Editors’s note: On December 19, 2012, Paul Elie’s essay, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” was published in the New York Times, sparking a year-long conversation that this journal has followed with great interest. Now, exactly a year after the original article appeared, we are following up with Elie on the many responses to his piece. This interview is an online preview of our upcoming Christmas edition.
There is an indistinct moment of passage on the north-south corridor of U.S. Interstate 55 where the Midwest becomes the South—and it’s located somewhere in the lower middle half of the state of Missouri. It is a place that is no place, as the novelist Walker Percy might have put it; somewhere between the last scattering of hay bales, left where they fell from balers, basking in the mid-autumn sun, and the first maculation of cotton bolls bursting forth with pallid punctuation from their russet-rusted shrubs. It is a moment on the perpetual roll of asphalt ribbon where upland’s gentle roll exhausts itself into a certain undeniable flatness, a place where tasseled corn rows surrender to tow-headed cotton fields.
This past October, on my way to New Orleans I found this indistinct moment of North yielding to South. My brother-in-law and I were presenting at the second biennial Walker Percy Conference, Oct. 11-13, sponsored by Loyola University. For five years I had lived in Dallas—which has more in common with the Midwest than most people would care to admit—before settling in southwestern Wisconsin—which has more in common with the South than most people would care to notice. But this recent journey through Cotton Country was my first look at the South, at least by car and it shouldn’t have been a surprise that in making the trip I experienced the same sort of recognition-through-displacement common to many of Percy’s works.
The Walker Percy Conference was first launched in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Percy’s debut novel The Moviegoer being published and winning the National Book Award. A cadre of like-minded Loyola University academicians and personal friends and associates of the late novelist organized the first conference at the school’s newly opened Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. Now, two years later as an encore the organizers sponsored a conference on his 1983 work Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.
Perhaps Percy’s most intriguing work, Lost in the Cosmos is a weird yet satisfying book – a hybrid of philosophical inquiry, satire, cultural analysis, multiple choice questions, thought experiments and (“What the hell, why not?” you can hear Percy say) even fiction. Perhaps the book most closely resembles Melville’s own loose but not-so-baggy monster, Moby Dick. But Lost in the Cosmos stands well on its own. The quality and quantity of presenters at the conference attested to its enduring worth—with more than 40 papers covering everything from liturgy to pornography to interstellar exploration to mimetic theory to Marshall McLuhan.
For its challenge to the status quo of the modern milieu, Lost in the Cosmos stands as a whip-smart lion in the path for anyone seeking to understand the subjects which most crowded the late novelist’s mind—death, sex, sin, redemption, immanence, transcendence, man’s coarse and always transparent ways, and God’s sublime and often hidden ways. By analyzing and satirizing the self as alienated from itself, Percy draws an exact—and exacting—diagnosis of man’s place and purpose in the universe.
“The self becomes itself,” Percy writes, “by recognizing God as a spirit, creator of the Cosmos and therefore of one’s self as a creature, a wounded creature but a creature nonetheless, who shares with a community of like creatures the belief that God, who transcends the entire Cosmos and has actually entered human history—or will enter it—in order to redeem man from the catastrophe which has overtaken his self.”
Some have called Percy the last of the Southern novelists; others an American Dostoevsky. For editor and writer Paul Elie, Percy makes up one of a vital quadrumvirate of writers who have helped define the mid-20th century American literary experience and the Catholic contribution to American letters. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003) is a “group portrait,” as Elie says, of Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Until 2012, he was senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing home for all four writers at some point in their career. Although his physical address is still located in New York City, Elie takes up intellectual residence at Georgetown University—where he holds a senior fellowship at the school’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where he is coordinating a partnership between Georgetown and the non-profit StoryCorps to gather, record and share with the public stories on religious belief in the lives of ordinary Americans. He also writes for his blog, “Everything that Rises” (everythingthatrises.com).
Because of his advantageous view from high atop the FSG eyrie, Elie is particularly well qualified—perhaps more so than any other writer of our day—to draw the portrait of this writing quartet. The critics seemed to think as much, too, because The Life You Save May Be Your Own was nominated for the National Book Critics Award soon after it was published. He was nominated again eight years later for Reinventing Bach (2012), which explores how technology has helped reimagine the way we listen to music.
By striking a harmonious balance of biography, history, theology, and literary analysis, Elie’s extensive volume on Percy, O’Connor, Merton, and Day provides a long (overdue) view of these four writers, their individual contributions to the 20th century literary and cultural context in which they wrote, and an apologia for their lasting impact in America and in the Church.
Credentials and expertise aside, Elie was an odd choice for delivering the keynote address at the 2013 Walker Percy Conference. Conspicuously critical of Lost in the Cosmos in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Elie found the work “airless and wearying,” noting that “Percy hectors the reader sarcastically until the book becomes not a test so much as a trap, a test only the all-knowing author can hope to pass.”
“In his novels,” Elie writes, “and in the essays published as The Message in the Bottle, Percy had artfully sketched a recognizable postmodern self—fractious, confused, a pilgrim searching for a path and a destination alike—and had led the reader to identify with it. This time [in Lost in the Cosmos] he reached out of the book and declared the reader bored, lonely, phony, and trapped in a meaningless existence. The reader winds up silently insisting otherwise.”
In his keynote address, Elie acknowledges this criticism of Lost in the Cosmos, but also notes that ten years after writing these words and rereading the book again he is prepared to reappraise the work not as a challenge to the reader but as one to the self—specifically Percy’s own self.
“In its style the book is phenomenally indirect,” Elie said in his keynote, “but in subject, Lost in the Cosmos is a very direct book; it’s a book about the self . . . . It’s a test, yes, but it’s the author, not the reader who is being put to the test. When Percy asks, why is it possible to know more about the Crab Nebulae than it is about the self?—he is saying, ‘Why is it possible for me to know more about the Crab Nebulae than about myself?’ . . . It’s a self-help book and it’s meant to help the self who wrote it first of all. ‘Who are you?’ Percy asks. And he asks because he, whoever he is, needs help.
“I thought, and I’m not saying I’m wrong, that Percy was hectoring his reader and his obtuseness made him impatient. Now, a dozen years later I see that the self who is being addressed in the book, the who, is the self who is writing the book. It’s a polemic with the self . . . inside Percy’s head. The test he’s giving is the one he’s taking; the questions posed for the self are posed by the self at the self.”
Call to pens
Perhaps it was something of this same frustration which led Elie to put down on paper his own concerns about the modern world and religion—and not just on any paper, but America’s self-proclaimed paper of record. “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” was published a year ago in The New York Times Sunday Book Review with immediate and overwhelming response from readers and writers alike.
“Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time . . . as something between a dead language and a hangover,” Elie writes. “Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”
In response, readers, writers, and fellow editors sought to correct or demand qualification from Elie on his thesis. Surely things are not that bad? There must be plenty of fiction out there which takes on God—sincere, honest, sympathetic, even profound attempts to reckon with omnipotence? Suddenly Catholic fiction—and fiction concerned with religious belief in general—became all the rage on the editorial pages of the great American newspapers and journals. Gregory Wolfe’s counterpoint appearing in The Wall Street Journal a month later is characteristic of the reaction Elie’s original bow-shot elicited. As founding publisher of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, Wolfe has an understandable hound in the hunt when it comes to Elie’s claim.
“Our instinct when launching [Image] was that the narrative of decline was misguided, but we honestly didn’t know if we could fill more than a few issues,” he writes in his January 10, 2013 response to Elie.
“Sometimes when you look, you find. Over the years Image has featured many believing writers, including Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, Christian Wiman, Marilynne Robinson and Mark Helprin. But these writers of religious faith and others are not hard to find elsewhere. Several prominent American authors—Franz Wright, Mary Karr and Robert Clark—are Catholic converts. Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer last year published ‘New American Haggadah,’ a contemporary take on the ritual book used by Jews on Passover.
“In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.”
It was with some sense of serendipity and good fortune that Dappled Things had an opportunity to sit down with Elie at the 2013 Walker Percy Conference to talk to him about his controversial essay, his response to those who replied to it and what it means for his own writing projects, past, present and future.
* * *
Dappled Things: You were baptized and raised Catholic?
Paul Elie: Yes, in upstate New York. I went to public high schools with a strong sense of Vatican II Catholicism in the family, but very much unmoored from city or ethnic culture. It was a very good suburban Catholicism that left me really perplexed by the Catholic experience rooted in being an Irish American or Italian American or ethnic resident of certain parts of Philadelphia or whatever.
I wrote an essay for Commonweal in 1991 about being a young Catholic who had to reckon with two churches at once—the John Paul II Church and the Pre-conciliar Church [“The Everlasting Dilemma: ‘Young’ Catholics and the Church,” Commonweal, 9/27/91]. Andrew Sullivan read that and invited me to write for The New Republic so I caught a break there.
DT: Why did you write the New York Times essay in the first place?
PE: Prior to leaving FSG, I’d had some conversations with some editors at the New York Times concerning various things, such as about who should review which book, etc., and it led me to say first in conversation what I eventually said in the article. At the time I couldn’t write for the New York Times Book Review because I worked for a publisher. The Times is pretty strict; they don’t want people in the publishing community to be writing reviews and essays. I could be pushing FSG authors and taking down authors from, say, Knopf. So I knew that this was something to dig into but I couldn’t do it at the time. When I left FSG I had the opportunity. I knew it would be opportune to do it for December because historically they’ve run pieces of this kind around this time. So around this time last year I presented the idea to them and they went right for it.
DT: In your article, you admit that there are rare exceptions of fiction being written today with faith integral to the story. But why do you feel you have to qualify even these works?
PE: I feel I can’t find them and if I do find them characteristically they’re set in the past. Gilead (2004) [by Marilynne Robinson], for instance, is a wonderful book, but as I say in the essay, it’s a book that’s the exception that proves the rule in that it’s set in 1950s and the man who’s telling the story is already old. The plausibility of his account has to do with the fact that at some level it’s quite believable there were pastors who were thoughtful readers of the classics in 1955. It’s an incredibly challenging novel but it’s somewhat less difficult to imagine such a character into existence when he is said to exist from the 20s to the 50s I think.
Rather I would want to see novels about the quandaries of belief—whether to believe in this religious stuff. Here’s where FSG comes into the picture. I’d been at FSG for about 15 years by now and people knew my interests, so I figure at this point if these kinds of novels are out there, I felt strongly that some of them would have found their way to me. The fact that they haven’t suggests that maybe they are not really there. I felt in a position that I could generalize after reading about 10,000 manuscripts.
DT: After writing the Times article, though, it sounds like you’re ready to qualify that generalization to some extent as well.
PE: Yes, there is a whole shelf in my office in Georgetown of authors who have written me saying, ‘Well, you’ve left out my novel—here it is.’ And I’m hoping to read them and write something about it as a follow up piece. Also, it’s important to say, there is a certain novel of every kind that is just not very good. So the unstated point in the Times essay is that there are no exceptionally good works of fiction in which the quandaries of belief are front and center.
DT: So other writers sent you manuscripts or published novels. What was your response to their response?
PE: The piece came out and one writer said, “Oh, you got my book exactly! It just came out last year.” It turns out I had just left FSG when it came out . . . . Then someone else told me, “You never heard of me, but I’ve been writing a novel, and it sounds like you would take an interest in it. Can I send it to you?” I haven’t read it yet. In fact, I have a lot of work and read so much stuff just because people send it to FSG. But I’m burned out. I lost the habit of reading people’s manuscripts. I try to get to them, but for now I’m not getting to them.
DT: Let’s talk about the people who responded to your Times essay—in particular Gregory Wolfe of Image in the Wall Street Journal last January.
PE: Greg and I are friends and I had seen him last October in Seattle. I think that he’s publishing a lot of interesting work in Image, but a lot of the work he publishes lies outside what I was discussing. What I tried to say was not that there aren’t Catholic novelists or people who write out of the Catholic milieu or background, but there’s a pretty conspicuous absence of novels in which questions of belief as they’re felt in the present time are central to the novel. So it was an active definition. So that leaves out Alice McDermott, who was Greg’s counterexample in his Wall Street Journal article. I went to her book party a month ago—I love Alice. I’ve read all her works, we swap books as Christmas presents, but she writes about the 50s and 60s. It’s just a fact of her work. It changes a bit with her new book, so for Greg to say Alice McDermott? I say, she’s not what I’m talking about.
DT: How does your approach to fiction differ, then, from Wolfe’s, at least when it comes to a faith component?
PE: I think that a lot of Greg’s approach involves what he calls the whispering generation—the present Catholic generation of writers. If Flannery O’Connor said that for the hard of hearing you shout and for the nearly blind you draw in large and startling figures, Greg took that and about ten years ago said, the present generation of Catholic writers are whispering. To a certain extent I think he’s right. I don’t like the formulation though because I think it’s not catchy. Why are they whispering? It’s not like we’re in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted. It plays into all sorts of neo-conservative ideas about what we’re not allowed to say in the culture, which I just don’t think is really true. At the same time, some of these people are whispering so softly that you have to ask whether we would recognize their work as having a religious dimension if it wasn’t part of their biography. There is a lot of work, for instance, that exists in Image that has to do very obliquely or peripherally with the question of disbelief. I think that’s perfectly OK. I’m a complete Vatican II-type of Catholic who says, “Let’s not have a narrow view of culture but the broadest most latitudinarian view of culture possible.” But that said, let’s acknowledge that many of those novels don’t deal with questions of religious belief. It comes in around the sides or it’s not really there at all. This is a non-judgmental active definition. There are a lot of great things out there by the community of Catholic writers in the largest sense, but the question of whether I should believe this religious stuff doesn’t really feature.
DT: The faith is in decline in culture—at least on the face of it anyway. After all that’s one of the reasons Pope Benedict called for the Year of Faith. That same lack of faith, it seems fair to say, is reflected in at least three kinds of readers out there. You have a readership with a fragile faith, a readership antagonistic to the faith, and a readership that’s simply indifferent. So if you produce a fiction that seeks to challenge the reader—the first sort of reader will pull away from the work because he feels threatened; the second will reject it outright as either unbelievable or even inhuman; and the third will simply shrug their shoulders and remain unmoved. How does a work of fiction which proposes a fictional component then capture these sorts of readers?
PE: I don’t go along with that idea at all. I’m not sure I got it from publishing or writers, but I see the book is something written by one person sitting alone in a room and read by one person sitting alone in a room. To ponder that is to realize the variety of readers. Not only is it hard to break readers down into three groups in terms of their religious disposition, and many readers don’t know where they stand on these issues. The view there is a more Thomistic analysis that is very powerful but I’m not sure it’s useful in this sense. Flannery O’Connor says you can do whatever you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much. She also said about her novel Wise Blood, “That belief in Jesus Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think of it as a matter of no great consequence.” She was writing from the situation you speak of but she figured out how to do it. She figured out how to shape everything in the novel to sympathize with Hazel Motes, who is indignant about the abuses of Christianity which then lead to his attention to doctrinal impurity in Christianity. In so doing, he gives us a grasp of what an authentic Christianity would be. It makes you identify with that in spite of yourself as the reader. That’s what O’Connor was trying to do anyway.
DT: So taking our lead from Flannery O’Connor, what strategy ought the Catholic writer take in seeking to be published—and published widely?
PE: Instead of making blanket assumptions about what is possible and what’s not, you get in there and try to figure out how to get it done. You have to be savvy about what the obstacles are to getting your work read, but your big blanket statements about what you can or can’t do—it wasn’t easier in the 50s. For every better aspect then, there were also worse ones in the culture. You had more believing readers but you had a lot of teachers pushing pious pap on people. You had Cardinal Spellman writing a novel; you had Madame Bovary on the index and on and on. You’re getting me on one of my soapboxes here, but I prefer to work at a more specific level whether it’s in The Life You Save or the Times essay. Let’s look at the works and the twenty ways in which religious belief figures into some recent novels. Instead of saying the stuff doesn’t exist, I’ll work through 20 examples of how it does appear and then wind up by saying but still the central religious experience isn’t there in the way I yearn for. So what do we do? We look to non-fiction, other countries’ authors, we keep hoping, and we try to make the work ourselves.
DT: Have any of the responses to your essay caused you to change your mind on any particular point?
PE: Oscar Hijuelos1 wrote me a letter saying I should look at his novel Mr. Ives’s Christmas— which I should . . . . Jeffery Eugenides thought I hadn’t done full justice to his novel, the marriage plot. One plot in his novel involves courting a woman and he’s a manic depressive and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The other plot has to do with another man courting this same woman who is having deep religious yearnings that lead him to India and working with Mother Teresa. So the man who is the manic depressive is the serious major story and the guy who is having the religious experience is the comic story. The fact that it’s put together in that way—is suggestive of our time. The religious plot is the source of comedy and the guy with the supreme nervousness is the serious plot, instead of the other way around. But the summary of the book got suppressed [in the editing process at The New York Times] and doesn’t make the point as clear as I would have liked. Jeff said he didn’t think I did justice to the religious side of the novel. But I know him so we’ll patch it up.
DT: Why was it important for you to see it published in the New York Times and not say First Things or Commonweal, some publication at any rate, which would be friendlier to the idea?
PE: Oh, it’s a different conversation at the New York Times. The paper is much more widely read and there is a need to develop points for people who don’t share certain assumptions. For example, in Commonweal you wouldn’t have to keep open an eye for the idea of whether there ought to be a place for religious belief in fiction. So it forces you to go down to the root and it’s a more challenging piece if you do have to write an article that is easily found convincing by the people who read Commonweal . . . . I think that among sophisticated religious people there is a hangover mentality from the culture wars that there is a censorious secular elite who won’t allow certain ideas into their publications in any form. I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think it ever was. In every age it’s taken a certain amount of cunning on the part of the writer, and moxie and shrewdness.
DT: Which is something that you touch on in your book The Life You Save May Be Your Own.
PE: Yes, that story is the story of The Life that You Save May Be Your Own in many respects. For instance, Thomas Merton would figure out a way to write about monastic life that made sense for a literary publisher. To find a way to write poems about the monastic hours that would resonate with the people who bought City Lights books. My experience of my four protagonists in that book is one of people who don’t accept blanket statements about the hostility of the culture and the possibility of doing certain things with their writing. They went and found ways of doing them. In that respect, I thought I could get this piece into the Times. All I needed was to get the right person to read my email and that’s what I did.
DT: Was faith and fiction always in the forefront of your mind as an editor for FSG and a writer in your own respect?
PE: I went to Fordham and a Jesuit professor at Fordham . . . taught literature courses where he brought in the notion of Christian humanism. He said I should read Flannery O’Connor. I was a freshman. I went to get O’Connor’s stories but I thought Flannery O’Connor was a man—her name like Tennessee Williams’s, one of these Southern names. Then I read (founding FSG editor) Robert Giroux’s introduction to her complete stories where he evokes Flannery so vividly and unforgettably that I was off—and he compared her to Thomas Merton. Right from the beginning, the moment I encountered O’Connor I encountered Merton at the same time. I was about 18 years old. So already this group portrait was emerging.
DT: How did O’Connor become the entrée into the picture that would eventually emerge for you in The Life You Save?
PE: Time passed. I didn’t get the O’Connor stories at the time I was a freshman at Fordham. Then in London I bought Mystery and Manners, which had a photograph of O’Connor on the cover, not like the American editions. It was a Baber Edition. I bought it at a bookshop and read it in a square in London. I was so knocked out by the sense of surprise that this was the religion in which I’d been raised. Yet she was setting the Catholic faith out in a way that was different from ways that I’d come to know. I was already most of the way through a Jesuit education. It shocked me into life. I was approached by a woman in the square who asked me for money. I didn’t have much money; I was a student abroad and gave her a ten pound note—such was my sense of what Jesus, Francis, or Flannery O’Connor would do at that moment.
DT: That sounds more like something inspired by Dorothy Day than Flannery O’Connor.
PE: Yes, so then I somehow followed the connections to Dorothy Day and bought her selected writings in the basement of the Corpus Christi Church bookshop in New York. It was the church where Merton was baptized near Columbia University. I volunteered at a Catholic worker near there. Then to finish the portrait, I didn’t really discover Percy until I was actually working at FSG. I tried to read The Moviegoer on a really hot summer day. I sat on a fire escape in a New York apartment and I just didn’t get it. Then I went to work at FSG where Percy’s nonfiction works were on the walls with his secondary works and commentaries and things like that. So I found that through his interviews—such as the Esquire interview—Percy explained what he was trying to do and that made his work intelligible to me.
DT: With all the writers in your basket, so to speak, how then did you proceed?
PE: As I began to plan the work I thought, ‘Let’s not be so strict and straight and New Critical about this.’ If O’Connor’s essays and letters opened her fiction to me, and the recollection by her publisher opened her fiction to me, and Percy’s essays opened his fiction to me, I have got to figure how to put all these pieces together and not consider their non-fiction as secondary work. Let’s look at it all and one thing led to another before I figured out that these four people were connected in certain ways and if you figured out when things happened you could put the pieces together. Look, for example, in Lost in the Cosmos for a reference to Flannery O’Connor as a certain kind of artist . . . It became fun to do it—and I’m still having fun.
DT: It seems this concern for faith in fiction is something that’s been on your mind since you began down the road of literature in the first place. Were your book and the Times article inspired by things you saw magnified at FSG, a publishing house with a well-known sympathy for fiction that includes a faith component, or did you write it in reaction to the general drift of culture?
PE: It wasn’t magnified by what I saw at FSG but it was confirmed there. I wrote the Life You Save out of a sense that there ought to be a book of this kind. It doesn’t exist. So following the example of certain writers I thought I had to do it myself. More specifically, there was this Catholic generation that were obviously connected and working the same questions from different angles. The books they were writing could be about Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Walker Percy—but where was the book that tells their story as one story? It doesn’t exist, so I boldly decide to try it. In the same way, I feel the lack of books that address religious quandaries and the works of fiction.
DT: Was there a certain sense of frustration working at FSG or the publishing world in general that led you to this next phase in your life as a fellow at Georgetown?
PE: No, FSG was a great place. It was my Fulbright and ultimate graduate school and family in some ways—and still is my family in some ways. The simple fact is there are only so many hours in the day. I left 45 books behind that were in process, and I edited 15-20 books a year, many of them over 500 pages. Editors at places like FSG are doing more editing than ever. So writing two long books, I have three children, we homeschool them, and I was teaching a course at Columbia at night after the recession hit. It was madness to try to sustain all that. So when Georgetown had the imagination to figure out how to do something like this [the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs] and make it central to a faculty member’s efforts . . .
DT: In September, Ignatius Press’s fiction blog “Novel Thoughts” celebrated the new presses appearing around the country—including Labora Editions, Wiseblood Books, Tuscany Press, and Korrektiv Press. Do you see these new presses as a sign of hope? What sort of hurdles do they need to overcome—and are they a viable way of getting out the sort of fiction-cum-faith that you’d like to see published?
PE: It is a sign of hope definitely. Not just as a functional way of getting the books out there, but also as a calling forth the work and creating currents for these energies to run down. Because these presses exist, works will get made that didn’t have a prospect of getting made. We forget now how many small presses and projects there were at midcentury. It wasn’t just Robert Giroux editing everyone’s work. There were lots of small presses [such as] Jubilee Magazine . . . . In his essay on Hawthorne, Henry James says it takes a lot of culture to make a little literature. So the existence of so many presses in this one area—that’s the lot of culture that it takes to make a little literature.
There’s a danger, however, in losing the sense of discrimination. In that sense for me to work at a press that had a Catholic element in its tradition but is not a Catholic press, such as FSG, was a good challenge. I still had to convince other people who didn’t give a hoot about the somewhat subcultural thing we’re talking about—faith and all that entails—unless it was a really good book. Damned, if they really loved Gilead, but they don’t need to reflect how it would play out among the Calvinists in Michigan, they just read it as a work of fiction. We don’t want to engage in special pleading for our kind of book at the expense of a tough minded disinterested judgment about whether the books are good.
Stanley Kaufman died the other day. He was 97. The film critic for The New Republic, he was also the editor of The Moviegoer. So here’s this Jewish guy from Manhattan who’s worked in publishing, and he winds up editing The Moviegoer because it’s about movies. The agent sends it to him because he’s a movie critic. Kaufman forced Percy through two or three rewrites, helping him fix the title, bring out parallels between The Moviegoer and [Albert Camus’s] The Stranger, and urging him to write the epilogue which becomes a sort of final accent and flips the book back around and makes its Catholic dimension more explicit. All of this was through tough insistent editing. This guy didn’t care if Caroline Gordon said Walker Percy was going to be the next great hope for American Catholic fiction. He just kept pushing and pushing and we have the book we have today because of it. The best way we can move this forward is to have presses, journals, and conversations, but also to really insist on celebrating the great work and calling out the bad work and making the stuff in the middle the best work it can be.
Time did not permit the interview to explore Elie’s current project—which attempts to address the lack of faith in fiction about which his essay complains. However, after his keynote address, Elie once again acknowledged what he had done in his Times essay—that he was working on a novel.
“I am tremendously excited about it,” he says. “I love doing it and I have a lot of journalism down and oftentimes writers set their nonfiction against their fiction as the true thing. Having worked full time for eighteen years at FSG, I now have something like a writer’s life. It’s tremendously exciting. To be able to give this talk and not writing it from ten to midnight but writing it during the daytime is really exciting. This is my main work now . . . .
“I’ve tried to be attentive to the kind of book I want to write and the one I ought to write. I’m trying to write the kind of book my kids will read when they’re 17 years old, when they’re reading adult books but still won’t suffer an adult book any longer than they have to. When they put it down it ceases to be interesting; I guess that’s what I’m trying to keep in mind.”
1. The day after I interviewed Elie, the Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos died of a heart attack while playing tennis. We couldn’t know this at the time, of course, but in retrospect it seems to add a particularly bittersweet flavor to Elie’s response—and serves to remind us that while writing seeks an immortality of sorts it remains, no matter how urgent, a project tied as anything else human to our own individual and mortal timelines.↩
Joseph O’Brien is editor of Tuscany Press, as well as an award-winning journalist and a poet. He lives with his wife and nine children on a homestead in the Driftless region of rural southwest Wisconsin. He is the staff writer for The Catholic Times of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.