How much do authors want their work to be analyzed?

Flannery O'Connor

Dear Literary Ladies,

How much do you want your stories and novels to be analyzed, rather than enjoyed for their own sake? Sometimes the over-analysis that students have to do destroys the pleasure of reading. On the other hand, delving into deeper meanings and insights can expand the experience of reading. Where does a reader find the balance?

Last fall I received a letter from a student who said she would be “graciously appreciative” if would tell her “just what enlightenment” I expected her to get from each of my stories. I suspect she had a paper to write.

I wrote her back to forget about enlightenment and just try to enjoy them. I knew that was the most unsatisfactory answer I could have given, of course, she didn’t want to enjoy them, she just wanted to figure them out.

In most English classes the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected. Every time a story of mine appears in a freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle.

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Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor Quotes on Writing and Literature

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I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, this story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.

A story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and it expands in the mind. Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it’s equally true the two analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already, and I think that the best reason to hear a story read is that it should stimulate that primary enjoyment.

Flannery O’Connor, from the collection Mystery and Manners, “On Her Own Work,” an introduction to a reading of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at Hollins College, Virginia, in October, 1963

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Flannery O'Connor stamp

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