Many readers find it difficult to reconcile O’Connor’s devout Catholicism with the dark often horrific comedy of her fiction. Brad Gooch, author of Flannery: The Life of Flannery O’Connor, addressed the question in an exclusive 2009 interview with The Library of America:
LOA: Your biography closely chronicles what a devout Catholic O’Connor was: a daily communicant who enjoyed reading and discussing scholarly theological treatises. Yet she didn’t entirely discourage writers who took contrarian readings of her works. For instance, you recount her telling John Hawkes that she “liked very very much” his essay “Flannery O’Connor’s Devil” in which he finds her “authorial attitude in itself in some measure diabolical . . . that is, ‘the disbelief that we breathe in with the air of the times’ emerges fully as two-sided or complex as the ‘attraction for the Holy.’” Was it her aim, do you think, to create works that could be interpreted in antithetical ways?Read the entire interview here (PDF).
Gooch: O’Connor forever crossed wires in her life and work. Conan O’Brien wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on O’Connor. One night on The Charlie Rose Show he put the riddle succinctly: “You’d think it was this bitter old alcoholic who’s writing these really funny, dark stories. Then you find out that she’s a woman and that she’s devoutly religious. It’s the opposite of what you would expect.” She definitely designed her stories to be read in a world not as given as she to literal belief in God or the devil. Such a trick was not easy and took a while to develop. While at Iowa, she sought guidance from a local priest: how could a Catholic girl be writing about snarly types like Haze Motes, who calls on a town prostitute. The priest told her she didn’t need to write for 15-year-old girls. She slowly parlayed this advice into a more sophisticated apology, borrowed from Thomas Aquinas by way of Jacques Maritain: art is a habit of the practical rather than the moral intellect. As she put it: “You don’t have to be good to write well. Much to be thankful for.”
But the issue of contrary readings of O’Connor’s fiction is compelling, and has never been raised more provocatively than by her friend John Hawkes during her lifetime. Borrowing a line of reasoning from Dr. Johnson when he claimed that Milton was “of the Devil’s party” because Paradise Lost loses its zing when Satan is offstage, Hawkes finds the “diabolical” to be the guilty pleasure in O’Connor’s work. Privately—not to Hawkes—she judged the theory “off center.” But Hawkes was not alone in the camp that felt O’Connor was not the best reader of her own work, and her theological gloss perhaps spin, whether conscious or not. Firmly planted in this opinion was her progressive friend Maryat Lee, who found dissonance between O’Connor the story writer and O’Connor the theologian. “The writing is one thing and the thinking and speeches are another,” she wrote to a mutual friend. “Jekyll and Hyde if you will. Perhaps.”
There are an impressive number of websites dedicated to aggregating online essays and information about Flannery O’Connor. See in particular Comforts of Home, the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College & State University, and the Andalusia Foundation, which keeps her farm open to the public and which you can support with purchases from its gift shop—including the classic “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor” bumper sticker.
Related LOA works: Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works