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 a master of understatement; hyperbole was not Hem.
His best prose is light and airy, almost dreamlike. His 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?
Reading is getting lost in that sacred magic trinity of reader, writer and words, a place where readers are unconscious of and often resistant to the author's contrail behind what ended up on the page. Hemingway proved that the reader is a co-equal partner in a story--that the story is not words on a page but a happening in the reader's imagination prompted by those words--that tapping that resource produces a better, more pleasing result for a greater number of readers--that authorial dictatorship constricts the reader, locking out his or her imagination.
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?
For one thing, 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 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.
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 insight into literary minimalism can be found in film and theater.
Francis Ford Coppola said, "Whatever is happening on the screen, the "real" story is taking place in the mind of the audience." Words on the page are prompts for the mind, like props in a stage production. The mind takes in what it needs or can and filters out the rest. When too much is coming at the senses, overload occurs and the mind excludes some of what is being presented. When a writer economizes, the personality of the observer is more in play.
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 need only a suggestion of reality in their sets and props, often just enough for a suggestion of a reality or locale. This de-emphasis on the physical enables an audience to concentrate on what is being said and done, the core thread of meaning.
Such is the case with Hemingway. On the page, every word competes with every other word for comprehension. The more words and the more complicated they are, the harder the reader must work. 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 just as aptly 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, action and dialogue. An elaborate theater set can be a distraction, as can ornamentation 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 I sometimes couldn't tell who was speaking. "Hills Like White Elephants" is an extreme example of Hemingwy's trademark brevity, forcing me to strain and backtrack, interrupting story flow. It's curious that "Hills..." is so frequently anthologized; it's not that representative. 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 he 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 the rest. The art is in knowing where to draw the line.
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