Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1957) by Flannery O’Connor is a collection of essays and articles selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.
The title holds a far deeper meaning than what the casual reader might first expect. “Mystery” is not referring to the genre of literature where a protagonist must set out to solve an unknown event, such as a crime, and “manners” has more depth to it than simply meaning “a way in which a thing is done or happens,” but O’Connor, a devout Catholic, does briefly discuss the “manners” of her own writing.
To better understand the title “Mystery and Manners” the reader should particularly view the words through a Catholic faith, which is a necessity to fully grasp O’Connor and her writings.
“Mystery” deals heavily with O’Connor’s Catholic faith and how “heaven” is a transcendent idea which is unseen and mysterious, much like God; one might define “mystery” using the Catholic’s religious definition: “a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God.”
In the Catholic faith, “manners” is defined as being “minor morals” which is more focused on the mundane, the everyday happenings of ordinary humans, the seen and unextraordinary in society.
Ergo, “Mystery and Manners” might be better translated and understood as meaning “a reality with the hidden presence of God among the everyday happenings of mundane humans.”
“The storyteller is concerned with what is,” writes O’Connor. “In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it… It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery” (p 31).
It is so often this “respect for mystery” (or the respect for the reality imbued with God’s hidden presence) that is often absent in contemporary literature, especially modern-day American literature.
“Among the many complaints made about the modern American novelist, the loudest, if not the most intelligent, has been the charge that he is not speaking for his country,” O’Connor explains. “A few seasons back an editorial in Life magazine asked grandly, ‘Who speaks for America today?’ and was not able to conclude that our novelists, or at least our most gifted ones, did” (p 25).
Who speaks for America today? Like in 1957, most current novelists do not. Most current “novelists” (if we can call them that) either speak for themselves (about personal identity relating to gender or race or personal politics), or speak for what they believe the publishers demand of them as writers (how to remain relevant in an ever-changing society while ignoring the true demands of the nation), or speak to the human desires (mainly literature involving lots of sex and sexual fantasies). The examples predominate mainstream literature.
So, it’s not surprising when it’s becoming common & familiar for bookstores and for literary magazines & journals (both in universities and private organizations) all across America to permanently close due to a lack of interest and demand by modern readers (i.e., the America of today, which is gradually establishing a truly American culture and belief system separate to the mainstream).
Yet, in 1957, we had great writers producing classic works such as On the Road (a novel about the Beat and Counterculture generations) by Jack Kerouac, Atlas Shrugged (a novel about the purpose of the individual’s mind in existence) by Ayn Rand, and Dandelion Wine (a novel about a twelve-year-old boy growing up in Illinois celebrating the beauty of family & being alive) by Ray Bradbury.
In 2023 & 2024, it’s hard to say (yet) if the following books will ever become “classics” in every sense of the word, but some of the current books published this year and the next include: Yellowface (a satire of racial diversity in the publishing industry) by R.F. Kuang; or, Rednecks (a book set in the 1920s about a multi-ethnic army of miners fighting in an insurrection against coal mine owners and the state government) by Taylor Brown; or, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant: A Memoir (a book about growing up as a gay Chinese American kid in Detroit in the 1980s) by Curtis Chin; or, Victim (a book about a hustler in the Bronx “who sees through the veneer of diversity initiatives and decides to cash in on the odd currency of identity”) by Andrew Boryga.
“I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy,” O’Connor explains. “This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that… Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause. 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” (pgs 32-33).
Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories are filled with outcasts and misfits (the strange, the unusual) who usually end up being violent intruders into the mundane lives of normal characters.
A few of O’Connor’s books include: Wise Blood (1952); A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955); The Violent Bear It Away (1960); Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965); and, The Habit of Being (1979). Her collection of short stories The Complete Stories (1971) won the 1972 National Book Award for Fiction.
The Habit of Art
“When people have told me that because I am a Catholic,” laments O’Connor, “I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist” (p 146).
There’s something to say about writers as “artists” who are unwilling to change who they really are for, let’s say, fame, success, or more wealth. As a writer you must bring all of yourself, without hesitation or second guessing, into your work, into your craft, into your modus operandi. Now this must include your faith, your beliefs, your opinions, and what you are wanting to say to the world when no one, or everyone, is listening.
“There may never be anything new to say,” O’Connor muses, “but there is always a new way to say it, and since, in art, the way of saying a thing becomes a part of what is said, every work of art is unique and requires fresh attention” (p 76).
And it is this “way of saying a thing” that becomes attached to the “work of art” for it to be considered fully formed, whole, and complete. But the writer as an artist must seek “truth” (a ubiquitous and everlasting truth that cannot be individualized or subjectively biased or based on personal identity) and how to write or show or present that “truth” to the reader or audience is absolutely necessary to create true art. The “how” has far more to do with the writer’s virtue of the mind and heart, and it is this virtue of the mind and heart which is going to help establish the habit of art.
“I feel that the external habits of the writer will be guided by his common sense or his lack of it and by his personal circumstances,” explains O’Connor, “and that these will seldom be alike in two cases. What interests the serious writer is not external habits but what Maritain calls, ‘the habit of art’; and he explains that ‘habit’ in this sense means a certain quality or virtue of the mind. The scientist has the habit of science; the artists, the habit of art” (pgs 64-65).
One might say that this “habit of art”, much like the “habit of science”, is a specialized-intimate way of seeing the world and the people of that world. The mind of a writer must be obsessed (in a healthy manner) in seeing the world in such a way that is going to reveal the ultimate truth of reality. One might say that this “habit of art” is also created by the writer’s never-ending desire to aim for art to show raw truth — whether its popular or unpopular matters not to the one who seeks truth as art.
“Art is a word that immediately scares people off,” explains O’Connor, “as being a little too grand. But all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less” (p 65).
Truth as art is far more revelation than entertainment. Because when truth as art is revealed to a reader or audience a shift or change, no matter how subtle, happens and the mind and spirit is opened to new understandings, new possibilities, and new meanings.
Truth as art is much like a prism which is held to one’s eye so that the mind can gain fresh insights into life — spiritual and worldly.
“Where the artist is still trusted,” writes O’Connor, “he will not be looked to for assurance. Those who believe that art proceeds from a healthy, and not from a diseased, faculty of the mind will take what he shows them as a revelation, not of what we ought to be but of what we are at a given time and under given circumstances; that is, as a limited revelation but revelation nevertheless” (p 34).
For a work of art to do this — to create new change and new insights — truth as art must be selective and establish a form of movement. The selection of details, let’s say in a novel, must be controlled by an overall sense of purpose — a purpose that is controlled by the writer’s selective mind — which is controlled by the quality or virtue of the mind. This sense of purpose will undoubtedly create movement within the fictional story taking place in the novel.
“In a work of art we can be extremely literal,” O’Connor explains, “without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement” (p 70).
O’Connor repeats herself later on, “Art is selective. What is there is essential and creates movement” (p 93).
Many might ask, “Can this way of seeing and thinking be taught to someone who wishes to be a serious writer?”
The answer ultimately depends on the one who wishes to be a serious writer. There are many individuals who wish to be serious writers — to be someone who creates great works of art, great forms of literature, but in the very beginning when they are pressed with the habits of art, with the ways of seeing and thinking, with the prospects of being a serious writer without fame, without success, without more wealth, these many individuals quickly tire of the craft and seek far easier employment opportunities. This is their habit of their personality and that cannot be changed, unless they desire it to be so.
The MFA (for fiction and non-fiction) is far more a graveyard filled with opportunist-writers who quickly ended their writing careers than a utopia of famed-successful serious writers. With that being fact, it is necessary to explain that the roles and characters of educators (especially in the MFA) should not contain the desires to stymie or deflect or prevent the growth of any potential writer who struggles to be a serious writer (which happens quite frequently in the MFA). The object of the educator (especially in the MFA) is to facilitate the growth of the individual into the habit of art — i.e., to help the individual who wishes to be a serious writer to see and think and feel as a habit of personality.
“It is a fact that fiction writing is something in which the whole personality takes part — the conscious as well as the unconscious mind,” O’Connor writes, “Art is the habit of the artist; and habits have to be rooted deep in the whole personality. They have to be cultivated like any other habit, over a long period of time, by experience; and teaching any kind of writing is largely a matter of helping the student develop the habit of art” (p 101).
Even when the individual achieves a serious mind for writing, achieves a mind focused on producing literature (regardless if that literature is considered serious or not), the individual is far more often influenced to shape their works for popular or mainstream appetites. When this happens, the habit of art, the seeking after truth, the special ways of seeing and thinking, creates literature which becomes bastardized. The aim of literature then becomes a means to produce profit rather than its intended purpose — the means to produce a gift to society.
“There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself,” O’Connor explains. “A gift of any kind is a considerable responsibility. It is a mystery in itself, something gratuitous and wholly undeserved, something whose real uses will probably always be hidden from us. Usually the artist has to suffer certain deprivations in order to use his gift with integrity. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, and the practice of any virtue demands a certain asceticism” (p 81).
“Asceticism” means the “severe self-discipline and avoiding of all forms of indulgence” and includes personal and spiritual discipline, which is going to create those habits which will become rooted deep in the writer’s personality.
“Forms of indulgence” that influence writers can include the indulgence to accept an educator’s or an editor’s or a publisher’s desires to shape or change the writer’s vision. This is when a writer’s self-discipline (towards the seeking after truth and maintaining commitment to the habit of art) is severely challenged.
In plain speak, the writer must use his gift with an integrity that cannot be bought or swayed by public opinion, fame, or more wealth. The writer’s character must be deeply rooted in the habit of art.
Once the writer’s personality becomes compromised by external forces (like fame, success, wealth) then truth as art no longer exists. Once the writer’s objective is to seek fame, success, or more wealth, then the writer has lost the habit of art because the writer is no longer seeking the ultimate truth in reality. The writer is choosing to seek popularity, glory, and riches.
“Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic,” argues O’Connor, “it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards” (p 189).
The serious writer with integrity, therefore, has a tremendous responsibility as a storyteller to remain true to the habit of art.
Literature is a gift with truth and meaning to society far more than it is a product to be bought and sold like a bag of chips.
“No matter what form the dragon may take,” writes O’Connor, “it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller” (p 35).
What is meant by the “writer’s country”? In large part the geographical region matters not. Whether the writer is from America, from Italy, from Germany, from South Africa, from China, matters little to the true writer, regardless of political persuasion and ideological mannerisms. What truly matters is that the writer fully understands himself and is aware of who he is and how deeply the roots grow within.
“When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him,” explains O’Connor. “Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other. To know oneself 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. The writer’s value is lost, both to himself and to his country, as soon as he ceases to see that country as a part of himself, and to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around” (pgs 34-35).
Most popular contemporary writers fail to measure themselves against Truth, and these certain writers ultimately do not know their regions or countries. The result is that these writers have no true value, either to themselves or to their countries, whether that is their native homes or their adopted countries. Most popular writers (who are celebrated in the media today but do not have the book sales or national engagement to quantify that popularity — i.e., the paid media creates the popularity rather than the natural organic readership) simply do not see themselves as belonging to a particular region or country, but they see themselves as outsiders who do not belong or don’t quite fit in. These are writers with two faces. Their value is lost because their vision is lost.
The true writer must accept who he is and where he is from, but by doing so the writer becomes exiled. Unlike the great writers of the past, most popular writers of the twenty-first century refuse to be exiled and strive to be accepted in a very niche community. The false writer seeks a false narrative in order to be celebrated and accepted rather than seeking after truth and the ultimate reality. At this point, truth as art is lost.
It’s good to note, however, that O’Connor specifically defines “country” as being “everything from the actual countryside that the novelist describes, on to and through the peculiar characteristics of his region and his nation, and on, through, and under all of these to his true country, which the writer with Christian convictions will consider to be what is eternal and absolute” (p 27).
Most popular writers shy away (or run like mad hell) from the “eternal and absolute” because, most likely, their editors and their publishers deem it necessary in order to sell more books. Most of these popular writers were trained in academia and not in the real world, so their visions are mundane, unextraordinary, and completely lost.
That is not to say a writer must profess Christianity to explore the “eternal and absolute” but having a strong spiritual connection with the true world outside universities does help.
A writer must have the vision to seek truth and see the ultimate reality before he can begin to write and create truth as art. That is lost in most of the literature being produced today. That is lost among many who wish to call themselves artists.
“The artist penetrates the concrete world,” writes O’Connor, “in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality” (p 157).
As in 1957 as in every age of the storyteller, the writer always speaks for himself when talking about how the writing is done, how the stories are created, and where the visions lead the true writer through the world, regardless of the specific era of time.
“Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so,” muses O’Connor. “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” (p 37).
Most true writers agree that any approach to fiction (of any genre) must begin in the truth of the ultimate reality, in the real — and that holds true for writers of science fiction, of fantasy, or of magic realism, because these genres simply represent the medium of the truth as art as being told. The “real” must ground the reader in the senses, into the concrete world, no matter how fantastic or fantastical the story.
“The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction,” explains O’Connor, “is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched” (p 91).
The writer’s first approach to fiction is to gain insight, to gain vision, into reality by using the truth that is all around. Deception is not going to work. Manipulation works only so long before being found a fraud. Truth in the ultimate reality will always connect the story with the reader.
“If you start with a real personality,” O’Connor explains, “real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know what before you begin. In fact it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t, probably nobody else will” (p 106).
This is similar to the famed quote by Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Even so, O’Connor makes a valid argument. Most popular writers like to start with plotting and story mapping each and every chapter before writing the story. And what happens is that these types of writers end up writing the same book over and over and over again with the exact same flat protagonist with revolving side characters that are not real in any sense. These characters are fun, but not real. What literature is turned into is a cheap buffet with numbered books: Jackie Stretcher #1 (Nice of Nice), Jackie Stretcher #2 (Lies of Lie), Jackie Stretcher #3 (Rebels of Rebel), Jackie Stretcher #4 (Heroes of Hero), Jackie Stretcher #5 (Truths of Truth), and on and on. Certainly, these books (not novels) sell really well, but in a matter of ten or so years these books and stories will be forgotten and replaced by more mundane literature.
What O’Connor is suggesting is that the true writer seeking truth in the ultimate reality with a vision of a true story to tell must first see and hear and speak with a character, and that character must come to life.
Just as J.K. Rowling (an unknown author who hadn’t written a single word of her wizarding world) saw an extraordinary vision of little Harry Potter standing in the aisle on a train one day, so must any serious writer truly see the protagonist as a vision of a real person.
The next step is to follow that character on his or her “hero’s journey.” Despite what some writers believe, the writer is still a “god” above the story, but even the one true God over all life allows for Free Will and for mistakes and for adversity to happen. In the story, the writer watches and largely remains silent and absent. There are times, like in life with Fate and Destiny, the writer steps in and lends a helping hand. Otherwise, the writer who refuses to do so, that writer becomes a cruel and unjust god. May the muses have mercy on that writer’s mind.
“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind,” explains O’Connor, “but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. Fiction should be both canny and uncanny” (p 79).
“Canny” means to have or to show good judgment, to be shrewd and astute. “Uncanny” means the strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling or unnerving manner, to be eerie and unnatural, even preternatural (beyond what is normal or natural).
Most popular writers today who are also academics with PhDs in major universities are extremely canny, so much so that they forget to include the uncanny in their works of fiction — and that is precisely why their fiction fails to inspire the masses.
Their literature becomes flat and uninspired and unreal. Their characters are boring and toneless, despite how fancy they dress up the character’s speech and mannerisms. These academics who write fiction (in order to make a little more cash or get a little more fame on the side) are experts in the canny but fail miserably in the uncanny.
Why? Because they do not spend the majority of their time among the real people of the real world. Because they do not have the experience in traveling the realms of the ultimate reality. Surrounded and immersed in books and classrooms and staff meetings, they have time and experience in reading and analyzing calculated thoughts and biased ideas from tons of essays. They tramp to go get coffee in the lounge and speak to colleagues in warped dialogues struggling to not offend, their mindset on autopilot in order to preserve their job security by not taking risks.
“The prophet is a realist of distances,” writes O’Connor, “and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque” (p 44).
“Grotesque” — not to be confused with the literary term “Gothic” — can be loosely defined as having the traits or characteristics that induce both disgust and empathy simultaneously. If a character, for example, only creates disgust in the reader and no empathy, then that character would not be “grotesque” but simply a clear-cut villain.
In literature and art, primarily, “grotesque” could focus on the crossing or distorting of boundaries often connected to the Norm. The boundaries could be physical or psychological and the “grotesque” doesn’t have to necessarily refer to disgust or fright, but often does include these emotions in fellow characters and readers. The power of the “grotesque” comes from the mixing of the familiar with the unfamiliar, comedy with fear, the real with the fantastical.
A few examples of the “grotesque” in classical literature would most certainly include Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre–Dame (1831), Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose” (1836), and Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (1915).
“Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader,” writes O’Connor, “unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic” (p 40).
O’Connor makes a great point of a literary tradition among mostly northern critics. Even today, most northern critics (such as the ones residing in the New York or New England areas, which lean more British in their names and natures) reserve the term “grotesque” mostly for Southern literature by Southern writers.
Meanwhile, Northern Fiction by more Northern writers (say those writers in the Boston or New York City regions) are refereed to by critics as having a more “realistic” style or a “gothic” nature despite containing “grotesque” elements and “grotesque” characteristics in their literature.
If you’ve ever read Interview with the Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice, or The World According to Garp (1978) by John Irving, or Coraline (2002) by Neil Gaiman, then you’ll most certainly see the “grotesque” within these characters and stories.
“In these grotesque works, we find that the writer had made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life,” explains O’Connor. “Yet the characters have inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected” (p 40).
The Fiction Writer
“The writer’s business is to contemplate experience,” O’Connor argues, “not to be merged in it” (p 84).
Most contemporary writers of fiction seem to enjoy writing cheap one hit wonders that merge themselves into the very fabric of the fiction. The publishing industry, though, is largely to blame for promoting such shallow and narrow works of fiction that are soon forgotten.
Less (2017) by Andrew Greer won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and is a story by a gay man about a gay man named Arthur (i.e., a play on words for “Andrew” as an “author”) who goes on a literary tour to “numb his loss of the man he loves.” Andrew said this about his book Less: “I wrote it for myself.” His next book was a sequel about the same gay man called Less is Lost (2022), and it quickly vanished as soon as it was published.
The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and is a story by a Vietnamese man about a Vietnamese man (who is also “half-French”) who is serving as a “spy for the Communist forces.” Viet’s next book was non-fiction (meaning it is based on his own life) and is called A Man of Two Faces (2023), a phrase which comes from “two-faced” and means that someone is not sincere (cruel) and “they say they do or believe one thing when their behavior or words show that they do not do it or do not believe it.” [It’s also important here to note that in October 2023, the famed and respected New York Jewish Institution 92NY canceled a speech by Viet Thanh (who gets his name from Vietnam) for his adamant and vociferous “support for Palestine” and for his allegedly anti-Semitic rhetoric against Jews.]
As any knowledgeable reader can see, these are clear examples of fiction that has been openly merged with the writers and their personal lives. What is truly sad is that there are such writers extremely focused on their identity who find themselves pathetic enough to write such trivial and meaningless fiction in high and vain hopes of satisfying some crooked desire, within themselves and within the publishing industry. These types of writers have tied themselves to the physical — to the flesh — and do not seek the spiritual.
Some truly great books, however, that actually “contemplate experience”, stand the test of time, and are still highly popular among readers today include: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin; Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, which won the 1981 Booker Prize and the Best of the Booker in 2008; Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace; The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; 1Q84 (2009) by Haruki Murakami; and, All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. These few writers provide readers with deeper and more meaningful experiences.
“If the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself,” writes O’Connor. “His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves — whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not” (pgs 41-42).
O’Connor is correct to argue that writers should focus on “what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.” Far too often contemporary writers, much like Andrew and Viet, focus far too much on what they do not understand for themselves but the vast majority of well-rounded and well-educated adults do understand perfectly well. That’s why such books won’t last long (like a match that grows bright but quickly fades into dark oblivion — the books might remain on lists, but there will be no interested readers of such superficial and trivial books), because most readers wish to explore and contemplate the overall human experience, and such experiences are going to transcend the lone writer’s life and experiences every single time.
“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet,” O’Connor explains. “His problem is to find that location” (p 59).
Certainly, this is a complex and difficult task (to find that location where time and place and eternity meet), but one that has been achieved by the great writers of our time — such as McCarthy, Rushdie, and Murakami, to name a few.
“The beginning of an answer to this is that though the good is the ultimate reality, the ultimate reality has been weakened in human beings as a result of the Fall, and it is this weakened life that we see,” writes O’Connor. “The fiction writer should be characterized by his kind of vision. His kind of vision is prophetic vision. Prophecy, which is dependent on the imaginative and not the moral faculty, need not be a matter of predicting the future. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that goes into great novels. It is the realism which does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth” (p 179).
“Pascal wrote in his notebook,” explains O’Connor, “‘If I had not known you, I would not have found you’” (p 160).
There is something to say about a truly remarkable novel that changes the reader’s soul for the better, that reshapes the human experience in totality. And this type of novel transforms itself into a true work of art.
“A work of art exists without its author,” argues O’Connor, “from the moment the words appear on paper, and the more complete the work, the less important it is who wrote it or why. If you’re studying literature, the intentions of the writer have to be found in the work itself, and not in his life” (p 126).
The writer must vanish from the work of fiction, disappear into the fictive dream. If a work of fiction (either a short story or a novel) is to be criticized or studied it must be done on the merit of the work and not on the life of the writer — that is unless the writer is writing himself or herself into the story and it’s obvious that the writer has allowed himself or herself to remain visible.
It’s problematic (for the writer) when a reader can read a novel and still see the writer in almost every page or every turn of phrase or every thought the characters have. The novel then becomes diminished to a thinly-veiled work of insubstantial fiction — in essence, just another book in all the other millions of other mundane books.
“The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision,” O’Connor explains, “and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees… Whatever the novelist sees in the way of truth must first take on the form of his art and must become embodied in the concrete and human” (pgs 47, 175-176).
One of the major problems of the publishing industry continuing to focus on publishing insubstantial works of fiction is that they ignore the merits of a work of fiction in favor of promoting a writer’s individuality and social persona. A true novelist does not care about persona, what others (especially critics) say or think, or some momentary fad that seeks to highlight this or that in society.
If that were the case, serious readers would never have had the chance and opportunity to read the amazing and captivating novels of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), James Joyce (1882-1941), Agatha Christie (1890-1976), Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973), Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), William Faulkner (1897-1962), or Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938).
Even way back in 1957, O’Connor, too, has much to say on this still-current issue:
“We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself…
“We are now living in an age which doubts both fact and value. It is the life of this age that we wish to see and judge. The novelist can no longer reflect a balance from the world he sees around him; instead, he has to try to create one. It is the way of drama that with one stroke the writer has both to mirror and to judge…
“The modern novelist merges the reader in the experience; he tends to raise the passions he touches upon. If he is a good novelist, he raises them to effect by their order and clarity a new experience — the total effect — which is not in itself sensuous or simply the moment” (pgs 49, 117, & 139).
It’s no surprise then that the publishing industry hasn’t really produced many great novelists of our modern age here in the twenty-first century (unlike it did in the twentieth century, between 1900-1999).
“Great novelists” would be defined by the amount of “great novels” that they wrote and published. Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami are most certainly on this small list of “Great Novelists” of our current age.
From 1900-1999, America produced six novelists who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. These American Nobel Laureates include Sinclair Lewis (1930), Pearl S. Buck (1938), William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962), and Toni Morrison (1993).
[Please Note: Eugene O’Neill (who won the award in 1936) was a playwright but not a novelist. Others did win but these writers were born outside of America before obtaining a United States citizenship — these writers include: Saul Bellow (Canada), Isaac Singer (Poland), Czeslaw Milosz (born in Lithuania, died in Poland), and Joseph Brodsky (Russia).]
Truly great novelists seek to touch the spiritual — the metaphysical, the preternatural — and this connects the common reader to a greater, more abundant whole of humanity — much like the way Ernest Hemingway does in his globally esteemed literature.
Hemingway often connects to the spiritual — the finite and infinite space between Existence & Non-Existence. A few times Hemingway writes of the spirit leaving the body, and he does this extremely well in his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936) and his classic novel A Farewell to Arms (1929).
In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway writes:
“I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead, and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back” (p 51).
“The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, of those that critics demand,” writes O’Connor. “They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation…
“If the novelist is doing what as an artist he is bound to do, he will inevitably suggest that image of ultimate reality as it can be glimpsed in some aspect of the human situation” (pgs 59-50, 158).
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a been member of the Hemingway Society, Americans for the Arts, PEN America, Club Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a been Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London. He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America (2020); A Time to Forget in East Berlin (2022), and Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being (2023).
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
“Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being is a captivating new dystopian science fiction novel by CG Fewston, an author already making a name for himself with his thought-provoking work. Set in the year 2183, Conquergood is set in a world where one company, Korporation, reigns supreme and has obtained world peace, through oppression... The world-building in the novel is remarkable. Fewston has created a believable and authentic post-apocalyptic society with technological wonders and thought-provoking societal issues. The relevance of the themes to the state of the world today adds an extra wrinkle and makes the story even more compelling.”
“A spellbinding tale of love and espionage set under the looming shadow of the Berlin Wall in 1975… A mesmerising read full of charged eroticism.”
“An engrossing story of clandestine espionage… a testament to the lifestyle encountered in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War.”
“There is no better way for readers interested in Germany’s history and the dilemma and cultures of the two Berlins to absorb this information than in a novel such as this, which captures the microcosm of two individuals’ love, relationship, and options and expands them against the blossoming dilemmas of a nation divided.”
~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“A Time to Forget in East Berlin is a dream-like interlude of love and passion in the paranoid and violent life of a Cold War spy. The meticulous research is evident on every page, and Fewston’s elegant prose, reminiscent of novels from a bygone era, enhances the sensation that this is a book firmly rooted in another time.”
“Vivid, nuanced, and poetic…” “Fewston avoids familiar plot elements of espionage fiction, and he is excellent when it comes to emotional precision and form while crafting his varied cast of characters.” “There’s a lot to absorb in this book of hefty psychological and philosophical observations and insights, but the reader who stays committed will be greatly rewarded.”
GOLD Winner in the 2020 Human Relations Indie Book Awards for Contemporary Realistic Fiction
FINALIST in the SOUTHWEST REGIONAL FICTION category of the 14th Annual National Indie Excellence 2020 Awards (NIEA)
“Fewston employs a literary device called a ‘frame narrative’ which may be less familiar to some, but allows for a picture-in-picture result (to use a photographic term). Snapshots of stories appear as parts of other stories, with the introductory story serving as a backdrop for a series of shorter stories that lead readers into each, dovetailing and connecting in intricate ways.”
“The American novelist CG FEWSTON tells a satisfying tale, bolstered by psychology and far-ranging philosophy, calling upon Joseph Campbell, J. D. Salinger, the King James Bible, and Othello.”
“In this way, the author lends intellectual heft to a family story, exploring the ‘purity’ of art, the ‘corrupting’ influences of publishing, the solitary artist, and the messy interconnectedness of human relationships.”
“Fewston’s lyrical, nostalgia-steeped story is told from the perspective of a 40-year-old man gazing back on events from his 1980s Texas childhood…. the narrator movingly conveys and interprets the greater meanings behind childhood memories.”
“The novel’s focus on formative childhood moments is familiar… the narrator’s lived experiences come across as wholly personal, deeply felt, and visceral.”
American Novelist CG FEWSTON
This is my good friend, Nicolasa (Nico) Murillo, CRC, who is a professional chef & a wellness mentor. I’ve known her since childhood & I’m honored to share her story with you. In life, we all have ups & downs, some far more extreme than others. Much like in Canada, in America, the legalization of marijuana has become a national movement, which includes safe & legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use & research for all.
“This is a wellness movement,” Nico explains. The wellness movement is focused on three specific areas: information, encouragement, & accountability.
In these stressful & unprecedented times, it makes good sense to promote & encourage the state or condition of being in good physical & mental health.
The mission of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) is to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research.
TEXANS FOR SAFE ACCESS ~ share the mission of their national organization, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which is to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research, for all Texans.
Stay safe & stay happy. God bless.
Nico Murillo Bio ~ Americans & Texans for Safe Access ~ Medical Cannabis