On writing for the soul, not the market; Short Work of It: Selected Writing by Mark Harris. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. $12.95.
This collection might well stand on any writer's desk alongside a dictionary, a thesaurus, and "The Elements of Style" -- the last three as reference, the Mark Harris as example, taskmaster, and, perhaps, conscience.
Harris is the author of 14 books (including the novels "Bang the Drum Slowly" and most recently "It Looked Like For Ever") in addition to this selecton of articles, essays, reminiscences, and stories. His writing here is so free of mannerisms that it is hard to identify a Harris style -- but he always writes with a lucidity that seems suited to the subject.
The author's first published piece ("Jackie Robinson and My Sister," 1946) is included in this collection, along with an article on docudramas a la 1978, with stops along the way for Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, baseball, Marilyn Monroe , hippies, Edmund G. Brown and Richard M. Nixon, and various perils confronting novelists and other writers.
Harris has firsthand acquaintance with such perils, and his ideas on writing, journalism, and the academic life may be valuable for other writers (especially younger ones). As a teacher of writing he is wary of the prevalent advice to students to make their writing marketable: "Let them write for their souls," he says, "never for markets."
Harris observes his subjects closely, then stands back to take in the wide view. It is a method that has never encouraged editors to seek him out for quick write-ups (his piece on Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost for Life magazine took six months), but hasm made the final product worth reading long after its publication date. For example, his piece on the hippies of Haight-Ashbury (written in 1967) is possibly the best in the book. Its thoughtfulness and energy (he punches up the prose with bits of graffiti) pushed me to one new perspective after another, until, finally, I had to look back over the subject as if from a height.
Although Harris doesn't depend on the flashy phrase ("I am appalled by my limited vocabulary," he writes), the final effect of his pieces, so skillfully sewn together that the stitches are invisible, often is brilliant. He refuses to reduce ideas to labels and he is not in the habit of summing up his subjects in hyphenated adjectives or catch phrases -- he has resisted the trend to make life fit into a headline.
In the interest of space, of speed, of sales -- of keeping a reader's attention long enough to get some vital piece of information to him -- writers are sometimes encouraged to become entertainers at the expense of being informers. But Harris's pieces remind us that a writer needn't be superficial to be interesting, and that writing that requires a reader's participation will probably hold his attention better than writing that tries to reduce a subject to the most easily digestible form.
I don't always agree with Harris, but his thoughts invariably make for stimulating reading. His argument for not reading a daily newspaper doesn't seem completely convincing to me, if only because I'm not so sure we are as smart on our own as he believes us to be.
Harris gives a good summary of his own ideals and accomplishments as a writer when he says, "The novelist in search of his own best self continues in his conviction. He persuades himself that his defiance of the temptation to increase personal comfort at the sacrifice of craft assures him the distant reward of fame."