Melinda's Reviews > Conversations with Flannery Oaconnor

Conversations with Flannery Oaconnor by Rosemary M. Magee
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Mar 22, 10

bookshelves: biography, christian, education
Read in March, 2010

This book contains about 20 interviews made with Flannery O'Connor from 1952 to 1963. They are in chronological order and some are written as scripts of actual conversation that was recorded, while others are written as articles. I enjoyed reading the interviews because having just finished "The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... ), she discusses many of these interviews in her letters to friends. Comparing her personal thoughts (from her letters) with the actual interviews (in this book) is very enlightening. For example, in writing to her friend Cecil Dawkins she says, "At interviews I always feel like a dry cow being milked. There is no telling what they will get out of you.... If you do manage to say anything that makes sense, they put down the opposite."

Flannery did not seem to enjoy being interviewed, and her early interviews show a marked stiltedness. However, in her defense, the interviewers sometimes explain her work to her and then ask what she thinks! I can understand why she would be hesitant to participate in this kind of interview... but she does persevere and becomes better at explaining herself as the interviews tick by.

This book is best read probably after you are fairly familiar with her books and short stories and her personal life. I accidentally read this just after reading her letters, and I think it was probably the best order I could have chosen. I would recommend this book, it is amusing to read and another layer of education for me as I learn more about Flannery O'Connor and her work.

The explanations Flannery makes about her work has helped me understand them much better. I list below some of topics that were interesting to me, with references to the interview they came from.

About her work being called "grotesque", here is a portion from Margaret Turner's interview with Flannery, 1960:

"She prefers to call her work 'grotesque', meaning that she does not write in a naturalistic vein but uses distortion to make what is not readily observable more observable.

Why, we ventured to ask, does a writer of fiction feel that he has to shock to get through to the average reader?

'Not every writer of fiction feels that he has to shock to get through to the average reader,' she said. 'I believe that the "average" reader, however, is a good deal below average. People say with considerable satisfaction, "Oh, I'm an average reader," when the fact is they never learned to read in the first place, and probably never will.'

'You see people who are supposed to be highly educated who don't know trashy fiction from any other kind,' she continued. 'if you have the values of your time, you can usually write without having to shock anyone to attention; but if you want to show something that the majority don't believe in or wish to see, then you have to get and hold their attention usually by extreme means.' "

Later in that same interview, she gives a humorous (in my opinion) and accurate assessment of teaching people to be writers.

"Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think universities stifle writers," she said. "I think they don't stifle enough of them. The kind of writing that can be taught is the kind you then have to teach people not to read....." She explained that what she had at the University of Iowa was valuable, "but it wasn't training to write as such; it was training to read with critical attention -- my own work and other people's."

Her thoughts about being a writer in the South, from the Granville Hicks interview, 1962:

"Miss O'Connor said that any Southern writer has two great advantages -- a knowledge of the Bible and a sense of history..... As for the Bible, Miss O'Connor asserts that it is still a great power in the South and that it continues to influence the Southern writer. For one thing, it conditions him to think in concrete terms: 'We don't discuss problems, we tell stories.' More important, the Bible gives meaning and dignity to the lives of the poor people in the South, and the writer, particularly the Christian writer, has something in common with them."

Her thoughts on the critical position the Bible holds for Southern novelists from Joel Wells interview, 1962:

Flannery says, "The fact that Catholics don't see religion through the Bible is a deficiency in Catholics. And I don't think the novelist can discard the instruments he has to plumb meaning just because Catholics aren't used to them. You don't write only for now. The biblical revival is going to mean a great deal to Catholic fiction in the future. Maybe in fifty years, or a hundred, Catholics will be reading the Bible the way they should have been reading it all along. I can wait that long to have my fiction understood. The Bible is what we share with all Christians, and the Old Testament we share with all Jews. This is sacred history and our mythic background. If we are going to discard this we had better quit writing at all. The fact that the South is the Bible Belt is in great measure responsible for its literary preeminence now. The Catholic novelist can learn a great deal from the Protestant South."

Later in that same interview, her thoughts on how the novelist must work to present a concept to a reading audience that knows nothing about it:

"One of the Christian novelist's basic problems is that he is trying to get the Christian vision across to an audience to whom it is meaningless," Miss O'Connor agreed. "Nevertheless, he can't write only for a select few. His work will have to have value on the dramatic level, the level of truth recognizable by anybody. The fact that many people can't see anything Christian about my novel doesn't interfere with many of them seeing it as a novel which does not falsify reality." .........

"If I write a novel in which the central action is a baptism, I know that for the larger percentage of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite; therefore I have to imbue this action with an awe and terror which will suggest its awful mystery. I have to distort the look of the thing in order to represent as I see them both the mystery and the fact."

Her comments on what stifles Catholic Christian writers, from Gerard E. Sherry interview, 1963:

SHERRY: What do you think is stifling the Catholic writer of today -- that is, apart from the spectre of poverty?
O'CONNOR: I think it's the lack of a large intelligent reading audience which believes Christ is God.

Another comment on why she uses the grotesque in her work, but then a very honest assessment of the code of Southern manners and why they are needed, from C. Ross Mullins interview, 1963:

Q: What about the grotesque in your work? Has it anything to do with your being a Southerner and the relations between people in the South, especially between Negroes and whites?
A: We're all grotesque and I don't think the Southerner is any more grotesque than anyone else; but his social situation demands more of him than that elsewhere in this country. It requires considerable grace for two races to live together, particularly when the population is divided about fifty-fifty between them and when they have our particular history. It can't be done without a code of manners based on mutual charity. I remember from an essay of Marshall McLuhan's. I forget the exact words but the gist of it was, as I recollect it, that after the Civil War, formality became a condition of survival. This doesn't seem to me any less true today. Formality preserves that individual privacy which everybody needs and, in these times, is always in danger of losing. It's particulary necessary to have in order to protect the rights of both races. When you have a code of manners based on charity, then when the charity fails -- as it is going to do constantly -- you've got those manners there to preserve each race from small intrusions upon the other. The uneducated Southern Negro is not the clown he's made out to be. He's a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy. All this may not be ideal, but the Southerner has enough sense not to ask for the ideal but only for the possible, the workable. The South has survived in the past because its manners, however lopsided or inadequate they may have been, provided enough social discipline to hold us together and give us an identity. Now those old manners are obsolete, but the new manners will have to be based on what was best in the old ones -- in their real basis of charity and necessity. In practice, the Southerner seldom undersestimates his own capacity for evil. For the rest of the country, the race problem is settled when the Negro has his rights, but for the Southerner, whether he's white or colored, that's only the beginning. The South has to evolve a way of life in which the two races can live together with mutual forebearance. You don't form a committee to do this or pass a resolution; both races have to work it out the hard way. In parts of the South these new manners are evolvoing in a very satisfactory way, but good manners seldom make the papers.

This last is later in the same interview, and speaks again to her purpose in making her point with exaggerated and distorted events and characters:

"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."
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message 1: by Janet (new)

Janet An excellent review, and an intriguing author indeed.

'I believe that the "average" reader, however, is a good deal below average. People say with considerable satisfaction, "Oh, I'm an average reader," when the fact is they never learned to read in the first place, and probably never will.'
So true and one of the cultural educational challenges overcome by homeschooling.

I wonder how long ago it was that she said this:

Flannery says, "The fact that Catholics don't see religion through the Bible is a deficiency in Catholics. And I don't think the novelist can discard the instruments he has to plumb meaning just because Catholics aren't used to them. You don't write only for now. The biblical revival is going to mean a great deal to Catholic fiction in the future. Maybe in fifty years, or a hundred, Catholics will be reading the Bible the way they should have been reading it all along."

It is my hope that we are in that Biblical Revival period for Catholics now.
Cheers!


Melinda Janet wrote: "An excellent review, and an intriguing author indeed.

'I believe that the "average" reader, however, is a good deal below average. People say with considerable satisfaction, "Oh, I'm an average ..."


The quote you ask about is from the interview with Joel Wells from 1962, 2 years before her death in 1964 at age 39 from lupus. From reading her letters in "The Habit of Being", I was continually amazed and encouraged to read her very honest comments about the state of Roman Catholic education and teaching (of priests, nuns and laity). That she was able to see the value in the Protestant South is also interesting, and encouraging to me.


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael An excellent review. I have read a lot of Ms. O'Connor's fiction, but none of her letters or interviews. Her novels and short stories are striking and disturbing, but true and well crafted. I look forward to reading her letters and interviews.


Melinda Michael wrote: "An excellent review. I have read a lot of Ms. O'Connor's fiction, but none of her letters or interviews. Her novels and short stories are striking and disturbing, but true and well crafted. I lo..."

I have found that reading her letters has shown me alot in her writings that I otherwise would not have seen. Hazel Motes (from Wise Blood) is an Old Testament prophet. Not a Protestant revivalist preacher, but a prophet in the Old Testament sense. Knowing this from Flannery's own explanations, I can now go back and read that book and understand better what she was trying to get across. [An aside.... just think what it would mean for us to see and meet a prophet from the Old Testament.... they were not normal acting people, they did not look normal, they did not fit in, and the words they spoke or the acts they did were startling and jolting!:]

I also understand why some of the action in her writings IS disturbing. She is trying to write about truth, about God's truth, and many people don't believe there is truth, much less truth from God. Hence her "distortion" and "exaggeration" to make her point.


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