- Flannery O'Connor and the New Criticism:A Response to Mark McGurl
As someone who earned an MFA from Iowa a quarter of a century ago and has been teaching creative writing ever since, I cannot help but be spooked by the nightmare Paul Engle felt compelled to share with Snodgrass and company. To writers who teach to earn their living, Flannery O'Connor has long represented the benefits that accrue to writers who refuse to teach (or, in O'Connor's case, are prevented from doing so by illness). Her continued exposure to irritating southern matrons and Jesus-haunted backwoods preachers kept her fiction gritty and eccentric in ways that might have been impossible if she had remained in the academy.
However, as Mark McGurl so ably demonstrates, studying for two years at Iowa was enough to influence O'Connor's fiction for the rest of her life. Although legend would have it that she arrived in Iowa City fully formed as a writer, then sat quietly in the back of her workshops except for the "occasional amused and shy smile at something absurd" (as Robert Giroux tells us in his introduction to the collected stories) (viii), McGurl wisely points out that the New Critical approach O'Connor absorbed from studying with Robert Penn Warren and reading the textbook/anthology he authored with Cleanth Brooks is evident in everything she ever published. (I would add that her willingness to dedicate her thesis to Engle indicates that she believed she owed him a debt, as does her apology for the publisher's decision to omit any acknowledgment of her stay at Iowa from the jacket of Wise Blood [Habit 45].)
Not that anyone ever learns anything at Iowa in anything but the most haphazard way. None of my teachers uttered the words [End Page 546] "New Criticism" or asked me to buy a textbook. They commented on what they liked or did not like about a particular story, offered isolated bits of advice about technique, but most of us got through two years of instruction without any formal discussions of theory or craft, New Critical or otherwise.
Still, the New Critical approach was in the air. At the end of my first year, a classmate read yet another of my 40-page messes, took pity on me, and drew Freitag's triangle on a piece of scrap paper and explained the basic structure of a story. The next year, as a graduate student, I was allowed to teach my own undergraduate workshops, and when I realized that I had no idea how to structure a story or convey some sort of theme without stating one outright, I read dozens of textbooks and anthologies in an attempt to find the best one to order for my students, and since most contemporary creative-writing texts are modeled along the lines of Understanding Fiction (1943) . . . well, you get the idea.
At Michigan, where I now direct the MFA program, some of my colleagues talk about form and structure and others never do. Since the principles of New Criticism were so helpful to me, I make it a point of teaching them to my students. (While the formal structure evident in most stories is not directly transferable to the novel, a familiarity with the basic principles of the shorter form tends to help when managing the vast amount of material required by the longer form.) I encourage students to ignore these guidelines or rebel against them or use traditional forms to convey radically new or subversive content. However, even as a set of guidelines against which to rebel, the principles that Brooks and Warren set forth in Understanding Fiction still exert a powerful influence on any writer who comes anywhere near the academy.
Precisely because McGurl's arguments for the influence of the workshop method on post-1950s American literature are so important (and since the workshop method is slowly spreading to the rest of the world), I want to spend some time correcting the details of his analysis. According to McGurl, the two greatest strictures of the New Critical approach are "write what you know" and "show, don't tell...