Dusty Fiction

19 January 2015

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
flannery o'connor

You may have noticed that Flannery O'Connor has been making several cameos hereabouts. For Christmas I received a beautiful copy of her Complete Stories, and though my pace has been so slow as to be hardly dubbed "currently reading," I am making my way through the book.

I first met Flannery on the page in my English class last year by way of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." At the time, I wasn't terribly invested. Flannery herself — her life story, her thoughts on writing, her faith — made a strongly favorable impression on me, but I couldn't escape the uncomfortable twinges her fiction sent down my spine. There's no getting around it: Flannery wrote about the gritty, the deformed, and the grotesque. Even after reading her prayer journal, I still couldn't stomach her fiction. Did I like it when my impassioned teacher shed light on the raw redemption and grace? Of course. But the stories themselves on no other merit than their own? They weren't what I'd expected, and I finished the assignment on a neutral footing.

In giving them another try half a year later, I've determined to read each story carefully with my eyes wide open. (Hence the snail's pace.) Two stories were not enough to win me to Flannery, but I've read eight now, and her misfit-riddled prose is growing on me. Last Sunday before church I read "The Crop," and I think I've found a so-far favorite.

“If Miss Willerton were going to write a story, she had to think about it first. She could usually think best sitting in front of her typewriter, but this would do for the time being. First she had to think of a subject to write a story about. There were so many subjects to write stories about that Miss Willerton never could think of one.”
"the crop"

Miss Willerton, as I'm sure you've realized, is a writer. After crumbing the table after breakfast, she sits down and taps away at her typewriter for the rest of the morning. The only problem is that for every ten minutes she spends writing, she spends the other fifty deciding what to write next. She has a particular inclination towards the colorful, the pathetic, and the artistic, but as time inspiration starts flowing, she finds herself in the story in place of the female heroine, and her hands lie idle as her mind runs free. On this particular day, she decides on a sharecropper and his wife for her main characters, but she soon kills off the woman and inserts herself as the object of the man's affections.

Had the story stopped there, Flannery could be called an honest writer, perhaps even an insightful one, but her fiction would follow the same trend as every other archetype about the spinster author who can't escape her attic and thus lives vicariously through her characters. Flannery doesn't stop there, though. Miss Willerton, called Willie, has just (fictionally) given birth to a daughter when Lucia wakes her from her reverie and sends her to do the grocery shopping. The last shreds of illusion fall to the ground when Willie goes to collect a dozen eggs and two pounds of tomatoes.

Eggs. Tomatoes. Grocery sellers. They reek of every common thing she despises.

When she's leaving the market-place, Willie comes face to face with her characters' living and breathing doppelgangers. Only, these people don't have the glamour of fictional sharecropper life in all its imagined lore hanging about them. The husband is "long . . . wasted . . . shaggy." The wife's ankles are decidedly thick, and her eyes can only be described as muddy. There's nothing remarkably picturesque about this flesh-and-blood couple, and Willie hurries home in disgust, scraps the half-written story, and begins one about the Irish.

Books, even history ones, have a way of painting an ideal image of people, and we drink it up and spit it out anew in the form of our own creations. I spoke in past post of humans' hidden backgrounds and veiled mystique. That is but half the picture. In Flannery's own words,

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.”

In "The Crop," Willie abandons her sharecroppers as soon as she encounters them without the guise of literary cosmetics. Were I in her position, I might have done the same. Humans simply aren't as romantic as they're made to seem on the page. Men don't always whisper sweet nothings in ladies' ears like Kenneth Ford. Women don't always retain their beauty after fighting or fleeing or fainting (in fact, I'm sure they never do). Willie turns to the Irish for sake of their "musical brogue" and "splendid history," but were she to encounter a legitimate Irishman, she would probably throw that idea out as well. We've drunk so much of literary romance that we can't stand the reality of humanity.

That is what I have finally come to love in Flannery's stortelling: she's not afraid to get her hands dirty when she writes. Her characters are full of flaws; sometimes they seem made of nothing else. She doesn't paint an elegant picture of mankind, but the image she does paint stings so sharply with truth that we're drawn to it all the same. I find bits of myself in Miss Willerton. I'm sure some of you may as well; if not now, perhaps in the days of your own juvenilia. We've all sat down hopefully for an afternoon of scribbling and found the process harder than we anticipated because it requires us to face humanity's deepest flaws — our own deepest flaws, for that matter. Sin bleeds from every layer of skin. But when we understand that — when we are willing to write in the tangles and knots and throw away our old notions of excotism and mystery — then will the light of grace shine through strongest of all. You will, as C. S. Lewis once pointed out, be writing truth, and the miracle of Providential mercy will stand in stark contrast.

Is your fiction dusty?

8 epistles:

  1. Wonderful post, Elizabeth. I have to admit, I started reading "The Crop" a few days ago and had to set it aside because Willie's amateurish ways reminded me a little too much of myself. :-| I had noticed that there seemed to be a lot of Flannery O'Connor on here and I was wondering what exactly it is that you like about her. Thanks for answering my question!

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  2. This is very fascinating, Elizabeth. I have been curious about Flannery O'Conner for a while now, and afraid to read her books cold turkey, if you will. It was eye-opening to read your perspective on her writing in "The Crop", having read more of her work. It does sound like a fascinating, and in-depth, layered story that would be challenging as well as disturbingly realistic to one's romantic imagination. I really empithize with your words on struggling in realizing as you write that we need to be honest and face "humanity's deepest flaws - our flows!" That is very true, and sometimes a painful thing to come to terms with, but then, I think God's mercy and hope will glimmer more starkly and beautifully because of all that gritty ugly darkness.

    I would like to read her work, though I think you've really taken it in hand in a good way by slowly reading and stewing over the stories, seeing the grace in the grim and dusty and grotesque ;). I probably should do that!

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  3. I've never heard of any of Flannery O'Connor's works, but from what you say here, her books sound wonderful. I love reading about writers, and I also love books that describe characters that are real, and almost painfully so.

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  4. This post comes at a good time for me. I am just being introduced to Flannery O'Connor in one of my college lit courses. Her stories are the rare kind of assigned reading that I would never pick up on my own. But they've been growing on me as I begin to get a feel for what O'Connor is trying to do. I think so often the most important things in her stories are the things that she doesn't say, but leaves her reader to puzzle out for themselves. I'll have to read "The Crop." It's not assigned, but you have peaked my interest.

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  5. Ooh, Flannery O'Connor! I read her story collection "Everything That Rises Must Converge" a few months ago and had a similar journey through being really disturbed, to finding plenty to appreciate and even love. I've really come to appreciate her as one of those writers you can learn so much from (I am always wincing when I read her, like when I read Austen) but whom I don't think I'd like everyone in the world to write like...

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  6. Fascinating review, Elizabeth Rose. And I think a good reminder this story-loving lass to keep her feet firmly on the ground. After all, I enjoy adventuring through fiction, but it wouldn't do to despise real life because of it!

    ~Schuyler

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  7. Hanna, I'd like to say Willie reminds me of my younger self, but the truth is that I am still an idealistic writer to this day. I'm drawn by the aesthetics very often in my scribbling, and while that's not entirely bad, it shouldn't blind us to real flesh-and-blood humans. What I want to achieve is a balance between understanding human nature and drawing on its best and worst aspects.

    Joy, I'd suggest giving Flannery a try. She's not for the faint of heart, but she'll give you a lot to think on if you take her in small doses. Good luck!

    Ana, her characters are quite painfully real. And dark. And ugly. I still like balancing her with some lighter fiction.

    Kate, that's wonderful to hear! You should read "The Crop": after nearly a dozen stories, it's still my favorite. Coming from a writer and written about a writer, it struck a particular chord in me. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

    Suzannah, I see we're of the same mind. ^.^ I'm very glad not all authors write like Flannery (though I referenced Ken Ford in a half-negative light, Rilla of Ingleside is still an old favorite of mine), but she's the dash of cold water I need sometimes, unpleasant though it may be. Her words waken my senses and sharpen my perception, and for that I am grateful.

    Schuyler, you've said it well. Fiction doesn't always have to be as brutally honest as Flannery's, but if it causes us to despise real life, it's still missing the purpose. And by the by, I like my L.M. Montgomery and Baroness Orczy as much as the next story-loving lass. ^.^

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  8. This has sparked my interest. I admire Authors who can look into the lives of flawless people and capture it on paper. We all have flaws, and we make mistakes. while it might not be easy to read about, it is a part of life.

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"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

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