'There is very little literature. Much less than we think.'
Hemingway describes the art at its best.
I’m currently breezing through A.E. Hotchner’s memoir of Hemingway. It’s a kind of “personal biography.” What would we call it now? New Journalism? Something like that.
The book is Hotchner’s own account of his interactions, conversations, travels, and reflections over the 14-year period that he and Hemingway were friends. It’s a fun read. And if you’re fan of Hemingway and his writings, it’s even more so.
I’m enjoying all of it. Hotchner is a wonderful writer and describer of scenes. A favorite passage set in Paris begins:
“One cold December afternoon, the sky a low canopy of gray muslin and the insolent wind slapping the last of the leaves off the trees . . .”
Describing the sky as a “canopy”—ugh! Why haven’t I done that?! Or have I? Can’t remember! So effective here!—and the clouds as “gray muslin”—damn you, Hotchner!—and the wind as “insolent.” I love that word “insolent.” We don’t use it enough. And you know exactly the kind of wind he’s talking about when he uses that word: rude, annoying, unceasing. It’s the kind of wind you curse as you walk through it and can’t wait to get out of. That one word did it. It’s all it took. That and “canopy” to describe the clouds. That bastard.
Often that one precise, well-placed word (it’s usually a noun but can be an adjective or verb), brings you into the scene and taps into your own sense-memory.
I guess what Hotchner does here is what Hemingway does so well in his own writing. Hemingway is very sneaky. On first look, his prose looks simple. But the construction and the choice of nouns and verbs are often so precise, pared down, that the writing (at its best) touches your nervous system like an electrode.
In the Paris section, there’s a quote from Hemingway that I love and which speaks to why his craft is so effective. He is reflecting on the sounds of people’s feet on the wet pavement on a rainy day at the horse track:
“Listen to their heels on the wet pavement. It’s all so beautiful in this misty light. Mr. Degas could have painted it and it would be truer on his canvas than what we now see. That is what the artist must do. On canvas or on the printed page he must capture the thing so truly that its magnification will endure. That is the difference between journalism and literature. There is very little literature. Much less than we think.”
Don’t get me started on the general state of today’s mainstream journalism. For starters, it is largely not journalism. Just corporate p.r. churned out by cowards and careerists. Hemingway, originally a journalist, would well be disgusted by what passes as journalism today.
That aside, I think when he says how Degas would’ve gotten the light “truer” than what we see, it speaks to how inadequate our raw experience of something is. Our senses are too much and too little. We need to winnow our experience down to one or two elements to be able to recall the event or experience. The feeling of something, a sense experience, is what the artist is trying to get at.
The goal of any artist isn’t to try to literally recapture an experience but to choose from among his palette of colors the right combination that evokes our feelings—and if done really well, our dreams and our memories—of that sense experience.
Why does an artist do this? I guess it’s how we form connections—first with the work itself, then with the artist, then with everyone else who experiences that work and communes around it. It’s a shared, mystical community experience that started with cave paintings. But, first off, the artist—the writer, for example—has to do that hard work of selection and discernment, to know his or her craft so intimately and skillfully that the words evoke (magically) both feeling and mood, and there’s unconscious investment of memory and dream-recall with the text. It’s amazing when you think about it. My favorite books and paintings do this, and I’d love to talk more about this sense-memory triggering process that can be therapeutic (or it can be traumatic or nightmarish and makes you reject the artwork triggering it).
Hemingway was a huge influence on me, probably even before I was aware of it. The precision of his prose. Its power through simplicity was both a kind of discipline and a kind of magic. From the beginning of my writing efforts 25 years ago, I’ve tried to find some balance between that ideal and my own voice. There are a lot of other writers and journalists who are with me, guiding me, as I try to write, but he stands taller than almost anyone else.
The thing is, you have to be true to your voice. You can’t imitate and you can’t graft some other tone or style onto your writing because it wouldn’t be true to your story or your intentions. You have to write your own way. And be ready to justify your choices to Hemingway or whoever your standard-bearers are when they ask you (in your mind) why you wrote something the way you did.
I cringe at my own attempts at prose. It’s often too much, not enough, the wrong words, overwrought, misdirecting, uninteresting and confusing. Those are the criticisms that attack me as I read it, boredom and confusion being the two worst offenses.
But I tell myself to chill out and think back to the impulse that made me first assemble the words in the way I did when I first wrote them. What inspired them? What did I mean when I wrote a particular scene the way I did? The meaning is there, I have to find it, and honor it as I revise.
Transcendent was an exercise in sustaining tension and balancing it with some more emotional and personal themes. Did I succeed? I have no goddamn clue. All I know is that it felt of a piece and true to itself as I was writing it, the same as with the earlier books.
Ultimately, the writer has to be happy with something enough to want to share it with others. That’s the point I reached, and that was enough. I can only hope it resonates with readers in a positive way.
Transcendent will be out on June 6. You can show your support for the book by pre-ordering by clicking the link:
Let me know your thoughts on “distillation” and when you know you’ve succeeded in using your craft to connect with your audience. I chalk it up to mechanics and the rest is mysticism.