of America and Santander Bank, Scott joined Cluny as its Chief Financial and Operating Officer at Cluny.
CWR: Ignatius Press, Ascension Press, Sophia Institute Press, Loyola Press, Angelico Press, Pauline Books. There are a lot of Catholic publishers. Yet it seems that you have found a real niche. What was the impetus behind starting another Catholic publishing house?
Leo Clarke: The primary impetus was the state of Catholic education and of the lack of appreciation of Catholics for the treasures of our Faith. American adaptation to Vatican II had led to the disappearance of consecrated religious and priests from primary and secondary schools, and Catholic colleges became places where students were, by and large, losing their faith instead of strengthening it. Sunday Mass became optional, sin and confession insignificant, and the other sacraments mere social occasions. What remained of catechesis focused on becoming “good” rather than holy. Inspired by the call to the New Evangelization from both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we decided that “one more publisher” might offer a little “support to those on the frontline of the New Evangelization” (our original tagline) by publishing books that would help educators to share the treasures of our intellectual tradition.
CWR: Did you worry that the Catholic book market was oversaturated?
LC: Although Catholics may not read as many books per year as Evangelicals, there are millions of Catholics, and hundreds of thousands of students in Catholic schools and colleges. By focusing on republications, we saw ourselves as addressing a largely neglected corner of the marketplace. The major Catholic publishers feature only the occasional republication, and the boutique Catholic publishers often focus on idiosyncratic interests when it comes to republication, whereas we were hoping to just spread the knowledge of educators beyond their own classrooms.
Scott Thompson: It’s worth noting, too, that competition is a result of limited resources. Broadly considered, there is no scarcity of resources in the Catholic tradition—only a scarcity of provision. So we never saw Cluny as competing with any other publisher; rather, that we would be offering a complementary line of products to what industry peers are already providing in fairly large quantities. In point of fact, the problem facing the world of Catholic education is not a surfeit of publishers, products, or purveyors—but a diminution of light being actively, honestly, and charitably shed on our intellectual heritage as it really and truly is.
CWR: Many people have ideas—even brilliant ones. How did yours come to fruition? Can you tell us a bit about the process of founding Cluny Media?
LC: First, in 2011, when Sophia Institute Press went up for sale, I partnered with John Riess (now the president of Angelico Press), to make a bid for Sophia. From John Riess, I learned about acquisitions, book design, the ins and outs of editing, and the complex logistics of sales and distribution, especially through Amazon. After the bid failed, John then launched Angelico Press with his good friend Jim Wetmore, but my interest in publishing remained.
Then, in 2015, I was working with Gellert Dornay, a business-owner and philanthropist whose family had been leaders in the Catholic and homeschooling communities of Seattle for decades. Gellert was looking for ways to support the Church and Catholic education. I suggested a business plan to Gellert focused on republishing out-of-print Catholic books, especially ones used in colleges and secondary schools.
Our plan was for a virtual company: no physical offices, no full-time employees—a real labor of love. Gellert funded the start-up, and I did the business plan, the initial staffing, and set up the printing and distribution relationships. Since Gellert and I had more than full-time jobs, I enticed John and Scott to be editor-in-chief and CFO. I also recruited other recent college grads who were friends of the family to be acquisitions editors and drafted our sons George and Patrick along with other college students to be proofreaders. Within a month, Cluny had published its first book.
CWR: What were the first titles you published? How did you select them?
LC: The past is a profound teacher, but only if we attend to her lessons. The strategy behind the selection process, then as now, was simple: Identify the curriculum, so to speak, of the tradition, and then begin to restore what was lacking and provide it anew to a culture and Church hungry for intellectual, artistic, and spiritual food that actually satisfies.
For our first titles, the name of the game was quantity and quality in equal supply. I reached out to Dominicans at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, where our eldest son was a student brother for the Eastern Province of St. Joseph; the good friars there suggested a series of books to celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the Order of Preachers. That collaboration led to the first wave of books into the catalog as well as to a host of other connections. Gellert recruited Steven Mirarchi, associate professor of English at Benedictine College, to offer guidance on research into the Catholic literary world of the last century and a half. Steve led Cluny to the Myles Connolly Estate. This proved to be a momentous development.
John Clarke: Of all the genres in Catholic thought and letters, literature is perhaps the most grossly neglected. Beyond the marquee names and titles, we are by and large ignorant of the firmament of literary stars which once hung over our culture. Addressing that sorry state of affairs, especially with the novel, was an immediate priority for Cluny. Taking our queue from the peerless work of Amy Welborn for Loyola Press in developing the (now defunct, sadly) Loyola Classics, we created the Cluny Classics line in the catalog. Its goal: to bring back Catholic novels, novels by Catholics, novels by authors who lived and breathed in an atmosphere “permeated with a particular worldview” (Dana Gioia)—and that worldview was that of the Catholic Church and the revelation of Jesus Christ.
ST: Acquiring Mr. Blue was the crucial first step toward accomplishing that goal. A touchstone for American Catholicism, Mr. Blue encapsulates the singular levity of spirit which comes from taking up our crosses. A marked contrast to that levity, our second initiative for the Cluny Classics line was the fiction of François Mauriac, winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature. Our first title was Vipers’ Tangle, which is perhaps his best-known work; we have followed it with another seven of his novels—among which The Unknown Sea and The Dark Angels are particularly outstanding—as well several of his under-appreciated non-fiction works, like What I Believe and The Life of Jesus.
JC: Another foundational, early publication was Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism. Flannery O’Connor “cut her aesthetic teeth” on this book, and it truly is a master class on the objective nature of art, the role and responsibilities of the artist, and so much more. Most fundamentally, however, it represents the precise kind of work with which we are all so sadly out of touch: a work which dives headlong into reality and seeks with the lights of faith and reason to grasp its meaning. We like to think that if anyone is ever confused as to why a particular book is in the Cluny catalog, then they should go back to Art and Scholasticism, and Maritain will make it make sense. Which is not to say that I—or anyone else at Cluny, for that matter—accepts Maritain’s doctrines unreservedly. But their core rings true, so you can hammer away and continually learn something new.
CWR: What challenges have you faced that you did not anticipate?
LC: We anticipated much greater initial interest among Catholic academics. Although we were able to attract well-placed individuals to serve on our original advisory board, we were not able to generate a strong program of “sponsorship” for books that would be assigned in classes, which is where we hoped to secure significant placement and usage of our titles. We were also unable to generate significant interest from religious communities, whom we assumed would be interested in promoting their own charisms. We found a certain conservatism among the clergy and religious toward the unknown publisher. We also found that using recent graduates and students as part-time, virtual employees was not practical. So, we had to tear up our original business plan after a few months and start anew. Even then, expenses outran income. Our basic mission was to republish books that simply ought to be in print—the metric of “sales potential” was fairly ancillary at that stage, as Cluny was a labor of love and more or less that only. As a result, some of our first books, which came highly recommended, sold only a dozen copies a month—if we were lucky. At the end of 2016, Gellert and I sold Cluny to John and Scott. And it is their dedication and business acumen that has turned Cluny into a successful business.
JC: I also did not anticipate drastic disconnect between the “Academy” and the Catholic reading public. That there is an unwitting (at best) or dismissive (at worst) presumption that the so-called “every day” man, woman, or child either cannot or is not interested in reading “difficult” books surprised and continues to surprise me. A good number, if not the majority of Cluny’s books, are heady brews; but they are not academic in the sense of being highly specialized, esoteric, or inaccessible. At face value, books like Guardini’s The Humanity of Christ, Pieper’s Hope and History, Journet’s The Meaning of Evil, Claudel’s The Satin Slipper, are daunting reads, perhaps most at home in academic circles. Our thought, however, was and is that they should reach much further; they are precise contributions in their respective fields, which can make them not “easy” reads, but—to paraphrase a wise man who shall remain nameless—they are an opportunity to enter more deeply into the mystery. In our experience, sadly, we have found that those who could assist in providing this opportunity too often dismiss or redirect the “content” because “ordinary” Catholics might not “get it.”
ST: The other primary challenge is by no means singular to Cluny; it’s an industry-wide challenge—how to publicize the books. Authors are key cogs in the publicity machine; they are, after all, the ones who go on the book tours, sit for the interviews, develop the rabid fan following, etc. Cluny, obviously, is at somewhat of a disadvantage in this realm because nearly all of our authors are, to put it delicately, dead, and thus unavailable for comment or much of anything in the way of getting their name out in the market.
Had we anticipated this from the beginning, we would have spent less time and money in efforts to promote individual authors and books and directed resources instead toward developing the level of critical mass in our catalog which we enjoy today. A product line of substance, combined with some star power, has been Cluny’s greatest claim on public awareness. One without the other more than halves the promotional power of the company. This interview, like Sohrab Ahmari’s piece in First Things from last Thanksgiving, illustrates that. I just wish we knew then what we know now. We would have published Prayer as a Political Problem and All in the Family much sooner.
CWR: What lessons have you learned since your founding? If you could go back to the future, like Marty McFly, what would you tell yourself?
ST: Had we known the difficulties in marketing particular titles, as opposed to our mission and catalog as a whole, we would have taken a more practical approach to using our capital. Like John said, the critical mass of titles in the catalog has been the primary impetus for Cluny’s increased public prominence in the last few years. Using the initial capital to build a “market presence” over a truncated timeline was not a successful idea. We changed course to focus on using every dollar to add more titles, thus achieving that critical mass of books so readers would come across Cluny and find something they wanted to read. Following this new plan, along with eventually mastering online marketing, has accelerated income and charted a course for the company that can sustain Cluny well into the future.
CWR: Your catalog contains books that have been out of print for years and newly written manuscripts. It contains philosophy, theology, novels, poetry, and things in-between. How do you select the books that you decide to publish?
JC: Reading through the tradition is like looking at a map of the constellations—only in the case of the tradition, a great number of the stars are missing their labels. Once you start connecting the individual stars to one another, the constellations regain their shape, the sky map is populated—filled with people. Applied to books, the process is simple: Locate authors, track their connections, identify their interlocutors, both favorable and oppositional, measure the extent of their gravitational pull, so to speak, and before you know it, you’ve found a whole host of other authors and books.
Pretend you know little to nothing about the Catholic tradition over the last hundred and fifty years. You discover Jacques Maritain and read Art and Scholasticism. Now what’s next? Maritain leads to any and all of the following: his wife Raïissa, poet, mystic, and philosopher; Humbert Clerissac, O.P.; or neo-Thomism in general: Étienne Gilson, A. G. Sertillanges, and others. Art and Scholasticism leads to any and all of the following: Flannery O’Connor, which leads to Caroline Gordon; Caroline Gordon leads to Walker Percy, who leads to Josef Pieper and Gabriel Marcel; Pieper leads to Guardini and Ratzinger, who point back to more figures than we can count here.
CWR: One aspect of your catalog that is particularly noteworthy is your publication of long out-of-print titles. Can you describe what goes into bringing one of these books to publication? Can you describe the process of bringing to press one of these publications?
JC: For republication, the rights acquisition process is the greatest and most time-consuming challenge. It can take months or even years to accomplish copyright due diligence, let alone to actually secure the license to publish. That part of the process can be interesting but is certainly not glamorous; it’s like being private investigators in a Raymond Chandler novel, but without the morning martinis.
Once we do secure the rights, though, the fun begins. We purchase a copy of the original book—in whichever edition is generally recognized as the authoritative edition—and then digitize and OCR the book into an editable document. That document then has to go through multiple rounds of proofreading, as the OCR science is not an exact one. The book is then newly typeset, usually with certain aesthetic considerations (emulation of or homages to the book’s original design, for example), and read through one final time before moving to the cover design stage.
Our design team of Clarke & Clarke is myself and my mother, Kathleen. Our design philosophy is to unify the book’s elements into a single piece. We achieve that by selecting a visually representative image of the story. One concrete example: we selected Eugène Delacroix’s After the Shipwreck for Claudel’s The Satin Slipper. The opening scene of the play portrays a Jesuit priest, dying at sea, but praying for his lost brother, Rodrigo. The detail from the painting shows that dying, solitary figure, set against a heavy, darkened sea and sky—which images Rodrigo’s turbulent world and winding way by which he must travel to arrive at salvation.
ST: As you can see, this is a lot of work for a book that might generate only a few hundred dollars in sales each quarter. So, unfortunately, we often have had to sacrifice perfection in production compared to publishers which are looking at a first printing of 25,000 copies.
CWR: 2015 was the heart of the decade that was supposed to signal the end of the printed book. Obviously that hasn’t happened but there certainly were more auspicious times to launch a publishing company. Can you take us into why you launched in 2015?
LC: Naïve optimism and the generosity of the Dornay family. Although Gellert was not able to entice other members of his family to become active in Cluny, we could not have started without him. He is a classic risk-taker with a burning, contagious love for the Church. So without the serendipity of the Dornay connection, we would not have had the capital to start Cluny. And one more thing is clear: without the vision and charity of John Riess and Angelico Press, there would be no Cluny Media.
CWR: Are there books that you really have wanted to print that you haven’t been able to bring to press because of complications?
JC: Yes, absolutely. There are scores of great authors whose works are sadly, sometimes inexplicably, out-of-print, but still under copyright—usually with professional management, which makes license procurement a prohibitively difficult project. Foremost among these authors and works, for one concrete instance, is Ronald Knox. While some of his works remain in print—such as The Creed in Slow Motion from Ave Maria Press, In Soft Garments from Ignatius, and one of his detective mysteries from Merion Press—many more remain unavailable. Among those, Captive Flames, Mass in Slow Motion, and Bridegroom and Bride are all gems, and richly deserving of being in print and easily available. Please God, Cluny—or another press—will accomplish that soon.
CWR: I am particularly struck by the literature you have brought to press. Myles Connolly was totally unknown to me. The Sigrid Undset offerings are likely ones of which fans of Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken are hardly aware. A number of the Bernanos and Mauriac titles are also more obscure. It seems you are helping readers to see how the Catholic literary revival of the 20th century was even broader than many of us knew. How did you become aware of some of this literature? Do you have academics or literary scholars that help you discover some of these titles?
JC: As mentioned above, we had invaluable assistance from Steve Mirarchi in developing the original list for Cluny Classics. Brian Barbour, professor emeritus of English at Providence College, introduced us to the list of Modern Catholic Authors, developed by the late, great Frank O’Malley of the University of Notre Dame. From that list we gleaned such great titles as Silone’s The Abruzzo Trilogy, Undset’s The Winding Road couplet (The Wild Orchid and The Burning Bush), von Le Fort’s The Veil of Veronica, and Leo L. Ward’s Men in the Field—which just recently received some much-deserved great press.
It bears repeating, too, that the more you read, the more you know both that and what you don’t know—because the more you read the more you realize how much more there is to read. The so-called “Catholic Literary Revival,” beginning with Newman in the mid-1800s and then ending perhaps with Percy in the second half of the 1900s, is a vast and variegated reality: the French connection with Mauriac and Bernanos; the Italian with Silone and Bacchelli (the latter threading us back to Manzoni, interestingly); the British connection with Benson and Godden; the Spanish with Gironella and German with von Le Fort; and the American with Connolly and Gordon—we have to consider that these elements are all interconnected on account of their catholicity and their Catholicity.
CWR: Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange and Jean Danielou. Etienne Gilson and A. G. Sertillanges. Neo-Thomism and the Nouvelle théologie. It seems that you are traditional without being traditionalist, that you are presenting the solidity and suppleness of the Faith. Is that a fair characterization? And, if so, why have you chosen such a path of balance?
LC: “Traditional without being traditionalist”—that’s an arresting way to put it. And yes, it does seem a fair characterization. It reminds me of the preamble to the song “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye says: “How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition.” Tradition is a balancing act; it is both static and dynamic. Once you overdo it in one direction or the other, you fall, or at least you wobble. And that could be where a project or a philosophy loses its way and becomes an –ism. For Cluny, however, the name of the game is keeping the culture alive, making sure the tradition is maintained—which means handing it on, not in bits and pieces, but whole and intact as much as possible.
JC: Over the course of republishing more than two hundred books from the last century and a half, we have learned that intellectual history is simply not neat and tidy. And polemics make the papers; it’s conventional wisdom that those polarities you just mentioned involve marked degrees of tension, opposition, and disagreement; that there is right and wrong, there are winners and losers. Even if that conventional wisdom is vindicated by reality, it is still worthwhile to actually read the books and get to know the people at the heart of those polarities, not secondarily, but primarily—in their own words. It is messy and there is obviously risk of confusion and error in that kind of project, because we are sheep after all—but sheep made with the desire to know. So we can take and read, doing so with “malice towards none and charity towards all”—and that’s how we maintain that balancing act of tradition.
CWR: In relation to the last question, it seems that in the last years both in the larger world but the Church as a whole, the center no longer holds. Extremes dominate. Yet, Cluny Media, at least to the outside observer, seems to be thriving. And it eschews such extremes. Rather than extremes it presents the beautiful and winsome nature of reality. Why do you think it has worked and is this a path you’ve intentionally chosen?
ST: We have never believed that the Church should have factions—ut unum sint. Plus, there were already plenty of publishers that served particular groups within the American Church. We saw a need to publish books for those people who followed the example and inspiration of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to open their minds as well as their hearts to God. It was immensely important, too, that we make available those books which tell the story of the Church and Catholic culture in the twentieth century before Vatican II, because that Council did not just appear from another galaxy.
CWR: What are some of your forthcoming titles or acquisitions that you are particularly excited about? Could you share those with us?
JC: Absolutely, though it is difficult to pick just a few! Over the course of the next eighteen months, we will have new editions of Karol Wojtyła’s A Sign of Contradiction and Emmanuel Mounier’s Be Not Afraid; Rumer Godden’s A Breath of Air and Gabriel Marcel’s Thirst (newly translated by Michial Farmer); Yves Congar’s Tradition and Traditions and Louis Bouyer’s The Paschal Mystery; last but by no means least, Gerhard Fittkau’s My Thirty-Third Year—think another installment of With God in Russia.
CWR: You recently added a subscription option on your website. Can you tell us what that is all about?
ST: One outstanding measure of Cluny’s success, and an indication that we are at least in part achieving our goal, is the growing number of our customers who return month after month to purchase the latest releases. To show our appreciation (and make their lives easier), we created six subscription plans wherein a book or books will be delivered each month without fail. There are three topical subscriptions (Literature, Philosophy, and Theology) and three subscriptions relating to our new releases (one, three, or all of the new releases). Just a week has passed since the subscriptions launched and we’ve already seen an enthusiastic response. Not only does this simplify things for the customer, it assists the company in inventory management and lessens the logistical burden on Cluny—which in turn allows for more time for the republication of more great books.
CWR: In closing, are there any other thoughts you’d like to share with us?
JC and ST: Capital is as scarce in the publishing industry as it is elsewhere. Please buy these books. Or just send us money. We took our name from monks—and like them and the Temptations, we’re not too proud to beg.
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