Flannery O’Connor: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Ayn Rand (1960)


In a letter dated May 31, 1960, Flannery O’Connor, the author best known for her classic story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (listen to her read the story here) penned a letter to her friend, the playwright Maryat Lee. It begins rather abruptly, likely because it’s responding to something Maryat said in a previous letter:

I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

The letter, which you can read online or find in the book The Habit of Being, then turns to other matters.

O’Connor’s critical appraisal of Ayn Rand’s books is pretty straightforward. But here’s one factoid worth knowing. Mickey Spillane (referenced in O’Connor’s letter) was a hugely popular mystery writer, who sold some 225 million books during his lifetime. According to his Washington Post obit, “his specialty was tight-fisted, sadistic revenge stories, often featuring his alcoholic gumshoe Mike Hammer and a cast of evildoers.” Critics, appalled by the sex and violence in his books, dismissed his writing. But Ayn Rand defended him. In public, she said that Spillane was underrated. In her book The Romantic Manifesto, Rand put Spillane in some unexpected company when she wrote: “[Victor] Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral–Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide–Spillane gives me the feeling of listening to a military band in a public park–Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.” All of which goes to show that Ayn Rand’s literary taste was no better than her literature.

via Biblioklept

Related Content:

Rare 1959 Audio: Flannery O’Connor Reads ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’

Flannery O’Connor Reads ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction’ (c. 1960)

Ayn Rand Adamantly Defends Her Atheism on The Phil Donahue Show (Circa 1979)

The Outspoken Ayn Rand Interviewed by Mike Wallace (1959)


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  • patrick naulty says:

    this is an awful attack on Mickey Spillane, he would have had nothing to do with these specious pseudo-intellectuals, they would have been awfully murdered in the first chapter. I could personally think of several ways to kill Virginia Woolf

  • Frank H. says:

    I find this post appalling and unbecoming of what I am accustomed to reading on Open Culture.
    Rather then go into an explanation of why Ms. O’Connor would make such a statement, the author presumes that the statement stands on its face. It does not.
    I will confess to being a fan of Rand, but being of rational mind I am open to read criticism of her provided the position is justified. I see no justification in this article. I see a blog post by someone who thinks they are being funny making an inside joke to a group of friends that share the same uninformed opinion.

  • andy says:

    good article….would have been even better had the author not inserted himself into the discussion via the last sentence

  • Blue says:

    The only thing this article made me is curious to read Mickey Spillane.

  • tills says:

    “…Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.” All of which goes to show that Ayn Rand’s literary taste was no better than her literature.

    Ha! Ha ha ha! If I was going to dis Tolstoy for anything, its that he makes everything too clean. Levin and Kitty off feeding the birds and stuff. Unless that’s what Ayn meant by unsanitary, I have to agree with the article on this one.

    And even if that is what she meant, his writing is so… measured? It’s like the gorgeous blueprint for a house that would look horrible if it was actually built.

  • Zuk says:

    love when the author ends the article with their own quip about O’Connor that actually makes zero sense and does nothing to explain what the author’s pov would be re o’connor and/or the author she cites.. not surprised! :D

  • Neil Baxter says:

    Clueless is cured by an education; but tasteless is never cured.

    Friends, by the way, let friends read whatever they want – it is not their business to dictate a friend’s taste – only a typical totalitarian thug would try.

  • Michael says:

    Your comment that “Ayn Rand’s literary taste was no better than her literature,” should not be protected under the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States. It should be treasonable.

  • charles says:

    Who are all these Ayn Rand supporters? O’Conner was spot on. Rand was a greedy, self-serving isolationist who couldn’t write a decent sentence. The more criticism of her the better. If Tolstoy or Virginia Woolf are “pseudo-intellectuals” as one reviewer implies, then I’d like to know who he deems the real intellectuals to be. The fact is Americans have increasingly become anti-intellectuals to their own detriment.

  • Sue says:

    Ah, I can just taste the tears of all the Randians butthurt by this article right now.

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged . One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” – John Rogers

    One thing that puzzles me is conservatives who try to blend Randian economics with their “Christian” crusades against any social minority. Rand is the anti-Jesus. You have to choose one.

  • Greg P says:

    ..for a website called “open culture,” I see that many folks, including the poster, are not open at all.

    I don’t quite get the Rand hate, as I have not read the books.

    I don’t think the suggestion to not read it was open at all

  • Scott says:

    This is my first time reading anything on this site. I have not read Rand or O’Connor. The whole concept of shunning an author based on someone else’s recommendation is alien to me. The comparison to Spillane reeks of intellectual snobbishness thinly masking jealousy.

    I won’t tell anyone what not to read. Furthest I might go is a bad informal review, “I could do better than that, and I’m not a writer!” So, anyone telling me not to read an author would probably lead me to at least reading reviews about that author.

    And I will say that the last sentence ruined this little essay for me as well. The opinion expressed is unfounded, based on third hand information at best, and not even a conclusion that could even be supported by the essay.

  • PeterM says:

    Flannery O’Connor was a third-rate novelist and a fourth-rate mind. It’s not surprising that she hated Ayn Rand. The cult of mediocrity always look bad in the presence of greatness.

  • david hitzing says:

    “All that rises must converge” puts Flan ery on top.

  • AlexB says:

    It never fails: whenever someone dares criticize Ayn Rand, her acolytes can barely contain their spittle-flecked outrage long enough to come up with some defense that completely dodges the heart of the argument but manages to soothe their wounded egos.

    Which is more or less how Rand operated too, and certainly explains why her prose was such boring, tortured drivel. It was almost as if she was afraid to let the words speak for themselves because if that happened then the reader might too. I’m surprised that a writer with such subtlety as O’Connor wasted the ink mentioning her.

  • TawnieO says:

    Did anyone else go and read the full letter (it’s linked in the article)? It’s quite short and the tone of the thing strikes me as pretty lighthearted. I think Ms O’Connor would be bemused by the flap her off-hand remark has made here. (Though, given her somewhat dark view of human nature, perhaps she wouldn’t be surprised at all.)

    That said… PeterM, are you trolling? Or do you really not know that Flannery O’Connor was a great writer?

  • BillB says:

    “That dear crazy woman,” Mickey said of Rand, “she loves Mike Hammer!”

  • PeterM says:

    Count down. 5-4-3-2-1. Here they come. The anti-Rand whack jobs whose sole job in life is to rationalize their own mediocrity. I think it’s what Rand called “Hatred of the good for being the good.”

    TawnieO: Yeah, right. Flannery O’Connor was a great writer and Barack Obama is a deep thinker.

  • Tom Powell says:

    Anyone not knowing O’Connor is a certified genius and Rand a pretentious intellectual giblet must need a lot more education. Go back to Jr. High, where you probably read Rand and were so impressed by her wild, passionate cries for individual freedom (youngsters really admire selfishness on a grand scale). Read “Wise Blood” and see if you can’t relate, just a bit, to the main character. I know because you can post stuff on the internet you think you’re smart. Wrong. Any fool can. I do.

  • Tony says:

    Okay, Randians, you have been following Eddie Lampert’s tanking of Sears, haven’t you? http://tinyurl.com/qcaesdd

  • Nebris says:

    Re: Rand’s novels. If one strips out all the meth-fueled ‘sociocultural’ ravings, what one is left with are torrid romantic rape fantasies. No wonder she loved Spillane.

  • James says:

    The fact that we are debating the merits of Rand and, yes, even Spillane, show what a lasting impact they have had. Like them or not, they achieved greater fame and sold more books than O’Connor did (and I’m certainly not saying she was any less of a writer). They found their niches and their readers identified with them, which is really all it’s about as a writer.

  • Chip says:

    I liked Ayn Rand’s novels. I loved Dostoevsky, admired Tolstoy, and was awed by Victor Hugo. Sadly, I have not read anything by Mickey Spillane. I confess to having told friends not to waste their time on certain novels, specifically, Moby Dick. I consider it to be the most overrated novel in American literature. So I can’t disagree in principle with Flannery O’Connor. I can only disagree with her judgment of Rand’s merits. I think she had some.

  • Dave N says:

    Ayn Rand was an economic philosopher. Her fans need to be honest with themselves. If you take that away from her how good is her writing really? Be honest with yourself. She was a very average writer, who had some unique ideas.

    She needs to be more appropriately compared to someone like John Nash. I think in that light her contributions can be acccurately measured.

  • Jeremy A says:

    Ayn Rand’s prose is insufferable and pompous. Her characters are not believable as people. Her writing is trashy and her political beliefs are unsupportable by anything resembling evidence.

  • Tim McDonald says:

    Ayn Rand wrote a decent tale. Mickey Spillane wrote books to entertain, and was wildly successful. He fully understood he was competing for my beer money, and was good at it. He was writing for me and thousands like me, and if you don’t like it, go read your pretentious bs and tell yourself you are better or smarter than I am.

    It is of course not true, but keep telling yourself that, it will make you feel better about not knowing what The Calculus is, or how to solve differential equations, or what the first or second laws of thermodynamics are, or to understand them if you did not know what they were.

    As for me, my opinion of you….Well, if you can’t do higher mathematics, you are at best a tolerable subhuman who has been taught to eat with a fork and not make a mess on the floor.

  • Mathieson says:

    ” Here they come. The anti-Rand whack jobs whose sole job in life is to rationalize their own mediocrity. I think it’s what Rand called “Hatred of the good for being the good.”

    There is plenty of reason for disliking Rand – from her tortured prose to her blatant misreading of other philosophers (Nietzsche in particular is disgusting, as the better parts of Objectivism are stolen, pardon me, looted, from him), to her idiotic attempts to moralize taste.

    The truly horrible part about both Rand and her acolytes, though, is their bastardization of logic. It works like this – claim what you want to be true as an axiom (“Rand is Great”), then state “A is A” and claim any disagreement is obviously anti-logic and anti-human. Ask Nathaniel Branden if that’s truly the human spirit.

  • R J Dent says:

    It’s interesting, but not really surprising that O’Connor (a writer of Southern Gothic Christian realism) should urge a friend to avoid reading Rand (a writer of atheist philosophical romantic realism)… both authors were becoming successful in the 50s, they were published by rival big publishers (Random House and Harcourt, Brace), and Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged had made her one of America’s most successful and influential novelists. It seems odd that anyone would try and stop people reading whatever they wanted, but there is a note of professional rivalry here – O’Connor would obviously be jealous of Rand, the author of four novels – one of which sells half a million copies a year, and has done so every year since it was first published.

    • Ashleigh Fox says:

      That might make sense if Flannery O’Connor were wholly motivated by sales and money, but anyone who knows anything about her as a writer and as a person knows she had other priorities. Research her — she’s fascinating.

  • David Sherr says:

    Virginia Woolf is a pseudo intellectual?

  • Liam says:

    @David Sherr “Virginia Woolf is a pseudo intellectual?”

    Welcome to the internet. If you think that statement was ridiculous, just keep on surfing.

  • Syn says:

    I think most of Rand’s critics don’t appreciate or understand Romantic literature.

  • Herbert Spencer says:

    I’ve read all of Rand, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and some Spillane. I read these of my own free will.

    The only O’Connor I’ve read was as part of an assignment in English Lit. Really, not my cup of tea.

  • L. Beyer says:

    There’s no accounting for taste as far as the masses are concerned. Just look at how popular the Khardasian’s are. Gag! So, Rand out selling O’Connor is a silly argument.

  • S Harris says:

    Ayn Rand defenders are, perfectly predictably, chauvinistic defenders of her simplistic repackaging of the categorically disproven concept of Social Darwinism. You aren’t heroes, you aren’t inherently superior to others, you aren’t part of a master race that will inevitably rise above the rabble to rule an earth wherein everyone unlike you is inferior and, most importantly, you are a fifteen year old boy any more. Grow up, get over it.

  • John says:

    I am always amused at those who believe that the best way to promote their point of view is to stifle opposing thoughts and prevent the hearing of opposing arguments and thoughts. If your argument is superior, those evaluating your work can read any opposing material and will still find your argument superior.

    • billmarvel says:

      It’s not with the idea of stifling Ayn Rand’s message, John, or censoring her thoughts — such thoughts as there are. It’s with the altogether noble and praiseworthy desire to save one’s friends from an ugly, distasteful, painful encounter.

  • rodii says:

    Still laughing at “treasonable.”

  • Bill says:

    Was this before Ayn Rand collected over $10,000 in social security benefits?

  • ellid says:

    Looks like the Rand cultists are spamming the comments. They’re sad little creatures who worship her selfish, anti-American, horribly written crap, and they get *very* upset if they find anything criticizing her books.


  • Gina de Miranda says:

    I have written a book on the Libertarians. Many of them view Ayn Rand as a gifted writer. That absolutely floored me. They saw themselves as so intelligent, so learned and, yet, they could see that her characters were one-dimensional, her prose painful to the mind and her plotting bordered on ludicrous. Not to mention that she was wildly self-righteous without much to bolster her case for her own “brilliance.”

  • Dennis says:

    Rand was a second-rate writer of fiction, at best, and was a third-rate mind. She was arrogant enough to believe that she was the only person to have had a sensible or original thought since Aristotle. Those who describe her as a ‘philosopher’ are slandering true philosophers.

    I can see why teenage boys 14-18 or so are drawn to Rand and (Tolkien). What I can’t fathom is why they never grew out of them. Then again, lot’s of those same people still play video games well into their 30s, and 40s.

    To say that O’Connor is infinitely superior to Rand – as both a writer and a moral thinker – is an understatement.

  • Greg Grummer says:

    Rand was a genuine personality, filled with all the contradictions that implies. The world would be a less interesting place without her or her followers. The story of her life is edifying, if edification were really possible, which it’s probably not. There’s this section in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt or someone has commandeered a radio station, and gives a 50 page tirade,(or at least it seemed like 50 pages). If ever a person was acting out of a deep Jungian neurosis it was him and her, and it’s a wonder to behold. I would always recommend a Rand novel to anyone who enjoys the human parade, and who wishes to witness it in all its horror and glory. She and her followers are definitely part of the story, and not to be missed out on, in my hmo. But after reading her, I might suggest a little Cesar Vallejo, Spain Take This Cup From Me, as a chaser, something to cleanse the spirit for the next go around.

  • Tom says:

    Rand’s taste in literature was certainly no better than her literature. It would be impossible not to be. Sounds like this Mickey Spillane character writes stories with clear distinction between good and evil, with the evildoers always getting their commeuppance. I’ll have to give him a read. As for Tolstoy, he’s despicable. His novel Anna Karenina is basically just a condemnation of chasing one’s dreams. I’ve no idea who this Flannery O’Connor non-entity is and frankly I’m no interested.

  • joodyb says:

    Three cheers for grammar and spelling!

  • ed palinurus says:

    While there is certainly a lot to criticize in Rand, both in terms of her writing quality and her philosophy, this is a disappointing attack by O’Connor (sounds like the arrogance and petty jealousy of so many writers and artists, and something I’d have hoped she was above). Besides that, objectively (no pun intended), Rand’s philosophy is worthy of discussion and recognition of the legitimacy of at least some of her complaints and critiques of statism; I wonder if O’Connor might have seen that aspect of Rand differently today, had she lived through the drastic expansion of the state in the 50 intervening years and seen its generally debilitating effect on personal initiative and freedom, among other things. The author’s tagging along doesn’t do much for me, either.

  • BigFurHat says:

    Did she pay into Social Security with her own money?

    That’s right, she did.
    So what is the point you’re trying to make, that social security is welfare?

  • Matt Braynard says:

    “All of which goes to show that Ayn Rand’s literary taste was no better than her literature.”

    Oh, please. Get over yourself.

  • Guy Weknow says:

    Please, people. Research the literary legacy of Ayn Rand. Here are several good biographies.

    NAN A. TALESE. 567 PP. $35.

    OXFORD. 369 PP. $27.95.

    As a philosopher, an economist or a writer, she was a trainwreck. She actually has more of the character of a self-promoter and huckster than anything else. This makes her the Bill O’Reilly of her generation.

  • Ben Baron says:

    Along those lines, read the review of those two books.


  • Gene Ward Smith says:

    O’Connor is hardly a reasonable choice for a writer with which to compare Rand. Much more to the point would be Harriet Beecher Stowe, as both made highly effective and very influential use of the novel as propaganda. Stowe was realistic, whereas Rand employed fantasy, especially in her most influential work, Atlas Shrugged. People who take that to be either a literary novel or an exposition of political philosophy in the manner of Plato’s Republic make a grotesque error. It’s pointless to attempt to plumb its intellectual depths, because it has none. But as a means to indoctrinate young people who are either willing to overlook its absurdities or lack the capacity approach the book analytically and recognize them, it’s brilliant.

  • Gene Ward Smith says:

    Speaking as a mathematician, I am gobsmacked by the idea of comparing Rand to John Nash. If she’s proven any theorems then please tell the world about them. I promise to be suitably awed and amazed.

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