Victoria Kennefick

“A Good Review Is Hard to Find”

“A Good Review Is Hard to Find”: Flannery O’Connor’s early critics

The aim of this paper is to examine and analyse the contemporary critical responses to the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and how these affected later readings of her short stories.  Her reputation in American literature is based on a comparatively small body of work.  Along with short stories which appeared predominantly in magazines she published three books: a novel, Wise Blood (1952), the short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955), and a second novel Everything That Rises Must Converge which was published posthumously. 

The earliest evaluations of her work were book reviews in the popular, religious, and academic presses.  As Douglas Robillard explains in his book The Critical Response To Flannery O’Connor academic treatments of her fiction only began to appear in the late 1950s.  This paper then explores the distinct progression from the superficial reviews of the popular press to the more extensive studies provided by academic commentators.  It will investigate how the critical assumptions of different decades are mirrored in the often contradictory approaches used by these analysts on her work.

By examining how early appraisals of O’Connor give way to evaluations that are unquestionably of their time it is possible to chart the progress of O’Connor criticism.  As more became known about O’Connor’s life and circumstances, critics adopted more obviously biographical readings of her stories.  Later academic trends such as feminist criticism and critical theory also made their mark on O’Connor criticism.  There are also those scholars who specialise in O’Connor and whose interpretations opened up the debate and allowed for new and often radical readings of her work.

The paper however will focus on the initial reactions to O’Connor’s work, in addition to charting the developments in O’Connor criticism.  Early reactions to her first novel Wise Blood were decidedly mixed with many reviewers unsure of what to make of this first novel by a twenty-six year old Georgia woman.  Several reviewers, as I will discuss, gave her high praise, other reviewers however were less than laudatory.  Many reviews comment on her writing style, her unfeminine prose and the protagonist in Wise Blood, Hazel Motes.  Most early reviewers too examine her fiction in terms of the work of other writers.  In essence many critics who were contemporaries of O’Connor misread her work with most at a loss as to what to make of her increasingly bizarre central characters.

The paper concludes by acknowledging how new trends in critical discourse have emerged and how the critical response to O’Connor has shifted.  While the criticism of the 1950s through to the 1970s emphasised certain aspects of O’Connor’s work – the South, Catholicism, and violence, the 1980s and 1990s have seen the application of literary theory to her fiction.  From ineffectual reviews to book length studies, O’Connor criticism has always been a battleground of sorts.  This paper draws the line between the two warring factions and will endeavour to come to the most accurate and effective of conclusions.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.