Christopher Beha on Arts and Entertainments
Christopher Beha discusses sex tapes as literary vehicle, the celebrity impulse, and the problematic absence of religion in American literature
Christopher Beha is a deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet, and the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder. His second novel, Arts and Entertainments, out today from Ecco, concerns Eddie, an actor whose career has dead-ended in the drama department of an all-boys prep school in Manhattan. Exhausted by the petty humiliations of life in New York without money, and unmanned by his inability to afford fertility treatments for his wife, Susan (to say nothing of the ensuing child or children), he decides to sell a sex tape he’d made five years earlier with a now-famous ex. When the pornographer’s promise of anonymity turns out to be a lie, the novel swerves deftly into a satire of reality TV, New York media culture, and the sanctimonious politics of private schools. But at heart, the novel is a comedy of remarriage. Even while we’re laughing at Eddie’s self-inflicted plights — imprisoned in a luxury hotel by a menacing swarm of photographers; watching himself be excoriated on the morning shows — we’re rooting for him and Susan to come together. The result is a book that captures the contradictory impulses to have everyone see you, and to control how you are seen. I put six questions to Beha via email:
1. Did you start out looking for a certain kind of story about celebrity, and that led you to the sex tape, or was it the reverse?
I suppose there are some writers who sit down with the thought, “I’d like to express my ideas about X — what story can I find as a vehicle for these ideas?” But I always start with a story — with characters in a predicament — and let the thematic implications of the story emerge in the telling. There’s likely an extent to which my thematic preoccupations inform what kinds of stories I choose to tell, but if so, that happens quite unconsciously. What I’m aware of is hitting upon a decision that a person might be faced with and working out the consequences of that decision.
In the case of Arts & Entertainments, this decision came from a short story by Edith Wharton called “That Good May Come,” which is about a failed poet, unable to sell any of his poems, who is given an opportunity to sell instead a piece of gossip about a married woman. It’s a great example of Whartonian melodrama, and it inspired me to start writing my own short story, about a failed actor who is given a chance to sell a sex tape. (This seemed to me the obvious contemporary analog to the predicament Wharton describes.) Probably I wouldn’t have been interested in updating the story if it hadn’t already seemed to speak in interesting ways about all sorts of cultural phenomena that we think of as particular to our time but that have been with us forever. That said, it wasn’t until I really got into the writing of the thing that I understood what a great vehicle a sex tape provided for talking about issues that are of great importance to me. At that point I realized the short story I’d started was going to be a novel.
2. Your first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, is in the first person. Your memoir too, of course. This one is in the third person, close to Eddie. Was the writing experience very different?
While writing Arts & Entertainments, I was reading short comic novels by Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark. (This is a form perfected by the British, it seems.) These books tend to be written in a third person that is “close” in the sense you mean — lots of free-indirect discourse, the narrator can move at any time into the character’s consciousness — while also maintaining a certain detachment. (The detachment may be the British part.) The humor in these novels — which are very serious novels in many ways — depends on the combination of proximity and detachment, I think. So that’s what I was after here.
I don’t think the challenges of writing in the third person are all that different from those of writing in the first person. All novels have narrators, and these narrators are always creations of the author, never quite the author himself. This is true of third-person voices as well as first-person voices. (In my experience, it’s even true of memoirs.) As Joyce says, the artist stands in relation to his handiwork like the God of creation — refined out of existence. No matter how many attributes the narrator might share with the author, he exists on the page like all the other characters. I’m not blind to the Christological implications here, any more than Waugh and Spark were.
3. Did you watch a lot of reality TV as you were conceiving and writing this book? If so, which shows?
I did immerse myself in the celebreality industrial complex a little bit. I finished a draft of the novel at a beautiful residency in Wyoming, courtesy of the Ucross Foundation. I was somewhat embarrassed to have other writers and artists visit my studio, because it was strewn with copies of Us Weekly and People. As for reality TV specifically, I watched some shows, but by far the biggest help I had was the input of a couple of friends of mine who work in reality television. They were able to speak to me about the process by which the raw material of hours and hours of footage gets turned into the “reality” we see on television. This wound up being invaluable.
4. Did writing the novel change your views on celebrity? Is wanting to be more famous an important or relevant thing in your life?
This is not an original observation, but I think people who are really good at being famous treat their celebrity as a kind of artistic creation. They don’t identify entirely with it. They are willing to expose that creation to the necessary ups and downs that will make it a rich, interesting character. People who are bad at being famous never learn to separate themselves from their creation.
As for myself, if I were motivated by fame I would not spend my time writing novels. I’m not sure what even qualifies as fame for a novelist these days. Would I like to have 20,000 Twitter followers instead of 2,000? I guess. I’d like my books to be read as widely as possible. I’d like them to make me a lot of money, because if I had more money it would be easier to write more books. But I’m not looking for the world to validate my work by talking about me. I don’t mean that to sound sanctimonious. Probably the reason I’m not looking for the world to validate my work is that I’m a raving egomaniac about it. I suspect most novelists are. Writing novels is really hard to do, and the world on balance doesn’t give a shit whether you do it or not, so you’ve got to have some ego just to persist.
5. One of your epigraphs comes from Henry James, who writes that the “celebrities of the future” are distinguished by their “perfect heartlessness.” Your characters don’t come off as heartless, even when they’re acting heartlessly. What did you take from the James line? Do you think it still applies?
I liked the James line for the same reason I liked Wharton’s story — as evidence that there is nothing new under the sun. So much of what we think of as particular to our time has been around forever. But I also like the quote because I think there is real truth to it. As I said above, I think fame requires treating your public image as something of a fictional character. But it also requires treating other people as fictional characters in one’s drama — and it has to be one’s own drama, of course; no one imagines being a minor character in someone else’s drama. The step from treating yourself as a character to treating others as characters is where the heartlessness comes in.
6. At first glance, the world of Arts and Entertainments doesn’t seem to intersect with religion. But Eddie teaches at a Catholic school, and Susan is a regular churchgoer. How did you come to that? Do you see religion as opposing the broader culture represented in the novel?
Harking back to my answer to your first question, I’ll say first that I didn’t set out to write a book with religious themes, any more than I set out to write a book about celebrity culture or reality TV. I certainly didn’t set out to write a work of Christian apologetics, in which I diagnose various cultural ills and then prescribe religious faith as the cure. I do think it’s true, however, that a lot of what’s troubling about celebrity and reality-TV culture is a direct consequence of the prevalence of a very narrow version of scientific materialism. If all existence is physical, then a human life has not truly been lived unless it has been publicized and in this way verified. Nothing that can’t be seen by an objective observer has any value, because it isn’t actually real — it’s at best an epiphenomenon. On the other hand, if you believe that God has endowed each of us with a soul and placed us here for some reason other than our own gratification, it becomes more difficult to treat the rest of the world as bit players in your own personal drama.
On a more practical level: 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.