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To publish posthumously and squeeze a bit more money for the estate of the writer and his publisher (even though the work might be crap) or not? Decisions, decisions, though as it turned out not a difficult one for Charles Scribner’s Sons, of New York, publishers to the gentry

Below are around 400 words from Joan Didion’s piece — the opening — on the practice of publishing Hemingway’s work posthumously. It appeared in the November 9, 1998, issue of the New Yorker. NB I had never heard of Joan Didion, either, but I gather she is — she is now 85 — a journalist, essayist and writer who is well-known in the United States.

I should preface this by saying — and this is relevant — that literary criticism is and cannot be a science. In fact, that is true of all art criticism. Well, that’s obvious, you might counter, of course it isn’t, how can it be? But hang on: even those who agree with me often inadvertently behave as if it were a science; or if not exactly ‘a science’, a discipline akin to a science which commands — rightly, many would insist — the respect we pay to science; and that just as the various sciences have their acknowledged experts who know more than you and I about their field, so criticism has folk akin to such experts who know more about their field than ordinary joes like you and I.

Well, if that is your view, there is your first piece of nonsense. And when I seem to diss literary and art criticism and pooh-pooh the expertise of critics, I am, at least, in good company: Virginia Woolf was equally unimpressed by the airs and graces acquired by such criticism.

If we acknowledge the fundamental dichotomy between ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ and accept — not that you can do otherwise — that they are mutually exclusive, literary (and art) criticism falls squarely in the ‘subjectivity’ camp — there can be no ‘objective’ literary or artistic judgment.

Yet, as Woolf points out when writing about literary critics in her review (New York Herald Tribune, Oct 9, 1927) of Hemingway’s volume of short stories, Men Without Women (first published in 1927) something odd happens when the ‘ordinary’ reading public is confronted with the views of a literary critic. It is worth reading her full essay (which you can find here), but one pertinent bit is this, another opening paragraph:

‘There may be good reasons for believing in a King or a Judge or a Lord Mayor. When we see them go sweeping by in their robes and their wigs, with their heralds and their outriders, our knees begin to shake and our looks to falter. But what reason there is for believing in critics it is impossible to say. They have neither wigs nor outriders. They differ in no way from other people if one sees them in the flesh. Yet these insignificant fellow creatures have only to shut themselves up in a room, dip a pen in the ink, and call themselves ‘we’, for the rest of us to believe that they are somehow exalted, inspired, infallible. Wigs grow on their heads. Robes cover their limbs.
No greater miracle was ever performed by the power of human credulity. And, like most miracles, this one, too, has had a weakening effect upon the mind of the believer. He begins to think that critics, because they call themselves so, must be right. He begins to suppose that something actually happens to a book when it has been praised or denounced in print. He begins to doubt and conceal his own sensitive, hesitating apprehensions when they conflict with the critics’ decrees.’

Let me extrapolate from what Woolf writes: because at first the ordinary reader ‘begins to think that critics . . . must be right. . . He begins to doubt and conceal his own sensitive, hesitating apprehensions when they conflict with the critics’ decrees’, hey presto, by some obscure alchemy the critic’s subjective opinion — that this writer is ‘good’ but this writer isn’t (or in the world of art criticism, that this picture ‘is art’ but that picture isn’t) — mysteriously and almost unobtrusively crosses the divide between ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’.

Very soon those judgments are ‘facts’: in many people’s minds it becomes a ‘fact’ that Picasso, Klee, Stravinsky, Epstein, Joyce, Beckett are geniuses. Teenage students are taught as much and so the ‘fact’ is passed from generation to generation. A corollary is — the first of many circular arguments which bedevil much talk about ‘art’ — that the work they produced (and are producing if they are still alive) are ‘masterpieces’. And why is it a ‘masterpiece’? Why, because so-and-so who write/painted/composed it is really great! And why is he really great? Well, just look at this, the novel/painting/piece of music he/she has produced (though, as is the way of the world, it is usually a ‘he’)! Etc.

By now there is also a tacit implication: if you disagree with these judgments by men and women — though, as is the way of the world, mainly men — you don’t know what you are talking about and you are a fool. And because few of us care to look foolish in the eyes of our peers, we find ourselves beaten into acquiescent silence, take care to watch our p’s and q’s and might even be cowed enough by the mighty critics into echoing their judgments.

One odd consequence of this canonisation of various composers, painters and writers is that their work, when it goes up for sale, begins to command fabulous prices. At this point I would briefly like to point out, but not spend too much time on doing so, that the ‘value’ of a work of art is essentially what someone who wants to own it is prepared to pay for it. So when you hear that in 1990 at Sotheby’s in London Paul Klee’s Der Künftige (pictured)

sold for $3,717,600 all you know with any certainty is that someone or some institution wanted the pictures enough to cough up $3,717,600. (I must say I do like it and would certainly tolerate it in my living room but that’s because I like it as an image, a picture, not because it is ‘a Paul Klee’ and I rather like the idea of folk thinking I have taste because I own and have on my wall ‘a Paul Klee’.

Casting around the net for an example of ‘value’ in art, I just happened upon that particular painting, and until about eight minutes ago I had no idea it is ‘a perfect example of Paul Klee’s politically engaged art. This painting was a response to the call of totalitarian pseudo-utopian ideologies in the 1930s for the evolution of a New Man. This is addressed of course to the fascist and Nazi dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, as well as to Stalin’. I’ve got to say looking at it, I’d have never guessed that. The things you learn.

Oddly enough — I’ve done a little more casting about on the net and this is somehow relevant to discussing the ‘value’ of a work of art — 20 years on after that sale, whoever bought it at Sothebys in 1990 sold it again at Christie’s in New York and got $387,100 less for it than she/he paid for it. That makes my point rather well: surely the ‘artistic ’ of Klee’s Der Künftige hasn’t declined? Surely if it was a great painting in 1990, it is still a great paining now?

All we can say from the drop in price that for whatever reason — the whim of potential buyers, the global banking crisis (this was in 2010) or just the weather being so bad in New York on Tuesday, May 4 of that year that Christie’s had fewer bods at that particular auction that it did not make the price expected.

So, yet again, that circular argument is very simple. Actually, I can even — I think — legitimately use the word simplistic (one that increasingly of late is used to mean ‘simple’ although both words have distinct meanings). It goes: this novel/poem/painting/piece of music is great/a masterpiece. Why? Because it is by so-and-so, and so-and-so is an artistic genius. Why do you claim he is a genius? Because he [it’s usually a bloody he, I don’t know if you have noticed] produces work like this.

Collapse of stout party.

. . .

I’ve mentioned several times before that I am ‘working’ on a piece about Hemingway and how, in my view, he was certainly far from being the literary genius he is often claimed to be, and how, in my view, his ‘debut’ novel (i.e. it wasn’t he debut novel but is often regarded as such) The Sun Also Rises is far from being the masterpiece it is often claimed to be.

My project is slowly acquiring the characteristic of ‘interminable’, mainly because I keep coming across more books relevant to the subject, which I buy, read and which in some ways obliged me to reshape the piece (as in ‘re-write’) will eventually produce.

As I shall post it here, I don’t want to say too much more, but I strongly suspect something similar to that circular argument took place when Hemingway first ‘burst upon the literary scene’. When his work began to be published, first a collection of short stories (In Our Time in 1925, then The Sun Also Rises in 1926) his work — the then unique style in which is was written, his subject matter and his treatment of it — was so utterly different to what else was on sale that it caused a sensation.

His publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, with both eyes on the bottom line, came up with great marketing and advertising strategy, selling Hemingway as a writer quite unlike his peers, an ‘action man writer’, and the public, as always eager for novelty, took him up with gusto. The myth of Hemingway the ‘literary genius’ took root.

A year later came Men Without Women, his second collection of short stories, but both he and Scribner’s knew he had to produce a follow-up novel to sustain the success, and in 1929 he published A Farewell To Arms. It was in the same style, contained more ‘obscene’ language — horribly lame ‘obscene language’ by contemporary standards, but that isn’t the point — and that reputation was established. Hemingway, the young turk and literature’s latest sensation, had arrived.

It helped that the man himself was a bombastic, duplicitous, attention-seeking self-publicising narcissist who, perversely insisted point-blank that he wasn't interested in celebrity and just wanted to write. That was a ludicrous claim, given that he subscribed to two news cuttings service which kept him informed on the growth of the celebrity he certainly did not want, but more of that when I post my piece (at some point).

In 1932 published Death In The Afternoon (1932), an odd amalgam of a guide to bullfighting and writing which sold badly in Depression-era America (and didn’t much please his publisher who were urging Hemingway to write a third bloody novel). A year later came Winner Take Nothing [sic], his third final collection of original short

stories; and in 1935 came The Green Hills Of Africa, an account of his safari in Africa, which also failed to set Depression-era America alight (many of whose potential readers could not afford to put food on the table let alone gallivant Africa slaughtering wildlife).

Two years later came the novella To Have And Have Not, cobbled together from several short stories, which yet again failed to enthuse the reading public. And if you are thinking ‘but wasn’t that a huge success?’ you will actually be thinking of the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film which had almost nothing in common with Hemingway’s novella, except the name of the main protagonist and the first chapter.

In 1938 came The Fifth Column And The First 49 Stories. The stories were simply those which had appeared in his first two volumes, In Our Time and Men With Women. The Fifth Column was a silly play,  written when Hemingway was holed up (with his third wife-to-be, the blonde journalist Martha Gellhorn) in Madrid’s Hotel Florida under contract to report on the Spanish Civil War about a cynical, hard-drinking journalist who has an affair with a blonde colleague and is working undercover as a spy. It was never staged as Hemingway had written it.

After that came nothing until in 1950 when Hemingway wrote Across The River And Into The Trees, and embarrassing tale of a 50-year-old war hero reminiscing about an affair he had with an 18-year-old Italian teenager. At the time Hemingway, also 50, was infatuated with an 19-year-old Italian teenager. In 1952 came The Old Man And The Sea, another novella which sold brilliantly but which also brought the charge that Hemingway was parodying his own style. And until he died in July 1961, Hemingway published nothing more, though he had been working intermittently on several projects.

In 1970 came Islands In The Stream, edited by someone or other somewhere from reams and reams of prose he had been writing; then, in 1986, Scribner’s published a novel called The Garden Of Eden, an odd sexual fantasy about, ahem, a successful writer and his second wife, he had been working on intermittently for 30 years, which was again boiled down from what he had written. Finally, in 1999, came a book about his second African safari, which appeared as True At First Light, boiled down to a quarter its length from the 250,000 words Hemingway had written.

Despite brave claims by Hemingway champions along the lines that all three books are ‘important additions’ to ‘the Hemingway oeuvre’, all three got bad to lukewarm reviews and sold badly. One biographer, Matthew Brucolli, summed up that oeuvre neatly: ‘. . . Hemingway did not progress from strength to strength. His best work was done before he was thirty, and he produced only one major novel — For Whom the Bell Tolls — after 1929. . . Everything he did, everything he wrote, became important because he was Ernest Hemingway.’ That makes my point quite well.

. . .

In what follows Didion provides an analysis of the opening paragraph to A Farewell To Arms which is, to my mind, ludicrous. That the paragraph is somehow ‘brilliant’ is a given as far as Didion is concerned. I, on the other hand, would like to point out that any number of writers, whether they are fictionalists or working hacks (journalists) can and very often do produce prose which is often far better.

This passage is possibly now too well-known, but were I to show it to someone who was unfamiliar with the novel and asked for a judgment, I suggest that judgment would be ’it’s OK, nice enough’ and would then I might be ask ‘where’s it from’. Well, I suggest it could well be from the travel diary of a recent graduate taking a year off before starting her/his career. Bear that in mind when you read what Didion has to say.

That first paragraph of the novel reads:

‘In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.’

Then comes Didion’s take on it [new paragraphs inserted by me to make what she wrote it easier to read]:

‘So goes the famous first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ which I was moved to reread by the recent announcement that what was said to be Hemingway’s last novel would be published posthumously next year. That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six such words myself.
Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one. Twenty-four of the words are ‘the,’ fifteen are ‘and.’ There are are four commas. The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of ‘the’ and of ‘and,’ creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of ‘the’ before the word ‘leaves’ in the fourth sentence (‘and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling’) casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season. 
The power of the paragraph, offering as it does the illusion but not the fact of specificity, derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information. In the late summer of what year? What river, what mountains, what troops?

I think it is pertinent that Didion first came across the novel and it’s opening paragraph at an impressionable age — she says she was 12 or 13 — and to illuminate why I think it is pertinent, I should like to quote Vladimir Nabokov’s judgment of Hemingway’s work.

In an interview with the ‘futurist’ Alvin Toffler in 1964 published in Playboy, he agreed he had once described Hemingway (and Joseph Conrad) as ‘writers of books for boys’ and added: ‘In neither of these two writers can I find anything that I would care to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile . . .’ Sums it all up rather well, although if push came to shove I would defend Conrad’s writing long after I had given up defending anything by Hemingway.

What is ‘mysterious’ and ‘thrilling’ about it? I’m blowed if I know, but then you might counter along the lines that I am quite ’obviously to stupid/biased/contrary to see it’. And there is no response to that.

As for the ‘liturgical cadence’ of the paragraphs with so enthrals Didion (thanks to ‘the placement of commas’) I really do think she should get out a bit more. I have personally come across any number of feature writers in my time in newspaper who could turn out paragraphs like that seven times before tea, but who didn’t and don’t make a song and dance about ‘the writer’ writing ‘truly’.

’The irony — the Hemingway story is full of ironies — is that his style did influence how English literature evolved throughout the 20th century. Many respected writers cite Hemingway and his style as ‘an influence’. But that doesn’t mean it was necessarily good. Many jazz guitarists will happily admit that when they were ten and becoming interested in the instrument, they were strongly influenced by the playing Bill Hailey and Buddy Holly or even Old Blighty’s very own Bert Weedon.

I must stop here because I could go on for ages and would simply be repeating what I have so far written elsewhere and what I intend to write. But let me leave you with this: read (or re-read) Hemingway’s story — sorry, his ‘celebrated’ story — The Killers (you can find it here). As far as I am concerned it is a rather poor attempt by Hemingway to emulate the ‘hard-boiled style becoming popular at the time, eventually leading to the work of Dashiell Hammett.

Again if you were unfamiliar with it and didn’t recognise it as Hemingway’s ‘celebrated’ story and I instead told you I had written it, I suspect it would no longer be ‘celebrated’ and you would cast about for a way politely telling me ’nice try but no cigar’. Ah, but as it is by Hemingway . . .

Please, Ms Didion, let’s all try and calm down and stay a little more sober.


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