What to Leave Out: Minimalism and the Hemingway Mystique

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” features a man who is lamenting his lost opportunities to write a bunch of stories he’s been saving up in his mind as he lays wounded and dying from an injury he suffered while on safari in Africa. It turns out Hemingway himself once suffered an injury while on safari in Africa; but of course he survived to write about the ordeal. Several of his other stories likewise feature fictionalized versions of himself. In fact, there are very few works in the Hemingway oeuvre that aren’t at least obliquely about Hemingway.

The success of the famous “iceberg theory” of writing, which has the author refrain from explicit statements about important elements of the characters’ minds, histories, and motivations, probably relied in large part on readers’ suspicion that the stories they were reading were true. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway explained,

"If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."

The prose style of this theorizing on prose style is markedly unlike Hemingway’s usual “short, declarative statements.” And it is remarkably revealing. It almost seems as though Hemingway is boasting about being able to get away with leaving out as many of the details as he does in his stories because he’s so familiar with the subjects of which he writes. And what exciting and fascinating subjects they are—wars, romances, travels, brushes with death, encounters with man-eating beasts. Yet readers coming to the stories with romantic visions of Hemingway’s adventures are quickly disappointed by the angst, insecurity, and fear of the actual Hemingway experience.

Stories like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” unsettle us because there is a truth in them that not many people are given to exploring (even in America, land of “happily ever after,” marriages entail struggles for dominance). But much of the impact of Hemingway’s work comes from the mystique surrounding the man himself. Hemingway was a brand even before his influence had reached its zenith. So readers can’t really come to his work without letting their views about the author fill in the blanks he so expertly left empty. That’s probably why feelings about it tend to be so polarized.

If you take Hemingway’s celebrity out of the equation, though, you’re still left with a formidable proposition: fiction works not by detailing the protagonist’s innermost thoughts and finding clever metaphors for his or her feelings; rather the goal is to describe the scene in enough detail, to render the circumstances so thoroughly that the reader doesn’t need to be told how the character feels because the reader can imagine for him or herself what it would be like to inhabit a real-life version of the story. This proposition may have begun as far back as Proust, and having been taken in a completely new direction by Hemingway, reached something of an apotheosis in the minimalism of such authors as Raymond Carver. Of course, Carver’s more domestic dramas rely on a common stock of experience in place of the celebrity of the author, but the effect is of even greater revelation—or perhaps recognition is a better word.

Really, though, if you take this theory of storytelling to its logical endpoint you have films and movies, and you’ve lost the element that makes fiction writing unique—the space for interiority. It’s no coincidence that the best candidate for the Hemingway mantle today—at least in his most recent works—has had his two latest books adapted into films within a couple years of their publication. Cormac McCarthy hasn’t been able to rely on any public notion of his interchangeability with his characters; nor does he write about experiences he can count on his readers to recognize. Instead, he builds his stories up from the ground of popular genres we’re most familiar with from our lifetime love affair with cinema. No Country for Old Men reads so much like Hemingway at points that you wonder if McCarthy took frequent breaks from the writing to dip into the icon’s complete short stories. At the same time, the novel reads so much like a script you wonder if the movie rights were sold before or after he began writing it.

If Hemingway could only write about things he’d actually experienced, and Carver can only write about experiences similar to those his readers have actually had, and McCarthy is dependent on our familiarity with popular genres, it seems the theory of omission or minimalism either runs up against a wall or gets stuck in an infinite regress. The possibility of discovery, the author going somewhere new and taking his readers along for the ride, recedes farther and farther into the distance. These limitations are real, of course, no matter what style you’re writing in; all writers must follow the injunction to write what they know—at least up to a point. I think the lesson to take from Hemingway and his followers is that the emotion inferred is often more poignant than the emotion described, but inference is only one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox.

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