Mystery and Manners

I’m not sure how I’ve been writing all this time and haven’t ever read Flannery O’Connor’s book on writing, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.  It was excellent; I’d recommend it to all writers, but particularly to writers who are also people of faith.

In the book, O’Connor devotes a lot of space to the importance of using honest regional settings (she calls this the “manners” of the place) and figuring out your own region and your place within it.  “To know oneself,” O’Connor writes, “is to know one’s region.  It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.”  She also writes extensively about characters and the importance of having a vision for what is really going on in your era.

All of those themes are well-presented and worthwhile, but for me the real strength of the book and what sets is apart from other books on writing is O’Connor’s discussion of what distinguishes a Christian writer from any other, and how to be a really good literary author while also being a Christian.  O’Connor writes a lot about being Catholic, since that was her faith tradition, but her points apply equally to protestants in the creative arts.  This question of how faith is woven in to writing is the “mystery” part of the title.

First, O’Connor makes clear that if you want to be a good writer you probably aren’t going to be able to be an explicitly Christian writer.  That is, you probably aren’t going to be writing stuff they sell at the Christian bookstore.  I’m sure there is a place for that sort of fiction, but I don’t prefer it myself and don’t have an interest in writing it, so it was nice to hear O’Connor’s perspective on how a Christian can communicate and witness MORE effectively by honest literary writing than by only writing to a Christian audience.

I was struck by O’Connor’s points about how a Christian writer will see the world and write about it differently, even if characters aren’t Christian or much evil is present.  For example, she points out that the Christian sees evil in the culture that most people have grown comfortable seeing, and has the task of showing it as evil.  She writes, “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience…to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

O’Connor also points out that the Christian writer will see moments of redemption and grace in life that others might overlook, and will express the Christian idea that redemption has a cost.  To show that worldview is to point to the Gospel, even if (and probably only if) you don’t have a character saying so explicitly.

I was also particularly intrigued with O’Connor’s thoughts about writing as a Christian in the South.  She felt it was an ideal setting, because although “the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted” so she felt she had the freedom to include more Christian themes than she might have had with other settings.  That was interesting to consider, and I think she is right, but I think there are probably unique ways that any setting at all would lend itself to stories of redemption and grace in the face of evil.  The challenge to the Christian author, then, is to figure out what they are for his own unique setting.

Really, Mystery and Manners is an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it to Christians who are writers or otherwise involved in artistic pursuits.  There is a lot of food for thought here, and I’d be very interested in your comments if you’ve read it!


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