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Faith in Fiction

Tom Cutterham

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Did Martin Amis have spies at James Wood’s first Weidenfeld Lecture on Thursday 12th May? Speaking at Exeter College three days later, Amis made the characteristically provocative pronouncement that “religion has no place in novels.” Graham Greene’s books, Amis declared, go on nicely enough for the first ten pages; then there’s an ominous sound of something approaching, like a tea trolley clattering down the platform. That trolley, said Amis, is religion; the novels, as a result, are laughable. Just another example, he might have said, of God messing everything up.

He probably didn’t have spies, after all, because if he had got the gist of James Wood’s lecture, Amis might have made more of an effort to justify his point. As it was, religion was just one item on a list of things that, in his view, have no place in the novel. Politics was another, and here the “fascist” science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein was his example. On sex, Amis was more nuanced. It’s not that it has no place per se, just that it’s never been done well. D. H. Lawrence and John Updike both tried, in different ways, and failed (women are better at writing sex, he added, but tantalisingly no female writer’s name crossed his lips).

Wood, introducing a lecture series entitled “The New Atheism and the Novel,” touched on the familiar line-up of Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, and Hitchens, but it’s not their work that interests him really. Instead, his point was almost the exact opposite to Amis’s: that the polemical non-fiction of these atheist apostles cannot engage with the complex way we all experience religion. Faithful or faithless, everyone encounters feelings about God sometime, and they are rarely as straightforward as they seem to be for, say, Richard Dawkins. It’s instead the novel, with all its capacity for vagueness and contradiction, ambivalence and flexibility, that offers a richer approach to the phenomenon of faith.

Wood did offer some succour for Amis and co. when he pointed out that narrative is both an “ally and a secret enemy” of faith. He connected the rise of the novel with that of a demythologising Christological scholarship in the early 19th century; that is, an interest in a more realistic, historical Jesus, consonant with the conventions of 19th century fiction. The essence of the novel, Wood told us, is secular, comic, and banal, qualities with which Amis would feel at home.

Yet Wood’s central point is not that our secular fiction gets rid of God, and can have no place for him, but that it is precisely in fiction that we can best examine the hold he still has on our consciousness. The remaining lectures will focus on Melville, Jens Peter Jacobson, Tolstoy, Woolf, and Beckett. It’s a shame there won’t be one on Greene, although he may well crop up. Meanwhile, we can but hope to one day soon see both Harvard-based Wood and soon-to-be-Brooklynite Amis get to grips with each other on some US debate show.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.