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The Art of Competence

Published 6th May, 2019 in MRP Guest Blogger

Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 and died in 1964. Whenever I read those dates, I wonder what she might have written if she’d had a few more years. YouTube has a video of her reading ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ in her sardonic, Southern drawl. It’s a serious story, but in the version I’ve seen, she makes her listeners laugh.

I’d like to be able to read my stories as well as O’Connor reads that story. But first, I’d have to be able to write like Flannery O’Connor. The voice in her stories is strong. There is a ruthless streak in her that finds its way into her characters. Her stories are studies in ignorance, flattery, and spite. She knew her subjects, and their wounds.

The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (2006) is one of my favourite anthologies. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ is included, and towards the back of the anthology is an article written by O’Connor. Like many writers, she has strong opinions on what works and what doesn’t. She emphasises the importance of difference—that requirement to be far enough from the mainstream to not be pulled in, but near enough so that we can see her waving from the other side of the river.

In the article she says, ‘so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence’.

Reading this article makes me realise why I admire her so much. She writes what she sees. And no amount of teaching or workshopping will inhibit her vision. For Flannery O’Connor, writing is about vision, and the capacity to see isn’t something that is taught in writing classes.

In the same article, O’Connor indicates that she mightn’t have been the most accommodating workshop participant:

I don’t believe in classes where students criticize each other’s manuscripts. Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite. It’s the blind leading the blind, and it can be dangerous.

I study creative writing. When we’re workshopping, I try to stop myself thinking about Flannery O’Connor. It never works. I see her, separate from the mainstream, standing alone on the other side of the river and intermittently waving her signs: Ignorance. Flattery. Spite.

I suspect that O’Connor advocates wariness, rather than non-participation. She is, after all, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If we want to write, it’s unlikely that self-editing will be enough. But it’s hard to watch while others squirm. It’s hard to say anything that is simultaneously constructive and painless. And it’s hard to keep quiet when they’re going at your story.

If you’re a writer, it’s likely you’re a brooder. I wonder what O’Connor’s classmates said or wrote about her stories, and how long she brooded before she came up with her three classifications. And whether it helped her.

I’ve introduced another category, Yeah. When I’m in a workshop, I try to take notes about what people say, especially about other people’s stories, because I find comments that aren’t aimed at my story to be the most illuminating, probably because I’m less defensive. But I keep hearing that sardonic Southern drawl. Ignorance. Flattery. Spite. But she gives credit where it’s due. She slips in the occasional Yeah.

After a workshop, I wait a few days before I take out the copies of the stories that people have handed back to me. Most of the comments are in pencil. I read them all, pencil and biro, the scribble and the legible, the clear explanations and the incoherent. Then I read them again, slowly. I put them aside and try not to brood. But O’Connor’s words always surface: Ignorance. Flattery. Spite.

She knew those wounds.

After another day or so I take up the comments again. I pay special attention to any comments where Flannery O’Connor has scrawled Yeah in my scribble next to a comment written by one of my classmates. I make the changes we’ve agreed upon. There are quite a few of them. But after a while I push my laptop aside.

I can’t help myself; I review every comment again. There’s too much flattery and it’s too obvious. Ignorance is rare, and usually confined to pointing out what might cause offence, which I suspect O’Connor might regard as something worse, a push towards convention—and that destination she derided: competence. The last of O’Connor’s classifications, spite, is absent from the feedback I’ve received.

Because these days, we’re way too competent for that.


Kit Scriven has been published in Island and short story anthologies. He won the Olga Master Short Story Award in 2016 and 2017, and the SALA Short Story Prize in 2016. He has been highly commended or shortlisted in several other short story competitions. Kit’s story ‘We’ll stand in that place’ won the 2019 Margaret River short story competition.


Works cited

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Nature And Aim Of Fiction”. Mystery And Manners: Occasional Prose, Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzerald, 1st ed., Farrar, Straus And Giroux, New York, 1969.

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