This week at Salon.com, Allen Barra has published a review of a new biography of Flannery O’Connor. My first encounter with O’Connor was as a freshman English major in college, when I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for a short story class. It was the most shocking thing I had ever read. I think it still is. In her lecture on the story, the professor included a biographical sketch: O’Connor was from Georgia, she was a Catholic, she had attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she died young, and she was an example of “southern gothic literary tradition.” You don’t become a freshman English major in college without having developed a taste for literature at an even younger age. During my own teenage years, with the help of some fine teachers in junior and senior high school, I had been captivated by a diverse set of writers, including Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte, Wharton, Tennyson, Thoreau, Camus, Hesse, Vonnegut, Joyce, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald (to name just a few). What was remarkably absent was Faulkner and any discussion of “Southern Literary Tradition,” in spite of having read “The Glass Menagerie.” Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” also read for that class completed my introduction, and Faulkner later became one of the authors I studied more in depth for my degree.
Coming from a liberal northeastern background this sudden discovery piqued my interest. There were no biographies of O’Connor at the time, but in the summer of that year, her collected letters had been published. I spent a significant amount of time that semester in the university library reading The Habit of Being, to the detriment of my other studies, I might add. Her letters were fascinating.
Her stories had been shocking in several ways. First, they were violent. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is about a pair of escaped convicts who murder an entire family. Just because. It’s the literary equivalent of the film “Natural Born Killers,” terrifying to watch but impossible to stop watching.
The other shocking element, especially for the time (the late seventies) where moral relativism was still somewhat in vogue, was her sense of moral clarity revealed in her ironic twists. One of the classic forms of the short story, which we learn in middle school from O. Henry and Maupassant, is the story that has an ironic twist at the very end. There is no literary genre that is more eclectic in style and form than the short story, and the classic dramatic structure of O. Henry is not the only way to write a short story, and indeed it was out of style long before O’Connor was writing. O’Connor, however, took this structure and raised the stakes. A character in an O’Connor story who faced a story-ending ironic twist did not have to confront the fact that, for example, he sold his prized watch and his wife sold her beautiful hair to buy presents for one another (“The Gift of the Magi”), or a husband and wife had brought financial ruin upon themselves through vanity (“The Necklace”). Instead, at the end of an O’Connor story, a character might find that he is damned for all time. It’s clear to most critics that O’Connor’s faith, probably more than her “southern-ness” influenced her world view and her fiction, but it was her artistry that allowed her to write these powerful stories with no hint of preachiness and barely mention of religion. She wasn’t an evangelist, she was a seeker of truth.
So who was this southern woman who wrote about the grotesque? Her letters revealed that she was both incredibly normal and grounded, but also driven and passionate about her writing. In her letters, she wrote to friends about the stories she was writing at the time, the finished versions of which I was reading. Along with John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, I can’t think of any better guide for beginning writers than her letters.
O’Connor had a long battle with lupus before she died, and wrote frankly and honestly to her friends about her daily struggles, but with no hint of self-pity and it never seemed to influence her work. She had very strong opinions about her art and what she had to say in her fiction, so she eschewed the confessional style that was coming into favor at the time. I wonder what she would think about the current celebrity culture where we are constantly bombarded with Too Much Information about the personal lives of everybody.
It was during that time when I made my first serious attempts at writing, and I tried several times to write O’Connor-like stories. They were all miserable failures and I learned that what we write is as much a product of who we are and where we come from as it is of who we admire. As a protestant white male from Queens, NY, it’s impossible for me to write as if I were a Catholic woman from Georgia (although I might want to create such a character, but that’s characterization, not theme). Subsequent attempts to write like John Updike and John Cheever didn’t work out either. I eventually figured out that I needed to learn how to write like me, and O’Connor would have probably agreed.
Still, those letters stayed with me, the way she interspersed serious serious literary discussions with brief glimpses into her daily life. Part of my novel, Winslow, is composed of letters written by a seventeen year-old old girl to her young man who has gone off to war. I didn’t realize when I first started writing them that their style, combining both serious thematic content and interesting glimpses of daily life that revealed character, was unconsciously influenced by those letters that I read over twenty-five years ago. (We don’t write letters like that these days, we Tweet). That is until, completely on her own, Sarah started providing Josh with updates about the peafowl she was raising.
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