On Reading Fiction 1

On Reading Fiction 1 April 15, 2008

One of my friends and a former colleague, Dan de Roulet, used to urge me to read some piece of fiction. He just knew I needed to do this, but deep inside I had to admit that I simply didn’t know how to read fiction. One day Dan suggested I read Flannery O’Connor’s great piece, “Parker’s Back,” and I was overwhelmed with her imagery and prose. So, I summed it all up for Dan with a short sentence or two and he gave me that look, attended as it was by a Mona Lisa smile, of saying, “You really don’t get it, do you.” So, we chatted over and over about Parker’s Back and I came to see more than I had first seen. So, today I begin a short series with Dan about another Flannery O’Connor piece, called “Revelation.” Today I summarize it a bit from Collected Works.

Then Dan will ask me questions. By the way, he’s an English professor, has an excellent book called Finding Your Plot in a Plotless World, and he’ll teach me to read a story by reading “Revelation.”

The story is a devastating critique of Christian hypocrisy. Mrs. Turpin enters a doctor’s office with her husband and, one by one, she sizes up everyone — none of them with anything but brutally critical judgment. She ranks people from African Americans (O’Connor uses the “n” word) to white trash to good Christian folks like her. An East coast educated young woman, whose irritation rises as the story moves on, hauls off and wallops chubby Mrs. Turpin and likes to kill her, but doesn’t. The young woman is taken away, Mrs. Turpin goes home, and has a vision of seeing folks like her descending into hell while others seem to be advancing toward heaven.

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  • You have to read A Good Man is Hard to Find as well.

  • Diane

    This is a wonderful story. Not only is Mrs. Turpin a hypocrite, she’s a product of a Southern culture that makes very fine distinctions between people, everybody ranked and everybody scrambling to get a toe up. It’s comic too, as when Mrs. Turpin, after thanking Jesus profusely for making her neither black nor white trash but a respectable white woman, has an internal debate as to whether, if Jesus made her choose, would she be black or white trash? She finally chooses black, but a black person just like herself (you have to laugh). And uncomfortable — O’Connor is unflinching in capturing interior dialogue– and we all know that at some point we’ve thanked God that we’re not … whomever. Meanwhile, the white trash woman in the room is doing her darn best not to let Mrs. Turpin one up her, which is funny too and symbolic — if everyone in the room is a hog, like the hogs Mrs. Turpin raises, do you hose them down (as she does) so they don’t look dirty or do you leave them be? What’s the best way to approach the human condition? And of course, the ending is poignant, as Mrs. Turpin shows herself capable of insight … I’m always struck with how much more humanity O’Connor allows her characters than they do each other. You end up loving them despite their flaws and it’s powerful.

  • Robert McDowell

    Scot,
    “Revelation” is my all time favorite short story. I’m a big fan of really good endings and “Revelation” has one of the best endings – the crickets chirping “alleluia.”
    Also, I have always felt that if any story has the power to end racism, “Revelation” has got to be it. Thanks for beginning the discussion on one of Flannery’s best stories.

  • Diane

    RC,
    A Good Man is Hard to Find is a wonderful story. I used to teach it about a million years ago and found that some students had a problem with how disturbing it is and shut down on it, and now I think I’d address that head on (since I’m older and (supposedly) a tad wiser :).

  • Bob

    I can’t understand her fiction, too grotesque and bizarre. Another good interpreter is Ralph C. Wood’s “Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South”. Her non-fiction letters in “Habit of Being” are very understandable.

  • As one who has made her home state of Georgia his adopted home, I do not find Flannery O’Connor “too grotesque and bizarre” at all, as does Bob (#5). A Latin phrase, comes to mind: de gustibus non est disputandum (there’s no disputing about taste), but let me just say that Northerners often find Flannery’s characters unbelievable and incomprehensible; Southerners (with the possible exception of Atlantans) recognize them as neighbors and friends that they see every day. Flannery’s ear is pitch-perfect and her eye is single to His glory.
    I had never heard of her until a corporate transfer (I’ve Been Moved) brought me to Georgia in 1975. One day on my lunch hour I wandered into the West Paces Ferry branch of the Atlanta Public Library and, being a new resident, picked up a magazine called Brown’s Guide to Georgia to peruse. I was intrigued by an article in it by Betsy Fancher about Flannery O’Connor. Since I was now officially a Georgian, I decided to read something of hers. The only thing on the shelves that day was her posthumously published collection of short stories entitled Everything That Rises Must Converge. “Revelation” and “Parker’s Back” are both in that volume. Later I read her first volume of short stories, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” and only after that did I read her two novels, Wise Blood, which is about The Holy Church Of Christ Without Christ, among other things, and The Violent Bear It Away, which should give both paedobaptists and credobaptists pause. Her non-fiction essays (Mystery and Manners) and her collected letters (The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald) are treasure troves. Let’s just say I love reading stuff by and about Flannery O’Connor.
    There are some wonderful essays online (especially those by Stephen Sparrow of New Zealand) at a site called Comforts of Home: The Flannery O’Connor Repository.
    Once you “get her,” few other writers are as satisfying.
    Thank you, Scot, for starting this series.

  • Oops, sorry, the link didn’t come through. It’s http://mediaspecialist.org/index.html

  • Diane

    Bob,
    I think a lot of times O’Connor is poking fun at her characters, even though I admit they can seem pretty grotesque and repugnant. But these flawed, bizarre, irritating, limited, narrow-minded people can then experience amazing glimmers of grace. So I read the stories searching for the payoff, the grace.

  • i never read fiction, either – other than dave barry or garrison keillor. and, being from georgia, all of lewis grizzard’s stuff. yeah, not exactly nobel prize literature, but you’ve got to have some moments of humor in an often-too-dreary world.
    one serious book i’ve been edging towards is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, since i feel it will be somewhat autobiographical… ๐Ÿ™‚
    except i think he kills himself in the end, doesn’t he?
    hmmm… maybe i’ll just pick and choose which parts apply to me. ๐Ÿ™‚
    kind of like we all do Scripture. (ouch – did i type that out loud?…)
    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa
    http://mikerucker.wordpress.com

  • Diane (#8), she may or may not be poking fun at her characters but she finds them redeemable. There’s a customer review of her Collected Works over at Amazon, by a guy named Pliplup, that says it very well:
    “Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound that saved this wretched human race. O’Connor writes of God’s love and redemption of humanity. She uses exaggeration to make her point. Her characters are so very silly, obtuse, bigoted, loathsome they become cartoons, yet there is a deep integrity to their shallowness. She’s not making fun of them, but giving them the justice of a pitiless description. Indeed they do not seem judged, but naked — the fruits of their stupid, misguided ideas and actions on display. And these children of God do shocking things to others and themselves. And yet….
    And yet God allows them to live and learn, or not learn if that is their inclination. He gives them this freedom. He loves them. How can this be? How?
    I love O’Connor for her art, her convictions, her courage, and her love. She is so very true and honest.”
    I sincerely hope and pray that I haven’t violated a copyright.

  • Diane

    Bob Brague,
    I also agree, having a southern mother-in-law, that O’Connor’s characters are believable. Reading O’Connor has helped me have sympathy with my m-in-law and to understand that much of her concern with (to a Northerner’s mind) the totally inconsequential details that, to her, establish her social and moral superiority come from the culture she was raised in. In other words, she can’t help herself. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wanted to twist her head off only to remind myself that she’s like a character in an O’Connor story and open to God’s great grace and beloved of God. On the other hand, there is a story where a woman get gored to death by a bull and you are so sick of her by the time the bull gets her that you are cheering it on … I find that story quite cathartic at some moments.

  • Diane

    Bob Brague,
    As I wrote, I read her stories looking for the redemption, the grace, the grandness of heart in O’Connor that grants these horrid people (us!!) humility, love, forgiveness, growth, awareness, etc. I love the grace in her stories because it flares out from such unexpected people.

  • RJS

    Scot,
    You had just about converted me to a thorough distaste for fiction – why waste time with the contrived and invented? … And now this! Can anything good be found in a “story”? Can I live with the change in perspective? Give me the wondrous prose of a true academic piece of analysis.
    … (or should that be ponderous prose?)
    More seriously though – as this is in the library, perhaps I’ll give it a try.

  • RJS,
    Read her slowly; drink deeply; live with some ambiguity as she lets the story unfold; before long you will be stunned. Images that you will never forget.

  • Diane

    Bob Brague,
    When I say O’Connor is poking fun at her characters she is never making fun OF them. She’s way too sophisticated for that. In a sense, she makes fun of us by leading us to feel superior, then zings us by revealing the depth of grace in these people. I think she does this so well in stories like the Artificial Nigger, for example, or A Good Man is Hard to Find, where you end up feeling a rush of sympathy and love for a character you just a few moments before found insufferable.

  • RJS (#13), wwhat??!!?? Can anything good be found in a story? I don’t know, can anything good be found in your story? In my story? In Scot’s story? It’s rather like saying, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’–isn’t i
    it?
    God is Creator, and we, His Eikons, are sub-creators since we are made in His image (see C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien).
    Forgive the prose-only readers, Father, they know not what they do.

  • Mike (#9), the humor in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is not as broad as Barry, Keillor, or Grizzard, but it’s far more cutting. For example, the girl who tells Ruby Turpin she’s a wart-hog from Hell is named Mary Grace (she is not the grace itself but perhaps a doorway leading to grace?), the cynical PhD. whose wooden leg stolen in a hayloft by a Bible salesman she hopes to seduce is named Joy Hopewell (although she calls herself Hulga), and the Bible salesman who does the actual seducing, who has believed in nothing since the day he was born, is named Manley Pointer. You don’t get any funnier than that.

  • Good to see your “coming out of Babylon” ๐Ÿ™‚ (although some would say that you’re going into it). I love the title “Finding Your Plot in a Plotless World.” Almost sounds like a (fictional) story about a person who can’t find a place to be buried because the world is overcrowded and everyone is required to be cremated and…
    Sometimes it is good to stimulate the imagination.
    In Christ,
    Mark Eb.

  • Scot, thanks for sharing this journey of yours in fiction. I have had the same approach… never really swam in the waters of fiction. However, I would love to be able to enjoy it – I think it is a skill that is learned and maybe I have just never learned the skill. Anyway, please keep these posts coming – they are very helpful!

  • CA Dan

    Good response, Scot.

  • I would hesitate to call O’Connor fiction, and simply call her a story-teller. And for anyone who realizes that the Bible itself is a story, we should run to, not from stories.
    Reading “Revelation” is definitely one of the finest possible experiences of the “violent grace” found in O’Connor’s stories. I actually wrote a paper on her and that topic last term, and it was one of those rare papers that wass actually enjoyable!
    At the risk of lowering the signal-to-noise ratio in here, I’ll say that you should read “Judgment Day” and “The Lame Shall Enter First” as well. These two are much more shocking than “Revelation” though!

  • Ernest Hemingway artfully describes the human dilemma in his writings but gives no answer…all is dark and empty, e.g., “our nada who art in nada, nada be thy nada…” Flannery O’Conner artfully defines the human dilemma but points to the rays of redeeming light. *A Good Man is Hard to Find* is unshakable.

  • Diane

    John,
    I agree. One of the saddest parts of the Sun Also Rises is when the protagonist goes to a church and tries to pray, but feels nothing. O’Connor’s characters feel. Maybe this is why Hemingway committed suicide and O’Connor didn’t.

  • Dana Ames

    Aren’t we each trying, on some level, to establish our own “social and moral superiority”? It sounds like O’Connor would be very good for the soul; I’ve wanted to read her for some time but have kept putting it off. Must get me to the library soon. Thanks Diane, Bob and everyone else for the insightful comments.
    Dana

  • Diane (#22),
    I like Hemingway’s writing, but can’t endorse his view of life. Some of his short stories are brilliant, like, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.* And I admire his novella *The Old Man and the Sea.*
    I haven’t read O’Coner for awhile and these comments and this post have renewed my interest.

  • Diane

    Oh yes, indeed, Dana, I do believe we are all trying to establish our own social and moral superiority. Me too. O’Connor has simply helped me understand typically southern ways of doing it–and has helped me love people who are doing it. I’m sure we Northeners and Midwesteners and British and Australian and whatever have our own “endearing” ways…

  • I smell a guest post by Dan. Any change he could share his tips on reading a story with the Jesus Creed community???

  • Thanks for this discussion. I feel like I don’t “get” half of what’s going on in O’Connor’s stories, but her strange characters on their bizarre spiritual journeys draw me in, stir me deeply, and live in the memory long after I finish. Every now and then a shaft of grace and glory breaks through and I’m floored – and “Revelation” had this impact on me more than anything else she’s written.
    If anyone has serious doubts about the value of reading fiction, can I recommend Eugene Peterson’s essay on “Pastors and Novels” in his collection “Subversive Spirituality”? He makes a pretty bold case for why serious people must read fiction to nurture our awareness of story, people and place.

  • RJS

    Ok Scot, (Bob, Diane, CA Dan, others…)
    I’m convinced, have the book in my possession from the library, and will be prepared for the next post…”On Reading Fiction 2.” I see Revelation is about 20 pages so 10-15 minutes should suffice right?
    .
    .
    .
    Oh wait โ€“ slow, deep, unfold … Iโ€™ll give it a try.
    I thought speed reading was supposed to be a virtue?

  • sheryl,
    Dan will be giving me all kinds of tips.
    RJS,
    NospeedreadingofFlannerybecauseit’sagainsttherules.

  • Patrick Hare

    My first FOC read was “Wise Blood”. I must confess I didn’t understand it and the grotesque characters and situations left me wondering what everyone was all excited about. A friend told me I should start with her short stories to gain an appreciation for her work and suggested “Parker’s Back” which I thoroughly enjoyed and felt like I “got it” on some level. Equally engaging yet disturbing was “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. I haven’t had the nerve (or the time!) to go back and try again with one of her other novels.

  • VanSkaamper

    I used to share RJS’ antipathy to fiction…why on earth if we’re having so much trouble with reality in this world should we be wasting our time with made up stories?????
    The reason is that it exercises and develops our imagination and our souls.

  • The first story of Flannery’s that I read was “Everything That Rises Must Converge” from the collection of the same name. Each story in that book jolted me in some way. “Greenleaf,” “A View of the Woods,” “The Enduring Chill,” and on and on. “Parker’s Back,” oh, my word. “Revelation.” “Judgement Day.” “The Comforts of Home.” “The Lame Shall Enter First.” And “Revelation.”
    This woman’s stories have changed me forever. Everybody needs a kick in the pants occasionally, or a whop upside the head, but over and over and over? (I guess the answer is “yes.”)
    I have never advocated “the reading of fiction” in general because you really have to pick and choose. For example, much of the stuff on supermarket shelves is trash. Popular trash, maybe, but trash nonetheless. On the other hand, I have never hesitated to recommend anything Flannery O’Connor ever wrote.
    If you don’t “get it,” just keep on reading. Eventually you will.
    Her work transcends time and geographical place. Her characters may speak like backwoods Southerners, but that’s only to set the scene. People like them live everywhere. They’re all around you, and Jesus loves them.

  • Lisa Swain

    RJS (#13) You’re killing me. To forsake narrative for strict proposition is to suck the life out of the body. Sorry – all that’s worth knowing is lodged in story. It’s what tests your proposition for its veracity.
    That aside – I’m digging this strand. Patrick (#31) had told me about you, Scot, before. But, I’d never made it here til today, only to discover fellow fans of Flannery’s. In addition to so much that has already been mentioned, I love how her religious characters are so blind to the grace lived out before them. She has so much to say to us today. Thanks for heeding the advice of your English prof friend. I also add to the recommendation from #1 – A Good Man Is Hard To Find is her best novel, in my opinion.

  • A slight correction: A Good Man Is Hard To Find is the title story from her first collection of short stories, not a novel. In the interest of accuracy.

  • Karl

    A volume of O’Connnor’s complete works has a valued place on our bookshelf. What an insightful and piercing Christian writer she was.
    Fiction is my first love, before theology, history, academic works and other nonfiction. Madeleine L’Engle writes well on the power of story to convey truth in “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art” and “The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth.”

  • O’Connor is heralded as one of the best Catholic writers of this past century. She truly saw her writing as a vocation. If you enjoy her stories, read her letters. This was a woman with a profound religious sense and saw her fiction as intimately connected with her faith, but not in that cheap, superficial way so many of today’s self-declared “Christian authors” do.
    I must confess that I have a tough time understanding any Christian who doesn’t like fiction. I certainly understand how tastes vary, but if there ever were a people who ought to be able to understand the fundamentally human thing that is a story and how a story reveals one’s own humanity, it would seem to me it would be the Christian.