Flannery O’Connor Hates You

I’d never read Flannery O’Connor until lockdown. I’d seen her listed as one of the outstanding writers of the twentieth century, specifically in terms of her short stories. I had time on my hands, so I bought her collected works.

In short, I was astonished. By my definition, her stories are ‘Great’ works of literature because they are beautifully crafted and absolutely incendiary.

To begin with, O’Connor is a master of her form. This means she is in complete control of her medium (language), the subjects within it and her ability to make them real to you. She uses simple, precise language, but the stories are anything but.

Nothing is wasted; every single detail is rendered in such a way to make you see, in fine detail, exactly what she wants you to see.

“The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun…”

  • ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own,’ p.147

In many ways, she reminds of The Ramones. You get some stories with remarkably similar setups, similar characters and relationships and she’ll tweak one aspect of it in order to create something different from story to story.

O’Connor is the kind of writer that creative writing teachers get wet over; she is the epitome of the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach, and while her language is basic, it’s evocative. However, every sentence is laid out to position you where she wants you, so you see what she wants you to see, when she wants you to see it.

By the time you reach the ending, her stories reveal themselves to be precisely built mechanisms with a spring-loaded conclusion concealed until the final page, where it launches itself upon you like a dog. What you find there is an unmitigated revelation. And that revelation is predominantly teeth and claws.

Apparently, Flannery O’Connor died quite early, in her late thirties, and left behind two novels and a collection of short stories that she wrote while living on her farm in Georgia, where she raised peacocks. She was a somewhat reclusive but ordinary person.

Her stories, however, are full of seething hatred for her subjects. The way she brutalises them physically and breaks up and destroys their minds, often right before casting them into death and disaster, is fearsome to behold.

And she begins by aligning them, and their good intentions, with her reader. She punishes and tortures them in order to punish and torture you, leaving you at the end of the vicarious experience nursing the bent and buckled tin halo of your own bourgeois self-perception.

Flannery O’Connor certainly lives up to the first part of the dictum, ‘Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.’

I am aware that writing about anything in this way makes it a hard sell. In my own opinion, she’s like a strong sparring partner, which is what a novelist like Hubert Selby Junior, or Franz Kafka figures as.

These novelists aren’t necessarily benign guides, leading you by the hand. If anything, they’re probably closer to Dante’s Virgil, from Inferno; they are accompanying you through a fearful territory, but before you can claim it, you must prove yourself the master of its denizens. Denizens that are terrifying most of all because they are yours.  

In such instances, mastery is only possible through confrontation.

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