The Flannery O'Connor Primer for Writers
July 16, 2012
I fear that not that many people know about Flannery O’Connor anymore. For such a short period of time, she was one of the country’s strongest, most influential, most disconcerting, and perhaps most shocking voices in American literature. She was described by Brian Collier in Atlanta Magazine as the “enfant terrible of Southern writers,” someone who consistently “probed, in a distinctly Southern idiom, the mysterious outer reaches of reality that are the province of the prophet and the poet.”
Flannery O’Connor had once said, “Southern writers are stuck with the South, and it’s a good thing to be stuck with.” She was convinced that the best American literature was regional, and, as Collier wrote, “the smallest history can be read in a universal light.” O’Connor once criticized the new breed of writers, turning out one pot boiler after another, by saying, “You know what’s the matter with them? They’re not from anywhere.”
Yet, she feared from the time she transcribed her first sentence, her first story, to paper that she would be categorized as a Southern writer. The thought horrified her. She never wanted for her name and her reputation to be associated with literature solely dependent on dialect stories and located within the time-honored storytelling shadows of magnolias and moonlight.
Flannery O’Connor did not have a large body of work to leave us – only two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and thirty-two short stories. But her work received three O’Henry Awards, and her Complete Stories won the 1972 U. S. National Book Award for Fiction. She did not live long enough to know it.
Flannery O’Connor was far different from you and me. She liked to drink Coca-Cola in her coffee. She once gave her mother a mule for Mother’s Day. She traveled to Lourdes to pray for the novel she was writing, The Violent Bear It Away, which she referred to as Opus Nauseous. Her Gothic stories were filled with the odd, the unusual, the eccentric. Her characters, more than once, were regarded as freaks. But she was convinced, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.” She was and proud of it. O’Connor pointed out, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one … Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and yet most of her flawed, haunted, tested, and redeemed characters were Protestant. The torments and demons of her religious beliefs had a significant impact on her writing. As she said, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted … The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all. I think he will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development.” It was her belief that “grace changes us, and the change is painful.”
In her stories, told often with a dark , ironic, sardonic humor, O’Connor wove together a combination of violence and shock tactics. For example, after The Misfit in A Good Man Is Hard to Find murdered a family of five on the highway, she wrote simply: “Jesus throws everything off balance.” To her, it was realism, never cynicism. She once said, “I am tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard, but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism … When I see these stories described as horror stories, I am always amused because the review always has hold of the wrong horror.”
Flannery O’Connor left behind an overwhelming array of letters and essays about her work and her philosophy on writing. These are some of her thoughts.
- Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
- Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality, and it’s very shocking to the system.
- People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them.
- The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.
- There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or mock innocence.
- Fiction is about everything human, and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.
- All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal.
- I’m a full-time believer in writing habits. You may be able to do without them if you have genius, but most of us only have talent, and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits, or it dries up and bows away. Of course, you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.
- Try arranging (your novel) backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.
- That is interesting about your reading some Shakespeare to limber up your language before you start, though I think that anything that makes you overly conscious of the language is bad for the story usually.
- A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word I the tory to say what the meaning is.
- This may be a small matter, but the omniscient narrator never speaks colloquially. This is something it has taken me a long time to learn myself. Every time you do it, you lower the tone.
- I know that the writer does call up the general maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in the mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas.
Flannery O’Connor died at the age of thirty-nine from Lupus and its complications. She spent most of her final ten years on crutches. We can only imagine what kind of genius a long life would have contributed to the world of literature. She once wrote a line that described her life and her passing: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”