Wiseblood Books

Our Essential Disfigurement and the Reparation of Fiction An Interview with Joseph O'Brien (Editor of the 2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction: Selected Short Stories)

Joshua Hren: First of all, short of a plenary indulgence, I can think of few gifts better than good fiction. On behalf of Dappled Things, many thanks to Tuscany Press for the gift of the finely crafted short-story “Eyes that Pour Forth,” which was recently published, along with the other prize-winning entries, in the short story collection you edited.

Joseph O’Brien: On behalf of our publisher Peter Mongeau, I thank you very much for the kind words. However, your readers should know that long before Tuscany Press came on the scene, Dappled Things has been almost single-handedly holding up the standard for budding Catholic writers. The fact that there is an interest these days among young Catholics to write fiction is due at least in part—and maybe even large part—to the presence of Dappled Things.

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The 2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction: Selected Short Stories is available from Amazon.com.

JH: Could you say a bit about the contest; what impetus drove Tuscany to solicit submissions? What were its stated qualifications and aims? Did you limit the contest to short pieces, or cast out the net to other species?

JO: The Tuscany Prize was the brainchild of Tuscany’s founder Peter Mongeau. I think it was partly an aesthetic decision and partly a business decision to offer a prize as part of the submission process. I think most writers with ink in their veins will write whether there’s money involved or not; but to make sure we were, as you put it, casting as large a net as possible, we wanted writer’s to have an incentive over and beyond the glory of being published. But it wasn’t simply to play on a writer’s raw avarice for filthy lucre that the Tuscany Prize was introduced. It is a welcome sign to all writers and those who wanted to be published: “Come on in.” I believe it was Catholic screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi who said something to the effect that if Catholics are serious about reinvigorating culture, they need to put their money where their mouth is and invest in the arts—especially the arts with a particularly Catholic bent. First and foremost, though, she stressed, it must be quality art. Not a half-baked effort with Catholic sprinkles on top. Tuscany Press couldn’t agree more. We believe that the Tuscany Prize is both an acknowledgement of the value of the arts and an investment in the arts for the betterment of the culture.

JH: In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor quips that the “fiction writer has a revolting attachment to the poor . . . I am very much afraid that to the fiction writer the fact that we shall always have the poor with us is a source of satisfaction, for it means, essentially, that he will always be able to find someone like himself. His concern with poverty is with a poverty fundamental to man. I believe that the basic experience of everyone is the experience of human limitation” (131). We see this spiritual impoverishment in Hazel Motes, anti-hero of Wise Blood, who, after a stint as an evangelizing atheist, blinds himself with lye in a grotesque act of asceticism and penitence. As the novel ends, Mrs. Flood looks into Motes’ hollowed out eyes, seeing there a startling “pin point” of light (120). While O’Connor’s novel ends with gouged out eyes, Karen Britten’s short story “Eyes That Pour Forth” opens with an almost uncanny image of blindness. Can you speak to the characterization of blindness in the story—both as a literal fact and in its metaphorical dimension? Blindness as a motif is as old as Tieresias, the sightless prophet of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, who with his famous wit condemns Oedipus’ claims to self-knowledge:

since thou hast not spared
To twit me with my blindness–thou hast eyes,
Yet see’st not in what misery thou art fallen…

How does “Eyes That Pour Forth” avoid hitting us over the head with blindness-as-symbol while nevertheless rendering this blindness as a “poverty fundamental to man,” an emboldened expression of human limitation?

JO: As I see it Lucy’s blindness is precisely what makes the story “go.” While it is recognized as a miracle in the story it is also accepted by the monks as an ordinary—and I almost want to say an inconvenient—component of life in the monastery. What Ms. Britten does is normalize the miracle to a certain degree—to a very large degree, in fact—and in so doing we the readers are lured into the story without feeling that the blindness is a trick or gimmick. It is the monks, then, not Lucy, whom we focus on—and their interaction with Lucy. Put another way, Lucy is constantly holding her eyes out for both the monks and for us the reader to “see” what she sees with the eyes of faith. And yet because the story does not resolve the issue of faith but only introduces it, the reader understands that miracles by themselves do not “convert” us—but only nudge us down a path that begins in hope, is cultivated in faith and consummated in charity. Something of the story reminds me of Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. In both stories, even though there is a miracle introduced (more obliquely in Hansen’s tale), the drama plays out on the human field. We see very human reactions to Lucy—and that’s what makes the story riveting.

JH: As you intimate, the meaning of her preserved vision is not relegated to the mystifying-miraculous, the fascination with mere spectacle that Christ was so displeased with as he moved about the earth healing us. It certainly moves Lucy beyond the “celebrity” status imposed on the strange “angel-man” from Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” In Márquez’s story, those who discover the old man with the wings lock him in a chicken coop and put him on display. In “Eyes That Pour Forth” the Franciscans strive to protect her from too much “publicity.” They scold her when she doesn’t say her prayers or when she tests their authority. They treat her tenderly, as family. But, if they recognize her vision as the result of a supernatural healing, they do not fixate on the wider implications. That is, not until the end. Honoring her desire to see the sea, Brother Michael drives her there and encourages her to walk freely along the water’s edge. She asks:

“Are there men here?”
“There might be. Don’t talk to them. Keep walking. They will think you’re not real, a figment of their imagination. Do you know what that means?”
“No,” she says.
“It means they won’t believe in you, and that will be fine because they’ll keep moving on with their lives. You will be free to wander.”

Brother Michael knows that for most people Lucy will be a scandal or a spectacle. Unlike Father Gonzaga in García Márquez’s tale, who questions the “miraculous” angel-man and holds him in utter incredulity because he cannot speak Latin, the Brother believes fervently in the authenticity of Lucy’s connection to the divine. Do you find that “Eyes That Pour Forth” pushes beyond the “magical realism” found in “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”? If so, how does the story achieve this without becoming an all-too-pious hagiography? In García Márquez’s story the question of the winged man’s identity consistently drives the dramatic action. How does Britten preserve dramatic action even as she insists on the veracity of the miracle almost from page one? Does Britten use Lucy’s capacity to see from gouged out eyes in order to suggest that, though poverty is fundamental to man, so is the Imago Dei?

JO: From what I understand of magical realism, Marquez, Allende, Rushdie, et al, were all looking for a way to place the miraculous within the context of the ordinary. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a good example of that. I tend to think that what Britten is after is exactly the opposite—placing the ordinary (monastery) in the context of the miraculous. It is for this reason, as you point out, that Britten keeps the reader involved in the story. There is no question about Lucy’s status—everyone in the story agrees that her continued faculty of sight is a miracle (even the suspicious town folk who, while not fully understanding, realize that Lucy is not ordinary). But Lucy has perhaps this much in common with Marquez’s “angel-man”: both serve in the story as prophets of sorts; they assert the necessity and miracle of life, being, existence, what have you, as a sort of first step toward understanding our place in the universe.

As for Lucy as broken-yet-whole, I like to think of her as a living, breathing, walking version of the Deesis mosaic in the Hagia Sophia—it is a picture broken by time and gravity and yet its brokenness seems to have become a part of its mystique. In the same way Lucy’s broken sight stands out in the story—not to draw attention to either our brokenness or our wholeness, but to both aspects of humanity at once. Lucy shows us ourselves—sinful creatures broken but not utterly so—capable of cooperating with grace but incapable in self-perfection.

JH: This story, set in Tanzania and setting its gaze on the deathless question concerning sufferings that are both horrific and, in their contexts, “ordinary,” finds kinship with the Say You’re One of Them, the breakthrough short story collection of Nigerian priest and author Uwem Akpan. In a 2010 review Katy Carl notes that, “While Akpan is not answering Ivan Karamazov’s anguished cry about the suffering child, he does seem to be framing the problem of evil in that notorious character’s terms: What does it mean to believe in God in a world where such things happen? His answer certainly has to do with innocence. In a way, it is precisely the innocence of the narrating protagonists that keeps the outrage of these stories from being exploitative. A suffering child is many times less likely to violate his own dignity than even the most caring and pitying of adults. Akpan understands this and therefore lets the children speak for themselves. In so doing he avoids infecting the stories with the adult attitudes and emotions—positive or negative, wise or sappy—that might distract either from the content of the stories or from their immediacy. He allows the reader to supply those emotions instead, thereby increasing their force.”

Lucy’s innocence is a large part of what what makes “Eyes That Pour Forth” work. Her innocence of her suffering’s singularity and implications counter the “adult attitudes and emotions” that this same suffering incites in characters like Brother Michael and Father Thomas. At a crucial moment in the story Father Michael collapses into his own most personal cross—his memory of a failed marriage and his thwarted desire to bring children into the world. He can’t resist the temptation to read Lucy as his own child. Brother Lawrence “hasn’t been able to see the importance of his vocation in years. Rituals that he once took solace in are now redundant and he doesn’t know how to deal with complacency . . .” so that, in one of the stories’ characteristically striking phrasings, “now all he feels is the implacable stare of the wooden man hanging from the wooden cross” (6-7). How does Britten’s story bring the adults’ “common suffering” worked out in loneliness into efficacious contact with Lucy’s overwhelming suffering mediated by innocence? So that Lucy, as the protagonist, is certainly central, but the other characters are not “extras.”

JO: What struck me about the monks in the story was Britten’s imaginative ability to show the quotidian—even in the presence of this miracle—to the extent that at one point, when another miracle occurs at the monastery, it’s as if, taking T.S. Eliot’s dictum to heart, the monks “cannot bear too much reality.” They have one miracle already, thank you very much. But it’s not that the monks are ungrateful—they seem to take it as a further sign that Lucy is what she claims to be, but they also take it as a matter of course—a reaction which bears resemblance to their daily ministrations to the poor and suffering.

The suffering the monks endure and the suffering they witness seem to coalesce in the person of Lucy. Each of the monks in the story struggles to make sense of the great physical suffering of those they care for and the equally great turmoil of soul which has brought them to Tanzania to pray, teach, serve and, in a word, to learn how to love. It’s almost as if Lucy is teaching them how to balance the suffering they see and the suffering they experience —or, to borrow from T.S. Eliot again, she teaches them how “to care and not to care.” The true benefit of her miracle, it seems, is the ability to take in the self as other; the subjective as objective; the immanent as transcendent. However you want to put that, she has a unique gift – and this gift, the ability to see herself as others see her, it seems to me, is the mystery at the heart of the story.

JH: “Eyes That Pour Forth” heads a published collection of ten short stories. On the one hand, the terseness of the short story, its formal hallmark, has always been tied to readers who, for one reason or another, devote shorter periods of time to taking in their tales. In her recent New York Times article “A Good Fit For Small Screens, Short Stories are Selling,” Leslie Kaufman contends that “In recent decades the traditional outlets for individual short stories have dwindled, with literary magazines closing or shrinking. But the Internet has created an insatiable maw to feed.” Cal Morgan, editorial director of Harper Perennial Originals, agrees:“The Internet has made people a lot more open to reading story forms that are different from the novel, and you see a generation of writers very engaged in experimentation.” In publishing a collection of short stories, Tuscany Press clearly believes that the short story is far from dead. Do you resonate with the sense that the short story is not only not-dead, but in fact a sort of choice genre for our times—the comeback kid of literature?

JO: That’s good news about short stories; it reminds me of what the late Joseph Brodsky said in one of his essays when explaining why his critical work was devoted almost exclusively to lyric poems. He said he was too old to worry about longer literary forms such as the novel. In the same way, it makes sense that, in an age where Kindle is replacing codex and computer icon coopting the colophon, short is beautiful.

At the same time (and I’m going to get in trouble saying this with friends of mine who are writing novels) in a certain sense the short story is a more difficult form to master than the novel. It is not simply a “short novel”—any more than a novel is a “long short story.” I think that the impulses are different – and by that I mean that the short story writer is more akin to the challenges of concentration and compression experienced by the lyric poet while the novelist assumes many of the responsibilities of the epic poet. One professor I had in college explained that an epic was the imitation of a complete psychic action—that is, the complete action of a soul from point A to point Z. Take Achilles, for example—we see every facet of his anger, from soup to nuts, within the space of 24 books. A short story, then, I would propose, much like a lyric poem, is more the imitation of an “undergoing” than a “doing.” O’Connor’s grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a good example. In the end, it’s not what she does that matters (in fact she’s helpless to do anything) so much as what she comes to understand about herself and her world. I don’t want to hold to this thesis too strictly—because there are always going to be exceptions and obviously every short story ever written doesn’t end like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but I think that’s what distinguishes a short story for the most part, from longer forms of fiction. Therefore, the ability to capture that “undergoing” in a short space is more demanding, it seems, for the writer. For that reason too, if we agree that the spirit of our age is more lyric (short bursts of imagery – those that need convincing only need look at current TV commercials) than epic, the short story is the thing.

JH: As a prize-winning journalist, you have a keen sense of what is needed to capture, in a concise manner, the reader’s attention. Does the short story share certain characteristics of journalistic writing?

JO: This journalistic component is definitely necessary for a short story to succeed, but it is also true of fiction in general. Some writers I’ve worked with somehow see journalistic “tricks” and “formulae” as somehow cheapening or playing false to the art. In fact, this is the basic level at which the writer must meet the reader: answering the famous “W” questions “Who? What? Where? When? Why?” satisfies that most fundamental human desire to know. Without getting this right, no story will hold a reader’s interest for long. William Faulkner once said that if a writer can master the basic formula of a newspaper story he can pretty much write anything he wants.

JH: I’d never heard that from Faulkner, but I think many of that generation worked under that same principle. Of course his contemporary “brother-rival” writer Ernest Hemingway, whose contribution to the craft of the short story could not be understated except that, the master of understatement himself, he might rather that I be a bit more muted in my praise, worked first as a journalist in both Chicago and for the Kansas City Star, before he turned more seriously to fiction. I have no doubt that this work helped him gain a habitual economy of language, among other things. And I am not original in claiming this. In a Paris Review interview Hemingway’s questioner brings up the same idea: that Hemingway preserved from his journalism days the method and principle that “experience is communicated by small details, intimately preserved, which have the effect of indicating the whole by making the reader conscious of what he had been aware of only subconsciously.”

JO: As an addendum to Faulkner’s charge, I would say that any writer who wants to write good fiction ought to look at the modern masters of journalism, including Joan Didion, John McPhee, and especially Joseph Mitchell.

At the same time, the short story writer (or novelist) has to transcend the realm of the journalist. As an editor, what I look for in a story is beauty, first and foremost; put another way, I look for the writer to show me what he sees, to make me see the story unfolding. In a way it’s fitting that Lucy should be the character in the first ever Tuscany Press award because, if I can appropriate her for a moment, she does exactly what every fiction writer ought to do—she holds her eyes out to show us what she sees. The old adage taught in every creative writing class is “Show, don’t tell.” What that means is that the reader wants to—and ought to—be delighted first. That’s the first job of any good story. Does it delight? Whether it’s a book, a live storyteller or a recording of a story, we don’t expect moralizing and we don’t want philosophizing—we want a story—a firsthand account of people, places, times and events spooled out in such a way that by the end we know something we didn’t know before we began reading. We want characters doing interesting things that we can relate to and who will remain with us long after we’ve closed the book, threw water on the campfire, or shut off the CD player.

JH: You’ve helped us to distinguish that which, besides its suitability to the Internet age, with its onslaught of information and its frittering attention spans, distinguishes the short story as a genre. How do the tales in Tuscany’s Selected Short Stories embody this distinction?

JO: The short story must demonstrate this mastery of “showing” with the eyes of the narrator. The late novelist John Gardner has a great way of describing this narrative approach. He said in The Art of Fiction that a writer enters into a contract with the reader whereby the writer agrees to maintain the “fictional dream” by avoiding all those excesses and defects in writing which place barriers between the reader and the story, thereby distracting or even destroying the reader’s attention. A piece of fiction must have an immediacy so that the writer and reader can meet eye to eye, whether hunkering down in heat of battle on the plains of Waterloo, lounging on a shag rug with a double martini and a beautiful woman, or breathing for the first time the strange air of a distant planet.

JH: In a recent post on the Dappled Things homepage, our president Bernardo Aparicio leveled the following wager: Faith in Fiction: Should We Shout or Whisper? He took his cue from a publicized debate between Image Editor-in-Chief Gregory Wolfe and Paul Elie, author of, among other things, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. Aparicio suggests that both writers work from fundamentally similar ground, even though Elie’s “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” is a bit more apocalyptic than Wolfe’s “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World.” For Aparicio, “part of what Elie is saying is precisely that, to a significant extent, when it comes to literary culture, it is Christian literature that finds itself ‘surrounded’ rather than doing the ‘surrounding’; it is most often the one responding, rather than the one being responded to.” How does Tuscany Press respond to Flannery O’Connor’s manifesto: “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures”? As you worked through the slush of story submission, did you open your ears for fiction that “shouts” or “whispers”? Or do you find this a false dichotomy: did you open yourself to both? Could you speak to the merits and demerits of each approach?

JO: In a certain sense, this question is the most important being asked right now in Catholic fiction—and so it’s no accident that two of the heaviest heavyweights in the field right now, Mr. Elie and Mr. Wolfe, are taking it up in debate. Here at Tuscany Press, though, the first editorial question is not whether it whispers or shouts—but whether it makes any noise at all. In other words, just as the storyteller most show us what he “sees,” the finished story must speak with a specifically Catholic voice—it must be telling a story that necessarily presumes that its characters possess a soul intricately knit into a body, that body and soul are in desperate need of help, and that the source of such help is as mysterious as a ransom note and ordinary as a park bench. How such help comes—whether in a thunderclap or a whisper—I think the ten stories we’ve assembled in our book run the gamut. Even within the stories, shouts and murmurs abound: you could say that “Eyes That Pour Forth,” for instance, begins with a resounding flourish of kettle drums but ends in a gentle oboe adagio fading into the distance . . . .

Of course that doesn’t really answer your question—except by way of sitting on the fence. But I suppose if it came down to it a story will stand or fall on its own merits—whether it shouts like Flannery O’Connor or whispers like J. F. Powers.

JH: Well, I tend to agree with your sentiments. Too much rigidity in one direction or another, rigidity based on a sort of “surveyistic” finding about our times is doomed to be more a marketing strategy looking for a target demographic than an artistic truth. I’d like to expand the question from the content of the stories to the very identity of Tuscany Press. Reviewing the 2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction: Selected Short Stories, Joseph Bottum writes that “a new Catholic culture has gradually emerged in the United States, . . . The establishment of the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction has called forth that art, allowing readers to discern the new Catholic cultural flowering. And if this year’s prizewinning short stories are any guide, Catholic art in America is headed, once again, toward great things.” What goods and what limitations emerge from an explicitly “Catholic” literary production? When Dorothy Day edited and authored the first edition of The Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin scolded its too-broad appeal, saying that “everybody’s paper is nobody’s paper.” Tuscany is certainly not “everybody’s” press, and its distinct identity may be a real merit. On the other hand, one could contend that “A Catholic Press is, well, a Catholic Press—a press that limits itself to a parochial corner of the literary scene.” How does Tuscany Press respond to the familiar fear of becoming a Catholic ghetto? Everyone from O’Connor to Graham Greene to Francois Mauriac took issue, for one reason or another, with being labeled “Catholic” writers: are we then doomed to be the ones “responding to” rather than “responding,” or can an explicitly Catholic literary culture contribute to the wider reparation of faith (or faithlessness) in fiction?

JO: With regard to avoiding the “Catholic ghetto”—and by that I imagine you mean a subgenre like “Amish young adult vampire fiction”—the most important thing for any Catholic artist to do is to first and foremost understand and cultivate his art. Tacked up on the wall near his workspace, every writer ought to have a copy of W. B. Yeats’ poem “Under Ben Bulben:”

Irish poets, earn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,

These are the lines that induced the likes of Seamus Heaney to take up pen and write. Of course, writing isn’t just for the Irish anymore—at least not since the Irish monks put away their styli and wax tablets—but the point is well taken. There is another passage in the poem which is also worth noting:

Poet and sculptor, do the work,
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did.
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.

Besides indicating poetry’s (and by extension, fiction’s) affinity with the visual arts (the “seeing” I spoke about) and the vitality of tradition in artistic development, Yeats is reminding those who wish to bring beauty into the world that its ultimate expression is found in the intersection of the human and the divine. But it’s those “cradles” he mentions that interest me as an editor. The nursery of thought—the imagination—is the vital link between the work of the poet and “what his great forefathers did.” It is also this vital link which will insure a wider appeal than simply to, as you put it, residents in the Catholic ghetto. If “filled right,” the imagination of the writer can find ways of introducing God to man and man to God without hitting him over the head with a Bible or a catechism.

For instance, it still amazes me that Walker Percy and J. F. Powers won back-to-back the National Book Award (The Moviegoer, 1962; Morte D’Urban, 1963). I like to think they serve as a sort of “Constantine’s cross” for other Catholic writers and artists. It’s as if their achievements announce a slightly revised version of God’s famous revelation to the Roman Empire—“In Hoc Signo Vinces.” Along with such figures as Flannery O’Connor (who would also win the NBA posthumously for her collected stories in 1972), Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Percy and Powers serve as witness to the fact that, far from being reducible to a niche or “ghetto” market, good Catholic storytelling remains a vital part of the culture.

As for whether Catholic writers—or writers who are Catholic—are doomed to walk the halls outside the offices of editors for the mega-publishing houses, searching for their lost royalties, I can’t say. I can say that the fragmentation of literature into subgenres had less to do with Catholic claims on reality and more to do with the general loss of any sort of faith among those readers more interested in reading about Amish teenage vampires than about Odysseus, Antigone, Hamlet, and Elizabeth Bennet. In a sense, Catholic fiction is more needed now than ever.

At the same time, I have to admit that as an editor I’m not as concerned that contemporary culture understands the Catholic part of Catholic fiction as I am that contemporary Catholics understand the fiction part of Catholic fiction. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a Catholic friend who despised Brideshead Revisited. “There wasn’t a single likeable character,” my friend argued. It was a harsh criticism but one which needed a response. While I acknowledged de gustibus and all that, I suspected my friend was expecting from Waugh something closer to that safe and simplistic Catholic ghetto fiction of which you speak. To a certain extent I sympathize with my friend and others like him: life is messy enough; do we really need to be reminded of it in our literature?

But, I argued, Waugh has something to say about that messiness—and we are better off attending to it than not. The genius of Brideshead, I pointed out, was not only in Waugh’s creating such a variety of believable characters but in having them respond in such a variety of believable ways when confronted with two unassailable facts of reality: that, first, the universe was created by a loving, intelligent God, and, second, the universe possesses a profoundly moral component to which we must assent and conform. That this was done in an artful and believable way was not simply icing on the cake but the whole cause for the party which occasioned the cake in the first place.

On the other hand, a fiction which attempts to make these points by placing a premium on artless moralizing and superficial catechizing tends to result in a freakish perspective on humanity which makes the Marchmains, the Whiskey Priest and Hazel Motes look downright normal.

In the end, though, whether it shouts or whispers, modern fiction cannot stand on its own. Without a readership that is widely read in the classics, modern fiction will become increasingly obscure to the regular reader. In one of her least-quoted essays, O’Connor says as much when she all but outright states that students ought not to be reading Flannery O’Connor in their English courses —they should be reading Homer and Shakespeare and Dickens. Knowing the tradition from which modern literature springs, as the writers who show up in the pages of Dappled Things clearly do, will better prepare both reader and writer for understanding modern fiction—shouts, whispers, and all.

Comments

  1. You guys are sooooo intelligent. Love you both!

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