Flannery O’Connor, Conflict, and Un-Sentimental Fiction

When Flannery O’Connor looked out into the literary world, she saw much that she did not like. The problem was not exactly that she wouldn’t be read because she was a woman, she saw plenty of women writers who had lots of success. The problem was that these writers wrote in such sentimental, homely, religious, marriage-is-the-way-to-solve-all-problems kind of plot.

A physically-suffering, unmarried Flannery O’Connor had her eyes on something greater. Something more literary–and by that I mean something more complex.

Some people say that good literature is “real” or “realist.” These words are overused. The problem here was never so simply Realism vs. Romanticism, for there exist very real people who live very romantic lives, but perhaps cleanliness vs. messiness.

As destined literary great, O’Connor looked to the seemingly-godless “southern gothic” as a prototype for the messiness she wanted to display in her own fiction. But as a devoted Catholic, O’Connor, in my reading of her work, wanted to use the horror of this genre not in the name of sensationalism, but in the name of Christ.

There is much more to be said about Flannery O’Connor, but I wish to focus on this: O’Connor’s fiction became great because it was bred from conflict.

On one hand, she held a firm conviction in her beliefs, and, on the other hand, she saw vast literary accomplishments and innovations in the “southern gothic” field that thrived by representing the evil existing just next door, and existing in you.

What would it look like for a somewhat sentimental-religious thinker to write in the “southern gothic”?

When she wrote, she did not compromise on either front. At the risk of being redemptive or sentimental, she kept explicitly religious references, allusions, and symbols in her writing that often provide a theological hope amid horrible sin and suffering.

I’m writing about this because I think this provides a good example for writers today. Good writing comes out of a good conflict.

It is possible O’Connor’s conflict may very well be yours: You want to write something different than the massive amounts of sentimental fiction out there, but you don’t want to sell out to a unchristian kind of literary fiction.

I read a book recently that marketed itself as “an unsentimental story.” The author / publisher seem to see the value of the novel in what it is not, as if not-being has ever been an accomplishment.

The relentless dedication to avoid sentimentalism in the story became just as clean and tyrannic, contriving the narrative, as a devotion to sentimentalism would have been.

So, if you too wish to write in such a way that innovates away from sentimental fiction, or any other type of writing you wish to avoid, you have to move somewhere new.

When you move out of a city, you move into another one. When I lived in Milwaukee, I never said I lived “not-in-Chicago” as if anything outside Chicago’s city limits is uncharted territory. And, even when I moved, I still had much of Chicago’s style in me, and, as silly as it seems, I had to figure out how to operate as a person from Chicago who now lived in Milwaukee

So, as you try to come to terms with the writing you want to do, know that you can’t write in a negative genre, but you must move to a new one and write from the conflict caused from carrying these two places within you.

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