Two Great Writers Talk about Writing
By William GiraldiJune 12, 2012
What Happened to Sophie Wilder
Tin House Books
June 12, 2012
The Whole Five Feet:
What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else
May 6, 2009
W. W. Norton & Company
August 1, 2011
IN 2009 I WAS PERUSING the aisles of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass, hoping to find something I didn't know I was looking for. On the table of new nonfiction sat gleaming a memoir with a most curious title: The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else. A longtime proponent of the notion that great literature has the capacity to enrich lives, to alter lives, to enlarge the potential of one's mind and heart, to prepare us for love and death if we will let it, I carried this book home and was introduced to the mind and storytelling of Christopher Beha. A memoir of book love and the intellect, The Whole Five Feet is a necessary reminder of literature's central role in our world.
After that I began reading Beha's work everywhere: in The New York Times Book Review, in The London Review of Books, in Bookforum, and in Harper's, where he is an associate editor. Tin House Books has just released Beha's debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a story crafted of uncommon beauty and truth, unsentimental and searing — a book about memory and love with a title heroine who will not leave you easily. It has already garnered effusive and deserved praise from Publishers Weekly and fellow writers such as Helen Schulman. I asked Beha to speak with me about reading, writing, criticism, and fiction.
Giraldi: I'm interested in labels. I mean: I prefer the lack of labels. I'd never wear a shirt with an insignia or brand name on it, nor a cap advertising this or that team or tractor. The labels in our profession tend to irritate me. Updike was a novelist, yes? Not a short story writer? Or was he a fiction writer? His critical essays match or exceed in volume his short stories, so was he an essayist? A personal essayist or a critical essayist? So he was a prose writer. But he wrote poems and drama, too. Man of letters, then? Or just writer? Your first published book was a memoir and you're well known as a literary critic writing for some of the most respected venues. And now here you are publishing your first novel, your first piece of published fiction. So my question is: In a world that requires labels, what is Christopher Beha?
Christopher Beha: Whenever these questions come up, I think of that great Borges essay, "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," in which he describes a system for classifying animals that includes categories like "those that belong to the emperor," "embalmed ones," "stray dogs," and "those that at a distance resemble flies." Of course taxonomies can be reductive and arbitrary, and I find the aggressive genre resistance lately pushed by David Shields, John D'Agata, et al., interesting in the way that it can be interesting to complicate things even when the complications themselves aren't necessary or even particularly useful.
But in this case, there's a simple answer. I think of myself as a fiction writer — specifically, as a novelist. I have persisted doing this, privately, through a decade of publishing various kinds of non-fiction and not publishing any fiction at all. (Though I have been writing it; What Happened to Sophie Wilder is either my second or third novel, depending on how you count.) Novels are the things above all others that I like to read, and so they're what I've tried to write. The form makes sense to me — I want to say it welcomes me — in a way that nothing else in literature, or for that matter in life, quite does.
I haven't had much interest in writing short stories, which are often the means by which apprentice fiction writers get into print. The deal is that you go to an MFA program and you write two or three stories that you workshop four times until they've been properly polished and then you get them published somewhere and then you're a "fiction writer." Maybe you write enough of them to get a collection together. Then you can go spend however long it takes to write your novel, but in the meantime you've got a credential. I don't mean that to sound dismissive; a bunch of writers whom I admire deeply followed this path. I just wasn't interested in doing it. Though I did get an MFA, I didn't spend that time writing stories. The short story is its own form with its own demands, not a test run for the novel. It seemed to me that if I wanted to write novels then the novel was the form whose demands I needed to learn how to meet, and so I should just start writing novels. Now, if you write one or two or half a dozen bad short stories on the way to getting some grip on the form's demands, that might take you a few months or at worst a few years. But if you've got to write one or two bad novels before you have any idea what you're doing, that might eat up your entire twenties. In the meantime, you won't have any stories in literary journals to point to when thinking of yourself as a fiction writer, and so you will apply this label furtively, in an almost shameful way. And then if you do publish a novel, someone will ask, "In a world that requires labels, what is Christopher Beha?" And despite all your theoretical objections to reductive taxonomy, you will be thrilled to come out and say, "I'm a novelist, is what I am."
Giraldi: Thrilled indeed. I remember being surprised once by Martin Amis saying that he wishes England would take her novelists as seriously as America does. Writing novels is still a high calling, and America is still a place where an important novelist can make the cover of Time magazine, and make a living, and make a dent in the culture. Literary criticism, however — our best critics aren't as honored as our best novelists. It seems we don't have a Trilling or Kazin among us anymore — certainly not a Wilson or Mencken or Eliot — I mean someone with the intellectual gravitas and the far-reaching energy and influence both to apprehend and alter the literary zeitgeist. There's Bloom, of course, on his throne and fading. But I fear that criticism these days is largely quarantined in academia, written by and for academics. And so much of what passes for book reviews are what Eliot dismissed as "the confused cries of the newspaper critics" — just bloggish blather by tourists in the land of the literary, no better than the feral scratching in a diary.
Beha: I'm a bit more sanguine about these things. I do think there are some great critics at work right now. Granted they mostly aren't writing in the daily papers, but neither were Trilling or Wilson. I don't know that the book chat in the Herald Tribune circa 1940 was any more elevated than what you find in the weekday papers now. Reviews and works of sustained criticism are not the same thing — I say this as someone who has written both — and judging reviews by the standards of true criticism is a recipe for indignation.
Meanwhile, James Wood seems to me the kind of influential critic who both "apprehends and alters," as you put it, the literary landscape. A number of writers — most notably Zadie Smith — have been candid about taking his criticism of their work seriously enough to change their approach in response. Granted, Wood doesn't register with the culture at large as a critic of his stature once would. But this seems in part related to his critical approach, which is grounded in close reading and an almost New Critical insistence on the work as aesthetic object. Trilling and Kazin and Wilson approached the novel as a tool for social research, perhaps the most powerful such tool yet developed. They were interested in writers' responses to the Depression, to the post-war liberal consensus, to the Cold War. They operated from the assumption that the novelist had something of profound importance to tell the culture about itself, and that the critic played a commensurately important role as a kind of go-between. When they wrote about novels, they were in part writing social criticism, which is naturally more interesting to society than purely literary criticism. I actually think this conception of literature and of the critic has been resurgent of late — you can see it, for example, in the way a place like n+1 responds to the Occupy movement. On balance, this seems like a positive development to me.
Speaking of positive developments, there are some very good young critics out there who I expect will have a real impact on literary culture over the next decade or two. Of my own contemporaries, I'll read Elif Batuman or Gideon Lewis-Kraus on just about anything, but especially on books. There are a number of young novelists who are also writing great criticism. I'd put you in that camp, Billy. Also Rivka Galchen and Joshua Cohen. And Zadie Smith, who started publishing at such an age that she seems to have been around forever, is still quite young, and she's a wonderful critic.
My own literary criticism has largely been an extension of my apprenticeship as a novelist. You and I share the belief that good writing emerges from careful and sustained reading. Writing reviews and critical essays is one way of being an attentive reader. I make sense of things, or try to, by writing about them, and one of the things I'm trying to make sense of is the novel, so I write about it a lot. I'm constantly asking myself what the novel is for, what it ought to be doing. These questions animate What Happened to Sophie Wilder.
Giraldi: I've described What Happened to Sophie Wilder as Jamesian but I don't mean in James's deeply interior and catacombed style. Rather, the novel aspires to a Jamesian "larger latitude" — it has a dignity and seriousness and intellectual vitality not at all common among first novels by young writers. And part of the reason I asked about criticism is because, as you suggest, when a writer is both a critic and a novelist, his work in one genre inevitably heats his work in the other. Can you speak to that as it pertains to Sophie Wilder?
Beha: All the thinking that goes into writing criticism obviously comes along when you sit down to write fiction. If it didn't, I might not bother with it. But I'd emphasize, if anything, the limits to analytical reflection. As a fiction writer you don't — at least, I don't — start out with a list of themes or formal methods you want to explore, or a sense of how you want to stand with respect to a particular tradition. You start telling a story. As you go along, the story makes certain demands of you. If you've read widely and carefully enough, you have some understanding of how other, better writers have met similar demands, and this understanding can be a big help. But there are lots of problems that arise while writing that must be solved intuitively. It's possible that too much analytical reflection on such problems can be a hindrance. This may be why Trilling and Wilson (and, for that matter, Wood) aren't great fiction writers, though their novels are certainly readable. Wilson was the literary intellect of his age. His college classmate, Scott Fitzgerald, could barely spell.
To bring it back to Sophie Wilder, I began with a voice: the voice of Charlie Blakeman, who narrates about half the book. This voice was like my own in some ways, but was not my own. I also began with a situation: a young woman picking up a dying man she doesn't know from the hospital. This too had a slight grounding in my own life, but not much. I knew that these things — the voice (or better to say the character this voice implied) and the situation — were related in some way. My first problem was figuring out what the relation was. This is typical of the kind of problem a novelist is often faced with, in my limited experience. The questions I'm constantly asking myself while I work aren't "What is my attitude toward death?" or "How can meaning persist in the absence of God?" but "How do I get from this scene to that scene?" and "What does this character want from this character?" These are narrow questions, specific to the work at hand, and it seems to me that one of the things that separates the truly great novelist from the able and learned craftsman is an instinct for answering these questions in the perfect way. Edmund Wilson knew how every other novelist before him had answered these questions. Fitzgerald didn't. But Fitzgerald knew how to answer them for himself, and there isn't any substitute for that. So it was that Wilson said of This Side of Paradise that it commits every sin a novel can possibly commit except the one unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live.
Giraldi: One of the most impressive facets of What Happened to Sophie Wilder is its oscillation between POVs: Blakeman's first person perspective and the close third on Sophie. It's a gutsy move Poe would not have sanctioned, one that can very easily go awry, but you maneuver that oscillation with a deft hand. If memory serves, Steinbeck does it in East of Eden, Updike in The Centaur, and I'm sure Gide does it in The Counterfeiters. Your facility for portraying a female psyche without filtering it through the male ego is remarkable indeed. I mean: Sophie is an actual woman and not a hologram from the depths of the masculine id.
Beha: Following on my earlier point, I should make clear first that most of what I have to say on these topics comes from after-the-fact reflection on what were at the time instinctual choices. So for example, one thing that's come up recently amid the larger conversation about gender bias in literature is that women who only write from a female perspective tend to be viewed as limited in some way — "women's novelists" — while men who write only from a male perspective are just writers. That's a real problem. But it's not like I made a political choice to write from a female perspective. I don't think that kind of decision-making process gets a writer very far. Instead, the decision was a function of telling the story that needed to get told.
Ultimately, one part of that story is the realization, on Charlie's part, that what happened to Sophie Wilder wasn't about him, that she didn't have these experiences because of him, or in order to teach him something. That's an important part of the meaning of the book, and for that reason, it was important that Sophie be a fully human character in her own right, and not just an object of Charlie's attention. So for that reason, the best compliments I've been paid have been by people who say, as you do, that Sophie seems real to them.
Listen, a big part of the novelist's job is to extend imaginative sympathy to people unlike himself, to try to render lives other than his own. There are obviously a million different ways a person can be unlike me, even just among Americans of roughly my own age. You can be a different race, or from a different social class; you can have different interests, a different level of education; you can be from a different region of the country; you can have a different way of making a living. Sophie is unlike me in none of those ways, which might suggest to some that I'm not extending myself all that far. She happens to be of the opposite sex, which some people take as the distinction that trumps all others. In addition, she was raised in a secular household and converted to the Catholic faith, while I was raised in a deeply committed Catholic household and have experienced a fairly tortuous process of separation from that faith. In a lot of ways that difference occupied my thinking about Sophie more than the gender difference.
Giraldi: As a lapsed Catholic myself, I can attest: the lapsed Catholic is still Catholic. Once they get their hooks in you, they've got you for life. Growing up beneath the Roman Catholic tradition has allotted me a lifelong dedication to Hopkins and Donne, a dedication that informs my every day and, I dare say, my every written word, although I've never been a poet. How does Catholicism — how does belief or the lack of belief — inform your own life and work?
Beha: On some level the answer is that it informs it completely. The problem of faith is the problem for me. It preoccupies me far more now than it did when I was a believer, perhaps because it wasn't a problem then but merely a fact. And a fact it was: I wasn't merely "raised" Catholic in a default sense; I was a believing Catholic, and it was important to me. It seems to me that the big thing that people who don't understand religious devotion get wrong about it is the assumption that it is grounded in fear or in a desire for certainty. I'm sure this is true in some cases, but my own religious feelings were grounded in a sense of wonder at the mysteries of human existence. I would say that Catholicism trained me to have a particular set of emotional needs — in particular, the need to feel aligned in some way with these mysteries — that at a certain point the Church itself stopped fulfilling for me. An awful lot of my writing emerges from those needs. And I remain suspicious of scientific materialists who insist that there is no underlying mystery, that the sense of mystery is some kind of cognitive holdover from a time when science had not yet explained human existence. If any viewpoint comes from the desire for certainty, it would seem to be that one.
I could say much more on this topic, but I'll just make one related point. It can be a difficult experience to abandon a strongly held belief. Very often the result is that whatever belief arrives in its place is held on to all the more strongly — the zeal of the convert, etc. What I've tried to gain from the process is some negative capability — the talent identified by Keats, "of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." It's not easy. But it's a skill that can be quite valuable to a novelist or a critic. Or to a human being, for that matter. Whatever label applies.
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