Creating Flannery O’Connor
An interview with Daniel Moran, who examines the Georgia author’s critics, publishers and readers in his new book.
Flannery O’Connor may now be known as the “Great American Catholic Author,” but this wasn’t always the case. As history professor Daniel Moran points out on his new book Creating Flannery O’Connor, “what seems like an obvious part of an author’s reputation was not always visible.” Readers today won’t find it surprising that O’Connor is depicted on a 93 cent stamp, required reading for many students or that her home of Andalusia Farm is a tourist attraction, but Moran was interested in how all of that came to be.
With chapters on receptions to Wise Blood, O’Connor’s Catholicism and posthumous reputation, Robert Giroux, Sally Fitzgerald and The Habit of Being, adaptations of her work and the common (online) reader, Moran explains how O’Connor got to where she is today and how she felt about her reputation at the time. He tells the story of her evolving career and the shaping of her literary identity, finding parallels between her original reviewers and today’s readers.
We interviewed him by email about how this book came about, why so many people didn’t get her work when it was initially published (and still don’t) and what’s next for Flannery O’Connor’s legacy.
EZB: How did this book come about? You are writing about O’Connor from a new angle, so how did you get interested in this subject?
DM: I’ve always been interested in O’Connor and other writers that dramatized Christian mysteries, like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. The idea of asking, “How did O’Connor become the sort of brand name we recognize now?” occurred to me in graduate school, when I began learning about book history and reception studies of individual books, how people first responded to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Sound and the Fury, for example. What’s interesting is that the initial receptions of these books aren’t always like what we’d expect.
When you look at reviews written in 1952, when Wise Blood was first released, you’re struck by how seldom the reviewers seem to realize that the novel is profoundly Catholic in its portrayal of life and how sympathetic O’Connor is to Motes’s struggle. Now, it’s easy to sit here in 2016 and smirk at these reviewers and call them benighted, etc., but I couldn’t believe that was the case. Plenty of intelligent people reviewed O’Connor’s works but didn’t catch her Catholicism—or even catch the idea that she was not writing fiction to make fun of southerners. Some of them were even surprised she was a woman.
Plus, we all know the feeling of looking at one-star reviews of a favorite book or album on Amazon and shaking our heads, thinking, “Well, that person just doesn’t get it.” So my initial question was, “How could all of these people not ‘get’ O’Connor, when she seems so blatantly a Catholic writer exploring themes as big as they come?” A quick reply of, “Well, they weren’t smart enough” doesn’t explain anything. Plus, it makes one sound like Lucynell Crater in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” when she says that the monks of old “weren’t as advanced as we are.” And then that led to my thinking about how a writer’s reputation is formed not only by his or her work, the actual writing, but by a host of other factors. There’s a wonderful book by John Rodden called The Politics of Literary Reputation in which he explains—in unbelievable detail—how Orwell’s reputation was created and how folks of various political angles try to co-opt it. I had never read anything like that, so that was also in the back of my mind.
I knew I didn’t want to write a straight literary analysis of the work. Those books seem to have all been written, plus I didn’t want to sit at my desk and write, “Here’s what I think of ‘The River’; here’s what I think of ‘Revelation,’ etc.” So everything I had percolating came together in this book.
EZB: When and how were you initially introduced to O’Connor’s work?
DM: I honestly can’t recall the exact moment. I was never assigned her work as a student, although I did end up assigning her often as a teacher. But I can say that, like many other readers, I read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and was really puzzled and affected by it. I felt like Mr. Jones in Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Something was happening, but I didn’t know what it was. Eventually, through years of reading all of her work and thinking about it, I was able to appreciate her work. Now I don’t think a day goes by where some line of hers doesn’t flash in my head.
I do recall the moment when I finished reading The Violent Bear it Away for the first time. In my book, I quote a Goodreads reviewer who says that when she finished it, she thought the book would burst into flame in her hands. I remember feeling something similar to that the first time I read it.
EZB: You have a chapter on “The Two Receptions of Wise Blood.” Can you set the literary and social scene that contributed to readers’ and reviewers’ initial reactions to the book? How different were things 10 years later?
DM: When we read Wise Blood now, we can’t imagine that anyone ever missed its Catholic themes. I mean, a man insists there is no Christ and eventually blinds and scourges himself for being “unclean.” But most of the original reviewers in 1952 simply missed this and wrote about the book as if were a satire of Southern attitudes and manners, or the work of a writer who knew better and was making fun of her characters. That word “satire” comes up a lot, especially from northern reviewers, as if the reviewers were thinking, “She can’t really mean this.” I was able to find only one original review that mentions the novel’s Catholic themes. One! It’s also interesting that the initial reviewers never detected what I see as O’Connor’s profound sympathy for Motes, whose struggle is at least genuine, as opposed to the mouthing of platitudes or dressing up for mass.
Soon after the novel’s publication, O’Connor wrote in a letter, “The thought is all Catholic, perhaps overbearingly so,” but almost none of the original reviewers thought the same. Of course, literature is not simply a subcategory of any creed, nor is Catholicism the only meaningful avenue into O’Connor’s work. But the fact that her Catholicism was simply not an issue to many original reviewers reminds us that what seems like an obvious part of an author’s reputation was not always visible. Perhaps the notion of an author’s being Southern, female and Catholic was too improbable a combination for O’Connor’s initial reviewers to consider.
Between the first and second edition of Wise Blood in 1962, O’Connor published A Good Man Is Hard to Find and The Violent Bear It Away, which were like instruction manuals for reading Wise Blood. These shook up the critics and let them see that she was far from mocking Motes—so that when the second edition came out, readers behaved as if they had discovered what was there all along. The book hadn’t changed, but its readers had.
What’s also cool is that the many covers of Wise Blood reflect this very idea—that her readership came around to her Catholicism. Now, we see religious and Catholic symbols on the covers, but that wasn’t always the case.
EZB: You state that “critical recognition of O’Conner’s fiction as not confined to the South was important” for her reputation. Why was that, and did that recognition change the perception of Southern literature to come?
DM: This was important for her reputation because she moved from a niche writer or regionalistic curiosity to one exploring universal themes—swinging for the fences, if you will. O’Connor herself insisted over and over that her books were not “about the South” or their themes only understandable below the Mason-Dixon line. Her books take place in what she called the “Christ-haunted South” and her characters are Southerners, but the themes are universal. In 1955, O’Connor said, “A serious novelist is in pursuit of reality. And of course when you’re a Southerner and in pursuit of reality, the reality you come up with is going to have a Southern accent, but that’s just an accent; it’s not the essence of what you’re trying to do.” She says elsewhere that the region is what a writer uses to suggest what is beyond it.
I’d argue that what makes her books so wonderful is that they dramatize Catholic themes without Catholic characters. None of her protagonists would ever think, “Well, maybe this thing I want, this thing I need, can be found in a Catholic church. That’s it! I’ll become a Catholic!”— because of that, their struggles are dramatic and illuminating and interesting. I don’t think readers would want to pick up “The Pious Nun Who Attended Daily Mass” to learn about a crisis of faith.
I’m not sure of the degree to which O’Connor’s broadened readership and recognition of the universality of her themes changed the perception of Southern literature a as whole, but it surely had some influence. When you look at the scholarship done today and the interest in Southern culture and literature, you can see that she was part of making that happen.
EZB: Let’s talk about the word “grotesque.” How did it come to be used to describe O’Connor’s work and has it become a cliché?
DM: The term first appears in a review of Wise Blood and used disparagingly. The critic states, “A grotesque—for the more zealous avant-gardists; for others, a deep anesthesia.” After this, you see it everywhere. I remember thinking, when I was going through all of the original reviews, “If one more person calls these books ‘grotesque’ … ” Her original critics and contemporary readers all use this term as if it did all of the difficult intellectual work that O’Connor’s fiction demands: “Tarwater is a grotesque,” “O’Connor’s work is grotesque,” and that’s that. It’s a term that seems to suggest all kinds of things, but really suggests that the critics weren’t really sure how to describe her singular stuff. In 1963, she was asked if her work was grotesque because she was a Southerner; she replied, “We’re all grotesque and I don’t think the Southerner is any more grotesque than anyone else.”
Then I started asking why that was so, what is it with this word—or with any word that people repeat when they evaluate art? You know, calling Joyce’s work “difficult” or Chekhov’s “depressing” or Cormac McCarthy’s “graphic”—those labels aren’t false, but they don’t really do much. At best, they’re critical shorthand; at worst, they reveal a desire to contain, to limit, to label what strikes the reader as odd. “Oh well, that’s Southern grotesque, you know. Lots of exhorting and drinking and murders.”
I don’t know if it’s a cliché more than a quick fix. Yes, of course, the characters are often grotesque—but after you call them that, then what? The term implies that the characters are exaggerations or warped versions of “normal” people. But I’ve met plenty of people who act like they belong in an O’Connor story. And if the characters were simply “grotesques,” the fiction wouldn’t resonate as it does. Today, the word “dark” seems to have replaced “grotesque,” at least among reviewers on Goodreads.
EZB: How did Giroux’s publication of The Complete Stories increase access to O’Connor’s work and affect her reputation?
DM: Robert Giroux, whose name we all know from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, was a champion of literature in general and O’Connor in particular. He never stopped promoting her for a minute. When I read his correspondence and papers in the FS&G archives, I was so impressed by his energy and his decency. Here was a man in a lucrative business, working in Manhattan, who wanted to get great books in readers’ hands. He wasn’t looking for the next Godfather or Love Story; he was looking for the next Portrait of a Lady or Great Gatsby.
After O’Connor’s death in 1964, Giroux made sure that her second collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, was published the following year; he then kept working on a complete edition of her stories, which was eventually published in 1971. This was so important because it cemented her reputation as a serious author—the very existence of the collection suggests that—but also as an American, rather than a Southern, author. That was one of Giroux’s aims. At this time, there were no biographies of O’Connor, and Giroux used his introduction to urge this idea on his readers. He seemed to be saying, “Yes, you Manhattanites, you may want to pigeonhole O’Connor as a writer of ‘Southern grotesques’ and look down on her from your penthouses, but she has your number.” Giroux calls her “as American as one can be.”
The book was lauded everywhere. It won the National Book Award for fiction—and this was the first time the award was given posthumously, which caused a bit of a row. Giroux, however, didn’t care, he wanted people to read her work. When he accepted the award on behalf of O’Connor’s mother, he said, “In an age of mendacity, duplicity, and document shredders, the clear vision of Flannery O’Connor not only burns brighter than ever but it burns through the masks of what she called ‘blind wills and low dodges of the heart.’” What a line!
EZB: Attempts have been made over the years to reproduce O’Connor’s work, starting with John Huston’s Wise Blood. Why is it so difficult to adapt her work for television, the stage or screen and do you think we’ll ever see any more of these in years to come?
DM: There are two problems. The first is that sometimes the action in O’Connor’s work is internal. There are terrific passages in which she makes a character’s inner life understandable, the best example of which is probably the pages right before Rayber collapses in The Violent Bear It Away. But she doesn’t do that kind of thing too often. More often, in works such as “The River” or “Good Country People,” almost all of the action is external and could be easily filmed. The challenge, however, is offering a viewer her tone, her descriptions, her attitude. You can show Enoch Emery, for example, sitting in his room, but only O’Connor can describe, in her hilarious way, why he is afraid of a picture of a moose.
I once saw a theatrical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which looked great: everyone in it was perfectly cast, the dialogue came right out of the novel, the sets were perfect, but for some reason it just didn’t work and I couldn’t tell why. But then later I realized what it was, the play had everything except Jane Austen’s voice. That’s the greatest challenge of adapting O’Connor’s work. You can show the things happening, but it’s difficult to include her narration. It’s the same problem people face when they adapt the work of Henry James. They get the actors and costumes and sets right, but what’s Henry James without his voice? Kubrick’s Lolita is perfectly cast—and he even used Nabokov’s screenplay as its starting-point—but without Humbert’s voice, it doesn’t work as well as the novel does.
One way to achieve this is to do what Karin Coonrod did when she mounted a theatrical production of three of O’Connor’s stories: she used every single word of each one, so that the audience heard the narrator and all the characters, exactly as if he or she were reading the text. I saw her version of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and it worked perfectly.
EZB: You have a chapter about online reviews of O’Connor’s work that shows many readers are still missing the point when it comes to her writing. Does this prove that she remains an acquired taste, or is she really just smarter than the rest of us?
DM: Many readers are missing the point, but there are also many readers who aren’t. When I was doing the research for the book, I found that I had a lot about how literary critics and professors and publishers and editors regarded her books–but not much about how regular people, so to speak, thought about them. I want to know what “common readers” thought about her work and if their opinions aligned with those of “professionals.” Then it hit me that I could use Goodreads as a source. So I went through about 4,000 reviews and categorized them and noticed the trends to see how her reception has changed and what’s remained the same. That was exhausting and time-consuming but really interesting. People have asked me how the “common reader” comes out of this and every time I’ve said that this research was really affirming. I have great faith in the literary taste of fellow readers. Of course, when someone pans one of her books or doesn’t get it, I shake my head, but I’m only human.
For me, it only took one story, but yes, I think O’Connor is an acquired taste. I’ve urged her work on students and friends and sometimes they come back to me and say things like, “What in the world was that?” To read O’Connor, you have to acknowledge that she will often prove herself smarter than you and some folks don’t like that. She makes them uneasy. If you want to be flattered, don’t read O’Connor’s work.
A famous but unidentified author once asked Robert Giroux if he really thought O’Connor was so great. He replied, “If she were here, she’d set you straight. You’d have a hard time outtalking her.” I’m not sure if she is smarter than the rest of us, but I think she had what one of her characters calls a “moral intelligence” that challenges readers who want to feel superior to her characters and other people.
EZB: With Bill Sessions’ biography still forthcoming, what do you see for the future of O’Connor’s legacy?
DM: I’m not aware of when Sessions’ biography will be released. I’ve read that it was completed and that he was revising it at the time of his death—and that it stands at 800 pages, which strikes me as incredible. Of course, I’ll buy it and read it the day it’s released—but that may not be for a while since the estate is very exacting about O’Connor’s legacy. But that legacy seems to be solid. More scholarship is published on her work every year and, just this morning, I saw that her Complete Stories had 27,000 reviews on Goodreads, which is 16,000 more than Tobacco Road. That’s still about 75,000 fewer than As I Lay Dying—but the race is not always to the swift.