Tuesday, February 18, 2014

This Day in Literary History (O’Connor Puts Editor in His Place)

February 18, 1949—Flannery O’Connor might have been only a few weeks short of 24, but she would not be condescended to be an editor twice her age as “a slightly dim-witted Camp Fire Girl.” One day after writing her agent that she wouldn’t respond to John Selby until hearing back from her first, she fired off a letter to the Rinehart editor in chief anyway, telling him that, while perfectly amenable to criticism, it would only be “within the sphere of what I am trying to do.” In fact, contrary to the “conventional novel” that he was trying to steer her toward, the finished book, though “less angular,” would still be “just as odd if not odder than the nine chapters you have now.”

Anyone who has read any of the work of the Georgia writer can guess that O’Connor and Selby did not work together—certainly to the relief of both parties, but not to the ultimate benefit of Selby and his reputation. A short-story writer and author of 10 novels himself, he might have been expected to have been sympathetic to the likes of O’Connor, and his firm had, only the year before, made a splash with a first novel by another twentysomething author, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.

But O’Connor, while finishing up her stay at the Yaddo artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs, NY, was annoyed that it took Selby so long to get back to her about his opinion of her manuscript—and that the criticism he did send was “very vague and totally missed the point of what kind of novel I am writing.” This only increased the misgivings created by her friend, poet Robert Lowell, who believed that the very inadequacies seen by Selby were, in fact, part of the manuscript’s strength.

Three years and who knows how many revisions later, Wise Blood would go on to establish O’Connor as perhaps the leading voice of Southern gothic fiction.  Its humor was so dark, its descriptions so stark (“He had a nose like a shrike’s bill and a long vertical crease on either side of his mouth”) that initial reviews were mixed. 

In time, it would come to be recognized as a distinctly powerful vision of a spiritually blind male pilgrim (the first and last name of its protagonist, Hazel Motes, doubly reinforces the notion of diminished sight) in a barren, lost contemporary landscape seemingly aching for his “Church Without Christ.” It would be regarded as stark as a Hieronymus Bosch painting in the way it used the outlandish to underscore religious concerns, an allegory that would be adapted for film in 1979 by John Huston.

It is easy to regard Selby as benighted in his dealings with someone now regarded as a midcentury master of American fiction, and he didn’t help his case for posterity when, upon giving her release to take her manuscript elsewhere, he noted that O’Connor was “stiff-necked, uncooperative and unethical.” But his kind has not disappeared from the modern publishing landscape. An author I know was told by at least one editor that a major problem with his long novel was the multiple-character perspective he used on the plot. He disregarded the advice, took the novel to another house and was rewarded with an American Book Award.

Moreover, Selby was almost certainly in something of a state of shock, because the 108 pages he read were far, far different from what he had originally seen. O’Connor began her work while a graduate student at the University of Iowa. That material had helped her win the school’s Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award, which gave the publisher the first shot at publishing the novel.

But midway through, O’Connor developed a far different narrative voice—one less sympathetic and more “strident and detached,” according to The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor, by Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. If you want to see another example of how a mid-revision change can alter a book’s dynamic, the closest counterpart would be Moby-Dick, transformed, after Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne and delved deeply into William Shakespeare, from a conventional sea account of a voyage into a symbol-laden examination of an obsessive quest to destroy evil.

The editor who became the lucky beneficiary of Selby’s befuddlement was Robert Giroux, then at Harcourt, Brace and Company. The two had a common faith—Roman Catholicism—which helped him understand her unique worldview. Moreover, he felt her “tremendous strength, creative and moral,” and came to admire not only the very self-confidence that had put Selby off but also another quality: that “She not only knew exactly what she wanted to write but was prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve it,” according to an interview he gave George Plimpton a half-century later for The Paris Review.

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