Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Flannery O'Connor on the Grotesque

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I was just poking around Open Culture's Free Audio Books library (tons of gems here: Hemingway reading "In Harry's Bar," Rushdie reading Barthelme, Jeannette Winterson reading Calvino, etc.) and came across something very exciting indeed.

I'd heard Flannery O'Connor reading before, as a DVD extra to John Huston's Wise Blood, but not this, a lecture on the grotesque which precedes that famous performance of "A Good Man is Hard to Find." This version varies slightly from her essay, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature," which is one of my favourite literary polemics ever. What a treat to hear that wonderful voice turn the words into notes and the essay into a song.

There's too much gold in this piece to choose a pull-quote, but I'm less interested in the content of her reading than the tone: I hear a slight exasperation in O'Connor's voice that I'd never noticed in the written essay, which had always struck me as positive, even optimistic. She seems to be speaking directly to a certain type of critic or reader; it's not exactly a takedown, nor a defence, but maybe an assertion of what she's doing, or trying to do. Suddenly lines like "One old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn't be so bad, but you multiply her two hundred and fifty thousand times and what you get is a book club" aren't just wry and ironic, but ring with defiance, even frustration.

The best writers are always working in opposition to something, be it power or culture or literature itself. And I'd always thought the urgency of O'Connor's books and stories stemmed from religious conflict. But now I'm starting to see (and hear) her writing as also a direct response or retort to the "novelistic orthodoxy" of her time.

And, okay, one particular highlight:

The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation. The direction of many of us will be more toward poetry than toward the traditional novel.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Pasha Malla

Pasha Malla’s first collection of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, a Globe and Mail and National Post book of the year, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillum Book Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the Giller Prize. His latest book, People Park, is forthcoming from Anansi in July 2012.

Go to Pasha Malla’s Author Page