Jul 29, 2014

The faith of serious fiction

Christopher Beha, author of the new novel Arts & Entertainment, on the presence of religion in literature:
The majority of people in this country (and on this earth) have sincerely held religious beliefs that they've integrated into their thoroughly modern lives. A quarter of the U.S. population -- and 40 percent of the population of New York, where my novel is set -- self-identify as Catholic. One of the most striking features of the city is that there are churches everywhere, from one of the world's largest cathedrals to hundreds of storefront churches. And a bit of investigation will reveal that those churches fill up every Sunday. Not to mention the fact that there are more Jews in New York than in any other city in the world. But for some reason the publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don't include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include -- often just a species of madness -- bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn't occur to them. Whatever one's beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.
The English poet Matthew Arnold once imagined that literature would replace religion. This was a not-implausible idea, when it seemed societies secularized in a straightforward way. Now, though, it sometimes seems as if literature has replaced religion, but only in its own pages.