NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Tuesday, April 3rd. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s time again for our monthly book recommendation.
Today, WORLD book reviewer Emily Whitten joins us for this month’s pick. Good morning, Emily.
EMILY WHITTEN, REPORTER: Good morning, Mary.
REICHARD: Well, today I’ve brought along a book we’ve talked about before, off air…a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
WHITTEN: Right, I remember a while back you requested we talk about her stories, so, glad we can get to that today.
REICHARD: Well, I inherited a leather-bound edition of The Complete Stories by O’Connor. I’ve heard so many Christians I respect sing her praises. And I know her collection of short stories won the National Book Award in 1972. But to be honest, when I tried to read her work, I came away a little confused. Is it just me?
WHITTEN: First of all, let me just say, take heart–you’re not the only one with that reaction. One of my favorite quotes about O’Connor comes from a Circe Institute’s Close Reads podcast about her, in which two literary gurus admit their first reaction to her work was, “this is really weird.”
The good news is that with the right guide, you can bring into focus the Christian hope found in her stories. So, before you read anything by her, I highly recommend readers find someone who can help you get some context–maybe grab that English major in your life, or listen to a Close Reads Podcast on her. Biography lovers may want to check out Jonathan Rogers’ excellent spiritual biography, The Terrible Speed of Mercy. That can make all the difference.
REICHARD: I certainly wish someone had given me that advice earlier this year! But since I’ve got you cornered now, let’s spend a few moments today on what is–to me at least–O’Connor’s most obvious characteristic: she can be a bit depressing. Could you help us frame that just a little?
WHITTEN: Sure. The most important word in decoding O’Connor may be grace. O’Connor often uses broken characters and horrific events to confront us with our desperate need for God’s grace. Christian professor Jonathan Rogers from New College Franklin, was kind enough to read a few passages of his O’Connor biography for us. Listen to this:
AUDIO: ..all of us like the old hymn says are weak and wounded, sick and sore, lost and ruined by the fall. The freakishness and violence in O’Connor’s stories often mistaken as a kind of misanthropy turn out to be a call to mercy. In O’Connor’s unique vision, the visible world even in its seediest and ugliest is a place where grace still does its work…
WHITTEN: As O’Connor grew up in small-town Georgia in the 1920s and 30s, progressive ideas in science, religion, and politics all seemed to say, “every day in every way we are getting better and better.” Against that view, many in the literary field—like T.S. Eliot, for example—pushed back with literature of angst and despair. O’Connor certainly reflects that more pessimistic, literary view. BUT she also shows how the Christian God really exists—and, as C.S. Lewis would say, uses pain as his megaphone. Here’s Jonathan Rogers again:
AUDIO: O’Connor wrote what she saw, and she saw a world that was broken beyond self-help and instant uplift, but a world also in which transcendence was constantly threatening to break through, welcome or not.
REICHARD: OK, let’s apply that to a particular story like “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” How would we see God’s grace “breaking through” in a story like that?
WHITTEN: While grace works throughout the story, you definitely get a quintessential “moment of transcendence” near the end where the grandmother sees something new. Angelina Stanford spoke with a lot of insight on this point on a recent Close Reads Podcast:
AUDIO: What is the thing that prepares the grandmother for this moment? In the first half of this story, she’s completely concerned about superficial stuff, and then there’s the car accident and she’s literally turned upside down. Her hat comes off, she’s literally upside down and all the pretensions come off cause her world is turned upside down, and then she’s able to be prepared for this moment.
WHITTEN: In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor uses violence—in the form of a car accident—to prepare the grandmother to see herself and Christ in a new way. And that has the ring of truth for each of us. It often does take the cancer diagnosis, the unexpected death of a loved one, or something else drastic to wake us up to reality. Sometimes I wish O’Connor had gone beyond just a moment of transcendence in her characters—but if she’d shown us their transformation in a sort of backwoods Pilgrim’s Progress, the secular literary world would never have taken her seriously. And we likely wouldn’t be talking about her today.
REICHARD: And I’ll add there’s other kinds of violence in that story, too. Fascinating. I’ll try to reread “A Good Man is Hard to Find” with some of this in mind, Emily. Any final thoughts about our author today?
WHITTEN: I would just say, you don’t have to like these stories to appreciate them. When I first encountered O’Connor in college, especially her nonfiction book Mystery and Manners, she helped me think seriously about the theological implications of stories in important ways. And I think that’s Flannery O’Connor’s greatest gift to readers: You don’t amble down the lane with her stories—you wrestle with them in a way that changes you.
REICHARD: That’s a fresh thought. I don’t have to like something to appreciate it. Thanks for the recommendation today, Emily.
WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary.
REICHARD: Again, our Classic Book of the Month for April is Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories. If you have a book request for Emily like I did, contact her on her twitter. Her handle is @emilyawhitten.