Columns > Published on March 23rd, 2018

Flannery O'Connor's Greatest Hits

Image via Georgia Humanities

Flannery O’Connor is one of those names you hear a lot, but folks who aren’t interested in writing and short stories don’t know a lot about her.

I'd venture a guess that it's a short story problem. Short stories aren't the easiest. Getting into a collection of stories takes a certain level of commitment and flexibility at the same time. It’s not the same long-term relationship you get with a novel, and it’s not the one night stand of poetry either. It’s somewhere in-between. A serial monogamy that doesn’t work for everyone.

What I’m here to tell you is that you’re missing out if you don’t take a couple of O’Connor’s stories for a spin. Which is why, in honor of her birthday (March 25th), I’ve picked out 5 that I think you should read, and without spoiling anything, I’ll tell you why.

Plus, we’ll get to some other stuff along the way, stuff you might not know about her. To borrow a phrase from everyone’s aunt, she was a pretty neat lady.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

This story serves as a master class in unlikable characters, something of a specialty of O’Connor’s. She could write a character who you hated, but who felt real, and you still had some sympathy for. Often these characters were damaged or in bad situations themselves, and that helped when they did something awful. Like the main character in “The Geranium,” who’s a total racist trapped in a situation that’s not suited for him, moving from the country to the city. You hate an aspect of his character, and at the same time he’s going through something so human and so disorienting.

Unlikable characters are hard to pull off even today. “I didn’t feel like I was rooting for anyone” is a critique you see about a lot of really good books with really difficult people in them.

Some of O’Connor’s people were so unlikable that her German publisher wanted to drop some of her stories, saying they were too dark for Germanic sensibilities. Her response?

I didn’t think I was that vicious.

Unlikable characters are an acquired taste, it seems. Sort of like O’Connor’s drink of choice, Coca-Cola mixed with coffee. If you’re looking to tip one back to the lady on account of it being her birthday, this is the drink to go with. For a fancier *cough* grown-up version, try a can of coke, a can of cream soda, 2 tablespoons of coffee, and a shot of spiced rum. That's a party in your mouth where everyone is caffeinated up to their eyeballs.

What I’m here to tell you is that you’re missing out if you don’t take a couple of O’Connor’s stories for a spin.

“The Barber”

Not one of her better-known stories, but very “right now.” In it, a man getting his hair cut has an ongoing argument with his barber about a political candidate. And as you watch the man in the chair trying to make his case, returning to the barber again and again, it’s painful. It’s really painful. You feel for the guy. O’Connor builds a ton of sympathy for the character because you, as the reader, already know how this is going to pan out.

Nobody understands being misunderstood better than O’Connor. Paul Engle, a teacher of O’Connor’s, says that when he first met her in 1946, her Georgian accent was so thick that he had to ask her to write down what she’d just said. What she’d written:

My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?

The answer was yes, and it's a good thing. Not only did she turn out great work, but O'Connor was an excellent student. She revised and made significant changes to her work based on workshop feedback. She was always willing to try something another way. She was painfully shy, but this didn't slow her down at all. As Robert Giroux put it:

Flannery was more of a presence than the exuberant talkers who serenade every writing class with their loudness.

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”

It’s no exaggeration to say that without this story, Southern Gothic wouldn’t be what it is today. While it’s not the first example, I’d put solid money on it being the story that brought Southern/Rural Gothic into the modern era and gave us writers like Cormac McCarthy, William Gay, James Dickey, Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, and Jim Thompson.

It leaves you with a beautiful ending line, full of mystery, menace, and that O’Connor twang:

She would of been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.

“Good Country People”

There’s a turn in this story so odd it’ll leave you without a leg to stand on.

O’Connor’s stories tend to have a side-glancing fascination with characters that are disabled in some way, whether it be by birth or incident. “Good Country People” is the story that comes at this fascination most directly, and if you read this one early, you’ll pick up on this stuff in other stories too.

She even wrote an essay about why these elements so often show up in her work:

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 … Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.

“Good Country People” takes a minute to get going, a minute of forced focus until you start to see the story developing. But it’s a good story to start with if you want to get a bead on what it is O’Connor’s doing, and the payoff is pretty good.

Oddity was certainly of interest to O’Connor in her real life. When she was young, she had a backwards-walking chicken, which kickstarted her curiosity when it came to fowl:

I began to collect chickens. What had been only a mild interest became a passion, a quest. I had to have more and more chickens. I favored those with one green eye and one orange or with over-long necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings but nothing in that line turned up. I pondered over the picture in Robert Ripley’s book, Believe It Or Not, of a rooster that had survived for thirty days without his head; but I did not have a scientific temperament. I could sew in a fashion and I began to make clothes for chickens. A gray bantam named Colonel Eggbert wore a white piqué coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back.

Excuse the pun when I say O’Connor was an odd bird. Oh, and to put a cap on it, oddness bought us what might, MIGHT, be my favorite O’Connor quote:

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.

“Why Do The Heathen Rage?”

This one had to be brought up, not so much because of the story itself, but because it’s also the name of an unfinished novel O’Conner was working on just before her death in 1964 due to complications from lupus, a disease that doctors estimated would kill her in 5 years. She showed those jerks and lived for 12.

To be honest, the story feels a little unfinished to me. Perhaps it just feels that way because it’s so much shorter than most of her others. If you read The Complete Stories, you’ll see that while most of O’Connor’s stories hover somewhere in the 10 to 15 page length, this one clocks in at 5.

The brevity could be an experiment, an early inspiration for folks like Lydia Davis. Or it could be the imperfect expression of something she decided to come back to near the end of her life. Which makes sense. She'd written more, experienced more, and said that her sickness was “...more instructive than a long trip to Europe.”

Cut to present day, and the novel is being finished, or rather, “prepared” by Jessica Hooten Wilson. Dr. Wilson has written about O’Connor before, but this will be her first crack at writing for her.

Sorry, is my unhappiness creeping in just a bit?

It’s not Dr. Wilson’s fault. She knows her stuff, and if someone is going to finish the book, she’s a great choice.

But does it need to be finished? Are we getting another Go Set A Watchman here?

Maybe. Someone certainly stands to make a few bucks.

But maybe not. It’s not like O’Connor is as big a name as Harper Lee. And to be honest, she would have written more if she hadn't died so young. A lot more. And she died very close to the time she wrote some of her best stuff. It's entirely possible that the manuscript is very close to finished, and that it contains some of O'Connor's best work.

Time will tell. But no matter what the result, it won’t be pure from the mind of that woman with the thick accent, backwards-walking chicken, and a glass of coke and coffee at hand.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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