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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.”

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of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” eventually included in the altogether fantastic posthumous collection of her unpublished lectures, essays, and critical articles, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library).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.

Mystery and Manners is a terrific tome in its entirety. Complement it with young O’Connor’s little-known satirical cartoons.

BP

Young vs. Old, Male vs. Female, Intuition vs. Intellect: Susan Sontag on How the Stereotypes and Polarities of Culture Imprison Us

“The young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people.”

Young vs. Old, Male vs. Female, Intuition vs. Intellect: Susan Sontag on How the Stereotypes and Polarities of Culture Imprison Us

“Identity is something that you are constantly earning,” Joss Whedon observed in his fantastic Wesleyan commencement address on our inner contradictions, adding: “It is a process that you must be active in.” But ours is a culture that prefers to make our identities static and confine them to categories, often diametrically opposed to one another, with specific stereotypes attached to each. And yet what is a human being if not a locus of exceptions, a complex cluster of contradictions, coexisting and in perpetual flux, which becomes a caricature of itself as soon as it is flattened into a label? From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — the same fascinating, wide-ranging 1978 conversation with Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott that gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, which was also among the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013 — comes Sontag’s timeless and timely meditation on the polarities and stereotypes that imprison us as individuals and flatten us as a culture.

In the introduction, Cott captures Sontag’s unflinching resistance to stereotypes:

In all of her endeavors, Sontag attempted to challenge and upend stereotypical categories such as male/female and young/old that induced people to live constrained and risk-averse lives; and she continually examined and tested out her notion that supposed polarities such as thinking and feeling, form and content, ethics and aesthetics, and consciousness and sensuousness could in fact simply be looked at as aspects of each other — much like the pile on the velvet that, upon reversing one’s touch, provides two textures and two ways of feeling, two shades and two ways of perceiving.

Indeed, Sontag explores these toxic stereotypes and polarities throughout the conversation. She tells Cott:

A lot of our ideas about what we can do at different ages and what age means are so arbitrary — as arbitrary as sexual stereotypes. I think that the young-old polarization and the male-female polarization are perhaps the two leading stereotypes that imprison people. The values associated with youth and with masculinity are considered to be the human norms, and anything else is taken to be at least less worthwhile or inferior. Old people have a terrific sense of inferiority. They’re embarrassed to be old. What you can do when you’re young and what you can do when you’re old is as arbitrary and without much basis as what you can do if you’re a woman or what you can do if you’re a man.

Susan Sontag on love, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

One of her most poignant points comes from an anecdote she shares in discussing “the misogyny of women,” about her son, David Rieff (who edited her fantastic recently published journals):

Regarding those sexual stereotypes: the other night I was in a situation with David when we went out to Vincennes University, where I was invited to attend a seminar, and then after the seminar, four people plus David and myself went out to have coffee. And it so happened that the four people from the seminar were all women. We sat down at the table, and one of the women said, in French, to David, “Oh, you poor guy, having to sit with five women!” And everybody laughed. And then I said to these women, who were all teachers at Vincennes, “Do you realize what you’re saying and what a low opinion you have of yourselves?” I mean, can you imagine a situation in which a woman would sit down with five men and a man would say, “Oh, you poor thing, you have to sit with five men and we don’t have another woman for you.” She’d be honored. … And don’t forget that these were professional women who probably would have called themselves feminists, and yet what they were expressing was quite involuntary.

She then returns to an equally imprisoning polarity related to age, drawing a parallel:

You can find something very similar between young people and old people, since if a young person — man or woman — in his or her twenties would sit down with a bunch of people in their sixties or seventies, one of those persons might have said, What a pity you have to sit here with five old people, that must be boring for you! The point about women is or should be obvious, but people haven’t said how awful and embarrassed and diminished and apologetic they feel about being old.

Another dangerous polarity she points to is that of intuition vs. the intellect — one historically intertwined with our culture’s male-female stereotypes. Sontag, celebrated as one of the greatest intellectuals in modern history, turns out to be averse to such categorization and echoes French philosopher Henri Bergson as she tells Cott:

Most everything I do seems to have as much to do with intuition as with reason. . . . The kind of thinking that makes a distinction between thought and feeling is just one of those forms of demagogy that causes lots of trouble for people by making them suspicious of things that they shouldn’t be suspicious or complacent of.

For people to understand themselves in this way seems to be very destructive, and also very culpabilizing. These stereotypes of thought versus feeling, heart versus head, male versus female were invented at a time when people were convinced that the world was going in a certain direction — that is, toward technocracy, rationalization, science, and so on — but they were all invented as a defense against Romantic values.

Sontag then returns to her treatment of male-female stereotypes, which Cott terms “the male-female polarity as a kind of prison” — something I find especially prescient as I head to TED Women this week with equal parts excitement for the TED part and skepticism towards the women-ghettoization part. She riffs on the work of Hannah Arendt, whom she considers “the first woman political philosopher,” and tells Cott:

If I’m going to play chess, I don’t think I should play differently because I’m a woman.

Obviously, that is a more rule-determined kind of game, but even if I’m a poet or a prose writer or a painter, it seems to me my choices have to do with all kinds of different traditions that I’ve become attached to, or of experiences I’ve had, some of which may have something to do with the fact that I’m a woman but need not at all be necessarily determinant. I think it’s very oppressive to be asked to conform to the stereotype, exactly as a black writer might be asked to express black consciousness or only write about black material or reflect a black cultural sensibility. I don’t want to be “ghettoized” any more than some black writers I know want to be ghettoized.

In a sentiment Margaret Atwood would come to echo two decades later in discussing literature’s “women problem,” Sontag examines how women-only awards and accolades compromise rather than progress the gender equality movement:

Let’s say a film of mine is invited to a woman’s film festival. Well, I don’t refuse to send the film—on the contrary, I’m always glad when my films are shown, but it’s only the accident of my being a woman that accounts for my film being included. But as regards my work as a filmmaker, I don’t think that has anything to do with my being a woman—it has to do with me, and one of the things about me is that I’m a woman.

And, remember, this is 1978 — only shortly after the height of the Second Wave of Feminism and the passing of the Equal Pay Act, and at a time when Ms. magazine was changing gender politics. So when Cott pushes back and suggests that a feminist response might accuse Sontag of acting “as if the revolution had already been won,” she responds, more than a quarter century before the Lean In narrative, by nailing the issue with exquisite, prescient precision:

I don’t believe that the revolution has been won, but I think it’s just as useful for women to participate in traditional structures and enterprises, and to demonstrate that they’re competent and that they can be airplane pilots and bank executives and generals, and a lot of things that I don’t want to be and that I don’t think are so great. But it’s very good that women stake out their claims in these occupations. The attempt to set up a separate culture is a way of not seeking power, and I think women have to seek power. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think the emancipation of women is just a question of having equal rights. It’s a question of having equal power, and how are they going to have that unless they participate in the structures that already exist?

[…]

I think that women should be proud of and identify with women who do things at a very high level of excellence, and not criticize them for not expressing a feminine sensibility or a feminine sense of sensuality. My idea is to just desegregate everything. The kind of feminist I am is to be an antisegregationist. And I don’t think it’s because I believe the battle has been won. I think it’s fine if there are women’s collectives doing things, but I don’t believe that the goal is a creation or a vindication of feminine values. I think the goal is half the pie. I wouldn’t establish or disestablish a principle of feminine culture or feminine sensibility or feminine sensuality. I think it would be nice if men would be more feminine and women more masculine. To me, that would be a more attractive world.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is an excellent read in its entirety and one of the best history books of the year for good reason, brimming with layers upon layers of insight not only into one of the greatest minds in modern history but also into the broader cultural context and dynamics upon which this mind, and our shared legacy, fed.

BP

The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses: Walter Benjamin’s Timeless Advice on Writing

“The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself.”

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open,” Stephen King advised. “Do back exercises,” Margaret Atwood suggested. “Know everything about adjectives and punctuation, have moral intelligence,” Susan Sontag counseled. Each accomplished author seems to have a different secret to the craft of writing, but some of the most enduring advice comes from legendary German literary critic, philosopher, and essayists Walter Benjamin. Under a section titled “Post No Bills” in his 1928 treatise One-Way Street, found in his indispensable Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (public library), Benjamin offers thirteen essentials of the writer’s technique, touching on familiar themes like the value of keeping a notebook (Virginia Woolf), the incubation period of ideas (T. S. Eliot), the role of discipline (Henry Miller), and the distinct stages of writing (Malcolm Cowley):

THE WRITER’S TECHNIQUE IN THIRTEEN THESES

  1. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
  2. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
  3. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
  4. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
  5. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
  6. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
  7. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
  8. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
  9. Nulla dies sine linea [‘No day without a line’] — but there may well be weeks.
  10. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
  11. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
  12. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
  13. The work is the death mask of its conception.

Reflections is the companion volume to Benjamin’s equally essential Illuminations. Complement his wisdom with H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

Facing the Blank Page: Celebrated Writers on How to Overcome Creative Block

Wisdom on artistic paralysis from Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, and others.

Facing the Blank Page: Celebrated Writers on How to Overcome Creative Block

“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Picasso proclaimed in contemplating how creativity works and where ideas come from. He is, of course, Picasso — it may be tempting to dismiss his insight with an “Easy for him to say!” sigh. But anyone who has endeavored in a creative field has felt first-hand this yin-yang of action and ideation. (The same, I’ve long believed, holds true for the larger question of “finding” one’s creative purpose and path in life — we make the trail by walking it, only to turn around and “find” a path.)

For writers, there can be a particularly disorienting disconnect between knowing this correlation intellectually and being petrified by facing the blank page. Much of that psychoemotional paralysis comes from our pathological perfectionism, the antidote to which Jennifer Egan captured perfectly in her advice on writing: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

And yet something often stands between knowing this and living this. That’s what eight of today’s most celebrated writers — Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Mitchell, Philipp Meyer, Alaa Al-Aswany, and Daniel Kehlmann — explore in this wonderful micro-documentary from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel, which has previously given us celebrated authors’ advice to aspiring writers and Patti Smith’s advice to the young.

Highlights below — please enjoy:

Jonathan Franzen:

The blank page in the mind has to be filled before you have the courage to face the actual blank page.

David Mitchell:

A blank page is also a door — it contains infinity, like a night sky with a supermoon really close to the Earth, with all the stars and the galaxies, where you can see very, very clearly… You know how that makes your heart beat faster?

Margaret Atwood:

There is something compelling about the blank page that beckons you in to write something on it — it must be filled.

Philipp Meyer:

I don’t think “writer’s block” actually exists. It’s basically insecurity — it’s your own internal critic turned up to a higher level than it’s supposed to be at that moment, because when you’re starting a work — when the page is blank, when the canvas is open — your critic has to be turned down to zero… The point is actually to get stuff on paper, just to allow yourself to kind of flow. It is only by writing that you’ll discover characters, ideas, things like this.

Alaa Al-Aswany:

The blank page gives a horizon for what you can write, because you always have this conflict between what you want to say and what you could say. And writing is this conflict.

Joyce Carol Oates:

I would never write first — I don’t think that’s good at all. As soon as you write in language, it becomes frozen. It’s better to think first — to think for a long time — and then write when you’re ready to write. But writing prematurely is a mistake.

Couple with this growing library of great writers’ advice on the craft and artist Sol LeWitt’s electrifying wisdom on how to overcome creative block and self-doubt.

BP

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