Friday, July 15, 2011

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, by Flannery O'Conner, ed. by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald

(This is longer than usual but really helped me clarify and remember what I got out of this remarkable little book.)

One of the most startling things about this posthumous collection of lectures and essays is to realize just how young Flannery O'Conner was when she died. Before age 39 she possessed more brazen confidence and piercing understanding of literary craft than I ever hope to achieve. Plus, her writing is so full of style and personality that (you'll see) I can't resist quoting her.

The editors open unexpectedly with O'Conner's personal account of raising peacocks that is both delightful and puzzling. Why this, in a book about writing? Maybe as an example of, an experience with, one of O'Conner's own mantras:
As a novelist, the major part of my task is to make everything, even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible. The novelist begins his work where human knowledge begins--with the senses. (155)
The peacock writings illustrate not only O'Conner's preference for the concrete, but also her wry wit and no-nonsense attitude.

There follows four sections on writing: the connection between the fiction writer and his homeland, the nature and purpose of fiction in general, the teaching of literature, and writing as a believer (O'Conner holds an unusual place as a devoted Catholic living in the middle of the Bible Belt).

Besides insisting on writers sticking with the concrete, O'Conner speaks in section two on being a Southern writer. I’m not well-read enough to entirely follow how she places herself within that genre, but I did resonate to the notion that all writers should write from the culture and the language that they know:
Unless a novelist has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication, and communication suggests talking inside a community. . . . The isolated imagination is easily corrupted by theory, but the writer insides his community seldom has such a problem. (53)
This is at least partly where “manners” comes into the title: soak yourself in the manners, the daily actions, customs, gestures, and conversation of your own people. Then write from there. Find the "mystery"--the deep, eternal meaning--in the manners, in the concrete.

In section three (on the nature and purpose of fiction), she urges writers to capture their own region’s language. In one lecture, critiquing submissions to a southern writers' conference, she notes:
I made another observation that startled me considerably. With the exception of one story, there was practically no use made of the local idiom. Now this is a Southern Writers’ Conference . . . [yet] the characters spoke as if they had never heard any kind of language except what came out of a television set. (103)
This is the kind of unapologetic, call-it-as-you-see-it language she uses throughout. She does it again when someone asks, “Why do you write?”: “Because I’m good at it.” She goes on to explain, “I had not been asked why I write the way I do, but why I write at all; and to that there’s only one legitimate answer.” (81)

Here’s another zinger, from section four, on teaching:
Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning. . . . No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail. . . .

The high school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he . . . will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed. (137, 140)
And another, back in section three:
You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t, probably nobody else will. (106)
A few pages previously, she shares a fun example of how one of her own stories surprised her with a wooden leg she didn’t know would be there and didn’t know it would get stolen. (100)

These insights into her own writing were my favorite gleanings from the book. I’d never before been assigned anything by Flannery O’Conner, and I’d never sought it out because I understood her work to be pretty grim and gruesome, “grotesque,” as O’Conner puts it. After reading the chapter titled “On Her Own Work,” I delved into and found profound and satisfying insight in her short stories “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Revelation.”

I’d recommend especially pages 111-114 to everyone before reading “A Good Man.” O’Conner says the key to the story is the Grandmother’s gesture near the end, when she recognizes that “she is responsible for the man before her” (111-112). To understand the heart of the story, we must pay close attention to the Grandmother’s gesture at that moment, to how it differs from all her other actions and how that gesture reveals the true mysteries behind her otherwise meaningless prattle.
Our age . . . does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace. . . . be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for their dead bodies. (112-113)
We must also understand the purpose of violence in her fiction:
I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. . . .

[T]he man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they can take with them. (112, 114)

I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. (118)
This notion that evil is just as real as grace is central to section five, on writing as a believer. She discusses the struggle to find an audience, since fellow believers often expect happy writing, while non-believers are often unable to perceive and appreciate the moments of grace. O’Conner says she uses the “grotesque” to highlight those moments, to make them more noticeable to unbelieving, untrained eyes.

This juxtaposition of the grotesque and grace seems to be, in part, what is meant by "mystery" in the title. It remains the theme of the final section. An introduction to a memoir about an extraordinary child, it is another sample of O’Conner’s own non-fiction writing, forming, along with the peacocks’ opening chapter, bookends for this collection. We see in the child’s face—one half deformed by tumors and the other lively and gracious—a mirror of ourselves and of this entire mortal life, as well as a final distillation of O'Conner's literary aims.


Blogger Lisa said...

Wow, so interesting! I'm definitely going to revisit "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and see if I can spot the gesture in question.

Blogger Cristi said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review, Ched. I'm definitely going to check this out.


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