Novelists are not in the message business

Here is an uncanny resemblance of views about the nature of fiction by Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor and atheist novelist and Philip Pullman.

From O’Connor’s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners:

People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class” — or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story. Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction (p. 73).

From O’Connor’s essay, “Writing Short Stories,” in Mystery and Manners:

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully (p. 96).

From the main page on Pullman’s website:

As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means. The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.


2 thoughts on “Novelists are not in the message business

  1. I very much enjoyed these passages, and have to say I agree. What brought you on to Pullman? The conversation with Rowan Williams or something else? I have never heard of him before now.

    • I am familiar with Philip Pullman for two reasons. First, Pullman is a well-known “Satanist” in Milton Studies because he argues that Satan is the true hero of Paradise Lost. I own an attractive illustrated edition of Paradise Lost with an introduction by Pullman that “describes the power of the poem, its achievement as a story, how we should read it today, and its influence on him and His Dark Materials.” Second, Pullman is well-known for his antagonism toward C. S. Lewis; he wrote a trilogy for children, His Dark Materials, that was meant to do for atheism what Chronicles of Narnia did for Christianity. Be sure to read my blog post with the fascinating exchange between Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman.

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