Skip to content

Populating the work

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.  A character is a caricature.  If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book may remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel.  If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the novel.  If they do not talk of those subjects and the writer makes them talk of them he is a faker, and if he talks about them himself to show how much he knows then he is showing off.  No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism.  Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.  For a writer to put his own intellectual musings, which he might sell for a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed characters which are more remunerative when issued as people in a novel is good economics, perhaps, but does not make literature.  People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him.  If he ever has luck as well as seriousness and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension and they will last a long time.  A good writer should know as near everything as possible.  Naturally he will not.  A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge.  But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.  There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring.  They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.  Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total of knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from.  If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things 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.  A writer who appreciates the seriousness of writing so little that he is anxious to make people see he is formally educated, cultured or well-bred is merely a popinjay.  And this too remember: a serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer.  A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.” – Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (emphases in original)

Published inErnest HemingwayLit & Crit

5 Comments

  1. CJ CJ

    UnHoly Franzen, Tetman, I love Hemingway’s rigor.

    • i do, too. i read a banker’s dozen (11) of his books this past august, as i had never done the hemingway reading i should have done long ago (long ago i had read three of his books and a few of his stories, but that was not enough).

      i don’t know that i’ve ever read anything by franzen. don’t know that i’m ever likely to.

  2. CJ CJ

    I started reading FREEDOM because of all the touting and gave myself permission to quit it when it became a fit of talking heads around ideologue ridden boardroom tables.

    I am so sick of irony.

    • i’m pretty tired of it myself, CJ. i wonder if it’s a sign of the times that we’re feeling–a sea change with regard to sincerity and commitment and belief.

  3. CJ CJ

    I hope for a tough, unsentimental look at where we are without self congratulations or snark. Hard to do. Reading Hemingway and for me, Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner is a good reminder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.