During the month of January, I plowed through this book:
This is the complete works of Flannery O’Connor.
I chose this for several reasons. 1) Flannery O’Connor is thought to have been one of the most respected writers of faith in recent history. 2) I need to read quality books to feed my brain if I’m going to call myself a writer. 3) My personal goal is to read fifty books in 2013 and 4) I chose this and got a hundred pages into it — which I consider pretty committed — before I realized that this volume was over 1000 pages long.
Until I picked up this book, the only thing I had read of hers was A Good Man Is Hard To Find and after reading it, I was so emotionally bewildered, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read anything else.
But for the sake of art, I decided to try again. This was before, of course, I realized this volume was so long.
It took me about 600 pages to finally realize that I need to buy this book. O’Connor’s novels and short stories have a common element of Southern backwoods faith coming against the expectations of mid-century culture, Southern gentility and various forms of post-modern enlightenment. Her characters, especially the eaters of fat back and habitual church goers who speak more than they think, could have come right out of my childhood. The smug sons and daughters who return home (or who have never left) and argue with their parents over higher thought and reason and what they learned in college could have been me between the ages of fifteen and twenty-seven. The underlying themes of salvation and justice and redemption are all themes that I love and that I would hope to be able to communicate in my stories as well as she does. I am convinced that in the culture war we are now fighting in our churches and on the local news, Flannery O’Connor is still very relevant and I am not only going to make my children read her when they are old enough, but they are also going to savor her work, not just for the artistry (oh my, there is so much artistry!) but also for the hard questions it asks and the willingness to conclude that the answers are not easy.
If that weren’t enough, at the back of this volume are 400 pages of her letters to friends and colleagues. Her humor and faith comes through in such grace — in an entirely different way than it does in her stories — and I want to invite her over for lunch and talk to her about her peacocks, her health and why she hates talking about writing. Maybe i”m a little star struck, but I think O’Connor would have made a great mentor or big sister.
Here are some of my favorites lines of hers from her letters:
“I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call “A Good Man” brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian sentimentalism.”
“My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.”
“There is a question whether faith can or is supposed to be emotionally satisfying. I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion.”
“You ask God to let you see straight and write straight. I read somewhere that the more you asked God, the more impossible wahtyou asked, the greater glory you were giving Him. This is something I don’t fail to practice, although not without the right motives.”
“When you write a novel, if you have been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, the it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business.”
“Fiction is supposed to represent life, and the fiction writer ahs to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing. THe fiction writer doesn’t state, he shows, renders. It’s the nature of fiction and it can’t be helped. If you’re writing about the vulgar, you have to prove that they’re vulgar by showing them at it. The two worst sins of bad taste in ficton are p**nography and sentimentality. One is too much s*x and the other too much sentiment. You have to have enough of either to prove your point but no more. Of course there are some fiction writers who feel they have to retire to the bathroom or the bed with every character every time he takes himself to either place. Unless such a trip is used to further the story, I feel it is in bad taste.”
This was only at the halfway point. I’m sure I could collect more and more passages that I loved, not only from her letters but from all the stories and essays that were in this volume. I loved this volume so much, I came up with three or four research papers I would write on her if I were taking a college course. Fortunately for you, I won’t use my blog for such things.
This post is pretty much a Flannery O’Connor gush fest. It’s been said that we write what we read. I’d be happy to have my writing reflect more of her wit, her honesty and her faith anytime.