“Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor,” Edited by Alison Arant and Jordan Cofer

Flannery O’Connor

Reviewed by Honey Rand

I never much thought about the curation of materials for an anthology until Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor. As I read through each essay, I thought about the excellence of the work and the genius of the collection. Did the editors call on specific scholars to produce this work? Did they collect the best work that reflected their vision? Was it something else? No matter. The collected works are heuristic even if the reader is not a Flannery O’Connor scholar, literary critic, or fiction writer.

The essays are divided into four parts: New Methodologies, New Contexts, Strange Bedfellows, and O’Connor’s Legacy. As the title promises, each piece is a dive into Flannery O’Connor, her life, and her work to varying degrees. While one can hardly escape an undergraduate creative writing class without being exposed to O’Connor, these pieces present her within the context of her culture and time.

I am a social scientist. Literary theory is interesting as mental gymnastics, but not something I have pursued. That said, a reader need not be interested in literary theory to appreciate this work. When I read the phrase, object-oriented ontology in the Introduction, I had to stop. Flashback to a communication class at the University of Washington while working on my Master’s. That was the exact phrase. Ah, I wondered, have we found the nexus between fiction and non-fiction? Between social science and storytelling? In the introduction, the editors Jordan Cofer and Allison Arant were considering the objects in O’Connor’s work, noting that objects have symbolic meaning. I see this as efficiency in communication for her readers.

Oooh. Ahhhh. I read on.

“The Trouble with Innerleckchuls,” which examined O’Connor’s anti-intellectualism and her time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, proved very interesting. Jordan Cofer asked why academics are drawn to someone so critical of them? The piece complicates her, noting that her faith was challenged even as she learned and grew and developed her writing craft. Does faith require some level of ignorance; does expanding intellectualism necessarily challenge faith? Surely her faith and Southern heritage inform her work, yet she resisted being a Southern writer,” opting instead to be an “American writer.”

In section three, we find “Mystery and Myth: Friedrich Nietzsche, Flannery O’Connor, and the Limiting Power of Certainty.” William Murray’s summary is a footnote for every writer: “…art is often our best tool in combating accepted and calcified knowledge.” Here he shows how her work is complicated. Her stories do not merely pitch good against evil. With their flaws and limitations, her characters are not constrained by their shortcomings but rather set free as a result.

The section on O’Connor and civil rights is relevant today. Considering that O’Connor’s stories were (mostly) written as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, her treatment of race—or, more directly, racism—is a repetitive theme. Rachel Watson says this about O’Connor’s later work: “…instead of hewing to a ‘damage thesis,’ of race in America, O’Connor’s later work shows how badly the white people need to believe in racial hierarchy…” She notes, “When these white characters feel such hierarchies slipping away, the destabilizing of their faith in race…that depends upon essential inequality.” The social scientist in me sees that today.

In a final tip of the hat to her all-too-human competing commitments, Carol Loeb Shloss details the divisions O’Connor made of her estate, assigning caretaking of her literary estate to friends, agents, publishers with whom she worked, even as she gave money and property to family outright. As a result, scholars, and others were denied access to some of her materials. Shloss concludes, “In death, we can imagine O’Connor walking through the borders created by her keepers; we can imagine her challenging individual possessiveness with alternative claims of fair use. We can even imagine her burning the woods to clear space for the wide fields of the public domain, the claims of the common man, and the creative commons.”

Readers of Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor don’t have to be scholars or fans of her work to appreciate this collection. This book is accessible to those who read, write and think about the effect of words and the craft that makes communication possible.

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