Flannery in Janu’ry

Flannery child.Flannery O’Connor, from her childhood home (picture by K. Harper)

I committed myself to reading Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories as part of Books and Movie’s “I’ve Always Meant to Read That” challenge. In the past few years, I’ve acquired everything published by Flannery (except for A Prayer Journal, just released in November). The Challenge gave me a needed push to dive in.

It was more a belly flop than a dive. I collared my young friend Matthew, who counts FOC as one of his favorite authors, and asked him why I should be reading this depressing stuff. His answer:

“Every Christian needs to read O’Connor, to get the pettiness and self-absorption out of their systems.”

And, you know, Flannery grew on me. The later stories made more sense, were more accessible. “More mature,” a lit major would murmur, cigarette dangling between his knuckles.

It has been a baptism by immersion. Two things helped me immensely: I read Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, which made me sympathetic to her and helped me to see her vision. I borrowed two audio books, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Every Thing That Rises Must Converge, which included many of the stories in The Complete Stories. I took 4 mile walks, listening and concentrating. When I had the time, I listened and read along.

No question, the girl was brilliant. I felt kinship with the reviews of her first novel. “They all recognized her power but missed her point.” Here’s an example: In one story, a grandfather is confronted with a woman who claims his grandson ran into her and broke her ankle. He replies, “I don’t know him. I’ve never seen him before.” A clear allusion to Peter denying Christ the night before the crucifixion. Sooooo. What does it mean?

Flannery herself described her stories as odd, disturbing, unconventional. And the irony? With Flannery, irony is a contact sport. Wickedly funny. But it seems her goal was to smack us in the face so we would see ourselves correctly. These stories have much more than entertainment in mind.

Now that I’ve read through The Complete Stories, I’m ready to read through Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose and The Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being.

I hoped that O’Connor was filmed giving one of her lectures. I didn’t find that, but I found an audio track of her reading one of her most famous stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” This would give someone a taste of Flannery.

I found it interesting that Flannery substitutes “colored” for the n-word in this reading.

Flannery O’Connor and Downton Abbey

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We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.      — Flannery O’Connor

I am working through Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories this month. The stories aren’t enjoyable and they aren’t light reading. But I trust the folks who have urged me to read her and I get occasional glimpses of the glory that is Flannery.

Clearly, her stories are deep and infused with meaning. O’Connor explains a few things in Mystery and Manners. I came across this quote about violence; it immediately brought to mind the bad thing that happened to Anna in a recent episode of Downton Abbey.

What do you think? I’m mulling this over, differentiating violence in print—where you imagine what happens— and on screen, where an image is deposited in your brain vault.