The photo above is me, reading Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor (appropriately titled Flannery), and my yawning dog. She’s a tough critic. Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Flannery O’Connor since I first read her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” back when I was in high school, and as I got older and read more of her work, my appreciation of her grew. In fact, on my personal list of Date Book-Talk Gone Wrong is the following snippet:
Him: What kind of books do you like?
Me: A lot of different kinds. I just read a short story by Flannery O’Connor this morning, actually. Do you like Flannery O’Connor?
Him: Oh, that Irish guy? He’s really good.
I haven’t read everything she’s written, but I’ve liked everything by her that I’ve read. I knew a little bit about her life — from Georgia, liked birds, died of lupus — but I didn’t know very much, so I was interested in learning more about her through her biography.
As O’Connor herself said, “As for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” This bit is quoted at the front of the book. Is it meant to be an ironic flourish? I’m not sure, because it turns out that Flannery was right: her biography is not an exciting book. Her life story is not full of wild escapades or exotic travel or tragic love affairs. It is instead a life story removed from the things we tend to think of when we think of excitement. Yet unlike the creator of this cartoon review of the book, I find I don’t have a problem with that. Flannery is not an exciting book, but it is an interesting one.
Gooch’s biography gleans many details from Flannery’s letters to friends, and others from the personal recollections of those around her. Through the book, a portrait emerges of an intimidatingly smart woman with a slyly dark sense of humor who was dedicated to her faith and her craft. The more interesting bits of the book aren’t the overarching bits of narrative (she went to mass, she went to Iowa, she went to Yaddo), but the places where we see the genesis and evolution of some of her work, and where we learn about her method. Turns out that Flannery O’Connor was an incredibly disciplined worker with a penchant for revising the hell out of her writing. Besides, if you’ve ever wondered where someone comes up with a story about a traveling Bible salesman who steals a girl’s prosthetic leg, now you can find out.
For me, the fact that Flannery O’Connor didn’t live a flashy, exciting life is fine, because by reading her biography, I got to learn more about how I writer I admire wrote, and that is worth the time. I’m not sure I would recommend it to someone who wasn’t already interested in O’Connor’s writing, as it’s not exactly what I would call a gripping good-time read, but even so, the book is very well-written and I enjoyed the time I spent with it.
Having long appreciated Flannery O’Connor’s humor (especially the uncomfortable, “am I allowed to laugh at this, really?” kind) and her ability to write masterful stories that never forget the people in them are people, I think that more than anything, reading Flannery made me want to pull her work back off the shelf, and now that I know more about it, read it with fresh eyes.