One of the most prolific examples of fiction theory comes from “The Fiction Writer & His Country,” by Flannery O’Connor, a prolific fiction writer from the 1960’s South. O’Connor explains the reason why most people are drawn to grotesque elements in literature: These people experience grotesqueness in their lives and thus struggle to relate to anything else. They do not enjoy happy endings because they do not experience happy endings. Above all, they do not realize Jesus’ hope, and as a result, their stories have elements that are also without hope.
However, fiction should not include grotesque elements for the sake of being grotesque; rather, fiction should leave readers with a sense of energy, excitement, or hope, while conveying truth in a manner that seems realistic or true to life.
In my fiction writing, I aspire to create this atmosphere and convey my Jesus without words that only Christians would understand or fantastical situations that non-Christians would disbelieve. (If my stories require the character’s demise, I will use it.) I want to gradually incorporate Him in my stories until my readers are accustomed to Him. If I offend them with Jesus, I will not mention Him. Yet if they are open to possibilities, I will show them what joy I have found in Him (such as no stress) and appeal to them through this enjoyable atmosphere.
In her Mystery & Manners, Flannery O’Connor emphasizes the issue of some writers writing for the sake of being “THE writer” and not for the sake of writing. She instead claims that the writer should aim for truth; for art is truth, and the artists or writers that aim for truth have successfully accomplished this goal, regardless if their names are seen on the headlines of a newspaper.
I believe that O’Connor is labeling pride. Some writers may write to exalt themselves so that they earn millions or win the Pulitzer, when in fact the writer should aim to serve the work and serve God instead. To serve the work is to aim for excellence and truth, not to blatantly state an abstract issue, but rather to convey a sense of mystery that will draw the reader into the story.
To serve God is to accomplish all these things, whether His name or Deity is mentioned. Writers should subtly incorporate this truth into their work for the glory of God. They must not aim to exalt themselves; for in doing so, they may miss the main purpose of writing. They must allow truth to convey itself through a mystery, regardless if their names appear on the front headlines.
In her Mystery & Manners, Flannery O’Connor defines personality as reflecting the specific region of the character. When writers fails to describe their character’s region or include the idioms of that region, and instead universalizes their setting, they ineffectually loses their grounding and focus. The plot is meant to reveal the character’s personality through colloquialism directly related to the character’s specific region. If a writer, for instance, centers on a story in Georgia about a man born in that state, yet fails to relate anything from Georgia, he is creating a flat, universal atmosphere.
In my own fiction writing, I have learned to place my characters in specific settings in order to convey reality to my readers. I understand I must observe my natural surroundings in order to help my readers fully experience the story. I must show where the writer is through specific dialogue, such as through colloquialism, setting, and action.
According to Flannery O’Connor in her Mystery & Manners, meaning is “embodied” within the story, while a theme is an abstract idea, an element that’s recognizable enough to extract from the story. Meaning conveys some “mystery of existence” and can be associated with the elements that matter most to the characters. The writer must convey what matters most to himself or to his readers, not just elaborate on some abstract idea.
When I am asked what the plot is for my story, I understand that one sentence is insufficient for describing my story; I must tell it all. If my theme were easily recognizable, then the plot would be predictable. Likewise, in relation to O’Connor’s explanation, an excellent moral or plot cannot be simply stated without telling the whole story. Ultimately, the mystery of the plot must be intricate enough to grab and maintain the reader’s interest.
One of the most egregious mistakes a writer can make—according to some, not most—is that a writer should not tell a story by simply narrating it. That was done in the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when narrators were seen as the third-person omniscient, frequently in use in novels such as Paradise Lost and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Flannery O’Connor, a prominent Southern writer in the 1960s, spoke very highly on the subject of fiction writing, being a short story writer herself. She said that people who do not understand the art of storytelling tend to compartmentalize a story’s elements, and this is very often done by Western writers simply because of the culture we live in. These writers specifically label their plot, theme, technique, etc., yet O’Connor explains that those who understand the nature of fiction write fiction so naturally that they do not need to rationalize their art; they just do it.
What O’Connor’s solutions are these: Good fiction portrays a person “who shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation.” It involves the “mystery of personality” and focuses on people and concrete situations, not problems and abstract issues.
For example, I may, like in Jane Eyre, portray my circumstances as I would see it as a maid. I might relay the scents and attractions I feel, the smoke burning in the upper room above me, while I stood dizzy from drowsy sleep, having been roused at five in the morning. The air around me would feel hot and dizzy, and as I heard the crackling of fire, the lights in my bedroom were nearly out, save for the soft blue light coming from the summer morning out my window.
These sights, sounds, and feelings would reiterate O’Connor’s general instruction that a writer ought not to simply say, “I was in my bedroom while the fire upstairs burned the room”; the writer would elaborate on all these sensations so as to draw the reader in.
Telling simply informs the reader of the situation, but showing invites them to experience the situation. Above all, according to O’Connor, “Fiction writing is…a matter of showing things.”
Sometimes critics denounce Christian authors for their explicit use of didacticism, which is the literary form of teaching of morals to readers. However, while didacticism has become unpopular in the last century, Christian authors can use didacticism without being preachy.
“Preachy” is telling the readers how they should live their lives, as exemplified by a novel’s characters, and some critics think that Christian authors go too far in creating stories that exemplify Scripture without regarding what really happens in life. One example of a didactic novel is William P. Young’s The Shack, which reveals the healing process of a father, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, who forgives a serial killer for murdering his daughter. The novel ultimately shows that when one forgives one’s wrongdoer, one will be healed within one’s spirit.
While Christian authors should be commended for promulgating Scripture, some critics denounce them for their blatant Christianity. It’s as if the novels are compelling readers to obey the novels’ biblical morals, and these critics seem to think that Christian novelists should show readers what the Christian life is like without telling them how to live a Christian life. However, Christian authors will inspire their readers no matter how explicit the use of didacticism is, and whether the use of didacticism is inappropriate for the novel is up to the author to discern.
Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Christian author, says that Christian authors can still portray morals without being preachy. In her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” O’Connor explains that some Christian authors tend to create their plots around a certain theological message that they believe their readers need to hear. While this evangelism is not wrong in itself, O’Connor says the job of evangelism should belong to the evangelist, while the storyteller should reveal the story’s morals through the plot of the story itself. In her own short story, “Good Country People,” O’Connor writes about a middle-aged woman who loses her wooden leg to a Bible salesman who runs off with it after she flirts with him. This plot seems awkward, O’Connor admits, yet from the life of the lonely woman, readers infer that the wooden leg carries more meaning than simply an object of transportation. It symbolizes how the woman values herself, and when the salesman steals it from her, he is essentially stealing a part of her personality.
When authors write their novels, their faith will show through no matter what they write, even if they don’t mention God. Novelists don’t necessarily need to quote Scripture to be Christian or didactic, but they shouldn’t infuse Scripture or biblical references into their books if their readers are unaccustomed to such references. Instead, the authors should make the spiritual references or moralistic themes flow within the context of the story. Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie reveals the hope of a 10-year-old girl, Opal Buloni, who finds that even when her mother leaves her, she is loved by her “preacher” daddy, who comes out of his reclusive “shell” and becomes the father that Opal wants. Although the novel doesn’t necessarily gives Opal what she wants, it satisfies her with the thing she needs most: love and support from her family. Further, DiCamillo portrays Christianity in a subtle manner. While most of the characters in the small Floridian town are Christian, they do not necessarily preach (except for the “preacher”) or lecture each other on goodwill. The only instances when Christianity peeks through is when the town’s dame, Gloria Dump, gives Opal the advice she needs about reconciling herself with her mother’s absence, and when Opal finally accepts that fact and becomes closer to her father, she says her heart is “full all the way up,” and the readers are assured that all is well.
Sometimes didacticism is acceptable in literature. It seems that no matter how many biblical allusions or Scriptural references are in the novel, some readers will resonate with these morals, because they accept the fact that these morals are appropriate within the chosen genre. DiCamillo’s novel shows what didacticism ought to be: It doesn’t always mean the characters receive what they want, nor out of their piety do they get what they deserve all the time; but almost always, didacticism shows that by honoring one’s God or one’s people, one will be blessed in some fashion even if the circumstances do not always align with one’s desires.
Some authors portray the world in a way that compels readers to admire the characters’ integrity, and by creating characters with seemingly flawless faith, even when the characters endure suffering trials, the authors paint a picture of Christian life that some critics think is inaccurate. But what may seem inaccurate or too moralistic may be the perfect thing that will attract readers to those kinds of novels. If the readers are blessed by the novel, who is to judge how the author should tone down the use of didacticism? That is up to the authors to decide, and when the authors remain true to their convictions, the readers will respect the authors’ decisions.
Within her collection of essays entitled Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor addresses the issue of reflecting joy in American literature, claiming that the writer is apt to show the “darkest view” of his country when talking about spiritual values. Regardless of how positive some aspects of his culture may be (for instance, the unparalleled prosperity of America), he will focus on the most “glaring…distortions” because this is what he knows and believes to be true in life. In O’Connor’s words, “The storyteller is concerned with what is.” She believes that the writer, especially the Christian writer, should employ his sense of mystery, to exercise his sense of “moral judgment,” and to convey what he believes to be reality.
I agree with O’Connor in that the writer should convey with what he believes to be true, yet I hope that writers will edify their readers without revealing the basest degrees of life. Fiction should reveal life’s mysteries, yet not to the point of depressing their readers. Instead, fiction should leave the reader with a sense of edification, ease, or enjoyment. That is what I also hope to attain in my fiction as I continue to write stories for children and adults alike.