nolan hemingway blog title

July 23, 2022

I had to read Ernest Hemingway this week which I haven’t done since high school. “Had to” may be a bit strong. I was encouraged to read Hills like White Elephants and A Clean Well-Lighted Place. Apparently Willima Faulkner thought White Elephants is the most brilliant short story ever told. He would. He was a guy. And probably the sort of guy who, when he made such bold statements, expected everyone to accept it as fact. Whatever. I was not impressed.

Which begs the question, why. Why do some people think it’s brilliant and my reaction is meh? The virtues of the stories, as I understand them, are three-fold: sub-text, sparse prose is able to carry the story and effectively telling an entire story through dialog. (Comment if I’ve missed anything)

So, okay, Hemingway is good at sub-text. Good in that he can write words that say nothing and yet you understand they’re really saying something. There’s a difference between saying nothing but really it’s something and saying something but it means something entirely different. I tend to prefer the second type of sub-text but it’s hard to write. Narrators can pull it off (see the driving scene with Gansey and Blue in either The Dream Thieves or Blue Lily, Lily Blue for an example). It’s harder to pull off in dialog because all the reader has is the words the characters are saying so you really need the context of the scene and the relationship to imbue them with double meaning. It works well in film and tv because the actors’ performances provide the alternative meaning fairly easily.

The nothing sub-text that Hemingway writes, maybe it’s hard, I’m not sure. I haven’t tried to pull it off so we’ll give him that.

Telling a story through dialog I don’t find that impressive. Maybe it’s a result of living in an era or tv and film. Because screenwriters pull off stories of pretty much only dialog all the time. They’re not winning Pulitzer or Nobel prizes for it but some of them are incredibly good. Sure screenwriters have actors and directors and crews of hundreds to bring their work to life before the audience engages with it. But if you don’t have a good script, you don’t have a good story for any of those other artists to work with. And Hemingway reads like a script.

I have two thoughts on his ability to carry a story with sparse prose. The first is that I don’t understand why that’s a virtue. My early drafts all have very sparse prose and description but the story is there. And every single one of my editors will read it and say it’s a good start, now flesh it out. Give it depth and richness and more. It’s probably hubris to say and I’m obviously not winning any Pulitzers but writing lean doesn’t seem that hard and therefore not that impressive.

Secondly, I don’t think writing sparse prose is a virtue. Because there’s no life in in it. There’s no beating heart or cascading emotion bringing the characters to life. There’s characters thinking and clearly feeling and sometimes doing something but mostly talking about nothing when they mean something. But it’s all intellectual recognition of what’s going on in the story without experiencing or feeling anything.

Reading Hemingway is like watching a Christopher Nolan movie. It may be brilliant but it’s a cold, lifeless brilliance.

Inception is a good example. This terribly tragic thing has happened between Leonardo DiCaprio and his wife. We recognize the tragedy and the effect it’s having on his character. But we don’t feel any of it. Tenant is even more lifeless–this interesting concept set in a stark and soulless world. Robert Pattinson keeps trying to give it breath–a smile, a joke, a bit of camaraderie at the end that shows he’s a human being and there’s life and a bigger story just beyond the audience’s grasp. But everything else is so stoic you could slice potatoes with it. (Because it’s cold and sharp and potatoes are boring.) Nolan pulls it off because his ideas are kind of fascinating and you want to see how they play out; because the force of intellectual engagement is strong enough to grip the audience.

But then we like Nolan’s ideas. Or I like his ideas. Hemingway, not so much. In White Elephants it’s clear that the characters are wrestling with something significant to them. The girl in particular is battling him and herself. But the sparse prose means the audiences doesn’t feel any turmoil alongside her. There isn’t time to feel frustrated or wrestle with the oppression the man puts on her. (And how belittling is it to call her “the girl” and call him “the man” unless Hemingway is actually suggesting a difference in their ages which then makes the man come across rather terribly.) The difference between Inception and White Elephants is I like the idea of dreams and ideas and I don’t care about what the White Elephants are going through. I don’t care about the characters enough to care what they’re going through, I should say.

Maybe that is a factor of living in this storytelling age as well. TV and films have immersed in the sensation and emotion of stories in a way that we look for in our literature. I don’t just want to read about characters, I want to know them. I want to feel sensations as I read. I want to experience the story not just observe it. Hemingway wrote in a different time when perhaps audiences didn’t expect to feel the story and so telling the story was sufficient, perhaps even brilliant.

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