I decided this post is going to be a little different from the other ones I’ve published. Instead of writing on a whole book, I’ll be focused on a single lecture of Flannery O’Connor’s included in a larger collection of her writing, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. You may have guessed it from my title, but that lecture is called “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”.
There’s a meandering quality to the lecture’s overall flow, and as such, she covers a lot of ground. Normally I can’t help but rationally dissect the main points and sections of a written piece and lay it all out for you, but to give this lecture justice I decided I’ll try keeping this post short, loose, and rely much more on extended direct quotes.
As such, this post is going to be a bit of an experiment for me, but why have your own blog if you’re not trying new things every once in a while?
O’Connor’s Big Points:
She originally gave the lecture to an audience of university students pursuing professional fiction writing, but the lessons here can be extended to all shades and stripes of creative work.
Hopefully, these quotes get your gears turning in an interesting kind of way.
The Difference Between Writing and “Being a Writer”
I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a “killing.”
They are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor
The Nuanced Relationship Between Financial Success and Good Writing
It is true, I think, that these are times when the financial rewards for sorry writing are much greater than those for good writing. There are certain cases in which, if you can only learn to write poorly enough, you can make a great deal of money.
But it is not true that if you write well, you won’t get published at all.“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor
Finding Art’s Value
Art is a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand. But all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself…
Now you’ll see that this kind of approach eliminates many things from the discussion. It eliminates any concern with the motivation of the writer except as this finds its place inside the work.
It also eliminates any concern with the reader in his market sense. It also eliminates the tedious controversy that always rages between people who declare that they write to express themselves and those who declare that they write to fill their pocketbooks, if possible.“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor
The Counterintuitive Requirement for Writing Fiction
But there’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.
The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it.“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor
The Risk of “Competence”
In the last twenty years, the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story.
In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor’s BIGGEST Point:
I like all the previous quotes, and they’re worth including, but this next extended quote comes closest to encapsulate all the things that made me want to write about this lecture. This is where she really hits her stride. You don’t even need to be an artist to appreciate this one.
The Counter-Cultural Nature and Aim of Fiction
I think we have to begin thinking about stories at a much more fundamental level, so I want to talk about one quality of fiction which I think is its least common denominator – the fact that it is concrete…
The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions. It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see.
But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and to want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion.
They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.
The Manichaeans separated spirit and matter. To them all material things were evil. They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly without mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write because fiction is so very much an incarnational art.
One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone.
This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. 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 grand enough a job for you.“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor
Bridging the Gap to “Meeting Climate Change with Art”
Up until this point, I’ve written two distinct types of blog posts for this website. On one side I have posts for “Meeting Climate Change with Art”, and on the other side I’ve written posts dubbed “Diving into Books”. To be sure, I’ve occasionally referenced each of the projects within different posts, but both categories have essentially existed in separate worlds.
I’d like to mix that up today.
I originally began writing this post within the boundary of “Diving into Books”, but I couldn’t help but apply this lecture’s content for a reflection on the “Meeting Climate Change with Art” project. As this section heading suggests, this post will be a bridge between those worlds.
O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” provides a necessary counterpoint that should always be remembered as you read by “Climate Change and Art” posts.
… Any abstractly expressed compassion or piety or morality in a piece of fiction is only a statement added to it.
It means that you can’t make an inadequate dramatic action complete by putting a statement of meaning on the end of it or in the middle of it or at the beginning of it.
It means that when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action.“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor
I write a lot of essays about how I think we ought to express climate change when we’re making art, and although there is a place for that, essays are a very different thing than fiction. Our fiction, written or otherwise, must be grounded in good storytelling. No amount of ‘sociological smack’ can make up for a bad story.
(This post has since been edited and re-published on Medium as ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’ by Flannery O’Connor).