Did she write realism, or was it merely grotesque?


Flanner O'Connor, the enfant terrible of Southern writers.
Flanner O’Connor, the enfant terrible of Southern writers.

I fear that not that many people know about Flannery O’Connor anymore. For such a short period of time, she was one of the country’s strongest, most influential, most disconcerting, and perhaps most shocking voices in American literature. She was described by Brian Collier in Atlanta Magazine as the “enfant terrible of Southern writers,” someone who consistently “probed, in a distinctly Southern idiom, the mysterious outer reaches of reality that are the province of the prophet and the poet.”

Flannery O’Connor had once said, “Southern writers are stuck with the South, and it’s a good thing to be stuck with.” O’Connor once criticized the new breed of writers, turning out one pot boiler after another, by saying, “You know what’s the matter with them? They’re not from anywhere.”

417nI6rpOJL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Flannery O’Connor did not have a large body of work to leave us – only two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and thirty-two short stories. But her work received three O’Henry Awards, and her Complete Stories won the 1972 U. S. National Book Award for Fiction. She did not live long enough to know it.

Flannery O’Connor was far different from you and me. She liked to drink Coca-Cola in her coffee. She once gave her mother a mule for Mother’s Day. She traveled to Lourdes to pray for the novel she was writing, The Violent Bear It Away, which she referred to as Opus Nauseous. Her Gothic stories were filled with the odd, the unusual, the eccentric. Her characters, more than once, were regarded as freaks. But she was convinced, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.”

She was and proud of it. O’Connor pointed out, “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 … Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

In her stories, told often with a dark , ironic, sardonic humor, O’Connor wove together a combination of violence and shock tactics.  For example, after The Misfit in A Good Man Is Hard to Find murdered a family of five on the highway, she wrote simply: “Jesus throws everything off balance.” She once said, “I am 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 realism … When I see these stories described as horror stories, I am always amused because the review always has hold of the wrong horror.”

Flannery O’Connor left behind an overwhelming array of letters and essays about her work and her philosophy on writing. These are some of her thoughts.

  • Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
  • Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality, and it’s very shocking to the system.
  • People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them.
  • There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this emotion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or mock innocence.
  • Fiction is about everything human, and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.
  • I’m a full-time believer in writing habits. You may be able to do without them if you have genius, but most of us only have talent, and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits, or it dries up and bows away. Of course, you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.
  • Try arranging (your novel) backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.
  • A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word I the tory to say what the meaning is.
  • This may be a small matter, but the omniscient narrator never speaks colloquially. This is something it has taken me a long time to learn myself. Every time you do it, you lower the tone.

Flannery O’Connor died at the age of thirty-nine from Lupus and its complications. She spent most of her final ten years on crutches. We can only imagine what kind of genius a long life would have contributed to the world of literature. She once wrote a line that described her life and her passing: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”


Please click the book cover image to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his books. Wicked Little Lies is indeed a Southern novel.

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  • Flannery O’Connor is my idol. I share with her writing, disability, and Catholicism, and every time I have a hard time writing, I remind myself how much she did with what she had, and I am humbled, and reminded I still have life – so I should go out there and write with it.

    Thank you for these quotes – it helps to hold the wisdom from those who have gone before ever present in the mind.

    I can’t possibly do the kind of writing she did – I am not Southern. I aspire to my own kind of writing, but I haven’t forgotten the things of hers I’ve read years after I read them. That is power. I’m not sure she didn’t have some of that ‘genius’ – I’ll take her word for it, though, but she certainly both HAD talent, and took steps to make sure it found her at work when she had her daily little bit of energy.

    I wonder what we would have of her soul if she had had modern medicine. We’ll never know. But she knew the pressure of limited time on Earth – and we all could use a reminder of that, me daily.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You and I both share the same idol. Flannery looked like such a sweet, shy, unassuming girl. Yet, her writing is powerful and shocking and remains locked in your psyche for a long time. No one can write as she did. She was either blessed with the gift or condemned with the curse.

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