Monday, September 28, 2009

"Realism of Distance, Realism of Immediacy"

Review of Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners (excerpt)

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in The Southern Review, Winter 1971
Copyright © by Joyce Carol Oates

"The prophet is a realist of distances."
—Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor died in 1964. Reading and rereading this book is a moving experience: not only is Mystery and Manners (Occasional Prose of Flannery O'Connor, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald) a valuable and exciting collection of essays in itself, it is a testament to the deep humanity of Miss O'Connor, to the modesty and wisdom and gentle humor that lay behind her vivid, sometimes repulsive fictional accomplishments. Her death at the age of thirty-nine is one of our bitterest losses. It is impossible to guess, given the body of work she has left and the evidence of shrewd, speculative intelligence in these essays, just how far she might have gone; as it is she remains one of our finest writers, though she has not written any single "masterpiece."

Mystery and Manners is a collection of essays, lectures, critical articles, and notes by Miss O'Connor, dealing with a variety of subjects: raising peacocks, regional writing, the nature of literature, the teaching of literature, the peculiar problems of religious writers, and even a long essay about a terribly afflicted but somehow beautiful child named Mary Ann. Miss O'Connor's writing is direct and startling in its simplicity. She is not pretentious. She is not even very dogmatic, though she is certain of a few things and repeats them in one way or another—the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and art must operate through the senses, beginning and ending humbly.

Miss O'Connor's writing is incarnational—a celebration of the distant in terms of the immediate. It is not important whether her fiction mirrors an accurate sociological world (does it?—doesn't it?), because its territory is not really Georgia; "Georgia" is the surface of the mystery. She states again and again that fiction concerns itself with mystery.

The mystery of the divine is dramatized through the immediate, through the manners of a region (the best American writing is always regional). Miss O'Connor remarks in "The Teaching of Literature" that Henry James once wrote of a hypothetical young woman of the future who would be taken out for airings in a flying-machine, but "would know nothing of mystery or manners."

The mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.

There is much in this excellent book that cannot be drawn together except arbitrarily. A "realist of distances," Miss O'Connor possessed a devastating eye for the immediate; here are some scattered remarks that seem exceptionally worthwhile:

The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live ....

Manners are of such great consequence to the novelist that any kind will do.

Unless we are willing to accept our artists as they are, the answer to the question, "Who speaks for America today?" will have to be: the advertising agencies.

I think that every writer, when he speaks of his own approach to fiction, hopes to show that, in some crucial and deep sense, he is a realist ....

The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.

. . . there's a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.

Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.

Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.

Originally published in The Southern Review, Winter 1971
Copyright © by Joyce Carol Oates

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