All Literature Is Local
Novelists ought to keep "a private address," in Eudora Welty's famous construction, but one critic believes too many writers are ignoring the advice.
The source: “Keeping a Private Address” by Gregory Wolfe, in Image, Fall 2006.
In a famous essay titled “Must the Novelist Crusade?” Eudora Welty wrote that “fiction has, and must keep, a private address.” Life is lived in a private place, she said, and meaning exists only in the mind and in the heart.
Gregory Wolfe, the publisher and editor of Image magazine, decries the growing tendency among writers to ignore Welty’s advice and make ideological commitments the defining characteristic of their creative work. Popular novelist Barbara Kingsolver has established the Bellwether Prize for the Literature of Social Change. Author Anne Lamott sprinkled her latest book, Plan B, with “snarly asides” against President George W. Bush, Wolfe says.
Better are the characters drawn by authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Wendell Berry. McCarthy’s plots explore the intellectually harrowing conflict between antithetical good things. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham in his Border Trilogy are virtuous American heroes who cross the border to another culture to bring about justice, but bring ruin on themselves and those they love. Such stories can elicit more profound reflection on American intervention around the world than an entire library of politicized books, Wolfe writes. Kentucky author Wendell Berry’s characters build strong, some would say extreme, cases for environmental causes and against big business. But their stories are grounded in love, marriage, family, and work. What gives Berry’s writing gravitas is that it emerges out of geography, history, and community, without feeling narrow and ideological, Wolfe says.
To say that art needs a private address is not to dodge a moral imperative to speak out on matters of social importance. “It is to remind us that both art and life begin in the immediacy and concreteness of the local,” Wolfe writes.