If You Abide in My Word: The Novelist, Facts, and Truth

"She says miracles aren’t allowed in fiction and makes other statements of a like nature. I haven’t read it… I am really only interested in a fiction of miracles."
~Flannery O'Connor

"A friend once told me that she 'doesn’t read fiction because [she] likes to learn something' from her books, and fiction, not being factual, can’t teach. I was devastated - how do you not learn from fiction?"

The discussion returns to "art as truth" this week, and I won't kill a lot of time snorting over the idea of fiction being unable to teach. It seems so obviously wrong to me—but then, I am regularly surprised by things people believe that seem obviously wrong to me. That's as much a part of human experience as anything else.

Masha offers the discussion several interesting possible directions in her few paragraphs, but I'll start with this one:
Flannery O'Connor’s writing is often dark. Darker, at least, than much of the fiction we would call “a fiction of miracles”. We like miracles of light, we like a supernatural world of sweet baby angels and gentle spirits. In her tales the miracles are so Catholic they’re almost pagan - dark and dangerous and hidden. Modern miracles in a modern world, but with the taste of something primitive.
It's true that I like my sweet baby angels and gentle spirits, along with rainbows and unicorns and all their lot. Since I tend to give tragic novels less credit than they perhaps deserve, though, I'll clarify that I believe there are virtues, equally dignified but very different virtues, in both dark and light fiction. Authors and readers may be drawn to varying shades, but either may contain great truth.

There are a multitude of truths that fiction can express, and a multitude of ways to express them—perhaps as many modes of expression as there are authors. Quoting from editor Ursula Nordstrom's letter to a self-doubting Maurice Sendak, which I linked on Friday:
Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their books and they also know a lot of facts ("where the mouth of a river is") but that isn't the only sort of genius, you know that. You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and "cohesion and purpose" in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace.... You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn't Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.
The comparison is apples and oranges, as the cliché goes, and guavas and pomegranates, too. The truth contained in L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is given a vastly different mode of expression from the truth in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, but both offer truth. I am drawn to one; Masha is drawn to the other; both of us are drawn to truth in art.

At the end of Masha's post, she makes a particularly fascinating point in response to O'Connor's claim that "evil is the defective use of the good":
"[T]he defective use of the good is often harder to detect than an out and out bad would be. Subtle failings can be more seductive and more damaging than obvious flaws. Fiction should be true, not cluttered with half-truths and tiny lies. Beautiful, good, and full of mystery."
I agree that it should be so. Because we're human, however, and all of us prone to the imperfection of believing things that are not true, our fiction will include half-truths and tiny lies. It will—even the best fiction does—and even were any of us skillful and stupidity-free enough to write flawlessly, imperfect readers would still misinterpret according to their own wrong ideas.

But we're not responsible for perfection of mind and judgment, only for our own integrity. Our responsibility is to write the truth, as near as we can shoot it, in whatever mode is given us to express it. The rest of the work belongs to the reader and to God.


  1. I like this! But I guess I should have been a bit clearer in that last point. You're right that we're human, and full of flaws, but I was thinking of the difference between sincerity and honestly (despite flaws) in fiction, and insincere writing, with intentional half lies and misrepresentations..at least, I think I was..I might me remembering myself better than I am :)

    But anyway, I agree that we are responsible "only for our own integrity" to write honestly and clearly and hope we are interpreted correctly. :)

    1. Thanks. And I probably should have pointed out that I was clarifying, not arguing with you on that! I didn't think you necessarily disagreed; what I put is just where my thoughts went when I read your post. :)

    2. Masha, I've had trouble commenting on your blog in the past (and I'm lazy), so I'm just going to post here: WOW! Great elaborations and additions from you too, Jenna.

      I've had that very same experience and reaction to people who think fiction is a waste of time. Ironically, I think reading "The Great Gatsby" was a moment of awakening for me because even though I hated the story and resented it for how ugly and unhappy it was, I could not deny the power of Fitzgerald's writing. It cast something of a spell on me. I think that's why I described it as bewildering. I could not deny that there was a kind of magic there even though I hated the story.

  2. I did read that letter you linked to and found it comforting, so thank you. c:

  3. Maria~ Thanks! And do try again, I've messed a bit with the comment setting, so it should be easier! Fitzgerald is interesting, he definitly has power as a writer, he is a bit overwhelming in that I think he pulls out the dark underside of the American dream, the effect of capitalism on our ability to see each other as people to know, rather than things to be acquired..I love him, but I can see him being rather a painful read.

    Jenna~ I thought so! But I wasn't 100% sure. It was a good and necessary clarification. And I also read the link, I liked it..it reminded me of something Heminway wrote, about not "going into the ring with Tolstoy.." because he wasn't in Tolstoy's class, I think he wrote it to Fitzgerald, but I could be wrong. :)


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