My review — “7 Reasons To Read A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor” — of this amazing witness to the intersection between art and faith is available here.
“There is one myth about writers that I have always felt was particularly pernicious and untruthful — the myth of the ‘lonely writer,’ the myth that writing is a lonely occupation, involving much suffering because, supposedly, the writer exists in a state of sensitivity which cuts him off, or raises him above, or casts him below the community around him. This is a common cliche, a hangover probably from the romantic period and the idea of the artist as Sufferer and Rebel . . . . I suppose there have been enough genuinely lonely suffering novelists to make this seem a reasonable myth, but there is every reason to suppose that such cases are the result of less admirable qualities in those writers, qualities which have nothing to do with the vocation of writing itself. . . . Unless the writer has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication, and communication suggests talking inside community.” — Flannery O’Connor
It was probably inevitable that I would read Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look, a modern Southern Gothic written around characters and themes Flannery O’Connor likely would have appreciated and which casts Flannery herself as a character in the center of uncomfortably interlaced conflicts. The gorgeous peacock feathers gracing the cover remind the reader of the ubiquitous presence of the fowl in O’Connor’s life and tip her off that they will figure prominently and hauntingly in the novel, as well.
The story moves along at a good clip and the unbearably tense situations the characters both create and find themselves in are gut-wrenching and shocking. The character of Flannery variously touches the lives of each person in the conflict and so their lives also touch her own. She reacts with varying degrees of hesitancy and wariness, graciousness and understanding to each sympathetic intrusion into the carefully cultivated inner sanctum of her private life. Napolitano resists the temptation to keep O’Connor out of the messy dramas that ensue when tragic missteps result in lives destroyed, and instead courageously places the character of the famous author in the center of it all, allowing her to both experience and demonstrate real human frailty and emotions.
Conflict is an integral part of the structure of the book, which is divided into three sections, each reflecting one word of the title. Each word in isolation creates a thematic grouping of characters, choices, and consequences. The main problem raised in the novel is the difference between what seems to be good and what really is in fact good. What appears to be “good” may not be so, and choices made based on the value of an apparant good may have “hard” consequences which can only be survived and learned from by “looking” them squarely in the face and admitting the truth about one’s motives. This is the pattern of all deeply drawn character development and the pattern for all real human growth. Napolitano pulls it off with ease and forces the reader to confront her own ideas about what is true and real, in both the human and the spiritual realm, while also directly confronting the problems that arise when rationalization interferes with the wrong use of reason, when reason is no longer at the service of actions based in real as opposed to seeming moral goodness and truth, but is rather merely used as a tool for self-gratification without limits or concern for the web of humanity of which each character is a part.
Napolitano is no slouch — she has read and researched O’Connor and the characterization of the famous author rings true in the way she writes her — an accurate, respectful and appreciably real picture of O’Connor comes through. Readers familiar with O’Connor’s non-authorial voice will recognize her own voice faithfully rendered in the dialogue of A Good Hard Look. Similarly, the gift for rendering the grotesque, for sifting through dross for the moments of grace presented to every human being in the exercise of the gift of their free will is masterfully rendered by Napolitano in a way that O’Connor herself would appreciate. Napolitano is faithful to O’Connor’s style and concerns as a writer, and even perhaps to the Catholic tradition she felt it her duty to write in.
Having read everything Flannery O’Connor has written, including her published personal correspondence, I have to say that there were moments when it was hard for me to believe the Flannery O’Connor in the world of Napolitano’s novel was in any way like the real O’Connor. I don’t know that this is the result of any hagiographic worship of the author on my part so much as the fact that O’Connor’s life and religious beliefs are so clearly layed out in her letters and essays that it is hard to imagine her in the center of a conflict which might force her to call all of those things into question. For me, it weakens her some how, because I have always been drawn to her strength of faith and her ability to articulate it clearly. But perhaps it is here where Napolitano wields her master stroke as a writer — fiction writers always ask “What would happen if….?” and then proceed to create a world and characters and events that tell the story that would answer that question. What Napolitano bravely takes on is positing for the fictional O’Connor a conflict unlike any she’d experienced in her life and then imagining how O’Connor would have reacted to it and handled the consequences of her choices and the choices of others whose lives she allowed to touch hers.
Daniel McInerney recently sent me a link to his thought-provoking piece considering the role and aim of the Catholic writer on his High Concepts blog. It’s a subject to which I continue to give a great deal of thought and have written about here. This topic is also one around which Persephone Writes was conceived and is one of its reasons for being.
Because of this (and because Blogger refused my repeated attempts to post a comment to Daniel’s site), I have decided to provide links to Daniel’s article here, along with my intended comment, in an effort to open up the basis for discussion on this very important issue in Catholic arts and letters today. Please do visit Daniel’s site and read both his article, and this piece by Emily Stimpson which he references, in their entirety.
“I agree with your point about the dearth of great Catholic literature having much to do with the ways in which Catholic writers today approach their craft and you are right in saying we need to choose mentors to whom we can apprentice ourselves in the learning and mastery of our craft — this is essential. Devotion to and growth in the practice of one’s craft is of absolute necessity. The great Catholic writer is simply a great writer. The greatest works of fiction are great because they deal with the truth of the human condition, because the writers of great literary works practice their craft to the greatest depth and breadth possible. The greatest Catholic writers do not need to rely on pious subject matter or overt references to their Catholic faith. They rely instead on something much deeper — this devotion to the perfection of the craft of which you speak, and the assurance that their faith gives them a clear perspective from which to work. It is in this way we can see Sophocles, Keats, Chekov, and George Eliot stand in community with Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, O’ Connor, and Tolkien. Faith does not separate them; devotion to the craft and their common search for truth bring them together.
Great writers write from a world view that looks at the whole of human experience, both the good and the bad. The Catholic writer cannot shy away from difficult topics, characters, or issues. To do so would be to ignore the very great impact these things have on real human beings every day. But the Catholic writer who truly tries to live her Catholic faith and who tries to view the entire world, events, human experience, and history through the lens of that faith, will see God moving and working in every event, will see light and beauty amidst the darkness. This vision and world view will imbue the work, regardless of the difficulty of the topic at hand.
To walk through this interplay between light and darkness and to examine it in truth is a huge responsibility. But it is arguably the responsibility of the Catholic writer in all cases, because the Catholic writer is possessed of a faith which is the fulness of truth. Thus, the problem confronting the Catholic writer is certainly one which reaches beyond craft, to deal with issues of faith and world view and how to articulate these without alienating modern sympathies. To be successful in this endeavor, the Catholic author today must be fearless, as Flannery O’Connor was, in venturing into the darkness to name and expose it. But she did not do this unarmed. And to your point, Daniel, we need to make a commitment to be devoted to our faith first, live and breathe our faith first, educate ourselves and make ever stronger attempts to practice our faith first, before we can even begin to realize what it is to be fully devoted to the practice of our craft. O’Connor and other great writers in the Catholic literary tradition serve, then, as both mentors to the craft and the lived practice of the faith, without which we cannot practice our craft to the fullest extent intended. It is the project of a lifetime and the two — devotion to the lived practice of the faith and devotion to the right practice of the craft — must walk hand-in-hand.
I have no answers, but I believe conscientious purposeful dialogue on this topic is absolutely essential to any revitalization of the Catholic arts. Quite simply, there is no excuse for dropping the baton handed off to us by the generations of mentors who have gone before. There is a sense in which we have betrayed and abandoned our tradition and our history. For my own part, revitalizing change has to begin with me: I must make a daily commitment to grow in my devotion to my faith and my craft and to bind myself ever more closely to those great artists who have gone before, both Catholic and secular, who will teach me to best use the gift with which I have been blessed. And secondly, I have a duty to participate in the conversation and be an active member of the community of which I am a part. It is not a coincidence, nor is it insignificant, that this is an issue now, today, at this point in time. It is a clarion call to action. What are we as humans without great art? We need to ask ourselves what we are going to leave behind us for the generations to come, and what message those works are going to send.
Thank you so much, Daniel, for this post, for raising awareness, and providing an impetus to deeper thought and discussion.”
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