An Ounce of Prevention

If you’ve hung around forums and websites for Christian fiction writers, you’ve no doubt bumped into a recurring set of discussions:

What are a faith-based writer’s obligations before God?
How theologically-correct does a story have to be? How evangelistic?
How realistic can the depictions of a fallen world and unsaved characters be?
Where exactly is the line for profanity? violence? pornography?
When does it slip into being gratuitous and become a stumbling block?

Vital questions to be sure, and ones each writer must answer for his or herself. However, for someone who’s in the first phase of his writing career, I have to say the wranglings frequently come off as Hydra-headed. Every answer prompts at least two vociferous and adamant counter-points that only serve to exacerbate* the problem.

I believe it was G.K. Chesterton who said an open mind was like an open mouth: it must close on something solid. Now these debates consume a tremendous amount of passion, time, and creativity, and I’d like to think they’re inching towards reasoned, principled solutions. But I fear otherwise…

The aim of this post isn’t to stir the pot but to point out one very credible source of potential answers: Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.

The book is a collection of her essays precisely on the subject of fiction writing as a Christian. I won’t bore you with a summary or try and distill everything into neat little fortune-cookie pearls of wisdom. I will say I found her insights refreshingly blunt, keenly perceptive, and a sobering challenge. In my opinion, the essays “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, “The Church and the Fiction Writer”, and “Novelist and Believer” are worth the price of the book all by themselves. What’s so attractive is that Ms. O’Connor deals with exactly the same issues that dog so many Christian writers today, and in a way that not only honors God but elevates the calling and craft of writing.

I think this little book belongs on that small shelf next to every writer’s desk, in between the Thesaurus and the Dictionary. I believe if read with prayer and careful consideration, it will raise the bar, settle your mind, and allow you to disengage from the cyclical debates and get back to actually writing. Which is what writers are supposed to do.

I’ll end with a couple quotes:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location. – Flannery O’Connor

When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business. – Flannery O’Connor

*(it means ‘to make things worse.’ – Shaun of the Dead)

2 Replies to “An Ounce of Prevention”

  1. It’s been years since I read Mystery and Manners. I should read it again. Yes, you’re right the argument is w/o end. I just had this argument w/ my parents because I warned them that they might not like my latest book. But the parts that I know will offend them wouldn’t offend many of my generation. And so I begin to question who my audience is, what my purpose is, etc.

  2. It’s my second time around, and in light of the debates, I’m even more struck by how incisively she addresses them.

    It’s one of those rare books I wish I could absorb by osmosis.

    BTW, what type of fiction do you write?

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