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The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor

A profound simplicity of thought, a penetrating vision of what it means to be human, Flannery O’Connor embodies the spirit of bringing fictional stories to life.  Others might call her fiction ‘grotesque’ in a rather unflattering manner, but O’Connor was not content to live up to their criticisms.  In this short book of collected essay and lectures, Mystery and Manners, editors and friends of Flannery, Robert and Sally Fitzgerald have given us a glimpse into the vision of her faith, style and life as a writer.   A lifelong Catholic, Flannery O’Connor sought to wed together the moral integrity of her faith with the character of her craft in writing.  Specifically, fiction for her was an exploration in imitation.

In a rather illuminating statement in the chapter entitled, “A Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South, “ O’Connor writes,

“I am specifically concerned with fiction because that is what I write.  There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.  Fiction is the most impure and the most modest and the most human of the arts.  It is closest to man in his sin and his suffering and his hope, and it is often rejected by Catholics for the very reasons that make it what it is” (192).

Mimesis and the Moral Imagination
What is it about stories that stick with humans?  Why is it that stories leave an enduring legacy in the minds and hearts of generation after generations.  In these lines above by O’Connor, there is a narrowness of thought that seeks to brush a clear path to the reason why stories remain a constant.  Statements often have weight at the time they are rendered but fail to elicit any enduring quality without a context of meaning.  Statistics, on the other hand, are the handmaiden of the scientific legion, bringing forth number after number to desire change.  Yet, statistics, most of all, do not carry with their number any real moral force.  In fact, they are so easily abused that to base an argument on pure statistics is to weigh in the waters of the immobility. Statistics carry neither the moral imagination nor the imitation of real life that fiction so carefully envisions.  So, what does fiction do that captures the hearts and souls of men and women across the world?
Fiction imitates.  You have heard it said that ‘Art imitates life,’ and this sentiment is without question.  Yet, in good fiction, you find not just the broad brushstrokes of a life, but also the inner murmurings of a man, woman and child.  The thousand little conversations that take place between the waking and sleeping hours are of utmost importance to the novelist, for these dialogues reveal something of the heart of a character.  And, it is in the heart of a character that the ‘everyman’ finds his connection.   

 Secondly, the mimetic character of fiction also brings to the surface the fact that the events of a life in their progression dramatically affect the present state of being.  Statistics cannot yield the story of how Hank Aaron overcame hatred prejudice and racism to be one of the greatest ballplayers in history.  From Hazel Motes to Harry Potter, great fictional characters use the storyline of their past to motivate their present and future paths.  A great storyline tangles its readers in its grips by identifying with them in the human condition.  O’Connor writes that “Fiction is the …most human of the arts.”  Fiction is the most human of the arts because it bears witness to the experience of life, whether in direct correspondence or by way of analogy.  Have you ever found yourself reading a novel and suddenly saying, “I’ve been there before,” or “I know someone who has experienced that before, “ or “I can see how that would make me feel that way.”  Fiction is the wake up splash of water on your face.  Rather than providing a wall dividing the professional from the amateur or the writer from the reader, fiction brings the reader to grips with his own life. 

Secondly, fiction provides a fertile soil for moral imagination.  O’Connor writes, “..Fiction is closest to man in his sin and suffering and his hope.”  Fiction as a genre is written to radically affect its readers.  A great work of fiction is supposed to change the reader in some specific way, whether for good or ill.  Therefore, there is a moral quality to fiction that cannot be dismissed.  O’Connor points to the sin, suffering, and hope that fiction identifies with.  How does fiction identify with sin, suffering and hope?  For one, fictional work exposes its readers to their own presuppositions, prejudices and preconceived notions.  The more we look at Hazel Motes and his desire to avoid sin, the more we are drawn to the fact that temptation has a hold on all of us.  The deeper we look into the pages of Things Fall Apart, the more clearly we see the efforts of Western colonization efforts in Africa as an abuse and scandal to human dignity.  Moral platitudes divorced from a storyline fail to call people to action because they cannot capture the moral imagination of individuals.   But, good fiction provides a context for how things could be in the world and how things actually are in the present. 

Furthermore, in identifying sin, suffering and hope with good fiction, O’Connor relates the connection of the biblical narrative with fiction writing.  The concepts of sin, suffering and hope find their beginning in the way God created the world, the way humans fell into sin, and the hope that comes with the coming of the Messiah.  What makes the biblical record so identifiable with people is that it concretely describes the predicament readers find themselves in every day of their life.  As we read the pages of 1984, we identify with Winston Smith because there are times when we cannot escape the tyranny of oversight in our own lives.  Yet, I think in good fiction, the narrative calls its readers beyond the front and back covers of its spine to something greater, something which calls them to look above.  In God’s common grace, even the most vilest of writers cannot loose the grasp of God’s imprint upon the pages of his world in their writing. 

On a side note, this is all the more reason to come to the work of fiction with a theological lens.  If we only read as an escape, to free our minds from the drudgery of life, then we will be moved by the narrative without a proper vision of the right use of emotions, thoughts, and moral formation.  We cannot escape that fact that everyday a book is published that promotes a way of life that prides itself in immorality, despair, and scientism, but still retains vestiges of God’s work in the world.


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