Mark Harris Brad Owens - Essay

Brad Owens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Short Work of It: Selected Writing by Mark Harris"] 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….

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….

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 …, but has 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….

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.

Brad Owens, "On Writing for the Soul, not the Market," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 11, 1980, p. B13.