Miss Flannery O’Connor was a petite little lady in horn rimmed glasses who never married and lived almost all of her much too brief life – she died at the age of 39 of complications from lupus disease in 1964 – in a modest house in Milledgeville, Georgia. She raised peacocks, birds that are resolutely opinionated, not unlike herself.
She was also arguably the most gifted writer of short stories that America has produced.
If you’re after a finely crafted tale to wander into get yourself a copy of her collected stories and just pick any one. If you want a perfect example, a true epitome, of the short story genre, try “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People.”
And if you aspire to be a writer of fiction, long or short, order a copy of her collection of essays titled Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. I know of no single book that contains more or better commentary on what good writing should be and what it shouldn’t be. It also lets us into the thinking of the little woman who lived in the company of birds and wrote with an almost unbelievably powerful narrative voice.
She could be blunt. And she didn’t hold with the notion that everybody can or should be a writer (it’s not hard to image what her opinion of the current deluge of self-published works would be). “Everywhere I go,” she said, “I’m asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” When asked why she had taken up writing, she always gave a straightforward answer: “Because I’m good at it.”
“There is no excuse,” she believed, “for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.”
A devout Catholic and a devout southerner, Miss Flannery managed to weave both her faith and what she called her “country” into her stories. She once said that the South is haunted by two things: Jesus and William Faulkner. “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”
When it came to faith, she came under considerable fire from critics, specifically in her church, for writing so many dark, less than admirable characters, a practice she defended by pointing out that sometimes the best way to show God’s grace is by showing the complete absence of it. When pressed to defend what had come to be called the Southern Grotesque school of fiction – Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” is a perfect example – she bristled like one of her peacocks. “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
She believed that good fiction should be always reflective of real life, and that “the writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.”
Flannery O’Connor’s place in American literature is secure and her influence on other writers is very nearly unrivaled. Her collection of stories and her three short novels have not been out of print since their publication and several of her tales are taught regularly in high schools and colleges. More importantly, her stories are still read; her precisely drawn characters and their situations still linger in reader’s thinking long after they’ve closed the pages.
And that, I suspect, will long be the case.
Because Miss Flannery knew a simple truth.
“In the long run,” she believed, “a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.”
We’re just eight years away from the one hundredth anniversary of her birth. I suggest we start celebrating now. Find a paperback copy of her collected stories (there’s a peacock on the cover) and be led into a fascinating world by an amazing storyteller.