I Blame Ernest Hemingway

November 27, 2023 By Isabelle Sophie Martinet

Every male writer with an ounce of testosterone owes a big debt to Papa. For example, without his example, how would James Jones, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, or John Milius have known to pose for their publicity photos wearing safari jackets? Why, I bet they’d have showed up in some kind of wussy Tom Wolfe ice-cream suit! With a pocket handkerchief!

No question, the faithful adulation of Hemingway’s literary style has done a lot for American letters. Before Hemingway bravely challenged every word’s right to exist on his pristine-white page, popular fiction was mired in disgustingly baroque convolutions. Authors with too-precious styles such as Henry James and Edith Wharton spun sentences like brocade, twisting and turning them until their poor readers were so dizzy they had to commit the unpardonable sin of putting the book down. Speaking up for the plain man who wants not one word more than the plain truth, Hemingway argued for sparse, minimalist construction. Cut away, prune, snip, tailor–hack, if you must–until the reader’s eye can traverse those sentences like a plow through righteously straight furrows. Write so the text whizzes by. Don’t give them an excuse to pause, much less to think or reflect. They’ll forgive you if they pee in their pants because they “couldn’t put it down.”

Better yet, remove all personal voice from your prose style. Adhere strictly to the same minimalist set of rules so that your prose reads no differently from the next author’s. Spare the reader the tedium of having to get acquainted with your eccentricities. Give them what they came for–a good, forgettable story, speedily told.

Hemingway was, first and perhaps best of all, a newspaperman. And it’s in the field of journalism that his influence has been most beneficial. In news reporting, straight talk is just the thing, as it is in any type of expository writing, such as textbooks, divorce agreements, and tourist guidebooks.

But I appeal to all you English instructors who preach Strunk & White as though it were the new King James Version–let the young storytellers cultivate their unique styles and find their voices!

If you don’t know what I mean, listen to sports commentator Frank Deford on the radio. His style was inspired by the likes of Heywood Hale Broun, Walter Winchell, Robert Benchley, and a host of other nut-jobs of yesteryear who probably got their knuckles rapped in school for not following instructions.

(The point, sentence fragment. No sin, my view.)