Randy Boyagoda speaks on Flannery O’Connor and the role of a Catholic writer today

Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her letters, “The novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.”

Randy Boyagoda addressed O’Connor’s legendary status as a Catholic writer in his lecture entitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Flannery O’Connor: The Politics of Catholic Fiction Today,” sponsored by the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, on November 2. Boyagoda commented on the difficulties Catholic writers face in contemporary society and drew upon his own experience as a Catholic writer.

Boyagoda is Principal and Vice-President of the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto and Professor of English, teacher in the Christianity and Culture program, and inaugural holder of the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. Boyagoda has also written two novels, Governor of the Northern Province (2006) and Beggar’s Feast (2011). Boyagoda is currently writing a new novel that will be published in 2018.

Boyagoda began by characterizing the important role writers play in society. He said, “Any meaningful engagement of contemporary human affairs by a literary writer should involve some exploration and revelation of the complex and messy reality of the human condition itself.”

He then described one chaotic experience in his family when all of his children had the stomach flu, and he was trying to prepare for a lecture he was to give the next morning and work on his novel. His wife pointedly reminded him that he always said he loved the “idea of a big Catholic family.” He explained that his messy reality of juggling the call of a writer as well as the call of everyday life allows him to “bear witness to the mutually encouraging nature of integrating one’s vocations to a thriving family life while aside a similarly intense intellectual professional and academic life.”

He drew a parallel from the experience to his initial dislike of the “idea of a Catholic writer.” According to Boyagoda, his dislike stemmed from the famous Flannery O’Connor, and the associations that inevitably came from labeling oneself as a Catholic writer. He even wrote an article for First Things journal few years ago entitled “I am Sick of Flannery O’Connor.” He then explained how he overcame that dislike once he understood that O’Connor’s literary technique applied to contemporary times.

“With all respect to Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh,” Boyagoda said describing Flannery O’Connor, “I can think of no Catholic writer with as secure a position in the modern canon who simultaneously enjoys continued admiration and popularity with self-consciously religious readers and writers.” Her ability to reach such a wide audience is rooted in the fact that, according to Boyagoda, “she held a world-view that claimed by its very nature to be universal, all-encompassing, Catholic in every sense of the word.”

For Boyagoda, a writer, Catholic or not, can have a “room of their own” but should keep in mind that they are in a “bigger house.” In other words, they should be mindful of their role in society. He pointed out that the majority of people cannot leave society to write but must remain active participants. Boyagoda described his tactics of writing between meetings and in the early hours of the morning, all the while keeping the characters he developed in mind.  

At the end of the lecture, Boyagoda read a selection from his upcoming novel. The novel, Boyagoda said, “considers the dangerous world of faith in contemporary life.” Sophomore Genevieve Olsen told the Rover that she “appreciated Professor Boyagoda’s claim that the Catholic writer must be aware that she [or he] lives in ‘one room of a whole mansion’ and should write accordingly, within the context of a whole world of philosophies and beliefs.”

Olsen also “thought it was brilliant of Professor Boyagoda to choose a Muslim student as his intern for one of the Catholic novels he was working on.” Her favorite part of the lecture was “Professor Boyagoda’s reading from his own work— it was absolutely hysterical, quite clever, and a great example of his discussion of Catholic fiction.”

Sarah Ortiz is a sophomore living in Lewis Hall and studying PLS and classics. She personally loves Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, so if you want to discuss these amazing works of literature contact her at sortiz2@nd.edu.