Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flannery O'Connor: Critical Insights

As a result of her tenacious adherence to an unfamiliar narrative genre and an esoteric complex of theological themes, few twentieth-century fiction writers seem more in need of interpretation and analysis than Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor knew from the beginning of her career that both her method and her message would be bewildering to many readers. When editor John Selby, expecting a traditional novel, balked at the manuscript of Wise Blood, O’Connor, convinced that the quality of her fiction would derive precisely from the peculiarities to which he objected, cancelled her contract, declaring that she had no intention of writing a conventional novel.

Several years later, fully aware that she was often trying to communicate with many who did not share her religious beliefs, justified her shocking characters and their outrageous actions by insisting that to the hard of hearing, you had to shout and to the almost blind you had to drawn “large and startling figures.” She made no apologies that the subject of her fiction was always “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”

O’Connor always liked short stories. The author she cites as the earliest influence on her desire to write was the first theorist and self-conscious practitioner of the form in America, Edgar Allan Poe. In a letter in 1955, she said that as a child she read a lot of slop, but following the “Slop Period,” was the Edgar Allan Poe period, which lasted for years. Later in her career, however, she recognized that her true precursor was Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1961, she told John Hawkes, “I think I would admit to writing what Hawthorne called ‘romances’…. Hawthorne interests me considerably. I feel more of a kinship with him than with any other American.” In her essays and talks, her many reviews, and her letters, O’Connor often affirmed her commitment to the short story and to the romance form out of which it developed and with which it has always been aligned.

She knew that the style and narrative technique demanded by the short story was quite different than that expected in the novel. She once said, “I believe that it takes a rather different type of disposition to write novels than to write short stories, granted that both require fundamentally fictional talents.” In a good short story, she argued, “certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the story itself, and when this happens, they become symbolic in their action.” In response to the question, “What is a Short Story?” she insisted that it is not a joke, an anecdote, a lyrical rhapsody in prose, a case history, or a reported incident, for it has an “extra dimension” that occurs when the writer puts us in the middle of some “human action and shows it as it is illuminated and outlined by mystery.” In every story, O’Connor insisted, there is some “minor revelation which, no matter how funny the story may be, gives us a hint of the unknown, of death.”

Flannery O’Connor knew that there are two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenon, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other that involves an experience that challenge the acceptance of the real world as simply sensate and reasonable—an experience that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story in general, and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories in particular, more often focus on a character who is confronted with the world of spirit, which then challenges his or her conceptual framework of reason and social experience.

As Flannery O’Connor knew well, the short story has always remained close to the folk tale, the ballad, the romance, and the mythic forms that constitute the very source of narrative. If the novel creates the illusion of reality by presenting a literal authenticity to the material world, then the short story creates a similitude of a different realm of reality, that reality of the sacred which Mircea Eliade says primitive man saw as true reality. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories attempt to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality. The short story form is, as Flannery O’Connor knew throughout her short life, closer to the nature of "reality" as we experience it in those moments when we are made aware of the inauthenticity of the everyday life, those moments when we sense the inadequacy of our ordinary categories of perception.

This volume is an effort to introduce O’Connor to a new generation of readers by including twelve previously published essays that clarify her religious ideas, her narrative technique, her use of humor, and the regional and social context of her fiction, and four original essays commissioned especially for this volume that make significant new contributions to the understanding and appreciation of her work.

In 2009, more than 10,000 people cast ballots for what they considered to be the best book of fiction among all the National Book Award winners in its history. Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories was the winner. Although such numbers do not speak louder than words, especially the words of Flannery O’Connor, they would surely make that wise and wonderful writer shake her head in wry amusement.

For further information about the volume, go to: http://salempress.com/Store/samples/critical_insights/oconnor.htm

Critical Insights: Flannery O'Connor: Table of Contents

”About This Volume,” Charles E. May

Career, Life, and Influence
On Flannery O'Connor and the Short Story/Romance Tradition, Charles E. May
Biography of Flannery O'Connor, Charles E. May
The Paris Review Perspective, Paul Elie for The Paris Review

Critical Contexts
Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Story, Susan Srigley
The "Christ-Haunted" South: Contextualizing Flannery O'Connor, John Hayes
Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, and the Writer's "True Country," Avis Hewitt
Flannery O'Connor: Critical Reception, Irwin H. Streight

Critical Readings

"Flannery O'Connor and the Art of the Holy," Arthur F. Kinney

"Flannery O'Connor's 'Spoiled Prophet'," T. W. Hendricks

"Flannery O'Connor's Misfit and the Mystery of Evil," John Desmond

"'Wingless Chickens': "Good Country People" and the Seduction of Nihilism," Henry T. Edmondson III

"'Through Our Laughter We Are Involved': Bergsonian Humor in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction," J. P. Steed

"Carnival in the `Temple': Flannery O'Connor's Dialogic Parable of Artistic Vocation," Denise T. Askin

"Flannery O'Connor's Empowered Women," Peter A. Smith

"The Domestic Dynamics of Flannery O'Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge," Bryant N. Wyatt

"'The Artificial Nigger' and the Redemptive Quality of Suffering," Richard Giannone

"Wise Blood: O'Connor's Romance of Alienation," Ronald Emerick

"From Manners to Mystery: Flannery O'Connor's Titles," Marie Lienard

"Called to the Beautiful: The Incarnational Art of Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away," Christina Bieber

Chronology of Flannery O'Connor's Life
Works by Flannery O'Connor


Charlene said...

Flannery is one of my favorites. I keep a copy of her collection on my desk. There's a couple of stories I keep going back to and read the endings--Greenleaf, A View of the Woods--and then there's that one line (two) in Revelations that stuns me: "A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret of life."

DP said...

Have a quick question about Flannery O'Conner.

Are O'Connor's works blasphemous? I just finished "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

I believe O'Conner is painfully honest and thought-provoking, but in my heart I don't want to believe that she's blasphemous.

For what it's worth, the story had me hooked as if I were reading a good spy novel.

Now, had some of O'Connor's scenes been in a Stephen King book, they might have been considered tame, and I don't think I would be asking these questions. But the way O'Connor probes is truly piercing.

From what I recall she was a devout Catholic of all things.

So if anyone can give me some direction on this, it would be greatly appreciated.

Are O'Connor's works blasphemous or am I reading too much into it?

Charles E. May said...

Yes, Flannery O'Connor was a devoted and dedicated Catholic, although it is true that some of her readers did not approve of her fiction. And no, I do not think she was blasphemous in any way.

Proctor S. Burress said...

Ms O'Connor was and is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Think of it this way...commentator after commentator seem to be reading her works as though they are looking at/reading a Rorshach Inkblot: some see butterflies, flowers while fewer see dark figures menacing us. The possibilities seem endless.

As strange, conflicted and troubled with dogmatic religious ideas learned as a juvenile that Ms O'Connor was, we, her interpreters are most troubled writing endlessly as is being done here!

Even though this bright little girl with such self assured snarky attitudes became a brilliant person, very short on humility, who felt called to judge and condemn all those around her...the best modern example of an American religious writer "who saw through a glass darkly!"

We are troubled because we perpetuate endless interpretations of her violent work swallowing the bizarre notion that God slams us with Grace in order to save us. Or is it just to get our attention?

This is peculiarly the Roman Catholic notion of salvation but not that of many evangelicals who are inspired by stories they do not know nor which they have fully examined!

Even so, all need to be reminded and cautioned as to the horrors of her lupus, her very limited environment, her extreme imagination that in which some actually see a very dark humor and her doctrinaire and atypical mix of a layman's take of theological interpretations on the world for which she provided her own imprimatur.

Additionally, and not the least of the matters to be examined might be, the limited mix of cohorts and advisors with which she lived such an isolated life. Please tell us of her writing for shock value...and profit...while often in the grip of a lupus attack! Horribly, this lupus sought to destroy her and did so.

Someday there will be those who put this all together achieving more than the present cult seems capable.