How Is Fiction True and Valuable?
In his Touchstone article about evangelicals and literature, Donald Williams looks at the fiction of Flannery O'Connor and how her Catholic faith made her art possible. The question he wants to answer by considering O'Connor is why there are no evangelical writers who are recognized for their similarly high literary quality. Here is one of the reasons that he notes:
[T]he popular Evangelical subculture seems ... addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through the “Christian bookstore” will show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them.
Evangelistic fiction and paintings with Bible verses are obviously pragmatic. But the pragmatism that hinders evangelical art can be more subtle, too. One of the less obvious ways that our artistic utilitarianism shows itself is the impulse to reduce art to propositions about art. This is the only way that many people know how to interact with art—or at least the only way they trust. If we can say what a story means, for instance, and we've summed up this meaning in a statement about truth that we agree with, then we think it's a good story—good art. And if a story resists summary or does not distill into a statement we believe, then we have no use for it—it's bad art.
Flannery O'Connor contradicts this take on art in her book of essays Mystery and Manners. She writes:
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself, the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction. (73)
A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in a story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. (96)
O’Connor is concerned that many people treat art as valuable only for its propositional “meaning.” If we read fiction or poetry and we look for “the point” instead of immersing ourselves in the experience, we ruin our faculty for truly enjoying it. We will see or read or listen to great art and only think of it as a cipher to be broken. The pleasure of the art will be replaced by the pleasure of “figuring it out.” Sure, there is sometimes deciphering to be done, but that is not the point of a story or a poem.
Here is O'Connor's exhortation:
I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment....
Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already. (108)
Fiction and poetry provide authors a unique way to glorify Christ that more overtly intellectual genres, like theology, simply can't. These genres that aim directly for the heart and soul—rather than aiming at the heart through the mind—do not argue for belief, they show what it looks like and make you feel it. Theology, devotionals, and other books in the “Christian Living” section of the bookstore talk about belief explicitly. Their goal is to explain truth as clearly as possible. Fiction and poetry, on the other hand, tell the truth, but tell it slant. They offer an author a way to give his beliefs flesh and blood by enacting them in the confusion of the real world. In fiction, belief is not what you look at, but what you look through.
The question remains whether Flannery O’Connor succeeded in living up to the standard she set for Christian writers, but the standard itself is a worthy goal:
Now none of this is to say that when you write a story, you are supposed to forget or give up on any moral position that you hold. Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing. (91)