Hemingway’s writing rules and art deco

It was Ernest Hemingway, I think, who thrust modern writing upon the twentieth century. His words were unadorned prose, stripped of its adjectives. Plain, straight-forward language that drew the reader closer to the gritty reality of the human condition that he was exploring.

He wrote the shortest and most poignant story I’ve ever read. “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” His writing rules, which he was given as a junior reporter at the Kansas City Star, were:

1. Write short sentences.
2. Use short first paragraphs
3. Use vigorous English
4. Be positive, not negative

I’ll post my own take on them shortly. The point today is that Hemingway didn’t make them up. But he did apply them – along with the principle that he wrote 91 pages of rubbish for every page of masterpiece. Writers worldwide followed in his footsteps – in America, everyone from Steinbeck to Heinlein to Kerouac. Together they set the pattern for the literary styles of the mid-to-late twentieth century. They gave us the antithesis of the adjectival prose that had been the accepted style of the nineteenth century. The writing equivalent of streamline moderne – stripped back yet asethetically stylish, functional yet also artistic.

But that didn’t kill Victorian florid. One of the masters of it was Edward Elmer Smith, a contemporary of Hemingway. They were opposites: Hemingway the art-writer, Hemingway the novelist, the man who penetrated to the heart of human condition and its gritty, difficult realities. The man who did it in a few words with razor-like precision. Smith couldn’t really write and knew it – he sent himself up, consciously, in some of his later books. He was a very smart guy; an engineer, and he invented a whole new genre – space opera. This became synonymous with science fiction and was mainstreamed in 1977 when Star Wars burst into popular imagination. (Yes, Star Wars is pure ‘space opera’,)

Smith’s style was the antithesis of Hemingway. Try these lines from Spacehounds of IPC, a space opera of 1930 filled with ravening rays and refulgent force fields:

“Upon the outer ray-screen, flaming white into incandescent defense, the furious bolt spent itself, and in the instant of the launching of the searing blade of flame, Brandon had gone into action. Switch after switch drove home, and one after another those frightful fields of force, those products of the mightiest minds of three planets, were hurled out against the tiny Jovian sphere. Driven as they were by the millions upon millions of horsepower stored in the accumulators of the Sirius they formed a coruscating spherical shell of intolerable energy all around the enemy vessel, but even their prodigious force was held at bay by the powerful defensive screens of the smaller space-ship.”
– E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Spacehounds of IPC, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/20857/pg20857.txt

Ouch. You can read the whole book online here. In point of fact, it’s not just space opera, today we also classify it ‘dieselpunk’ or ‘decopunk’ – the art deco equivalent of steampunk. Think Flash Gordon. I’ll detail more about ‘dieselpunk’ tomorrow – it’s worth a post.

So where Hemingway and the others made modernism/deco/streamline a feature of their writing style and approach to their books, Smith made it his story setting. But his actual writing style couldn’t be called that for a second. His words have a kind of eager teenage feel, telling not showing, amateurish, wordy, passive. Sometimes held up as the epitome of purple. Probably wouldn’t be touched by any publishing house today. Actually, it wasn’t back then – Smith published initially with the pulp SF magazines, named after the low-grade paper they used rather than their content. But the writing was pulpy too. Rates were typically a cent a word, which weren’t great even by 1930s standards.

We can thank Hemingway and his art-writing contemporaries for the transformation. Certainly ‘plain’ is the style I prefer to use myself – as I’ve said before, I rather like the Asimov angle, which is even more plain-vanilla.

Still, one of my ambitions as a writer has been to try and get the word ‘refulgent’ into one of my books. Smith’s two uses in Spacehounds were: ‘Above them, and to their right, Saturn shone refulgently, his spectacular rings plainly visible.’ And: ‘…from the bright liquid of the girdling moat there shot vertically upward a coruscantly refulgent band of intense yellow luminescence.’

Coruscant as adverb? Vertically upward? Just in case a reader thought it had gone horizontally upward…no? Um. For some reason I haven’t managed ‘refulgent’ yet in my own writing. Ahem.

What’s your favoured style?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


4 thoughts on “Hemingway’s writing rules and art deco

  1. They’re both extremes. Hemingway was brilliant but I can’t be quite that stripped-back and I’m not sure I’d want to be. We already have one Hemingway. But you’re right, we can’t discount his influence on the modern style. Interesting post!

    1. Thanks. I thought the dissonance was worth highlighting – you’re right, they’re both extremes. Smith particularly so (but, I think, quite knowingly on his part…I hope).

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