I’ve been enthralled with the writings of Flannery O’Connor for about 15 years now. Her short stories and essays have become companions. A couple of months ago, I was having lunch with a friend, who also likes her work. He asked me pointedly, “Why O’Connor?” I cannot remember what I said but the question keeps getting asked and answered in my own head. This past week I sat down, while sick, and read her novel, The Violent Bear It Away. The question came again. Here are ten reasons to consider giving her a try.
1. She’s a great writer. This may seem the most obvious. But I am not so sure. Oftentimes, her southern gothic stories and the characters within overshadow how well she wrote. She didn’t just create great characters and memorable stories, she surrounded them with incredible sceneries of words and sentences. I can picture the Geranium sitting on the window sill.
2. She wrote short stories. Now, you may think the shorter the story, the easier it is to write. Short story writers like O’Connor would disagree. Creating something of lasting value with limited length is no easy task. She did this masterfully, every short story a snapshot into realities which we might not have noticed otherwise. Every year an award is given in her name to a short story writer.
3. Every story is one of faith. Sometimes it’s front and center and at others, faith is in the corners lurking. Waiting. But its always there. This is not to say her stories should be seen as morality tales. She would not appreciate that. But she was a woman of deep faith and she wrote as if.
4. She nails language. If you are a writer and you want to write novels, study O’Connor. She dignifies all the contours of Southern speech and thought with writing which distinguishes the region’s accent and colloquialisms from everywhere else.
5. She’s funny. Her stories are full of humor. Not because she tells jokes of any kind but because they are full of everyday ridiculousness. The kind we laugh at in ourselves and others. her most horrific and most popular story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, stands this kind of humor right up against the invasion of grace in a haunting final scene.
6. Her stories are not easy. Yes, this is an actual reason to read her, not to avoid her. Learning and stretching your tastes is not just for High School and College students. It’s true, you may read a story of hers and wonder what the point is. But there you have already missed the point. Her stories are not morality tales. They are stories. And hers will stick with you for years after you’ve read them. And chances are at some point you will see something in the real world you would have missed had you not read Good Country People or Everything That Rises Must Converge. Often parts of our own lives only make sense years later. Why should fiction be so different?
7. She’s Southern. In my opinion, this may be the greatest thing about her. But forgive me, I’m Southern and we are not used to being proud of people or happenings in which the rest of world is also. But while many from the South long to escape the stereotypes and the distinctives, she embraced them and in a way she has been an instrument for redeeming them. She doesn’t romanticize, she merely points.
8. She’s Catholic. This may turn you off but in my mind it’s an asset. She is able to show me things I might not see without her eyes. Her eyes, so full of the sacramental, help me see the echoes of grace and the mercy of God, not just in her stories but everywhere.
9. Her characters are grotesque. This does not mean they are all ugly. This does not mean they are all bad. But their extremes show us more of them than we might see otherwise. She draws them in stark relief to all the heroes we are accustomed to staring at. They can help us understand other people and they can help us understand ourselves.
10. This was her life. That’s not an entirely fair statement. And this is hard to explain, but when you read about her life, her writing defines it. She never married. There are no romances, really. There is very little drama. She was single and lived a short life. And no beauty by the world’s standards. It is all about the words picked up by the winds of her mind and then laid down in these stories. She was devoted to these stories with routine and affection. And I think the stories find their most potent power in the context of her life.