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Flannery O’Connor On “What Makes A Story Work”

Sitting in my library with an old friend, we read these words of Ms. O’Connor’s and shared a moment of sheer grace. I would like to make it possible for you too to experience that moment. Read and enjoy. 

I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.  This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.  The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.  It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make.  It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery…
Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.  The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.  Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.  This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world…
We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is bad thing and meant to be an end in itself.  With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself.  It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.  Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven.  But regardless of what can be taken by it, the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they take with them.

Of Hair and Health Care, by GKC

This is a Chesterton essay that acts as the conclusion of his book What’s Wrong with the World. Though written over a century ago, it asks just how far the government can go in matters of health and hygiene. It’s pertinence to our current situation cannot be overstated.

A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. Many very unhealthy habits are common among rich little girls, but it will be long before any doctors interfere forcibly with them. Now, the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice. Yet it could be done. As is common in most modern discussions the unmentionable thing is the pivot of the whole discussion. It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul) that any coercion applied to a cabman’s daughter ought, if possible, to be applied to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask why the doctors do not, as a matter of fact apply their rule to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask, because I know. They do not because they dare not. But what is the excuse they would urge, what is the plausible argument they would use, for thus cutting and clipping poor children and not rich? Their argument would be that the disease is more likely to be in the hair of poor people than of rich. And why? Because the poor children are forced (against all the instincts of the highly domestic working classes) to crowd together in close rooms under a wildly inefficient system of public instruction; and because in one out of the forty children there may be offense. And why? Because the poor man is so ground down by the great rents of the great ground landlords that his wife often has to work as well as he. Therefore she has no time to look after the children, therefore one in forty of them is dirty. Because the workingman has these two persons on top of him, the landlord sitting (literally) on his stomach, and the schoolmaster sitting (literally) on his head, the workingman must allow his little girl’s hair, first to be neglected from poverty, next to be poisoned by promiscuity, and, lastly, to be abolished by hygiene. He, perhaps, was proud of his little girl’s hair. But he does not count.


Upon this simple principle (or rather precedent) the sociological doctor drives gayly ahead. When a crapulous tyranny crushes men down into the dirt, so that their very hair is dirty, the scientific course is clear. It would be long and laborious to cut off the heads of the tyrants; it is easier to cut off the hair of the slaves. In the same way, if it should ever happen that poor children, screaming with toothache, disturbed any schoolmaster or artistic gentleman, it would be easy to pull out all the teeth of the poor; if their nails were disgustingly dirty, their nails could be plucked out; if their noses were indecently blown, their noses could be cut off. The appearance of our humbler fellow-citizen could be quite strikingly simplified before we had done with him. But all this is not a bit wilder than the brute fact that a doctor can walk into the house of a free man, whose daughter’s hair may be as clean as spring flowers, and order him to cut it off. It never seems to strike these people that the lesson of lice in the slums is the wrongness of slums, not the wrongness of hair. Hair is, to say the least of it, a rooted thing. Its enemy (like the other insects and oriental armies of whom we have spoken) sweep upon us but seldom. In truth, it is only by eternal institutions like hair that we can test passing institutions like empires. If a house is so built as to knock a man’s head off when he enters it, it is built wrong.


The mob can never rebel unless it is conservative, at least enough to have conserved some reasons for rebelling. It is the most awful thought in all our anarchy, that most of the ancient blows struck for freedom would not be struck at all to-day, because of the obscuration of the clean, popular customs from which they came. The insult that brought down the hammer of Wat Tyler might now be called a medical examination. That which Virginius loathed and avenged as foul slavery might now be praised as free love. The cruel taunt of Foulon, “Let them eat grass,” might now be represented as the dying cry of an idealistic vegetarian. Those great scissors of science that would snip off the curls of the poor little school children are ceaselessly snapping closer and closer to cut off all the corners and fringes of the arts and honors of the poor. Soon they will be twisting necks to suit clean collars, and hacking feet to fit new boots. It never seems to strike them that the body is more than raiment; that the Sabbath was made for man; that all institutions shall be judged and damned by whether they have fitted the normal flesh and spirit. It is the test of political sanity to keep your head. It is the test of artistic sanity to keep your hair on.


Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

Why Ray Bradbury Was Right – The Loss of the Culture of the Book

We have another guest post from friends and fellow blogger, Luke Arredondo, from Quiet, Dignity, and Grace. He reflects on a classic of the Twentieth Century, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I must speak honestly; I’ve never read the book. However, after this post, it has become a necessary read (after the Hunger Games trilogy, of course).


Re-Visiting a Classic

Ray Bradbury passed away last week at the age 91. I decided to re-read his classic work, Fahrenheit 451 when I heard the news and read his obituary. I tried to rationalize that I didn’t have the time, as there are far too many other books I haven’t even read once. Why read this one twice? Well, after a few days I picked the book off the shelf and started over again. I’m very glad I did. It has proved extremely rewarding and proved to me that one never reads the same book twice, because you will be a different person the second time you read it.

The edition of Fahrenheit 451 that I have features a post-script and an interview with Bradbury done in the past ten years, commenting on some general features of his writing, with some particular questions about Fahrenheit 451. He wrote the rough draft of the book in a library, renting typewriters for a dime per half hour. He spent nine days furiously typing and the total cost of renting the typewriters was $9.80. One of his comments is that he wrote his books in huge bursts of passion, reacting to whatever was important in his life at the time. Obviously as a writer, he had a love of books, and he saw TV as possibly posing a threat to books, or at least some major competition in the future. It’s scary just how close his vision has matched up with reality in the 60 years since his writing the rough draft.

Prophetic Themes in Fahrenheit 451


A. The Existence of a Media-Driven Culture

In Fahrenheit, the popular culture and the “average” household revolves around non-stop entertainment. Homes are centered on their super-advanced televisions, which are no longer single screens. Those who can afford them have three or four screen models, ideally covering each wall in an entire room. But they’re pricey, at $2,000 apiece. Furthermore, the broadcast programs have been cut down significantly in time. An entire series can be viewed in an exhilarating ten minutes.

The main character, Guy Montag, has provided well for his wife, and she has a three wall set-up. She paid extra so that the announcers and actors address her by name. The extra money paid for a device that even makes the announcer’s lips mouth her name. She is completely sucked into this world of entertainment, and is begging her husband to add a fourth screen as soon as possible. Even though the cost of the screen is a huge portion of Guy’s salary, she insists on how important this purchase would be.

When she finally goes to their bedroom, where they have their own beds, Guy’s wife pops in her microscopic ear piece and lets the news and radio drift her of into a sleep that is often drug-induced. Even when her husband is not feeling good, she refuses to turn off the screens, or even turn the volume down. She refers to the announcers as her “relatives.” When she socializes with friends, the entire focus is on programs being broadcast on air or which will soon be broadcast.

B. Books: Banished from Society, by Society

Guy Montag is a fireman. But in the future envisioned by Bradbury, firemen don’t put fires out; they start them. Guy works at the fire house only in the evenings, and inevitably this is the only time they ever receive any alerts. Alerts are placed when anyone suspects that their friend or neighbor has been harboring books. The firemen wheel up to the house, douse the books in kerosine, and set them on fire. The fires always draw a crowd; it’s a good show. Furthermore, the burning of books didn’t happen by a government mandate. People in the culture started destroying them on their own, and this only later was codified into law.

C. The Disappearance of Leisure and Reflection

Throughout the course of the book, Guy meets a young girl who begins to talk to him about things nobody else has talked about for years. The weather, nature, how fast the world is. She mentions that billboards on the highway used to be only a few feet long, but since people drive so fast, they had to make billboards 200 feet long, otherwise nobody would be able to read them. She notes that most people think that grass looks like a green blur which they see outside of their window. Everything in the popular culture is driven by fast-paced sensual satisfaction.

This girl, Clarisse, says her family sits around and talks. They used to talk on porches but houses no longer have porches, so they sit inside and talk. She leads Guy to begin thinking about things differently. He gets curious about why fires are started and not put out any more. Eventually the temptation gets to him, and he wants to find out what all the fuss is about these books. Perhaps even more curiously, he wants to know why he never talks to anybody. He never thinks about anything. He just reacts, and as far as he can tell, everyone around him has given up thinking. They just do whatever their televisions say. Entertainment abounds, but nobody really relaxes anymore. Nobody really has fun, there is no actual happiness, despite all the methods of entertainment that seem to fill everyone’s day.

D. A Way Out

In due time, Guy is of course caught and an alarm set out against him. I won’t spoil the entire book, but this is the essence of the book: Guy finds someone who still remembers the olden times of literary discussion, argument, and in general, the liberal arts tradition. They represent a minority, and even still speak of things like the Bible. But they maintain the connection to the past by never forgetting the great books of the world. They won’t win the world over by sheer numbers, but they are confident that, eventually, people will want to know what they’ve been trying so hard to forget. And when the time is right, they’ll be ready with the answers. The answers will be Shakespeare, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Voltaire, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Kant, Schweitzer, Milton, Poe, etc.

What Bradbury Got Right

Bradbury saw a future where people would no longer think for themselves. They were bombarded with images and sounds, colors, music, words. From their morning rise to their last moments of consciousness each night, they are “plugged in.”

He hit on such a prophetic streak with this book! Look around at our world today. TVs may only be single screens, but the other screens are already in the room: cell phone screens, computer screens, tablets, and who knows what else coming down the pipe. Just like the futuristic world Bradbury envisioned, books seem to be vanishing from society. Even more quickly disappearing is real discussion about ideas. People spend abnormal amounts of time discussing the latest gossip, sports, and other forms of diversion and entertainment. But how often do we have discussions (or even real arguments!) about things that matter. Things like justice, faith, peace, freedom, joy, beauty, God, goodness, art, etc.

Surely in this scary vision of the future, Bradbury was right. We’re looking more and more like that frightening world every day. And there don’t seem to be a lot of signs that we’re slowing down or changing directions any time soon.

However, just as he saw the problem correctly, I believe he sees the solution correctly. The way out is for those who have the time, for those who have the energy, to do something. We need to tell people about books. We need to show how important ideas are. We need to bring up books in discussions with people, and remind them about their existence. A great way to do this is to just start reading!

One of Fahrenheit’s characters comments that what’s so great about books, as opposed to tv, is that if you disagree with a book’s main point, you can put it down. You can argue with it. You can write a book to counter it. TV shows and movies don’t really give us the same chance. They keep on rolling along, producing more episodes, more shows, more movies, more of the same. And reasoning or arguing with it? Doesn’t work very well. It’s almost impossible to convince, for example, the average teenage girl that a show like Pretty Little Liars is dangerous to her. But with books, you get that chance.

Personally, I’ve long desired to embark upon a reading of the Great Books of the Western World. Considering some of the work I do now and some preparation I’m currently working on for an adult catechesis program aimed at helping parents conquer the big dragon that is the modern media, and after re-reading this prophetic vision of the world we’re living in now, I am more than ever inspired to pursue that goal. True, I may have a full-time job, a one year-old baby and a new addition expected in January. I am also working on a masters degree in my “spare” time which will soon require me to learn Greek without the benefit of a classroom in which to do so or a teacher to guide me. Even still, I am making a commitment today, to save the money for a new book shelf and a set of the Great Books. I have to do what little I can to stem the tide, and to be there with some of the “answers” for others in the coming generations, first and foremost for my own children.

Pax,

Luke

Duped By the Hunger Games?

We have before us a guest post! With the fiery start of the new film Hunger Games in the box office, it seemed good to compare book to film. At the time, I had not read the book and I still I have not read the film. So I asked Katherine Lee over at NOLA Front Porch to lend her Hunger Games expertise. Katherine is distinguished as the first female to post on this blog. It is honor really for her to be here. Hope to see her again soon. Her post will beginning a small series on the Hunger Games (book 1). Check back for more reflections on the book that has taken imaginations by storm.

Without further ado ….

If you were one of countless individuals who was dragged by an overly eager friend, child, or significant other to The Hunger Games movie, I know what you’re thinking. You didn’t get it. You didn’t see the big deal AND you definitely could care less about this Peeta character everybody is raving about. I hate to even mention the thought, but some of you could even be coerced into reading the books simply because you judged the movie as a “B” at best. You’ve come to the right place. Call this the cliff notes or maybe just a short cut to save you the embarrassment of being caught reading the trilogy on your morning commute.

The plot of the Hunger Games unfolds in the futuristic former America, Panem, that is divided into 12 districts tyrannically ruled over by the Capitol. Though not directly explained in the books, Panem’s name derives from the Latin term for “bread” connecting to “Bread and circuses”. The metaphor refers to a government’s use of entertainment to distract and appease citizens from the harsh reality of rule, classically demonstrated by the Roman Republic’s gladiatorial homicide festivals. The Capitol oppressively controls food production and distribution in the districts, forces citizens to watch required media programming, and even outlaws communications between districts. While the rest of Panem’s citizens starve to death, life for the people in the Capitol is glutinous and outlandish signaled by the bizarre make-up and Lady Gaga influenced clothing.

The Capital represents a “dystopian” society, the opposite of the more familiar expression, utopia. The genre of the books is meant to evoke similar themes as Brave New World and Orwell’s Nighteen-Eighty Four. The main character, Katniss, hunts for food so her family doesn’t starve. She and her best friend, Gale, break the law by selling their yields at a black market known as the HOB. The ultimate expression of Capitol exploitation is the annual competition where each district must submit a girl and boy tribute to fight in an arena to the death. The Hunger Games serve the double purpose of intimidating districts into submission and providing a source of perverse entertainment for citizens. Families have no choice in preventing their children from being placed into a “reaping” lottery from which names are pulled. The incentive for tributes to win the games is to secure an ample supply of food for their district for the coming year.

SPOILER ALERT: From here on out your read at your risk of receiving integral parts of the plotline, reading the book or watching the movie is suggested.

The movie moves like a freight train pressing too quickly through the background of the story and directly into the action of the games itself. Here lies the inadequacy. Audiences were left perplexed by the nature of the games, presented as a violent contest for survival of the fittest where promoting a “fake” romance could easily secure necessities from sponsors. The books represent a more multi-faceted insight into Katniss’ interior dilemma of playing the game to save her family versus standing up to the injustice of the situation she finds herself a part. Perhaps the most genuine cinematic look into her interior struggle comes with her sobbing screams after burying her friend, Rue. From her 1st person perspective in the books, the reader feels truly Katniss’ predicament throughout the entire course.

Finally, the majority of the complaints about the movie center on the apparent weaknesses in the character of Peeta, the other male tribute representing District 12. The scene in which Peeta tells Katniss that he hopes that the game-makers don’t change him is extremely important for understanding his value. Unfortunately, the movie fails to explain the reference and doesn’t do him justice. There’s a brief flashback scene in which Katniss is starving and Peeta, outside his family’s bakery, throws her a piece of bread. Peeta’s act of kindness toward her reflects a couple things. First, he did love Katniss from the time she was little. He was not faking the romance. Second, he burnt the bread intentionally to give her at the risk of receiving a beating from his mother- selfless sacrifice. It wasn’t, as the movie portrayed, an act of happenstance.

Katniss is drawn into Peeta’s goodness. She finds herself slowly being won over by his easy going nature and confidence in her. He sees the best. She notices the apparent differences between his warmth, even in front of the camera, and her cold, paranoid nature. Though she does fake the romance on screen, something more is emerging on the interior. After a hard-knock life of self-dependance and struggle, she finally has someone to trust.

Okay, so maybe, this doesn’t mean you’re a Hunger Games expert now, but at least you’ve got the overall idea. For a more in depth analysis of the movie, I highly recommend watching two video commentaries from Fr. Robert Barron. Start with this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsFBbS39_z0) then move on to his additional comments on the religiosity of the film (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpCowqg_pHI).