Flannery O’Connor’s Unsafe Audience

by Mike Duran · 14 comments

flannery-oconnor-1Finding and connecting with your audience is a theme that’s hammered into writers from the get-go. Discovering the right audience and delivering the goods is up there with “show don’t tell” and “write what you know” in the canon of writerly rules.

Which makes Flannery O’Connor such an anomaly.

O’Connor is routinely considered as one of the greatest Christian writers ever. Her books were included in Christianity Today’s Books of the Century. She won national awards and her books have remained in print since her death in 1964. She was an avowed believer, passionate and unashamed to speak or write of her faith, O’Connor’s work is often upheld as a standard for what religious fiction should (or could) be.

But despite her faith and the professional acclaim she received Flannery O’Connor did not write for Christian audiences.

Yes, O’Connor clearly had an audience and an agenda. In her collected letters, The Habit of Being, she writes:

One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, the whole reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for. (bold mine)

O’Connor wanted to bring “the ultimate reality. . . the Incarnation” to “people who think God is dead.” I’m not sure I know a single Christian author who doesn’t aim for this end. We want to “incarnate” God, make Him real to those who think He’s dead. Nevertheless, it’s her audience that separates O’Connor from many of today’s Christian novelists.

Today’s Christian novelists are conditioned to write for those who already believe in God, those who share the author’s beliefs, those who don’t require a lot of explaining. In short, today’s Christian novelists write for the “safe” audience.

In her essay, The Fiction Writer and His Country, O’Connor suggests that the writer’s audience determines their approach, for better or worse. For when writing to those who share our beliefs, we can play it safe.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural …. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures. (bold mine)

It was O’Connor’s perceived audience that prompted her to employ shock and grotesquery. Their lack of shared belief motivated her to use “large and startling figures.” Some of those “figures” offend or befuddle contemporary Christian readers. Whether the blunt language, ambiguity, or gross caricatures, O’Connor’s works do not fit neatly into today’s Christian market.

But it’s her opposite point that I find even more compelling. Notice that the Christian novelist, when writing to an audience that “holds the same beliefs” can… “relax a little.” In other words, they don’t need to do the work, the explaining. God means the Judeo-Christian one. The bad guys wear black hats. Sin and salvation are of the biblical variety.

Which is one reason I’m coming to believe that Christian authors write for a Christian audience — it’s just easier. And safer.

Jesus’ “target market” was hostile, antagonistic, and unenlightened. Or as John put it, “He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). He did not aim for the already saved. His audience was those outside the fold. In fact, when He left the planet, he commanded His followers to do the same. To go into all the world, preach the Gospel, and make more disciples (Matt. 28:16-20). So why do Christian writers aim for such an amiable audience? Could it be because we are not Incarnational authors? Could it be we’re just playing it safe?

Sure, it may be a terrible marketing strategy. Writing for “people who think God is dead” would require more effort, more nuance. It would require employing “shock” and shouting, and writing “large and startling figures.” Which may not sit well with the religiously relaxed. Then again, the “safe audience” was the same one who killed Jesus.

Tom March 5, 2015 at 7:18 AM

Great article, Mike. I don’t begrudge Christian authors their Christian audience… I think it’s a good ministry. But when a Christian author tries to write for a secular audience, they are often criticized for “compromising” their beliefs or just trying to be popular. But this is by far the more difficult path.

Aaron Gansky March 5, 2015 at 7:36 AM

Love O’Connor, and love this article. Had many of the same thoughts when I read Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being some years ago. Would you be okay if I reposted this on my site? I’d be honored.

Mike Duran March 5, 2015 at 7:38 AM

Sure, Aaron. Thanks!

Melissa O March 5, 2015 at 7:47 AM

In light of what she is saying, no wonder so many Christian authors write fantasy. It is hard to get any “larger” than that.

I really need to read her books, I just don’t know the best place to start! I plan to share this post with the writers in our arts group and maybe we can read one of her books together.

Mike Duran March 5, 2015 at 8:08 AM

I’d suggest starting with her short story collection, Melissa. Especially “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and “Parker’s Bzck.”

Melissa O March 5, 2015 at 9:02 AM

Thank you!! My group is already discussing. I’ll suggest this list! Do you know where the essay you list here is to be found? The Habit of Being?

Gary Whittenberger March 5, 2015 at 8:17 AM

I am a secular humanist. Although I’ve read hundreds of pieces of Christian nonfiction, I’ve never read a single piece of Christian fiction. I might be inclined to read a piece of Christian fiction where theist and atheist positions are presented fairly and in conflict, but it would be a hard sell.

On the other hand, secular humanists don’t think God is dead. They think God was never alive. They do think, however, that the concept of God is dying slowly. The trends are in that direction.

The front page cover of Time in the 60s was “God is dead.” But this was meant to refer to the concept of God, not God himself. From a sociological perspective the cover was simply mistaken and premature. Wait another 500 years and then it might have occurred by then.

Matthew Sample II March 5, 2015 at 9:23 AM

Yes, Gary, I think those ideas were what Flannery was referring to. However, she could contrast the living Christian God that she believes in with the “dead” nonexistent deity of her audience. It’s a literary device.

J. S. Bailey March 5, 2015 at 12:47 PM

Interesting post! I’ve read some of O’Connor’s work, though not recently. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” gave me the creeps. 🙂

kathy March 5, 2015 at 10:27 PM

Wow. Thanks. Cheered ME up today! EXACTLY what I’m shootin’ for with MY new website. And very painful because so many of my own beloveds are NOT misfits. Hard to be brave enough to go after the needy ones who fell between the cracks and NOT offend some of the “normals” LOL.
And yes, the STORIES are the place to start with her fiction. The NONfiction is awesome and slides right down. The Stories, while hard, get that Pharisee cootie out and KILL it. But the novellas are tough. Whew.
Thanks for this!

Kiah March 6, 2015 at 12:36 AM

Great article! I’m going to try to track down her books 🙂

Joe Carney March 6, 2015 at 6:57 AM

Amazon had many of her titles for the Kindle.

Guy Stewart March 6, 2015 at 8:12 PM

Mike:
This essay spoke to me louder than anything you’ve ever written. Thank you.

CS Lewis shared this sentiment as well: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects–with their Christianity latent.” from “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock

Timothy Huguenin March 9, 2015 at 8:45 AM

Mike, not thirty seconds before I saw this blog post I had just finished reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and texted my wife to tell her I wanted to read some flannery o Connor (Keller quotes from some of her work in his concluding chapter). Now it’s sealed; I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without reading her but now I surely will!

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