Thursday, December 24, 2015

Everything that rises must converge, Flannery O'Connor

I wonder why so many people keep calling Flannery O'Connor a genius. She was a good writer, maybe, from the point of view of the craft. But boy, there is something seriously wrong with these stories.

What exactly is wrong?

Well, let's start with the fact that they are sermons, parables: O'Connor has no interest in telling you a story for the sake of narration. She is out to preach from her typewriter. Her readers need to be taught how to accept the grace of God in their life, and O'Connor believed that writing her type of weird, grotesque stories was the best way to do exactly that.

But do these stories achieve their goal to make your soul stir and open up to God?  Hell, no. Not for one second. They do not resonate with me and they did not resonate with many other readers whose reviews I've gone through. As a catholic myself, I could find not even a pale reflection of my spirituality in these stories.

Why? Because the preaching is aggressive, bitter and enraged. These stories emanate a really, really bad energy. And I don't mean the bad energy that the author consciously created as a personality trait of her doomed characters (especially the "young ungrateful intellectual male", who is everywhere in this book), no, I have no problem with dark stories or characters. I'm actually talking about the deep, underlying energy of these stories, the raw emotional energy of old Flannery herself. You know that feeling you get when as a reader you touch the soul of the writer? I felt Flannery's soul was seriously tormented. And angry. That feeling her soul was emanating, whatever she thought she was doing with her stories, had nothing positive about it.

Nothing forgiving, nothing joyous, nothing constructive about the soul that she infused in her stories. Through her writing, she just emanates bad vibes, she gives out whiffs of unhappiness, of frustration (personal issues, maybe?). She judges her non-redeemed characters mercilessly, she hates them with a passion, she tortures them until things inevitably end up in disaster for them. How is this supposed to dispose me, as a reader, in an open listening mode at all? What brand of Christianity is this? Maybe one that was popular in the 13th century? Even if it came from a priest in church, as opposed to a writer, I would find this type of preaching bigoted and, frankly, revolting.

Perhaps most importantly, I found myself in complete disagreement with the author's "moral of the story" every single time.

Her goal was to portray characters who did not allow the grace of God in their lives, and to show how badly that works out for them (as she said in an interview). And even worse, she does that by constantly siding with the wrong characters, and by condoning any type of nasty, anti-social behavior as long as a character is adhering to some superficial aspect of Catholicism.


1) One can be an insane, violent criminal (like the old guy in her novel "Wise blood"), but as long as he is driven by the obsession to baptize his kid, he wins and he gets the moral high ground in O'Connor's world.

2) "The enduring chill": One can be a loud, annoying, disrespectful and aggressive priest who barges into your room while you're actually dying and you don't want anyone around, but as long as he says that you need to open up to the Holy Spirit, he is the real hero of the story. You are wrong and he is right.

3) "Greenleaf": One can be a poor single mother who had to work hard all her life to raise two sons, but if she doesn't accept God in her life, she gets the Wrath of Flannery. There is a gigantic bull ruining her property, and all the poor woman wants is to get the fucking bull out of her loan, but no. She is wrong. Her employees, who are responsible for the bull, are lazy and totally unreliable. However, because they are somehow open to God, they get to win first prize: they have happy children, wealth, and serenity. While the poor woman is the baddie of the story.

I could go on and on, but I hope this is clear enough.

On the other hand, there are vignettes that deserve mention, like the little girl and her grandpa in the second story: their dialogue makes for vibrant, original comedy. But even with that story, things go south very soon, and rather than feeling that you should accept the grace of God, you feel like you have no clue what the story you just read actually meant.

Tastes are different, but let's at least use the word "genius" with extra care around this author.

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