In an essay on Flannery O'Connor for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, David E. Anderson writes:
Revisiting O’Connor after five decades, it still remains difficult to find that Catholic sensibility she and many of her admiring critics insist permeates her work, and other shortcomings—in particular the almost complete absence of attention to race and the civil rights movement that was convulsing her beloved South as she wrote some of her most powerful works—become increasingly apparent with distance. It can even be argued that the signature elements of her style—character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning—no longer shock, no longer convince.
Anderson is principally concerned in this essay with the question of whether O'Connor's work is adequately and recognizably Catholic for current readers, and about that subject I have no opinion. The way in which O'Connor's work embodies a particular interpretation of Catholic doctrine has always seemed to me the least interesting subject of inquiry into her fiction, and, as Anderson does correctly note, most non-scholarly readers remain unaware that it even is a subject relevant to the fiction, so fully is that fiction otherwise focused on its depiction of its Southern mileu, grotesque characters, and perversely melodramatic events.
I am interested in the issues Anderson raises in the passage I've quoted, mostly because his comments are so misguided and misleading. Anderson identifies as a flaw in O'Connor's fiction "the almost complete absence of attention to race and the civil rights movement." It has always seemed bizarre to me that an "absence of attention" to this or that condition or phenomenon in a writer's work could be considered a "shortcoming," as if every writer is under the necessary burden to address every fact of life that confronted the writer in his/her time and place. O'Connor had no obligation to portray race relations or to confront issues of civil rights. Her subject lay elsewhere, in the lives of white Southerners and the effects of class and religion. If it is true that O'Connor's work is anchored in the belief that the world around her was "mired in nihilism," that view could not plausibly be embodied in stories centered on the lives of Southern blacks. They were themselves neither nihilists nor the victims of nihilism in the theological/philosophical terms with which O'Connor was concerned. They were the victims of bigotry, and this is a more mundane human evil that doesn't really get to the spiritual corruptions O'Connor was at pains to disclose. A writer should be judged by what her work does attempt, not by what it doesn't.
Anderson's most nonsensical assertion, however, is that the distinctive features of O'Connor's "style" are to be found in "character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning." This shows such a thorough misunderstanding of what "style" in fiction refers to that it really cancels out everything else Anderson has to say about Flannery O'Connor as a literary artist. It may be true that the narrative use of "violence as the bearer of meaning" no longer shocks, although I never thought the violence in O'Connor's fiction was exactly shocking in the first place--the violence at the conclusion of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is so prolonged and so interspersed with absurd dialogue ("absurd" as in "darkly comic") that the effect is more operatic than startling. And I, for one, find her characters just as grotesque the second or third time around as I did the first time I encountered them. "Style," however, encompasses not the writer's narrative strategy or character creation but her "signature" use of words, her language, her way with phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. This element of O'Connor's fiction has not eroded with time at all but is still just as compelling as ever.
Here's one of the first paragraphs in the story "Greenleaf":
She had been conscious in her sleep of a steady rhythmic chewing as if something were eating one wall of the house. She had been aware that whatever it was had been eating as long as she had had the place and had eaten everything from the beginning of her fence line up to the house and now was eating the house and calmly with the same steady rhythm would continue through the house, eating up her and the boys and then on, eating everything but the Greenleafs, on and on, eating everything until nothing was left but the Greenleafs on a little island all their own in the middle of what had been her place. When the munching reached her elbow, she jumped up and found herself, fully awake, standing in the middle of her room. She identifed the sound at once: a cow was tearing at the shrubbery under her window. Mr. Greenleaf had left the lane gate open and she didn't doubt that the entire herd was on her lawn. She turned on the dim pink table lamp and then went to the window and slit the blind. The bull, gaunt and long-legged, was standing about four feet from her, chewing calmly like an uncouth country suitor.
Surely this passage is just as cadenced, just as precise and as evocatively creepy as it was when O'Connor wrote it. Far from being no longer convincing, O'Connor's style survives all the blather about theology and "Christian realism" and cathartic violence that only takes us away from the words on the page, where O'Connor's real literary legacy is to be found.
Anderson's flip, and deeply misinformed, dismissal of O'Connor's style bothers me not just as it applies to Flannery O'Connor's style in particular but as an illustration of a broader ignorance about what we talk about when we talk about literary style. "Style" operates in much literary discussion as an all-purpose substitute for narrative method or point of view, "technique" or "tone," characterization or particular types of dialogue. I understand that readers don't always want to be bothered with the niceties of literary criticism, but a great deal of ordinary discourse about literature seems designed to distract us from a writer's actual words, where "style" is indeed substance.