Flannery O’Connor Renders Her Verdict on Ayn Rand’s Fiction: It’s As “Low As You Can Get”

For all the grotesque humor of her sto­ries and nov­els, Flan­nery O’Connor took the writ­ing of fic­tion as seri­ous­ly as it is pos­si­ble to do. Even at the age of 18, she saw the task as a divine call­ing, writ­ing in her jour­nal, “I feel that God has made my life emp­ty in this respect so that I may fill it some won­der­ful way.” Intense self-doubt also made her fear that she would fail in her mis­sion, a too-famil­iar feel­ing for every cre­ative writer: “I may grov­el the rest of my life in a stew of effort, of mis­guid­ed hope.”

In acquir­ing the need­ed con­fi­dence to push through fear, O’Connor also acquired a the­o­ry of fiction—a seri­ous and demand­ing one that left no room for friv­o­lous enter­tain­ments or pro­pa­gan­da. “I know well enough that very few peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in writ­ing are inter­est­ed in writ­ing well,” she told a stu­dent audi­ence in her lec­ture “The Nature and Aim of Fic­tion” (col­lect­ed in Mys­tery and Man­ners).

Writ­ing well, for O’Connor, meant pur­su­ing “the habit of art,” a phrase she took from French Catholic philoso­pher Jacques Mar­i­tain. While she admits that Art is “a word that imme­di­ate­ly scares peo­ple off, as being a lit­tle too grand,” her def­i­n­i­tion is sim­ple enough, if vague: “some­thing that is valu­able in itself and that works in itself.” When she gets into the meat of these ideas, we see why she could be so harsh a crit­ic of fel­low writ­ers in her many let­ters to friends and acquain­tances.

In one par­tic­u­lar­ly harsh assess­ment in a May, 1960 let­ter to play­wright Mary­at Lee, O’Connor wrote, “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 ref­er­ence to Spillane is inter­est­ing. Rand cor­re­spond­ed with the crime nov­el­ist and admired his work, seem­ing “great­ly pleased,” William Thomas writes at the Ran­di­an Atlas Soci­ety, by his “sense of life,” if not “enam­ored of his skill in con­vey­ing it.” Sure­ly Rand’s hyper-indi­vid­u­al­is­tic, pure­ly mate­ri­al­ist “sense of life” repelled O’Connor, but her objec­tions to Rand’s fic­tion would have certainly—if not primarily—extended to the writ­ing itself.

In her lec­ture, O’Connor elab­o­rates on her def­i­n­i­tion of the art of fic­tion by telling her audi­ence what it is not:

I find that most peo­ple know what a sto­ry is until they sit down to write one. Then they find them­selves writ­ing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an edi­to­r­i­al with a char­ac­ter in it, or a case his­to­ry with a moral, or some oth­er mon­grel thing.

Rand’s fic­tion presents read­ers with speechi­fy­ing heroes who serve as one-dimen­sion­al expo­nents of Objec­tivism, and card­board vil­lains act­ing as straw car­i­ca­tures of the demo­c­ra­t­ic or social­ist philoso­phies she loathed. Books like Atlas Shrugged embody all the marks of ama­teurism, accord­ing to O’Connor, of writ­ers who “are con­scious of prob­lems, not of peo­ple, of ques­tions and issues, not of the tex­ture of exis­tence, of case his­to­ries and every­thing that has a soci­o­log­i­cal smack, instead of with all those con­crete details of life that make actu­al the mys­tery of our posi­tion on earth.”

For O’Connor, the habit of art requires keen obser­va­tion of com­plex human behav­ior, com­pas­sion for human fail­ings, a gen­uine open­ness to para­dox and the unknown, and a pref­er­ence for idio­syn­crat­ic speci­fici­ty over grand abstrac­tions and stereotypes—qualities Rand sim­ply did not pos­sess. Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, how­ev­er, as O’Con­nor told her stu­dent audi­ence in “The Nature and Aim of Fic­tion,” the writer’s “moral sense must coin­cide with his dra­mat­ic sense.” One imag­ines O’Connor felt that Rand’s moral sense could only pro­duce pro­found­ly impov­er­ished dra­ma.

Read more of O’Con­nor’s let­ters, full of her infor­mal lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, in the col­lec­tion The Habit of Being: The Let­ters of Flan­nery O’Con­nor.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Christo­pher Hitchens Dis­miss­es the Cult of Ayn Rand: There’s No “Need to Have Essays Advo­cat­ing Self­ish­ness Among Human Beings; It Requires No Rein­force­ment”

Hear Flan­nery O’Connor’s Short Sto­ry, “Rev­e­la­tion,” Read by Leg­endary His­to­ri­an & Radio Host, Studs Terkel

Flan­nery O’Connor to Lit Pro­fes­sor: “My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnox­ious. I’m in a State of Shock”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • John Donohue says:

    Ayn Rand made a delib­er­ate deci­sion to write Atlas Shrugged in an ‘alien’ style, not the typ­i­cal mod­ernist mode du jour. The book is a philo­soph­i­cal trea­tise with the char­ac­ters and prose nar­ra­tive as ‘illus­tra­tions.’ The char­ac­ters are at once arche­types at a remove, and yet real­is­tic for any­one sim­pati­co with her world­view.

    In oth­er words, “we get it.”

    In my opin­ion, this choice sup­port­ed her inten­tion for the book to live for cen­turies. Read­ing it 500 years from now, one might note a triv­ial non-adher­ence to Mod­ernism, but that would be tak­en with the same eye need­ed to clear­ly see Homer, Aeschy­lus, Chaucer, Shake­speare, Austen, and Joyce.

    As for para­dox, Atlas Shrugged piv­ots on a gigan­tic para­dox for over 500 pages. That must qual­i­fy as “a gen­uine open­ness” to it. If Flan­nery O’Con­ner con­sid­ers it art to leave para­dox unre­solved, so be it. Ayn Rand does not.

  • George Barker says:

    I always find the claims that Ayn Rand wrote “awful” fic­tion hilar­i­ous. So awful that her books sell hun­dreds of thou­sands of copies years after she died.

    No, I don’t think sales deter­mine qual­i­ty. But if the writ­ing was as awful as the crit­ics claim there is no way the books would be this suc­cess­ful.

    Ayn Rand had a very clear, care­ful­ly thought out def­i­n­i­tion of roman­ti­cism in lit­er­a­ture which built upon an essay by her favorite author, Vic­tor Hugo. She lays it all out in her sig­na­ture style with clar­i­ty and force­ful log­ic in The Roman­tic Man­i­festo. It would have been help­ful if Mr Jones would had includ­ed this infor­ma­tion.

  • Edward Ryan says:

    Alas, the oth­er­wise excel­lent OC is laid low with intol­er­ance and polit­i­cal bias. Iron­i­cal­ly such a stance is not at all open. The true artist can stand in the shoes of all human­i­ty, and not just those he/she agrees with. Echo cham­bers have no place in cre­ative art.

  • Elizabeth Montour says:

    Atlas Shrugged would be a mas­ter­piece if it were a work of satire. A vicious dia­tribe on Robin Hood and his Mer­ry Men, the sui­cide of a young woman hor­ri­fied by the idea of grannies and gramp­ies on social secu­ri­ty, an invis­i­ble val­ley of mil­lion­aires hoard­ing their for­tunes, Wyat­t’s Torch and its Mis­sion to Advance the Green­house Effect, and John Galt draw­ing an imag­i­nary dol­lar sign to end the saga are all exam­ples of why. When com­pared to actu­al lit­er­ary works of art, such as the nov­el­’s arch neme­sis, The Grapes of Wrath, the dif­fer­ence between Rand and Stein­beck is as stark as the one between death and life.

  • Robert says:

    You mean the racist Flan­nery O’Con­nor who hat­ed Ayn Rand’s insis­tence on civ­il rights and was dis­gust­ed by Rand’s Black and gay friends?

    Look how all the pseu­do-pro­gres­sive com­mie com­menters reveal who they real­ly are as they get behind Flan­nery!

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