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Peter Brown Hoffmeister

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A Writer's Agenda -- The Pitfalls of the "Point"

Posted: 09/02/11 04:03 PM ET

My friend sent me an interview of Harry Crews, the 76-year-old Rough South novelist, essayist, and playwright. It's brilliant. Sure, Crews is wearing old, loose sweatpants as he slow-smokes a cigarette. And yes, he has evil eyes, slurps something out of a plastic mug, and stares at the camera while stuttering over his words. But listen -- just listen -- to what he says.

If you're an emerging writer or any degree of bibliophile, this interview is perfect. Crews explains his ideas on revision, metaphor, beauty, and guilt. But what he says about "the point" late in the interview is key, and I realized that's what I hate about some incredible writers who wrote seminal works early in their careers, people like Edward Abbey, Alice Walker, and Barbara Kingsolver.

These authors have rare gifts, and I recognize that. Their imagery. Their ability to evoke. Their dialogue. To be honest, I wish I wrote dialogue like any of those three authors.

But...

And this has to do with "the point." All three -- and many other authors as well -- write too much to their political and social agendas (for Walker, it's gotten ridiculous). The agenda might change, but some authors write with such a clear bent that I wonder if they even wonder.

As in, do these authors ever question themselves? Do they doubt? Will they relent? I haven't seen them. Well -- to be fair -- Abbey died. But he was stubborn to the last. And this doesn't fit. Since William Makepeace Thackery wrote The Novel Without a Hero in 1848, literary readers have asked for questions, not answers. Literary readers want to inquire, to think, to debate.

The problem with writing to a single answer is that modern literary readers aren't stupid. A good reader will finish thousands of books in her lifetime. She often has as much reading experience as the writer she loves, and sometimes more. This literary reader knows a good thing when she reads it, even if she's doesn't write novels herself.

I know the feeling of finishing an entire novel and saying aloud, "Well, that was too clear. I won't ever read that again." In fact, nothing is worse.

I'd rather have my Toni Morrison Song of Solomon experience, needing to go back and reread sections multiple times, not knowing everything, the world becoming more ambiguous as I experience literary rapture.

Now, if you watch the Harry Crews interview you won't find Crews naming names. He won't say that he personally dislikes a particular author who writes to one point. Actually, that's me.

For example:

I used to love Sherman Alexie. I read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven and felt as though I had discovered the most brilliant writer in America. I wondered why more people weren't talking to me about Alexie. But it was 2006, 12 years into his career, and Alexie had released subsequent books. He'd written Indian Killer, a New York Times Notable Book, and was about to release Flight, an extended version of his own short story with the same title.

I bought Indian Killer and couldn't believe what I'd purchased: The most galling stereotypes I'd seen this side of supermarket romance novels. And Alexie's lessons on people? Smug and extremist at best.

Then I read Flight, a new release at that time, and discovered a weak lesson on history, on context, on youthful anger and disillusionment. I started to question Alexie's ethos. I wondered if anyone was ever going to point out that the emperor was skinny-dipping with no water. Alexie had gone from one of the most incredible debut collections ever written (I'd argue that it rivals Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies), to a trite preacher of "the truth" about Indians.

When The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian came out, I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. But Alexie redeems himself a bit, and redeems himself with story. Yes, it's a story he's told before, but it's still a story first -- character driven -- less Ayn Rand and more W.P. Kinsella.

But it's easy to critique, to criticize. And Alexie will be the sum of all of his works, some better than others. Most writers will never write a book equal to The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven -- I doubt I ever will -- and Alexie has that in him. He's proven it. So for Alexie's sake, I hope he stays away from writing to a point. I hope he challenges and dares and continues to transform.

Because we don't need a point. We're comfortable with the nebulous. Harry Crews is right. It's a rough south, and we're wading the swamp in the dark.

 

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