The Grotesque in Southern Fiction

Every writer, particularly Southern writers, should read Flannery O’Connor’s piece “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”. In fact, I recommend some serious study of the piece, which was published in 1960 but maintains its relevance today.

These are not times when writers in this country can very well speak for one another. In the twenties there were those at Vanderbilt University who felt enough kinship with each other’s ideas to issue a pamphlet called, I’ll Take My Stand, and in the thirties there were writers whose social consciousness set them all going in more or less the same direction; but today there are no good writers, bound even loosely together, who would be so bold as to say that they speak for a generation or for each other. Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so.

When I think of the great authors, most of them are old or dead. I can only think of a handful of living writers who create my brand of “great literature.” Fiction writers of my generation seem to be fading into a world of schizophrenic blog posting (like this one!). There is a good deal of reportage out there—nonfiction seems to be doing OK—but fiction seems to be on the ropes.

Generation X and Y writers seem to be a bloodthirsty lot. Writers who are my age appear to enjoy taking potshots at each other. Every man for himself. Maybe it’s a method of raising their “brand awareness” or if it’s genuine dislike for each other, but there seems to be some tension between some writers.

O’Connor appears to be right. I know of no band of writers who are standing up to speak for our generations.

If you are a Southern writer, that label, and all the misconceptions that go with it, is pasted on you at once, and you are left to get it off as best you can. I have found that no matter for what purpose peculiar to your special dramatic needs you use the Southern scene, you are still thought by the general reader to be writing about the South and are judged by the fidelity your fiction has to typical Southern life.

I aspire to write The Next Great American Southern Gothic Novel™, but must consider O’Connor’s wisdom. The South has produced more than its share of great authors who need little introduction (Faulkner, Welty) and others who produced great work but aren’t as well known (Larry Brown for instance, who died far too soon). In fact, there are so many great Southern authors that a new writer from the South must truly shine to be seen among such gems of literature.

Publications such as Oxford American, subtitled “The Southern Magazine of Good Writing,” and Garden & Gun promote the kind of writing and record of the South I love, but again, much of that writing is limited (by necessity given the format) to short stories and reportage.

Note: I first discovered Larry Brown in the pages of Oxford American’s Faulkner issue published in May/June 1995. I still have a copy and you can own one too.

I would cherish the honorable title of Southern Author, but that badge of honor doesn’t come easy and many don’t see it as honorable.

Why are there so many freaks in the South?

In one of my favorite excerpts from O’Connor’s essay, she presents a theory on the prevalence of freaks, of the grotesque, in Southern fiction:

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

That paragraph, in a sparse 181 words, says so much about the character of the South. It is the best definition, or at least summation, of the South I’ve yet encountered. Religion still plays a major role in the South, one of the last strongholds of Christianity in the nation. With such a sure grounding in theology, Southern fiction is riddled with preachers and Bible salesmen, snake handlers and visions of God.

I appreciate O’Connor’s distinction “that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” Many in the South place their faith in Christ, but I think many more are simply haunted by Him. Christ was the bogeyman that was going to send the bad children to hell. God was the one passing fiery judgement on those who might be different from the rest. And God certainly sentenced the vile to eternal damnation. Eternity is forever, and the possibility that you could burn for all infinity was enough to keep many on a decent path if not a holy one.

Christ isn’t the only ghost in the South. Georgia and the surrounding states are filled with old cemeteries that hold the remains of the long dead. The Civil War left enough ghosts behind to write about not to mention the slavery before that and the Trail of Tears that pushed the Indians west against their will. Many angry wraiths and downtrodden spirits linger in the South and many of their stories are waiting to be told.

Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do so with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes. I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.

In order for the Southern author to remain true to themselves and to the nature of the South, they must reach into their soul and back through their heritage. O’Connor didn’t want to produce work that appeased a tired soul at the end of the long day. She wanted to challenge them, to force them to face the grotesque nature of society and all of its darkness. By recognizing that darkness, it makes the light of goodness in the world shine that much brighter.

In her closing paragraph, O’Connor said:

The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men its if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and I feel it is a vision which we in the South must at least try to understand if we want to participate in the continuance of a vital Southern literature.

For more information about Flannery O’Connor, you can visit the obligatory Wikipedia page, her childhood home in Savannah, Ga., or visit the farm in Milledgeville, Ga., where she lived out her days in the South.