Giving the Story Away With Flannery O’Connor

I’m in the middle of reading Brad Gooch‘s so-far-excellent biography of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery, which has prompted me to revisit a couple of her stories, “Good Country People” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” As with a lot of authors that made it into my high-school literary anthologies, I read O’Connor way, way too early—I didn’t know enough about the world to get the irony, and I didn’t know enough about writing to get how carefully she calibrated her strange, skewed Southern characters. (There’s a beautifully turned couple of paragraphs in “The Life You Save,” where O’Connor conflates the fixer-upper nature of an old car and the mute woman in the story, about 75 words that are at once hilarious yet with a note of compassion to them too; O’Connor found a way to smirk at people where any other writer would just poke fun.)

A passage in Gooch’s biography struck me as interesting and perhaps relevant today, given the mood of mild-to-extreme panic from publishers about publicizing books, and some of the anxiety writers feel these days to be perpetually self-promoting. Gooch writes about a 1955 appearance that O’Connor made on a brand-new afternoon TV show about books on New York’s WRCA-TV called Galley Proof. The idea was that the host, New York Times Book Review assistant editor Harvey Breit, would interview an author, and the interview would be interspersed with a dramatization of the author’s book—I imagine a terrifying mix of and America’s Most Wanted.

The story to be dramatized, as it happens, was “The Life You Save.” Gooch characterizes the introverted O’Connor’s disinterest in the proceedings by excerpting an exchange between her and Breit:

Breit: Flannery, would you like to tell our audience what happens in that story?

O’Connor: No, I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like that. I think there’s only one way to tell it and that’s the way it is told in the story.

In fact, the whole conversation is pretty awkward: It’s available in its entirety in the book Conversations With Flannery O’Connor, which just happens to be available in its entirety online. Breit talks much more than O’Connor does, and O’Connor responds tersely, humoring all his needless references to Mann and Cezanne and Shakespeare. It’s hard to tell without having seen the tape, but by the end Breit sounds like he’s flailing and O’Connor seems defeated:

Breit: And I, for myself, think that although Miss O’Connor can be called a Southern writer, I agree that she is not a Southern writer, just as Faulkner isn’t and that they are, for want of a better term, universal writers, writing about all mankind and about relationships and the mystery of relationships. I think that for me the distinction of Miss O’Connor is not the oblique, refined style that we’re getting so much these days. I’m relieved that you write as simply as you do. I think it may have come out in this small dramatization. Do you think so?

O’Connor: Yes, I think….

Breit: I hope so.

A lesson, perhaps, that not all authors, or critics, are made for television—or should feel forced to be.

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