Books

The Sophocles of the American South

Flannery O’Connor, on crutches because of lupus, with her beloved peacocks

Flannery O’Connor and Robert Giroux: a Publishing Partnership
by Patrick Samway SJ, University of Notre Dame Press, 322pp, £38

In my academic position, I’m occasionally called upon to offer comments about my students’ novels and short stories to editors and agents. To my shame, I have yet to manage a summary as brilliant as that offered by the creative writing professor Caroline Gordon to Robert Giroux, who was the Catholic novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor’s editor, about her former student: “She is, of course, writing about the kind of stuff people like to read nowadays: about freaks.”

That many people liked reading about “freaks” in the 1950s (this is much less true today: indeed, including a few freaks in your novel would be one of the swiftest routes into the bin) is one of several worthwhile revelations in Patrick Samway’s book.

Joint (or group) biographies are becoming increasingly popular and generally welcome, especially when they allow the author to find a new angle on an overfamiliar life. But there are some pitfalls in this particular combination.

It is not immediately apparent that we need to know about Giroux to understand O’Connor, especially in a period when we are generally keener to hear about female authors then male gatekeepers. While there have been many cases where an editor has contributed so much to an author’s work that they seem an essential part of the creative process – as with, for example, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish – this does not appear to be the case with Flannery O’Connor.

As well as having an extremely singular vision, she generally resisted the contributions of others, no matter how well-meaning. Indeed, the only reason she seems to have accepted any help at all is owing to her illness: lupus, an autoimmune disease that blighted the last 12 years of her life before she died aged just 39.

And yet, there are justifications for Samway’s approach. O’Connor was keen on having a male editor, saying she didn’t want “some strange woman” editing her books (though she did eventually accept a woman, if not a strange one, in Catherine Carver).

Giroux is an estimable figure himself, particularly for Catholics, who will no doubt be familiar with his efforts to bring Thomas Merton to a wider readership and creating a cross-Atlantic connection between Catholic writers in America and Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh in England.

Patrick Samway undoubtedly has major faults as a biographer. The most severe is his tendency to include bizarrely irrelevant asides. Upon meeting O’Connor’s French translator, Samway questions the man about whether he chose the best title for his translation of Wise Blood and offers him three other possibilities.

Showing infinite patience, the translator admitted to Samway that he had not considered one of his suggestions. Samway is childishly triumphant about this. Look, he seems to be saying, I understand O’Connor’s writing better than anyone.

He also leans too heavily on his own “20-year friendship” with Giroux, which tilts the book away from O’Connor and occasionally leads him into triviality and silly gossip, like wondering why Giroux didn’t visit O’Connor more often or the various machinations that took place at publishing houses of the period.

The author is a Jesuit priest and does not shy away from addressing O’Connor’s work from a theological perspective, including a postscript where he does this in depth. He makes some valuable points. His observation that “O’Connor’s stories engage their biblical analogues in unusual, unexpected, and sometimes violent and grotesque manipulations, while conveying essentially the same message as their biblical counterparts” seems true. And it was pleasing to read him engaging with what is, for me, one of O’Connor’s most compelling literary theories: that short stories are often made whole by a dramatic action on an analogical level.

This has always struck me as one of the few theories of how to write that is worth teaching and unpacking in detail, and has remained with me since I first read the essay in which O’Connor posits this as a student.

But I am less convinced by Samway’s argument that O’Connor was a proto-postmodernist, and it seems to run counter to the realism that underpins even O’Connor’s most grotesque and shocking work. Too often, Samway seems to be committing the critic’s sin of judging her books as much for what they don’t contain as what they do.

Maybe Samway is so close to his subject that he feels O’Connor’s reputation is safe: he notes that Thomas Merton thought she should be ranked not with Hemingway or Sartre, but with Sophocles. Or perhaps his closeness to Giroux (as well as knowing him for two decades, Samway presided at his funeral liturgy) made him think this was the best way of remembering his friend. I can forgive this book its liberties, but some O’Connor fans may be less receptive.