National Book Award winners, part 24: 1972’s Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

8 Apr

(In 35 magnificent bullet points! And one footnote.)

• In 1972, Flannery O’Connor won the National Book Award for her collected short stories. They are, in a word, magnificent. They are also wicked, wild and weird.

• O’Connor had been dead for eight years. She deserved the top honor.

• What to say about O’Connor that hasn’t been said a dozen times before?

• Much of her adult life she suffered through Lupus. She also lived much of her life with her mother out in the country.

• Illness. Deformity. Rural locales and weird familial relations. Not too bad a description of O’Connor’s work.

• Two of the judges that year were Joseph Heller and Joan Didion. Wow. American fiction in the seventies.

• Themes: spoiled children, haunted Christians, fear, worry, anxiety. Lack of sexual experience. Lack of social experience. Outbursts of violence. Social wolves, dressed as sheep, prowling amongst the weak.

One of the masters of the form, O'Connor is devious, wicked, cruel and unsparing.

One of the masters of the form, O’Connor is devious, wicked, cruel and unsparing.

• There’s racism, my God, and it isn’t just reporting. Something in her art seems tilted towards a seething resentment and near-hatred for southern African Americans. Apologists argue that she is setting up the ironic disconnect between dreamers (often liberals) and reality (the rural, often violent south).

• I think this a generous interpretation. Here we have a boy and his grandfather in “The Artificial Nigger”:

“Nelson turned backward again and looked where the Negro had disappeared. He felt that the Negro had deliberately walked down the aisle in order to make a fool of him and he hated him with a fierce raw fresh hate; and also, he understood now why his grandfather disliked them.” 

• Great writing. Intriguing point of view. But, also, something disturbing in the coded language, the total subjectivity. I don’t detect irony here; I see O’Connor revealing something about her own beliefs.

• More on O’Connor’s racism, or rather, more on her unsparing racial commentary. Here she is, in “The Circle in the Fire,” with one of her characters thoughts after upbraiding one of the poor blacks: “Her Negroes were as destructive and impersonal as nut grass.” Ouch.

• Is she using her character’s racism for some end? Is she delving into the racism that saturated so much of the South? Or is she portraying the world as she thought it was? A hard question for her fans to answer[1].

• Let’s move on.

• A Good Man Is Hard To Find remains one of the greatest short stories ever written—terse, yet somehow large and spacious as a novel. The characters have life in them that seems to exist far outside the boundaries of the story. It’s only 23 pages and it’s goddamn, fucking perfect.

• The first line: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”

• More themes: suicide, religious confusion—simple minds incapable of grasping the true meaning of Christ, sacrifice. Bullets, (just hinted at) perverse sex, children at the mercy of a vicious adult world.

• O’Connor’s progeny: Harry Crews and William Gay and (to a lesser extent) Barry Hannah.

• Hannah is sillier, more playful, less wicked, more obvious, more in love with his own words, more in love with life and booze and sinning. Less enthralled by asceticism, less likely to leave a disabled woman stranded with no possible way home, as O’Connor does in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”)

• Here’s the first line to that splendid story:

“The old woman and her daughter were sitting on the porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time.”

• William Gay—a great novelist prone to the same excesses of O’Connor. An almost reductive tendency toward the abused and the grotesque; casually racist characters unexplored and unexamined; a specter of violence and decay unfettered by life’s little joys. Having said that, Provinces of Night is an absolute masterpiece. Here’s the first line:

“The dozer took the first cut out of the claybank below Hixson’s old place at seven o’clock and by nine the sun was well up in an absolutely cloudless sky and it hung over the ravaged earth like a malediction.”

• Ditto for Crews. Feast of Snakes is one of my favorite novels. What the hell, here’s the first line to that, too:

“She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.”

• Gay is O’Connor plus love. Crews is O’Connor plus sex. Taken together with Hannah they form a bizarre buffet of southern grotesquerie.

• O’Connor’s novels are problematic. Her short stories feel richer, more multifaceted. The sentences read like scrubbed stones. She’s an absolute master of the short story; they are wonderful, complex, fun to read. The novels, not so much.

• One of my favorite sentences, from “The Artificial Nigger”:

“He felt he knew now what time would be like without seasons and what heat would be like without salvation.” Wow.

• A great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: merciless.

• Another great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: prophetic.

• Yet another great descriptor for O’Connor’s writing: devious.

• She seems to thrive on humiliation, negative epiphany, casual cruelty. She is so wicked. (I love her for this.) She has hate in her heart the width of a mile-long stone. Her conscience—and I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary—is malformed.

• More themes: terror of sex, horror of cities, of throngs of people, of the riot of everyday life.

• Deceased and probably just bones in the ground, and yet in 1972 she still beat out some very fine writers: Stanley Elkin, Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, Walker Percy, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, Jerzy Kosinski, Ernest Gaines, Richard Brautigan, Frederick Buechner and E.L. Doctorow. That’s a hell of a list. American fiction in the seventies! Still, O’Connor deserved the win.

• Tom Tryon published The Other that year. It’s overrated, but fits in with O’Connor somehow. Dark spiritual doubles. Murder. Mania and jittery nervousness.

• Yet, in O’Connor, the same elements are elegant, hard-edged, crystalline.

• This same year, B.F. Skinner released Beyond Freedom and Dignity. That would be a great title for an O’Connor biography.

• Clark Ashton Smith released a book of poetry. This has nothing at all to do with O’Connor or her work. Just weird. Who would want to read his poetry?








[1] Read her letters if you have any doubts. Yowza.

One Response to “National Book Award winners, part 24: 1972’s Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor.”


  1. Books I read in 2014. | simoneandthesilversurfer - January 5, 2015

    […] Good Man Is Hard To Find—Flannery O’Connor’s best collection of stories, and one of the greatest collections of the Twentieth Century. She’s […]

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