Columns » John Brummett

Opinion and truth



EUREKA SPRINGS -----— Alas, the fifth is a down year for the Books in Bloom literary festival at the Crescent Hotel. Unrelenting rain has rendered the lush and flowered grounds unsuitable for the usual tents and outdoor activity. It's about 50 degrees out there.

The book signings, readings and author presentations have been compressed inside the old hotel. On account of the economy, sponsorships for the event, organized by the affiliated Carroll and Madison County libraries, have been down.

They've haven't landed so many big literary fish this time. That's not to say they're without gems. Laura Parker Castoro of Pine Bluff, writer of what she terms “women's fiction,” gives a presentation and reading in which she impresses for her grasp of nuance and subtlety. This is in the context of what she calls her “gentle” fiction. As she explains, this kind of story can engage without action and adventure.

There's Jory Sherman, who hung out with those who came to be called the beats in San Francisco in the 1950s and early 1960s, writing poetry and then short stories and then 400 published novels, Western and otherwise.

In the end, though, they've been reduced to inviting me, author of one obscure book 16 years ago. I'm to join author-journalist Mara Leveritt, most prominently the writer of “Devil's Knot,” the book that first fueled a groundswell of outrage over the conviction of Damien Echols and the others in that so-called West Memphis Three. We're discussing pursuit of the truth and writing to make a difference. I tell them that it's not from false modesty or graciousness, because I'm neither modest nor gracious, but that I must acknowledge that Mara knows more about these subjects than I.

I write about politics and politics is not about truth. Mara writes about crime and justice, the very essence of which is the pursuit of truth. We can't possibly arrive at a firm, binding truth about the best way to fix health care. All we can do is have an election and a congressional action, after which we'll see how it goes, after which we'll debate some more and have another election and another congressional action.

I may as well tell you what I tell them: You don't make a difference writing a political opinion column. Indeed, political opinion has come to bore me. There's no premium on an opinion; everybody has one. And political opinion has come to be wholly polarizing.

One writer gives a fully predictable opinion and, if you agree, you enjoy an adrenaline rush and say that's a great column. If you don't agree, you call the writer a dismissive name, a fool, a liberal, and retrench in your contrary opinion. Not one shred of difference has been made with anyone.

I've become so weary of the polarizing predictability that I look for ways to be counter-intuitive. One day I'm liable to write that maybe guns in church aren't so bad after all. Maybe they're better in that suit pocket inside the sanctuary than under the seat of the car in the parking lot.

What makes a difference is the very thing that is the core of all influential writing. I refer to the simple story, engaging and powerful, a compelling narrative, richly detailed and well-told, clearly and concisely. Through that, a reader can form his opinion in the way that will sustain, which is by his independent absorption and thinking. Take Lu Hardin.

He came to see me one day. Someone else's Freedom of Information request had flushed him out and now he had to admit that he hadn't told me the truth when I'd asked months before if he'd received a raise. Actually, he got a big bonus.

I wrote a column for the next day simply telling the story. It was, I submit, more devastating in that form than it would have been if I had broken into one of my opinionated rants.

But what really brought Hardin down, and what pounds him still, is the continuing narrative, revealed in agonizing detail week after week, not by an opinion columnist, but by a tenacious reporter in the Conway bureau of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It's the story that can reveal truth. It's the story that can make a difference.

And to close on a lighter note: Our session ends when one guy assures me I indeed make a difference. He says he's been reading my columns for years. He says I keep him regular.

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