Wednesday, January 4, 2012

About Flannery O'Connor, Catholicism, and Writing

Y'know, one of the awful things about Christianity are the writers of Christian fiction. Don't believe me? Go to a bookstore (what's left of those), and go to the religious fiction section. Bring a barf bag, you're gonna need one. Stories about nice and pretty girls who go through some nice and pretty world where the worst that might happen is losing the farm? Or their worst idea of what can happen is someone doesn't accept the faith?


How's that even close to being something even us Christians can care about? I mean, with the Baptism of Will all we have to do is convince non-believers through our actions and words that Christianity is the best way to live a good life. If they're not convinced of that it's because we're not living right. It's our fault, our tragedy, not theirs. They get to go on and live life as they can, while we get judged for messing it up!

So I guess the problem is that it's not actually Christian fiction. It's a bunch of Christians who are making namby-pamby bullshit that no one in their right mind is going to care about, and lying to everyone and themselves that they're making something good. It's pretty sickening that we have to share the stage with these charlatans. And what makes it worse? They intend good (or at least I'm going to assume they do)!

So what is a Christian story? A Catholic one? I guess we can go through a few things that I personally hold to be Catholic, and see what they're about. The three things I'm gonna cover have a few things in common: a supreme optimism in the main character or the setting (to the point where other people can't accept it, even), a horrible tragedy to overcome, and plenty of mistakes, even in the good. I'm not gonna lie, that's probably not the only things these works have in common. This isn't a definitive definition by any stretch, I'm just trying to figure out my thoughts, and hopefully people will contribute and provide their own.

There are SPOILERS sprinkled throughout. You are warned.

Surprised? You shouldn't be, not at this juncture. The thing that makes Clannad Catholic, more than anything, is the ending. The entire world decides that even one person sad and unable to live a good life existing is unacceptable, so it winds itself back through time and corrects the problem? That most definitely counts as optimistic. And it definitely throws people off. But the show is also very light-hearted, even in the midst of the tragedy. I still laugh at the jokes, after 9 times of watching(!).

The whole show keeps making the case that Tomoya cannot be alone, and that once he picks someone he must be with them. This isn't a case of weakness, it's Tomoya's strength. Tomoya needs someone to give himself to, and his complete and total monogamy is a pretty admirable thing. I mean, who wouldn't want to be so frickin loyal that when their significant other dies they wouldn't know what to do with themselves, because their life was about the other? I know I would. But that counts as a huge tragedy. Losing someone that important is awful. The last part, the mistakes? Tomoya never stops making them. He's a good person, but man, when he messes up...

Also something that shouldn't surprise anyone, considering the review I wrote. Trigun meets these criteria even more obviously than Clannad: Vash doesn't want anyone to die, because all life is precious! He wants to save everyone, for the simple reason that they're good. And the thing is that Vash isn't being delusional.

Each and every time he makes a call on someone, he's right.

 Even the times that the other person thinks he's nuts and wrong, that momentary faith they see is enough to make them believe as well. The trick of the show, like in Clannad, is believing even in the face of overwhelming odds (and evidence).

But perhaps the best moment of the show (at least for me) was Wolfwood. Here was a man who really wanted to believe, but let the facts get in the way of reality. Wolfwood's death scene confirmed the identity of the show a heck of a lot more than anything else for me. He believed, even as he struggled and questioned and died. At the end of it all, he wanted to live, despite everything that got in his way.

Lord of the Rings
I posted this last, because this is the measuring stick for an entire generation. JRR Tolkien has said his timeless story is a Catholic work for the simple reason that he is Catholic. And when you examine the work by the criteria set out, it works. The setting is much darker and grimmer than the previous two examples. The Ring cannot be negotiated with, it cannot be conquered. It must be destroyed, and Sauron with it. The stakes allow for no compromise, no redemption for the Ring or Sauron. It (and Sauron) is evil incarnate. The optimism isn't in that. The optimism is that it's very simple.

All you have to do is drop it into a mountain, and burn it up.

Frodo doesn't have to become superhuman. He just needs a friend for the times he gets too complex for the problem. The big monsters don't have to be fought, or bargained with by Frodo. He just has to ignore them, because they're not the problem, but the symptom. All the horrible things in this world all come from one very simple problem, that can be solved by perseverance. When you think about it, that's actually very optimistic. To save the world requires no special skills. All it requires is the desire to do the right thing. The rest WILL take care of itself. Somehow. Even if it appears to be chance, in the case of Gollum falling in.

Identifying Catholic works is sorta like identifying porn: you know it when you see it, and nothing anyone else says will tell you anything different.  I'm not going to pretend that my thoughts on the subject are all-inclusive, or even accurate. But it's the best I can do at the moment. I want to make a Catholic novel. A real, honest-to-goodness, human, gut-wrenching, Catholic novel. Because I've noticed that actual Catholic works make for more hope than any other thing I've ever read, and as an artist that's what I want: to make people hope.

So please leave comments, if you will, on this one. Feedback is the life of an artist.

(And for those of you wondering, this essay was inspired by Flannery O'Connor's thoughts on Catholic writing, which is why the title mentions her. These thoughts are based off of hers.)