Mystery And Manners: Occasional Prose, by Flannery O’Connor
Writers often like to talk and write about writing, partly so that they may better understand themselves and their craft and to better justify their status and perspective as writers. And even if writers do not always want to talk about their writing, they are often asked to do so by others who want to become better (known) writers themselves, and so those who have acquired some reputation as good writers are regularly asked to discuss their craft before other interested parties. And this book is an example of this sort of phenomenon as well as the fact that such discussions are often repetitive, as is sometimes the case here. Again, this repetition is not a bad thing. People tend to ask repetitive questions of writers and if a writer has consistent thoughts about his or her craft, those replies are also likely to be somewhat repetitive as well. That said, there is a particular type of reader who is going to enjoy this book a great deal, and that is the sort of reader who either is a writer and who cares about what other writers think about their writing or the sort of reader who cares what Flannery O’Connor has to say about anything. You likely know who you are.
This particular volume is a short one at around 200 pages and is divided into six parts. In the first part of the work, the author talks about her fondness for keeping peacocks, which she views as the king of the birds, and which are the source of numerous amusing anecdotes (I). After that the author provides several essays on regional writing, which is seemingly inevitable for a writer who is viewed as a Southern author as O’Connor was, and includes some notes on the grotesque in Southern fiction (II). The author then moves on to a series of essays on the nature and aim of fiction, writing short stories and some thoughts of the author on her own work (III). After this there is a discussion of the teaching of literature and concerns about the educational fads that got some teachers in trouble for assigning obscene literature (IV). The fifth part of the book consists of a series of essays where the author explores the relationship between the Catholic Church and the fiction writer and the novelist and the Christian believer as well as the audience of Catholic novelists and the struggles of being a Catholic writer in the Protestant South (V). The book then concludes with a touching introduction to a memoir of Mary Ann by some of the people who helped take care of her during her short life (VI), followed by an appendix and notes.
My own thoughts on the specific writings of Flannery O’Connor and her thoughts on writing are admittedly mixed. There are some of her thoughts that I find amusing, like her discussion of the depredations of peacocks on flowers or their generally finicky nature. There are other thoughts of hers that I view as sound if a bit tough-minded, like her discussion of the need for writers to engage thoughtfully with audiences they do not share worldviews with, and the importance of teaching literature in a historical approach that looks at the earlier great writers before tackling modern writers so that the importance of influence is understood by those whose tastes are being formed through education. On the other hand, there are some aspects about this book that I find less pleasant, including the author’s attempt to justify the obsession that 20th century writers in the modern tradition (including herself) had with writing about poor and morally ugly misfits and outsiders, despite readers not being very interested in such people. All too often, I suppose, many contemporary writers are misfits, and it is easiest for people to write about themselves regardless of that which readers may want to read for themselves.