Trying to See Straight: Flannery O'Connor & the Business of Writing
Schilling, Timothy P., Commonweal
October 6, 1959: People are always asking me if I am a Catholic writer and I am afraid that I sometimes say no and sometimes say yes, depending entirely on who the visitor is.
It was a frequent complaint in the letters of Flannery O'Connor (1925-64) that "The silence of the Catholic critic is so often preferable to his attention" (November 6, 1955). And, "I always look in the Catholic magazines my mother reads, to see if my book has been reviewed and when I find it hasn't, I say an act of thanksgiving."
Though O'Connor might have cringed at what follows, she has given us too much for us to refrain from speaking of her and her work. Her generosity would not long begrudge us even our misreadings.
Besides her novels, short stories, and essays, which are jewels, we have her letters (The Habit of Being, Vintage). These are, for me, the most satisfying of O'Connor's works, perhaps because they give us the most direct access to her life. In these we most closely approach her views on the business of writing--a business that was for her indistinguishable from the spiritual life itself. In 1955 (August 2), she writes:
One of the awful things about writing when you are
Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the
Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, the
whole reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes
in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience.
My audience are the people who think God is dead.
At least these are the people I am conscious of writing
Though she was aware of writing for those for whom God is dead, it is certainly true that many of her readers turn to her precisely because of her belief in the Incarnation. They too, believe, however half-heartedly, and find--at least I do--that O'Connor offers sane and good-humored guidance for professed Christians.
This isn't the sort of responsibility she bargained for when she started writing. In her letter of January 17, 1956, she speaks of her task (somewhat reluctantly) as being concerned with "the accurate naming of the things of God." She continues, "I don't mean it's an accomplishment. It's only trying to see straight and it's the least you can ask for. You ask God to let you see straight and write straight."
Later (on August 6, 1957) she comes to a more explicit understanding of the responsibility she has to her readers--prompted by an exchange with one of America's editors (her essay "The Church and the Fiction Writer" was published there, March 30, 1957):
I had said that the responsibility ... of the artist was to
his art. Now it seems to me that he [the editor] is correct
but that some explanation should be given of how
the artist's responsibility for souls operates. Is it, for
instance, the same in kind as the responsibility of the
church, is it to children, to idiots, to old ladies, to fifteen-year-old
girls, to unbalanced people? .... I think he
just sees this as an abstract theoretical problem and from
a great distance. Whereas the writer himself is traveling
the rocky road, and feels every individual bump.
Perhaps it is this closing of distance that is most essential in O'Connor's art. To "write straight," in full cognizance of the reality of the Incarnation, is to respect the specificity and dailiness of life. O'Connor speaks of "Christian realism," and says that "there is nothing harder or less sentimental" than this.
Her letters show us her refusal to seek a truth that stands apart from the concrete and local. "The artist dreams no dreams. That is precisely what he does not do..." (April 20, 1957). Rather, in her writing and in her farm work (raising "peachickens" in Milledgeville, Georgia), she busies herself with what is immediate, and necessary. …