This is another one of my delicious Christmas 2020 gifts, they were so amazing they pretty much recouped the year. By way of disclosure, I have never read anything by Flannery O’Connor, even though her name is familiar to me. When dealing with a fiction writer it may not be best to start with their essays and lectures, but hey ho! it is what it is and if 2020 taught me something it is to take what life brings me.
In recent years, the life and works of Flannery O’Connor were scrutinized from the race angle, and as I haven’t read anything by her, I’ll refrain from voicing any opinions on the topic. In this collection of essays, she does touch on the topic of race a few times and yes in today’s world her words are objectionable, to say the least. But then we’d have to get into the whole discussion of whether we should be boycotting author’s work based on their life, and I don’t want to do that here. However, if you are interested in a few reactions to Flannery O’Connor I’m sharing a selection of blog posts that focus on the topic, I did not filter them to focus on any single point of view, so you may find views in them you strongly disagree with.
This collection starts with a beautiful and funny essay on peacocks. O’Connor was an avid peacocks collector, she also had plenty of other poultry. Finding this out together with the picture of her included in the book formed a clear mental picture in my mind, a stereotype was called upon. Crazy chicken lady. Well, the book swiftly proceeded to prove me wrong. From peacocks, the book proceeds to a broader look at the writer’s condition and obligations towards his craft, country, him/herself, and the reader.
O’Connor writes from a very specific standpoint that she makes clear to us early on, that of a Southern Catholic writer. She knows who she is and rarely makes claims to reflect a universal experience, rather advocating the specificity of her own. The mystery and manners of the title crop up often in the book, the idea is basically that the writer’s starting point should always be the reality that they know. The observable world and its people, this is why she has no problem with being a Southern writer because this is precisely what she sees herself as being. But the realism in her view cannot be the be-all-end-all, it becomes limiting and makes the writing merely flat reporting. This is where the mystery aspect comes in, for O’Connor it is her faith, but in broader understanding, the mystery is what the writer should aim to discover by exploring the manners. For her the path of a writer leads from staring at reality, exploring it to understanding the mystery and through the manners delivering the mystery to their readers. She believes that if a writer starts with the idea rather than the reality they are doomed to fail, for their voice will ring hollow.
Let’s be honest, he does not have much respect for an average reader, more disdain. Her low expectations of the readers and equally high expectations of the authors brought to my mind some of the thoughts expressed by Jeanette Winterson in Art Objects. It is the writer’s role to break the boundaries set by the conventional notions of the readers. It is on the authors to shepherd readers towards the new.
Flannery O’Connor certainly does not come across as a crazy chicken lady, despite what the first essay may make us think. Her voice rings loud and clear. Her convictions are strong, she has no patience for doubt. We may agree or disagree, but it is solely our problem it seems. And I did both while reading this book, but what never ceased to astonish me was the clarity that O’Connor possesses and her ability to express it very directly.
I must admit that I didn’t finish this book, because of the last four essays/lectures. They focus on the relations of Catholic writer to their readers and their faith. I expect they are as insightful as the earlier texts, but I just could not get into the frame of mind to read about faith and it’s influence on writing.
Given O’Connor’s thoughts and a very and caustic voice, I am curious to read some of her short stories. But then I do not really like short stories, so I think in the end I’ll only do it if a book comes my way, rather than actively seeking her writing out.
What are your thoughts on Flannery O’Connor?
FLANNERY O’CONNOR ON WRITING – a selection of quotes from Mystery and Manners
Flannery O’Connor – a descriptin of a blogger’s struggle
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska