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.
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