Recursions, Part 5: Flannery O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manner”

After the passing

This is the fifth in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them.  I will publish mine here, once or twice a week, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group. 

Flannery O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manner”

I just finished Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, a month late in our discussion group schedule, but in this case late is definitely better than never. I had not read anything of O’Connor’s in decades, and I had forgotten what a fine writer she is.

That said, this is not a book that O’Connor herself arranged, although she did write it; it is a compilation of some published pieces, several presentations edited into essays, and occasional notes wrangled together by the editors, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.

I won’t go into depth on her themes, except to mention them, to excuse which indisposition I plead fatigue, but I will say that the title reveals O’Connor’s repeated emphasis on the essential elements of a novel or short story: “mystery,” by which she means the inexpressible currents that carry us through the universe, and that for O’Connor herself comprised largely the doctrines of the Catholic church, and “manners,” which are the concrete, observable expressions of life in our world and society, which the writer analogizes to build a story.

Everyone, whether religious or not, has a philosophical framework through which they filter sense impressions and the tensions of time and memory into their consciousness, so one need not be Catholic, or even spiritual, to understand O’Connor’s explorations of the dilemmas inherent in writing out of a defined cosmological structure, and the dangers they pose to an artist in narrative.

And everyone, no matter how refined, lives in the material world and has extensive and complicated relations with friends, family, local strangers, and the mass of humanity, as well as nonhuman intelligences of the animal world (though O’Connor does not concern herself much with those).

O’Connor emphasizes repeatedly that, a writer’s spiritual or philosophical commitments notwithstanding, fiction must be rooted in the concrete—including the sense of place (O’Connor is always categorized as a “Southern writer”)–but also including the way people truly behave, and the exaggerations of behavior that they are prone to. (She points out that as a Catholic writer she was often presented with sterile parables, populated with saintly caricatures, which she had diplomatically to comment on.)

All I will say further is that the book is a delight to read just for its language and wry commentary, and is a very useful and clearly-stated exposition of the meaning of place, personality, and persuasion in fictional narratives, and how to balance it all.

Probably my favorite of the books we’ve read in this group so far. Thank you, group member Heron Julien, for recommending this! I plan to read more of O’Connor in the next few months.

Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.

Rick Risemberg