The Hemingway Experience

Hemingway

There are some writers that are revered among literary circles the world over. They have written classics that have changed the way readers view the written word, provoked the thoughts of the masses, and become beloved stories in personal libraries everywhere. As an English major, I have read many, many celebrated authors. Some, I quite enjoyed; others, not so much. The thing about famous works or writers is that they are often overrated. I’m looking at you, Shakespeare.

My good friend Gidget has always loved Ernest Hemingway. She’s a particular fan of him, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker and has been recommending their novels and short stories for years. I read The Great Gatsby in high school and wasn’t too excited about it. To me, the characters of the story were just rich, disillusioned people who partied too much and created their own drama because they didn’t know how to live without it. So, when Gidget lumped Hemingway with Fitzgerald, I wasn’t too eager to start reading.  It didn’t help that other friends found his books a complete waste of time and couldn’t get through them.  It seems to me that you either love Hemingway or you hate him, there is no middle.

However, with my third decade approaching, I finally decided that it was time to give ol’ Ernest a try. I read several descriptions of his well-known tales and finally settled on one that didn’t seem overly obsessed with war or conflict: The Sun Also Rises.

When reading Hemingway, one must drink as Hemingway would drink.

When reading Hemingway, one must drink as Hemingway would drink.

I dove right into the story about a man who accompanies a group to Spain for fishing, partying, and bull fighting, while fighting his own demons and the demons of others. And did I mention drinking and drinking and drinking? Yeah, wine was pretty much a supporting character and Hemingway knew exactly how to describe the state of inebriation.

Reading this book, I was brought back to the feelings I had reading The Great Gatsby. Not in the sense that I didn’t like it, but with the similarities in the writing styles and subjects, I felt like I was back in my AP English class and reading one of the books on Mr. Merrill’s syllabus. I’ve never experienced that kind of feeling flashback from a book before. It was kind of remarkable.

While the book was not a challenging read or a boring story, I found that there was no real plot. It was simply a snapshot of the characters’ lives and the trouble they could get themselves into. The writing flowed well and I didn’t find myself dreading each page. While I’m not sure that Hemingway is as phenomenal a writer as his fans make him out to be, I could see the value in his work and I’m glad to have read it.

Now it might be time to try Dorothy Parker.

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3 thoughts on “The Hemingway Experience

  1. Trajan Paul Miller says:

    The thing about commonly acclaimed writers is that many people don’t try to actually determine how much they personally enjoy the book because they feel an obligation to praise it. One of my least favorite sayings when people talk about books or other art is that it will never beat “the classics”.

    • Jessica | Defining Wonderland says:

      Trajan, you are wise beyond your years. My liking or not liking an author/book/genre has been entirely dependent on whether or not I personally enjoyed the book. That’s one of the main reasons I think Shakespeare is so overrated. Sure, “A Comedy of Errors” is hilarious, but “Romeo and Juliet” is one of the most depressing “love stories” of all time and I can’t understand why people think it’s so fabulous. Then again, I’ve never been fond of tragedies as a whole so that might be why I’m not a fan of the Bard.

  2. Lobh says:

    I must say that Hemingway’s books have not aged well, to say the least. They are filled with disappointing endings, pointless death scenes and dialogue, and various other remarkably amateurish things that writers often advise other writers to never, ever do. I honestly have to wonder if an editor ever even saw them. I know that it might seem like sacrilege to criticize the great Writing God Hemingway as being rather amateurish, but I suspect his reputation as a “Writing God” was formed in another time, under another set of values, which have long since gone away. I have seen many books far better-written than Hemingway’s from a dramatic point of view, and even just in terms of good writing.

    My reaction to Hemingway is very like that of Bradley Cooper, in the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.” Cooper reads to the end of Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell To Arms, and freaks out. The reason? (Spoilers!) The wife of the main character in A Farewell To Arms just DIES for no apparent reason, leaving her man bereft and alone, and very very sad – and after an entire book of the man attempting to find his woman, overcoming enormous obstacles, until (seemingly) finally achieving victory and happiness! Pointless, cliched, and amateurish.

    I have seen writers such as Stephen King – together with so many different writing instructors – advise other writers to never, ever have the main character fail entirely to achieve his/her goals by the end of a long novel. Readers do not stick with a main character through a 200 or 300 page book (or longer), just to see him/her struggle, struggle, struggle, and then suddenly fail to triumph at the end. It’s the equivalent of seeing a hero struggle brilliantly against the bad guys for a long, involved epic, only to have the hero fail completely at the very last moment, and the bad guys win. Yech. What an ugly ending. Whatever Hemingway’s ultimate point in writing such an ending, dramatically, it doesn’t work. Readers tend to feel cheated by having the main character fail completely; they feel frustrated and let down, as does Cooper in the movie – he throws the book out a window – and most of Hemingway’s books seem to have similarly amateurish and unsatisfying endings in them.

    In Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (more spoilers!) the main character, Jordan, fails to escape from an ambush scene during World War Two, and, wounded, spends the last pages of the book gasping out his final breaths, waiting for the enemy to arrive and kill him. No point, no victory, no triumph – just pointless death. And after a whole book of difficult, heroic struggle, too. This is fantastically unsatisfying, and actually made me quite angry as a reader at Hemingway for wasting my time and for cheating me. Having a main character die at the end of a long novel is another huge literary no-no, and it also tends to make readers feel cheated and frustrated. Unless the death is done very, very well, as is Dumbledore’s death in Harry Potter, writers should not kill main characters at a novel’s end – and Jordan’s death is not anywhere NEAR as satisfying and well-done as Dumbledore’s.

    And in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the main character, Jake, spends a great deal of the book pursuing a girl named Brett, who in the end just decides arbitrarily to have a relationship with Mike, another rival character – and Jake and Brett spend the final pages of the book in a taxi, discussing “what might have been.” Another disgusting, pointless ending, where the difficulties are not overcome, and it all just ends because it ends. This no doubt prompted one reviewer at the time to say of the book that it “begins nowhere and ends in nothing.” I must say I heartily agree.

    Why did Hemingway frequently write endings that other writers tend to describe as amateurish and cliched? My suspicion is that he was trying to be all “literary” and “serious.” It’s almost as though he’s saying, “Look at how most of my main characters fail in the end! I must indeed be a very Serious Writer, who takes Literature VERY Seriously, and who is trying to make a very Profound STATEMENT. Life and Death, wow! Meaning and meaninglessness, ooh!”

    I personally think it’s just plain bad writing. But hey.

    Hemingway’s books also tend to be remarkably boring and dull, no doubt arising from his amateurish grasp of drama, as demonstrated by his hackneyed bad endings. He does little to satisfy the reader in most of his books, in their middles OR at their ends, preferring to remain unspokenly Profound, and (as I said earlier) it doesn’t work. Writers can be as profound as they want, but if they don’t have a dramatically interesting story to tell, it really doesn’t matter. As Stephen King says, most readers just want a good story, something to get lost in – and I think most people today find it very, very difficult to get lost in Hemingway’s writing. I don’t see any major movies being made of his books today, as there are (for example) for J.R.R. Tolkien – whom I consider to be a vastly superior writer to Hemingway. The reason seems to be that Hemingway’s books are, for the most part, not very interesting or dramatic, and are often awkwardly written and amateurish in their endings. At least Frodo Baggins destroys the Ring in The Lord Of The Rings; most of Hemingway’s characters just seem to die or fail at life (or both). I really don’t see blockbuster material here, or even very good writing.

    As for Hemingway’s “short” sentences, I have to say that most of them are not really all that short. H. G. Wells, for example, in his masterpiece “The Time Machine,” uses much, much shorter sentences than Hemingway tends to – and “The Time Machine” was published in 1895, far earlier than Hemingway, and is a much more interesting and well-written read than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

    Sometime a writer’s work just ages badly – and I think it’s time for a major re-evaluation of Hemingway’s books in general. The best-selling author during Hemingway’s time was not Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Salinger – it was Edgar Rice Burroughs, the inventor of Tarzan, which really says something, I think – Hemingway never created any characters as deep, memorable or unique as Tarzan; every school-child has heard of Tarzan. And reading Burrough’s actual books, it is very clear that Tarzan himself is an absolutely remarkable character; he doesn’t just stay in the jungle like in the movies; he becomes an English Lord, and a soldier, and distinguished himself by fighting in World War Two. Way better than Hemingway’s war stories. Even Hemingway’s CHARACTERS aren’t all that terribly great or compelling, and I think it’s about time he shouldered some criticism for that too.

    In summary, I find Hemingway to be a rank amateur writer, about whom I cannot understand why various “literary” people frequently make so much fuss – maybe they just like dull, uninteresting stories with cliched endings. I think much of his reputation as a “Writing God” is thoroughly undeserved, and should in fact be revoked. He doesn’t challenge me intellectually or dramatically; his badly-written stories mostly just frustrate me and annoy me, as they did Bradley Cooper – and as I think they do most people with any real experience with more expertly-written stories. Now that I’ve actually READ most of Hemingway’s books – most recently The Old Man And The Sea – I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why is Hemingway so famous? I think it’s just an accident, really. I think he just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and for no other reason. Editors frequently say that there are absolutely no rules in the publishing business, about why one writer becomes famous, and another does not. If it happens, then it happens. I think Hemingway is just an overall bad writer who got very, very lucky – and I think he has been unfairly held up for years before the rest of us as what a writer SHOULD be, despite his rather boring stories, unmemorable characters, and amateurish endings.

    In the words of Bradley Cooper, “No, no, I’m not going to apologize to you; ERNEST HEMINGWAY needs to apologize, because THAT’S who’s at fault here. That’s who’s to blame.”

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