Melinda's Reviews > The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor

The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor
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Mar 01, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, christian
Read on February 01, 2010

I have been taught by those older and wiser that I should continually educate myself towards an understanding and appreciation of excellence. This means that my personal preference is what I like without trying, and what is excellent is sometimes what I must learn to like. So, reading is like food. Stick with a lifetime of twinkies and all you get is bad health and a rotten brain! Teach yourself to like excellent reading, just like you teach yourself to like excellent food (which for me is a steak!), and you'll end up learning to like what is excellent.

So in my attempt to educate my personal preferences towards excellence, I am trying to read and understand Flannery O'Connor. I have been told by those who are older and wiser that her writing is worthwhile and excellent, but that it was also difficult. I read "Wise Blood" several years ago and really disliked it. REALLY disliked it. I can vouch for the reading being difficult. A fellow Goodreads friend starting reading "Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being" and I was encouraged to pick it up and read it as well. Perhaps letters written by Flannery to her friends would help me understand and appreciate her short stories and novels. So that was the goal.

This book contains a collection of letters written by Flannery O'Connor from 1948 up to a few days before her death in 1964. They are compiled by Sally Fitzgerald, wife of Robert Fitzgerald, both of whom were good friends to Flannery. Robert Fitzgerald's translations of ancient Greek and Latin became standard works for generations of scholars and students. (WOW!) Flannery lived with the Fitzgerald's for several years before the onset of her lupus.

I found the letters to be vastly helpful in understanding her as a person and what she writes about and why. I discovered that I probably would have liked Flannery as a person. She had a hilarious wit and a way of describing the mundane in ways that make you laugh out loud. She is honest about her writing and answers honest questions honestly. Many of her friendships began when someone wrote to ask a question, and Flannery took the time to answer them.

So I liked this book. (Hmmm... is that my personal taste being educated here?? ) She discusses all of her writings (stories and books) at length, so I feel I have a bit of a clue now to understanding them. While I was finishing up this book, I started reading some of her short stories from "The Complete Stories". Do I like her writing now? No, not really. It remains difficult reading, and often times unpleasant reading, although I understand the point of it better now. So at this point perhaps that's a step in the right direction?

A couple of interesting and funny items from the book--
Flannery wrote a short story called "A Good Man is Hard to Find". After it is published, Flannery begins receiving letters almost in the vein of responses to a personal ad! She says "a good man is hard to find"? Well they are writing to let her know that they (the good men) are out there and eager to meet her!

Flannery's mother also sounds like someone I would have enjoyed knowing. At one point she asks Flannery about Kafka, who is he and what has he written, because some of her friends had heard of him and she wants to give them some information about him. Flannery explains that he wrote "Metamorphosis". Flannery's mother asks, "what is that about?" To which Flannery answers, "A man is transformed into a cockroach." The mother replies, "I can't tell people that!"
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message 1: by Janet (new)

Janet Hmmmm, why this book, I ponder?


Melinda I have been told by umpteen people what a great writer Flannery was. I even read "Wise Blood", a book I thoroughly detested the entire time I was reading it. So, when a friend was reading this book and mentioned that it was worthwhile, I thought I'd have a go at reading her letters and get to know her as a person. Perhaps that would help me be able to read her other books with a bit more understanding.

My thoughts thus far are that I think I would have liked her very much as a person. She has a great wit and hilarious ability to observe and describe people such that you laugh but not laugh at them. When she is answering questions about her writing she is clear and real. I care about her, I care about the people she is writing to. So I am encouraged by that. So we'll see if that moves me towards reading some of her short stories next. I don't think I'm up for her other book yet.


message 3: by Janet (new)

Janet Thank you for sharing. Her Wikki described an interesting person who lived a full life but whose works were considered a bit gross or horrible. A very interesting study. Cheers!


Melinda Janet wrote: "Thank you for sharing. Her Wikki described an interesting person who lived a full life but whose works were considered a bit gross or horrible. A very interesting study. Cheers!"

Her characters are indeed considered grotesque and sometimes very very terrible things happen to them. Her writing is also very very odd and unusual. As such, I need a good amount of prep work to be able to wade back into some of her writings.

Another book on my list to read is by Ralph Wood, a professor at Baylor University called "Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South". I cannot put my finger on his book just now, but here is a review from amazon regarding the book.

"From Publishers Weekly
Wood, one of our most astute critics of Christianity and literature, offers a splendid study of O'Connor, one of our most enigmatic Southern writers. Raised in Savannah and Milledgeville, Ga., O'Connor found herself a Catholic in a deeply Protestant South. But as Wood demonstrates, she was at home there, as she used her stories and novels to challenge what she saw as the sentimental piety of her own faith and the dullness of the Protestant liberalism of her time. Drawing on O'Connor's fiction, letters, book reviews and occasional writings, Wood examines key topics from race and the burden of Southern history to preaching and vocation. Although the depth of O'Connor's religious devotion reflected the sacramentalism of her Catholic faith, Wood ingeniously points out the debt she owed to the Bible-centered vision of Protestant theologian Karl Barth and to the images of fallenness that Reinhold Niebuhr offered in his famous work The Nature and Destiny of Man. Rather than reading thematically through O'Connor's entire oeuvre, Wood selects stories and episodes from novels that illustrate his thesis about O'Connor's concerns. Wood observes that most of O'Connor's stories end with a graceful scene in which her protagonists experience a revelatory moment, "at once disclosing the horror of sin but also overcoming the horror with hope." Although there is no end to the books on O'Connor, Wood's elegant exploration of her theological reading of Southern culture provides fresh insight into her relevance for us today.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. "



message 5: by Janet (new)

Janet Certainly an interesting southern literary study. Very deep, your review is, thank you.

My favorite Southern writer is rather Francis Parkinson Keyes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_...

I have a collection of most of her books. I started with Dinner at Antoine's. One can still dine at Antoine's in New Orleans, and I'd like to go there sometime. There are so many wonderful Southern places to see......along the marvelous treck to the sea. http://www.antoines.com/


Melinda Janet wrote: "Thank you for sharing. Her Wikki described an interesting person who lived a full life but whose works were considered a bit gross or horrible. A very interesting study. Cheers!"

I have now found the quote about her writing, which Flannery preferred to call 'grotesque', meaning that she does not write in a naturalistic vein but uses distortion to make what is not readily observable more observable.

She is quoted as saying, "When I write a novel in which the central action is baptism, I have to assume that for the general reader, or the general run of readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and I have to arrange the action so that this baptism carries enough awe and terror to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance. I have to make him feel, viscerally, if no other way, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion is an instrument in this case; exaggeration has a purpose."

That explains a bit of her style, which is very unusual, but has a distinct purpose in being that way.


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