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American Literature 72.1 (2000) 209-210
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Joanne McMullen takes up one of the most vexing problems of O’Connor scholarship in her Writing against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O’Connor: Why do so many “uninitiated” readers of O’Connor’s stories and novels come up with readings so contrary to what O’Connor herself intended? As McMullen points out, many readers of O’Connor’s fiction produce interpretations that contrast starkly with the soul-winning intentions of her nonfiction, and these “wayward” readers must be “corrected” either by the author’s own advice or the advice of a sympathetic critic.
McMullen investigates this gap between intention and interpretation by studying the linguistic structure of O’Connor’s fiction. By studying her seemingly simple sentence structures, her idiosyncratic selection of symbols and images, her fondness for negatives and words with negative connotations, and her unusual verb choices, McMullen asserts that the interpretive differences between O’Connor and many of her readers is a result of the fiction’s deep structure and isn’t reflective of a wayward readership unable to heed the call [End Page 209] of the author’s redemptive pronouncements. In other words, these “misreadings” are the result of the stories and novels themselves, not the misinterpretations of a heathen readership. And this is the great contribution of McMullen’s study. She demonstrates that readings in conflict with O’Connor’s devout admonitions on how to read her work aren’t automatically “incorrect” but are instead the result of close readings of the texts themselves. For instance, in writing about O’Connor’s infamous story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” McMullen concludes, “Readers must question the kind of deity who manifests his grace through depraved crimes and sees the ‘good man’ in a killer of children. . . . O’Connor’s images do more to displace the power embodied literally and figuratively in Christ’s resurrection than to embrace it” (77).
Such powerful statements are the strength of Writing against God, allowing McMullen to reveal clearly how the majority of O’Connor critics have followed the author’s own strictures on how her work should be read.
However, McMullen herself might be under the sway of O’Connor’s self-criticism more than she supposes. After demonstrating the contrariness of O’Connor’s fiction, sometimes on the most painstaking level of counting verb tenses within a given story, for example, Writing against God ends up sounding much like many other mouthpieces for O’Connor’s views. After showing the deeply conflicted nature of her fiction, where the salvational concerns expressed by the author are at variance with a fictional world that seems to lack the Christian virtues of love, hope, and charity, McMullen concludes that these differences are really just attributable to O’Connor’s conception of mystery. Rather than examining what the conflict between intention and reception might say about the relationship between O’Connor and the evangelical Protestant South, or, more fundamentally, the conflict between author and reader, McMullen closes her study by stating that this “conflict may very well be intentional to foster her concept of the Divine Mystery and to replicate this mystery within her fictional works” (141).
Timothy P. Caron
California State University, Long Beach