I've been reading a fair few short stories lately, and reading about them too -- trying to see behind the curtain, if you like, to understand what was in their authors' minds when writing them. It's given me a fine excuse to pore once more over The Habit of Being, that wonderful collection of Flannery O'Connor's letters. Here's one, just as a taster: her very first letter to Betty Hester.
Milledgeville20 July 1955
Dear Miss A.,
I am very pleased to have your letter. Perhaps it is even more startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for you to find a God-conscious writer near at hand. The distance is 87 miles but I feel the spiritual distance is shorter.
I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It's to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. I think the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.
The notice in the New Yorker was not only moronic, it was unsigned. It was a case in which it is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.
I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call "A Good Man" brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching towards Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.
You were very kind to wrote me and the measure of my appreciation must be to ask you to write me again. I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.
The one frustrating thing about O'Connor's letters to Hester The Habit of Being is that it's just half of a conversation. Although the two didn't meet until a year after they first wrote to each other, they became close friends, and Hester wrote O'Connor hundreds of letters. Many of the letters between the two, not included in The Habit of Being, were made public in 2007. I have no idea of Hester's own letters to O'Connor were among them, or have survived in any sense.