Entries in the Category "flannery o'connor"
This morning, I was reading a fun story over at the AV Club: Life-Changing Art
Some of the blog writers talk about works of literature, film, and art that changed their tastes fundamentally—that made them say, “if a movie can do this, how can I be satisfied with a movie that does less?” and so on. And I have a few of those: The Philadelphia Story, Flannery O'Connor, Arrested Development.
But somehow, my immediate reaction to this question was to remember my experience with Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility.
It came out in 1995, when I was a freshman in high school. Even though I was already mostly an oddball, not interested in skating along with what was popular or cool, at fourteen I was still feeling a selective kind of peer pressure. I had my small group of friends, and I believed that my tastes needed to be in line with theirs. If I took a step in a direction they didn’t agree with—well, they would drop me like a hot potato, wouldn’t they? When you’re fourteen and everyone around you allies themselves based on shared tastes, liking the wrong thing is fatal. The logic is unimpeachable, so long as you haven’t lived to know better.
So anyway, one day I was watching TV with Jamie, my best friend at the time. A commercial came on for Sense and Sensibility, and it was all British, and full of straw hats and gowns and fancy dancing. Please be aware that this was Pulp Fiction times. Absolute baseline requirement for coolness at the time was subversion—drugs and violence and swearing, the harsh, the crude, the angry. (I’m talking of course about popular culture, because in our own lives we were totally suburban honor students.) And Jamie scoffed at the commercial, because Jane Austen was clearly a tool of The Man. Any movie you could see with your mom was officially lame.
As it happened, I had seen Sense and Sensibility with my mom, and I had dug it immensely. And at that moment, all my teenage frustration and righteous anger—and outright exhaustion with the effort of trying to keep up with who and what I was supposed to be—overcame me, and do you know what I said? “I loved it. And I bought the book, and I’m going to read it.” I didn’t hedge, I didn’t hesitate, I may have said it in the timid mouse-voice I was mostly using at the time, but damn if it didn’t feel monumental. And Jamie? She considered for a moment, then shrugged and said, “That’s cool.”
And thus it started. Half my lifetime ago I came to a realization: if I like something, that’s justification enough to like it! In fact, it’s cool of me to be sincere about what I feel! It shows strength, and people respect it! And never again have I apologized for liking anything. My tastes—broad and diverse—are all a part of the strange and sometimes contradictory sum of me.
I have sometimes gone almost too far in the opposite direction, sharing my opinions much too freely. I remember discussing movies with someone once, a person I didn’t know that well, and getting a little bit too excited, and responding to one of their recommendations with, “No way—that SUCKS,” and then having that person look at me very confused and insulted. I sometimes have to remind myself that not everyone communicates this way.
But we all should! I’d like to inspire everyone to express a controversial or embarrassing opinion about art today, and to not care what anyone else thinks about it.
Literary theory, or I have a report due and I hate it
I had a conversation with my friend Andra once, about theory. She had been an anthropology and religion major (and I’m in English, of course). I said that I had trouble reading theory—that I never really understood an abstract concept until I could put a scenario to it. Apply a narrative, basically. She said that it was strange—she didn’t much enjoy reading novels, because she was always more interested in the ideas than the seemingly trivial details of what happened next.
At least I have Flannery O’Connor on my side. I quoted her in an earlier entry saying, “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” That’s from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” and if you want to know what she means, it’s simply this: her stories are not reducible to themes of good versus evil or the impact of righteousness on a bruised soul or the petty racisms of a person who thinks they’re doing right (although she’s written about all those things). Her stories are about people getting gored by bulls, and getting their wooden legs stolen by traveling Bible salesmen, and getting murdered by one’s own grandfather. She put a lot of thought (perverse thought, clearly) into creating those scenarios and “what happens” is every bit as important as what she’s saying through what happens. You can’t have one without the other.
So, theory is trying to have one without the other. The study of theory is meant to help me, as a student of literature, discover and develop methods for interpreting literature. Unfortunately, when it’s explained to me, it sounds like this:
The complexity of a culture is to be found not only in its variable processes and their social definitions—traditions, institutions, and formations—but also in the dynamic interrelations, at every point in the process, of historically varied and variable elements. In what I have called ‘epochal’ analysis, a cultural process is seized as a cultural system, with determinate dominant features: feudal culture or bourgeois culture or a transition from one to the other. This emphasis on dominant and definitive lineaments and features is important and often, in practice, effective. But it then often happens that its methodology is preserved for the very different function of historical analysis, in which a sense of movement within what is ordinarily abstracted as a system is crucially necessary, especially if it is to connect with the future as well as with the past.
I could go on. I’ve read about a thousand pages of that this week—it’s Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, and I have to deliver a report on it in two days. The main obstacle to this is that I barely understand a word of it. If I can keep my eyes on it—which is only sometimes, because (and this I have discovered) the narrative, or the story, is the rope that I cling to as I navigate the darkness of any configuration of words—then I still don’t understand what’s happening, because these ideas are presented with no analogy or application that will help me to understand it. All these problems make attempting to read this stuff really frustrating and tiresome. I’m used to mostly understanding what I have to study. But these complex ideas, communicated at the apex of their complexity with no little diagrams to put it in terms that I recognize, skate over my consciousness like stones skipping across the water. My mind reads—all the words get picked up—but nothing penetrates.
I ask questions in class—clarifying things, for example: “So this view of semiology is particularly distinguishing itself from an etymological view of language?” That’s really what I thought was going on, but here’s what the professor gave me: blankness, and “…No…” Like it’s not just that I’m missing the point, I’m so far off they don’t even get where I’m coming from. I am a bad student in this class. I’m doing the reading, like I said; I’m not absorbing or understanding it.
Six weeks left of this class. If I survive it, I will consider myself lucky. If I never have to deal with theory in my entire career again, I will consider myself blessed.
The World According to Flannery O'Connor
I just read Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, a collection of the nonfiction writings of Flannery O'Connor. She was a notorious oddball who holed up on a Georgia farm with a flock(?) of peacocks and wrote some of the most haunting, gruesome stories to come out of the 20th century.
Here are some of her greatest hits:
- “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” from “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”
- “I’ve had a hard time all along with the title of that book [The Violent Bear It Away]. It’s always been called The Valiant Bear It Always and The Violets Bloom Away, and recently a friend of mine went into a bookstore looking for a copy of my stories and he claims that the clerk said, ‘We don’t have those but we have another book by that person. It’s called The Bear That Ran Away With It.’” from “The Regional Writer”
- “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”
- “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”
- “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”
- “If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.” from "The Nature and Aim of Fiction"
- “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” from "Writing Short Stories"
- “A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.” from "Writing Short Stories"