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Extending Gaze Beyond the Surface

When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion…

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 45

Same goes for the preacher: don’t do what’s already been done to death, especially if you can’t do it as well as others who’ve done it. You’ll just end up being a bad copy of a bad copy. Extend your gaze beyond the surface always.

Speaking Against Takes More Skill Than Speaking for and With

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees. This is another thing which in these times increases the tendency toward the grotesque in fiction.

Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 47

To speak against the culture takes more skill than to speak for it.



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. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

-from Flannery O’Connor, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction (read it online HERE).

“Ghosts,” says O’Connor, “can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows…”

20 years ago at a party with a bunch of guys a few years shy of legal drinking age, emphasis on legal, I watched American History X. I can only see one thing about that movie in the screen made up by my neurons, and I’ll never watch it again on purpose. Not on purpose, on occasion, I’ll randomly see Ed Norton (whatever character he was playing) curb stomp somebody’s face teeth-first into the concrete. I don’t have to watch it again to prove that it happened. It haunts me.

There are images you can’t kill. There are words you can’t erase. There are stories you can’t unread. They haunt you. Though they are whispy, they are present. They can haunt you to the point of destruction, or they can serve for good.

All this because I’m studying Ecclesiastes 3, and it’s the only way I know to describe what it means that God has “put eternity into man’s heart.”

Always Learning

One thing that is always with the writer – no matter how long he has written or how good he is – is the continuing process of learning how to write. As soon as the writer ‘learns to write,’ as soon as he knows what he is going to find, and discovers a way to say what he knew all along, or worse still, a way to say nothing, he is finished.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.83

It’s interesting to me that so much of what Ms. O’Connor says about writing is applicable to preaching. You never really have it figured out. You are always learning. I suppose that could apply to almost anything that involves the intellect, imagination, and/or creativity in general.

Layers of Meaning

The medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literal level of the sacred text: one they called allegorical, in which one fact pointed to another; one they called tropological, or moral, which had to do with what should be done; and one they called analogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent pat of our literature. It seems to be a paradox that the larger and more complex the personal view, the easier it is to compress it into fiction.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 72-73

I don’t agree with medieval biblical interpretation for the most part. What a shocker.  But I never considered that such a method could be applied to nature and general experience. I knew that stories operated on a number of meaningful levels, but never thought of trying to quantify that in any way.

O’Connor is making the case that fiction-writing can contain layers of meaning. In this context, one story can have allegorical, moral, and spiritual dimensions; and they don’t necessarily have to be overt.