Everywhere I Go I’m Asked If I Think Universities Stifle Writers. I Think They Don’t Stifle Enough of Them

Flannery O’Connor? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Flannery O’Connor, the novelist and famous crafter of short stories, was once asked whether she believed that college courses discouraged or stifled budding writers. She gave an answer I found found acerbically entertaining. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1960 “The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution” published an interview with Flannery O’Connor. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think universities stifle writers,” she said. “I think they don’t stifle enough of them. The kind of writing that can be taught is the kind you then have to teach people not to read. . . .”

Yet, O’Connor’s criticism of teaching was not universal. She felt her own academic training was worthwhile:

She explained that what she had at the University of Iowa was valuable, “but it wasn’t training to write as such; it was training to read with critical attention–my own work and other people’s.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1961 a passage from O’Connor appeared in the journal “Four Quarters” published by the faculty of La Salle College of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The brief piece expanded upon her comment about the difficulty of teaching writing and included this: 2

Unfortunately, there is a kind of writing that can be taught; it is the kind you then have to teach people not to read. This does not mean that writing courses are not valuable, but that their value is limited to doing a few things which will help the student with talent to a greater critical awareness.

O’Connor was afflicted with the autoimmune disease lupus, and she died at age 39 in 1964. In 1966 “The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O’Connor” edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson was released. The 1960 and 1961 citations presented above together with some accompanying text were included in a section called “A Collection of Statements”. 3

In 1967 the above book was reviewed in “The Nashville Tennessean” and the quotation was reprinted: 4

A fascinating section of Friedman and Lawson’s volume is a selection of statements from interviews, public addresses, and essays of Miss O’Connor arranged under three topics — Faith, Region, and Craft. Several of these quotations reveal her wry, caustic wit, of which the following are two examples:

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think universities stifle writers. I think they don’t stifle enough of them.”

“Some old lady said that my book left a bad taste in her mouth. I wrote back to her and said, ‘You weren’t supposed to eat it.'”

In 1969 a version of the quotation appeared in “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor” edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. The words occurred in an essay titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” which was a composite constructed posthumously by the editors from O’Connor’s papers. The phrasing of this instance differed a bit from the 1960 interview: 5

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. The idea of being a writer attracts a good many shiftless people, those who are merely burdened with poetic feelings or afflicted with sensibility.

This remark is listed in several references including: “The Times Book of Quotations” (2000), 6 “Women’s Wicked Wisdom: From Mary Shelley to Courtney Love” (2004), 7 and “The Yale Book of Quotations” (2006). 8 However, the version presented in these works is based on the 1969 book, and that is the earliest citation they give.

In conclusion, Flannery O’Connor should be credited with this statement, and QI suggests using the version from the 1960 interview.

Image Notes: Picture of typewriter and desk from rawpixel at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Mary whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1960 May 20, The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, Visit to Flannery O’Connor Proves a Novel Experience by Margaret Turner, Quote Page 2G, Column 2, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest)
  2. 1961 January, Four Quarters, Volume 10, Number 2, Symposium on the Teaching of Creative Writing-II, (Commentary from Flannery O’Connor), Start Page 10, Quote Page 20, Published by the Faculty of La Salle College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans from archive.org)
  3. 1966, The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O’Connor, Edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson, Chapter: A Collection of Statements, Quote Page 254, Fordham University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1967 January 1, The Nashville Tennessean, Under the Green Lamp with Floy W. Beatty: O’Connor Hit Her Targets With an Unorthodox Aim, Quote Page 7C, Column 2, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1979 (Copyright 1969), Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor, Edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald, Section 3, Essay: The Nature and Aim of Fiction, Start Page 63, Quote Page 84 and 85,Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 2000, The Times Book of Quotations, Topic: University, Quote Page 720, HarperCollins, Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Verified on paper)
  7. 2004, Women’s Wicked Wisdom: From Mary Shelley to Courtney Love by Michelle Lovric, Section: The Creative Urge, Quote Page 133, Chicago Review Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  8. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Flannery O’Connor, Quote Page 564, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with hardcopy)