“There are two qualities that make fiction,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners.” Since yesterday was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (she would have been ninety-four), I thought this would be a good week to think about mystery and manners.
Mystery and Manners, as you may know, is the title of a collection of O’Connor’s “occasional prose.” It contains some of the most insightful writing about writing that you can ever hope to read. I commend it to you.
But what does O’Connor mean by those terms “mystery” and “manners”? The gist is that the fiction writer is always looking to approach the deepest mysteries through the surfaces of things. A storyteller may be interested in big, abstract ideas about ultimate meaning—love, hatred, sin, judgment, grace, etc.—but those big ideas are not the raw material of a story. The raw materials of a story are found in manners, not mystery. Manners are what we see with our eyeballs when we look out at the world of human interaction. “You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you,” writes O’Connor.
The quotes above come from “Writing Short Stories” in Mystery and Manners. So does this remarkable passage:
Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.
The essay is a form that allows a writer to go straight to the big idea (though I encourage even essay writers to be as concrete as possible). Fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t give the writer nearly so much leeway. Fiction demands that we deliver meaning through experience—through manners.
O’Connor was never shy about the moral dimension of storytelling. She could be judgmental in her stories; but more to the point, she expected her readers to exercise moral judgment. The fiction writer’s job, according to O’Connor, is to present to the reader a sequence of experiences that will engage his (the reader’s) moral judgment.
The [inexperienced writer] thinks that judgment exists in one place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.
It is hard to resist the urge to tell the reader what to think. It is so easy for a writer to pass judgment and hope that the reader falls in line. But unless a reader agrees with you already, he is rarely so cooperative. As O’Connor said, if the reader doesn’t experience a story, doesn’t feel it, he isn’t going to believe anything the writer tells him.
And yet…when you present the right images to the reader, those images are persuasive in ways that mere persuasion can never be. Judgment doesn’t exist in a separate place from sense-impression. If you can believe that, it will transform your storytelling. The sensory experience of a story isn’t window-dressing; it’s the story’s truest machinery. (I have discussed this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit, so I will refer you to it rather than go through it all again).
Do you believe that the world is shot through with meaning? If so, you can trust that all you have to do is to give a true account of the world as you have experienced it. You just tend to the manners. The mysteries will take care of themselves. This should give you freedom and hope in your writing.
This idea of mystery and manners, by the way, is important not just for writers, but for readers as well. If you feel insufficiently literary to “get” serious fiction, consider what O’Connor says on the subject:
The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.
Yes and amen.