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Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (FSG Classics) Paperback – January 1, 1969
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“Flannery O'Connor ranks with Mark Twain and Scott Fitzgerald among our finest prose stylists. Her epigrams alone are worth the price of the book . . . which should be read by every writer and would-be writer and lover of writing.” ―John Leonard, The New York Times
“[O'Connor] was not just the best 'woman writer' of [her] time and place; she expressed something secret about America, called 'the South,' with that transcendent gift for expressing the real spirit of a culture that is conveyed by those writers . . . who become nothing but what they see. Completeness is one word for it: relentlessness [and] unsparingness would be others. She was a genius.” ―Alfred Kazin, The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925. When she died at the age of thirty-nine, America lost one of its most gifted writers at the height of her powers. O'Connor wrote two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), and two story collections, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1964). Her Complete Stories, published posthumously in 1972, won the National Book Award that year, and in a 2009 online poll it was voted as the best book to have won the award in the contest's history. Her letters were published in The Habit of Being (1979). In 1988 the Library of America published her Collected Works; she was the first postwar writer to be so honored. O'Connor was educated at the Georgia State College for Women, studied writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and wrote much of Wise Blood at the Yaddo artists' colony in upstate New York. A devout Catholic, she lived most of her adult life on her family's ancestral farm, Andalusia, outside Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised peacocks and wrote.
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This book is a great read into Ms. O'Connor's writings and essays, as well as a good manual for how to grasp your inner writer and plow headfirst into the mystery of the human spirit.
Mystery and Manners has helped me set aside my own notions of grace and mercy and justice and instead embrace a bigger God who is present even in the "grotesque" .
I believe the lessons I've learned from this book will continue to make me a better writer.
The first piece in the volume, "The King of the Birds", is sui generis. It is a paean to peacocks, of which O'Connor kept as many as forty on the farm on which she spent the last years of her life. "Many people, I have found, are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock. Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is `good for'--a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none." That essay originally appeared in "Holiday" magazine in September 1961, a magazine my parents subscribed to and I as a boy religiously paged through, which probably explains why I had a faint sense of déjà vu when reading it. It must have been among the best pieces "Holiday" every published. It is exceptional.
The remaining essays all deal with, in one way or another, literature and the craft of writing. Many of them are excellent. Several of them probably would be of great interest, even assistance, to prospective or struggling writers. But they also are of interest for readers and students of literature, especially since most are written in a very readable fashion. In these pieces, one finds such gems as these:
"I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."
"All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality."
"The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story."
In some of the essays, O'Connor comments on her own works, and of course those comments are valuable to the student or fan of her fiction. One such comment: "Much of my fiction takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness of my use of it may not always be apparent. The assumptions that underlie this use of it, however, are those of the central Christian mysteries."
That quote points to another theme of these essays, and the overt, central theme of four of them: Roman Catholicism and the writing of fiction. Flannery O'Connor was a devout Roman Catholic and a very thoughtful amateur theologian. I only skimmed the four essays dedicated to this theme, as it is a subject of little interest or meaning to me. But it is somehow touching to see a person as intelligent as she laboring so mightily with her concerns.
At two points in the book, O'Connor divides fiction into the categories of the good, the bad, and the indifferent. For me, these pieces divide into the good and the indifferent. I should also mention that as fine as most of the pieces are, O'Connor's voice and style vary little from piece to piece, leading to some wearisomeness if more than three are read in one sitting.
O'Conner's clarity in expressing her understanding about the writer's place in the world and fiction as an instrument to convert pencil lead to gold while embracing her own reserve is presented with such humor and grace as to be transcendent.
There are few writers, Chandler is one, who have had such influence from such a small body of work that we can only marvel at the wonderful gift of what they did write and morn our loss that there is no more.