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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