Wingless Chickens or Catholics from the Bayou: Conceptions of Audience in O'Connor and Gautreaux

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Author: L. Lamar Nisly
Editor: Jelena Krstovic
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 111)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,532 words

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[(essay date fall 2006) In the following essay, Nisly contrasts the relationship between reader and text in works by O'Connor and Louisianan author Tim Gautreaux, focusing on "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "Welding with Children," respectively.]

The critical receptions of Flannery O'Connor and Tim Gautreaux are at very different points, with O'Connor's stories clearly seen as canonical and Gautreaux still in the midst of his writing career. Yet they also have obvious connections, as Gautreaux, who lives in southern Louisiana, makes apparent in interviews:

Well, naturally an influence on just about everybody writing in the South was Flannery O'Connor. She's probably the country's premier short story writer. If you analyze her stories you see she was working with tragedy, and humor, and irony. And putting all of these elements together in a technically perfect way. ... Also, you know, she was Catholic, and I can relate to that because I'm Catholic.(Gautreaux, Hebert-Leiter interview 3)

More succinctly, he writes, "When I feel I'm losing my sense of humor, or that I'm becoming sentimental, I read an O'Connor story and her prose adjusts my perceptions" ("Behind the Great Stories" 1). Gautreaux's stated appreciation of O'Connor rings true when one reads his fiction, for particularly in his stories, his mix of humor and serious intent calls to mind O'Connor's best fiction.

Yet even though the two authors do share essential commonalities, a salient difference emerges within their fiction: their sense of audience. As I will explain, O'Connor presents a very clear vision of her audience--her "hostile audience," as she says in many of her essays--that she imagines herself addressing. It is an audience with a secular perspective that is uncomprehending and likely antagonistic to her Catholic vision, an audience prone to be confused and put off by her fiction. In contrast, Gautreaux has a very different conception of his audience. Gautreaux describes his audience in terms that sound warm, friendly, companionable. He imagines a broad range of readers, all of whom can connect with what he is writing. I argue that because of these divergent understandings of audience, O'Connor and Gautreaux develop strikingly different tones in their fiction, particularly through their treatment of characters. Finally, as I will show by analyzing "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," O'Connor's prophetic stance to her unbelieving audience leads her, at times, to create characters as acted parables, characters who perform disturbing actions so that O'Connor can confront her reader. In contrast, "Welding with Children" reveals that Gautreaux's "audience as companion" position allows him to present an early crisis in the story and then guide his character to embrace the moral position he knew all along was right.

In his highly influential book The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961, Wayne Booth argues that critics have assumed for too long that "True artists ... take no thought of their readers. They write for themselves" (89). Booth insists, to the contrary, that the audience always plays a role in literature: "nothing the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420082796