The quotable (and formidable) Flannery O’Connor

I’ve been looking back over Flannery O’Connor’s previously collected correspondence while awaiting more excerpts from her letters to Betty Hester.

Many of her comments about writing are shrewd — and of course I can’t heap enough praise on her fiction. Still, rereading the letters, I have the feeling that O’Connor’s belief in the Absolute Correctness of Catholicism must have made her a difficult pen pal — someone whose dispatches might sit unopened on the table for a while rather than being joyously torn into on the lawn in front of the mailbox.

She did have moments of self-doubt and a sense of her own limitations, though, as some of my favorite passages (from the Library of America’s O’Connor: Collected Works) attest:

  • “I have never succeeded in making my way through The Castle or The Trial and wouldn’t pretend to know anything about Kafka. I think reading a little of him perhaps makes you a bolder writer. My reading is botchy. I have what passes for an education in this day and time, but I am not deceived by it. I read Henry James, thinking this may affect my writing for the better without my knowing how.” — February 13, 1954, letter to Ben Griffith
  • “I have just recently been reading your story in the Partisan 35¢ thing and feel called upon to tell you how much I like it and what your stories remind me of. Of course I offer all my critical opinions on long sticks that can be jerked back at once because I really seldom know what I’m talking about but I’m willing to defend this one like a fox terrier. Conrad. They remind me of Conrads… and I have read just about everything he wrote by now.” — October 13, 1953, letter to Robie Macauley
  • “This is it and I will be much obliged for your considered commends and consider that I want to know the worst before publication and not after. I can work on this a good while longer if need be but I am 100% pure sick of it. I cannot see it any longer and the only thing I can determine about it is that nobody else would have wanted to write it but me.” — March 24, 1959, letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald
  • “The proofs came early and seeing the thing in print very nearly made me sick. It all seemed awful to me. There seemed too much to correct to make correcting anything feasible. I did what I could or could stand to and sent them back this morning and my mother brought your letter in after they were mailed.” — October 6, 1959, letter to John Hawkes
  • “All these moralists who condemn Lolita give me the creeps. Have you read Lolita yet? I go by the notion that a comic novel has its own criteria.” — February 28, 1959, letter to “A.” (a correspondent subsequently revealed to be Hester)

  • “I haven’t read the article in PR or the beat writers themselves. That seems about the most appalling thing you could set yourself to do — read them. But reading about them and reading what they have to say about themselves makes me think there is a lot of ill-directed good in them. Certainly some revolt against our exagerrated materialism is long overdue.” — June 21, 1959, letter to Dr. T.R. Spivey
  • “Did I understand you right that you are writing from 5000 to 7000 words of bad prose a day? By my calculations this is about 20 pages. Girl, it couldn’t be anything else but bad. That is too much prose to write in one day. It must be automatic writing. Slow down for pity sake.” — August 21, 1959, letter to Maryat Lee
  • “My book has received considerable attention, most all of it simple-minded — a revolting review in Time, worse from Orville Prescott, the usual snide paragraph in the New Yorker & some very funny items from newspapers. The funniest to date was in the Savannah paper, Savannah where I was brought up & have lots of kin. It was highly favorable, called the hero ‘Tarbutton’ throughout and said he was nine years old.” — April 23, 1960, letter to Elizabeth Bishop
  • “I don’t think much of the traditional association of insanity with the Divine. That’s for romantics. Quincy State Hospital is actually two miles out of Milledgeville, the same only bigger. A five minute stroll through the grounds would only dampen any enthusiasm you might have for the traditional association.” — June 22, 1961, letter to John Hawkes
  • “It has always seemed necessary to me to throw the weight of circumstance against the character I favor. The friends of God suffer, etc. The priest is right, therefore he can carry the burden of a certain social stupidity. This may be something I learned from Graham Greene and that whiskey priest of his, or it may just be instinct.” — December 8, 1955, letter to A.

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