I've been reading Flannery O'Connor with a class and am once again reminded of what a startling and profound vision she has of the world--and how it speaks to modern students.
I have a class of high school seniors this year who are all very intelligent students, but most of them are the type who are concerned with getting through the program with A's rather than with viscerally engaging in the material we are reading. So I decided to give them a dose of Flannery. We read "Good Country People," one of my favorites. As soon as we started, they focused like a laser beam--for the first time this year. It was really astounding.
What is it about her that prompts this reaction? I notice two things.
Her impact, I think, first derives from her approach to both life and literature, which is the idea that both are incarnational. Her fiction might correctly be characterized as theological embodiment. There is no abstraction in her writing: it is all gritty, concrete, sometimes obscene reality. And although there is no preaching in her writing, all her writings are embodied sermons. She understood, with Aristotle and St. Thomas, that you get to the abstract through the concrete, not vice-versa. Compared to the characters encountered in O'Connor, the characters of most other authors are as ghosts, and the events mere fantastic dreams.
A reader of Flannery O'Connor encounters persons and things, and all the theological significance comes through them and them alone.
In addition to the concreteness of her writing is the starkness of the characters and the events she relates. I was talking to Wendell Berry about this one time and he said, "Yeah. She hits you with both crutches." Indeed. An O'Connor reader will be fascinated or repelled, but they cannot be indifferent. Her prose does not accomodate the lukewarm.
I could say more, but anything more I could say has been better said by Robert Wilkins in a recent post on his blog.