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On Culture and Calling: Flannery O’Connor’s Essays

13 Mar

I bought Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners in high school without realizing what I was getting into. At the time I considered myself a Civil War buff, and I had seen the book on a list. A book of the Georgian author’s essays and recorded speeches, it supposedly would help me understand Southern culture.

Now I probably buff my shoes more often than I do any war, although my mother would deny that statement. She has given me some wonderful lectures on my need to polish my shoes right away. But, Civil War buff or no, Mystery and Manners remains one of my most valued books. The wear on the cover shows it.

“What is a writer going to take his ‘country’ to be?” O’Connor asks, annoyed with a Life editorial that complained no gifted writers truly spoke for America. At least, they did not speak for the America of the statisticians; and O’Connor contended that expecting them to do so was ridiculous. O’Connor continued:

“[The word ‘country] suggests everything from the actual countryside that the novelist describes, on to and through the peculiar characteristics of his region and his nation, and on, through, and under all of these to his true country, which the writer with Christian convictions will consider to be what is eternal and absolute. This covers considerable territory, and if one were talking of any other kind of writing than the writing of fiction, one would perhaps have to say ‘countries,’ but it is the peculiar burden of the fiction writer that he has to make one country do for all and that he has to evoke that one country through the concrete particulars of a life that he can make believable.”

Mystery and Manners includes a number of differing essays, including a humorous one on O’Connor’s peacocks and another on the memoir of a little girl that died of cancer. But the overarching focus of the collection is how she, as a writer, managed that synthesizing process. “What is a writer going to take his ‘country’ to be?” The countryside in his story. His region—for O’Connor, the Deep South. His nation. And ultimately his conception of what is lasting. Somehow, a writer has to find where all of those places are for him. And then he has to find the place where all those things can unite. (For some writers, including, I think, O’Connor, the place where those things unite may well be a battleground. But, then, some battles are worth fighting.)

O’Connor’s point was that whatever an author’s chosen genre, he cannot afford to ignore what exists around him. For authors of realistic fiction, that should be obvious—you may not write about the people you grew up with (although some writers do), but you must write about people you understand. Ignoring your own background is no way to achieve that understanding.

On fantasy, O’Connor was just as emphatic. “Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic.” Any story needs verisimilitude—lifelikeness—if it is to be believed. Even metafiction and satire have to have some basis in a believable reality for readers to take them seriously.

“I would even go so far as to say,” O’Connor continues, “that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.”

For me, probably the most important aspect of the book are the sections where the Catholic O’Connor discusses the relationship between belief and writing. What should a Christian do about objectionable elements without going to the extreme of ignoring them or the opposite extreme of using them for their own sake? How can a writer describe a person’s encounter with God in a society that does not believe in Him? What view of writing should a Christian take? Is it personal expression, a vehicle for ministry, or something else?

O’Connor’s answers to these questions are not easy, and any individual writer will have to work out their real-world application for himself. But for young Christian writers who are struggling to understand the practical aspects of their calling, Mystery and Manners is invaluable.

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Posted by on March 13, 2013 in Essay Collections

 

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