Monday, March 2, 2009

The Flannery flim flam

What is it about Flannery O'Connor? Am I the only one who's mystified by the never-ending deification of this unrepentantly racist writer?

The front-page feature in yesterday's New York Times Book Review was Joy Williams' review of Brad Gooch's new O'Connor biography. Review? More like hymn of praise for the book's subject. In the course of two full pages, Williams recites all sorts of fun facts about O'Connor. For example that she wrote lots of letters. She was a devout Catholic. She "collected all manner of fowl." She "liked to drink Coca-Cola mixed with coffee." Oh, and by the by: "She was a connoisseur of racial jokes." And: "The civil rights movement interested her not at all." And in response to "a request to stage one of her stories, she wrote, 'The only thing I would positively object to would be somebody turning one of my colored idiots into a hero.'"

Not two sentences later, Williams concludes the hosannas with, "She is reported to have had beautiful blue eyes."

Lovely. Just lovely.

A few years ago a work acquaintance, a white woman from the South, gave me a book of Flannery O'Connor's short stories as a gift. I confess I'd never read her till then. I knew she was widely considered one of the greatest U.S. writers of the 20th century. So I eagerly dove in. And soon was drowning in sympathetic portrayals of racist characters and varied but by my read mostly insensitive, one-dimensional portrayals of African Americans. And lots lots lots lots of use of the N word. I kept telling myself to go on, kept thinking, wait a minute, I think she's going to expose the racism here, she'll be making an anti-racist point, she's building up to it. But it never came, and I couldn't force myself to go on after I'd read three or four stories.

I believe the conventional view is that she was in these stories simply telling the truth, showing the reality of social relations in the mid-century South. The corollary is that fiction has no other duty, that the writer need not tip sympathy in one direction or the other. The second aspect of the O'Connor hagiography, after kudos for her characterizations, is celebration of her mastery of language. She was, we are given to believe, one of the great English stylists. She was, and I don't think this exaggerates the regard in which she is generally held, a genius.

Well, there's truth telling and there's truth telling. The question is: whose truth is being told, and what is it being told in service of? The status quo or change? The answer in the case of Flannery O'Connor's writings, it seems to me, is the former.

I'm of course not arguing against showing the brutal ugly reality of racism, in the South, the North, and anywhere else. But is the reader edified in any way about it, its causes and its horrific effects? With whom is the reader moved to identify? O'Connor's fullest characters, at least in the stories I could stomach until I closed the book, are white, and racist, and multi-dimensional, and sympathetic.

All of which brings us to the old questions of (1) form and content, (2) the writer and the writing, (3) social responsibility and literary neutrality.

1. I guess the establishment view in the case of Flannery O'Connor is that the form is so magnificent that the content matters not. Who cares if she writes raving racist fiction? She writes it so damned well! As if this needs saying, I disagree. Content matters.

2. I've written several times about a December email I received from an Acclaimed Young Writer, in which he lectured me about the errors of a political approach to reading and writing. One of his most impassioned points was that the writer's politics are irrelevant; only the writing counts. He used the well-worn example of Ezra Pound. He was a fascist, Mr. AWP noted, but he still wrote great poetry. This matter of separating the writing from the writer has been much debated in many quarters and, surprise surprise, most of the literati come down on the same side as Mr. AWP. My view is a bit more nuanced. Is it possible for a reactionary write well? Hell yes, of course. Do I want to read work by a reactionary? Hell no, not if I know that the writer's politics are odious. Does the writer's politics affect the writer's writing? Oh yes oh yes oh yes--even if the reader doesn't realize it, even if the writer doesn't. Am I therefore reading fascist work if I'm reading work written by a fascist? Yes, I think so. And so no, if I know a writer to be a fascist, a racist, an anti-Semite, a counter-revolutionary, a reactionary of one stripe or another, I do not care to read his or her work. No matter how technically marvelous it may be.

Let me refine my point slightly. Or maybe this is redundant, I don't know. But the issue for me is not: is it art? That's not a particularly interesting question, at least not to me, and I have no problem assenting to the art-ness of all kinds of creative product. The sort of questions that interest me are more along these lines: whose art is it? What world view does it express? To which side of the class divide does it adhere? Is it an artifact of hope, or an instrument of oppression, or what? In one of my earliest posts soon after I started this blog, I said that I have pretty minimal requirements in my reading life. Despite all my bloviating, that's true. It's not necessary for a novel to be a workers' manifesto in fictional form for me to like it. But I cannot like, I cannot even read, a volume that is, whether subtly or overtly, against the workers, against the class struggle, against the oppressed. Call it art if you like, but it's art in the service of the wrong ideology and you know which dustbin it'll end up in.

3. As I've argued in many earlier posts, there is no such thing as literary neutrality on the great social questions. There is faux neutrality, which amounts to alignment with the status quo. Most current literature falls in this category, in my opinion. There is, on happy occasion, work that takes the side of the workers and oppressed, or that at least orients in a vaguely progressive direction. I'm reading such a book now, a novel by the British Marxist Edward Upward (marvelous moniker, isn't it?), who I'd never heard of until he died earlier this month. Then there is work like Flannery O'Connor's, work that, with skill and art, subverts fiction's promise, fiction's potential, fiction's hope, and delivers instead a portfolio for the power of words as bulwark against progress.

Which makes her, I guess, the thinking person's Margaret Mitchell. Whose own paean to the old South's slave system, Gone with the Wind, specifically the film version, is lauded in a new book that's also reviewed, also witlessly, in yesterday's NYTBR.

UPDATE: Please check a later, related post, a week or so after this one.
AND ANOTHER, AS OF DECEMBER 2009: Now that Richard at Existence Machine has posted a longish entry about this topic a fair chunk of which responds to what I wrote here, so that a fair number of you who just read through my post may have come from his (and if you didn't you might want to head over there to see what he has to say), I'll add two quick notes. One is that I did indeed read the repulsively titled O'Connor story that Richard considers at some length in his essay; if I remember right I had a range of reactions to it and did move on to keep reading more stories after it. It was several stories later that I gave up on O'Connor. The second is that I'm more interested in an issue Richard touches on briefly before moving on to the meat of his thoughts on O'Connor--that is, whether literature can actually move people to political action. I'll see if I can't come up with a thought or two on this some time soon.