As devastating as her fiction is, I find that the volume of Flannery O’Connor’s I return to most often is the collection of essays and speeches, Mystery and Manners. It is a glimpse behind the curtain of the highest order, in which the great author spells out not only some of her most deeply held theological convictions, but her literary ones as well – and how they inform each other. She does this, of course, with the sort of insight and personal integration, not to mention gift for language, that could only have come, well, from God. Her aesthetic approach, or philosophy, leaves remarkably little left to be said, even fifty years later; this is so clearly a prophetic mind at work. A few excerpts include:

When you write about backwoods prophets, it is very difficult to get across to the modern reader that you take these people seriously, that you are not making fun of them, but that their concerns are your own, and, in your judgment, central to human life… [The reader] has the mistaken notion that a concern with grace is a concern with exalted human behavior, that it is a pretentious concern. It is, however, simply a concern with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concern with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action. Often the nature of grace can be made plain only by describing its absence. (“In The Protestant South”)

I have observed that most of the best religious fiction of our time is most shocking precisely to those readers who claim to have an intense interest in finding more ‘spiritual purpose’ – as they like to put it – in modern novels than they can at present detect in them. Today’s reader, if he believes in grace at all, sees it as something which can be separated from nature and served to him raw as Instant Uplift. This reader’s favorite word is compassion. I don’t wish to defame the word. There is a better sense in which it can be used but seldom is – the sense of being in travail with and for creation in its subjection to vanity. This is a sense which implies a recognition of sin; this is a suffering-with, but one which blunts no edges and makes no excuses. When infused into novels, it is often forbidding. Our age doesn’t go for it. (“Novelist and Believer”)

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 considerable 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. (“On Her Own Work”)

I have found, in short, from the reading of my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. (“On Her Own Work”)

To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character. (“The Fiction Writer and His Country”)

When Walker Percy won the National Book Award, newsmen asked him why there were so many good Southern writers and he said, ‘Because we lost the War.’ He didn’t mean by that simply that a lost war makes good subject matter. What he was saying was that we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country. (“The Regional Writer”)