Not Freaking Hemingway

Contemporary American writers are said to emulate Hemingway’s prose more than any other classic author. This often brings disastrous results in my opinion, not only because they’re not freaking Hemingway, but the spare, run-on sentences have weaknesses that are usually too hard to overcome.

I had issues with Hemingway almost immediately in high school, when I mainly read a pile of his short stories. I could hardly resist the temptation to skate over the flatness of the sentences, and before I knew it a paragraph had gone by in describing what was probably a breathtaking view of the African savannah if only I’d taken the time to picture it. But there rarely seemed to be anything deliberate about the way Hemingway wrote; I hardly felt that anything was crafted. Granted, you read writers whose sentences feel overly crafted, which becomes a distraction from what they’re saying, but the thing Hemingway’s sentences instilled was neglect.

Reading Hemingway now, I think much of my attitude’s changed because I trust that there’s more to what he’s telling me (Iceberg effect and whatnot), but that old temptation to toboggan down the page is still there. It’s too strange to read about the hero being shot at and yet feel no tension whatsoever:

I ducked down, pushed between two men, and ran for the river, my head down. I tripped at the edge and went in with a splash. The water was very cold and I stayed under as long as I could. I could feel the current swirl me and I stayed under until I thought I could never come up. The minute I came up I took a breath and went down again. It was easy to stay under with so much clothing and my boots. When I came up the second time I saw a piece of timber ahead of me and reached it and held on with one hand. I kept my head behind it and did not want to even look over it. I did not want to see the bank. There were shots when I ran and shots when I came up the first time. I heard them when I was almost above the water. There were no shots now. The piece of timber swung in the current and I held it with one hand…. (from A Farewell to Arms)

The detachment readers often feel certainly must have contributed to the author’s oft-parodied image of machismo—these things happen, and they apparently ain’t no thang.

Where I think many writers wisely emulate Hemingway is in dialogue. He doesn’t overdirect it with descriptions and signifiers of who’s talking, and the clipped sentences are a better imitator of the way people actually talk in conversation. Then there’s the fact that his characters don’t often speak directly to the issue, nor do they always speak directly to each other.

The romantic dialogue, though, is another animal. I think it depends on who you are. If you’re like me, you feel ashamed to say it’s realistic, but you must, and that realism is acceptable. (I find myself using the same argument to defend the insipid exchanges between Hemingway’s lovers that a friend of mine, and admitted Star Wars fanboy, once used to defend Anakin and Padme’s brain-dead cooing in the latter trilogy. But among other distinctions I might draw, George Lucas is not freaking Hemingway.)

Or you can take the position of, “I don’t care if people actually talk like that—I don’t want it in my fiction.” Terry Mort, in his book the Hemingway Patrols (which is a terrific read worth telling you more about later) acknowledges that Hemingway captures the senseless speak of enamorados, but it’s a weakness in his writing: “There is a difference between the foolish, albeit seductive, things lovers say to each other on the one hand, and literary merit, on the other.”

Might this be an area of fiction writing where authenticity becomes a detriment?


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