Who Cares for the Reader’s Soul?

Among the many reasons I have found to avoid writing, or at least to avoid writing with any conviction, is the fear that my work would lead the reader astray. All truth comes from God, it is said, and therefore if I tell the truth as I see it, the end product will lead back to Him, without my needing to impose a Christian allegorical framework or engage my characters in theological conflicts.

The killer words there are as I see it. My vision is clouded by sin, so it is possible that if I write from the heart, what I’m really offering my readers is a glimpse into how far I am from God–or worse, persuading them to adopt my own faithless worldview.

It is no wonder that so much evangelical art is banal, since the stronger one’s belief in total depravity, the greater the resistance to departing from tried-and-true Biblical imagery. Of course, Catholics are no strangers to kitsch, but it’s always seemed to me that they had more of a campy sense of humor about it, connected to their refusal to let the sentimental entirely eclipse the grotesque.

Speaking of Catholics…I would like to believe what Flannery O’Connor says in this passage from “The Church and the Fiction Writer”, in Mystery and Manners, but I’m not sure if I should let myself off the hook that easily. On the other hand, what’s the alternative? I’m sure most people would rather read a good story than another hand-wringing post about why I don’t deserve to write one.

In this essay, O’Connor is disputing the conventional wisdom that religious truth and imaginative freedom are at odds. This view is shared by secular intellectuals and, ironically, by their Christian antagonists, who demand sanitized language and subject matter in their fiction. Both parties, she says, misunderstand the writer’s responsibility. Truth is embedded in the fallen reality of this world, not floating above it. The writer’s job is to describe this world, not to direct her readers’ spiritual lives.

Interestingly, O’Connor does not base this assurance on the “all truths lead to God” concept, which she might consider too akin to liberal optimism about personal authenticity and perspective-free knowledge. She would be more likely to cite St. Paul’s “many members, one body”: God wants us to know our role and develop the excellences appropriate to it, neither lording it over others nor taking on responsibilities outside our competence.  O’Connor writes:

When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality. If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his Faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly, and his sense of mystery, and acceptance of it, will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God; but what is one thing for the writer may be another for the reader. What leads the writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin, and the Catholic writer who looks at this possibility directly looks the Medusa in the face and is turned to stone.

By now, anyone who has had the problem is equipped with Mauriac’s advice: “Purify the source.” And, along with it, he has become aware that while he is attempting to do that, he has to keep on writing. He becomes aware too of sources that, relatively speaking, seem amply pure, but from which come works that scandalize. He may feel that it is as sinful to scandalize the learned as the ignorant. In the end, he will either have to stop writing or limit himself to the concerns proper to what he is creating. It is the person who can follow neither of these courses who becomes the victim, not of the Church, but of a false conception of her demands.

The business of protecting souls from dangerous literature belongs properly to the Church. All fiction, even when it satisfies the requirements of art, will not turn out to be suitable for everyone’s consumption, and if in some instance the Church sees fit to forbid the faithful to read a work without permission, the author, if he is a Catholic, will be thankful that the Church is willing to perform this service for him. It means that he can limit himself to the demands of art.

The fact would seem to be that for many writers it is easier to assume a universal responsibility for souls than it is to produce a work of art…. (pp.148-49)

Ouch. That hits me right in my codependent little tush.

The fact is, dear readers, I don’t actually care about your souls as much as we all thought I did. What I really care about is not letting you see what a bad person I am, which might happen if I wrote honestly. Not even bad so much as foolish, self-indulgent, affected, unlikeable and gloomy. Honest badness has an artistic purity to it that is lacking in your garden-variety schmuck.

What O’Connor says about the reader’s soul is even more true about the writer’s. The battle is fought elsewhere. I have the authority to offer my personal vision of the world only because I personally am saved by grace–not because it’s necessarily accurate or because it will motivate you to get baptized. I can offer it but I can’t impose it. God has given me the right to show up. You, too.

13 comments on “Who Cares for the Reader’s Soul?

  1. Alegria Imperial says:

    Thanks again for wringing your hands and spirit!Here’s my take on both Flannery O’Connor’s and your ‘truths’. I believe there are no falsehoods in reality, Jendi. Good or bad, what happens is always the truth. How it is used or perceived makes it fall either way. And the manner of its usage or perception lies in a complex source called man–and all that has made him individually unique. A writer’s work is a ‘refraction’, I believe, not a ‘reflection’ of truths as he has absorbed them– either consciously or by osmosis. A reader’s view of such truths is also his own ‘refraction’. Perhaps, this is why not all works–however perfectly deemed to be–cannot overwhelm all readers. Too many factors come into play once a reader picks up a book. Words have a way of playing on such factors and if these fit both ways, the writer and reader grow in truth; and if not, one or both gets skewed. Still the truth remains as objective as the reality it comes from. Birth and death, acts of cruelty and compassion, details of ugliness and beauty are objective truths, universal truths even. Each work of writing is merely a chip, a spark, a flash, a swatch of that impersonal vastness, which the writer by some quirk of consciousness catches or rips off and, compelled or impelled to reveal or bare it, creates something akin to wholeness. This seeming wholeness often causes the rift. Writers write not to ‘baptize’, I believe, but simply to cause a ‘spark’ as they had been caused by it, to ‘touch’ a soul or souls as theirs was. Being both man existing in both provable realities and elusive mysteries, somehow, something should or does indeed happen to the writer and the reader–good or bad.

  2. Steve says:

    Jendi – Wow. This is refreshingly honest (not that it’s a surprise over here on your blog) and refreshingly lucid about a complex and confusing subject (and that’s not something rare over here, either). It’s all those layers of truth, responsibility, points of view, etc. that seem to make this hard. But O’Connor, as usual, sees people as they ARE, and so places the proper authority and role on each.

    So as an artist I have the same issues you mention here. What am I showing the world about ME when I paint something? I have to admit that I’m not as worried others will be scandalized, as I’m worried I’ll look foolish or untalented or presumptuous. All about my dignity, I suppose. Am I brave enough to step out from behind that dignity and perform as God intended – with all or me (flawed as I am)?

    And I love that O’Connor makes it so clear that writers are here to write – painters to paint. Others will have to do the theology and spiritual direction – that’s not our skill. We don’t fail to live our lives because they might lead others astray… Practicing our art is the same thing.

    We’re just supposed to do it, as openly and honestly (truthfully) as we can, I guess.

    This was timely for me to hear – thanks for writing it. Everything it pushing me to let go and really see what happens. Dozens of indicators all pointing the same way. We don’t often get signals so clear. I hope I can do it.

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