I tried reading Hemingway when I was in high school. It was a forgettable experience. But after I read The Paris Wife, the novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, I became intrigued and somewhat obsessed with the Hemingway legacy. I have an endearing habit (I think it’s endearing; my family has other words for it) of becoming obsessed by details of things that interest me. So, I spent much of my free time learning about Hemingway, sharing the fascinating information with anyone who happened to be in the room with me. I was often alone in those days.
I decide to give him another chance and read his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. After all, Ernest was a big gun. He literally changed the soul of writing. What better ammo to put in my writing arsenal? And in all honesty, I had some tabloidish curiosity. The characters were thinly veiled snarky sketches of his real life friends (ex-friends would be more accurate) that appeared in The Paris Wife.
I bought the book, eager to read this minimalist style I kept hearing about– the lean, taut prose of Hemingway. On the very first page, (It wasn’t even an entire page. It began 2/3 of the way down) I encountered these words: painfully, thoroughly (twice no less), really very, promptly, permanently, certainly.
EIGHT adverbs. What’s up with that? Weren’t adverbs those awful beasts that pave the road to hell? Wasn’t Hemingway himself the icon of lean, kill-the-adverbs prose?
I read on, a deep furrow between my brows. After a few pages, I had the feeling that I’d read this type of writing before. Then it hit me. It sounded like something my thirteen-year-old had written. And the shallow characters bewildered me. I was confused and disappointed. Lest you think I’m also arrogant, let me say that I knew the problem was with me. I tried dissecting each sentence, phrase and word to better understand it. My confusion only got worse.
My brother, a huge Hemingway fan, had come for visit and noticed the book right away, drawn to it by invisible tentacles. He picked it up while telling me how brilliant it was, then he made the mistake of asking how I liked it.
“I don’t,” I whined. “He uses ‘then’ and ‘and’ way too much and he’s so wordy. Blah, blah blah. Where’s all that lean prose?”
My brother put on his patient, let-me-explain-this-in-a-way-you’ll-be-able-to-understand face. “Before Hemingway, prose was very wordy, descriptive and long. You need to be familiar with what came before so you can see the differences.”
The dim light bulb went off somewhere in my head. “And after Hemingway, writers imitated his style. That’s why it sounds so ordinary to me.”
My brother nodded, already immersed in the book.
“But what about the adverbs and the ‘thens‘ and ‘and’s?” I was slightly less whiny.
In scary unison, my brother and oldest daughter pointed out that I was over-analyzing it. “Just read it and enjoy it.”
My daughter was compelled to continue because she loved analyzing me. “You have this bad habit of over-analyzing everything. Remember when we watched The Prestige and Inception? You ruined them for yourself.”
So, I confiscated the book from my brother and started over—just reading it and not paying attention to mechanics like adverbs or length. That made all the difference. Without all my hang ups peering over my shoulder, I really enjoyed the book. Funny how brilliance is more obvious when you’re not looking for it. I even found myself imitating it, saying things like, “I rather like that song,” or “Oh, rather.” instead of plain “Yes.” My family stayed out of my way until that fad wore itself out.
This is a revised post from August 2011.