Friday, July 27, 2007

Hemingway Myths

...[Y]ou'll probably sound like second-class Hemingway... To me, it's only worse than sounding like first-class Hemingway. But, then, it takes all sorts.
aaaaaaaaa--Ursula K. LeGuin

I’ve been working up to a post or two or three on the topic of dialogue tags, and naturally the subject of Ernest Hemingway crept into my mind. I have mixed feelings about Hemingway; when he is good he is damn near perfect, but when he is not as good, he sounds like a parody of himself. One big risk of being a stylistic innovator, I suppose. (And I’m not crazy about some of his philosophy of life, either.)

But there’s no doubt that he opened up a whole new world of writing style. Certainly Chandler and Hammett wouldn’t have been possible without him; but it’s easy to forget that his stripped-down style also made possible talents as diverse as Carver and Vonnegut. Only a few years before Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald could still add a dialogue tag like “…argued Lucille skeptically…” in The Great Gatsby, without anyone wincing. (I love Gatsby and reread it often, but I have to take a deep breath when I come to his dialogue tags.)

The odd thing is that descriptions of Hemingway’s style are at odds with—or at least huge oversimplifications of—how he actually wrote.

#1. Hemingway Abhorred Adjectives and Adverbs

Adverbs are much demonized (and rightly so in certain cases), though most of us can’t reliably recognize whole classes of adverbs. (More on this in another post.) Hemingway eliminated many of the –ly type adverbs attached to obvious verbs (though by no means all of them). On the other hand, he was often adjective-drunk in his writing. There are two reasons Hemingway seems so adjective-sparse. First, he tended to use common, unobtrusive adjectives; and, second, he tended to place both his adjectives and adverbs in unusual positions in the sentence. Consider the following, which is not what Hemingway wrote in the opening pages of A Farewell to Arms:

The sun showed dry, white pebbles and boulders in the bed of the river. The clear water moved swiftly, and turned to blue water in the channels.

Dry, white pebbles. Clear water. Moved swiftly. Blue water. Adjectives married to (and just preceding) their nouns, and the –ly adverb following on the heels of the verb. All those adjectives and adverbs are in the sentence Hemingway wrote, but the actual sentence runs like this:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

The adjectives and nouns may still be married, but they are living separately, and each one of them is more alive than when placed before us in the thudding adjective-noun pattern that is the first resort of most writers. (There’s a weakness in his approach, though. Hemingway’s restructurings often require an excess of verbs of existence—"were" and "was" in the sentence above—and these are inherently a little flabby. But the vigor of the sentence could make up for any number of “is” verbs.)

For those who still think Hemingway avoided adverbs and adjectives, check out this sentence from The Sun Also Rises:

We went in through the heavy leather door that moved very lightly.

Door gets two adjectives and moved gets two adverbs. And “heavy leather door” is just your standard thud-thud-thud construction. But just take a look at how our boy Ernie positions the modifiers in the following short passages from the same novel:

It got dark and we could feel the country hot and sandy and dark outside the window…

They were beautifully colored and firm, and hard from the cold water…I took the trout ashore and washed them in the cold, smoothly heavy water above the dam…

Whatever people want to say about Hemingway, they really ought to stop saying he stripped his prose of adjectives. (For fun, try and recast those sentences in more conventional rhythms. Good luck.)

#2. Hemingway Wrote in Short, Direct Sentences

I suppose I could have killed two or three or four birds with one stone by using this sentence to deal with Hemingway’s use of adjectives, adverbs, and sentence length and sentence directness. From the short story The Capital of the World, we have:

“And a good one,” said the picador and walked out of the dining room, gray-jacketed, trim-waisted, bow-legged, in tight breeches over high-heeled cattlemen’s boots that clicked on the floor as he swaggered quite steadily, smiling to himself.

Tell me that’s devoid of adjectives and adverbs. Tell me that’s short and direct. The sentence is heavily ornamented and as Byzantine in its own way as anything Henry James perpetrated. Case closed.

#3. Hemingway Seldom Used Dialogue Tags, and When He Did, He Used “Said” Exclusively

This is only true in the context of the times in which he wrote. Certainly Hemingway was very sparing with adverb-laden tags...most of the time. And often he wrote long passages of dialogue without attribution after the opening volleys—but only when he had two characters in isolation (often disparagingly referred to by others as “ping-pong dialogue.” Lose track at any line you’re in trouble; despite Hemingway’s reputation as a master of dialogue, you often can’t tell who’s speaking unless you’ve been counting: Bob, Jim, Bob, Jim, Bob, Jim…hey that's interesting...Jim, Bob, Jim…oh, shit, where was I?)

But if Hemingway attributed a question, he used asked. And he didn't only restrict himself to said and asked, either. In one fourteen-page story ("The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio"), we also find three suggesteds, two answereds, one explained, and one began. Nor are his tags adverb-free: in the same story, we find "said Cayetano softly," "said politely," "said proudly," and "said deprecatingly."

I'm not sure where people get the idea that Hemingway never attributed dialogue if it could be avoided, and that if he were pushed to the wall he would grudgingly throw in said. People who make this claim have either never read Hemingway with close attention, or they have him confused with someone--Elmore Leonard, perhaps, who'd let you chop off his fingers rather than commit anything other than said.

So, in summary...Hemingway used plenty of adjectives, and a smattering of -ly adverbs. He sometimes wrote in simple, direct sentences, but when it suited him he also wrote in complicated, strongly structured sentences that are minor marvels of architecture.

And he said a lot more than "said".


Sam Taylor said...

Hah. Well, that makes me feel quite a bit freer. These are also the "rules of good writing" we were taught in college. It's very interesting to see them deconstructed.

David Isaak said...

Odd, isn't it?

And I have to say, "said deprecatingly" is one I'd be inclined to red-pencil out.

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Janet said...

You should get a medal for this post. Not that I am interested in reconstructing Hemingway's reputation, but I am sick and tired of general guidelines being presented as absolute rules, and this should put a sock in the mouth of a lot of legalists.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's odd that when people discuss Hemingway, they're almost never discussing reality. I recently read an essay on the semicolon at, and in it an editor was quoted as saying something along the lines of, "Hemingway wouldn't be caught dead using a semicolon. Too feminine." (The article was about whether the semicolon is girly.) And I could only think: Has this guy ever read Hemingway? His prose is littered with semicolons.

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. said...

The important thing to understand of writing is one must write as one feels. Entrapment of one's words held within the standards of another will not create greatness. It's said Hem wrote like no other writer of his day. Who taught him? Did you know he wrote his first novel without understanding the mechanics of writing a novel? How many have tried? Hem was unique in that he did not follow (many) of the so called rules of writing choosing to walk his own path into legend.