Tuesday, September 01, 2009

O'Connor: scaring people by writing about sin

Well, I think it's time for more philosophising from Flannery O'Connor. These quotes are taken from pages 139 and 143-44 of The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, 1979 edition.

"I once had the feeling I would dig my mother's grave with my writing, too, but I later discovered this was vanity on my part. They are hardier than we think."

I like this one because I think too much about what other people are going to think about my writing. I do it both ways--thinking one group of my friends will think it's too gooey, or others will think it's too scandalous. Or I worry that people will simply misunderstand what I'm saying. Especially with poetry, I can't make everything so clear as to prevent the possibility of misunderstanding without losing all art and subtlety. I have to be willing to risk misinterpretation and leave the readers their free agency.

"About scandalizing the 'little ones.' When I first began to write I was much worried about this thing of scandalizing people, as I fancied that what I wrote was highly inflammatory. I was wrong--it wouldn't even have kept anybody awake, but anyway, thinking this was my problem, I talked to a priest about it. The first thing he said to me was, 'You don't have to write for fiteen-year-old-girls.' Of course, the mind of a fifteen-year-old girl lurks in many a head that is seventy-five and people are every day being scandalized not only by what is scandalous of its nature but by what is not. If a novelist wrote a book about Abraham passing his wife Sarah off as his sister--which he did--and allowing her to be taken over by those who wanted her for their lustful purposes--which he did to save his skin--how many Catholics would not be scandalized at the behavior of Abraham? The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have."

"When you wirte a novel, if you have been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God's hands. . . . I think that for the writer to worry about this is to take over God's business."

This one hits me hard. I believe that--believe that it is wrong and actually damaging to the quality of my art for me to be more involved than I should in God's business. My business is to do what I feel called to do, and do it as well as I possibly can, then leave the rest to God.

"Part of the mystery of existence is sin. When we think about the Crucifixion, we miss the point of it if we don't think about sin."

"Fiction is suposed to represent life, and the fiction writer has to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing. The fiction writer doesn't state, he shows, renders."

"The two worst sins of bad taste in fiction are pornography and sentimentality. One is too much sex and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point but no more."

"I don't think you have to worry much about bad taste with a competent writer, because he uses everything for a reason."

I so agree with this one. It explains why the depiction of sin in some things doesn't bother me at all, and other times drives me crazy. So many writers seem to just throw it in for fun, and not for a purpose.

"What offends my taste in fiction is when right is held up as wrong, or wrong as right."



Anonymous said...

I need to read more of O'Connor because I really, really love what I have read of hers. And I'm enjoying your thoughts on her thoughts, and enjoying seeing her process of coming to terms with what she wanted to write.

I agree with what she said about porn vs. sentimentality, and said something similar in a really long comment on a friend's blog--here's that part of the comment:

As far as judging good books from bad books, my favorite tool for this was invented by one of my BYU English professors, Bill Eggington. At the time that I was in one of his classes, he was visiting from BYU Hawaii but I think he’s now full-time at the Y. He used a grid with four quadrants and across one axis he had +power and -power and down the other axis he had +love -love. (I hope I described that in a way that wasn’t too revealing of my extreme lack of math fluency.) By “power” he meant good writing and an effective message, and by “love” he meant a redemptive/charitable message. So one quadrant is plus power/plus love, another is minus power/plus love, another is plus power/minus love, and the last is minus power/minus love. In the minus power/minus love quadrant you’d place books that are poorly written and unredemptive–drivel, cheap paperbacks. Minus power/plus love would be sentimental, syrupy things and didactic novels–such as the worst of LDS fiction aimed at teens; things that are meant to teach a message but whose lack of artistry undermines their effectiveness. Plus power/minus love are effective artistically but don’t inspire or nourish the mind and soul. And plus power/plus love are those books like those that have been mentioned here that stay with you and make you want to come back to them and share them with your children.

Of course, which quadrant any book belongs in is completely subjective; I’ve just found this tool a useful way to explain which works I like and which I reject–because the only books I endorse wholeheartedly are those in the plus power/plus love category.

I do think that a book can be depressing but still redemptive if it shows the truth about how the world functions without the Gospel, and therefore makes you glad you do have the Gospel.

Zina said...

(Oh, here's the post I was commenting on. I can't remember whether you met Matthew and Angela in Berkeley or not (they live in Utah now.)