Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Good Southern Writer Is Hard to Find--at least one as Good as Flannery O'Connor

Today is Flannery O'Connor's birthday. She's one of my favorite writers, and I think she's the best short story writer ever. Yes, I said it. The Best. Not one of the best. The Best. Ever.

I'll wait here for you to protest. What about Chekhov? What about Poe? What about _______ (insert name of your favorite minimalist writer currently favorite with the writing crowd set)?

Nope. Flannery O'Connor's brilliance takes her to another level. Her stories are over half a century old now, and they still seem fresh, daring, and radically different. She's one of those rare writers who takes a form and shows us what that form could do. She explodes it and enriches it at the same time.

Go back to read "Good Country People." Hulga and the Bible salesman--no one alive is creating characters like those. And when you read the story, watch out for the so-called minor characters. Richly developed. Read "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and ponder that epiphany at the end. Oh, take the afternoon and read all the short stories. What else are you going to do with your time? Watch the useless television? Go grocery shopping? No, read Flannery O'Connor and prepare to be amazed.

I was first exposed to Flannery O'Connor through church, interestingly enough. In the late 70's, we had a campus minister who had an office and some duties in Charlottesville's Lutheran church. He had a degree (or was he only working on it then?) in Religion and Literature. He led a study of the stories of Flannery O'Connor, and my parents attended. My mom encouraged me to read those stories. I was hooked early, at age 14--who knew literature could be like that?

In the late 70's, O'Connor wasn't as highly regarded as she is now, but I knew nothing of literary reputations--well, I knew, but I didn't care. I liked what I liked. I'd read classics that were good for me, but I'd reread what I liked.

As I became an adult and lived in various Southern towns and cities, I became more interested in O'Connor's Catholic faith, and how it influenced her writing. I still am. One of the best books of literary criticism/biography I've read in a long time was Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which looks at four prominent mid-20th century Catholic writers: O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day. I read it on a plane and couldn't put it down--it was that gripping.

O'Connor herself was a shrewd literary critic. All writers of all genres should read her nonfiction. There's precious little of it, so it won't take long, alas.

O'Connor's life was all too short, and it's amazing to think what she produced in the 14 years that she was dying of lupus. Or maybe it's not amazing. Maybe like Keats, she knew she had very little time, and she made the most of it.

This week has been one of those where I find it hard to write or to focus on anything at all--my focus is pulled to this thing, then the other, then the other. I'm feeling whipsawed. I'd like to claim a bit of doomedness--not because I want to be gloomy, but because for all of us, our time here is so short, and we will never create all that we could. If we started each day with that knowledge, how would we spend our time differently?

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