Someone wrote me and asked - if I've never read Flannery O'Connor before, where do I start?
That's a good and important question, because if you start reading O'Connor in the wrong place or the wrong frame of mind, you won't get her now or maybe even ever. There are lots of people who have read O'Connor and just don't like her writing, and don't see what in the world the rest of us are raving about. Which is fine, because we have to admit to each his own. Henry James makes me look for toothpicks to prop my eyelids open.
If you're serious about trying to read O'Connor intelligently, I really think you need to have, besides the fiction, two other works - Mystery and Manners, a collection of her writings on writing and faith, and her letters, collected in The Habit of Being, and also available in the Library of America complete collection of her works.
There is always the danger of over-analysis coming between the reader and author, a danger of which O'Connor was keenly aware.
(Read her letter of March 28, 1961, to a professor of English who shared with O'Connor his students' interpretation of "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Her letter begins: "The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be." It ends: "Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it. My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.")
But the idea of reading a bit of MM and having the letters close by is not to "interpret" but merely to understand what O'Connor herself was trying to do.
So once you have all volumes in hand, I would recommend starting with the following stories, for reasons that I cannot defend, except perhaps that they are the most accessible:
"A Good Man is Hard to Find"
"A Temple of the Holy Ghost" (very funny, and the most explicitly "Catholic" of O'Connor's stories in terms of character and setting.)
"The River" (A heartbreaker, but about baptism, if you can see through the sadness)
"The Displaced Person"
Then, if you've a mind to, go to Wise Blood, the first of her two novels. And then move on from there.
And, if you can find it in your library stacks, read the review of the LOC O'Connor Collected Works by Mary Jo Salter in the 4/24/89 issue of The New Republic. It's very good.
The stories are hard, but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism…When I see these stories described as horror stories, I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.