Re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus &Giroux, 1961, pp. 237), I have been reminded how insightful and stimulating are Flannery’s insights into the nature of fiction.
Some critics, even some who do not share Flannery’s Catholic faith, consider her one of the outstanding writers of fiction in the 20th century. Flannery could not only write great fiction but she had definite ideas about what was and what was not good fiction.
Flannery said that the fiction writer who believes that a story can be entirely explained either by the adequate motivation of the characters or by a believable imitation of life or by a proper theology will judge that the story will not be a large-enough story for him to spend his time and energy writing. She wrote the following:
“This is not to say that he doesn’t have to be concerned with adequate motivation or accurate references or a right theology; he does; but he has to be concerned with these only because the meaning of his story does not begin at a depth where these things have been exhausted. The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”(p.153)
What did Flannery mean by that statement? What Mystery has to be left over? What Mystery cannot be accounted for by any human formula? I think she meant the Mystery of the Holy Spirit and that Mystery’s involvement with the freedom of the author and with the freedom of the author’s characters. Also I think she meant the mystery of Divine Providence in the life of the author and in the life of the author’s characters. I have written almost no fiction but I believe an author’s faith may greatly influence what the author chooses to write or chooses not to write.
I have heard novelists say something like “I am going to return now to work on my novel in order to see what my characters are doing.” Isn’t that type of statement strange? Aren’t the characters creations of the writer? They cannot take on a life of their own, can they? Is there a point in the creation of a novel when the characters take over and seem to be leading the author? Can the characters seem to the author to be acting on their own?
I have never tried to write a novel but apparently if a character is well drawn by a novelist, then the writer must be consistent and faithful to the character he has drawn. In a sense the characters can seem to take on lives of their own. Is that something like God giving us freedom and then being bound by our choices and decisions?
Flannery stresses that belief in a religious dogma does not narrow an author’s vision. When I frequently tried to interest teachers of English in Catholic high schools, colleges and universities, and never succeeded in persuading them, I wonder if they thought Catholic novels would be too parochial, too narrow in their dramatization of human experience. Of course the opposite is true.
A Catholic novel can present a cosmic vision of mystery. One teacher at a Catholic college told me that at his college in courses on the novel writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck were discussed.
That’s wonderful, but why neglect the great treasure of Catholic novels?
I did make one convert. A former student of mine, who took my course on the Catholic novel is now a Holy Cross priest-professor at the University of Notre Dame. Recently he led a group of students through a discussion of Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair. The students absolutely loved the book and want to read more novels like it. Even my former student was surprised by the enthusiasm the Notre Dame students expressed.
I agree completely with the following comment by Flannery in Mystery and Manners:
“It makes a great difference to the look of a novel whether its author believes that the world came late into being and continues to come by a creative act of God, or whether he believes that the world and ourselves are the product. It makes a great difference to his novel whether he believes that we are created in God’s image, or whether he believes we create God in our own. It makes a great difference whether he believes that our wills are free, or bound like those of the other animals.” (pp. 156-157)
Flannery O’Connor took writing fiction very seriously. I think we should take reading fiction very seriously.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.