So What the Heck Is a Short Story? (A Dip into Lit Crit, A Prelude, before Our Swan Dive into O’Connor’s Stories)

I am amazed that so few readers and writers today have a clear idea of what this genre is supposed to look like, feel like, sound like, not to mention how long it should take to read one, AND (GASP)! What kind of impression a great short story customarily makes upon the reader.

Truth is, it’s a confluence of human DNA/attention span/and a cellular intuitive “knowing it when they read it.”

poe220px-Graham's_April_1846_Poe_Phil_CompOur wonderful, brilliant, highly original nutcase, Edgar Allen Poe planted the flag for the genre, outlined its gears and parts, nailed it succinctly and nobody since–so far– has supplanted him in his wisdom and keen-eyed analysis of how this short narrative functions, its essential gears and apparatus.  Yes, he’s been dead a long time but the thoughts about the genre which he codified in his (perhaps tongue in cheek, we’ll never know) essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” published in the literary mag Graham’s Magazine in 1846 has survived and only gained stature and respect as time marches on.

Poe was a genius and a hoot.  The crazy things he did, the amazing things he wrote.  We should be thankful, I suppose he was kicked out of West Point and couldn’t think of anything else he could do but write about literature (criticism) and write scintillating, disturbing poems and stories. At any rate his theories do not limit or circumscribe a writer, oh no, ample room for everything under the sun as Poe tells us what a short story is and how it should make us “feel”  (anything from base to sublime!).


The reason we need to bone up on Poe”s theories about the short story is because he provided the literary foundation, or milieu, from which Flannery O’Connor’s stories sprang.

Totally different spirits, different kinds of authors, for sure. But think of it this way: Poe was laying down basic principles about how the human heart and mind respond to short narratives.

“The Philosophy of Composition” is free many places online, including Get it, read it, if you haven’t. It’s great fun.

Also! Not to be missed, if you are as fervent as I am about such things, THE LIBRARY OF AMERICA has a great volume on Poe’s essays and criticism.

O’Connor was no left foot ignoramus when it came to the history of American Lit, Literary Theory, and never rushed to publish.

flannery_oconnor6 young

In her view she was writing for God, the ages, and was no starry eyed sucker just dying to see her name in print. She was a serious scholar of American Lit who learned all she could about method and masters in order to fulfill her mission in life, which she saw as serving God as a flinty-eyed prophet, the hell with what people wanted to hear.

The absolutely stupefying thing is that she was so good at her craft that, in spite of a tough vinegar message, she was eventually universally acclaimed and now is considered perhaps the best American practitioner of the short story genre in the 20th century.

foc_oconnor_iowa_1947_spring_001 at iowaMirabile Dictu.



O’Connor at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 1947

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In Her Own Voice: Flannery O’Connor Reads Aloud A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND

This recording will add tremendously to the reader’s understanding of this classic story. Straight from the horse’s mouth, a great author in her own voice tells the story in the way she wanted it to be heard and interpreted.

This was the voice in her head as she wrote it, revised it and fine-tuned and tweaked it to perfection.

Warning: Her thick Georgia accent may be somewhat unintelligible and a problem initially for some listeners. If it is for you, listen to it a few more times, perhaps while following along with the print edition, and you will get it fully and acquire insights unavailable otherwise. The extra effort is eminently worth it. It will increase your appreciation and understanding of the story exponentially.

In a few days I will offer here several posts exploring and analyzing it, to see if we might by close reading discover what it is that makes it a masterpiece, why it “works” so well and what makes it so effective and unforgettable.



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Hot tip for aspiring writers today: Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest

The prestigious literary magazine Ploughshares with a long distinguished history of discovering and publishing tomorrow’s literary greats, has announced this year’s “Emerging Writers Contest.”

i1035 FW0.9

Go for it, hatchling writers!  Whether you win or not, you will get experience and exposure, and over time that makes a huge difference. You are in it for  the long run, right?  That’s what it takes! Persistence, commitment, staying the course.

Ploughshares “Emerging Writers Contest”

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“The grandmother did not want to go to Florida.” Flannery O’Connor’s Mastery of the Short Story Form

Flannery O'Connor's desk and typewriter

Flannery O’Connor‘s desk and typewriter

(c) Copyright 2014,  Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved.

“The grandmother did not want to go to Florida” is the first line in O’Connor’s short story masterpiece, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” It is a masterful opening line in that in one short sentence it conveys the central tension and conflict that is the engine that drives and propels the rest of the story.  No small feat, take it from me ;)

In the next several blog posts, I’d like to take a close look at her literary pyrotechnics and  methods with the short story genre and analyze how she so successfully practiced and honed them to make the short story genre a whiz-bang delivery system for her views and perform like greased lightning for shocking the reader into closer contact with God.

O’Connor took great pains with each of her stories, often to her impatient publisher’s dismay and frustration, and she remarked several times in her letters that she was only capable of  producing one good short story a year.  She refused to rush or to be rushed.

Now that may be ridiculous in the eyes of the rushed and rush-to-publish authors of today, yet her insistence on the highest standards for her stories has been validated and celebrated in spades by the test of time and eventual prestigious critical acclaim. Last year the National Book Award took a poll of its followers for the best, most significant of its prize-winners EVER.  And guess what?  O’Connor won the poll and ratings by a landslide.

But the plain fact of the matter was that O’Connor wrote for the ages, not the best seller lists, considered her themes of ultimate importance to humanity and viewed her works as her way of serving God. These  things can’t be rushed.

We’ll start with that immortal gem “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and explore what makes it work so well and discover why is it so revered by critics and readers alike today.

Whatever your faith, disposition or writerly ambitions, O’Connor’s short stories have much to teach serious writers, writers who want to write well, writers who aspire to writing Literature, rather than commercial here-today-gone-tomorrow fiction.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

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“What Each of Us Is Seeking the Poet Already Knows” – Harvard Classics (now free online)

Poetry: A General Introduction. HARVARD  CLASSICS

The Harvard Classics have just now become available–for free– online.

The nearly 60 books in this series are so well written, erudite, thoughtful and stimulating, that I want to share them with you.

If you want to bone up, refresh your memory or plow deeper into Literature, History, Philosophy, the Natural Sciences (e.g., the liberal arts/humanities, including astronomy) you cannot go wrong with this collection.

They were pubbed in 1953, but deep learning, wisdom and insight are timeless, and you will be struck by the repeated patterns in human society, history, science and the arts. The pendulum swings this way, then that way. I’m not sure we’ve gotten any smarter since 4000 BC; we seem to keep making the same mistakes, generationally and as nations ad infinitum. But the sweep and scope, the penetrating inferences of these fine books will keep you thinking and ruminating for long after you finish them.

The History and Philosophy lectures (voice enabled, audio, a little stiff, but tolerable) are absolute treasures (all are by tenured, highly respected and renowned Harvard profs from days gone by). Amazing. Even Frederick Jackson Turner, a legendary scholar and prolific writer on American history is included. Too much to mention…

Poetry has always seemed to me the purest, most moving and beautifully succinct of literary forms. Here’s a sample from these Harvard Classics, which include not simply stand-alone literary works, but lectures, introductions and essays by these fine minds.

If you want to learn, reflect, consider?  This will be a joy and an amazing treat.

If you don’t?  You’ll be bored out of your gourd.

What we really need is not on Twitter, Facebook—or in an infographic. Oh yeah, they’re fun, diverting, BUT.

There is no such thing as “flash” – “point and click” education, wisdom, cultivation, learning—or personal depth and enrichment.

PS– This is of ultimate importance to aspiring writers. If there’s nothing in your head, how can you expect to get anything out of it?

Harvard Classics Poetry one page harvard classics poetry

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It’s live as of today, still a baby, so be a bit patient. Gonna be big, we think. Interest has been strong.

Originally posted on Margaret Langstaff:

As of 3/14/2014,GOOD PEOPLE DOING GREAT THINGS now has its OWN SITE!

It’s still sketchy, only three posts so far, but it will flesh out fairly quickly.


  • visit,
  • follow and,
  • most of all, participate and contribute.

We want to hear your stories and experiences, events and acts of spontaneous kindness that you have witnessed or initiated yourself.

We are looking for:

  • guest bloggers
  • columnists
  • advisors
  • big hearted people of all backgrounds who get the vital importance of immediate compassionate, hands-on individual action when confronted with the lives of the needy, suffering or distressed. Also ….
  • We need techies expert with WP who can volunteer their time to make it a visually engaging, spectacular site!

“Do it anyway.” –Mother Teresa


Lots of wonderful things are hatching with this interview series project showcasing ordinary people who are doing extraordinarily compassionatethings for others who need help, performingdirect…

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Coming Soon from Cedar Hill Press … a new novella about a very remarkable woman


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