10 Things I Love About Flannery O’Connor

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So, Kendra knows I love her (at least I hope she does. Love you, Kendra. Love your blog.) And Kendra isn’t afraid to stir the pot, which is something I really like about her. But I honestly lost sleep over her post about not liking Breaking Bad and Flannery O’Connor.

Now, I could care less about Breaking Bad. I’ve seen all of two scenes of it and asked Daniel, “Um….is all of it like that? How is this fun? Does it ever get fun?”  But Flannery is another story. I love Flannery so much that after reading Kendra’s post during a midnight nursing session, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could convince her that Flannery is amazing. Because I’m so sad that Kendra or anybody else is missing out on O’Connor awesomeness!

How do I love thee, Flannery? Let me count the ways!

1. Reading Flannery convicts me of my apathy and sin. Remember the grandmother in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’? I am repulsed by her selfishness, childishness, and self-righteousness. And it’s because if I’m really honest with myself, I see her mirrored in my own soul. But I’m usually not honest with myself and would rather feel good than examine my conscience. Usually I just walk around self-satisfied and smug because, “hey! I didn’t commit adultery this week! Doin’ pretty good! I can probably skip going to confession yet again.” And then I think “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”  Flannery is that gun to my head, reminding me that if I really believe what I say I do, my soul should be looking a lot different than it does.

2. She’s not afraid to shout the truth. Why are her writings so violent and bizarre? “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.” I need Flannery to yell at me and wave her arms so that I can wake up to the truth.

3. Instead of feeling depressed, when I read Flannery, I’m struck by how Christ seeks to find every tiny opportunity to reveal himself to reveal himself to each soul no matter how fiercely it denies him. It’s a source of hope to me. In Wise Blood, no matter what Hazel Motes does or where he goes, he’s haunted by Christ. In The Violent Bear It Away, Rayber is the “progressive,” materialist father of a special needs child he believes to be completely worthless according to his “scientific” worldview. Yet, he cannot help but love his son, at times so much that he feels he could be thrown to the ground “in an act of idiot praise” struck to the core by this love that he finds inexplicable. He denies Christianity, he’s not a good father, and the way he views his son is heartbreaking, but the idea that even in such a man, the love of Christ could find a tiny foothold…excuse me while I go grab a tissue.

4. She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” That. Just that.

5. She’s so darn funny. If you don’t laugh out loud when you’re reading Flannery, you’re not doing it right. Hazel Motes: “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified!” I just die.

6. When people have a real hard time loving Flannery, I always wonder if it’s because they don’t understand the rural south. The south is weird. Really, really weird. And I can say that because I’m a native southerner that loves the south with all my heart. But I think if you don’t get the south, it’s hard to read Flannery. I was recently in a book club that was reading her short stories and someone asked about the random monkey at the BBQ joint in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” What is it supposed to signify? they asked. I said, “Oh, I guess I just thought it was a weird southern thing. You know…have a monkey at your BBQ place.” Another person confessed, “yeah, I’ve actually been to a BBQ place that had a monkey.” Case closed. The south is awesomely weird.

7. Flannery says something that our apathetic, comfortable culture desperately needs to hear. It either is, or it isn’t. If Christ is who he says he is, then following him is a matter of life and death. If he isn’t, then what are we doing? As the Misfit says, “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can…” If it’s true that Christ rose from the dead, then every cell of your being should be transformed. If it’s not true, then nothing matters. There is no goal but pleasing yourself and there is no true pleasure to be found. It’s everything or nothing with Flannery. One of my favorite things she says in her letters is that she was talking  about the Eucharist to a woman who said that it was just a symbol. To which Flannery replied: “Well…if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” If that’s all it is, who really cares? But if it’s Jesus? Could anything matter more?

8. She shows me that something can be grotesque and heartbreakingly beautiful at the same time. When I find those two things in Flannery’s works, I’m reminded of looking at a crucifix and seeing the gutwrenching grotesque violent agony of Christ’s passion and how that sight is the most beautiful image I can imagine.

9. When she was five she taught a chicken to walk backwards and she was featured in a movie reel because SHE TAUGHT A CHICKEN TO WALK BACKWARDS and said of the experience “everything afterward has been anticlimax.” I mean… I just…I love her.

And finally:

10: I might not be Catholic if it wasn’t for Flannery. I am not exaggerating. Reading her short stories and novels had a profound effect on Daniel and I and our choice to convert. I owe her so much. And I love her weird, sassy, witty soul with all my heart.

Further reading: If you want to read a great introduction to O’Connor and her works, do yourself a favor and read Ralph Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Dr. Wood was one of our college professors and one of my favorite people in the universe.

And once again because the quote is just so good:

photo-656

1st image found here.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve been to a BBQ in Texas where there was a lemur… on a leash… in a striped sweater.

    I think I’ll have to pick up some O’Connor soon =)

  2. says

    #3–yes yes yes!

    #4–that is my absolute favorite Flannery O’Connor short story, although I also really really love Parker’s Back.

    #5–I believe I said something similar when I commented on Kendra’s post! The first time I ever read Flannery I didn’t laugh. She was like a punch in the gut, in a good way, but I didn’t laugh. Now every time I reread her short stories I laugh a little harder and love her more.

  3. says

    LOVE. Thank you! I’ve tried explaining to people before (usually Catholics who go… what’s the big deal? There are such better writers!) and maybe it’s just my poor explanation, or maybe it’s just that I’m a little too infatuated with how odd and quirky she was, but I don’t seem to get the message across. You did so quite well. :-)

  4. says

    I think there just needs to be some room here accounting for everyone’s different taste in books. I have friends who can’t stand Jane Austen books to which I just stare at them and tell them to read them again because clearly they are not doing it right since Jane Austen is obviously wonderful :)

    My apathy to O’Conner is definitely not due to an inability to understand the deep south, I think it mostly springs from the fact that my first foray into her works was reading ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ (which later, when watching a Ralph Wood lecture on O’Conner to try to figure out what I was missing, he said was the worst place to start, but–too late!). I didn’t have any deep take aways when I finished. All I could think about was–they shot the baby. Maybe I’m just too sensitive to the dark stuff? I do love her writing that does’t involve murdered babies, although I’ve only read personal essay type things since my first attempt at her short stories.

    If you have any suggestions for the best place to start with O’Conner I might consider trying again, as long as you can give me a no dead babies guarantee :)

    • Haley says

      Isn’t Ralph Wood the BEST? Well, don’t read The Violent Bear It Away or The River because there’s dead children in both. You could give Wise Blood a shot? Or just enjoy some of her letters which are fantastic. I feel the same way about friends who don’t like Jane Austen: dumbstruck!

  5. Kate says

    My first thought was “but who doesn’t love Flannery?”!
    My husband co-wrote a script based on A Good Man is Hard to Find (adapted to be set in the Karoo, South Africa, which we imagine is a little like your South) and put it on with his highschool children. Unfortunately I missed the play as I was at home with the boys, but I heard it was brilliant. Surprisingly, the parents had a lot of concerned questions and seemed to nite get it at all. His class had fun explaining themselves!

  6. Lorraine says

    Thank you for this great blog and especially this wonderful article on Flannery O’Conner. I agree with your comments on her writing
    When I was in college and an English major, I somehow found myself in a class on “Southern Literature”. I didn’t recall signing up for it, but there it was on my schedule. I went to the first class fully expecting to drop it as soon as possible—Literature? Southern?? Really? I was totally immersed in British Literature, rarely ever reading American literature, how would I ever get through Southern literature. Well the course started with Faulkner, which had me reading his books continually, while walking to classes, eating meals, staying up late into the night; I couldn’t get enough. I loved it. If this is Southern Literature, bring me more. I waded through some other authors for the course, but then at the very end, we began reading Flannery O’Conner. I barely understood what she was trying to tell us, the reader, but I was totally captivated by her words, her images and her humor. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. And if I do, O’Conner will have had a lot to do with it.
    My best advice for a reader new to O’Conner is just read the stories over and over. They are short enough to easily do that in a single sitting. Don’t try to parse every word or analyze every image. Just read and be open to the delight you will find in reading them. Enjoy the story and you will find that they will become part of you. They work like yeast (or leaven to use the Biblical word) and will start to grow inside you until you begin to see the real meaning within and under each story and character.

    • Haley says

      “I thought I had died and gone to heaven. And if I do, O’Conner will have had a lot to do with it.”

      My thoughts, exactly! And great advice for new readers of Flannery.

  7. says

    Oh, Flannery. She is really just the best. One of my prized possessions is a coffee mug from Square Books in Oxford, MS, with one of her quotes on the back: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” Definitely speaks to your “the South is weird” thing — and how much weirder being a Catholic in the Bible belt at the time would have been — and to the general “Christ-hauntedness” of the whole place, a theme she comes back to a lot in her essays.

    In fact, for anyone who feels stumped by her stories, I absolutely recommend picking up Mystery and Manners, a collection of her essays and speeches on the subject of writing in general, and her writing in particular. It really opened my eyes to a lot of what she’s doing in her stories and gave me a great new perspective on them. Highly recommended.

    I have to say, though: I’m surprised that you love Flannery but don’t love Breaking Bad! It can sometimes take a while to grow on you — I was on the fence until the second season — but the tone, style, and themes are incredibly similar to Flannery’s works: black humor in a violent universe that uses the grotesque to cut through our complacency about sin and its effects on our lives and everyone around us. It’s probably one of the most moral shows (meaning right and wrong are real things, and it shows the consequences of choosing each) I’ve ever seen on TV. Give it another try!

    • Haley says

      I’ll give it another try, Margaret. Daniel watched it when he was up late with the baby so I could get some sleep, but he says he’ll go back to the beginning so we can watch it together :)

  8. Josh says

    I loved this article. I am much more familiar with other authors considered “regular Catholic fare”, like Chesterton, Fulton Sheen, and our separated brother, C.S. Lewis. O’Connor appeared on my radar at the same time as Waugh and Wilde, as “recommended reading” from a journalist priest. It was rather interesting, actually: a friend of mine, now a missionary, asked this priest how he could educate himself to be a Catholic intellectual. In his response, Father said that beyond any studies, a certain cultural understanding was required, and that Waugh and O’Connor were good sources for that Catholic culture.
    After reading this article, I have decided to take his advice, and read at least a few parts of “Mysteries and Manners”.

    • Haley says

      Thanks you, Josh. Waugh is my absolute favorite. Brideshead Revisited may have been mostly responsible for my conversion.

  9. Grace says

    @Cristina, I hear you!

    I too started with A Good Man is Hard to Find and was not impressed. Sure the writing was good but, after reading it I felt really “meh” and wondered why she had to kill Everybody. After taking a break from her for a couple years though, and getting pulled back in through her letters I am now a devout FO’C fan.

    You asked for a suggestion with a “no dead babies” guaranty… May I recommend her short stories “Parker’s Back” and ” The Enduring Chill”? No dead babies, promise :) In fact no one dies in either one and I still think they’re two of her most powerful.

  10. LPatter says

    love her too. My undergrad Moral Theology Professor (thank you Dr. Barbier!) designed his class to revolve around her short stories. I always think of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” It was such a unique class and my introduction to her. I sometimes wonder if I’d have liked her without his forced introduction. She is totally rockin.

  11. Susanna says

    Thanks for this. :) I’ve recently started reading your blog and when I saw you were a Flannery fan, well…I felt you might be a kindred spirit. I’m Protestant, but I wrote my thesis on O’Connor’s Eucharistic imagery in (I argue) all her stories. And I came to have such a profound respect for how Catholicism honors the body in ways Protestantism just doesn’t. At least not yet.
    Anyway, I don’t recommend her to everybody because she is weird and witty and sassy, as you said. But also dark and twisty. Above the weirdness and sassiness and dark-and-twistiness, though, what O’Connor writes is true. Viva Flannery.

    • Haley says

      That thesis sounds fascinating! I remember one of my professors telling us that O’Connor considered The Violent Bear It Away to be a hymn to the Eucharist.

  12. Susanna says

    Also, I don’t think anybody mentioned her collected letters in “The Habit of Being!” To understand O’Connor’s faith (and to help you see her humanity in those moments of “Ack! She shot the baby!”), you’ve got to read her letters. They’re funny and wise and loving and dripping with Southern charm and humor. Read ‘em!

  13. John says

    A wonderful article, especially for those of us who have loved Flannery since college, which is where I found her. Glad you stood up for her, but I do recognize that there are many who “don’t get” Flannery. My wife is Texan through and through and finds Flannery’s work to be too weird to read. And she says she cannot see the “Catholic” view that is so obviously there, even though she is one of the most articulate Catholics (convert) I’ve ever known. I have seen it since the first time I read Flannery’s stories, but living so close to someone who doesn’t, I know that it’s not as obvious to everyone as it was to me.

    I’m sure all the Flannery fans who came to your article know about her collected letters, The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. But if anyone has missed it, it is an excellent companion to the stories. The letters reveal the deeply orthodox Flannery and give us deeper insight into her humanity. And if you laugh at the stories, as you should, you will find many parts of the letters full of the same humor.

    Thanks again for the article. It’s always a joy to find that other people enjoy her work as much or more than I do.

    • Haley says

      I haven’t read all of the letters, but I’m read some and LOVED them. Maybe I should make it a goal to read them all next year. Thank you, John!

  14. James says

    #6. I grew up Catholic in the buckle of the Bible belt. The South IS awesomely weird, and to be Catholic in the South is a whole nuther level of weirdness.

  15. says

    Well, I am officially intrigued. I am a lifelong Protestant but became drawn to Catholicism after my son died (can’t remember if I found your blog before or after, though) and found O’Connor’s Spiritual Writings when I was browsing the Catholicism section at the library. I devoured it. A couple of my favorite quotes:

    #2 on your list: Subtlety is the curse of man. It is not found in the deity.

    On perseverance in the midst of suffering and reveling in the mundane: I have a disease called lupus…I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can live with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, or so I tell myself…My mother and I live on a large place and I have bought me some peafowl and sit on the back steps a good deal studying them. I am going to be the World Authority on Peafowl, and I hope to be offered a chair some day at the Chicken College.

    Also, I’m a fellow Baylor graduate (BA ’00, JD ’04), but I never had Dr. Wood. I don’t know how that happened; my BA is in English!

  16. says

    Flannery O’Connor: My alter-ego. I love her mind. It is difficult reading but so worth the trouble. I read every short story twice. Her works are like fine poems: you must immerse yourself in them before they yield their treasures to you. The more you read, the more you understand how she composes her works. So, don’t give up. Keep reading. She doesn’t offer “nice” and “easy” reading. For a long time, I had a headache every time I read her short stories. I figured I was working my mind and that it was a good thing.

  17. says

    I’ve just read through her complete stories again. So good and so rereadable.

    What I found this time reading through them was just how amazing the last pages of the stories were. Packed with so much. Often even the last lines such as in “The Enduring Chill”

    “But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.”

    As a convert when I first tried reading Flannery too much was lost on me. Really glad I made the effort to go back since so many I respected kept talking about her.

    Now as for Breaking Bad. Hmm there are almost aspects that are Flanneryesque.

    The funny thing is I started watching Breaking Bad because of Catholic author Amy Welborn and for years she had this quote on her blog.

    “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

  18. says

    Not at all a Southerner, or even an American, it took me a lot of trying to start to appreciate FOC.

    I would heartily recommend, as others have done, to read her letters along with her fiction. The letters were the catalyst for my enjoyment of her fiction.

  19. Michael says

    I love this piece.

    I have been a Flannery O’Connor fan for years. I’m a yankee from Ohio, my father’s family emigrated from Ireland thru Philadelphia, made a bee line for Ohio, and have been here ever since. My mother’s family, on the other hand, are from the south, and military to boot. So I have the midwest yankee “use it up, wear it out, make it due, or go without” sensibility, but my wife says I have this crazy ethos that allows me to sing gospel songs at the bus stop, wear a suit to a picnic (they didn’t say it was an informal), and recite the Magnificat in reply to a woman on the bus who looked me in the eye and quoted John 3:16. I “got” Flannery the first time I read her, and your piece helped me understand why..

  20. says

    I love love love Flannery O’Conner. So much. I took a 400 level class on her in college to fulfill my English major and it’s a great memory.

    Butttt, I have to say, I’m an even bigger fan of Walker Percy. I’m not sure why, never ever been exactly sure why, but Percy always stays with me longer than O’Conner. Both are great though.

  21. Lizzy says

    Thanks for the post! I have greatly enjoyed O’Conner’s works since first reading Wise Blood in college. Her writing is truly intriguing albeit severe and intense. I came across Mystery and Manners at a library book sale and this was a good reminder to get started on it!

  22. Lindsey says

    Flannery is one of my favorite people. I like her even better than I like her writing (which I do enjoy). I feel I got to know her this year when I read her letters (the collection is titled The Habit of Being). She and I also share a birthday. :)

    Love your blog!

  23. says

    Oh, gosh. People don’t understand: southern Catholics are their own special breed of human being! (Like Catholics in England, I wonder if has something to do with the fact that we’re the minority in an overwhelmingly anti-Catholic environment.)

    And thanks SO MUCH for the chicken reel! That woman had a way with birds!

    • Haley says

      Haha, you’re welcome! I was so excited when I realized you could watch it (I’d only heard about it.) And I totally agree about the minority thing. I read a really interesting article about why the Church is growing so much in the South….wish I could remember where.

  24. Tamara Pfanstiel says

    There is a man here in Texas who rides his bike at the park: with his goat running alongside on a leash.

    Which O’Connor book would you recommend to start with?

  25. Proctor S. Burress says

    Have you really looked at the sado-masochistic elements in the psychology of the person you are so in love with?

    Have you thought of the contradiction of speaking of the violence of grace? Is it time for all of us to change our therapists?

    But please tell me did FO write any story without violence being a central theme? Was she capable of doing so?

    How can such violent people ever bring peace to the world?

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