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Who was Barry Hannah writing for?


The conventional wisdom is that Barry Hannah, who died this week at the age of 67, is the kind of writer who had two kinds of readers. One: Those who just haven't read him yet. Two: As the estimable Wells Tower wrote in a profile before Hannah's death, those who get a "feverish, ecstatic look before they seize you by the lapels and start reeling off cherished passages of his work."

Sheepishly, I think I fall into a third category. I admire the taut, spring-loaded fury in Hannah's hearty, American stories. But even as I learned to agree with the idea that he's among the most important fiction writers of the last decades, I always brushed up against his mechanics, and sensed in his disciplined prose a kind of wrestling match with the words that didn't work for me. (I gravitate more toward another tortured, muscular southerner: Padgett Powell, who in my opinion wrote the best book of 2009.)

Consider the Towers profile. Alongside gushing praise for the late writer, who was nominated for a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, there is also the story of Hannah's firing from the University of Alabama, which was evidently the result of a lesson in which Hannah brought an unloaded revolver to class and spun the empty chambers to illustrate the six movements of a short story.

The most poignant takeaway is this passage, where Hannah lays bare his doubt:

“I’d always imagined this hip, intelligent crowd I was writing for, but as it turns out, they’re not out there waiting,” he said. “Really, I was brokenhearted to hear people call me difficult. I always intended to be light and open, but I suppose I misjudged the American audience.”

Maybe, Hannah seemed to say, writing is never knowing who's reading -- and figuring out how much to care. RIP.