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Flannery O’ Connor Gets Snarky

If you don’t read The Letters Of Note blog, you need add it to your list.

That way, you won’t miss gems like this letter from Flannery O’ Connor to an English professor who, along with his class, was attempting to determine the meaning of A Good Man Is Hard To Find.

He writes O’ Connor with the following theory and question:

In general we believe that the appearance of the Misfit is not ‘real’ in the same sense that the incidents of the first half of the story are real. Bailey, we believe, imagines the appearance of the Misfit, whose activities have been called to his attention on the night before the trip and again during the stopover at the roadside restaurant. Bailey, we further believe, identifies himself with the Misfit and so plays two roles in the imaginary last half of the story. But we cannot, after great effort, determine the point at which reality fades into illusion or reverie. Does the accident literally occur, or is it part of Bailey’s dream?

O’ Connor, seemingly annoyed by the professor’s question, responds with a long letter that includes the following quote:

The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be. If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology. I am not interested in abnormal psychology. . . . The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it. My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.

How awesome is that final line?

What I love about this letter is how O’ Connor cuts through the B.S. of a lot of literary interpretation. How much of it is just over analysis, looking for something where something doesn’t exist? I took a 400-level Shakespeare class in college, and I remember my frustration with all of the hair-brained theories about his works.

I also love this line: “Meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation.” One of the things I’ve done on this blog is simply just talk about the basics of each book and author while expanding on my reactions to the plot and the writing and so on. I could write thousands of words for each post if I wanted to talk about literary theory and interpretation. But I don’t have a lot of interest in that, and I gather that a lot of you guys don’t either.

That’s why I love this Flannery O’ Connor letter. (You can read the whole thing on Letters of Note.)

What do you think?

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yeah, Letters of Note is a great blog! This one was indeed an awesome reply by O’Conner 🙂

    Like

    October 1, 2012
  2. Ryan #

    I like to think that, in literature, there is no such thing as a set answer (or set interpretation). Instead, I enjoy thinking about and discussing possibilities; every story affects individuals in different ways. In my opinion, that is the fun of reading.

    Like

    October 1, 2012
  3. “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” – Flannery O’Connor, from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”

    Like

    October 1, 2012
  4. This cracks me up! Authors don’t even like legitimate literary criticism. Take that, Mr. Book Blog basher! 🙂

    Like

    October 1, 2012
  5. Flannery O’Connor does snarky pretty well all of the time. I loved her comment, “where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.”

    Like

    October 1, 2012
  6. Fantastic — made my morning!

    Like

    October 1, 2012
    • Awesome. Nothing like a cup of snark to start the day off right.

      Like

      October 1, 2012
  7. I haven’t read this one in a long time but I will re-read with this in mind. Thanks!

    Like

    October 1, 2012
  8. WendyWriter #

    Yet another reason to love Flannery O’Connor!

    Like

    October 3, 2012
  9. I think the line “meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation” is important in the sense that meaning cannot be limited to *one* interpretation. However, the real problem at play here is that a professor is choosing to ask the author what her work means, and also that we, the readers of this letter, are accepting o’Connor’s response.

    With Roland Barthes’ *The Death of the Author* (read the essay if you haven’t) literary criticism moved past the belief that the author’s intention with any piece is necessarily the meaning of the piece. If the professor and his students can support their interpretation with the text, then their interpretation is valid too.

    Like

    October 3, 2012
  10. highschooledumacation #

    “Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.”
    This one of the best lines I have ever read. Sometimes, though, analysis can HELP one to get a feel for a story. It was only after discussing the meaning of various things in The Metamorphosis that I started to understand. And there are thousands of new things I can still learn about it. Some books, though, are simply not made for analysis. Harry Potter, for example, is often given longwinded meanings when it is simply a good story. It all depends on the book and whether it was really made for interpretation or not.
    And I love imagining my English teacher’s reaction to first half of that line.

    Like

    October 5, 2012

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