A conversation with Daniel Moran

Daniel Moran is the author of Creating Flannery O’Connor: Her Critics, Her Publishers, Her Readers. He teaches history at Monmouth University and writing at Rutgers University. Creating Flannery O’Connor was published in 2016 by the University of Georgia Press and has just been released in a paperback edition.

Thanks for joining us at the University Bookman. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the thesis of the book and how you went about writing it.

I earned my BA and MA in English, so I knew that literature had a history—but it wasn’t until I went to graduate school again, years later, earning my Ph.D. in history, that I really appreciated how reading, too, has a history. And once I began learning more about this subject and the history of the book, I started thinking about how to merge my love of literature with my new enthusiasms. I wanted to trace the reception of a writer and learn about how his or her reputation was created. Sure, talent will frequently out itself—but there are so many examples of now-canonical writers being assisted by editors, publishers, reviewers, film directors, marketing departments that we can say that a writer needs more than talent to become canonical. It’s not simply a matter of literary cream rising to the top.

Ask someone who is very well-read if he or she has ever read anything by Joseph Hergesheimer. You’ll most likely get a blank stare. But Hergesheimer was huge in the 1920s! Sure, tastes change, but how? And why? Can we chart that? We all have lists of writers we think are great but that we can’t believe aren’t more widely read. Why aren’t they?

A similar set of questions arises when we see how writers previously regarded as purveyors of “trash” or pulp are regarded today: when I taught The Big Sleep in my literature classes, no one raised an eyebrow. This would not have been the case hadI done so in 1939. The Parker novels—Donald E. Westlake’s lean tales of an emotionless thief—have been handsomely brought out in new editions by the University of Chicago Press, which Westlake probably would never have imagined as he was churning these out in the 1960s. And Stephen King’s books are reviewed in the New York Times as if they were As I Lay Dying. How do these shifts happen? And why? The books don’t change—but we do.

Once I began seriously thinking about this, I had to decide upon a writer on whom I could focus my energy. Flannery O’Connor was on my short list, since her work is so out of the mainstream yet so widely read, and her reputation as the Great American Catholic Southern Writer is so strongly established, that I thought she would be an interesting choice. I didn’t want to write yet another book of literary criticism or interpretation; those books all seem to have been written, and written well. I wanted to instead look at how her reputation was shaped by all the factors besides the fact that she’s a great writer.

You write that for many authors certain “watchwords” are used as a kind of critical shorthand to convey something about the work. In reviews of O’Connor’s work, the most prominent of these watchwords perhaps are “Southern Gothic” and the “grotesque.” Do such words help or hinder our understanding of what O’Connor was trying to do?

I don’t think those terms do any harm or lead to any misunderstandings, like when people say “the rich” or “academic rigor” or “genius” without ever defining what these words mean. The watchwords used to describe her and her work, like “grotesque,” “dark,” “gothic,”aren’t off-base. What’s interesting is how often people will throw these terms around as if they illuminated something about her work, which often defies categorization. By all means, one can describe Dune as a science-fiction novel or Riders of the Purple Sage as a western—but how would you define Gravity’s Rainbow? And, ultimately, how would the definition help?

I don’t think that coming up with a definition or label really helps us better appreciate a literary work. It’s like when you hear people describe British humor as “dry.” What, exactly, does that mean—and does it apply to something as broad and complicated as the sense of humor of 65 million people—who don’t all agree on what’s funny? Another one of these words is “difficult,” as in, “Ulysses is a difficult text.” What does “difficult” mean, exactly? People repeat the word over and over because they’ve heard other people say it, but it doesn’t bring us any closer to describing the book. So I don’t think watchwords hinder our understanding; they just seem to substitute for genuine insight, which is more difficult to articulate.

You note that it took some years for critics to understand the important role O’Connor’s Catholic faith played in her work, noting that the publication of A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960) “illuminated Wise Blood” from a religious perspective “in ways that the book itself seemingly could not.” Could you explain how that change in critical understanding occurred?

Researching the chapter on the two receptions of Wise Blood confirmed my thinking about the ways in which a book remains static but its readers do not. In 1952, Wise Blood was often reviewed as a work of satire, as if O’Connor were mocking its protagonist, Hazel Motes—when, of course, the exact opposite is true. O’Connor presents Motes as unhinged and often unlikable, but she clearly sympathizes with his plight and, ultimately, presents him as a kind of saint, martyring himself for a faith against which he initially rails. Critics also spoke as if O’Connor was trying to lampoon Southerners and characterize them as did H. L. Mencken in his essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart.”

Ten years later, when a new edition of the novel was published, it was reviewed in completely different terms as the great Catholic novel that it is. What happened in between was that O’Connor kept publishing: the release of A Good Man Is Hard to Find in 1955 made readers sit up and ask, “Wait … what if she actually believes this?” Then the critical chorus changed its tune. It’s like O’Connor had to help her readers and give them a nudge. And these readers weren’t stupid or benighted; they just hadn’t come across anything like her work. Imagine how we’d all fare if we were handed The Sound and the Fury without ever having heard of it and asked to review it. I’m not sure if we would think the same of the Compsons as we do from our position today.

What’s so interesting is that this pattern of initial confusion or misreading and then reconsidering O’Connor’s work mirrors what happens to many people when they read her stuff today. I’ve had dozens and dozens of students read “The River,” for example, and come to class thinking that O’Connor is trying to satirize “religious brainwashing” or something like that. Then when we talk about what she called the challenge of “documenting the sacrament of baptism,” they get very uneasy. One of them once joked during class, “Can I have my paper back?” And when many people read The Violent Bear It Away, they assume for the first hundred pages or so that the old man, Mason Tarwater, is flat-out insane and that Rayber is the “rational” and “modern” one. But by the end of the book, many people find themselves switching sides, or at least not choosing one, or not knowing what to think. That’s O’Connor’s favorite authorial maneuver and one that the critics replicated through the years.

A lot of your book is taken up with the expected and actual audiences for O’Connor’s work. Who was she writing for, and did she find that audience?

In a 1962 letter, O’Connor says, “My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.” She has many such remarks in her letters, like when she says in a 1959 letter about The Violent Bear It Away, “The modern reader will identify himself with the schoolteacher, but it is the old man who speaks for me.” I think that she knew that she was a Catholic voice in the secular wilderness and that her themes and values were frequently at odds with what seemed to be the accepted ones, or at least the ones that got more press. She says in another letter about The Violent Bear It Away, “No one could have written it but me.”

All that said, she never scorned her audience or tried—thank goodness—to preach to them or convert them. She tried to dramatize matters of faith, and knew that this was a tall order when the audience didn’t share the same values. This is why she made that oft-quoted remark that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and to the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” As for if she found that audience, she surely found the Catholic one—but she also found many others. Being a Catholic or even believing in God isn’t a prerequisite to deeply understanding or admiring O’Connor’s work.

You have a very interesting chapter on the film and stage adaptations of O’Connor’s work, especially the John Huston adaptation of Wise Blood. How did the reception of a film version of her work differ from the literary? Did her audience change, and if so were they getting the “same” O’Connor as her literary audience?

That’s a great question, about whether or not Huston’s audience was getting the “same” O’Connor as the ones who read Wise Blood. The Fitzgerald brothers, who produced and wrote the film, chose Huston because they thought that he would tell O’Connor’s story without editorializing or adding his own “interpretation.” They wanted someone to put the camera in place and say, “Action.”

As for whether the experiences of reading and viewing it are similar, I’d say that they are. The film is perfectly cast, it’s paced exactly like the novel, the art direction is great, and there’s nothing added. If you showed it to someone who had not read the book, he or she would lose out on the great narrative touches, but would still be able to grapple with O’Connor’s ideas. I got to introduce a screening of the film to an audience composed half of O’Connor fans and half who had never read her work—and we had a great conversation afterwards. As for the film’s reception in 1979, it was 1952 and 1962 all over again: many critics thought it was a joke about religious “fanatics” in the South and others wondered why Huston even made it. Someone described it as “the least commercial film ever made.” I don’t think that’s true. It’s like O’Connor’s novel: a great work of art that will never sell likeThe Godfather or Gone with the Wind (on the page or the screen) but one that has definite artistic integrity.

You write that these adaptations “attempted, with varying success” to reflect O’Connor’s skill in “documenting the most profound moments of grace.” What is it about the more successful adaptations that make them work?

The best adaptations—and I’m thinking again of Huston’s and also of Karin Coonrod’s theatrical adaptation Everything That Rises Must Converge—are successful because they take the literary works as they are and don’t really “adapt” at all. You could keep a copy of Wise Blood open on your lap as you watch the film and pretty much move through the narrative in order. That’s how Huston worked when he tackled literary properties and why his many adaptations, from The Maltese Falcon to The Dead, are so good. He trusted his sources, even when, as was the case with Wise Blood, he didn’t share its author’s values or assumptions. Coonrod’s adaptation is perfect because the O’Connor estate demanded that she include the full text of the adapted stories in the play—and by “full text,” they meant every word, including the narrative. The result is a play in which you get to imagine the story alongside the director.

There’s actually a new adaptation in the works: A Good Man Is Hard to Find will star Michael Rooker, fresh from his success in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and be directed by John McNaughton. I’m dubious about this, however, fearful that the film will be an excuse to highlight the Misfit’s sadism or something like that, and content will definitely be added to make it a feature-length film. But Benedict Fitzgerald, who wrote Wise Blood, wrote the screenplay, so there’s hope.

Your final chapter concerns the rise of the online reader. Now millions of people can post their suggestions and reactions to works on sites like Goodreads. How has that changed O’Connor’s audience and reception of her work?

I had researched what academics and critics and what I call “professional readers” had said about O’Connor, but was stumped about how to gauge the opinions of regular folks. What do they think about her work? Are their opinions like the ones given while O’Connor was alive? Why are they always left out of our conversations? Then the idea of using Goodreads hit me and I set to work reading and cataloguing thousands of reviews. It turns out that there are still different groups of readers—what I call genuine and ironic—who approach O’Connor’s work in different ways. I also learned that some readers will think she is brilliant but completely miss the point that she is dramatizing Catholic ideas and others will totally accept the Catholic aspects of her work but fault her for other reasons. Overall, though, I was impressed with the reading public.  

A conversation with Daniel Moran, author of Creating Flannery O’Connor: Her Critics, Her Publishers, Her Readers (2016).