By Emily Gatlin
My forty-eighth printing paperback copy of Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories knocked me right out of my socks and head-first into my undying love affair of Southern fiction. Robert Penn Warren and I graduated from the same high school, but even with our most famous alum winning a Pulitzer, my literary education was slighted. We read a lot of Shakespeare, a little Dickens, and a lot of poetry.
In the fall of 2003, I needed to declare a minor, and English seemed like the best road since I had already completed 12 hours of study. At the time, I thought I wanted to be an audiologist even though I was partially deaf, absolutely terrible at science, and I still counted on my fingers. Being at Ole Miss with the ghost of Faulkner all around me, I was immersed in beautiful words and characters. Everyone in Oxford, Mississippi is a character, and if you’ve spent five minutes there, it’s totally obvious.
I’m not sure if it was because I was still developing my own character or a classic case of “right book, right time” but my first assignment in my Southern Literature class was to read Everything That Rises Must Converge. I had never been exposed to a readable short story, and I felt like Flannery was telling me, “Emily, this is YOU. Do something.” Her stories had a beginning, middle, and end. I wasn’t left frustrated and scratching my head at the end. Her messages were clear. Her symbolism was right there in your face. But the words Flannery used in the succession she chose to put them in just clicked with me. I was completely hooked.
We read Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, James Dickey, and Barry Hannah. Eudora isn’t my favorite writer (Sorry, Mississippi! Love you!), however, I was able to compare the two short story powerhouses in a shockingly decent five-page term paper. My professor wrote, “Emily, I get it. You like Flannery better. Don’t go public with that around here. A+”
Any free time I had, I picked up The Complete Stories until I made my way through all of them. Some are admittedly better than others, and I don’t like them all. “The River” quickly became my favorite, followed by “The Geranium.” My copy is held together by rubber bands, but like a child with a favorite stuffed animal, I can’t replace it. It is my old friend, and we have a reunion every year.
The Complete Stories opened my eyes to the luxury of a good short story, and because of it, I had a new found love, deep respect, and appreciation for my fellow Southerners.
Emily Gatlin spent four years as the manager of an independent bookstore in Mississippi. In 2012, she was nominated to serve on the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Board of Directors. She is a contributor for BookRiot.com, the Food & Drink writer for OfficialJane.com, and also writes for Invitation Oxford and Mud & Magnolias Magazine.
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