Hemingway was not a hack

One thing I hate most about literature classes (and I’ve taken so many of them I have a long list of things I hate), is that the response “I didn’t like the book” is not a valid one. As a Lit student you are expected to slog your way through all sorts of horrible stuff in order to learn how literature as a whole fits together. I am glad I read Beowulf, Paradise Lost, The Fairy Queen….but I did not enjoy the reading. These books weren’t written with me in mind, and whether I liked them or not is not the point.

So a friend of mine claims his daughter hates Hemingway. That the book she had to read for school – The Sun Also Rises – has no plot. And its just about some guy with a broken penis who goes around Europe with some hooker. Hemingway is a horrible author. He sucks.

Her dad might have embellished this story to some degree, but the fact of the matter is she was required to read a “classic” and she balked.

I’m not mad about a teenager hating Hemingway. I’m actually glad she took the time to read the book and hate it, and it’s a perfectly reasonable reaction. The way our education system is these days I’m surprised they are actually still teaching people how to read things other than test questions. Yet. The book in question happens to be one of my go-to books when thinking about writing, how to write, and how to be great. It’s difficult for me to set aside my own love of the book and think about its importance in the greater stream of writing.

Maybe there are two kinds of writers. Those who write a “story” and those who write. Now I sound incredibly arrogant, but the story writers are raking in the dough, and the writers are waiting tables.

To back up my theory, I took out this book:

11-12-13 book1

This tiny guy is a collection of things the man had to say about writing. In letters, in books, in conversation…back when people wrote letters I suppose. Here is what he has to say about plot:

11-12-13 book2


Well. He has nothing to say about it apparently.

Hemingway does have faults. He didn’t understand women and they turn out flat and unlikeable in his prose. He was a drunk. He liked to kill stuff. But he wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Old Man and the Sea, and yes, The Sun Also Rises.

I’ve struggled the past few weeks trying to articulate why this particular author made such an impression on me. I read him, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck all in the same year, probably 1988. They wrote about what was real to them, what was going on in the world, they tore off scabs, threw open bedroom doors, lifted up the skirts of the ladies. I wanted to write just like them all, in their swagger and confidence and minimalist language.

Lady Brett Ashley loved Jake Barnes. But she also loved her independent life, and her freedom, and her matadors. It’s interesting to me that a teenage girl would find Lady Brett offensive. I find her a bit tragic, very fun, and interesting. Never in a million years would I call her a hooker. And if I could have some form of income, I would rather be her than any of these insipid, needy, annoying girls in modern literature. At least she did what she wanted to do, instead of what everyone told her to do.

In thinking over Hemingway, teenage girls and their opinions of literature, my friends, my life, and what it really means to be a successful writer, I became discouraged. I am discouraged.

Twilight. The Hunger Games. Harry Potter. Fifty Shades of Grey. The Notebook.

These are the successful books of our day, and they are so badly written it makes me wonder if our new electronic age has fried the brains of every editor in every publishing house in the world.

And then I pick up Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch – all 700 some-odd pages of it – and my faith is restored. Good writing does matter. It’s not always about quick plots, sparkly vampires, cliches and bad syntax. Someone out there does still care about crafting fiction that is beautiful, and for that I am grateful.





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