Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hemingway, the Prolix Dry Drunk

Moreintelligentlife.com has a story provocatively called "When Novelists Sober Up", luring the curious reader with a hint that laying down the bottle is not necessarily the best thing for the writer's art. We have instead a gutless amalgamation of the usual tropes about bards and scribes cursed with the hooch bug; it's a shuffle through the old cards..It is, in general, a bad thing for those who have it and for those around them, and hinders, erodes, destroys, with time, whatever talent or good graces a person might already have. That we still in large measure glorify booze as a needed ingredient to creative process is evidence of a sad business: we make it okay for certain social types to destroy themselves so they can fulfill our vague idea of what an artist needs to do in society. Considering that we have no consensus as to the role of the artist in our affairs reveals our muddled thinking on alcoholism even more.

An excellent book on the subject is "The Thirsty Muse:Alcohol and the American Writer" by Thomas Dardis. Though there were some writers in this study who remained productive and frequently good during their worst imbibing, they are exceptions, with the general scenario for the alcoholic being tragic and, worse, predictable. The talent that was already theirs to use was soon enough diminished by hoot ch, and careers were ended early.

What was especially irritating in this was author Tom Shone's occasional gaffes in describing a writer's style; he announces that writers of short sentences tend to fair better in sobriety than those more grandiose, opining that the "endless clauses" of Fitzgerald and Hemingway doomed them to unpleasant late careers. Hemingway? And I had thought that Papa, with his short sentences and stingy use of verbs, adjectives and metaphors was the prototypical minimalist, akin to Carver and Elmore Leonard later in the century.

3 comments:

  1. I haven't read the article yet, but, yeah, has this guy read Hemmingway? It's always been my experience that when someone wants to talk about simplifying writing, they'll suggest Hemmingway first.

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  2. Short sentences? no. That's the magic of the Hemingway illusion. Take a look at one of his bravura passages, the first paragraph of chapter 4 of _A Farewell to Arms_, and you'll see that the first sentence is a full five lines long.

    So why do people think Hemingway's sentences are short? Because they're paratactic. He learned that trick from another writer of long sentences, Gertrude Stein.

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  3. Well, no, it wasn't an illusion. Hemingway largely wrote and is noted for , justifiably, for short sentences, which isn't to say that he excluded multiple clauses in his writing, or that he lacked art. The "A Farwell to Arms" section, and the marina description in the middle of "To Have and Have Not" are famous examples of those spare moments when he went long, and are a standard younger writers are held to when they attempt a longish run of the language. The point, though, is that Tom Shone's makes Hemingway sound like he were an adjective happy bloviator , which he wasn't, even at his worst. Sentimental and mawkish, yes, but longwinded, no. The truth of the matter is that Hemingway couldn't adjust his style, change it, he couldn't bring himself to incorporate what he made a reputation doing without, simile and metaphor; he might have had another inspired run had crowded his phrases a bit more.

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