Flannery O’Connor on Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
“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.”
By Maria Popova
Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) is among the titans of twentieth-century literature (in addition to being a lesser-known satirical cartoonist). In 1960, O’Connor penned an essay titled “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” eventually included in the altogether fantastic posthumous collection of her unpublished lectures, essays, and critical articles, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library). While the essay focuses on Southern literature, it touches on a number of bigger questions in all literature, most crucially how the qualifiers and variables attached to a writer — in this case, religion and regional geography — affect the writerliness of the writer. (At the heart of the inquiry is the same concern Margaret Atwood had decades later in examining how and whether being a “woman writer” impacts being a writer.)
In this rare recording, taped at the Dorothy Lamar Blount Lecture Series at Wesleyan College the year the essay was published, O’Connor reads a portion of an early draft of the piece. Highlights from the full final version, including the passage O’Connor reads, below.
I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about. My own approach to literary problems is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea — she put her finger inside the cup.
These are not times when writers in this country can very well speak for one another. . . . Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so.
When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that 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. But for this occasion, we may leave such misapplications aside and consider the kind of fiction that may be called grotesque with good reason, because of a directed intention that way on the part of the author.
In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider.
All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.
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. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.
(More than half a century later, Neil Gaiman explored the grip of ghosts in a beautiful related meditation.)
O’Connor goes on to consider another explanation for the singular sensibility of the Southern writer:
There is another reason in the Southern situation that makes for a tendency toward the grotesque and this is the prevalence of good Southern writers. I think the writer is initially set going by literature more than by life. When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.
The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. . . .
For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.
She reflects on what amplifies the appeal of the grotesque in fiction:
The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees.
O’Connor offers a broader meditation on why we read:
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. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.
She follows this with a mirror-image question of why writers write and, echoing Eudora Welty on the poetic of place, ties this back to the regional roots of literature:
I am often told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory up pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante’s. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.
The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region.
And just for good measure, here is O’Connor reading the title story of her most celebrated collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, published in 1955. The recording, found on the Criterion Collection disc Wise Blood, was long believed to be the only recording of O’Connor reading, though the one above clearly disproves the case.