Book Review

Why Don’t I Like Ernest Hemingway?

I finished reading The Paris Wife recently for my prison book club. The Paris Wife is the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and her experience as his spouse while living as a member of The Lost Generation in Paris. The book was excellent: beautifully written, honest, and terribly tragic (as we all know how their relationship ends …). Because of The Paris Wife, I decided it was time to revisit Ernest Hemingway. And God help me.

3876I decided to pick up The Sun Also Rises, because the bull fight scenes in Pamplona were a huge part of The Paris Wife. I knew, thanks to Hadley’s first person account, that The Sun Also Rises is very true, featuring people who actually existed, who were “friends” of the Hemingway’s. I use the term “friends” loosely because honestly I’m not sure how much any of these people liked each other, which is made even more apparent in The Sun Also Rises.

A small novel, Sun took me way longer than it should have to complete. Not because the diction was difficult; obviously not—we’re talking about Hemingway, a master of using very few words to get across huge thematic points. No, Sun took me a long time to read because I was bored.

Granted, I want to give Hemingway his due. He is a genius with dialogue. He says so much by saying nothing at all. Most of the time, everything is subtext, but it’s brilliant! Brilliant! So dialogue: points! Many points. He understands human nature and is capable of creating an entire, fully realized character with nothing but his or her words. That is not easy.

Yet, I find his work to be boring. I can’t put my finger on it. I suppose, in the case of The Sun Also Rises, the repetition of “another bottle of wine” and “I’m tight” got a little old. They’re all drunk the entire book, which is why the ugliness comes out—why friends leave Pamplona as enemies.

EH6670PMaybe his descriptions. I don’t like his descriptions. They’re not flowery enough for me. My favorite authors are European—Spanish mostly—and those romance language dudes know how to speak pretty. Hemingway? Not so much, which is part of his fame, part of his allure. Yet, this stagnant use of language was not alluring to me. BORED!

I have another theory: do you think Hemingway wrote for a male audience? Do you suppose, as a female, I just don’t relate? I mean, he was a Man’s Man. He was a a fighter, a drunk, a womanizer. Maybe if I had a set of balls, his work would resonate better, because as a woman, I find his female characters to be quite despicable—and maybe that’s what he intended. No matter how much he loved women in his life, he had a way of tossing them away when the next best thing came around. Perhaps he fits this philosophy into his work.

In conclusion, I gave Hemingway another shot. Did I enjoy myself? Eh. At times. There were brilliant lines: “I have a rotten habit of picturing the bedroom scenes of my friends.” Or: “I was a little drunk. Not drunk in any positive sense but just enough to be careless.” Another: “Cohn had a wonderful quality of bringing out the worst in anybody.” My God, brilliant!!

That said I won’t be going back to good old Ernest. I still have flashbacks of the horror of The Old Man and the Sea from high school, and although The Sun Also Rises was better, I’m still not interested in tackling his body of work. Thanks, Ernest, for being you and for creating a new style of American writing. However, we’re breaking up. It’s not you; it’s me.

15 thoughts on “Why Don’t I Like Ernest Hemingway?

  1. I don’t like him either. His macho schtick gets on my nerves and puts me off. Have you seen the movie Midnight in Paris? It has a brilliant satire of him. I love your closing line in this post. 🙂

    (FYI, I clicked over here from the blog thread on AW.)

    1. I agree that Midnight In Paris sent up Hemingway brilliantly (and if you like that, you would love Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns which, skewers Hemingway – rightly in my view – mercilessly). But otherwise I thought the film poor, poor, poor and that despite his earlier successes, Woody Allen has simply lost it. The trouble is that no one seems to have the heart to tell him and while his films make at least a small profit, he will carry on finding investors.

  2. yeah I mostly agree. also, so much of Hemingway is about distance and direction — like ahead 200 yards, rising to the left from the road blah blah — which is so confusing to me because I can’t compute that information. He’s pretentious in his unpretentiousness. When’s the last time you read Fitzgerald? That’s a writer I can, and have, read over and over and over. The difference between, IMO, a mechanic and poet (Hemingway and Fitzgerald).

    1. He’s pretentious in his unpretentiousness.

      Ha! Perfect!!

      Yes, I love Fitzgerald. Love, love, love. The Great Gatsby is one of the best books of all time and a novel I hold very dear to my heart. Their differences, despite their shared era, are immense.

  3. It’s all right not to join the choir, really. “Papa” was an original stylist in his day, and this will always be a mark of distinction.
    I have the opposite problem- *loving* books no one heard of. That’s all right, too.

    1. Hemingway was certainly an ‘original stylist’ but does that say much about that style? I think he benefited greatly at the time from ‘being different’ and for many, many years – not until Raymond Carver wrote a piece in the New York Times doubting Hemingway’s sanctity – did anyone have enough courage publicly to call him out. I mean he was ‘a Nobel Laureate’ for God’s sake – most were afraid of looking follish.

  4. Sara – I KNEW I’d like your review of “Sun.” I also enjoyed some of the comments it engendered. Other than the short stories,I can’t find time to re-read any of his work anymore. Actually, because of Papa, I created one of the better laughs of my lifetime. It’s February, 1972,and I’m living in Los Angeles, awakened early one morning by a very serious earthquake that took down my chimney and half-emptied my swimming pool. Now this was a time before email, before computers, and Western Union was a logical way in which to connect with people. That afternoon I drove to the nearest Western Union office and sent to a good friend—and my comedy-writing partner for TV—a telegram which read,in its entirety: “The earth moved. Truly.”

  5. Girl, Hemingway is an acquired taste for sure! I definitely gravitated toward his work in college, but I think that was because I wanted to learn from the brevity of his prose. My fiction writing as a freshman (God help us) was incredibly verbose and WAY too flowery. Reading Hemingway taught me to create meaningful dialogue and how to edit my own work so it wasn’t overdone. So, for that, I’ll always hold a soft spot in my heart for his work…I, however, enjoyed The Paris Wife much more than The Sun Also Rises…And the satire of him in Midnight in Paris is truly fabulous!

    1. But I LIKE your flowery prose. You’re right; you are an excellent editor, however, so we’ll thank him for that. I’m just glad you didn’t turn into a Hemingway minion; we would have lost out on some of your most beautiful and impressive talents!

  6. Thank you! I hated Hemingway in junior high, I hated him in high school, and I hate him now. I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to appreciate him, even though, like you, I acknowledge and admire his brilliance.

  7. I must say that Hemingway’s books have not aged well, to say the least. They are filled with disappointing endings, pointless death scenes and dialogue, and various other remarkably amateurish things that writers often advise other writers to never, ever do. I honestly have to wonder if an editor ever even saw them. I know that it might seem like sacrilege to criticize the great Writing God Hemingway as being rather amateurish, but I suspect his reputation as a “Writing God” was formed in another time, under another set of values, which have long since gone away. I have seen many books far better-written than Hemingway’s from a dramatic point of view, and even just in terms of good writing.

    My reaction to Hemingway is very like that of Bradley Cooper, in the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.” Cooper reads to the end of Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell To Arms, and freaks out. The reason? (Spoilers!) The wife of the main character in A Farewell To Arms just DIES for no apparent reason, leaving her man bereft and alone, and very very sad – and after an entire book of the man attempting to find his woman, overcoming enormous obstacles, until (seemingly) finally achieving victory and happiness! Pointless, cliched, and amateurish.

    I have seen writers such as Stephen King – together with so many different writing instructors – advise other writers to never, ever have the main character fail entirely to achieve his/her goals by the end of a long novel. Readers do not stick with a main character through a 200 or 300 page book (or longer), just to see him/her struggle, struggle, struggle, and then suddenly fail to triumph at the end. It’s the equivalent of seeing a hero struggle brilliantly against the bad guys for a long, involved epic, only to have the hero fail completely at the very last moment, and the bad guys win. Yech. What an ugly ending. Whatever Hemingway’s ultimate point in writing such an ending, dramatically, it doesn’t work. Readers tend to feel cheated by having the main character fail completely; they feel frustrated and let down, as does Cooper in the movie – he throws the book out a window – and most of Hemingway’s books seem to have similarly amateurish and unsatisfying endings in them.

    In Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (more spoilers!) the main character, Jordan, fails to escape from an ambush scene during World War Two, and, wounded, spends the last pages of the book gasping out his final breaths, waiting for the enemy to arrive and kill him. No point, no victory, no triumph – just pointless death. And after a whole book of difficult, heroic struggle, too. This is fantastically unsatisfying, and actually made me quite angry as a reader at Hemingway for wasting my time and for cheating me. Having a main character die at the end of a long novel is another huge literary no-no, and it also tends to make readers feel cheated and frustrated. Unless the death is done very, very well, as is Dumbledore’s death in Harry Potter, writers should not kill main characters at a novel’s end – and Jordan’s death is not anywhere NEAR as satisfying and well-done as Dumbledore’s.

    And in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the main character, Jake, spends a great deal of the book pursuing a girl named Brett, who in the end just decides arbitrarily to have a relationship with Mike, another rival character – and Jake and Brett spend the final pages of the book in a taxi, discussing “what might have been.” Another disgusting, pointless ending, where the difficulties are not overcome, and it all just ends because it ends. This no doubt prompted one reviewer at the time to say of the book that it “begins nowhere and ends in nothing.” I must say I heartily agree.

    Why did Hemingway frequently write endings that other writers tend to describe as amateurish and cliched? My suspicion is that he was trying to be all “literary” and “serious.” It’s almost as though he’s saying, “Look at how most of my main characters fail in the end! I must indeed be a very Serious Writer, who takes Literature VERY Seriously, and who is trying to make a very Profound STATEMENT. Life and Death, wow! Meaning and meaninglessness, ooh!”

    I personally think it’s just plain bad writing. But hey.

    Hemingway’s books also tend to be remarkably boring and dull, no doubt arising from his amateurish grasp of drama, as demonstrated by his hackneyed bad endings. He does little to satisfy the reader in most of his books, in their middles OR at their ends, preferring to remain unspokenly Profound, and (as I said earlier) it doesn’t work. Writers can be as profound as they want, but if they don’t have a dramatically interesting story to tell, it really doesn’t matter. As Stephen King says, most readers just want a good story, something to get lost in – and I think most people today find it very, very difficult to get lost in Hemingway’s writing. I don’t see any major movies being made of his books today, as there are (for example) for J.R.R. Tolkien – whom I consider to be a vastly superior writer to Hemingway. The reason seems to be that Hemingway’s books are, for the most part, not very interesting or dramatic, and are often awkwardly written and amateurish in their endings. At least Frodo Baggins destroys the Ring in The Lord Of The Rings; most of Hemingway’s characters just seem to die or fail at life (or both). I really don’t see blockbuster material here, or even very good writing.

    As for Hemingway’s “short” sentences, I have to say that most of them are not really all that short. H. G. Wells, for example, in his masterpiece “The Time Machine,” uses much, much shorter sentences than Hemingway tends to – and “The Time Machine” was published in 1895, far earlier than Hemingway, and is a much more interesting and well-written read than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

    Sometimes a writer’s work just ages badly – and I think it’s time for a major re-evaluation of Hemingway’s books in general. The best-selling author during Hemingway’s time was not Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Salinger – it was Edgar Rice Burroughs, the inventor of Tarzan, which really says something, I think – Hemingway never created any characters as deep, memorable or unique as Tarzan; every school-child has heard of Tarzan. And reading Burrough’s actual books, it is very clear that Tarzan himself is an absolutely remarkable character; he doesn’t just stay in the jungle like in the movies; he becomes an English Lord, and a soldier, and distinguished himself by fighting in World War Two. Way better than Hemingway’s war stories. Even Hemingway’s CHARACTERS aren’t all that terribly great or compelling, and I think it’s about time he shouldered some criticism for that too.

    In summary, I find Hemingway to be a rank amateur writer, about whom I cannot understand why various “literary” people frequently make so much fuss – maybe they just like dull, uninteresting stories with cliched endings. I think much of his reputation as a “Writing God” is thoroughly undeserved, and should in fact be revoked. He doesn’t challenge me intellectually or dramatically; his badly-written stories mostly just frustrate me and annoy me, as they did Bradley Cooper – and as I think they do most people with any real experience with more expertly-written stories. Now that I’ve actually READ most of Hemingway’s books – most recently The Old Man And The Sea – I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why is Hemingway so famous? I think it’s just an accident, really. I think he just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and for no other reason. Editors frequently say that there are absolutely no rules in the publishing business, about why one writer becomes famous, and another does not. If it happens, then it happens. I think Hemingway is just an overall bad writer who got very, very lucky – and I think he has been unfairly held up for years before the rest of us as what a writer SHOULD be, despite his rather boring stories, unmemorable characters, and amateurish endings.

    In the words of Bradley Cooper, “No, no, I’m not going to apologize to you; ERNEST HEMINGWAY needs to apologize, because THAT’S who’s at fault here. That’s who’s to blame.”

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