Hardbacks, Broken Spines, & Dusty Covers: A blog
There is a wonderful anecdote about Ernest Hemingway winning a bet that he could write a heartbreaking story in six words. His winning prose?
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Though it provides zero evidence, the Snopes website declares this legend to be false because it finds no references to the story before the 1990s…which is pretty much the same crappy logic Snopes applies to most of its True/False pronouncements. Did I mention that Snopes sucks? Even Wikipedia has a much better accounting of the legend for those who are interested. The story is absolutely true because its simplicity captures the essence of Hemingway…and because I said so. To hell with Snopes.
I was a young man fresh out of the army when I discovered the brilliance that was Ernest Hemingway. I was working my way through college and hungry to learn new things and to expand my view of the world. Of course, I had known of Hemingway from childhood and had seen many of the movies made from his books. But it wasn’t until I read “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” in an anthology as a class assignment that I began to appreciate Hemingway the writer. Most women hate this story. I won’t give the climax away, but if you’ve ever read the story, it’s not hard to understand why. It is also a good illustration of the point I’m trying to make in today’s blog.
By most modern accounts, Hemingway was a pig, a misogynist, a bully, war monger, blood sport enthusiast, and perhaps worst of all…a journalist. What he wasn’t was a sissy or an equivocator. The man never balked at telling people what he believed and thrived at literarily punching them in the face like a boxer…which he also was.
I bring all this up because I was recently discussing Hemingway with my good friend Lou Turner who asked me to name my favorite writer. Lou related that she had recently read some of Papa’s work for the first time and, in short, she just didn’t get it. Now, keep in mind that Lou is the type of professional woman who eats nattering nabobs for lunch and can cause men of weak constitution to wet their pants…just by being competent. To be honest, I don’t think Ernest would like Margot Macomber…I mean, Lou…much either.
Intrigued, I decided to re-read one of my favorite Hemingway stories, “Across the River and into the Trees” to see if the writing still held up in such different times.
On a technical level, I was stunned. Had this been Hemingway’s first novel submitted for publication, literary agents would have never gotten past the first chapter. Talk about head-hopping and perspective shifts. This book could be used to demonstrate how NOT to write. For the first time in my life, I began comparing myself to Hemingway in a favorable light. If HE could write crap like that and be published, well…
And then I returned to reality. First off, the technical aspects of writing were judged a good bit differently back in his day. And after wading through the first several chapters and the story leveled off, it quickly became obvious…once again…that Hemingway was the consummate story-teller, writing for a generation of men who neither wanted or needed flowery adjectives, but who wanted masculinity acknowledged and perhaps understood. Hemingway accomplished that in spades.
Now, step back for a minute. As a young man who had just mustered out of the military as a tank commander, an outdoorsman, happily divorced, working my way through college, fiercely independent and self-made, it is little wonder that I fell in love with Hemingway’s writing. His stories were my stories and he wrote about things I knew and understood or wanted to understand, in a way no other writer has before or since. He helped me understand myself and how I fit in with the rest of the world, and I thank him for doing so.
Is it pointless for women to read Hemingway, then? I don’t think so. I love reading Karen White, Karin Slaughter, and Gillian Flynn, not only because they write great stories, but because I learn a lot about women and the way they think…a somewhat scary proposition to be sure, but knowledge worth having. (If I have to explain that that is tongue in cheek, we can’t be friends.)
So, if women would like to gain some insight as to why men are the way they are and think the way they do, then by all means read Hemingway. It is, in fact, probably more important now than ever. (Disclaimer: If your man puts his hair up in a girl-bun this probably doesn’t apply. Nobody understands that and nobody should want to.)
Now, come step closer again. If Hemingway was just starting out today and was a great writer both technically (by today’s standards) and literarily, would his stories have any chance of being published? Before you answer, consider this. After having recently scoured nearly 200 literary agencies in search of an agent to represent my writing, I can tell you that roughly 95 percent of the agents out there are women. And about half of them are 14-years-old. OK, that’s an exaggeration. They just look 14. Most are well past 21-and-a-half.
There are about a thousand ways you can dissect this question, but no matter how you slice it, I think the answer lies somewhere between slim and none. It is hard to imagine a woman raised in a Girl Power world where mainstream feminism teaches them they are better than boys (I didn’t make that up), whose generational anthem is "Run the World (Girls)” giving Hemingway anything but a Tamara Mellow boot in the rear end.
What would Hemingway do? Write a story. About women. In the rain.
So, where does Pooh come into this? I once told a friend that I really think I could write a Winnie the Pooh-type children’s story, but I didn’t think anyone would read it. By today’s standards it’s too simplistic, doesn’t convey any hidden social agendas, has only one female character (Kanga), and doesn’t kowtow to certain academic standards that blah, blah, blah. I think Pooh survives mainly on parental nostalgia and Disney transmutation. Sadly, I don’t think Pooh would have any more chance of being published these days than Hemingway.
Or Pooh could be a metaphor for something I wrote about here. I’ll let you decide.
For more reviews, profiles, and interesting tidbits on writing, check out www.billfurney.com.