Flannery O’Connor earned her undergraduate degree in social sciences at Georgia State College for Women, a teachers’ college. O’Connor considered that career, but was “rather glad things didn’t work out that way.” She entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the rest is literary history.
Although O’Connor admitted that she was “in a state of pristine innocence” when it came to teaching, she had many opinions about the profession. In “The Teaching of Literature,” an address to English teachers later collected into an essay, O’Connor assails the “utilitarian” approach of doctoral studies in English, where it is assumed that novels “must do something, rather than be something.” She expects more of English teachers, who are “a sort of middle-man” in the “standing dispute between the novelist and the public.” Aimee Bender says O’Connor’s voice “often has a scolding edge,” but teachers at all levels would do well to listen.
In O’Connor’s experience, teachers often fell short of helping students see that the “business of fiction [is] to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” Her words were a Southern, Irish-Catholic take on a phrase from The Ivory Tower, an unfinished novel by Henry James. For O’Connor, “the mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.”
Her own teachers found ways to “ignore the nature of literature” by instead discussing literary history, examining the psychology of the author, or considering a work’s social application, as if it were a policy document. In fact, if a teacher were “astute and energetic,” she could “integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.”
Halfway through “The Teaching of Literature,” O’Connor stops talking about instruction and begins talking about the real focus of her discussion, something that sounds very close to her own work: “Possibly the question most often asked these days about modern fiction is why do we keep on getting novels about freaks and poor people, engaged always in some violent, destructive action, when, actually, in this country, we are rich and strong and democratic and the man in the street is possessed of a general good-will which overflows in all directions.” O’Connor rejects such a sensibility that attempts to “separate mystery from manners in fiction, and thereby to make it more palatable to the modern taste.” The novelist must never be asked to “begin with an examination of statistics rather than with an examination of conscience.” The novelist, and perhaps the teacher, “uses his eyes” in another way, in which “judgment is implicit in the act of seeing. His vision cannot be detached from his moral sense.” No tidy literature, and no over-planned, programmatic lessons. The novelist and teacher are both charged with making messes suffused with grace.
In “Flannery O’Connor’s Writing: A Guide for the Perplexed,” (pdf) Michael M. Jordan explains that O’Connor should remain on syllabi because of her “hard yet radiant wit,” her original and powerful representation of a Christian artistic vision, and for her storytelling method, which “uses violence, exaggeration, distortion to shock us into a serious consideration of religious dogmas and mysteries.” To the uninitiated reader or student, these dynamic elements often cause confusion.
As a Catholic, I find O’Connor less perplexing than illuminating. This is not to say that Catholics own her writing. A very lapsed Catholic, Joyce Carol Oates, says it well: “To readers and critics to whom life is not at all mysterious, but simply a matter of processes, her writing will seem unnaturally rigorous, restrained, even compulsive. It is certainly ‘neurotic.’ However, if one believes that life is essentially mysterious, then literature is a celebration of that mystery, a pushing toward the ‘limits of mystery.’”
Jordan reminds us that O’Connor believed “fiction is art, not primarily moral instruction, not a type of catechism.” That refusal to be clean and tidy in her fiction has unsettled readers and critics on all sides. O’Connor explained that her “violent literary means” were necessary to communicate to the world of her fiction to a secular audience, a readership often “hostile” to religious fiction.
Because her religion so profoundly formed her cultural and artistic senses, O’Connor is difficult for most students. In fact, many of the essential writers my students find the most difficult are Catholics: Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, James Joyce, and Toni Morrison. This is not to claim that their Catholicism makes them innately worthy of study — a claim that would be laughed away by O’Connor — rather, that their works speak to the diversity and complexity of sacramental visions of the world. In an educational sense, the extent of their religious practice is less important than the appropriation of Catholic iconography, symbolism, narrative tradition, and even the ritual language of Mass. Whether respectful or parodic of the Word, they all have been formed by it. O’Connor was the most publicly Catholic of the bunch, and, notwithstanding Pynchon’s eccentricities, the strangest on the page. Which, I think, makes her worth teaching.
Writer Constance Hale first encountered Flannery O’Connor’s work at Princeton in the late 1970s. Princeton started admitting women in 1969, but the campus was “still a male bastion,” where men greatly outnumbered women on syllabi. An English major who wanted to write, Hale “was aching to read literature written by women, and I was desperate to find teachers who could help me formulate some of the ideas that preoccupied me (like, Who are the muses of female poets? Or, Why do I love Virginia Woolf so much? Or, If women’s literature is invisible in the academy, where does that put me as a young writer?)” Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop were given cursory coverage, but writers like Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser were absent. Hale asked her professor why. His answer: “We teach the canon.”
Hale and other students “scoured the syllabi of every English course taught,” discovering that other than courses in the 19th century novel, women were largely absent. The department chair was sympathetic to their concerns. By the end of that semester, a course titled “The Southern Short Story” was created, including fiction by Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.
Now O’Connor is a mainstay of college courses, but still requires context and explanation. Fr. Mark Bosco, S.J., a professor of English and Theology at Loyola University, Chicago, stresses her status as a Southern writer, as a woman in a male-dominated publishing world, and her “identity as a devout Catholic whose faith informed everything she did and ordered all her understanding of the power of art.” At the start of a course, his students know “very little” about O’Connor, “except that I am fanatical about her work.” Fr. Bosco teaches her stories in series of four, beginning with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and sometimes “The River,” but says little “to allow students to register their own reactions to O’Connor’s works.” Only after the second story does he discuss “her Catholic imagination, of the way sacramentality is a kind of aesthetic strategy in her work, and how this strategy is so akin to art and metaphor.” He ends with the existential and religious discourses of “Parker’s Back” (pdf) and “Revelation” (pdf). This is when his classes finally “get” O’Connor. As one student told him, “not knowing the religious aspects of her stories is like not knowing that there is cake under the icing.”
One refrain I heard when speaking with those who teach O’Connor is the need to acknowledge her complexity. Writer Paul Lisicky, who teaches in the Rutgers-Camden MFA program, says “it’s so easy to simplify O’Connor. Even sophisticated readers are prone to missing out on all the nuances in the work. First timers tend to read the stories as satire. Yes O’Connor is poking fun, but she also believes in her characters’ capacity to change–that’s what distinguishes her from a satirist. In the classroom I spend a lot of time talking about all the complexities inside those moments of grace. Those moments (not ‘Why you’re one of God’s babies’ but ‘Why you’re one of my babies’) always manage to demolish a simple interpretation, and that’s what’s astonishing about them. You can’t tame the stories, they refuse to sit still, refuse good manners, and you’re not paying full attention if you’re not destroyed a little by them. Well, destroyed and vitalized.”
Destroyed and vitalized is the best phrase I’ve heard to explain the redemptive power of O’Connor’s fiction. I mean redemptive in the Catholic sense, but more widely so in the narrative sense. The sheer originality of her stories shows students how amplifying their surrounding world can make great fiction. Now, 50 years after her death, when she is a staple of syllabi and the very canon that previously excluded her and other women, it is most important to stress fresh approaches to her work within the classroom.
This, of course, begins in the way we write about O’Connor. Two recent works of note are Carlene Bauer’s epistolary novel, Frances and Bernard, a fictionalization of the correspondence and friendship of O’Connor and the poet Robert Lowell, and RT Smith’s The Red Wolf, a book of poems that effectively channel O’Connor’s persona. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a consideration of O’Connor along with Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, remains an essential reference. One of the most original examinations of her work and influence is A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America, a sequence of essays by David Griffith. Griffith examines American conceptions of violence in the art and thought of Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, in films like Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet, and The Exorcist, and in everyday life (one essay is titled “Regarding the Electric Chair My Wife’s College Boyfriend Built in His House”). Griffith’s locus is the Abu Ghraib prison photographs. He thinks O’Connor would have found them “grotesque,” but in her own definition, that the grotesque “makes visible hidden ‘discrepancies’ between character and belief.” Abu Ghraib unwound American innocence through shock, in the same metaphorical way her fiction disrupts and disturbs us. Similarly, American public reaction to the photographs — the tendency to identify the perpetrators as in no way representative of “us” — is reflective of O’Connor’s “judgment of what she saw as the modern attitude toward ‘redemption’: Everyone wants it, but no one stops to consider its real cost.”
Griffith now directs the creative writing program at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, but first taught O’Connor to gifted high school students in Pennsylvania. They were “savvy readers,” “precocious storytellers,” and “astute observers of literary conventions,” but they “struggled” with meaning; they “wanted to leap straight for it and pin it down, like it was the jugular and then sit back satisfied once they felt they had punctured it.” Biographical and cultural context was essential. Students needed to know “how lupus required her to live with her mother on their small Georgia farm; how being a well-read, well-catechized Catholic in central Georgia might cause you to regard Protestants; and how her faith lead her to understand the work of writing.” Those biographical mini-lectures, as well as excerpts from workslike “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” (pdf) and “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” helped students understand that O’Connor “felt that what happens to the Grandmother in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ was a moment of Grace.” Students soon “fell in love with Flannery” more than the work of other writers. Her fiction revealed that the best artists held “a sense of urgency, a sense that what they are doing is the working-out of larger, personal concerns and obsessions.” Although the vast majority of his students did not share O’Connor’s religion, her Catholic worldview–an “Augustinian view that all is sacred except sin, or the Kierkegaardian view that even the man knocking at the door of the brothel is looking for God”–so fully informs her work that students benefit from observing a writer suffused with a passion, “that there is a definite philosophy and worldview there underneath all these wooden-legged philosophers, and one-armed hoboes, and Polish refugee farmhands.” Griffith teaches O’Connor “because I love her work and think it is important, but also because it helps young writers who might feel they have strong convictions about the world see that the next step is seeing what happens when you test them in the crucible of fiction.”
Bryan Giemza, author of Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South, teaches O’Connor’s fiction at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. He admits that her stories “are getting harder to teach” as students become less biblically-literate; “when Manly Pointer makes off with Hulga/Joy’s leg in ‘Good Country People,’ (pdf) they don’t necessarily see it as an illustration of the importance of losing the limb that bars entry to the kingdom of God.” Giemza explains that O’Connor’s “droll humor” often happens when “scripture is misquoted, misappropriated, or misunderstood to suit the purposes of a character.” In that way, students are similar to O’Connor’s contemporary readers, so the hard work of teaching “is helping them to see how often they are tricked into thinking a character is repellent–only to see their own face reflected there. And to demonstrate that grace by its nature is hard, and that hope is by nature a test of faith.”
He recommends her recently released Prayer Journal and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as good starting points for students. Her journal allows him to “point out the various prayer traditions she canvasses and how she shared in the aspirations and worries of someone their age, albeit someone with an incredible depth of field, spiritually speaking. She commands respect that way.” I like Giemza’s method in teaching her popular story. He tells students “things tend towards their ends, that we are creatures of habit, and that virtue has to be practiced. I give them a series of statements to respond to, like ‘I’m basically a good person.’ A majority of my students agree with that position, and aren’t aware that it flies in the face of orthodoxy, and certainly goes against Flannery O’Connor’s belief. They’re usually stunned to learn that no less an authority than Christ said that no man is good. And those who condemn the grandmother have to be shown their own warts, just like those who despise the mother in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge,’ (pdf) with her patronizing coin, need to be reminded of the story of the widow’s mite.”
O’Connor is one of the best at peeling back our public covers and showing those warts. Like so many writers chided for their disturbing content, criticisms of her work are often less about the texts themselves, and more about our refusals as readers, students, and teachers to examine our own lives. Perhaps even more than her odd characters, it is the “stark racism” of O’Connor’s world that pushes away some of Giemza’s students. But Giemza doesn’t want them to blink; “the danger . . . is that students who (think they) live in a post-racial age must still contend with the sins of the fathers, and I am surprised by how many can blithely accept that those sins have been expiated. Perhaps they don’t see its urgency, but here in the region that helped the nation understand its first fall (i.e. the legacies of our foundation in slavery), we have a duty to try to come to grips with it. It remains the essence of the fallen-ness in her work, and its insistence that God is no respecter of persons or the hierarchies of the temporal order, which can be inverted at a stroke.”
Flannery O’Connor makes an appearance in White Girls, a collection of fact and fiction by Hilton Als. In “The Lonesome Place,” Als explains that O’Connor’s “black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world.” She portrayed her black characters in a more authentic way than William Faulkner; she “didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply–and complexly–drew from life.” And O’Connor’s racists were realer, more evil than Faulkner’s bigots: they were the nice ladies who patronized black children on the bus, or the old woman “who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the ‘pickaninnies’ of her antebellum youth.” Those women “wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does.”
Like many, I introduce O’Connor with “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but I think “Parker’s Back” delivers the best intellectual slap. The story’s theological pivot–a misunderstanding of a character’s tattoo of Christ as an act of idolatry rather than iconography–can be explained to students once the story is experienced on a dramatic level.
The story shows how O’Connor’s understanding of bodies was formed by her Catholicism, and through her own suffering from lupus. She refined “Parker’s Back” while home at Andalusia twenty pounds lighter after four blood transfusions, and finished the story within a month of her death in August, 1964. Biographer Brad Gooch notes that O’Connor “devoted every inch of her consciousness” to “Parker’s Back” and another story, “Judgment Day,” and that dedication shows. Parker’s body, identity, and soul transform within the story. He never has a sense of “wonder in himself” until he sees a performer tattooed head to foot. A lapsed Methodist, Parker undergoes a spiritual awakening when he watches the performer “[flex] his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own.” The sight of this man is the first clue for Parker “that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed.”
Parker soon gets a tattoo, and the process is Catholic in sentiment: “It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing.” Those tattoos are the first thing that simultaneously attracts and repels his future wife, Sarah Ruth. She is a fundamentalist caricature who “insisted that the pictures on the skin were vanity of vanities” and “thought churches were idolatrous.” In order to keep her around, though, Parker decides to get a religious tattoo on his back.
This is where I pause the story. If the students have been paying close attention, they should recognize this is a fool’s errand. Sarah Ruth rejects her husband’s tattoos not because of their subjects, but their defacement of his body. Parker misunderstands this. His conversation with the tattoo artist encapsulates the entire story:
The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”
“God,” Parker said.
“Father, Son or Spirit?”
“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”
Parker is the classic O’Connor character, a man who cannot “see” or understand those who surround him, whose blindness hides God. His large tattoo requires two days of work, and so he spends the night at a Christian mission, where the “only light was from a phosphorescent cross glowing at the end of the room.” He can only see the “little red and blue and ivory and saffron squares” of the work in progress, not the Christ to come.
When Parker returns home, Christ on his back, sensitive readers know the reunion will not end well. O’Connor is not a writer of mundane surprises. She is a writer of transformations. Sarah Ruth refuses to open the door for her husband, saying “It ain’t nobody I know,” which symbolically could refer to Parker or to the tattooed image of Christ on his back. She screams: “God? God don’t look like that!” Parker asks how Sarah Ruth would know the look of God, and she responds “he don’t look . . . He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” She beats Parker with a broom until “large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.”
The final paragraph is pure O’Connor: “She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was–who called himself Obadiah Elihue–leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.”
Flannery O’Connor reminds us that the best way to read a story is to encounter the work on its own merits. A student, O’Connor writes, needs to have the tools of understanding “proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft. They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story.” O’Connor’s interior idea of art helps literature students experience words and not merely project theories. Her fiction helps young writers craft stories and not sermons, religious or otherwise. She warns “for the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure, it must first be a discipline.” We might think her intonations stern, but we are lucky to have her as a teacher.
Two years in print, David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, retains its provocative allure as he explores what he argues is the arbitrary distinction between non-fiction and fiction, what’s real and what is made up. His manifesto is still fun and easy to read –– open up to any page and you get an aphorism or mini-essay, inciting you to rally to his cause. Here’s a short entry I picked by randomly opening the book, on pg. 133:
A conversational dynamic––the desire for contact––is ingrained in the form.
Interesting, and it certainly makes sense (he’s talking about non-fiction), but who said that? To find out, you can turn to the list of citations in the Appendix, which Shields introduces with a disclaimer, saying the Random House lawyers forced him to put the citations in, as he prefers you not to know who wrote what, and you’ll see that number 391 is associated with Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. No page number is given, for this or any of the other citations, but if you enter key terms from the passage into Amazon.com’s “Look Inside The Book,” you’ll find the source, on page xxv of Lopate’s book, which Shields truncated but otherwise didn’t change. This is interesting, since, as Shields admits, sometimes he rewrites his quotes to suit his artistic goals.
According to his interview with The Millions (Part II), Shields doesn’t encourage these investigations into the sources of his material. He says:
My ideal reader is not going to be a quote-spotter or a cite-sifter. I very much want the reader to experience a certain vertigo when reading the book—is this Shields? Is it Chung? [Our interviewer]. Is it some odd combination of the two? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it all of us?
Shields wants us, as he advises in his disclaimer in the Appendix, to “simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter” and cut out the citation pages and read the book as he originally intended. But isn’t this part of the conversational dynamic, as well, to follow his quotes and appropriations to the original sources, to get further provoked, entertained, and delighted? And why should I listen to Shields, anyway? He clearly takes delight in blurring the distinction between truth and fiction, even suggesting that he sometimes lies. Who made him the boss?
When I sat down to talk to Paul Elie about his new book, Reinventing Bach, I had a question for him that was inspired by Shields’ book: I wanted to ask if he believed that writing about his experience and passion for Bach in such a direct and palpable way satisfied the reader’s hunger for the reality that Shields is talking about, that if he believed that by cutting through the obfuscations of most biographies with their mounds of academic detail, be brought us closer to the “real” experience. But Elie brought up Shields before I did, to lament how Shields not only misquoted him in Reality Hunger, but also gravely misrepresented the overall intent of his work, and how recently this has led to another author, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, perpetuating this misrepresentation in his new book, A Sense of Direction. I followed the trail of the citations to trace how the original source in Elie’s book morphed via Shields to reach the pages of Lewis-Kraus, and see for myself whether Elie was justified in accusing Shields of falsifying his work.
Let’s start the investigation with the entry in question in Shields’s manifesto, on page 182:
Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always secondhand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.
When I read the manifesto for the first time, over a year ago, I was constantly flipping back and forth between the entries and citations, and learned that 547 was from Paul Elie’s first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which was, unlike most of the entries, from a book I’d actually read. I didn’t look up the source of the quote, though, not then –– the subtitle of Elie’s first book was An American Pilgrimage, so the passage was resonant of his subject matter, at least at a glance. And if the stridency or negativity of the passage set off any warning bells, I don’t remember them, though I may indeed have experienced a tinge of the vertigo that Shields says he likes to provoke, as the passage is not characteristic of Elie’s book, which wasn’t a polemic with a negative spin. It’s anything but. I should have been astute enough to realize that “We’re doomed to an imitation of life” wasn’t something Elie was likely to have ever written, but I was probably too excited to keep reading the manifesto to find out what cool passage-citations I’d discover next. In retrospect, I wish I’d slowed down and read more carefully.
Using “Look Inside the Book” again, I entered different search terms from Shields’s passage to find the source of his entry in Elie’s book –– “contemporary culture” yielded zero results, but “spoiled by self-consciousness” led me page 278, to a discussion of Walker Percy’s essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” which Elie described as “an essay about the ways language stands between the self and reality.” Elie summarizes and comments on a story Percy tells in his essay about tourists struggling to find an authentic experience, including an American couple who “leave town, get lost, and stumble on some natives performing a ‘corn dance’ in a remote village.” The couple, according to Percy’s story, convinced this was the authentic experience they were looking for, bring an ethnologist back with them, to validate it and get his approval. Then comes the encapsulated inspiration for Shield’s entry. Elie writes:
Percy’s point –– in the language of pilgrimage –– is that the modern predicament makes pilgrimage impossible. In the modern world (now generally called postmodern), all experience is always secondhand, planned, and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare authentically direct experience is spoiled by modern self-consciousness. The modern person is doomed to an imitation of life; the self cannot escape itself and know the world or the Other.
Let’s compare Elie’s original passage and Shields’s subsequent riff, restated here so you don’t have to scroll up and down.
Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always secondhand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.
You might argue that Shields keeps the gist of the original, and, like any good aphorist, even improves on the point being made by streamlining the main ideas. Shields changes the existential term “modern predicament” to the easier-to-relate to “contemporary culture,” in order to paint a more tangible villain for the crime, and he also gets rid of the religious aspect of the passage by editing out the last part: “the self cannot escape itself and know the world or the Other” –– meaning God or the divine. Nor does he bother including anything from the subsequent paragraph, which introduces Elie’s hopeful counter perspective –– “The self can try, however. That is Percy’s real point.” As he does throughout the book, Elie offers a brilliant, nuanced evocation of a great writer’s ideas –– in this case, Walker Percy’s –– from various angles.
In addition to extracting the quote from a larger narrative and changing words, Shields also purges any reference to the original source of these ideas: Walker Percy himself. So instead of us readers clearly understanding that in the passage Elie is not presenting his own argument, but clearly providing a summarization and commentary on Walker Percy’s essay, we are led to believe through the citation that Elie himself argued for, believed, and was trying to convince us that “we’re doomed to an imitation of life.”
To get at the nuance of this is difficult without reading Elie’s book, but trust me, Elie is not saying “we’re doomed to an imitation of life.” As he stated in our interview, “the thrust of both my books is that you can live authentically and the obvious fact that experience is mediated to us is not necessarily crippling. It’s often enabling.”
But what’s the harm? Shields told us what he was up to, in that disclaimer in the Appendix, that in his book he is appropriating and plagiarizing and us not knowing when and where is part of the fun. And if Elie has a right to be offended, was it even Shields’s fault? Why not blame the Random House attorneys who forced Shields to put in the citations (Upon the threat of what? They wouldn’t publish the book?). If the attorneys hadn’t insisted, it was unlikely anyone would have associated the condensed and rewritten passage in Shields’s book with Elie’s original in the first place. (I studied the book for an interview we did, and I didn’t see the connection). And as for the quote-spotters and cite-sifters who do spot the connection, get a life! As Shields says in his Appendix, reality can’t be copyrighted.
Elie may have forgiven Shields for taking his self-avowed creative license if Elie hadn’t received emails this spring telling him that he was quoted in a new memoir by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, A Sense of Direction. Here’s the quote in question in Lewis-Kraus’s book, which I found on page 236.
Paul Elie writes, “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”
Yes, you read it right, this quote that Lewis-Kraus attributes to Elie, is not from Elie’s book at all, but an exact quote of the passage in Shields’s book (that is, besides adding the dash to “secondhand”). Lewis-Kraus is quoting Shields, not Elie. And here’s what Lewis-Kraus says next, about the (mis)quote:
Of course, life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life. And no experience is any more or less direct than any other one. But the point of view Elie offers is worth considering, more for its assumptions than its shoddy lament. Being self-conscious about an experience means, to Elie, standing at a remove from it. This remove is created by the fact that we all know, at any given time, that there is an associated cost, that we could be doing something else. (Author’s emphasis).
Let’s review. Lewis-Kraus first misquotes Elie, then he proceeds to contradict what he misquotes Elie had written (“life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life”), and then characterizes what he wrongly alleges Elie having written as a “shoddy lament.”
Since the word “shoddy” struck me as especially harsh here, I looked it up. According to the Free Dictionary, shoddy means: 1. Made of or containing inferior material. 2. a. Of poor quality or craft. b. Rundown; shabby. 3. Dishonest or reprehensible: shoddy business practices. 4. Conspicuously and cheaply imitative. I understand now, with a healthy dash of the vertigo Shields hoped to provoke in me, why Elie was irked. It irks me to read Lewis-Kraus’s excerpt, which I’m afraid epitomizes the term shoddy. Not only does Lewis-Kraus screw up the attribution, assigning it not to Shields but to Elie, he disparages what he says is Elie’s work, and then to top it off, carries on with statements that Lewis-Kraus might believe — this business about self-consciousness and knowing we could be doing something else — that don’t follow from anything that Shields or Elie or Percy wrote.
So let’s agree this is shoddy work. So is it Lewis-Kraus’s fault or maybe his publisher’s? Unlike in Shields’s manifesto, Lewis-Kraus includes no citations at all, with page numbers or not. If he had included citations, perhaps a thoughtful editor would have traced the misquote back to that artsy prankster Shields and this mess would have been averted. But no citations; this is art.
Or maybe we should let Lewis-Kraus off the hook and blame Shields instead? He is the perp, after all, who put this meme out there, however he couched it, associating his shoddy lament (Lewis-Kraus’s term, not mine) with Elie, who I reiterate did not write either of these identical passages attributed to him by Shields and Lewis-Kraus. But whether Shields is culpable or not, he may be delighted at this cascade of appropriations and misquotes –– and why wouldn’t he be? They prompted this inquiry, which will in turn perhaps spur more controversy and further the reality hunger conversation that he has gleefully provoked in our literary culture. Or: maybe he feels, like I do, or any reasonable person who takes the time to follow the trail, a sense we may have lost something with this shoddiness masquerading as art.
Back in 2003, I interviewed Paul Elie about The Life You Save May Be Your Own, his book on the lives and work of the great Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, and the connections between them. Unlike so many biographers who pummel you with exhaustive detail while affecting a cool academic distance, Elie put his deep emotional connection to his subjects at center stage, inviting us to join him in knowing the lives and work of writers who mean so much to him.
When he told me back then that his next book would be about the recordings of J.S. Bach, it seemed a jump in an entirely different direction, but after reading his new book, Reinventing Bach, I can see that the move makes absolute sense. Here, as in the earlier book, Elie mixes biography, history, travelogue, and personal reflection to tell the story of the great composer, and also the captivating stories of the most celebrated modern interpreters of his music, including Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, and Glenn Gould, who reinvented Bach for the age of recordings. In doing so, Elie once again gives us a compellingly readable and intellectually satisfying meditation on art that inspires us to discover and find joy in the work — in this case from Bach and the constellation of geniuses who devoted their lives to his music.
This February, Elie, who for many years was a senior editor at FSG, became a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. We met near his shared writing studio at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, with pies and scones on the plank table and Pandora playing loudly in the background, to talk about the book.
The Millions: When did you decide to write a book about Bach?
Paul Elie: I think I suspected that my interest in Bach would turn into a book even before I wrote my first book, but I didn’t know enough about Bach yet to write it. I had the ardor without the sense to know what to do with it. I kept making notes and listening to recordings and putting myself into encounters with Bach’s music, aware that after some time something would come of it.
TM: Were you conscious of the connections between your two books as you were writing this new one?
PE: Very much so, in the sense that I knew that in the new book as well as the old one I was telling distinct stories that come together as one story. I realized that Albert Schweitzer and Pablo Casals were near-exact contemporaries, that they had similar preoccupations, and that they made their crucial Bach recordings in London in the middle thirties. Casals’s famous recording of Bach’s cello suites, which he began at Abbey Road studios in November 1936, follows Schweitzer’s recording at the church of All Hallows in the old City by about a year. You read those dates in CD liner notes and feel connections emerging unbidden.
Also, the two books are alike in the sense that they are meant to represent areas where transcendence still feels authentic in our society. The four writers whose stories I told in The Life You Save May Be Your Own make Christian belief credible to people for whom it might not otherwise be so, and that’s true of Bach, too. His music seems to find receptive ears among people of faith, people of no faith, and people who don’t think the matter of faith makes any difference one way or the other.
[Elie pauses and smiles at the music being played on the radio — the slow organ opening to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”]
Listen to that. That organ riff is basically the same riff as in Bach’s “Air on the G String.” Gary Brooker of Procol Harum said that he was noodling around on Bach on the piano and the song came out — a song that has made millions of dollars for him and the rest of the band. It’s not just the two of us sitting here in a café saying, “That sounds like Bach.” The songwriter himself actually said so. People often describe the instrumental middle section of the Beatles’s song “In My Life” as Baroque-like, but it’s not just an impression: John Lennon himself said to George Martin, “Play like Bach” — and then went out for a smoke or whatever.
TM: When you first mention Abbey Road (in regard to Casals’s recording of the cello suites), I of course thought of the Beatles and hoped they’d come into the story, and they do.
PE: If you are writing a narrative work, you never flash-forward if you can help it; you forbid yourself to make comments like “Abbey Road, which would later become famous as the studio of the Beatles.” So many biographies are ruined by that move: it’s a biography of Shelley, say, and the author will intone, “It was now a week before Shelley’s death.” And so you know when Shelley goes out sailing that he’s never coming back — when the power of Shelley’s story lies in the fact that his life was cut off abruptly when he was still a young man.
TM: Takes away the suspense.
PE: Withholding some of the information you have is a way to produce the narrative effect that you need. The excitement of writing the book is figuring out where to do certain things — when to withhold, and when to disclose.
TM: How, in the practical sense, did you work out a story that covers 75 years and brings in Bach’s own story, which took place two hundred years earlier? Did you have timelines? An architecture you were trying to fit the pieces into?
PE: At one point early on I had a giant piece of graph paper, as big as a tablecloth, with a lot of Post-Its on it — but that was just a way to get the brain working; once it was made, I never looked at it again. The decision to give Schweitzer, Casals, and Stokowski each his own part or suite came pretty early. When I realized that each suite coincided with a great leap forward in audio technology, the structure firmed up considerably. The wild card was Bach — how to get Bach himself in there. When I realized that he was an inventor — the composer of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions — it clicked. Bach’s way of invention could run in parallel to the inventive powers of his modern interpreters and of pioneers in recording technology. But that was several years in. You have to be ready to work in the dark.
TM: It seemed you used musical techniques, not only in making the overall structure akin to a suite but in particular passages. For example, you return to certain key scenes, like Schweitzer making his seminal recording of the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” as if they are recurring musical motifs.
PE: I definitely wanted the book to feel musical, but I didn’t attempt to use musical motifs in a rigorous way. In Bach’s cello suites, the fifth suite is longer than the others, so I made my fifth suite a little longer. But I left it at that. I’m not a classically trained musician. I don’t know canon and fugue inside out the way some musicians do.
I’ve noticed that those formal preoccupations sometimes deform books about music. Take Anthony Burgess, a writer whose more naturalistic work I love: in the works where he’s expressly trying to make a piece of music in words, the formal element can become a distraction. I was definitely wary of overdoing the musical effects that way. I hoped instead to absorb enough of Bach’s way of doing things to approximate some of his effects. All the while I was writing the book, after all, I was listening to recordings of the music of Bach, the best pattern maker who ever lived, and I hope that I was able to bring a little of that patterning into the book through my own patterns.
TM: By listening, the inventions get inside of you, and you let it come out organically.
PE: Right. Even if you don’t know every jot and tittle of the Inventions, you can hear that they are inventive. You can hear how they are distinctly different from one another. When I was teaching writing at Columbia, I found myself stressing the need for variety, especially in longer work. You need to keep making it new straight through to the end, not just develop the motifs you’ve already set going. So if you opened chapter three with a long descriptive passage, you might try to open chapter four with dialogue, and chapter five by extending a metaphor that goes outside the main story, or whatever — the way Bach varied his openings in his suites, or the way a card player would vary his openings.
TM: How do you approach listening to this near inexhaustible supply of great music? Did you strive for a sense of completeness or trust your explorations would take you were you needed to go?
PE: I had to trust that the book would take me there. The fact that there is so much of Bach’s music, and so many recordings, means that you know from the start that you are never going to hear it all, even if you live to be 100. There’s always going to be a freshly rearranged cantata, or another new recording. So as a writer you know you have to cover all the important works and let other pieces fill themselves in.
Once FSG moved from Union Square to 18th Street, I had the tremendous good fortune of working upstairs from Academy Records, the best CD shop I can imagine for obscure CDs of classical music remastered from old 78s. I’d go down to the shop religiously at least once a week and keep an eye out for strange stuff: the lute suites played on the Lautenwerk, an instrument Bach invented, or a straight-through live recording of the Goldberg Variations by a pianist who threw the I Ching with John Cage. I would also talk about Bach with people and they would send me things — links to YouTube videos, movies with Bach used as incidental music. Somebody told me that Jimmy Page quotes a Bach bourrée in the live version of “Heartbreaker” — and sure enough, in the Led Zeppelin video from Earls Court, there it is.
One evening I was walking up Broadway on my way to teach at Columbia, and I noticed that a street vendor selling CDs had about three quarters of a “complete” Bach set issued in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. I took one look and said, “Forty dollars,” and he said, “Done.” I showed up at class five minutes late with a rubber-banded stack of CDs as long as my arm and told the students — this is the way the book is being written. You have to be willing to get lucky.
TM: There’s so much depth there, how did you know when to stop? The book is 400 pages and probably includes the stories of a hundred musicians, not just your protagonists. Was the manuscript much larger in draft? Did you have to prune it down?
PE: It wasn’t that much larger. I like the definition of art given by St. Thomas Aquinas. A work of art, Aquinas said, possesses wholeness, harmony, and radiance, and some translators render it as order, proportion and radiance. In writing the book, I was always thinking about proportion. Before you go too deeply into an arcane exploration of the “St. Matthew Passion” or whatever, you have to ask yourself whether the structure of the book you are writing can bear it. In the case of the “St. Matthew Passion,” I found a way to dovetail the two main narrative lines of the book so that the account of Bach composing the work in 1727 was followed immediately by the account of Otto Klemperer leading a recording of it in London in 1961. That kind of joinery is what makes the structure hold up. That’s the idea, anyhow.
TM: In the prelude of the book, you write that the recorded music from Bach “defies the argument that experience mediated by technology is a diminished thing.” Glenn Gould embraced this idea — he believed that the microphone and his ability to record his performances in relative solitude and them send them out into the world expanded his possibilities as a musician, rather than diminished his creative life.
PE: All of us are aware of the potential of technology, but we assume that there’s a cost too — that there’s something inhuman about technology, and that the inhumanity is the price we have to pay for the convenience. But Gould’s experience was very different. He said, No, I’m more myself when I am playing before the microphone than in the crazy circus of a recital, where I’m wearing awkward concert dress and I have to talk to strangers afterwards. I’m more human when I’m in a recording studio.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own was written out of the conviction that mediated experience is not necessarily inauthentic. The four writers in the book had religious experience “mediated” to them through the works of great writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; they sought such experience for themselves, and then in effect “mediated” their experience to the next generation through their own writing.
In Reality Hunger, as you know, David Shields made a hodgepodge of riffs on other people’s work and one of the riffs is taken from my first book. It’s a baffling revision of what I wrote — he got the sense of the passage and the book exactly wrong. It’s a paraphrase of a stock late modern or postmodern point of view that Walker Percy was writing his way out of, in a particular essay and then, in effect, in his entire subsequent 30-year career, and the story I tell in the book is of the great effort he made to transcend that point of view in his life and his writing. Percy succeeded, I’d say, and that he and his counterparts managed to do so is the heart of my book.
TM: Shields is attributing the paraphrase to you.
PE: I know him a bit, and I have admired his work. I couldn’t figure out whether he’d gotten the point wrong because he had honestly missed it, or because he was angry at me and decided to falsify my work, or because it’s part of the game he’s playing to show that you can rewrite other people’s conclusions to suit your own, or because he didn’t actually read the book, just saw that passage quoted somewhere. I don’t know. In any case, now people are writing to me — “do you see you’re quoted in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s book [A Sense of Direction]?” Well, I’m not quoted, and it seems to me that the whole passage as I wrote it would have been more apt for Lewis-Kraus than the paraphrase he wound up citing. I’d like to send him my book. Because the thrust of both my books is that you can live authentically and the obvious fact that experience is mediated to us is not necessarily crippling. It’s often enabling.
TM: If I picked up a typical biography of a vaunted figure like Bach, I’d expect a crushing amount of “authoritative” detail. Your book is almost the opposite. You’re not trying to say, “This is the final authoritative work on Bach,” but “This is my experience of this great artist and his work. See and listen for yourself.”
PE: I’m not capable of writing the definitive book about Bach. I don’t have German. I’m not a musicologist. But the fact is, the books by musicologists and German language scholars aren’t definitive either. Five biographies of Bach were published in English or in English translation in the last 10 years. They are remarkable works, and I was able to draw from an amazing flowering of research and scholarship that is found in them. The fact that those books exist enables me as a writer on Bach to get everything right, I hope, but also frees me from certain obligations. I don’t have to produce a chart or table showing which pipe organ Bach inspected at which date in his career. It has already been done.
I think the presence of the web can be liberating for nonfiction writers. In the age prior to ours, there was a certain kind of biographer who felt a professional obligation to work stuff into the book, because if it weren’t in the book there would be no access to it. You wound up with multi-volume biographies of middling people, books that are a combination of a life story and a scholarly resource. I don’t want my book to be a resource. I want it to be a work of art in its own right an invitation to the reader to experience all the music of Bach that’s out there.
TM: You’re saying to the reader you don’t need to have a certain background. You can experience Bach as music. That just listening can be your way in.
PE: My most important formative experience of Bach was the WKCR Bachfest, which airs every year. In graduate school, I listened to the station for jazz, and suddenly the music of Bach took over for 10 days around Christmas and I was blown away. I know now that I was getting educated in Bach, but at the time I was just blissing out. I was having what to me is the fundamental experience of Bach — the experience of the superabundance of the music. There is so much Bach. WKCR can play Bach for 10 days and have lots left over. As a listener, you’re buoyed up by the knowledge you’re not going to reach the end of Bach — not ever.
That’s a long way of saying my point of entry was pleasure, full stop. I hope the pleasure comes through in the book.
TM: As I was reading, I was engaged in the stories of Schweitzer, Casals, Stokowski, and Gould, but then they all die about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I wondered how could you possibly sustain the narrative drive to make me want to keep reading. Then you interject yourself into the story and you give the reader another opportunity to experience the seminal recordings, through you.
PE: People often say that you have to decide whether your book is written in the first person or the third person, that you must have a scheme. But the FSG way is to figure out what feels right rather than working in absolutes. Most great works of literature are mongrel works, blended things. When he was editing my first book, Jonathan Galassi warned me not to load up the story with personal experiences early on. He was absolutely right. This time, at some level he let me know that it felt right for me to come into the book later rather than earlier. As for the earlier sections, I drew on my own experiences as a listener — and I tried to make my descriptions of the music personal and passionate but without suddenly putting the reader in my apartment in 2000 and spoiling the flow of the story that is taking place in the war years.
The narrative possibilities for non-fiction are just extraordinary right now. We know that we don’t have to make our books resources. We don’t have to take timeouts from the narrative to enter data into the record. We know that we can make a nonfiction book a work of art — a sculpted thing that does allow the reader to be immersed, does have the vividness associated with fiction, the sense of layering, of recapitulations, and of a whole figurative scheme working organically between the lines. That’s tremendously exciting.
Two of the best books from recent years that I got around to reading in 2009 were The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie and The Master by Colm Tóibín. Elie’s book, a group portrait of four Catholic American writers at mid-century (Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy) is old-fashioned in the best ways. It unfolds slowly, but its insights are deep, unshowy, and finally poignant. By the time its subjects reach the ends of their lives, you feel you know, as well as one can, their souls. Tóibín’s fictional account of the life of Henry James is similar in the cumulative power of its effects, and it also inspired me to read a few novels by the Master himself. Though I remain a bigger fan of his brother William (a maniacal fan, really), The Bostonians and The American were highlights of my year’s reading.
But my favorite read in 2009 happened to be published in 2009: Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, as confident and well crafted a collection as I’ve read in a long time. Starring semi-rural characters down on their luck in places from Illinois to the outskirts of Nashville, these eight stories contain both humor and compassion about people and an appreciation for nature that is never heavy-handed. In “Phantom Pain,” one of the best stories, residents panic at unconfirmed reports of a wild animal loose in their town — everyone except for Jack Wells, an older taxidermist who thinks he’s been around too long to believe it. Peelle’s prose is never less than assured, and it’s brilliant frequently enough to make this short book both a delight and a promise of things to come.