Flannery O’Connor: No Vague Believer
Editor’s Note: “Flannery,” an American Masters segment on author Flannery O’Connor will air on PBS at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 23. Larry Fink, a retired Hardin-Simmons University English professor, explains why O’Connor’s works are a “must read” for anyone who appreciates great literature.
By LARRY E. FINK
“I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.” –Flannery O’Connor
Women’s History Month—a fine time to read, or re-read, some Flannery O’Connor, fiction that holds a permanent place in literary history: 32 short stories and 2 novels. That may not sound like much, but she lived to be only 39 and was diagnosed with Lupus at age 25.
How good is her fiction? Where does she fit in the library of American literature? A clear indicator is the place of her work in the Library of America. If you don’t know about the LOA, I’m proud to be the one to introduce it to you:
- “Hailed by Fortune magazine as the ‘indispensable pantheon of our national literature,’ Library of America editions collect the nation’s essential literary and historical works, including novels, stories, poetry, plays, essays, journalism, historical writing, speeches, and more.”
- “More than a publisher, Library of America is a vital part of the cultural landscape—an invaluable portal through which the words and ideas that formed and continue to shape America can enrich our lives for years to come.”
There! That was easy. Plus, they are beautiful, will last as long as the Gutenberg Bible, and are a joy to hold and read. The way they fall open and stay open in your hand must be experienced—like tiramisu or the Grace Museum. And, they’re affordable! The first four volumes came out in 1982: works by Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are now over 340 titles available. Where does O’Connor fit in this “pantheon of our national literature”? Volume 39; and note, she was the first 20th-century woman to be included in this wonderful series. (William Faulkner was the first 20th-century man so honored.)
Why are her works so revered? Put simply, she is so good at showing vs. telling. To paraphrase Stephen King, the good writer does not tell the reader, “The creature was terrifying.” The good writer so effectively shows—or better yet, suggests—the source of the horror his character feels, that the reader feels it too, and shudders. O’Connor embodies—incarnates—meaning, using imagery, setting, characterization—all the elements of literary art—while avoiding telling us directly what she’s getting at. When she writes about writing, she calls such art “incarnational”:
- “[T]he main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life.” “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses” and fiction must include abundant “concrete details” if it is to be “an incarnational art.”
- If the novelist “is going to show the supernatural taking place, he has nowhere to do it except on the literal level of natural events, and . . . if he doesn’t make these natural events believable in themselves, he can’t make them believable in any of their spiritual extensions.”
We can no more express the meaning of one of her stories in a single sentence than we can sum up the meaning of a natural wonder or a masterpiece of painting in words.
O’Connor believed that mystery comes to us through the concrete world via the senses–as when we experience awe and wonder, surrounded by stunning natural beauty. As the Creator reveals himself through nature, it is the human artist’s job to embody mystery in the concrete details of her art. On one level, O’Connor’s near-total mastery of this craft is what earns her such respect as a writer. That the mystery she conveys “is centered in our redemption by Christ” is, in an ironic sense, forgiven by her secular admirers because she frequently combines hilarious humor with disturbing violence that, well, entertains! To explain some of the shocking elements in her fiction, she writes, “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
O’Connor insisted that the Christian artist should concentrate her efforts on the quality of the product. She notes, “St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made . . . that a work of art is a good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”
An appropriate question for the first-time O’Connor reader: Does the fact that O’Connor worked so hard at her art always result in an easy time for the reader? Or a fun time? Can I plunge into one of the novels or any one of the stories and be guaranteed delightful entertainment? No. We all have different tastes and comfort zones with literature, as with food, music, and worship. Some of the stories are darker and denser than others. And the novels are, understandably, appreciated less than the stories by many readers. (When C.S. Lewis finished reading Byron’s epic poem, Don Juan, he wrote on the last page, “Never again.”)
But there are other ways to get in touch with O’Connor’s fierce orthodox faith—through her essays, letters, and her prayer journal (published not long ago). Just this week, a friend told me he gets more from reading these non-fiction works than from the fiction. And this from someone who loves reading fiction. We’re all different. Thankfully!
Here is a short list of my favorite stories, in order of lighter to darker. You may, of course, read them in the opposite order or jump around.
“Good Country People”
“A Good Man is Hard to Find”
O’Connor repeatedly described herself as a storyteller. To more quickly grasp her flavor of funny, I suggest taking a few minutes to listen as she reads a story to an audience. (There’s an easy-to-find audio recording of her reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on YouTube.) Her Georgia dialect, and especially her reading of dialogues will be worth the trouble. You might even try imitating O’Connor’s speech as you read the opening paragraphs of a story aloud. But I think all good literature should be read aloud—not just poetry, which goes without saying. Oops! I said it. As Carl Spain, one of my Bible professors, often intoned, “Read your Bible aloud! Let your ear hear it as well as your eye see it!”
Dr. Larry E. Fink is a retired professor of English at Hardin-Simmons University