Fllannery O’Connor on “The Meaning of a Story”

From THE HABIT OF BEING: THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR, P.437

[O’Connor was frequently aggravated and frustrated by mis-readings and misunderstandings of her work by people who she felt should know better and who should have had the intellectual background and aptitude that would ensure insight and appreciation of her stories and novels, and she was particularly annoyed by literary critics, English professors and reviewers, that is, the educated and well informed, who had a public platform, say a column in a paper or magazine, or a captive audience like classroom full of unwitting students, which only exponentially increased and propagated further the already widespread misunderstanding of her work. I myself add the bold type at certain points for ease of reading and reference.–MJL]

~.~

To a Professor of English

28 March 1961

The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be.  If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology. I am not interested in abnormal psychology.

…..This story [A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND] is … not meant to be realistic in the sense that it portrays the every day doings of people in Georgia.  It is stylized and its conventions are comic even though its meaning is serious. …The story is a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him.

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for a reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teacher are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable as long as it is not obvious … students will never learn to enjoy fiction. . . where feeling is absent from a story, theory will not supply it .

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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3 Responses to Fllannery O’Connor on “The Meaning of a Story”

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    A friend of mine, an English teacher and a fine poet who is no longer with us, was mortified to learn, on rereading the classics after retirement, that he had missed teaching the students the most important thing about them – that they were damned good stories. I think he discovered what O’Connor was on about in this letter.

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    • I agree, very true. I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I had a great education, read the entire canon over and over again, went for advanced degrees, then, chilled by what I saw at the highest levels, left. But professors don’t get tenure, don’t get published in the obscure journals no sane person would bother with, the journals that ensure tenure, by exclaiming “this is a terrific story or poem!” They have to convince students and the public that it is a secret codex and inaccessible without their baloney. Originality is not, and never has been, welcome anywhere. It’s disruptive and disturbing. Just the way it is. O’Connor said the hardest vocation is that of a prophet, “it burns them up.” Poets are prophets, as are authors like O’Connor. They have a simple message and tell it brilliantly and artfully in a way the average person gets. That’s dangerous and makes them easy targets

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    • Begging your pardon, Mikels, I meant to thank for your interesting comment and for sharing your memory of your retired English professor friend’s regret. I find it very poignant and moving. A bitter thing for an English professor to have to deal with after all the students are gone and the classroom is empty.

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