52 Guitars: Week 52
52 Authors, Week 2: Thomas Howard

52 Authors, Week 1: Flannery O'Connor

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means 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.

Moving out of 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s untimely passing, and into 2015, the eightieth anniversary of her birth, it’s fitting to begin these 52 weeks of writers with a look at the sharp-tongued master of Southern Gothic and doctor of sacramental vision. Her place in the American canon is secure. O’Connor is arguably first among American women who wrote fiction, first among American Catholic writers, first among short story writers, and second only to William Faulkner in Southern letters.

Her literary landscape is filled with Bible salesmen stealing prosthetic legs, misfits murdering grandmas, hermaphroditic freak show performers inspiring piety, racially offensive statues teaching proud and ignorant racists something about redemptive suffering, fools picking fights with gorillas, and nihilistic revivalists blinding themselves. Somehow all these violent and grotesque stories were born of a woman convinced that grace had invaded our world. With every wicked turn, there is a profound sense of the sacred that pervades O’Connor’s work.

Granted, O’Connor’s devout practice of Catholicism has not always won favor for her works. There was a considerable controversy in predominantly Catholic South Louisiana back in 2000 when Bishop Edward O’Donnell banned her works in response to parents upset with her use of the “N-word.” Perhaps we shouldn’t hold out much hope for the irate ignorant leaving room for historical context or literary intent. 

But even more recently, an extremely well-educated writer in Crisis magazine offered a caution against the works of Flannery O’Connor because she opted for revealing grace subtly in the grotesque rather than celebrate triumphant grace and beauty [Ed.: really, he did.]. Perhaps we should expect all the captives held in the sway of violence and despair to just show up in our most ornate cathedrals when we are assured choirs of angels will sing their souls into glory. But just as Jesus dwelled with sinners, O’Connor shines lights in moments of incredible darkness.

O’Connor’s name has been invoked a lot recently in the debates about the current state of religion in literature. Paul Elie, the author of a book about O’Connor and three of her Catholic literary contemporaries, cannot find worthy successors in this generation. Writers of faith stop short of actually presenting belief as believable, leaving ultimate questions unanswered.

Gregory Wolfe has challenged Elie’s analysis. Wolfe is the founder of Image Journal, a serious and well respected effort at bridging faith and imagination entering its 26th year of championing the writers Elie is disregarding. Wolfe, admirer of O’Connor that he is, doesn’t find room for someone like O’Connor to have the same effect in our postmodern society. He wrote, “Today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted. Perhaps a new Flannery O'Connor will rise, but meanwhile we might try listening more closely to the still, small voice that is all around us.”

While I agree with this response to Elie’s somewhat forced dilemma, I’m not sure we need another Flannery O’Connor shouting today. She’s been dead for fifty years, but I still hear her shouting, and I know I’m not alone. In the last few years, O’Connor has been celebrated with the release of her college cartoon work and her youthful prayer journals. Critics, not all of whom are Catholic literary types nostalgic for a mythic golden age, have rejoiced in a few more sparks of inspiration from a flame that was extinguished too soon. What wit! What a practical theological imagination! What might have been!

I’ll admit I’m a bit biased about Flannery O’Connor. Before I met my wife, I was involved in a very complicated Facebook-official relationship with Flannery. It was a joke that hid a severe truth. Even in the eighties and nineties, there are parts of my childhood reminiscent of O’Connor’s Christ-haunted South. More than her fiction, her letters and lectures, collected in The Habit of Being and Mysteries and Manners respectively, became near-devotional reading for me, shaping the way I see the world.

I’ll be introducing my high school upper classmen to Hazel Motes and his church without Christ later this spring. If I know these kids, and I think I do, they will be just as spellbound by O’Connor as I was when I first encountered her. The times may not be right for another Flannery, but the great writers are timeless.

--Toby D'Anna is an LSU alumnus teaching high school English in Arlington, Texas. He blogs at ontothesearch.blogspot.com.



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Somehow, I don't think Mr. Bernans gets A Good Man is Hard to Find. This boggles the mind.

Concisely, this is a narrative about a dysfunctional family—a mother, a father, three small children, and their grandmother—who are waylaid by a notorious escaped convict in the first hours of their vacation drive and methodically executed in an isolated wood. This is the whole of the tale. This is not my opinion, or some distorted presentation of events: this is what Flannery O’Connor actually set out to show us.

That is not what the narrative is about.

Now, I have to admit that it took reading Habit of Being for me to be able to enter into Ms. O'Connors fiction, but the misunderstanding in the article is rather startling.

And this:

Howbeit, when I am compelled to decide between two pieces of literature which meritoriously effect the same objective, and one excludes the unnecessary appearance of odious or unsightly language, and another revels in its power, I have always considered it a sound principle to choose the cleaner page.

If it has power, I think you need to think twice about jettisoning it.


A good beginning!

I read that piece in Crisis and the use of the word 'cleaner' is somewhat creepy in my opinion. In the same way that it is creepy that, apparently, healthfood nuts talk about 'clean food'. I am not sure what they mean but probably raw kale.

I mean, the use of the expression 'the cleaner page' stuck in my memory as something horrible.

Well, I don't know if I thought horrible or creepy--maybe priggish--holier-than-thou--and it irked the daylights out of me.


Mr. Bernens rankles, but not as much as does Marilynne Robinson, who in a 2005 interview said this:

For some reason it is not conventional for serious fiction to treat religious thought respectfully–the influence of Flannery O’Connor has been particularly destructive, I think, though she is considered a religious writer, and she considered herself one.
And then just this past October in a long piece on Robinson in the NY Times, there's this:
[Robinson] offered Flannery O’Connor as an example of a religious writer who fails to describe goodness (“Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me”); evoked the nature of O’Connor’s failure (“There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart”)
What is all that all about?

We discussed that here, didn't we? Or maybe on my blog?


I'm among those poor souls who is not particularly moved by O'Connor, although I see the brilliance of her writing. I think I "get" what she is doing in stories like "A Good Man." In fact, it is moving in a way when the woman finally recognizes the Misfit as like her child, but in general I don't think the grotesque addresses the issues that most demand my attention, the struggles of the interior life. One of the reasons I like Lewis so much is his sensitivity to the details of spritual psychology of the believer. I guess I don't need convincing that grace is active in the ugliness; I need to know how to reduce the ugliness in me to the extent I can. I haven't noticed that O'Connor helps me there, although I'm sure you can say something about applying the insight to interior ugliness. Okay.

Also, I'm sure someone could say I'm just self-absorbed or narcissistic or something, which I won't deny.

I do resent, though, when people imply that if you don't care for O'Connor there is something substantially lacking in you, although I tend to think the same thing about people who don't care for Tolkien.

Life is difficult.

What happened to the comment I made a couple of hours ago about this?! Forgot to click "post" again, I guess. Anyway, basically it said that I find the Berens guy more funny than anything else, especially the "cleaner page" bit. He actually hits a somewhat O'Connoresque note there--a more educated variation on "why can't you write about something uplifting?" I imagine she would have found it extremely funny. I can just imagine her ending a letter with something like "Well, I need to get back to work and see if I can come up with a cleaner page."

I had read the second Robinson quote, and we did discuss it somewhere. I find it wrong-headed but forgiveable--O'Connor's vision is very often stark to say the least. But the first quote--I can't make much sense out of that. Maybe if I read the whole interview it will make more sense.

I think this is a good start to the year. I can certainly understand that people might not like O'Connor's stories. I've only read a couple and I basically like them, although of course, they're not cheerful.

(Although I listened to a recording of FO'C reading "A Good Man" and it was hilarious!)

I think I once mentioned that since reading "The Enduring Chill" I have not often felt embarrassed by my fellow Catholics whenever they say or do things I don't like, while speaking of The Faith. That's because of the story of how God's grace was working through the very unsophisticated priest. For me, O'Connor's stories have real life application and even to my understanding of who God is and how He works. I consider that to be wonderful. :)

Actually, I think if you think of the stories as being read in a strong Georgia accent, they make a LOT more sense--because it isn't a Midwesterner (my native inner voice) pointing out the foibles of southerners. That is the advantage that Maclin has over a lot of us; that voice is his native inner voice.

I interiorly read British lit in a fauz British accent for the same reason.

I suppose I should interiorly read Hugo in a faux French accent, no?

Okay, I know Alabama isn't Georgia, but you get my point.

That is a very interesting thought, Robert.

I do wonder sometimes if Flannery O'Connor's work is capable of reaching the people that she wanted to reach, at least without some kind of emissary for the work. The students in Toby's class, if they are paying attention, will be able to see things that someone picking up Wise Blood for himself will not, and I wonder how many teachers are even capable of teaching it. I am positive that my community college English teacher learned more about A Good Man is Hard to Find from me than I did from her. I wasn't her fault, she just never had the key to unlock the story.

I wonder how many people can read Revelation and recognize that they are Ruby Turpin.

As I think I said earlier, it took reading Habit of Being and a couple of the essays in Mind and Manners, and then reading Revelation before it began to fall into place for me. Most people are going to be that persistent. If someone whose book recommendations I trust had not handed me her copy of HoB to read, I wouldn't have persisted.

Robert, I don't think so much about what MFOC's writing does for me, as I just love books a movies where the truth emerges in surprising ways. Sometimes, I don't even know if the author understands what's happening.

Nothing is like Tolkien. It's just the best. It's useless to even think about it when you talk about other stuff because everything falls short.


Also, I've never mentioned this before because I always planned to write something about it, especially when I thought I might go back to school and major in English, but look at A Good Man and read the passage where she is describing the house that the grandmother wants to visit and think about the impression that the description evokes. Maybe it's just me. I don't know.


"not particularly moved by O'Connor"

I find that hard to imagine. My first encounter with her fiction made me physically nauseous.

Her fiction makes me tense, but not nauseous.

Maybe it is accessibility that Janet is talking about that is a hindrance to me. I just don't have time to dig like that. I need immediate gratification!

Have you read her letters? I bet you would like them.



Was it I who suggested you read O'Connor? I love introducing my friends to things that make them nauseous.


So, Janet, what do YOU make of people who don't care for Tolkien?

Well, there are people who just don't like fantasy or faerie and I don't understand that just like I don't understand why people can't do Math, but then I have no ability to visual things spatially (like when my husband tries to describe something he's going to build to me), so I guess it's just something like that.

I have noticed that my friends who don't like Lewis and Tolkien generally take things very literally and seriously. I guess they are just wired that way.

Also, I wonder if it has something to do with having a sacramental view of things.

And I think that Grumpy doesn't like Tolkien, and I don't know why.


I think it was before we knew each other, Janet. I did Evelyn Waugh in college for the "British Literature since 1900" paper, and bought a Penguin selection of Evelyn Waugh's journalism that came out very shortly afterwards (1992?). That contained a very positive review of a collection of J. F. Powers stories, which I eventually hunted down and liked a great deal. Then I was looking for something *about* Powers and didn't find anything much but did find his name cropping up in relation to Flannery O'Connor. So I eventually got round to trying A Good Man Is Hard to Find some time in the late 90s (does our friendship date from 1999? - who knows but you might have pushed me over the edge into getting round to reading her). I read two stories and couldn't read more.

When I was in Memphis you asked me if I'd read Flannery O'Connor and I think I pulled a face and muttered something and you gave me a copy of The Habit of Being (which I wish I'd kept but after reading it through twice and browsing it repeatedly I gave it to somebody I thought would benefit from it at the time).

Great start to the series, Toby!

"I do wonder sometimes if Flannery O'Connor's work is capable of reaching the people that she wanted to reach, at least without some kind of emissary for the work."

That is probably more true of today's reader than of her contemporary readership. Recall that when FO'C was writing in the 50s and early 60s there was a fair amount of interest in Southern literature, and esp. in that known as "Southern gothic," a category into which O'Connor was (and is) continually lumped. The literate reader would have been at least somewhat familiar with the general approach, albeit not in the way she used it, as early misunderstandings of her work make clear.

I do think that she and Dostoevsky are peas in a pod, in that they both completely had the number of their own contemporary modernisms and the attendant pathologies.

And I must say I understood the fiction a lot better after having read the letters. As far as literary criticism goes anything that either Ralph Wood or Marion Montgomery have written on her is worth reading.

That's interesting Rob. I was thinking about this thread last night right before I dropped off to sleep, and I was thinking about the Brothers K in relation to her work.


Yes Paul, I think we figured out a while back it was 15 years. But we probably weren't talking about O'Connor then.


"I find that hard to imagine. My first encounter with her fiction made me physically nauseous."

Heh! I read Habit of Being before I read any of her work. I loved HoB and I've liked FO'C ever since. I really must read the rest of her work.

I will try to look up that recording of her reading "A Good Man." Her accent is very thick and the recording itself was probably not great, but for anyone who can understand what she's saying, it's probably a good intro to her work.

Well here you go:


I'm not sure how well that will work as an intro, but on the other hand there couldn't possible be a more perfect one, metaphysically speaking.

These initial reactions are interesting, especially Paul's. Mine was "this is hilarious." The story was "Good Country People", and it was an assigned reading in a college course. There is a great deal of black humor in her work, and there is a certain kind of southern literary person who doesn't see a whole lot beyond that, and the very sharp psychology. I still remember being struck by a particular image early in that story: Mrs. Freeman is described as being "as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other." That's a really strong image, but if you haven't seen sacks of grain like that its combination of squishy solidity, shapelessness, weight, and fixity wouldn't come across.

And yes she is very similar to Dostoevsky in many ways--in her view of the human race, and our times,and what's wrong with both. Night and day different technically--the huge canvas vs very finely crafted miniature. But on the same spiritual wavelength.

I am not at all convinced, by the way, by her "large and startling figures" rationalization of her practice. Artists do that kind of thing all the time--justifying what they can do and want to do as a conscious response to the times--but basically they're just doing what they like and are good at. So I don't feel obliged to evaluate her method for its evangelistic efficacy. Has a non-religious person ever run across her work and been directly influenced by it to consider the Catholic faith? I'm sure you could find some, but I doubt it's happened very often.

Somewhere in one of the letters MFOC talks about enjoying her own jokes, saying that when she writes something funny she reads it over again and laughs and laughs. I love that image.

The indifference or hostility of some people toward Tolkien is an interesting phenomenon, and I think I half-understand it. I know a couple of people who simply can't see it as anything but a fundamentally silly enterprise that can't be taken seriously as literature. I don't react that way, but I can sort of squint and see how it might look that way. If you're coming at it with the expectation that it should be a novel in the modern naturalistic mode, it will seem like a corny children's story or something.

But if that makes some of us feel defensive, we can remember Auden saying that he would never entirely trust the literary judgment of a person who didn't like The Lord of the Rings. (I hope I'm remembering that more or less accurately--I read it a long time ago).

I already love "52 Authors" and we're only in the first week! I must confess that I am not a very big fan of O'Connor. I did read and enjoy to some extent the two novels: Wise Blood & The Violent Bear It Away - both were assigned reading in college. Then I tried the short stories and could not "get into them". My problem is I really like much longer fiction ... Dostoevsky & Dickens are more my style. The shorter a piece is the harder I have even remembering that I read it several days later. Short stories are perfect for college students (as are the two novels). They are read and picked apart and a good professor is helping to point out things that the casual reader does not notice, or might "get wrong" if they are not in tune with the author. I suppose I should also confess, while in an O'Connor Catholic religious mode, that I don't much like Southern Gothic literature. Other than a few Faulkner books that I reread on occasion (Absalom, Absalom! & The Sound and the Fury) I tend to stay away from the genre completely.

I don't dislike all fairy stories or science fiction. I love A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia books and George McDonald's children's books. Tolkein's prose simply makes me cringe with horror. There is no other word for it.

It is true that generally I prefer something more like a 19th century novel - whether it is Dostoievsky or Austen to any kind of science fiction or allegory. I think the greatness of Evelyn Waugh is that he continued and developed the comic tradition of the English novel. This is not 'naturalistic' - it is the fantastic, exaggerated realism of comedy. One finds 'fantastic realism' today in Tom Wolfe, for instance.

But a few pages of Tolkein simply make me say Ugh.

I read some FoC years ago, some of the short stories - they were interesting but I totally failed to understand them, being a callow youth of about 27.

However, I do remember an amusing anecdote from the introduction: one lady wrote to O'Connor saying "Your book left a bad taste in my mouth!", and received from O'Connor the reply: "You wasn't supposed to eat it."

Grumpy, what do you think of Lewis's Space Trilogy?

I suppose in a perfect world everyone would appreciate all great literature.

Speaking of Southern Gothic, I don't know much about it, having never read Faulkner and such, but I did very much like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I liked Love in the Ruins, but not so much The Thanatos Syndrome. I, of course, loved To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel. Are these really Southern Gothic?

Is O'Connor really Southern Gothic?

I think the Southern Gothic entry in Wikipedia was written by somebody in high school. I particularly like, Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo.


What is Southern Gothic, and is O'Connor it?

Well, despite it's flaws, the Wiki article is pretty accurate, and yes, she is.


If you buy the DVD of Huston's Wise Blood (Criterion Coll.) the audio recording of FOC reading 'A Good Man...' is one of the extras on the disc.

I always liked this.


And it really does take a minute to load.


That's funny but it mainly makes me want to hear the whole story. The "Wasteland" rap is not as good.

I actually don't know anything about Southern Gothic, and have suspected it to be a reviewer's construct. But I guess a lot of southern writers do have a pretty dark streak.

Robert, I would just say this. Once I was teaching a religion and literature class. And first we read 'Till We have Faces' and then we read 'Wise Blood'. The difference one felt, from doing them back to back, was very striking. Flannery O'C was a real novelist, beginning in the images and building a world out of them. One can feel it. The density is not superadded. Its in there, through and through. By contrast, Lewis' book feels like it was constructed out of words and ideas.

And 'Till we have Faces' is Lewis' best adult book! The Space trilogy is really amazingly bad as literature.

My view of the two Lewis books is the reverse: Faces is a lifeless flop, while the space trilogy is vigorous and engaging. But then you aren't exactly praising Faces, which I agree does not play in the same league as MFOC

I really want to see that Huston film. It was on Netflix when i first subscribed but disappeared before I saw it.

I once discussed That Hideous Strength in a group for a whole year and we could have gone on had not the leader of the group made us stop.


On the other hand, I first read 'Til We Have Faces on the recommendation of a friend who has similar taste. He told me it was the most beautiful book he had ever read, but it had taken him a good while to get into it. So, even though I hated the first part, I persevered, and when I got almost to the end, it became utterly enthralling. Then, when I read it again six or seven years later, I didn't feel that at all.


So would H. P. Lovecraft be Northern Gothic?

To be honest, I think all Lewis' adult books are flops. Its a question of degrees. As novels, they fail.

But as containers for ideas, well that is another thing! All of Lewis' adult novels are full of important moral intuitions and insights. Just how Mark is de-moralized in That Hideous Strength by being made to do weird meaningless things. I have managed to avoid reading moral theology or straight ethics for the past forty years. Very many of my opinions about Christian ethics come from Lewis, including his adult novels.

But as an adult novelist, he is quite wooden. It is odd that the characters in the children's books are not wooden, and the dialogue flows, and is funny, whereas in the adult novels the dialogue is forgettable at best.

I see. That makes sense.


But I have to think about it. ;-)



I mean 'adult novels' not 'adult books'!

I remember professor Louise Cowan saying thirty years ago that Chesterton had something that Lewis lacked, and that was earth.

Well, I can see that much of what I really like in those novels is the kind of thing that you talk about. He illustrates those moral intuitions and ingsights, but the narratives themselves might seem like a series of illustrations rather than a story about real people. The characters in THS are almost allegorical.

I don't know about the first two, though. That's what I have to think about.


Well, they ARE allegorical.


I was thinking that this discussion was going to be unfair to the person who has Lewis, but I see that no one has Lewis.


Hmm, I thought someone did. Curious omission.

I agree that the space trilogy has weaknesses in some of the areas that are particularly prized by modern taste. But it has some compensatory strengths, most notably narrative interest. What y'all are saying about the embodiment of moral intuitions in narrative is not a negligible gift. This or something similar is true of Tolkien's work as well. A few years ago (well, maybe close to 15 years) I read a Booker Prize winner called Hotel du Lac. It was exquisite, but it really didn't amount to much. I'll never read it again, but I re-read Tolkien and Lewis regularly with great pleasure. I think a hundred years from now they'll still be valued.

But see, I don't think Grumpy is saying they aren't to be valued; I think she is saying they don't succeed as novels. I guess I have to think about what it is that a novel should do.


That's right, Janet. That's what I mean. And I do think, and I think Lewis would agree with me, that a novel can be a page turner without succeeding as a novel.

Well, being like Toby a student / admirer of Professor Louise Cowan I have quite 'Platonic' ideas about genres. Prof Cowan thought there were four literary genres, Comedy, Tragedy, Epic and Lyric.

The novel is not a genre in that sense, for one thing. There is no such thing as 'The Novel' in the way that (for us Cowanites) there is such a thing as Comedy or Tragedy.

On the other hand, novels are generated by traditions, and their cultures. The English novel, as germinated by Fielding and Defoe and Swift, and carried on by Austin and Dickens was always somewhat comical and somewhat realistic. When I saw 'Somewhat' I mean 'Somewhat' - in what way is Dickens a 'realistic' novelist - except for that there's a smack of real English life there. There's another 'high moral seriousness' strand of the English novel tradition which we see for instance in George Eliot and DH Lawrence.

Lewis loved the former tradition - he refers to it often in his letters. But his imagination was steeped in late mediaeval and early modern allegory. This works very well for him in The Great Divorce and in the Screwtape Letters. But allegory works better in poetry than in prose. Not always, I grant you. Think of Animal Farm. But there's a kind of 'height' in Lewis' allegory in the inter-planetary trilogy which is trying to rise to poetry. And it's not making it because he's not writing epic poems, he's writing novels.

So there's a kind of fallen flat epic poem in the inter-planetary trilogy.

I agree with that, but there is no modern equivalent of the epic, really, at least not if you consider the term to mean intrinsically an epic *poem*, as it did for Aristotle (doesn't this view basically go back to him?). If I'm not mistaken some of those who hold that fourfold classification consider the novel in general to be a sort of fallen flat epic--a modern, prosaic, democratic epic. Or an epic by psychological analogy, maybe (as Joyce explicitly aimed for). So I don't really have an argument with that appraisal of the space trilogy. And I won't argue that if, say, The Heart of the Matter is an example of a good novel, Perelandra isn't, in that it's pretty flawed when judged by the same criteria.

But in the end I'm not really concerned with genre and category. The question for me was formulated by a friend many years ago, when I had ventured upon reading Tolkien, and he had not. We were both a little skeptical that it would be good. So when I said I had read The Lord of the Rings his response was "Well, is it literature?" I say it is, and Lewis's novels are, too, although a kind of eccentric and unusual literature.

A novel can be a page-turner and not succeed as a novel, very true--another way to put it is that a page-turner is not necessarily literature. What makes literature is a combination of skill in execution and scope and depth in the treatment of the big questions. I think Lewis and Tolkien both make the grade by those criteria, albeit in very different proportions from, say, Greene.

Darn it. Nobody is doing Greene. I chose obscure sort of people on purpose, but if nobody is doing Greene, I may have to.

We'll see.

I'm already thinking about replacing someone with John Buchan. I am very unstable in my choices.


Inconstant. That's what I am.


"So would H. P. Lovecraft be Northern Gothic?"

One of the creepiest novels I've ever read is Fred Chappell's Dagon, which brings Lovecraftian horrors into the Christ-haunted South, albeit in a more subtle, psychological way than HPL ever would have attempted. It's been probably 25 years since I read it, but I still remember how much it creeped me out. I've always meant to go back to it but never have. Perhaps I'm afraid I'll be terribly disappointed, or maybe I just don't want to be creeped out again!

I've read the Space Trilogy twice and TWHF once. The latter was years ago and I don't remember it much, but I recall thinking that the Space Trilogy books work much better as carriers of ideas than as novels (which is not, of course, to say that that necessarily makes them bad novels).

Imo Tolkien is sui generis, which makes him difficult to compare with other authors. And I have to admit that I'm not a fan of Chesterton's fiction at all. The only thing of his that I've ever really enjoyed fiction-wise is The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

We are supposed to discuss "The Man Who Was Thursday" at our CSL Society meeting next month, and I'm not really looking forward to it. I might just have to listen. That would be so startling that it might cause several members to have heart attacks.

Tolkien is definitely his own category, and you're right about that making his work difficult to compare with others, who else has written a Bible to support his other works, but I think his body of work is just the best fiction there is.


Really quite interesting discussion, of both O'Connor and Lewis.

Here is a good piece that corroborates suspicions about weaknesses in Lewis's fiction:

Really good piece by Alan Jacobs!

Mac, I think the difference between us is that I put the bar lower for what counts as passable. IE, I would *entirely* write off a B+ novel whereas you would say, 'its a good B+ novel'. I think this is partly a temperamental difference and partly a professional difference. I must always be thinking, 'would I recommend it to a student?' 'would I put in it in a course?' whereas you would be thinking, 'did I enjoy it?'

I really am beginning to see that Lewis's trilogy is more like a pageant than a play. You know, he presents this series of images--especially in THS, not so much, I think in OotSP.

All the same, I like them very much for whatever they are.

I will say that while I really enter into the Narnia Chronicles, I think I'm more an observer of the space trilogy.


It's been years since I last read them, but based on my memories I vastly prefer Till We Have Faces to Lewis' Space trilogy. In fact I really enjoyed the former both times that I have read it, but I didn't even bother finishing the trilogy. (I left off THS, which I have since been told was a mistake.)

Those are really interesting comments, Grumpy, on Lewis' imaginative formation. I'd never thought about him in quite that way before.

Most folks here know that I am a Chesterton enthusiast, but I will agree that his fiction is largely unsuccessful. I am currently reading The Flying Inn, and the long stretches between the drinking songs are really quite bad. Napoleon and Manalive both have their merits, but more in conception than in execution. I find The Man who was Thursday confounding; I'm not sure if it is good or not!

I guess I should preface this comment with a


warning, but I suppose anyone here who hasn't read The Man Who Was Thursday is not likely to do so, and I'm not likely to recommend it highly, since I don't care for Chesterton's fiction.


I find that I can access Thursday much more fully and actually get to enjoy it and feel like it is worth the read if I do two things:

a) Think of it as a love story of sorts, with Syme and Rosamond being the interests.

b) Think of Gregory and Rosamond as respectively the back and front of Sunday.

It works for me, anyway.

I read The Ball and the Cross a long time ago and enjoyed it. A very long time ago. I think back in those days when I made more of an effort to like anything Catholic I tried to read Manalive or The Flying Inn and failed. I do like The Man who was Thursday, but I agree, it's hard to see what its about. Now, Napoleon of Nottinghill I have read, back in the day, a couple of times with enjoyment. I can't imagine re-reading it.

I do remember the Father Brown stories as being great, but those too, I have not really read for twenty years.

I first read O'Connor in the early 1970s in a college class. The way she was presented was as an exotic in the tradition of Faulkner, only even stranger because her stories had so much death, usually in a very macabre way. I don't recall anyone taking the religious element seriously rather than seeing the stories as simply providing a peek at bigoted, ignorant, Jesus-loving fanatics.

This was probably due to the influence of “establishment” critics who really couldn’t comprehend how someone so talented and smart could actually believe in sin and grace and redemption. I think the only secular critic who has from the beginning taken O'Connor's religious vision seriously is Joyce Carol Oates, who has written quite a lot about her over the years. I found the full text of two pieces Oates wrote in 1966 and 1973 here. This by Oates strikes me as very important in assessing O’Connor’s work:

Not Faulkner, however, or Nathanael West, but Kafka and Kierkegaard are O'Connor's most important ancestors. Superficially, her work bears strong resemblances to Faulkner's—the exaggeration of physical and psychological horror, the back-country Southern settings—and to West's mainly in surrealistic style; but it is the revelation of a transcendental world of absolute value beyond the cheap, flashy wasteland of modern America that is O'Connor's real concern. She is understandable only in a religious context. If the reality of the transcendental world is denied, as it is in Faulkner and West and other existential writers, her literature becomes vulgar farce and is indecipherable.

If it is truly the case that her stories become “vulgar farce” if stripped of the “transcendental”, as they surely are for many of her readers, that may explain just why Marilynne Robinson finds that "the influence of Flannery O’Connor has been particularly destructive" with regard to "serious fiction [treating] religious thought respectfully."

(You just knew I had to bring up Robinson again, right? :) )

I recently read The Ball and The Cross and really enjoyed it. I tried to read Nopeleon of Nottinghill but couldn't get into it.

I enjoyed the Fr Brown stories but also haven't read them for many years.

Janet, maybe you could say just a few words at random so as not to cause any heart attacks. :)

I love Narnia so much I want to go there.

In fact I wouldn't be surprised if Narnia is real and you can get to it from Norcia, Italy.

Grumpy said, re our difference re Lewis: "... this is partly a temperamental difference and partly a professional difference."

Yes, I think so. I'm not obliged to think at all about how Lewis would fit into a pedagogical or critical program. Whatever I say in the abstract about his work is after the fact, in that it's an attempt to explain why I like it, not to explain why it's good in principle and everyone ought to like it, too (which is sort of implicitly what a critic does).

I've actually dwelt on this basic question of how to value art that is clearly not up to the mark in some respect or other, but which I nevertheless value highly. The answer clearly cannot be that I have bad taste, so there must be some other explanation.

It appears that we have something approaching a consensus about Chesterton's fiction, to wit, it's not too hot. Personally I came to it with all sorts of positive expectations, but I just couldn't make it work. I did like the Father Brown stories better than I expected when I read a few of them several years ago.

I'd rather read Lewis's fiction than Chesterton any day, and I don't even think Lewis is a great fiction writer. Of course, I'm comparing him to Tolkien, not [fill in the great author who isn't Tolkien because he really is sui generis].

You know, Louise, there is a Narni, Italy and there is a St. Lucy of Narni.


Oh, only Blessed not Saint. http://www.narnia.it/lucia_eu.htm

This Lewis conversation is probably an appropriate segue to our next author.


Well now I'm just freaked out!

Narni is not that far from Norcia.

You just have to change the o to an a, and the c to an n.


When I read The Man Who Was Thursday, I read an edition with an introduction by Gary Wills, which was very helpful. If I remember correctly, he considers the novel roughly based on the Book of Job.

I found Napoleon of Notting Hill really entertaining, and thought it made a better case for Chesterton's economic/political views than his non-fiction does. I suppose, though, that I would have enjoyed it less if I had tried to read it as real literature. (Seems to be the common theme regarding these books!)

I'm surprised to find Joyce Carol Oates speaking so shrewdly of MFOC. Surprised because although I don't know much about JCO I have a mild prejudice against her. No good reason except her being part of a literary world that I don't think real highly of. That is about as good a one-paragraph assessment of MFOC as one could hope for. It reminds me of a blurb by Thomas Merton which appeared on one of her books--maybe the stories?--comparing her to Sophocles. Robinson's misconstrual doesn't really bother me that much--writers (artists in general, I guess) have a propensity to be unsympathetic to other artists whose approach is very different from their own.

"writers (artists in general, I guess) have a propensity to be unsympathetic to other artists whose approach is very different from their own."

I find it interesting, for instance, that FOC and Carson McCullers had a srong distaste for each others work.

"I find it interesting, for instance, that FOC and Carson McCullers had a srong distaste for each others work."

Yes, and FOC was not a great fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. She called it a children's book.

That Oates quote is dead on, by the way, and explains exactly what Robinson seems to miss. It also may have some root in their different understandings of grace, as Robinson is a Calvinist (although the mistake generally tends the opposite way, and turns FOC into a Jansenist).

"She called it a children's book." I think I've figure all this out. I'm a child when it comes to literature and music and movies and stuff like that.

Every night, y'all wait until I go to bed and then start talking. I'm glad you talk, but it really tempts me to stay awake too late.

Anyway, I agree about the JCO passage. When I was reading it, I was thinking, "Exactly." Someone told me once that JCO was Catholic, and although I find that she had only the most tenuous connections to Catholicism, they may be enough for her to recognize grace when she sees it. The one JCO novel I read was very spiritual. Unfortunately, the spirits involved were not those with whom one would want to be acquaintance.

Anyway, that passage pegs MFOC as NOT REALLY a Southern Gothic--more like a Christian existentialist in So. Gothic clothing.

I wonder sometimes which of MFOC's works Robinson has read. She probably hasn't read the non-fiction, and maybe not the stories like Temple of the Holy Ghost and Revelation where the spiritual element is more easily recognized.


Re: Harper Lee, etc. Is it fair to say, then, that O'Connor is impatient with literature that is merely ethical, even if insightful, and not ultimately spiritual or religious?

No, if you read the letter she says that except for the fact that the woman was raped, the story itself is a story for children. The material is not adult material. It's about a child's world from a child's point of view.

While it is suitable for children, I don't think that necessarily makes it a children's book.


So it is basically Beverly Cleary with a rape trial.

No. More like Little Women.


Well, I see you all made liars of me.


I agree with Mac - it's a kind of literary equivalent of odium theologicum. As a theologian one quickly learns that all kinds of philosophers and theologians who personally detested one another may have been personally incompatible but they are not intellectually incompatible.

Sorry I've been absent for the past day or so. Still not feeling very well at all, and lots of stuff going on.

I've never read much Carson McCullers, and don't remember much of what I did read, but I wonder if one of the reasons for MFOC's hostility to her work--very strong hostility, iirc--is that there is a superficial resemblance, and maybe a similar tendency toward doing things for shock effect, but to very different ends. Worse even than the odium of two very different writers for each other might be that of two who are in some ways similar. I doubt Tolkien would have had any use for fantasy writers who go for violence, sex, and nihilism.

btw the reason I keep saying "MFOC" is that I like the sound of "Mary Flannery" so much.

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