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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism
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Joyce Carol Oates on Flannery O'Connor

"Large and Startling Figures": The Fiction of Flannery O'Connor

2009

Short stories, for all the dazzling diversity of the genre, are of two general types: those that yield their meanings subtly, quietly, and are as nuanced and delicate and without melodrama as the unfolding of miniature blossoms in Japanese chrysanthemum tea, and those that explode in the reader's face. Flannery O'Connor (1925–1964) came of age in a time when subtlety and "atmosphere" in short stories were fashionable—as in the finely wrought, understated stories of such classic predecessors as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, and James Joyce, and such American contemporaries as Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, and Jean Stafford—but O'Connor's plain-spoken, blunt, comic-cartoonish, and flagrantly melodramatic short stories were anything but fashionable. The novelty of her "acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages"—as Brad Gooch puts it in his new life of O'Connor—lay in their frontal assault upon the reader's sensibility: these were not refined New Yorker stories of the era in which nothing happens except inside characters' minds, but stories in which something happens of irreversible magnitude, often death by violent means.

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Workings of Grace: Flannery O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger"

1998

Suffused with Catholic ideology, or in any case a passionate wish to believe in Christ and salvation by way of the Catholic Church, Flannery O'Connor is the most visual and relentlessly "symbolic" of writers. Her dreamlike rural landscapes are alive with that intense, primitive power of the inwardly focused imagination we find in the seventeenth-century New England Puritans and in other deeply religious individuals for whom nothing can be accidental, contingent, or without meaning; on the contrary, everything is charged with significance; as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has said, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." When such believers are gifted with imagination (and what is imagination but, in part, a mysterious metaphor-making capacity), the "natural" world scarcely exists except as a supernatural manifestation; surfaces are masks through which an underlying, far more significant reality asserts itself in ways that may be startling and original and sometimes grotesque.

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Flannery O'Connor: A Self-Portrait in Letters

1983

Though she had, evidently, no more than a conventional critical sensibility—she dismissed Randall Jarrell's marvelous Pictures from an Institution as bad fiction, she referred to Virginia Woolf as a "nut," and declared that she couldn't tell Mozart from Spike Jones, and despised the piano "and all its works"—she did possess a highy reliable talent for assessing her own work. She seems always to have known that she wrote well; that she was gifted. She saw how Wise Blood failed, she saw how certain of her stories—"Revelation," "Judgment Day," "Parker's Back"—succeeded beautifully. Having spent months on the long story, The Lame Shall Enter First, she saw that it simply didn't come off, and tried—too late, as it happened—to stop its publication in Sewanee Review. Her instincts about her own fiction were always right. She wrote ingenious parables of the spiritual life, and her characters were drawn with broad, slashing strokes—"I am not one of the subtle sensitive writers like Eudora Welty," she says—meant to suggest, but not to embody, "reality." A creator of romances, like Hawthorne, or even Poe; but one with a fine, sharp eye for the absurd.

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The Visionary Art of Flannery O'Connor

1974

... she also knows—it is this point, I believe, missed by those critics who are forever stressing her "irony"—that the entire process is divine. Hence her superficially reactionary attitude toward the secularized, liberal, godless society, and her affirmation of the spontaneous, the irrational, the wisdom of the blood in which, for her, Christ somehow is revealed. Because she does believe and states clearly that her writing is an expression of her religious commitment, and is itself a kind of divine distortion ("the kind that reveals, or should reveal," as she remarks in the essay "Novelist and Believer"), the immediate problem for most critics is how to wrench her work away from her, how to show that she didn't at all know herself, but must be subjected to a higher, wiser, more objective consciousness in order to be understood. But the amazing thing about O'Connor is that she seems to have known exactly what she was doing and how she might best accomplish it. There is no ultimate irony in her work, no ultimate despair or pessimism or tragedy, and certainly not a paradoxical sympathy for the devil. It is only when O'Connor is judged from a secular point of view, or from a "rational" point of view, that she seems unreasonable—a little mad—and must be chastely revised by the liberal imagination.

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on Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners

1971

Reading and rereading this book is a moving experience: not only is Mystery and Manners (Occasional Prose of Flannery O'Connor, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald) a valuable and exciting collection of essays in itself, it is a testament to the deep humanity of Miss O'Connor, to the modesty and wisdom and gentle humor that lay behind her vivid, sometimes repulsive fictional accomplishments. Her death at the age of thirty-nine is one of our bitterest losses. It is impossible to guess, given the body of work she has left and the evidence of shrewd, speculative intelligence in these essays, just how far she might have gone; as it is she remains one of our finest writers, though she has not written any single "masterpiece."

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