The main themes of Hemingway’s fiction like big-game hunting, big-fish chasing, and big-time bullfighting seem to have gone out of vogue, just like hourglass egg timers, crank-handle starters, and floppy disks. Similarly, the feverish excitement that used to accompany the publication of his works has become the patina-stained thing of the past—at least since the advent of the National Geographic Channel. While at the dawn of the 20th century the stories teeming with both exotic animals and hunters roaming the sun-scorched exotic countries might have been quite enthralling, now everyone can simply turn on the TV or surf the internet to admire the very same mesmerizing landscapes and extraordinary species he labored to paint with the words of his pared-down prose.
Your assessment of his works will inevitably depend on whether you feel drawn into the simplistic world of Hemingway’s writing, into that binary realm in which one can either be brave or cowardly, can either be itching to kill everything with fur on its back or yearning to hug it tight, with no patches of grayness between.
“The main themes of Hemingway’s fiction like big-game hunting, big-fish chasing, and big-time bullfighting seem to have gone out of vogue.”
As an author, he had no patience with moral ambiguity, with forays into the uncharted ethical regions, with venturing into the areas of our lives that should be the most alluring and rewarding for a novelist, any novelist, to explore: that abysmal no man’s land where decent people behave as villains, and where villains may exhibit a flash of goodness every now and then when caught off-guard by the vicissitudes of life and unforeseen circumstances.
He was also not interested in creating psychological complexity or nuanced plots, and thus even in his most daring novel, The Garden of Eden, the book’s main theme of the exploration of sexual relationships is reduced to a mere dress-up game.
As for his characters, even if they commit a despicable offense, or if they stain and tarnish their reputations with acts of cowardice, they have to either redeem themselves right away or perish equally fast, instead of living with the insufferable burden of their past misdeeds, which, from the narrational point of view, would have constituted an incomparably more fascinating read.
However, even if the appeal of his novels and stories to modern-day readers may have diminished and waned with time, there is a part of his literary legacy that seems to be not only lasting, but also prevailing these days, namely, his enduring influence on modern prose writing.
Presently, it verges on impossibility to leaf through a typical handbook for aspiring authors, or to browse a website brimming with advice for would-be novelists, and not to be assailed by a chapter devoted entirely to him or by nuggets of wisdom enshrined in double or even triple borders reading: “Keep your prose clean and lean. Cut off the fat. Strike out all the adverbs and adjectives. Write like Hemingway,” or some other nonsense very much like it.
“The writing mentors propagate such inanities instead of bringing out the best qualities in their pupils and readers.”
It is absurd, and it should strike every thinking person as hopelessly absurd if only for one simple reason: Would succumbing to this advice not make all of us sound exactly the same? Would it not make us purge our writing of everything that is ours, personally and intimately ours? Yes, certainly it would. And it has done exactly that.
The writing mentors who propagate such inanities, instead of bringing out the best qualities in their pupils and readers, instead of teaching them how to forge their personal qualities and experiences into their own and unique voices, force such imaginary rules and restrictions down their throats—if not their pens and word processors—thus inflicting on them the greatest harm that can possibly be brought upon a writer: they rob them of freshness and originality.
Suddenly, such once-promising people of letters start watching not to do this, not to do that, as if they were children doing their best to stay within the lines while working with crayons on a coloring book, whereas thinking out of the box and crossing the lines are craved for, and appreciated by, critics and readers alike.
Nonetheless, this deleterious fallacy has proven to be oddly resilient and enjoys a remarkably long shelf life, if not page life, for it has already managed to endure the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the two wars in Iraq, and countless other cataclysms both of human making and not. It has crept into virtually every creative-writing course and has ever since been polluting the minds of boundless masses of struggling authors going to great lengths to cleanse their writing of every embellishment, of every metaphor, of anything that isn’t utterly indispensable to make them intelligible.
“This deleterious fallacy has crept into virtually every creative-writing course and has ever since been polluting the minds of boundless masses of struggling authors.”
To deal with this stubborn misconception it suffices to ask one question: Has any novelist gained lasting success and accolades by churning out copies of some other writer’s style or ideas?
I deliberately used the word “lasting”, for the literary world has already seen more than its fair share of short-lived mistakes and lapses of judgment on the part of critics and readers that, fortunately for us, have been corrected in time (like the belated fading of Jonathan Franzen’s fame).
We can push the argument further: Has anyone been awarded any kind of prize for repeating and regurgitating what has been discovered and invented earlier? Would the distant lands or entire continents have been named after those who had landed on their shores as the second or even third ones? I doubt it. There is no award for “outstanding achievement in the art of mimicry.”
As an aspiring writer, you have to ask yourself a question that may turn out to be vital to your career: Would you like to use your works as a means of expressing your own—and truly your own—personality as well as temperament, or rather would you prefer to become yet another poor copy—for copies are nearly always poor—of someone else?
“There is no award for ‘outstanding achievement in the art of mimicry.’”
Why do people still read Dickens? Why do they read Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Rushdie, or Faulkner? They do it because, apart from serving us great stories, those authors don’t sound alike, because each one of them has a distinctive and more or less inimitable voice that strikes the right literary cord with this or that part of the book-reading population—it never appeals to everyone, but that is the charm of it.
Imagine now that they all wrote and sounded alike, would you be as interested in reading them as you’re now? To use an obvious comparison: Would you be willing to taste different cuisines of the world if they all tasted the same, used exactly the same ingredients, spices, and recipes?
As for novelists, would you be inclined to track their similarities or influences if they all wrote their books in the identical fashion? Because being influenced by your illustrious predecessor is an utterly different matter than forcing yourself to copy another person’s style at the expense of robbing yourself of your own voice.
And it is the most dangerous—and rather obvious—aspect of presenting Hemingway as the one and only role model to new authors. Suddenly, everyone starts sounding the same, everything becomes a dog-eared copy of a copy, or, even worse, everything turns into the mediocre and crude replica of his style. Because of that practice, modern literature is bound to become dangerously akin to a greasy spoon (yes, that food-related simile again) in which all the dishes are bathed and fried in the same oil, making their flavors permeate and overlap one another to the point of causing indigestion. Writing, by its definition, is—or should be—a creative process, so create and don’t replicate the creations of others.
“Because of that practice, modern literature is bound to become dangerously akin to a greasy spoon in which all the dishes are bathed and fried in the same oil.”
Additionally, if you are a writer aspiring to the spot in the highest echelons of the literary world, choosing Hemingway as your bookish hero may prove to be a miscalculated move, like wearing a paper hat during a hailstorm. Put away all the writing handbooks and minimize the how-to websites you have been plodding through and read the critical evaluation of his artistic output, and you will quickly discover that the furor caused by his plain, sparse prose is also long gone, like the eating noises elicited by yesterday’s dinner.
It seems that similar sets of laws apply to writing and to buildings: a modernist church may look adorably simple, clean, and easy to dust, but the Sistine Chapel will always beat it when it comes to the impression it makes on the crowds of visitors and worshippers filing through its imposing doors. I, by no means, condone the mindlessly baroque style—that opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum—but it is always better to produce well-crafted and distinctive prose than not. Look at Raymond Chandler and John Updike who, even at their absolute worst, were still worth reading if only for the pleasure of savoring their exquisite prose. But when Hemingway failed, he failed miserably, for there was nothing to cushion the fall, to save him from a fiasco, like in the case of his embarrassing Across the River and into the Trees.
At this point, I would like to state a fact that should be rather obvious by now: Hemingway’s novels are not, in any way, my cup of literary tea, coffee, or something stiffer. I’ve read all of them (some of them twice); I have read most of his short stories and non-fiction books, but if his style is an acquired taste, I must have lacked aesthetic funds to acquire it.
His prose, in terms of its complexity, reminds me of the writing covering the garish and glossy flyers I keep finding crammed into my mailbox; his stories, especially the Nick Adams ones, are only a notch above pulp fiction, or even one below it; his dialogues smack of repartees lifted from bad crime movies of his era (and they served as a basis for a few new ones); and, above all, his characters seem as if taken straight out of a kid’s silly fantasies.
“But when Hemingway failed, he failed miserably, for there was nothing to cushion the fall, to save him from a fiasco.”
I have always found his writing unbearably dry, insipid, and dreadfully lifeless—Cormac McCarthy does an unquestionably better job as a sparse-prose storyteller (in his later works) and has improved on Hemingway’s style significantly by enriching it with his own touch of a prose poet.
As I see it, Papa Hemingway’s writing has, ironically, gained some life only after his passing. To some, it may sound like a veritable blasphemy, but I have enjoyed his posthumous works far more than anything he published during his lifetime. I have enjoyed them to the extent that I started wondering whether he wasn’t writing “normal” books only to, later on, subject them to the merciless slaughter of innocent adverbs and adjectives until the bare bones started to show.
Take his non-fiction account of the Paris days of American expatriates: A Moveable Feast. It is funny, it is full of compassion and emotion, it is deeply moving, and it feels like a book penned by an actual human being with hot blood circulating within his veins and not by a word processor running amok, with an unblinking red light staring at us balefully in the vein of HAL 9000.
“I started wondering whether he wasn’t writing “normal” books only to, later on, subject them to the merciless slaughter of innocent adverbs and adjectives.”
Unfortunately, his departure from both the earthly and the literary stages hasn’t put an end to this idea of imitating him. It was only the beginning that, at one point, has turned into a predominant trend that, as of now, is virtually impossible to eradicate, like the overuse of the internet slang in real life.
Naturally, Hemingway is hardly the one to blame for this turn of literary events; it was his style, it was his own invention. But the fact that it is now, long after his death, being relentlessly copied is nothing short of disturbing.
Thus, there still sprout whole legions of authors who assume that by adopting a childishly simple syntax their sentences will acquire this distinct and celebrated Hemingwayan flavor, which, as a result, will instantly catapult them to a nice, cozy, and twinkling spot on the novelistic firmament.
But even though it may seem to be alluringly easy to imitate, his deceptively plain and unadorned style has more to it than appears at first reading; there are those subtle cadences and nuances buried in his sentences that elude the throngs of his copycats. It is also not about using as few words as possible, as many claim, and thus it shouldn’t be treated as a justification for one’s verbal paucity.
“But even though it may seem to be alluringly easy to imitate, his deceptively plain and unadorned style has more to it than appears at first reading.”
On the other hand, if you truly believe that Hemingway’s succinct style is the right path for you, if you are enamored of the economy of language, then use it, by all means use it, relish the elimination of all that isn’t necessary to convey your message, pursue the absolute precision of expression, but do it right, put your own spin on it, and don’t ever feel pressured into doing it.
Thus, perhaps, the world needs a strife with Hemingway, not a full-fledged war but an intimate little battle, for it seems to be high time to break the spell and liberate the English-language fiction from his pernicious influence, whose singular longevity, to be fair, isn’t and has never been his own fault. It seems to be the right moment to look deep into yourself and fight your inner Hemingway, and to write the way you want to write, while following your own voice, not his.