Flannery O’Connor on the synthetic South

So the MTA won’t stop my morning drink & ride, which is a great development, but some Mondays I could snort a 10-ounce can of Café Bustelo and it still wouldn’t be enough to get me going.

Although the email and work backlogs aren’t much worse than usual, for the last week or so I’ve spent my days blinking like a toad at everything I should be doing. Please don’t take it personally if I’m late getting back to you.

Until I get my act together, here’s an excerpt from Flannery O’Connor’s “The Regional Writer,” first published in the Winter, 1963 issue of Esprit, on receiving the Georgia Writers’ Association Scroll for The Violent Bear It Away. (“The Regional Writer” is collected in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, which I’ve been rereading lately in preparation for a thing I agreed to do on an uncharacteristically optimistic day a few months ago.)

Says O’Connor:

There’s a story about Faulkner that I like. It may be apocryphal but it’s nice anyway. A local lady is supposed to have rushed up to him in a drugstore in Oxford and said, “oh, Mr. Faulkner, Mr. Faulkner, I’ve just bought your book! But before I read it, I want you to tell me something: do you think I’ll like it?” and Faulkner is supposed to have said, “Yes, I think you’ll like that book. It’s trash.”

It wasn’t trash and she probably didn’t like it, but there were others who did, and you may be sure that if there were two or three in Oxford who liked it, two or three of an honest and unpretentious bent, who relished it as they would relish a good meal, they were an audience more desirable to Faulkner than all the critics in New York City. For no matter how favorable all the critics in New York City may be, they are an unreliable lot, as incapable now as on the day they were born of interpreting Southern literature to the world….

When I went to college twenty years ago, nobody mentioned any good Southern writers to me later than Joel Chandler Harries, and the ones mentioned before Harris, with the exception of Poe, were not widely known outside the region. As far as I knew, the heroes of Hawthorne and Melville and James and Crane and Hemingway were balanced on the Southern side by Br’er Rabbit….

Today, every self-repecting Southern college has itself an arts festival where Southern writers can be heard and where they are actually read and commented upon, and people in general see now that the type of serious Southern writer is no longer someone who leaves and can’t come home again, or someone who stays and is not quite appreciated, but someone who is a part of what he writes about and is recognized as such.

All this sounds fine, but while it has been happening, other ground has been shifting under our feet. I read some stories at one of the colleges not long ago — all by Southerners — but with the exception of one story, they might all have originated in some synthetic place that could have been anywhere or nowhere. These stories hadn’t been influenced by the outside world at all, only be the television. It was a grim view of the future. And the story that was different was phony-Southern, which is just as bad, if not worse, than the other, and an indication of the same basic problem….

Prophets have already been heard to say that in twenty years there’ll be no such thing as Southern literature. It will be ironical indeed if the Southern writer has discovered he can live in the South and the Southern audience has become aware of its literature just in time to discover that being Southern is relatively meaningless, and that soon there is going to be precious little difference in the end-product whether you are a writer from Georgia, or a writer from Hollywood, California.


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