Leonard Pitts, Jr., broke the first rule of writing yesterday.
A Pulitzer Prize winner for opinion writing, Mr. Pitts is a nationally-syndicated newspaper columnist; I read him in the Miami Herald where his column runs every Sunday and Wednesday. He writes extensively about race, politics, and culture. He has won writing awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
[Special Note: This piece was edited December 7, 2009, to remove some of the ambiguity. See Writing — It’s Not for Sissies for more.]
Mr. Pitts devoted his column yesterday to answering an email from a reader named Dunbar. The reader had complained that an earlier column “on Sammy Sosa’s skin cream use is off base and sends a wrong message. The issue is the man’s character — not the color of his skin…”
“I’m intrigued that you ‘think’ you know what point I was trying to make,” Mr. Pitts replied. “The fact that you have to guess, that it wasn’t starkly obvious to you, suggests that what we have here is a gulf between life experiences. It brings to mind a parable to the effect that the rabbit and the bear will never agree on how threatening is the dog.”
The first rule of writing is not Don’t call your reader an idiot. (That’s not a bad rule, though.)
I empathize with Mr. Pitts’ anguish that his white readers did not understand his Sosa column although I find his belief that only a writer with one leg can explain the life of an amputee condescending. The bigger issue is, “The fact that you have to guess …” thus bringing to mind the parable of the rabbit and the bear and the dog.
Sorry, Mr. Pitts, but it does no such thing.
Mr. Dunbar’s comment brings to my mind the concern that if Mr. Pitts’ writing generates perplexity from a broad spectrum of his readers, it may not be his readers’ understanding we should question. It may just be that he didn’t explain it well enough the first time around for those readers to understand what was so obvious to him.
I emailed Mr. Pitts this morning to tell him his “blaming the reader” dog don’t hunt.
He thoughtfully disagreed: “Even that failure on my part would still spring from a gulf of life experiences,” he replied. “As someone for whom this issue is an ever-present reality, it would not immediately occur to me that anything other than a cursory explanation was required.”
WASP that I am, I am perhaps too white to have that perspective. I am not now and have never been black or Hispanic. Nor have I ever been a major league baseball player. Nor a drunk. Nor a woman.
My job as a writer is to get it right.
I work hard to craft characters who might be black, Hispanic, drunk, female baseball players just as my northern neighbor, character-driven novelist Chris Bohjalian , did with the baseball players of Past the Bleachers and the trans-gendered woman of Trans-Sister Radio.
For the record #1, Mr. Pitts does “believe a writer with all four limbs can explain the life of an amputee just fine (I would hope so, since my new novel deals with a man who loses his arm), but the key difference is that the people he is explaining to can’t be reflexively defensive about amputation. They have to be open to, and want to, understand. Where race is concerned, I’m afraid that’s not always the case.”
For the record #2. I read the original column, Has it Made You Happy, Being White, so my critique is simple. Mr. Dunbar didn’t get it. And that is just what I’m talking about.
The first rule of writing is quite simply, Write so well that your readers understand you.