Thinking About Hemingway

Some people wonder why I keep such an extensive library of books when I could simply go to the library. Of course, we all know that avid readers will sooner or later want to travel a literary path one more time. We listen to a music album many times, and we watch the same movies over and over, so why not re-read a book?
Which brings me to Hemingway. I first began reading his stories as a youngster in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, his more involved works in high school and college. I was a big-time fan – more of the subject matter at the time than on his writing style. And I wasn’t alone. He burst onto the literary scene between the World Wars filled with stories of masculine derring-do, and in a new, bare-bones style of writing that complemented the subject matter. Even today, creative writing professors describe that intense form of writing, using strong verbs and precise nouns, few modifiers and less ornate but deeply evocative syntax as “muscular” writing. Hemingway’s writing style was deceptively complex, as was his subject matter, but he presented both in a vivid way that sell all our teeth on edge – and still does – except for those who feel repelled by what they see as his overwrought masculinity.
And that brings me to one of his early short story collections, In Our Time. I’ve just re-read the book, a collection of stories running the gamut of Hemingway subject matter, from war to fishing, to drinking, to man-woman relationships. Interspersed in this collection are italicized vignettes that complement the stories, but which aren’t arm in arm with them. It’s a very creative concept for a book, one I doubt many publishers would go for today.
But why not? The literary scene is and has been in the doldrums for a long while. People aren’t reading fiction now, except for the most vapid genre stuff. Hemingway came along well into the Joyce/Woolf experimental scene, and he seemed a breath of fresh air. Perhaps the experimentation had reached its logical conclusion, and someone had to mainstream the best it had to offer. Hemingway, as always, answered the call.
So perhaps what we need today is another synthesizer of his ilk to mainstream the best postmodernism has to offer. What might this look like? Probably a return to simple scenes in that muscular prose that so many recognize but relegate to the literary back-burner. And this new prose will probably deal with deeper looks at modern psychology, a la Cormac McCarthy, but without the weepy, hand-wringing histrionics of most modern “literary” fiction.
I’m certainly ready. Cut the effete writing, I say. Back to the strengths and sensibilities of what makes human beings worth writing about.

On Going the Distance

Not that I, as a writer, have delusions, but what makes for a book – fiction, non-fiction, or poetry – last? What is there about a given book that appeals to subsequent generations, making the book seem eternal? There are a number of appropriate answers – or perhaps I should say, a number of aspects to the one, good answer. A couple of them contain a twinge of the cynical, so let me get them out of the way first:
• Some books capture the imagination of academics. These can be the academically accepted canon of literature, but perhaps more often there is something about other books – something social or political, pandering as some do these days, for instance, to a trendy academic theme, most having to do with issues the academy deems relevant. These stay around until said academic types go the way of the dodo bird, or their most loyal students or followers drift away. Examples of these are the Tolkein trilogy, Invisible Man, Catch 22, and the Kurt Vonnegut series. If one plunges deeply enough into the past, some of Steinbeck’s most voluminous works qualify here. Mark Twain, of course, doesn’t because of the hyper-sensitivity of academics to the “way things were” in Huck’s and Tom’s day, and feminism has cast a pall over Hemingway’s most groundbreaking works.
• Simply said, luck. A writer manages to have a decent book out at a time of little competition. Examples here might be those of To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher In The Rye, Ayn Rand’s works, and more recently within non-fiction material, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
Otherwise, two significant, related case-types stand out, and one that should be obvious:
• The works of those who have written extremely well, or have broken new ground in literature. Here I’m thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf. More recently, one could include John Fowles, Wallace Stegner, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth. In poetry, one might consider James Dickey and Allen Ginsberg. In non-fiction, the earliest of Tom Wolf would qualify, as well as select pieces by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
• Those which have been written in times and places of great social and political unrest, trying to make sense of the ongoing mess. Here one must think again of Hemingway and Steinbeck, as well as Stephen Crane and Harriet Beecher Stowe. More recently, consider Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee in this category.
• And the obvious category should be that of those books gaining so much popularity with the public that academics and critics have to grudgingly accept them. Dickens falls into this category, and – to stay British and, this time, contemporary – Ian McEuen.
Who among contemporary writers will last? Russell Banks, Ron Hansen, and perhaps Joyce Carol Oates among Americans. McEuen and John Banville among Brits; possibly John LeCarre, just to twist your toes a bit.
The above rationales taken as a whole should instill in readers of this blog a sense of the fickle finger of fate at work. Hard work, staying power, and talent count, of course. But, just as in becoming a published writer in the first place, long-lasting fame seems beyond the individual will to orchestrate.

The Oxford American

It’s time to pay my respects to one of the South’s most innovative and just darned interesting magazines, The Oxford American. If you like salt on your watermelon, sugar in your iced tea, and quirky Southern literature, then OA is for you. Besides the reading, once a year the mag puts out a music issue, complete with music CD offering a couple dozen songs by some of the South’s best artists, such as Irma Thomas and Townes Van Zandt.
But the main reason I write this is to let you in on its writing. OA is one of the few remaining commercial magazines truly open to all writers of interesting fiction. One feature,“ Writers on Writing,” allows writers to comment on other good writing.
In one old issue my wife was about to throw out, William Caverlee’s article “The Best Southern Short Story Ever?” takes on Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” For my money he could have taken the question mark off the article title: O’Connor managed in this one to be thigh-slappingly humorous, shockingly gothic and Stephen King violent.
In another Writers on Writing article in the same issue, Chris Bachelder’s “That Pecker,” uses the device of a woodpecker to comment subtly on various aspects of writing.
OA has suffered economic droughts from time to time – in typically Southern style, its editors refuse to succumb to offering the dregs of commerciality and pop culture, but it’s still there. Hopefully it will be for a long time.

‘Tis the Season…..

Bob the Knife, an old friend from my Naval Academy days, sent me an e-mail yesterday asking advice on writers’ conferences. Bob is not a neophyte writer, but not extensively published, either. I do go to conferences occasionally, and I hope to answer The Knife’s question here again, a bit more extensively than I did in my reply e-mail.
• One finds a high volume of such conferences being advertised this month in mags such as poets & Writers and Writer’s Chronicle. The reason? Writers have time off from their make-a-living jobs in the summer, as do the class and workshop leaders, who are often college professors off for the summer.
• If you’re a beginning writer, there’s much to learn at such conferences, from classes and workshop moments to critiques from experienced writers. The socials afford networking time, and meeting other writers can prove very rewarding at this stage of a writer’s development.
• If you’re an experienced writer and have a piece of long fiction or non-fiction in your pocket, you’ll likely find editors or agents to accost. In many of these conferences, agents or editors will read portions of manuscripts, schedule a meeting, and give you the good/bad new in person. This gives both parties a chance to size one another up, too, in case mutual business is at hand.
• Too often, however, writers pay their fees and show up not knowing what they intend to get from the conference. It’s best to evaluate where you are as a writer, then research the conferences, assessing your needs versus what they offer. Look for editors or writers you respect, or agents who handle clients with writing similar to yours.
• Then there’s the bad news: almost all conferences are well-meant, meaning they’re not scams. But many have precious little of value to offer. The better conferences, because of the flood of MFA creatures on the streets, and pseudo writers, who like the IDEA of writing but don’t write, have gotten picky about who they let in the door. Many now are screening applicants – I’m sure horror stories abound. So getting your money’s worth from a conference is similar to learning to write: you must make judicious choices regarding your life-of-writing strategy, and expect it to get more difficult as you gain experience and publishing credits.
Anyway, here’s hoping The Knife is able to regurgitate that long novel he’s been writing for years while he’s still young enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

The Novel – Then and Now

Talking about the novel’s history and form may seem stale, but many of you probably don’t realize the novel is a relatively recent phenomenon. Gutenberg’s Bible (i.e. via the printing press) largely ended the oral tradition, storytelling and poetry morphing into stories which entered print wholesale in the early eighteenth century. Another little known aspect of the novel’s early history is that novels were commonly published in serialized form in the time’s equivalent of magazines. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for instance, and Dickens’ early novels. Particularly for Dickens, these serialized stories weren’t yet the novel – they didn’t have the coherent plot, nor the ongoing characterization and sub-plotting of the novel as we know it today. And the English novel languished behind the Russian and French versions in these areas, the English happy with less complex characterizations, although Fielding and Richardson, for instance, put forward complex stories.
Not until Thackeray and the Brontes of the mid-nineteenth century did the English novel come into its own. Dickens followed, of course, then Hardy, James, Conrad, and Forster preceded the experimental long fiction of Joyce and Woolf.
In the U.S. the novel generally followed the English novel’s development, although the subject matter and social import varied, the English compelled to look at the British Empire’s rise, subsequent problems, and demise. The U.S. novel developed on a relatively insular vibe until the post-WWI writers, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner began to emerge. These early years saw American writers dealing with its own social issues, such as slavery and feminism, many with religious overtones, until after WWII.
What should one expect, then, of the modern novel? First, the multiple layers of characterization and plot mentioned above. Second, the U.S.’s own issue as an empire with a reach equal to that of the British, has spawned national and ethnic identity though literature, giving rise to powerful novels in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and South America.
But here the novel – in all cultures – has fragmented into genres: literary, suspense, mystery (thanks to E.A. Poe), romance, and others. Readers know where they fit into this panoply, but for writers it’s more difficult. More on that in a moment. In the twentieth century, the novel has had to contend also with the cinema; consequently the novel mimics movie scenes, camera shots and angles, even to the extent of narrator’s point of view. The jury is out on whether this is a good thing, but it is clearly a sea change for readers and writers.
So how do writers cope with genre? With difficulty, most will admit. Genres have begun to blend and cross over, and in these hard times regarding commerciality, a writer is forced to look at market impact. Ultimately, though, a writer, even one who reads omnivorously from many genres, will settle for a style of plotting, characterization, and voice that fits more comfortably in one or another of the plethora of genres.
What does the future hold for the novel? Good and bad, probably. Many excellent novels are written today that will stand the test of time. But the superficiality of mass culture threatens the novel’s deeper import, as does over-emphasis on commerciality. We may see the novel cede more ground to cinema, although I doubt it.
Technology will surely forge a new revolution in the art form, similar to that now rearing its head in music and art. What’s needed is a little elbow room for writers to experiment and extend the older forms of the novel or invent new literary breakthroughs, similarly to those of Woolf and Joyce. Personally, I favor the first option: evidence Ian McEuen, Russell Banks, Nadine Gordimer, and their like.
And a world in turmoil has always been rich for the novel. Certainly the novel – in some form – is with us for the long haul.