Friday, April 18, 2008

Mystery and Manners

Flannery O'Connor's book of essays, Mystery and Manners, has been much more of a bible to me in my writing life than anything else, even moreso than Strunk and White. I first read it almost twenty years ago, when writing my first stories (I'm old!), and return to it every now and then for encouragement and inspiration. I love her grumpy, modest arrogance and absolutely clear vision. One essay in particular, "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," never fails to sweep away my (ever-recurring) confusion and despair. I thought I would repeat here some of her rather casually tossed-off bits of wisdom, but if you are serious about writing fiction, I strongly suggest you read the whole thing yourself.

"I know 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, making a "killing." They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.... And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable."

But, she says, "The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made; and that will have to be the basis of my few words on the subject of ficion."

And a few pages on:
"The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.... The world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create.... The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. 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."

She goes on to talk about the novel versus the short story, the role of theme, etc. Then this, "People without hope don't write novels, and what is more to the point, they don't read them. They don't take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage."

And then this: "Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. In a good deal of popular criticism, there is the notion operating that all fiction has to be about the Average Man, and has to depict average, ordinary everyday life, tht every fiction writer must produce what used to be called 'a slice of life.' But if life, in that sense, satisfied us, there would be no sense in producing literature at all."

Oh, Flannery, you make it sound so easy and sensible!

She goes on to express strong opinions about the worth of writing classes and universities and what a writing teacher can and can't do for a student, but I won't repeat what she says in hopes that I might encourage those MFA-obsessed folks to go find this marvelous book.


5 Red Pandas said...

I'm going to find that book today! I need a little kick in the pants.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. Thank you very much!

max said...

I guess I'm "MFA-obsessed." (Though note how the term is derogatory, when all I'm doing is putting forth an opinion.)
And isn't it refreshing (I hope, for your sake, that it is) to get some negativity; constant praise is bad for you -- like too many sweets are bad for your teeth.
Flannery O'Connor was a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and there she made important contacts that would help her throughout her career: notably, Robert Fitzgerald and Caroline Gordon (a Catholic who also helped another Catholic writer, Walker Percy).
I think Wise Blood and many of the short stories are wonderful. My take on O'Connor is that she was attracted to the freakish (aren't we all?); she would be an avid reader of those supermarket tabloids about women who give birth to alien babies (complete with photos of the grotesque offspring); Flannery would have a good laugh reading that stuff. There's a cruel streak in her work, which she tries to hide (often unsuccessfully) with religious symbolism.
Anyway: she's most definitely deserving of our respect. But let's change the script of her life. Let's bring ourselves to the present. She never goes to Iowa or attends any other MFA program; she doesn't know an important soul in the world; she stays in Milledgeville, Georgia (which John Kennedy Toole visited, before he drove to the Gulf Coast and committed suicide); she sends out unsolicited manuscripts -- those strange, dense stories -- that go straight to the slush pile.
Could it be possible -- give this idea a chance, Rhian -- that she would get back form rejections?

Anonymous said...

Jesus Christ, who the fuck cares?

Anonymous said...

Mad Max is just kinda nutty.

rmellis said...

Hey, Max, you've inspired me to write a whole post on that topic: "Would So and So Be Published Today?" Because it's a fascinating question.

There's no shame in obsession: I'm currently obsessed with chickens and, bizarrely, household management. But I think it's good to see one's obsession for what it is and to take the flak for it.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea for that post, but when people have these discussions they usually make the mistake of asking if a specific novel or story would be published today (usually the answer is no) rather than asking if the writer would be published (and the answer to that is usually yes). That is, Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise is a rather sloppy first novel; the masuscirpt itself would probably not get published today. But Fitzgerald himself, if he were a young writer in 2008, would surely succeed. I think this goes for many of the authors featured in these kinds of debates.

rmellis said...

But the reasons why are interesting...

bookfraud said...

well, i hate to actually talk about the subject of the post, but...

i first read "mysteries and manners" about the same time you did, and if it didn't have as a profound effect on me, it certainly is one of the main guides i have to writing fiction. both her more abstractions to the more concrete -- i always remember her edict that one should activate at least three of the senses to build a scene, or to take up drawing, as it forces you to concentrate on one thing.

i also remember her saying that being able to edit one's own work is a sign of genius. so true.

thanks for reminding me about this great book, which i'll have to pull out of storage, now the bugs are gone.

AC said...

Speaking of chickens, I have a vague memory of reading a collection of Flannery O'Connor's letters back in my freshman year of college. She was talking about modern poultry breeding, and the freakish birds that are bred to be all breast or all thigh. The line I seem to remember is, "I believe in the whole chicken." What an odd thing to remember after all these years. It must be clinging in the mental file with the line from Charlotte Bronte, in Villette, "No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato..."

Anonymous said...

So I'm innocently reading these comments, and I read Max's, and then I see the response from Robert, and I think, Who's the crazy one?
So then I'm waiting, and the days go by, but no one who visits Ward Six (now I know why it's called that) sees fit to take Robert to task.
His response was just fine with you all, eh? Not even any religious souls out there who object to the use of "Jesus Christ" and "fuck" in the same sentence?
I won't be visiting Toady Hall anymore, and I have some advice for Max: you should stay away too.

rmellis said...

Max can defend himself! And he does.

I love Max. I would miss him if he left.

rmellis said...

ac: You obviously have a thing for the agricultural metaphor.

I too believe in the whole chicken.

max said...

Like Anonymous, I was waiting for a word of censure to Robert’s outburst. I too think it’s absence is revealing.
And how can one “defend” oneself against his words? There’s no reasoning involved.
But my sanity has been called into question a number of times (high-minded level of discourse, isn’t it?), and I can defend myself against that. The doctors here at Thornwood are quite satisfied with my progress. They believe that, in three or four years, the review board may see fit to release me.
I share my correspondence with them, and they were impressed by my reaction to Robert’s “comment”: I merely found it amusing.
But, on the other hand, they feel I may be enjoying myself a little too much; it’s sadistic to play with someone fragile. I must agree. It is unhealthy.
I should cease and desist. Why try to open minds that are firmly closed? I have better things to do. I’m creating some interesting patterns in my basket weaving class.
And we’re able to borrow books from the library of a nearby city, so at night I can read whatever I want.

rmellis said...

A word of censure against the language? I hope not, because it's pretty mainstream these days, and this is an adult blog. Against the sentiment? Well, it's a pretty reasonable question: what does it matter if she would or would be published today? It's another topic, and I addressed it in my following post.

I never called you crazy. And I hope you don't leave, because it's more interesting to have some disagreement.

Hey, I heard a rumor there's chicken patties for lunch! See you in the canteen. I'll be the one in the flowered shift, listening to the voices in my carton of milk.

AC said...

I'll have to start watching for agricultural metaphors. I kind of have a thing for agricultural reality, too, but I live in the city so metaphor is the whole chicken to me.

I thought the response to Max's first comment was somewhat uncalled for. It seems to have inspired the next two posts, so it couldn't have been that irrelevant a question. But I took it to mean something like "Not the MFA thing again!", more than "Who cares if Flannery O'Connor never existed?"
(Published and existed being pretty much the same thing in the days before the internet.)

As far as language goes, well...speaking as one of the "religious souls" out here, I use those words together way too often myself to object when anyone else does.

rmellis said...

I think JR's exasperation has to do with the return of the "it's impossible to get published today without an MFA and butt-kissing" mantra. And a history of hostility between him and Max.

If you can't get pissed off in your blog comments, where can you get pissed off?

AC said...

"If you can't get pissed off in your blog comments, where can you get pissed off?"

Is that how it works? I've never really been clear on the dynamic at work in blogs. Are they a soapbox? Or more of a party, where some sort of host/guest relationship applies? I think in this one, I was getting lulled into the sense of being in class: the professors introduce a topic and the class discusses it. If a debate breaks out, the professor is supposed to moderate, not fly off the handle. But I can see the mistake I was falling into. You're not on the job here!

rmellis said...

I'm still not really sure what a blog is, and what this one is in particular. Sometimes we write little essays and they're like lectures -- so yeah, it's like a class, except definitely not, because, well, it isn't. Maybe it's like a dinner party where people hold forth -- except other people have to hold forth on their own blogs and only comment here. I dunno. It's weird. It's one thing for the blogger, and another for the reader. The great thing is, it's free, and no one has to read it if they hate it...