Monday, July 26, 2004

Faulkner v. Hemingway

Dan Poynter and Danny O. Snow are the joint authors of a book called U-publish.  To quote their own description, it’s a guide to ‘independent book publishing (also called self-publishing or alternative publishing) using the latest technologies to lower costs and reach readers more directly.’  If you are a writer and you’re interested in finding a way to publish your work without beating your head against the brick wall of publishers’ indifference (and sometimes outright hostility), you could do a lot worse than read it.

However, that book is not my subject today.  What prompts me to mention Poynter and Snow is that they issue a monthly newsletter, full of various bits and pieces in addition to plugs for their book and other services; and in the latest version of this newsletter they quoted a no doubt deeply felt exchange between two American winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

First, William Faulkner, speaking of Ernest Hemingway: ‘He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.’

And Hemingway’s response: ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?’

On this matter I am firmly with Hemingway.  The whole point of the novel, as I frequently make plain in these columns, is to arouse emotion.  And the emotion which one seeks to arouse is seldom puzzlement.  It follows, therefore, that regular, run-of-the-mill words will serve best.


In my youth, I read books by both these writers.  Hemingway, it seemed to me, could be read by any reasonably intelligent teenager.  Faulkner, on the other hand, was unhelpfully obscure.  In those days I was young and naïve enough to take the Times Literary Supplement seriously, and I remember reading an article about Faulkner which described him as sometimes writing sentences which were a whole page long.  And I believe that was true.  But whereas the TLS spoke of this practice with a kind of awe, I personally could not bring myself to conclude that deliberate obscurity was a virtue.  Neither do I think so today.  So I side with Hemingway.

Incidentally, I once met a man who was mentioned in one of Hemingway’s novels.  His name was Red Smith.

Back in 1958 I was working as a copy boy on the New York Herald Tribune (it’s a long story).  The paper had a number of eminent columnists, and Red Smith was the chief sports writer.  He had begun writing for the paper in 1945, and was soon recognised as one of the most literate, witty and wise commentators in the business.  By 1950 he was famous enough for Hemingway to use his name in Across the River and Into the Trees; the hero, as I recall, sits in a café, ‘reading Red Smith.’  And, from the general context, it was clear that Hemingway was a fan.

In the spring of 1958 Red Smith was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine, which was a very big deal indeed.  In those days, Newsweek was second only to Time in prestige (and possibly circulation); the cover normally featured presidents, giants of industry, and big-time movie stars, so for a sports writer to make it was a massive achievement. 

My favourite Red Smith column was about the short-sighted baseball player who was a star hitter.  We’ll call him Jim.  ‘Go out and hit one over the whisky ad, Jim,’ his team-mates called out to him.  ‘What whisky ad?’ said Jim, which was how they found out he was short-sighted.  So the team manager took him off to the optician and had him fitted with glasses.  After which, naturally, Jim couldn’t hit the ball at all.  For years he’d been seeing this big fuzzy grapefruit coming at him and he’d been whacking it all over the park.  But now that he’d got glasses the thing looked so small, and he just couldn’t find out where it was any more.  There was more in the same vein.

Even before the Newsweek cover, Smith seldom needed to come into the Herald Tribune office; he would just go to the game, or the fight, and then phone in his copy.  But once in a while he did appear, and he was treated, quite rightly, like some sort of god descending from Mount Olympus. 

On one such occasion he actually sat in the newsroom and typed out his stuff there and then.  And when he had finished it he called out, as was the custom, ‘Copy!’  And I, having hovered long enough and near enough, was the one who took it from him and carried it over to the sub-editors.  Which is how I came to meet a man who is mentioned in one of Hemingway’s novels.

OK, so it’s not much of an achievement.  But what’s your story?

7 comments:

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21stcenturydiarist said...

I like it... great story

Stuart Vail said...

I once met a man mentioned in Michener's "Iberia." John Fulton was the first American matador to achieve the highest rank in bullfighting in Spain. He also was an artist who painted bullfight scenes... using bull's blood as his paint. In February 1976 I visited Sevilla where I stumbled upon Fulton's gallery just around the corner from where I was staying. He was a very gracious person.

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Anonymous said...

Your opinions are not only heavily one ended but also profoundly foolish. I stopped reading the moment you dismissed Faulkner for claiming he trades emotion for big words. As if the 2 go hand in hand... If he puzzled you then reread it, I assure you that what you fail to understand is flowing with the "emotion" you seem to think it lacks.

A. Hsieh said...

Perhaps read it again and see that he was simply quoting Hemingway.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
"Your opinions are not only heavily one ended but also profoundly foolish. I stopped reading the moment you dismissed Faulkner for claiming he trades emotion for big words. As if the 2 go hand in hand... If he puzzled you then reread it, I assure you that what you fail to understand is flowing with the "emotion" you seem to think it lacks."

I know you can't comment anymore but I just wanted to point out that what Hemingway meant and I'm sure what you also meant was not that Faulkner lacks emotion in his writing but that he uses big words instead of smaller ones thinking that smaller and easier words do not evoke the same kind of emotion.