Three new biographical studies of Ernest Hemingway are out, even though they may not be needed. The life of this overly celebrated writer has been thoroughly researched by many others. I am more interested in the writer than the man who became a brand name.
Hemingway remains, says Fintan O'Toole in the current New York Review of Books, a fascinating object of study: behind his "outlandish public image," O'Toole says, is a trauma caused by World War I and a complex sexuality that resulted in a hypermasculine swagger that I have commented on before. He became, in the words of his third wife, a "loathsome human being."
But was he also a genius? How influential is he today as a writer? Well, he has been a major influence on the modern short story, especially its style; he was a master of the story form and produced at least three significant novels (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and Old Man and the Sea) that reflect his cold-blooded view of human life in memorable tough-guy prose. Although he re-defined American prose fiction in the mid-20th century, he also wrote much that was disappointingly mediocre, the result probably of his drinking and multiple injuries.
Still, in his prime, Hemingway was a serious reader and fine craftsman who gave some valuable advice to writers. Having revised the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times, as he said in an interview, he reminds us of the importance of crafting each sentence carefully and revising the resulting paragraph.
Revise endlessly, he said: "The main thing is to know what to leave out."
He mastered the iceberg theory of literature whereby three-fourths of what happens in a story is unstated, implied, as in his famous six-word story: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."
"The way you can tell if you are good," he said, "is by what you can throw away." He claimed to throw away nine out of ten stories he wrote.
Since all style is personal, he said, "don't ever imitate anybody." Writers, of course, steal ideas freely from one another but not style, which has to suit the subject, as it does in Hemingway; it also reflects the author behind the words.
I think the wannabe author can learn many techniques from reading Hemingway, such as the use of dialogue to carry the action and the value of concise, understated sentences. His work is a reminder of the axiom that suggestion is more powerful than statement.