Notes on Flannery O’Connor – “The Teaching of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.
As I don’t have time for serious reading of and thinking about new ideas at the start of a semester with 55 writing students in four classes (how do high school teachers survive?!), I took O’Connor’s book with me while one group was working on an in-class exercise, and re-read this marvelous chapter in which O’Connor explores some of the issues teachers of literature face. She was not a teacher herself, but she was of course a student of literature and one of the best writers of literature of the Southern Renaissance.
“I find,” O’Connor writes, “that everyone approaches the novel according to his particular interest – the doctor looks for a disease, the minister looks for a sermon, the poor look for money, and the rich look for justification; and if they find what they want, or at least what they can recognize, then they judge the piece of fiction to be superior.
“In the standing dispute between the novelist and the public, the teacher of English is a sort of middle-man, and I have occasionally come to think about what really happens when a piece of fiction is set before students. I suppose this is a terrifying experience for the teacher.”
No kidding! And for so many reasons. Some don’t know how to read literature themselves, never having been taught; some know the lack of ability of students and don’t wish to face it; sometimes we fear what inexperienced readers will make of our favorite and beloved works. It is a tremendous responsibility to try to draw others into the world of mystery.
She writes about some of the ways teachers avoid teaching fiction – substituting literary history for the study of actual literary works, or the study of the author’s psychology, or sociology . . . And she tells us why these are useless approaches: “[A] work of art exists without its author from the moment the words are on paper, and the more complete the work, the less important it is who wrote it or why. If you’re studying literature, the intentions of the writer have to be found in the work itself, and not in his life.”
The teacher’s “first obligation,” O’Connor writes, “is to the truth of the subject he is teaching,” and he must remember that “for the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure, it must first be a discipline. The student has to have tools to understand a story or a novel, and these are tools 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 story.”
There’s much more in this short chapter (the book’s title comes from it), but these were good affirmations for today – it’s right to insist on discipline from our students, because only through it will they come to know the pleasure of learning, whether literature or writing or anything else. And so, marching forward through the homework and the essays – for the hope of opening minds and hearts to love.