Category Archives: Flannery O’Connor

Quote of the day

Flannery O'Connor

“Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances.” – Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O'Connor

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What Is A ‘Southern Writer’?

HowardRobert E. Howard

Laura Cooper makes the case that we can better understand and appreciate Marcel Proust if we consider him in the Southern literary tradition. She begins by offering a handy introduction to what constitutes Southern writing:

Eudora Welty thought it came from the cultural habit of tight, specific focus, on the land and the people close at hand:

“The Southerner is a local person – to a degree unknown in other sections of the United States. The Southerner always thinks of himself as being from somewhere, as belonging to some spot of earth.”

Then there’s our collective past, what Willie Morris called the “burden of memory and [the] burden of history” we all carry “in our bones.” We’re the writers we are, [Flannery] O’Connor explained, because we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.

In Walker Percy’s blunter terms, Southerners write like we do because “we lost the War.”

I occasionally hear the argument that regional styles are confining, but I disagree. You can’t write without having something to say, and nothing propels a story forward like a clear and urgent worldview. The acknowledgement of human limitations is a much-needed brake on a society racing down the dead-end road of conquering and re-engineering nature through gene splicing, Frankenfoods, and Posthumanism.

Walker Percy’s assertion that Southerners write the way we do because “we lost the War” not only ties in with O’Connor’s point about accepting human limitations, but also recognizes what gives Southern fiction its universal appeal. The history of the rest of the world includes the bitterness of losing a war and being occupied; the North never experienced that.

Identifying and embracing the local is not limiting at all, but the starting point for discovery and learning. As George Eliot once observed, “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge … The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”

Fictional Atonement

Kanan Mikaya

Kanan Makiya is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University who was an early and vocal proponent of the 2003 Iraq War. In fact, he was in the Oval Office with George W. Bush when both received news that Baghdad had fallen to American forces. No doubt the two congratulated each other at the time.

Then came the aftermath, as this New York Times article relates:

For years afterward, as Iraq fell apart, Mr. Makiya’s pen went silent while he struggled to make sense of what happened and his own role in the catastrophe.

As a Middle East scholar at Brandeis University, Mr. Makiya is a man of facts and history. Ultimately, though, he decided the best way to express what he felt became of Iraq was to write fiction. Only with a novel, he says, could he access “the larger meanings and deeper truths about what went wrong post-2003.”

The book is also an apology, and represents a decade of introspection for a man whose life’s work was closely associated with a costly war that was justified by the false assertion that Mr. Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the United States.

That says a lot about the act of writing, doesn’t it? Dr. Mikaya could have written a scholarly account explaining what went wrong in the war he advocated. But that just wasn’t enough. Mikaya had to redo the Iraq War. He had to creatively re-arrange the facts — to play with them. Fiction writing is a type of play, which development psychologists now recognize as a vital part of learning. And play isn’t just for kids — creative exploration of the world around us is both therapy and mental exercise that adults need as well.

There’s a redemptive aspect to fiction writing, also, which I believe Dr. Mikaya would acknowledge. It’s a means of making right those things from our past that still gnaw at us.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

In the novel and movie Atonement, Ian McEwan explored that aspect of writing. It’s the tale of Briony Tallis, a young girl who spitefully and wrongfully accuses her sister’s suitor of rape. That, of course, ends the wedding plans and ruins the life of both the sister, Cecilia, and her suitor, Robbie.

At the end of the story, Cecilia and Robbie are happily reunited. Then comes this admission from an elderly Briony, now a writer:

My sister and Robbie were never able to have the time together they both so longed for, and deserved. And which, ever since, I’ve… Ever since I’ve always felt I prevented. But what sense of hope, or satisfaction, could a reader derive from an ending like that? So, in the book, I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.

I think Flannery O’Connor was right when she said, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” Atonement, whose meaning includes both paying what’s owed and seeking forgiveness, is at the heart of writing.

Robert E. Howard, Southern Writer

reh

The Abbeville Institute, a site dedicated to Southern arts, has published my article on Robert E. Howard. Here’s a sample:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Flannery O’Connor

The Southern Gothic tradition, as pioneered by such writers as William Faulkner and Carson McCullers, as well as O’Connor, is noted for its stinging indictment of modern life. Southern Gothic tales feature shocking violence and criminality committed by bizarre, larger-than-life characters clawing for survival in a society that has broken down. Magical and supernatural forces often intervene in unexpected ways.

Read the rest at Abbeville Review, and like it here.