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Instruments for good

Novelist Flannery O'Connor "speaks" on the work of fiction and aspiring fiction writers

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A reader asks: "I'm trying to get started as a novelist. Could you recommend something about fiction writing by a Christian writer?" Easy answer: Read Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, available in paperback (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), an exceptionally clear book that reads almost as if the author were answering questions.

O'Connor wrote two novels-Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960)-and 31 published stories before dying in 1964 at age 39 of complications from lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease. Had she lived she would now be 82 and WORLD would want to interview her. So let's do it anyway, using Mystery and Manners.

All the words of the answers are O'Connor's own, with the exception of a few connecting and explanatory words in brackets. Readers will see that she was acerbic toward what passed as "religious fiction," but Christian novel-writing has changed over the decades, so her critique from over 40 years ago should not necessarily be applied to current efforts.

WORLD: What's the difference between a Christian novelist and a naturalistic (or materialistic) one?

O'CONNOR: The novelist is required to create the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it, and the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.

WORLD: Do you think some Christian writers are willing to do a slapdash portrayal of the natural because they want to emphasize the crucial evangelistic message?

O'CONNOR: Fiction operates through the senses. . . . No reader who doesn't actually experience, who isn't made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him.

WORLD: Why do you call lots of religious novels "sorry"?

O'CONNOR: The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns . . . by beginning with Christian principles and finding the life that will illustrate them. . . . The result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.

WORLD: Some Christians object to showing evil and violence on the grounds that the good must be emphasized because the good is the ultimate reality?

O'CONNOR: The ultimate reality has been weakened in human beings as a result of the Fall, and it is this weakened life that we see.

WORLD: Some of our readers who don't like writing about adultery or murder quote the admonition in Philippians 4 to think about what is good. Should novelists avert their eyes from what is bad?

O'CONNOR: The novelist is required to open his eyes on the world around him and look. If what he sees is not highly edifying, he is still required to look. . . . What he sees at all times is fallen man perverted by false philosophies. Is he to reproduce this? Or is he to change what he sees and make it, instead of what it is, what in the light of faith he thinks it ought to be . . . to 'tidy up reality'?

WORLD: I think I know how you answer those questions . . .

O'CONNOR: [The Christian fiction writer] is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe. He feels perfectly free to look at the one we already have and to show exactly what he sees. He feels no need to apologize for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God. For him, to 'tidy up reality' is certainly to succumb to the sin of pride.

WORLD: Is tidied-up writing also weak writing?

O'CONNOR: The fiction writer has to make a whole world believable by making every part and aspect of it believable. [He has to be concerned] with the evil, and not only with the evil, but also with that aspect which appears neither good nor evil, which is not yet Christianized.

WORLD: But there are dangers in this.

O'CONNOR: It is very possible that what is vision and truth to the writer is temptation and sin to the reader. There is every danger that in writing what he sees, the novelist will be corrupting some 'little one,' and better a millstone were tied around his neck. . . . This is no superficial problem, [but] to force this kind of total responsibility on the novelist is to burden him with the business that belongs only to God.

WORLD: So what do good writers do when they see the need to describe but want to minimize the anger of corruption?

O'CONNOR: [The good writer should] take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to the central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses.

WORLD: Should readers have obligations as well?

O'CONNOR: [Some readers] open a novel and, discovering the presence of an arm or a leg, piously close the book. We are always demanding that the writer be less explicit in regard to natural matters or the concrete particulars of sin. [Such readers] are over-conscious of what they consider to be obscenity in modern fiction for the very simple reason that in reading a book, they have nothing else to look for. They are totally unconscious of the design, the tone, the intention, the meaning, or even the truth of what they have in hand. They don't see the book in a perspective that would reduce every part of it to its proper place in the whole.

WORLD: Where do beginning writers often go wrong?

O'CONNOR: [They] are apt to be reformers and to want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.

WORLD: You emphasize that "in most good stories it is the character's personality that creates the action of the story." Where do beginning writers often fall short?

O'CONNOR: [Some] don't go very far inside a character, don't reveal very much of the character. I don't mean that they don't enter the character's mind, but they simply don't show that he has a personality. . . . In most of these stories, I feel that the writer has thought of some action and then scrounged up a character to perform it.

WORLD: Are you overly hard on some Christian writers? Can't even poorly written religious novels with pious characters be edifying?

O'CONNOR: Poorly written novels -no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters -are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.

WORLD: But can't God use them for good?

O'CONNOR: We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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