Since publishing a youthful memoir, The Whole Five Feet, about a year spent reading the Harvard Classics, Christopher Beha has written three novels that exhibit his talent for comedy and a light-handed mastery of intricate plots that bring to mind Russian forebears. All three novels—What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Arts & Entertainments, and The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (longlisted for a National Book Award)—engage big existential questions about meaning, faith, and hope. Beha also has a day job that keeps him busy, as editor of Harper’s Magazine, which bears the stamp of his belief in the power of literature and the cultural importance of tracking the truth. Beha was interviewed by editor in chief James K.A. Smith at the Catholic Imagination Conference hosted by the University of Dallas in September 2022.
Image: Your first book was a memoir. And then the three novels. Tell us a bit about your writing path. Was the first book a detour?
Christopher Beha: Very much so. Fiction and poetry were my primary callings. When I got to Princeton as an undergraduate, they had a very good creative writing course. I started taking fiction and poetry classes every semester, studying with Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, and Edmund White on the fiction side, and Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, and Laurie Sheck in poetry. It was an incredible blessing for a young writer.
After a few semesters of this, Paul Muldoon, the chair of the program, pulled me into his office. It had, as you would hope, a lectern with a single-volume OED and a magnifying glass, and what he did all day was just look up etymologies. He said, “You can’t take two of these courses a semester. Too many other students want to take them, and we’ve got to make sure we have space for everyone.” I, a very arrogant eighteen-year-old, said, “Well, I keep getting in to both, so why can’t I keep taking both?” Paul said, “Chris, you’re not a great poet.” And I never wrote a poem again. That was twenty-five years ago.
I was sufficiently arrogant to think he meant I was a great fiction writer, so that’s what I did. And the truth is, if I had to choose, fiction is what I would always have chosen, because I love, love novels. My relationship to the novel form is among the most important relationships in my life.
Image: You got to college already knowing this?
CB: I went there because I wanted to study with all those writers.
Image: What birthed that? Who was this precocious teenager who knew this was his path?
CB: I was always reading. That was always important to me. In third or fourth grade, an English teacher gave me The Old Man and the Sea and said, “You can read this.” I loved it, and then I went to the library and picked out For Whom the Bell Tolls. Luckily enough, I suppose, it didn’t make any sense to me. It was gobbledygook. But there was always an aspirational element to my reading. I had a sense very early that there existed a tradition that I needed to bring myself up to, to “get.”
In high school, I got very into the Beats. That’s something a particular kind of guy does at that age, and I was that guy. So much of the attraction is about the way they romanticize the writing life, shaping your life around being an artist, all of that. It wasn’t just that I loved their books; it was bound up with a sense of vocation. I wanted to figure out a way to center my life on these imaginative acts.
Image: How did your college path lead to the memoir being the first book?
CB: I was about eighteen when I started writing fiction seriously. I tried to do it as much as possible, and I was really aimed toward finishing things, getting better at it. I didn’t think of it just as a hobby but as something central to my life. I worked for fifteen years, with a fair level of dedication, before I published anything—I was thirty-three when Sophie Wilder came out.
For most of that time, I wasn’t in any kind of literary world. I worked in the development office of a small Catholic college on the Upper East Side, Marymount Manhattan College, writing grant proposals. My grandmother had this Harvard Classics Great Books set that had been on her shelf my whole life. At the time, these annualist books—“my year of doing this or that”—were popular. I thought, in an offhand way: the Harvard Classics is fifty-one volumes, so you could spend a year reading a volume a week and write a book about that.
I finished a novel and started shopping it around to agents, and nobody wanted it, but one agent took a meeting with me and said, “This novel’s not going to work, but you can write good sentences. I think you have talent, and I’d like to work with you. Do you have any other ideas?” Quite spontaneously, I told her my Harvard Classics idea. This was in October of 2006. She said, “Do you want to spend the calendar year of 2007 doing that?” I said, “I don’t know, I guess.” And she said, “Okay, get me the proposal by Thanksgiving. I’ll have it sold by Christmas, and then you’ll spend the year working on it.” And that’s what happened. That’s the way publishing works. You work seven years on a book and no one wants to touch it, and then you get an idea and they say, “Go spend a month writing and come back and get a contract.”
I thought I’d spend the year as this feckless young man reading the Classics in a sort of jokey way. I quit my job, though the advance was not really enough to do that, so I moved back in with my parents. Three or four months into the year, my Aunt Mimi was diagnosed with melanoma. She was my godmother, and I was very close with her. She was my mother’s best friend, in addition to being her sister. Really, I would call her a saint. She was one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve known in my life.
After her diagnosis, she moved in with my parents because she couldn’t live on her own. Her kids were grown and her husband had died many years before. My parents were working, and I was home. I wound up spending a lot of that time sitting with her while she was dying, reading these books. That radically altered the project.
It’s still not a book that I would particularly recommend to anyone. It’s not something I’m especially proud of, to be honest, but it was very important to my development. I was very concerned with literary style as a young writer. I wanted to make great sentences. Part of why it took seven years to write that novel that went in the desk drawer was the way I pored over the sentences. Part of the reason it didn’t work was that the most important thing to me was that it be a collection of carefully calibrated sentences.
When I wrote the memoir, initially I felt I could write freely because it was a left-handed work. It wasn’t actually that important to me. Once the book became a record of the last months of this woman’s life, what became important to me was that the writing be true. Everything else took a backseat to that.
Image: And that insight was something you could carry into fiction, your goal all along.
CB: That became the big question for me: I’ve learned that the writing works when it’s about trying to get at the truth, rather than trying to make beautiful sentences. Now, if you transfer that into the fictional space, what does it mean to say that I need the writing to be true? I don’t have a simple answer. That is part of what sitting down at the desk every day is about.
So the memoir was a detour, but a necessary detour. The other thing is that I didn’t for a moment doubt that the first thing I would do when I finished this book was go back to writing fiction. Some people would take the lesson, having spent seven years on a novel that nobody wanted and then selling a good nonfiction idea by putting a proposal together in a month, that nonfiction should be their career. But I still felt fiction writing as a vocation. Plus I just felt a strong love of the novel. That’s what I wanted to be doing.
Image: It’s not just fiction writing that is your passion, it is the novel in particular. In fact, we don’t really have short fiction from you. Is it the architecture of a novel, both tantalizing and daunting, that draws you? Is it an aversion to short fiction?
CB: You’re right that there isn’t any short fiction. Every time I try to write a short story, either I abandon it, or it turns into a novel. Arts & Entertainments was supposed to be a short story.
One of my difficulties, as I was trying to develop as a writer, is that in MFA programs the expectation is that you write short stories. It has to do with the fact that short stories are easier to workshop, but it’s completely arbitrary. The idea is that if you’ve written a novel’s length of short stories, you know how to write a novel, which is absurd. There is just a qualitative difference. The only way to learn how to write a novel is to write a novel.
What that means is probably writing a bad novel, but you can’t set out saying, “This one is going to be my bad novel.” You have to put your entire heart and soul into the years and years of work of writing this novel, such that when you get to the end of it and realize it’s bad, it’s absolutely heartbreaking and devastating. Then you have to put that thing away and start over again.
Image: So a novel is not just a longer short story. What defines it for you? Is it plot architecture? Is it the deeper psychological exploration that’s possible in the roominess of a novel? What is the draw and the challenge?
CB: Well, there are a lot of things. One is the way a novel tries to render both an objective external reality and an internal subjective reality. To bring this from the level of general craft talk to the particular context we’re in [at the Catholic Imagination Conference], the fact that both of those things are real is a central feature of what we believe as Catholics: That the material reality, including that of the body, is a real reality. That the spiritual, subjective reality of our consciousness embedded within our bodies is a real reality too. The novel is the best form we have for rendering both of those and the tension between them.
Image: You’ve mentioned in other places that metaphysics was part of your way back to faith. It also sounds like metaphysics is, for you, part and parcel of the novelist’s project.
CB: For most of human history, realism referred to something very specific, which is the way that philosophers use the term. In that sense, to be a realist about something is to believe that that thing has some sort of metaphysical or ontological status that makes it real.
So, if you are a mathematical realist, you think that mathematical entities, like numbers, are real. There is one microphone here, and one microphone there, but there is also a thing that is the number one that in some sense exists. It isn’t just a category we impose on reality. If you’re a moral realist, you feel that way about moral values like good and evil; they are real. To be a realist of one kind or another in this sense is precisely to have a metaphysics.
According to the critic Ian Watt, the term realism in the sense that most of us use it now dates to the early nineteenth century, when a French critic praised Rembrandt’s réalisme, his attention to vérité humaine. The point was that Rembrandt didn’t paint idealized types, he painted human beings. He showed people as they actually look. And so realism came to be closely associated with the depiction of physical or material reality. But of course part of what makes Rembrandt so powerful is that precisely by looking so closely at a thing, attending to its physical reality, he gives us a sense of what lies beyond it. His people have a spark of light to them that idealized portraits would not. And so it’s a mistake, I think, to associate realism with a particular view of reality itself, especially the materialist view.
What I find so profoundly attractive about the realist tradition in fiction—Tolstoy, George Eliot, Flaubert, Henry James—is that it doesn’t take reality for granted. These are all very sophisticated philosophical thinkers, and none of them is under the illusion that their job is simply to render physical or material reality on the page. To take the most obvious example, they are all deeply interested in capturing the play of human consciousness, which is not a physical phenomenon at all.
Image: I’m sure you have heard your books described as novels of ideas. Do you hate the phrase?
CB: No. It’s actually a subject I find quite interesting.
Image: How does a novel of ideas gestate? Your novels are interrogating big, perennial human questions. For example, every novel is about free will and determinism in some way, and about whether or how we are human. There’s also the question of the curious endurance of religious belief in a secular age. How does a novel of ideas come to be? I imagine it doesn’t start with the concepts.
CB: I can tell you very precisely how Sophie Wilder started out, which is that I was working at a poetry press that was run out of the publisher and editor’s loft in Tribeca, essentially as an intern. One day I was at her loft doing my job. The phone rings, and it’s her husband. He had just had minor surgery, and they wouldn’t release him without someone coming to get him, so he had called his wife. I said, “She’s not here.” He said, “Oh. Will you come?” I realized I needed to do this, so I went and signed a form that said I would see him safely home. Then we walked out the hospital door, he said, “Thanks, Chris,” and he turned and walked away. I had no idea what happened from there, but it was an interesting story. Someone gets a call out of nowhere to pick a stranger up. I thought of it as fundamentally comic.
I always misunderstand the genre I’m working in. I thought that Arts & Entertainments was going to be a drama of moral choice. Instead, it’s a broad comedy. My wife explained that to me on our first date. I described the new novel I’d been working on, and she said, “Oh, you’re writing a comedy?” I said, “No, it’s a drama of moral choice.” She said, “Well, it’s a comedy,” and she was right. With Sophie Wilder it was my twin brother. He’d had a very serious accident that led him to a long stay in the hospital. When I described the book to him, he said, “That’s not a comedy.” I asked what he meant. “Well, imagine being trapped in this hospital,” he said. “They won’t let you out. Imagine having nobody to call, such that you need to enlist a stranger.” I saw his point.
Image: So even the so-called novel of ideas starts with a scene, a character, a setup.
CB: Part of the reason I have this problem with genre is precisely because you don’t start with the theme but the incident. Part of the writing is figuring out the significance of the incident. This guy selling this sex tape, is that funny? Is it sad? I don’t know yet, because I don’t know who he is. I’ve got to write it to find out. This person in the hospital, is that funny? Is that sad? What does it say? I spend virtually no time thinking about theme.
Image: But the themes keep bubbling up. It’s like a spring of philosophical curiosity keeps flowing into your narratives.
CB: There’s a wonderful Philip Roth quote about his father’s dinner-table conversation. His father was a great talker, Roth said, but his repertoire was really just variations on a handful of themes: “Family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew. Somewhat like mine.” I do think every writer has their preoccupations, and I don’t think you can choose them. They may change over time, but for many, many writers they don’t.
But the funny thing about Roth was that he never repeated himself. People say he did, but if you actually read the books, and if you care at all about form, you wouldn’t say that. To write that many books over the course of a career, and to have each one of them be formally distinctive, was his gift. He did not sit down and ask, “What do I want to say now about family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew?” He had a story to tell, or he had a way he wanted to tell a story.
Over time I’ve come to a clearer understanding of what my own preoccupations are. The early stuff that no one will ever see clearly shares them, but I didn’t get what the material was about. I hadn’t clarified certain things. It has been good for my fiction to become clear about the preoccupations. They do come out pretty clearly in the work. However, I never start with the preoccupations.
Image: I have a Roth-y question for you: Is New York your Newark? Can you imagine writing a novel in which Washington Square Park does not appear?
CB: I would like to get out of New York. I lived in Paris for a couple of years. I finished The Index of Self-Destructive Acts there, though it’s very much a New York novel. I would like to set a book in Paris, a city that’s very important to me, but I think there is only so far afield I’m going to go, to be honest. I’m provincial in that way.
Image: Speaking of New York novels, in reading some of your books, I’ve had a Tom Wolfe–like experience where you seem to be holding up a mirror to show us our blemishes and the strange, hackneyed ways of life we’ve managed to back ourselves into. Is that fair? Do you think that’s one of the responsibilities of the kind of novelist you want to be?
CB: I try not to think in generalizations, including ones about novelists and their responsibilities. I’ve lived almost my entire life in New York. I’ve worked for close to twenty years in the New York media and literary world, and I have a lot of friends doing various cultural work in New York. When I sit down to write about situations, that’s what’s there to me; that world is the given. In Index, I did not set out to write a satire of the New York media world. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it wasn’t my goal.
Whereas when Wolfe sat down to write, he would research things in the way Zola would. In the way that Balzac is very important to me, Zola was very important to Wolfe. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but the distinction I’m making is that I care first about human beings, and those human beings happen to be situated in cultural and professional and political contexts. If you want to render them properly on the page, you have to get those contexts on the page with them, and get them right, to some extent, but I don’t consider it my job to render the context, or to perform a critique of the context, or to invent human beings or collections of words that signify human beings that can achieve that end of critiquing the cultural context.
Image: One of the themes across your novels is the endurance of a religious devotion that you keep noting and describing in all kinds of different ways. Sophie Wilder not only converts to Catholicism in a deeply secularized collegiate context, she’s even tempted by the cloister. In Index, Eddie Doyle signs up for the military after 9/11, which is its own act of devotion. Then he’s drawn to another kind of conversion listening to the apocalyptic street preacher at Washington Square Park. It’s interesting that Romanticism gets woven into Index as part of this swirl and ethos. Are you trying to suggest that a lot of our neighbors are hungrier for transcendence and mystery than they might realize?
CB: I suppose. Very, very many of them are, in fact, aware that they experience this hunger. They don’t consider theistic belief a live option in responding to the hunger, but they are aware of the hunger itself. A lot of people talk about a pandemic-related mental health crisis going on. People are suffering. There are people suffering due to economic conditions, but there are also people—some quite economically secure—who are suffering for other reasons. They’re suffering existentially, psychologically. Our country is just full of souls that are suffering, and they know it. I don’t think that people are blind to it. I don’t think people believe that the way we’re going is the right way; I think they’re desperate for something to change. A lot of that gets funneled into political activism, and some of that is incredibly productive. Some of the changes that need to happen, no doubt, are political changes. But also a lot of people’s hearts need to be turned.
Image: Another thread across all three novels involves questions of freedom, agency, constraint, and determinism. In Index, Frank, the disgraced romanticist sportswriter, says, “The things that can’t be proven are the only things worth talking about in the first place.” For all the ways that algorithm-obsessed Sam, the younger journalist, wants to be able to predict human behavior, humans resist that. As Frank’s daughter, Margot, says, “Humans can swerve.” What interests you in that tension? For me as a reader, holding onto humanism seems like its own act of transcendence and defiance in the face of that kind of reductionism.
CB: I don’t know if this answers your question, but for me, one of the single biggest pieces of evidence that the materialist, reductionist account of reality is false is how completely useless the social sciences are. The project of universalizing science is not a twentieth-century one. This was a pre-Enlightenment project. Bacon talked about it. They have been trying for centuries.
Economists have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to predicting what the economy’s going to do. Why? Because it involves humans. Or consider political scientists on the 2016 election. I mean, it was a binary outcome—you ask the people who are going to participate what they’re going to do—and everybody got it wrong. Imagine if you got to ask billiard balls which direction they were going to go. If they described something physically impossible, you’d be able to say, “Your account doesn’t make sense. This is simply not right.” But people are not billiard balls.
I actually think that when social thought is treated as one of the humanities, it has robust and powerful potential for human understanding. When it is treated as a science, not so much. We know that the litmus test of science is its predictive value. You know a scientific claim is true if it can tell you something about a future state of being, right? The social sciences have made virtually zero progress on that front—not in twenty years, not in fifty years, not in five hundred years. That just tells you that conscious beings are different from matter. We are so good at making predictions about any physical entity that does not have consciousness, and we are useless at it with anything that does.
And yet the reductive materialist account tells us that consciousness is irrelevant, that it is an epiphenomenon, that, in fact, what we are is brains. We are material, and there is some weird thing that rides along and makes us think we’re conscious. It seems to me that if that were true, then we would’ve made more progress in the universalizing of science than we have.
That’s part of my interest in humanism. But then, as a novelist I’m just interested in the fact that human behavior is deeply strange and unpredictable. That’s my material.
Part of my objection to starting with the themes connects to Hegel’s line about Shakespeare’s characters, that they’re “free artists of themselves” who are all constantly in the process of self-making. We are all in that process. If you want to create characters that appear human, you have to allow them to act against type. You have to allow them to behave in ways that are surprising, that do not advance your themes or your plot. That’s why you have to start with the human.
Image: The very nature of the novel demands resisting the reductionistic account and granting agency to characters, which then turns out to be an insight into the agency of humans.
CB: There are differing opinions on this. E.M. Forster would constantly talk about how his characters would run out of his control. I do think writers can overdo this. I’ve got news for you: it’s all words on a page; your characters are not real. Nabokov once said that if he were a character in a Forster novel, he would run away too. “My characters are galley slaves,” he said. There’s an alchemy to it. Sometimes a character can surprise you in the writing, and you get so excited that you follow them off in a direction that has nothing to do with the construction of what you’re trying to do. Then you realize you could have used a little more control there.
Image: When people talk about the Catholic novel, there’s a lot of glancing back to the literary saints —O’Connor, Greene, Percy, and so forth—understandably, perhaps. Yet, it seems to me that whatever the vocation of a Catholic novelist would be today, it can’t be just to repeat what they were doing, because the world has changed so significantly. What do you think is the innovation that’s demanded of the Catholic novelist today? Or maybe you don’t worry about this.
CB: I try not to think about it. I don’t think of “the demands of the day.” I don’t think that’s a writer’s job.
I would say that any serious conversation about the most significant American novelists of the last few decades would include Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon—all Catholic novelists in one sense or another. So I don’t buy the declinist narrative at all.
I think that if there is a thing that the larger culture is hostile to, it is imagination. Within the spaces where people still prize the imagination, the Catholic imagination is prized very highly. People might not think of it that way, or they might prize it with reservations; they might say, “I prize the Catholic imagination but not Catholic social teaching,” or “but not Catholic morals.” But I don’t think there is a hostility to the Catholic imagination as such in our world. As I said, the hostility is to the imagination.
The thing that goes on when you read—which is that you sit with words on a page, and those words create an experience that goes on entirely within your own body, your own consciousness, and has no material effects out in the world—anyone who believes that that is meaningful is already, in a sense, resisting the reductionist’s materialist view. To the extent that a novelist has a responsibility, it is in creating compelling works of the imagination, works that allow that opportunity for interiority that happens when somebody who knows how to read a great book sits down with a great book. My own imagination is deeply, deeply informed both by my Catholic upbringing and by the fact that I am a believing, practicing Catholic as an adult. That’s not something I would ever try to hide, or make any apologies for, but I do not sit down to write with a program as a Catholic novelist. That, to me, is a recipe for failure.
Image: You’re suggesting that writing fiction requires a commitment to imagination that people might not realize challenges some of their own metaphysical commitments to reductionism elsewhere in their lives.
CB: I’d put it this way: there are certainly great novelists who essentially accept the reductionist’s account of reality, but I don’t know of any great novelists who are happy about it. Writers like Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard are deeply pessimistic, but they take the view that they must continue writing despite all that, to live as though that weren’t true. Nietzsche famously said, “We have art so that we might not die of the truth.” There is a kind of sensibility that can hear the materialist’s account and then just say, “Yeah, that’s going on. No biggie.” If you ask them why we should then be moral people, they say, “Well, no reason, but we are. Evolution programmed us to have reciprocal altruism.” Richard Dawkins was once discussing this worldview with another scientist over a nice lunch, with good, expensive wine, and he said, “People think it’s depressing, but I’m having a very nice lunch.”
Some people can separate it out that way. For them, life is a tasty glass of wine, and what more do you want? Those people are not going to be novelists, I don’t think. They’re not going to be readers of novels either. But if you are a novelist, you’ve already got an audience that is dissatisfied with reductionism. I think a lot about the scene in Annie Hall where Alvy Singer has stopped doing his homework because the universe is expanding and we’re all going to die. And his mother says, “What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn!”
I do think some people just live in Brooklyn. They recognize certain grim implications of the materialist view, but they’re able to separate it from their daily lives. For them it’s like, “I know all that, but what does it have to do with me?” Then there are some people who can’t separate that, and I’m one of those.