- Creating Flannery O'Connor: Her Critics, Her Publishers, Her Readers by Daniel Moran
Daniel Moran's Creating Flannery O'Connor: Her Critics, Her Publishers, Her Readers is a study of the literary reception of Flannery O'Connor and how she was transformed from southern oddity into an American literary giant. Using a diverse range of sources, Moran convincingly argues that O'Connor's elevated place in the literary canon is not just the result of her prose but also the product of a complex "network of events, chance occurrences, personal relationships, media adaptations, cultural institutions, and websites" along with publishing houses and, most important, readers' reviews (p. 8). Moran, who has studied and taught American literature and history, aimed to create an interdisciplinary study that is "less a work of literary criticism than of book history and cultural analysis" (p. 9). In reality, Moran leans heavily toward literary criticism while often shying away from historical analysis.
To decipher how O'Connor's reputation has evolved, Moran identifies and charts "watchwords"—key words or phrases that are typically associated with a writer—to demonstrate how these watchwords have changed over time (p. 3). His chronological framework shows that while O'Connor's literary reputation steadily rose, how readers have characterized her work has often shifted unpredictably. Beginning with O'Connor's first book, Wise Blood (1952), Moran explains, reviewers mainly categorized O'Connor as a young southern woman who wrote very unladylike fiction. When Wise Blood was reissued a decade later, readers focused on O'Connor's religious background and Catholic themes as much as her regionalism. Her reputation as a Catholic writer only grew with the publication of her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960). O'Connor's status as a great writer gained credence after her death at age thirty-nine due in large part to her publisher and greatest literary champion, Robert Giroux. Giroux solidified his client's reputation by compiling all of her short stories into one anthology and writing an excellent introduction to the collection. Giroux's introduction contained the first biography of O'Connor and instructed readers how to appreciate her remarkable talents by understanding how her Catholicism informed her work. The Complete Stories (1971) was well received and won the National Book Award. With this rise in popularity, entrepreneurs, usually without much success, modified O'Connor's work for stage, film, and television. These adaptations solidified O'Connor's reputation as a purveyor of southern gothic more than a writer concerned with exploring universal themes. By the twenty-first century, modern readers' reviews on sites like Goodreads.com reveal that O'Connor's reputation is still strong though up for debate.
Overall, Creating Flannery O'Connor has many merits. Moran's use of wide-ranging primary sources is exceptional. He clearly is an expert on O'Connor and her works. The most impressive section of the book highlights how those around O'Connor, in particular Giroux and O'Connor's friend and editor Sally Fitzgerald, worked to help new audiences relate to O'Connor's work. Moran also documents how O'Connor's mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, [End Page 211] wanted to create a sanitized version of her daughter's letters and was a formidable opponent when it came to granting publishing rights to something she deemed unladylike. Moran's book is also important for understanding how an audience often diverges from an author's intentions.
Moran's book may prove frustrating for historians because of its lack of historical context. For example, Moran clearly identifies that O'Connor's reputation shifted from southern to Catholic writer, but one is left with little idea of why it happened. Moran is also intensively protective of his subject. He is quick to point out what he sees as misunderstandings of O'Connor's themes and spends significant time critically reviewing book reviewers. Many of these critiques are minor...