Ernest Hemingway is the Neil Simon of literary novelists.
I’ve said it, and I’m glad.
Well, I may be overstating my case a bit.
I have to admit that he did, in fact, change the face of American literature.
Taking his cue from Chekhov and Sherwood Anderson, he tossed plot out the window and gave the readers of his stories slices of life in place of conventional narrative.
Inspired by his work as journalist, he stripped language bare, cutting away adjectives, adverbs and other modifiers, leaving his readers only the bare bones, or as he himself put it, “the thing itself.”
Following the wise advice of that old fool Polonius, he used “indirection to find direction out,” suggesting or implying meanings that he never stated, his words nothing more than the tip of an iceberg with four-fifths of its substance lying beneath the surface.
Without Hemingway, there would have been no such thing as a New Yorker story, no Raymond Carver, no. . .well, you get the picture.
Consider “Hill like White Elephants.”
No more than four or five pages in length, it is an objective account of an American couple having a beer at a train stop in Spain. A slice of life without any plot.
The style is as bare and unadorned as the hills that give the story its title: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.”
The unnamed man and woman are having a conversation that begins with her observation that hills look like white elephants, but it quickly descends into conflict, bitterness, and irony. And although Hemingway never explains their situation, never uses the word “abortion,” it’s clear that she is pregnant and wants to have the baby growing inside her, while he finds the idea of a child and the responsibility it entails abhorrent, as abhorrent as she finds the notion of aborting it.
They have gotten off one train and are about to board another. The romance of their relationship is ending. Ahead…nothing but pain and recrimination.
And there is, of course, that wonderful dialogue in which the characters appear to be saying one thing but are, in fact, saying quite another. When the man tells the woman he’s never seen a white elephant, she replies, “No, you wouldn’t have.” And in those words, you have a capsule characterization of the man, and you know exactly where their relationship stands at this moment.
Then there’s the moment when she decides she’d like to try Anis del Toro, a drink she’s never had before. After a sip, she observes that it tastes of licorice: “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” She, of course, is talking not about drinks but about their relationship and what it’s come to.
That is the glory of Hemingway dialogue: its indirection.
Why, then, is his dialogue so often and so easily subject to parody?
Why are there so many “Bad Hemingway” contests around the world even today, more than half a century after his death?
Because it is so mannered.
And because every Hemingway character sounds like every other Hemingway character.
I discovered, during my story analyst and story editor days when I read literally thousands of screenplays, that the best screenwriters, like Hemingway, make their dialogue indirect…but that they, unlike Hemingway, give each character a distinctive voice.
No two characters should sound alike. Each should have a voice that reflects their background, their experience, their values. With the best dialogue, a reader needs no character labels to know who is talking: he can hear the character’s identity in his speech.
This is where Hemingway’s dialogue comes up short. All of his characters sound the same. In A Moveable Feast, even Scott Fitzgerald ends up sounding like a Hemingway character when he consults his friend Ernest about the size of his penis. Hemingway tells him he could have consulted a doctor, and Fitzgerald supposedly says, “I didn’t want to. I wanted you to tell me truly.”
And that is why I see Hemingway as the Neil Simon of literary novelists. Yes, Neil Simon’s plays are fun and funny. Every character is witty. Every character makes us laugh. And every line of their dialogue is interchangeable. With perhaps the single exception of The Odd Couple, his plays are filled with characters who sound exactly like one other.
And so are the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway.
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