Thoughts on Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

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“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)

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Last fall, on the recommendation of a friend, I decided to read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. This friend had said the book was excellent, and it didn’t disappoint. I did have to get past Flannery’s constant use of the masculine pronoun when referring to writers and her sometimes arrogant style. In places, she was not generous toward other writers and didn’t acknowledge that we are all on a journey of development. Not everyone is going to be as adept at storytelling as Flannery herself, yet writers still may be entertaining and have something to say. One passage that struck me as particularly harsh was the following found in the chapter on the nature and aim of fiction:

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. The idea of being a writer attracts a good many shiftless people, those who are merely burdened with poetic feelings or afflicted with sensibility.”

If you find these comments unkind, her analysis of English teachers is really uncharitable. However, I found in the book many insights into the writing of fiction, at least from the view of a mid-twentieth century successful writer. The page numbers that I cite are from the 1970 Ferrar, Straus and Giroux paperback edition. From it, I could write a lengthy critique, but I thought I’d just share some key points that I found particularly insightful.

Now that I’ve completed Incense Rising, and it has published (February 22, 2018), I’m frequently asked what the novel is about. One of the difficulties I’ve had is concocting an adequate elevator pitch, or some similar very brief summary. My reply to “what’s it about?” is usually to say the genre is speculative fiction or science fiction—but not like Star Wars, and the plot is around a scientist who becomes a fugitive to save a scientific theory; however in a deeper sense, it explores the commercialization of our humanity. Somehow, I just don’t feel like my replies to “what’s it about?” are ever adequate. So, when I read the following quote by Flannery, I felt less inadequate:

“A story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind” (p. 108).

I’d like to think that’s why my story resists paraphrasing (or not!). I did agree with her when she made this comment, which relates to why many stories do resist paraphrasing:

“The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. … When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, …” (p. 96).

“Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction” (p. 73).

I agree. The stories that have really stuck with me are the ones where I felt the experience. A story should be experienced to have impact, and Flannery O’Connor’s stories cause the reader to experience something.

In Mystery and Manners, Flannery connects the experienced meaning in a story to the mystery of life itself. She had, in particular, skilled ways of connecting the mystery inherent in her Catholic faith with the mystery of writing, and the experience of reading a story:

“There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you” (p. 103.)

“It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind” (p. 124).

For her, mystery was not something to be eliminated, but rather to be expected and appreciated. Our modern minds may not embrace mystery, but we frequently embrace the grotesque. Consider all the vampire and zombie characters in fiction. I have often wondered why so many of her stories have characters that are shocking, or as she says, grotesque. For her, the grotesque was her way of shouting at modern readers who she felt are jaded toward recognizing the deviant:

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (p. 34).

“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one”(p. 44).

“In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature” (p. 45).

I find this last quote helps to explain a character like the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” He is certainly a figure that can represent our displacement. Flannery seems, in fact, to find in creating the grotesque character a kind of prophecy:

“In the novelist’s case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque.”

The grotesque as a literary device is one she employs repeatedly. In my writing, such as the novel Incense Rising, I employ the devices of satire and humor to show our displacement—our substituting a set of alternate societal values for more traditional ones. Rather than the grotesque embodied in a character, I’ve usually embedded it in society. For example, in Incense Rising, people can own any weapon that they can afford, which means that the wealthy own the weapons. Aside from the inherent metaphor that I’ve constructed, I find the idea of expanding Second Amendment rights to any weapon is a grotesque societal value. And, I think that the use of the grotesque is another way of clarifying the act of redemption.

One of Flannery’s comments resonated with me around the showing of redemption, which was not part of my original intent. After I had drafted the first couple of chapters of Incense Rising, which didn’t end up being the current first couple of chapters, I took the story-in-progress to a Glen Workshop in Santa Fe. Larry Woiwode was the instructor, and he was excellent. One of his comments to the class was that if you want to write about redemption, then you have to get into the gutter. In other words, you have to write about the dispossessed, the down and out, or otherwise disenfranchised if you want to show restoration, recovery, or healing. I found Flannery’s comments along this line enlightening:

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you” (p. 68).

Craft and developing as a writer was important to her. Consider her uncharitable comment that I used at the beginning of this blog and add to it the following:

“I know very well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a ‘killing.’ They are interested in being a writer, not in writing” (p. 64).

For the record, I am trying to write the best quality fiction that I can, which means that I am constantly trying to grow as a writer. I hope that when my books are read, readers think the book was both entertaining and well written. Therefore, I welcome your critiques.

 

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