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Blog In Writers Group

Hemingway's pernicious influence

By Steve Hayes
Posted Jul 2, 2012 in
Ernest Hemingway was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Some of his work certainly belongs in any list of the classic works of English Literature. The Old Man and the Sea, for instance, is a truly brilliant novella. The story is told with a deceptive simplicity that takes an ordinary tale of everyday misfortune and transforms it in an allegory of the human condition. This is something only a master of the craft could achieve.
However, that very simplicity of style has cast a baleful shadow on English ever since. People look at Hemingway's work and think, 'I could do that. I can write sentences like that.' And they can. You can. I can. A young child could. Subject, verb, object (maybe) and plenty of 'and's. Who could not write like that.
So a whole industry has grown up around this perceived style. Creative writing teachers and editors tell would be authors to ditch all the adverbs and get rid of as many of the adjectives as possible. They in throw in the old 'show, don't tell' cliche, for good measure. And there we are. Millions writing stories in simple sentences. The bookshops and libraries are full of imitation Hemingway. You will find most of this stuff in genre fiction: the detective, the mystery; the plot driven, formulaic stories.
But these ersatz Hemingways are poor substitutes. They are simple to the point of being simple-minded and most of this stuff is hardly worth reading, even as light entertainment.
See, the thing is, Hemingway did not write like people think he did. Sure, his work is full of short, simple sentences. Sure, his prose style is spare. But more than this, it is disciplined and controlled. With Hemingway, lots of the meaning of the text is implied by what he leaves out, but the competent reader fills in. More than this, Hemingway would not hesitate to use any of the tools in a writer's tool-box, if they suited his purpose. And that is the point: style emerges from the story. The writer's task is to tell the story as well as they are able. If the writer does this, the style will take care of itself. This was something Hemingway well knew.
'"Ay," he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.'
The above quotation is from The Old Man and the Sea. The power of this passage, which in the context evokes a whole series of cultural references, is only effective because of the second, complex sentence. Anyone whose primary concern was with writing in the simple Hemingway style could not have written that second sentence.
So, if you want to write like Hemingway, forget the hype and the spin and, instead, read Hemingway. Better yet, forget all about style and just tell your story as well as you can.

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