This column is going to be a little different than most of the others I’ve written in this book series. I don’t enjoy the writing of Flannery O’Connor very much. In fact, when I read the first assigned short story by her for a class, I absolutely hated it. O’Connor is dark and gritty, and dark and gritty has never been my thing. But over the course of reading more of her work, she has won me over to a grudging respect, and it is out of respect I write this review of her work. It also seemed timely, considering the consistent comparisons between O’Connor’s writing and the new movie Calvary.
The Catholic O’Connor wrote about her home in the Deep South during the latter half of the 20th century. Her stories are a strange combination of grating realism and imagery so powerful it is almost allegorical. And this smoothed out our originally rocky relationship. I found her seamless combination of analogy and reality refreshing. After all, isn’t that how God works? Didn’t the apostle Paul tell us that the very real Sarah and Hagar were also very real analogies for our spiritual state? (Galatians 4)
Her stories are full of complicated, sinful, dirty people living complicated, sinful, and dirty lives. Some would say she goes beyond honesty and relies on shock value. And she apparently did not quibble with that conclusion herself.
If you plan to read O’Connor’s fiction, I would highly suggest first reading her essay, “A Fiction Writer and His Country.” In it, she explained why her writing was so grotesque. “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures,” she wrote.
It was this essay that solidified my appreciation for her writing. Though I doubt I will ever really enjoy reading O’Connor (indeed, I may avoid reading her altogether), there was a reason, even a compelling one, for her raw portrayal of the extremes of human depravity and darkness. She saw those around her as living in a fog, and if she was shocking, it was to shock them to reality.
Her stories are not for everyone. As I’ve said, I found many of them distasteful and I certainly wouldn’t suggest them for young readers. But if you are looking for a person of faith who can keep up with the best gritty writers, O’Connor might be who you’re looking for.
Of the short stories I read, I prefer Parker’s Back. In her novel The Violent Bear It Away O’Connor explored God’s calling, salvation, and mercy from a fresh, if somewhat unorthodox, angle.