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

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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The Blessings of Introversion

This feels like a confession, but I’ll confess anyway. I checked out Susan Cain’s recent book, Quiet, from the library two days ago. It was a little embarrassing.

Sure, I know that introversion isn’t something to be ashamed of, or I wouldn’t have been getting the book in the first place. But our culture generally sees it as something to be ashamed of. In any case, I felt as if I was advertising my brain chemistry to the librarian.

I shouldn’t have felt so awkward. The librarian—a library volunteer, actually—was also an introvert. She noticed the book and exclaimed about the title.

“I’ve heard a lot about it,” I said.

She smiled. “We introverts have to stick together.”

I didn’t think about the irony of her statement until later. Introverts? Stick together? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Susan Cain’s TED talk on introversion. Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson.

Not according to Susan Cain—who is also an introvert. Since she used to be a corporate lawyer, Cain knows full well how difficult life can be for an introvert in an extravert’s world. She came from a rather quiet family, where reading separate books in the same room was considered a social activity. Summer camp was a wake-up call. She brought books to camp, but when the other campers purposely excluded a cabin mate who was reading, Cain did not bring out her books for the rest of the summer. Instead, she did her best to fit in with the “rowdie” camp spirit, determined to hide her introversion. (Listen to her description of the incident in her TED talk, found here.) Cain continued trying to appear more extraverted than she was into her years as a young adult, feeling uncomfortable about her desire for quiet.

But Cain came to realize that wanting to be alone with a book was not a bad thing. It simply reflected a difference in temperament between introverts and extraverts, a difference caused by brain chemistry. Spending time with other people energizes extraverts. Left alone, they quickly become bored. Introverts are the opposite—human interaction requires them to expend their energy. Even if they are spending time around people they enjoy, too much human interaction or too many new experiences exhausts them. Thus their need to be alone. It isn’t about being anti-social (most introverts love having deep conversations with other people). It’s about protecting themselves against overstimulation.

Unfortunately, American culture values extraversion more than most cultures in the world, causing many introverts to feel undervalued and misunderstood. Most introverts can probably remember the first time they realized that other people considered their introversion a problem. My first time, rather ironically, was in a library. I hated asking the librarian questions, even when I needed help. I wasn’t the most painfully shy seven-year-old on the planet—a year later I chose to go to summer camp and was not at all homesick—but I did not want to speak to that librarian. The adult that my sister and I were with (an extravert, I think) became disgusted with my refusal to talk to the librarian, so he had my four-year-old sister (also an extravert) go up and ask the question instead. In a mixture of shyness and stubbornness, I didn’t budge.

Cain agrees that there are times when acting like an extravert can be necessary for introverts—if they want to succeed in our heavily-extraverted business world, for example. But she also contends that extraverts should sometimes act like introverts. Both introverts and extraverts have important strengths. Extraverted strengths are obvious—they are assertive, can think on their feet, are not easily upset by conflict, begin jobs quickly, and can be a lot of fun.

But what about introverted strengths? Cain contends that we often do not hear about these strengths, but that they are extremely important. Good listening skills, for example. Creativity. Conscientiousness. Deep thinking. All important traits, vital to the stability of our culture.

Susan Cain’s book isn’t perfect. It focuses a lot on the business world—natural for someone with Cain’s background, but not for many other introverts—and comes from a decidedly secular perspective. (She did interview Adam McHugh, however. McHugh is an evangelical who wrote a book several years ago called Introverts in the Church. I’m adding his book to my to-read list.) But Cain’s book is one of a very few books on introversion written for a popular audience. It is comprehensive, well-researched, and easy to read. And for many introverts, especially those who have grown up feeling as if they have a malformed personality, reading Quiet may prove a breakthrough experience.

If you are an introvert, or an extravert who wants to understand introverts, then read Quiet. Like you teacher said in Sunday School (before ordering you to answer her questions in a louder voice), God made every one of us unique. And Cain’s book attests to just how introversion can fit into His perfect plan.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2012 in Nonfiction

 

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Neil Postman Strikes

When I was about four years old, my mother made an announcement. I had previously been allowed to watch three half-hour children’s television shows. Now, to my great delight, I was permitted to watch four. Four shows! I thought it was wonderful. And if you had told my four-year-old self that, by the time I was a teenager, I would hardly watch TV at all, I would have been horrified.

At this point in my life, I avoid watching TV for two reasons. First, it’s unfortunately too easy for me to sit down to a program I don’t care about and stay there for two hours. Secondly, I can read now, which I could not do when I was four years old. And most of the books I own are more entertaining–to me, at least–than most of the movies I have access to. Not particularly high philosophical reasons. I simply stopped watching TV when I outgrew children’s videos.

C. S. Lewis grew up before cinema became popular, so he had the perspective of adulthood to help him reach his decision in regards to film. His verdict was unfavorable. For one thing, he strongly disliked some popular movies–Walt Disney’s, in particular. His most common complaint, from my reading of his books, had to do with the effect films would have on viewers’ imaginations. Immature or uneducated readers, Lewis argued, exercised their imaginations largely through popular novels. “If so,” he then concluded, “nothing can be more disastrous than the view that cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.”

But Neil Postman takes a different approach to the subject, with the added benefit of living long enough to see television become popular in the home. In 1985 he wrote his most famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which is an attack against the television.

Yet it isn’t a typical attack against the television. Yes, says Postman, television is very entertaining. That’s the point of its existence. And Postman, unlike C.S. Lewis, was not primarily concerned about anyone’s imaginative life. Let them watch movies all they want–every culture has its own forms of entertainment. The real problem with TV’s entertaining quality is when it isn’t being used for entertainment. News shows and commercials are very entertaining, which is precisely the problem.

Postman’s book has two main weaknesses–neither entirely his fault. First, it doesn’t address the issue of the Internet, because the books pre-dated the popular use of the Internet. Second, Postman doesn’t offer very many solutions to the problems resulting from television. But that’s a very difficult problem to solve in a nation addicted to electronics. Postman cannot solve the problem, but he sheds more light on the problem than anyone else I have read.

For years I’ve heard statements similar to this one: “There’s nothing wrong with technology. It’s all how you use it.” That’s true to a point, or I would be pretty hypocritical right now–posting an anti-technology post on the computer. Technology can be used for good purposes. But Postman says what others don’t like to say–television isn’t evil, but it is different. Being raised on computers and television will produce a different sort of person than being raised on print. And that unfortunate fact is often ignored.

How different? Postman argues that there have been two communication revolutions in history–the change from oral communication to print, and the change from print to electronic media. Oral culture valued people with good memories and who had a lot of life experience. Print culture emphasized the skills of understanding and logical analysis. Electronic culture differs from both, encouraging a focus on images and lowering people’s attention spans. All forms of media are not equal. Unequal does not mean “evil.” But it does mean that we should be aware of what we are doing to ourselves when watch  television or use the internet.

News shows don’t examine problems in detail–because that’s not entertaining. Commercials are about consumer psychology, not the products they advertise. Political debates don’t require extended discussion of the questions–they are about appearance, not logic. And, of particular concern to me, even religion has been affected by the electronic mindset.

Postman, so far as I can tell, was not closely affiliated with any religion. Yet his critiques of TV religion–that it reduces religion to entertainment, destroying feelings of reverence and encouraging the veneration of particular preachers–are right on the money. I would not word his criticisms in the same way, perhaps, but he brought up problems with modern Christianity that I had never considered results of television.

The Koran calls Christians “People of the Book.” It isn’t far wrong. Christianity has been firmly bound to writing for the full length of its existence. To damage that heritage by an addiction to electronics would be nothing less than tragic. Amusing Ourselves to Death is not the Bible. It is not perfect. But it is earth-shattering.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2012 in Nonfiction

 

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