A Caution on the Writings of Flannery O’Connor

Several years ago, I received a volume of Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories as the very kind and thoughtful fulfillment of a birthday wish. At the time I knew very little about the content of these writings, but I was enthusiastic to encounter the genius of an author who had been highly praised to me on a number of occasions. I began with the stories which I had seen mentioned numerous times on Catholic reading lists and in the pages of Catholic journals; then I read some other stories of which I had never heard, but whose titles showed promise. Page by page I journeyed on, and by the time I had finished what was set before me, I could hardly bring myself to believe that this was the work of the greatest American Catholic author of the twentieth century.

I am conscious that I stand not only in a minority, but almost alone, as a critic of a writer so well-loved in Catholic circles. I do not, by any means, deny Flannery O’Connor’s obvious talent and prodigious intellect; on the contrary, I am simply obliged to consider that she would have made a better philosopher or theologian than novelist and author.

To begin, let me be eminently clear on one initial and very sensitive point: my objection to Flannery O’Connor’s fictional stories is not simply rooted in my distaste for the vicious words which sometimes appear in the speech and dialects of her characters. I understand very well that O’Connor wrote in the middle decades of the twentieth century, and that racial epithets and slang were treated then in a manner utterly incomprehensible to our own attuned minds. I realize, too, that she often exhibited such ugly forms of expression for the sake of authenticity, as well as to mock and condemn their usage. Howbeit, when I am compelled to decide between two pieces of literature which meritoriously effect the same objective, and one excludes the unnecessary appearance of odious or unsightly language, and another revels in its power, I have always considered it a sound principle to choose the cleaner page.

Regardless, the proper ground of my disappointment with Flannery O’Connor is best expressed in the frequent artlessness and crudity of her style—of her need to rest upon the crutches of sensational violence, depression, and fear, to tell a decent story and make a valid point. In fairness to her admirers, I agree that O’Connor possessed an uncommon ability to grasp the matter of human suffering, especially psychological pain and regret. Nevertheless, there are many different ways of treating of such delicate subjects, and not all are equally successful or commendable in the world of literature.

 

Violence CoverAs an example in point, let us consider the essence of O’Connor’s short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find, since it is so often cited as one of her very best. Concisely, this is a narrative about a dysfunctional family—a mother, a father, three small children, and their grandmother—who are waylaid by a notorious escaped convict in the first hours of their vacation drive and methodically executed in an isolated wood. This is the whole of the tale. This is not my opinion, or some distorted presentation of events: this is what Flannery O’Connor actually set out to show us.

Now, it is obvious to anyone who has read the story that O’Connor attempts to convey several important spiritual truths in the course of these fifteen-or-so uncomfortable pages. There is a sense of the sudden shock of evil, of the immeasurable urgency to follow Christ, and of the terrible pettiness which had consumed this unlikable family in what should have been much happier times. There is even poignant dialogue concerning the nature of prayer and the meaning of salvation for sinners of every kind. All of this is true. But if you will pardon me for saying so in a rather blunt manner, it is a very odd sort of an artist who conjures the gruesome and gratuitous massacre of a grandmother as a backdrop to debating points of systematic theology.

As with so much else that O’Connor produced, it is not the purpose of her writing, but the vehicle she chooses, that is disfigured and distracted. In this sense, O’Connor displays something of a likeness to a James Joyce or a Truman Capote; there is a deep sorrow, and almost an imbalance, which cannot help but break forth in the substance of her craft. Too often, for no reason but the author’s imaginative will, a story veers towards a prolonged contemplation of disorder, or even deliberate, manifest evil.

In her own lifetime, O’Connor blamed critics who described her fiction as grotesque and pandering to horror. On one occasion she reportedly quipped to her agent, concerning the possibility of having portions of her more disturbing writings censored, “I didn’t think I was that vicious.” But O’Connor understood that the images in which her creative mind so vividly dwelled brought her readers to many places they had no wish to go; and she ultimately consoled herself that such reluctance and revulsion was the product of a faithless world. She did not seem to make adequate allowance that it could indeed be a quite healthy reaction to refuse to linger upon such atrocities as depression, hatred, suicide and murder.

Enthusiasts for O’Connor’s works avow that frightful scenes of this kind can be desperately necessary to awaken individuals from spiritual lethargy. Some readers might even testify that these uncanny tales have inspired within themselves a sensitivity to the afflictions of others, and carried them closer to a vision of Christ, as no other literature could. Such arguments are not beyond credibility. But the use of strong medicine is a dangerous art. Metaphorically speaking, O’Connor wields a relentless mallet of anguish and mysticism in the fragile spaces of her readers’ souls. By such audacious devices some will be stirred, and some, quite simply, will be shattered. One could therefore be excused for regretting that O’Connor did not make better use of her stories’ tortured forms. For amidst a world which deeply craves the smallest droplet of God’s splendor, she often appeared ashamed to allow unqualified beauty—the manifestation of triumph and resurrection—to hold sway in the resolution of her elaborate narratives.

From everything I have read about her life, I believe with all my heart that Flannery O’Connor was a dedicated and sincere Catholic who wished to obtain the love and mercy of God for many souls, not least her own. And I have no difficulty accepting, insofar as we can say for those who have died, that she will have received the mercy and grace for which she so earnestly thirsted, and received it in great abundance. But I cannot consent to the notion that this, in itself, makes O’Connor’s literary efforts worthy of the praise with which they are so fulsomely lavished. Too many are filled with disjointed and confused scenes; some are inhabited by flimsy and stereotypical characters; nearly all are so deeply imbued with metaphysical imagery as to make a distraction of the whole point of storytelling.

I thoroughly expect that I shall have many articulate and vociferous replies from the defenders of Flannery O’Connor. I expect to be told that I have not sufficiently appreciated the subtleties of O’Connor’s purpose and style; or that my tastes in literature are utterly inadequate; or that I have been very inexpertly trained in the methods of literary criticism. It might even be said that I am an incorrigible Yankee who simply cannot comprehend the heroic talents of this Southern savant.

Very well. I have attempted to sketch an image of my impressions for the benefit of readers, and I do not say that I am always and unfailingly correct in each point. However, I am pleased to lay this dissenting opinion before your eyes, if only so that you will not feel compelled to say, as I once sullenly did, that on the peculiarities of Flannery O’Connor you had received no counsel or warning.

James P. Bernens

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James P. Bernens graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 2008. He also holds a J.D. from the William & Mary School of Law, and is completing an M.A. in philosophy at Boston College.

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