Although Ernest Hemingway's early short stories are more florid, his style became almost journalistic, with writing that draws you into the current of the story before you realize it. He was the master of understatement; hyperbole was not Hem. His best prose is light and airy, almost dreamlike. Hemingway's unique and powerful influence on how we write was significant enough to be honored by a Nobel Prize in literature. How did it happen? What is the formula?
When we're reading Hemingway or any writer, we're lost in that sacred trinity of reader, writer and words, unconscious of the contrail of evolution behind what's on the page. Hemingway was a welcome break from the excesses of Dickens and Henry James. What made the doctor's boy from Oak Park seek escape from the florid norm of the Twenties and write in such a radically nimble style?
He had a poor relationship with his mother, who dressed him as a girl until he was about to start school. Perhaps he rebelled against anything reminding him of her. A quote from For Whom The Bell Tolls sheds light on his maternal conflict:
"And is thy father still active in the Republic?" Pilar asked.
"No. He is dead."
"Can one ask how he died?"
"He shot himself."
'To avoid being tortured?' the woman asked.
"Yes,' Robert Jordan said. "To avoid being tortured."
As a cub reporter Hemingway was trained to be brief and pithy in his prose and stick to a grade school vocabulary. Perhaps his vocabulary was limited; he hadn't gone to college. As an overseas correspondent, he would have had to compile news stories from wire service cables and submit them the same way, under pressure of deadline. Cablegrams were priced by word count. Wordiness was penalized.
His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was written while Hemingway was a foreign correspondent in Paris. On an average workday he'd be shifting between writing fiction and cable-speak. It's natural that the habitual discipline of reportage would creep into his creative writing. Indeed, some of the dialogue of Brett Ashley and Bill Scott in The Sun Also Rises is expressed in incomplete sentences, as in a telegram. It works for these characters because they've been drinking heavily, but it jolted me enough to notice and wonder about it.
Hemingway also read a lot of hard-boiled crime novels. That last line in The Sun Also Rises, "Isn't it pretty to think so," sounds like something from Dashiell Hammett.
Was it journalism, other writers, crime novels or parental rebellion that influenced his writing? It's a mixture, but for a deeper understanding of literary minimalism can be found in film and theater.
The "real" story is taking place in the mind of the reader or audience. Words on the page are prompts, like props in a film or stage production. The mind takes in what it needs and filters the rest. When too much is coming at the senses, overload occurs and the mind excludes some of what is being presented. The personality of the observer is in play, whether the author or actor or director likes it or not.
This "theater concept" occurred to me after reflecting on why the 1939 black and white version of Of Mice and Men remains superior to the '82 and '92 color versions. In the realm of storytelling, color can be superfluous and actually interfere with the flow of the story.
Stage directors know and depend on the fact that audiences only need a suggestion of reality in their sets, just enough to make sense of what is happening. This de-emphasis on setting enables an audience to concentrate on what is being said and done, where lives the core of leaning.
Such is the case with Hemingway. On the page every word competes with every other word for reader comprehension. The more words and the more complicated they are, the harder the reader must work at comprehension. If the author is wordy and over-precise in rendering a scene the all-important meaning can be lost.
Hemingway called it the Iceberg Principle (which is analogous to Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious.) It could also be called the Theater Principle. Theater-goers don't expect or need much in the way of props or sets--just enough to create the illusion of a setting to support the meat of the performance, the action and dialogue. An elaborate theater set can be a distraction, as can ornamental similes and metaphors in literature.
In a famous quote, Ezra Pound impressed upon Hemingway that precision in word selection was paramount--“Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.” In Hemingway's search for just the right words he discovered that extraneous words could be dropped and increase clarity. So he left them out and the through-line delivery of meaning to the reader was more direct.
Before Hemingway met Pound in Paris in the Twenties, Sherwood Anderson was in his professional life. As a cub reporter Hemingway was drawn to Anderson's use of "everyday language." He met Anderson and received advice and encouragement from the older established writer.
Sparseness can sometimes come at a cost, though. In The Sun Also Rises and other stories, I sometimes couldn't tell who was speaking. "Hills Like White Elephants" is an extreme example. Half the time I couldn't tell who was talking and it forced me to strain and backtrack, interrupting the story flow. It's curious that is "Hills..." so frequently anthologized; it's not that representative of his work. Perhaps it was an experiment to see how much of the iceberg he could submerge and still have a story. It came out in '27, after The Sun Also Rises was doing tremendously well and Hem could have gotten away with anything.
Still, whether on stage or page, the principle of economy applies. Only put in just enough, and the reader supplies what she needs, allowing more attention to dialog and action. The art is in knowing where to draw the line.
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