Volume 16
An Online Literary Magazine
March 31, 2022


Do People Still Read Flannery O'Connor?


Clarke Owens


Flannery O'Connor.



few years ago, I joined the 21st Century literature discussion group on Goodreads, and was immediately deluged with names of up-and-coming novelists, summaries of their works, and lists of their prizes. I read a few of the books, and led a discussion group for a novel by the French Nobel Prize winner, Patrick Modiano, as a way to begin familiarizing myself with his work. Since I always have a pile of to-reads, it was hard to keep up with this group, especially since it meant I had to buy a new book every time I wanted to enter a conversation. Anyone from the group is entitled to suggest a book for discussion, but the one rule that must always be followed is that the book’s publication may not pre-date the year 2000.


Now all those 20th-century books I once read and taught, during my wayward years as an untenured college professor are becoming hoary and dust rimed. Last year, just so as not to miss any of them, I bought a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories, even though I’d read most of the stories before. I read the book through with a sense of how old and dated the stories had become. They were all first published between 1946 and 1965, meaning the newest of them was over half a century old and the oldest three quarters of a century old.


Since it’s impossible to read O’Connor without being provoked to thought, I began to get ideas for an essay or two, just like in the old days, when there was a reason to write a critical article about a work of literature. And I wondered if anyone still read O’Connor, and began to look for critical works. Many of those I found, either through library databases or through a search for commercially-available titles on Amazon, turned up works that were decades old. However, there was a brand-new collection of critical essays coming out in December (2020), so I asked my wife to get me a copy as my Christmas present, which she kindly did. And lo and behold, here were the clever professors, coming up with ingenious new ways to discuss O’Connor, including one who analyzed the work using peacock feathers. On Amazon, the Collected Stories is sales ranked at #271 in Contemporary Literature. A Good Man Is Hard to Find is #280 in Southern Fiction. Wise Blood is #960 in Contemporary Lit and Fiction. The Library of America’s Collected Works is ranked #135 for American Fiction Anthologies. These are excellent rankings, and O’Connor’s other titles do similarly well, given the variations for different categories. I know it’s a shameful thing to do, but in researching this essay I also read several of the Amazon reviews, written by “real people.” And there, the tale was mixed. There were the usual avid fans, and an almost equal number of readers who gave O’Connor a try, and found her terminally unlikable. “No more!” was the verdict of this group.


The polarized responses in the Amazon reviews seemed to me a reflection of the tension one finds in O’Connor’s work between wickedly-talented storytelling and a dogged philosophical undertext that people not of like mind find annoying. I understand these responses because I have them myself. My dislike of O’Connor’s medieval religious views is among the reasons I got out of the academic game, having at one point found myself in a Catholic college in New England, evaluating a Catholic student’s senior thesis on Catholic liturgical symbols in O’Connor’s work and reacting to it with a disapproval far harsher than warranted, given that scholarship of this sort, even if tiresome and blind to black humor and tonal nuance, does no real harm and can even be useful. I was a Mexican Methodist from California, and I just didn’t belong there.


I’ve been glad I left the teaching profession for the law, and can’t any more imagine having to teach a story like “The Artificial Nigger” to a roomful of undergraduates. While still teaching, I did have the experience of offering up Huckleberry Finn and several works of Faulkner, and I always noticed when the Black kids didn’t show up for class discussions. How can you teach historical context to students for whom the whole race-based class of issues seems as ancient as reading about Greeks and Romans? There are dedicated profs who can do it, and want to do it. More power to them.


As someone addicted to American literature, and who can only read non-English language authors in translation with a sense of cautiously respectful distance, I’ve often thought about this apparent need for cultural affinity that I seem, in strong measure, to have. It isn’t characteristic of the other members of the 21st Century literature discussion group, I can tell you. They’re eager to read authors from every part of the globe, and seem unhampered by a need for parochial affinities. When I can read non-American or non-English authors with the same comfort level as American or English authors, it’s because they sound American. Murakami sounds American. He writes with a knowledge of American movies, American music. One of his books is called Norwegian Wood, after the Beatles song, and the Beatles played American music, as they were always quick to assure us.


I sometimes wonder why my current favorite author should be Philip Roth, when he writes about Jews in Newark, New Jersey, and I, as I say, am a Mexican Methodist from California. (That doesn’t even make sense. Mexican Californian makes sense, but a Mexican should be a Catholic, right? What this means is that I am even more Californian than Mexican. I am so Californian, I live in Ohio.) But then, I know why I feel so at-home and comfortable reading Roth. It’s because of my early devotion (starting at age nine) to Mad Magazine, which is now defunct. Mad was written and illustrated by Jews from New York. So were Marvel comics, which I got into at eleven. From Mad, I picked up Yiddish words, or what I imagine were Yiddish words, like fink and fershlugginer. I picked up Jewish-English intonation and word order (“Hey, Schloime, what time it is?”). I got the idea of Jewish New York humor and Jewish New York liberalism. I picked up the cadences of cosmopolitan urban life. Aside from that, I grew up in Sacramento, which, although I considered it a hick town in my youth, was actually a city in California, and there were plenty of Jews there. Roth represents an America I understand and feel at home in.


But, being American, I also feel right at home with hillbillies. This is the rural end of American life. This is Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner territory. We had hillbillies in California. Most of them were transplanted “Okies,” but I had teachers and professors from North Carolina and West Virginia as well as from Oklahoma. I had friends whose mothers talked with Texas drawls. I knew guitar players who worked in canning factories, singers who formed bands I joined, and who performed country music in shit-kicker bars. An old hillbilly woman with beer on her breath kissed me once, while I played guitar on a barroom floor that lacked a stage. I was playing songs like “Okie from Muskogee” and “Silver Wings.” My sister married a Texan she met at the University of California–Davis. My nephews are Texans. They say “y’all” as often as an MLA intellectual mentions “immanence.” In California, when I grew up there in the sixties, we didn’t say “nigger.” It wasn’t a polite word. I guess it wasn’t a polite word in Alabama, either, but all you had to do was watch the news to see that white people there still used it. And if you read Flannery O’Connor today, you’ll encounter that word everywhere, and it takes you back. And when you look back, you’re glad you’re not still there. You find yourself talking about context. You can see O’Connor struggling with the issue in her work. You find yourself wishing she could have lived a little longer, gotten a broader perspective on it. But she didn’t. So you’re stuck with that magnificent body of work, making its way just as far as it did into modern ideas and no further, reacting to them, often bitterly or caustically, with its blatant hatred of ameliorative liberalism and social science, and its grim tendency to suggest a path of Catholic moralism to readers already inclined in that direction, despite some pretty clear indications in Mystery and Manners that such a simplistic path was not exactly what O’Connor had in mind.


So, what about the rest of us, aside from the lit profs: do we still read O’Connor? It looks as though we do. OK, so why do we? Reading the essays about her in the book I got for Christmas, I learned that Alice Walker liked O’Connor’s treatment of Black characters, because she (O’Connor) didn’t try very hard to get into their minds. This is another way of saying that, for O’Connor, the Black character is mainly an Other. But it’s not an Other that is ignored. There are plenty of Black characters in O’Connor’s work. They’re angry, they’re bored, they’re irritated, they’re common, they’re self-interested, they’re violent, they’re sometimes not too bright. They’re a lot of things, but O’Connor doesn’t seem all that interested in getting deeply inside their minds, and that was what Walker liked. What that means, I’m not sure. Maybe it left a lane open for Black writers like Walker to speak for themselves. I think maybe it seemed like a form of modesty. Who knows?


For me, having the Black characters there simply means this is America. It’s like when I came home from a month-long trip to Europe and went for a drive and saw a Black guy walking by the side of the road and tears came to my eyes because I realized I was home. Or it was like when we flew from London to New York on the airliner, and as we circled above the skyscrapers, you could almost feel the jungle quality of it; you could sense the relative cosmopolitanism of it (relative, back then, in the late 1970s, to a more monochromatic Europe); you could feel the Latin rhythms in Gershwin’s music; you could feel the Cuban/African/Cajun/Creole influences waiting to welcome you back from the whiteness of Europe and its long history of tyrannical white kings and queens. And after visiting all the great cities, the cities of light and ancient grandeur, when the pilot announced in his New York accent, “We’ll soon be arriving in the greatest city in the world,” we all gave him a hearty boo and a Bronx cheer and turned over to finish our naps.


So, to answer the question. The academics read Flannery O’Connor because there’s meat on the bones. But I read her because she’s rural America, and that’s a place I know, just as I know urban America. I live in the country now. I’ve lived in rural Ohio for twenty-eight years. We own a barn, a horse, and a pasture. When I drive up the county road to the little town of Ashland, I see Trump signs all along the way, even though the election has been over for almost a year. I know those people in O’Connor stories. I know the way they talk. I know the kind of music they like. I hear it in barber shops and gas stations. I even have a little of it on my CDs. I know the people who hate New York liberals, and O’Connor was one of them, at least some of the time. I’ve got relatives among that crowd, too. They’re all Americans.


I love the New York liberals, too. Last year, I was in New York for about a week, and I found myself in Bloomingdale’s explaining to a clerk that a store manager had just informed me I was entitled to a tourist discount because I was from Ohio. She looked at me and said, “Oh, I thought you looked like somebody from here.” The remark pleased me, but then it’s always pleasant when someone seems to accept you and to treat you like a fellow member of the tribe. The other reaction, which I’ve also received at certain times and places, is not so pleasant. But the point is, when I read American authors, I feel most at home and understand all the cultural points of reference because it’s my tribe, whether it’s rural or urban. English writers, same thing because we’ve absorbed each other. It’s a great thing to read Thomas Mann or Flaubert in translation. It’s a wonder to read Homer or Virgil or Dante. There’s nothing like it. But those worlds are not my back yard.


It’s true. Catholic writing makes me uneasy. I’ve read a couple of Walker Percy’s books and forgotten them. I’ve been alternately impressed and bored by Graham Greene. Pascal is a clever fraud. But the best of all of them is Flannery O’Connor, whose Catholicism is, to my fallen mind, borderline lunatic. It hardly matters, because she was a damned genius, besides being my mother, my sister, my cousin.


Clarke Owens writes fiction, poems, journalism, and literary criticism. His work has appeared for many years in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and books. His third novel, Isak AI, will be released in December. An academic article will appear next summer in The Flannery O’Connor Review. He lives with his wife, poet/essayist Deborah Fleming, in rural Ohio. www.clarkewowens.com.







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