Hemingway’s early writing for the Toronto Star now online

An excellent resource has appeared online – a collection of Hemingway’s early writing from his time as a journalist for the Toronto Star. Hemingway admitted to owing a great deal to his days as a reporter and critics have claimed it had a huge impact on his aesthetic.

You can see many of the elements of Hemingway’s famous and innovative style in some of these reports. Take this one, ‘The Wild West is Now in Chicago‘, in which his proto-objective, deadpan style captures the intensity of the gamblers’ den, alongside his interest in dramatic situations:

Gambling is flourishing again after a temporary retirement. Of course in every city there will always be certain types of gambling that can go on in spite of all the police can do. Those are the games that require no apparatus, but can be conducted anywhere. When the police raid a crap game, for instance, all that the gamblers must do is have the doors hold long enough for them to sweep the money into the buckskin bag that lies flat open on the billiard table, throw the dice out of the window, and the evidence is missing.

This is a great resource for anyone interested in the development of Hemingway’s writing.

Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: an animated version

This is wonderful. I’ve long been a fan of Ernest Hemingway and The Old Man and The Sea is one of my favourite of his works (you can find my discussion of Hemingway’s minimalist approach on this blog, here). This lovingly crafted 20 minute animation captures it beautifully.


Courtesy of the excellent OpenCulture website, where you can find another animated version.

Ebooks, print and the reading experience: it’s in the words

We might well have lost sight of the following important idea when thinking about the ways in which the ebook has influenced our reading habits in particular, and the book market more generally:

The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.

It’s part of an excellent outline of why we might celebrate being able to read, regardless of the format. Tim Parks is here particularly interest in literary experience, but I think we can fairly replace it with a broader ‘reading experience’ without losing its significance.

In a  masterstroke, Parks suggests we might even be closer to what he calls the ‘essence’ of literary experience, one in which all attention is paid to the words on the screen, rather than their superfluous vehicle, the book:

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. […]  It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves.



A beginner’s guide to a first reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

There is a pithy old joke, told again and again, perhaps most famously by Woody Allen at the beginning of his film Manhattan, that summarises my view of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It goes something like this: two women walk into a restaurant. One says – the food was terrible; to which the other replies – yeah, and such small portions, too.

Well, following Allen’s gag: Ulyssses is both difficult and, at over 900 pages in my edition, there’s a lot of it.

So, how do you approach reading it for the first time? That phrase ‘first time’ is deliberate because I think it’s likely that it will need more than one reading. I hope, because I think it merits it, that you’ll want to do that – I do, having just finished it. Here was my approach, along with one or two ideas, on how you might undertake a reading of Ulysses. I chose 11 points of guidance because it seemed to follow Ulysses’ perverse and contrary spirit. I hope you find them all useful.

1. Ulysses is a work of art to be enjoyed, not an obstacle to be overcome. I say this because it’s not always how I felt. I had to remind myself that in the most difficult and obtuse passages, I was reading this to be enlightened, moved, amazed, awed. If you can keep this in mind, it will help motivate you and keep your mind open its delights.

2. You’ll need other books to help you. Ideally, you should have read Homer’s Odyssey (and remember it). In my view – and this is not shared by others – you’ll also need a commentary. I used Harry Blamires book, which is a line-by-line discussion, written in continuous, clear and concise prose.

I would also strongly recommend reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Waste Land’, along with notes that explain it. This gives an idea of the flavour of the much grander enterprise of reading Ulysses: both are Modernist masterpieces, so you’ll learn something about context; both are difficult and display a variety of style and allusions; both will introduce you to the idea of reading a primary text (the poem and novel), alongside notes on it.

3. You’ll need lots of structured time. As I’ve said, the novel runs in at over 900 pages in my Penguin edition. I read much of the novel in very small chunks, around 20-30 pages at a time. If I had more time, or the inclination, I would read more. For every sitting I would read the Blamires’ commentary, too, so it’s quite an undertaking. Moreover, I would recommend structuring your time a little: say, devote the next month to reading 20 or so pages per day.

4. Embrace the idea of a second reading. In a sense, this is a cop-out. It means those thorny issues can be postponed until the next time. But it also means that you won’t get so demotivated by the difficulty because you know you can return to it later.

5. Read with a pencil in your hand. This is another way of saying ‘be an active reader’. Make notes on things you need to look up. But – importantly – not too many. You might need to leave some things alone for now. Since Ulysses condenses deep reflection on the most mysterious and sophisticated questions of life, you can’t expect to cover it all. Just note those things that will aide your reading or take your interest.

6. If you’re not confused, you haven’t ‘got’ it. Get used to the idea that not all of Ulysses’ ‘problems’ will be solved in either one or several readings. The reading is extremely difficult in some sections and sometimes you’ll wonder why you’re reading it all. Some of the problems of the novel will remain mysteries. That’s ok.

7. Absorb and believe that reading Ulysses is unlike anything you’ve read before. When reading, as with many things, we often use our past experiences to get to grips with a new idea or format. This is unlikely to be the case with Ulysses. It’s not quite like anything else, which is one of the reasons it’s so highly praised. Reading ‘The Waste Land’ (see Point 2, above) will help in at least introducing the process of reading.

8. If you can’t get past a difficult part, skim read it and read the commentary… But don’t read the commentary instead of reading the novel. Although everything in me says this is bad advice, if it’s the difference between giving up and going on, then read what you can, how you can and the commentary be your guiding light. For example, Part 1, Episode Three (‘Proteus’) appears early in the novel [note that your version may not be divided into these named sections – Blamires and others do so, however]. It’s a notoriously difficult read and had me completely puzzled and demotivated. So, I read it, absorbed what I could without becoming anxious about the finer points of interpretation, I read the commentary – then moved on. I think many people stop here, when the novel really becomes difficult. Don’t be one of them.

9. Preview your reading by learning more before you start. I knew quite a bit about Ulysses already and it had coloured my reading. I have done this for other books and it has worked well. Since Ulysses is not plotted in the conventional sense – that is, you’re unlikely to find most satisfaction in how it resolves itself at the end – then I think it’s fine to learn more about it. It’s the telling, not the tale (on the whole), so previewing the structure and learning more about it online might help ‘position’ it as you read. The wikipedia entry is useful in this respect, offering short summaries of the sections.

10. Augment your reading with an unabridged audiobook. There are unabridged versions and so you’ll get the full text. Perhaps these are most useful when supplementing your own reading of the text, for which there is no replacement in my view. Perhaps listening to a difficult section again, in the car on the way to work, might help.

11. Don’t give up! Reading Ulysses is probably one of the most difficult enterprises we can start when reading. But the rewards are immense. Other books will seem easy, you’ll be more popular with your friends and you’ll find life’s slings and arrows bounce off you harmlessly. Well, not quite. But you will have achieved something that many claim and far fewer actually have and what’s more – you will have engaged with a work every bit as good as people say it is.

Good luck with your reading and do share your thoughts and experiences here below.

An oeuvre is not the only fruit

I had a conversation this weekend in which I said I had never read the entire oeuvre of a single writer, or even close to it. Some have read everything by Graham Greene, or Douglas Coupland, and await a new arrival eagerly: but not me. I had no ‘brand loyalty’ I said flippantly. I’ve read a lot of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway I said, even Saul Bellow and Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories, and others too, when I think of it (and therefore began to unravel my opening assertion) and I did so almost by accident, without consciously bringing to mind that ‘this is a writer I want to follow’.

I am tempted to think that a writer of fiction produces one or two great books only: where I have read more than that from a single author, I will tend to think one or two are better than the others. If this is the case, then why not turn to another writer, for his or her best one or two works? I also like to read and learn of new voices and, well – the flesh is weak and there are so many books and all that. Martin Amis, reviewing a collection of short stories by Don Delillo (a collection I would certainly like to read), summarises it thus:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”

Amis is more generous than I am in saying that we love around ‘half’ of an author’s work: perhaps he’s right. Perhaps those who wander from one work to the next think instead of the books they will remember before the authors they love.

The digital article as analogue book: no comment

Brooker's 'The Hell of it All' - 'a genius of spleen'

I love the writing of Charlie Brooker; you may do too, he’s very popular (and if you’ve not read him, he writes here). I think the ‘genius of spleen’ quote, published on the front cover, captures him well, at least for the collection I’m currently reading ‘The Hell of it All’. I’ve bought all of Brooker’s books and I like them. I’ve read most of the articles already on the web but they stand reading again.

But I’m not sure a book (or ‘analogue’, the paper form, to be more precise) is the right format anymore. I felt something was missing when I’ve been reading the latest collection – and that something was the comments and being ‘connected’. Sure, some of them are terrible (there’s still a band of chumps who type ‘First!!!!’ when they’re first to comment) and add little to the article. More, ‘reading below the line’ is notoriously unrewarding for some articles or posts, especially when trolls arrive. But there are is often some genuinely funny and thoughtful stuff, too, well-written and carefully composed little nuggets of wisdom and fun that add to article rather than dilute it. Sometimes the author contributes to the discussion (although not Brooker, to my knowledge). What’s more, the comments often contain links and without them, without the article being connected, it’s harder to enjoy now.

I’m not saying anything particularly new here – the analogue version doesn’t work when derived from the digital. That said, I think the conversion the other way around would work fine but I’ve yet to see it done. Further, it’s not the articles I’m critical of – as I’ve said, I enjoy them equally in book form. It’s just Brooker’s one of those writers who probes, jousts, pokes, encourages – you’ll have an opinion about him, and you’ll want to read what others think, too, on the whole, and perhaps share your own view.

I don’t blame Brooker or anyone else come to that for publishing their work in an analogue form. Indeed, Brooker goes further than most in adding some bits that were cut from the online edition and rearranges them thoughtfully. But now that we’re reading on iPads and other tablets, where we can read the article archive online easily and portably, there’s just little to recommend the analogue over the digital collection of online articles or blog posts.

Barely-related coda

It also occurred to me that when reading digital works, it’s impossible to quote a page number, since people read with the font set at different sizes and therefore the ebook is paginated differently. Is this the end of the use of page references?

Book review: ‘Sum: Tales from the Afterlives’ by David Eagleman (in the style of David Eagleman’s ‘Sum’)

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives

When you die, you spend your time re-reading through all the books you read when you were alive and think more carefully about them. You explore all the possibilities they offer, follow all the narrative threads, contemplate the characters, plot themes and writing style. In short, you’re given as long as it takes to read and digest only the books you’ve already read. This might be a shorter afterlife for some than others. Reading books at all, let alone contemplating them, might have been a problem when you were alive because – well, we’ve all been busy. We sometimes skip pages, even chapters. But when you’re dead you have more time. As much time as you need, in fact.

You re-read and re-interpret the books in death in the sequence that you read and interpreted them in life. This has the advantage of gently easing you into your long-term past-time because the books we read as children are quite easy to grasp. You may have forgotten that you’ve read ‘Spot is Missing’ or a ‘Dr Seuss’ story, but there it is. Take your time.

Aeons, books pass. You have to squeeze all the meaning and effect out of them. It is tiring. Sometimes it is a blessing, sometimes a curse. Millions of years pass before you start on your first ‘Famous Five’ story and work begins on those teenage novels.

By the time you reach David Eagleman’sSum: Tales from the Afterlives‘, you’re an old hand at reading and thinking about books. You’ve done it before. You’ve read some heavyweights in your time, too: Shakespeare, ‘Moby Dick’, a handful of Russian novels. You think there is little that can surprise you. Given the time you’ve spent reading and thinking, you can be forgiven for being a little jaded. So you’re relieved to find ‘Sum’ quite short and in big type, too. This won’t take long, relatively speaking.

But you find that when you’re reading the forty different stories about what happens when we die that you’re more impressed than you thought you might be. This really is something, you think. These short stories – imaginings, really, thought pieces that speculate with great originality on worlds that lie beyond death – are quite unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Take, for example, the story called ‘Circle of Friends’ that describes an afterlife in which the only people who exist for you in your afterlife are those you remember from your life. At first it seems great, because all those people you were meaningfully connected with while you were alive – your lovers, family and close friends, your schoolmates and teachers – they are all there, just as they ever were. But after a while you realise that there are so many other people you are destined never to meet, because you don’t remember them from life. You complain about it but no one listens or sympathises because ‘this is precisely what you chose when you were alive’.

When you’re reading ‘Sum’, you start to think – just how do these stories make me feel? Mostly, they make you feel that you should have done more when you were alive. ‘Circle of Friends’ makes you feel like you should have gotten to know more people, those people that were on the outskirts of your life, or even those you saw every day or lived near or shared a workplace with.

In other stories, you read about god, or gods – sometimes they are frail and ‘human’, at other times unrecognisable from the tales you learnt when you were alive. Another story outlines how, in the afterlife, you can choose to be any animal you like when you live again. Someone chooses a horse- for the simplicity, the grace, the uncomplicated sense of ‘being’ one imagines – but immediately regrets doing so, as they feel the inevitable and irreversible emotional and intellectual decline that having a horse’s mind and intellect brings for someone human.

Your head begins to spin as you wonder if you’ll ever have enough time to think about all the ideas this book touches upon. At the same time, you’ve got an idea that these forty very short tales tell more or less the same message. And you find yourself wanting to go back to being alive so you can share that message: that your life means ‘precisely what you choose when you were alive’. It is how you will be remembered, how you will remember. You wish you had read more books, listened more, thought more carefully about the stories that open at each instance of your life – all so the sum of your (after)life would be the greater.

In the afterlife, at the end of reading each book you are asked if you would recommend it to others, knowing they might have to read and think about it for centuries. For ‘Sum: Tales of the Afterlives’ the short answer is a definite ‘yes’. The long answer will take a lot longer to explain.

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake: interpreting literary texts

Is there a text in this class?

Is there a text in this class?

It seems self-evident to think that our tastes in literature and our interpretation of texts is grounded in our unique selves. The meaning and effect we find in reading is the sum of our parts, or even more so, created and sustained through an unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated configuration of our individual personality, experiences and background.

I remember hearing as a child that each snowflake had a unique design, and later seeing that most wonderfully demonstrated in those unforgettable photos of microscopically-enhanced individual snowflakes, their geometric, symmetrical details organised into mind-boggingly endless possibilities. And then being told – you’re as unique as that snowflake, beautiful and individual.

Thinking more broadly, such beliefs are probably sustained through a necessity of considering ourselves as individuals, a sign of how far our ego protects us by identifying us as special amongst a morass of different, sometimes competing, external forces, including other people. Whatever the reason, it’s permeated our culture for some time, and we may remember finding it illustrated in the snowflake example from our shared cultural heritage.*

You might reasonably think that as a unique snowflake (leaving the beauty aside) that there would be very little consensus when it comes to interpretation. Following this through, as individuals, we experience meaning and effect as relative to our persona. Extended logically, we should all generate different interpretations, have different tastes, given that we have uniquely individual lives.

But we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes (at least when it comes to interpretation of literary texts).

Some time ago, the literary critic and theorist Stanley Fish ran some experiments with his class to see the extent to which they agreed on details of the texts they read. (His experiment and results can be read in his work, Interpreting the Variorum and the brilliantly titled, Is There a Text in this Class?). What he found, in brief, was that there was a large degree of consensus within what became known as ‘interpretative communities‘. These communities shared common ideas, backgrounds, experiences: they might, for example, have taken a class on Romantic Poets before they read Blake; or their economic and social circumstances may have been similar; they may also be aware of the authorial intent (although the usefulness of this is another matter). Fish’s work is quite old now, but it’s still relevant, and highly influential.

Despite the division of people into communities, his work shows us that our interpretations and tastes are largely a product of the social groups in which we sit – our ‘uniqueness’ does not, at least in these terms, extend to an indivisible relativistic singular – a person, a ‘unique and beautiful snowflake’. This helps explain why some books become classics, or even that some are published at all – because an agent or publisher will decide what they think the market will like. That market is just another interpretative community. What is more, those books, when published, are no less subject to the writer’s own contract with his or her interpretative community; ideas, inspiration and so on are a product too of the community in which the writer belongs (the notion of intertextuality is useful here).

It doesn’t mean that our take on books and our reading is not valuable, not least to ourselves. Rather, it means that your reading in a broader sense is a product of the interpretative communities – for there will be more than one – in which you reside. Reading (and writing), far from being a solitary endeavour, might be more social than we first think.

* In this case I mean, a Western one; I suspect but don’t know for sure if this idea exists elsewhere in quite the same way.

How literary minimalism works: reading Raymond Carver’s Beginners

Front cover of UK edition of Raymond Carver's 'Beginners'

Were Lish's edits justified?

Raymond Carver never liked being called a literary minimalist but he was one, at least under the editorial knife of his sometime editor, Gordon Lish. Beginners, Carver’s posthumous collection of the unedited stories that were first published as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in a heavily edited form in 1981, goes some way to renegotiating that label.

Because Carver didn’t like the term, it doesn’t mean the stories are any better now that Beginners restores them to their original, less-minimalist state. As you might expect, comparing the new volume with the old we find that some stories are better, some remain largely the same, but some are worse without the would-be villainous hand of Lish.

I hesitate to say Carver didn’t solely produce his own best work. It goes against many of those conventions we hold dear about genius, creativity and authorship in general and about what we – and I, as a scholar of Carver’s work* – believe and trust in particular. Such a claim is best demonstrated through example, so I’m going to do that here.

Much has been said about Carver and Lish and the overall different effect of reading both versions, but I’m going to show how it works in detail through a close comparative reading of the opening passages of a less well celebrated story. In What We Talk About… (WWTA) it is called ‘I Could See the Smallest Things’; in Beginners (B) it is called ‘Want to See Something?’

Here’s the opening from WWTA:

I was in bed when I heard the gate. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I heard that. I tried to wake Cliff. He was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars. Any damn fool could imagine a face there.

And here’s the opening from B:

I was in bed when I heard the gate unlatch. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I had heard that. I tried to wake cliff, but he was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon hung over the mountains that surrounded the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars, easy enough to imagine a face there – eye sockets, nose, even the lips.

I’m going to go through it, picking up the most significant changes. Here’s the first line again:

I was in bed when I heard the gate. (WWTA)

I was in bed when I heard the gate unlatch. (B)

The minimalist enterprise was concerned with paring down sentences by removing words, phrases and so on. This is a good example of that in action. In the minimalist version, the word ‘unlatch’ is removed. The effect is to remove certainty and introduce ambiguity: we know the gate has made a sound but we don’t know why. In some cases, this is preferable and you might argue that knowing the gate had become unlatched is more sinister and troubling than simply hearing the gate. Typically, though, minimalist writers won’t tell you want to think and you can see that even a single word can reveal a specific and clear meaning. This example shows how the minimalist aesthetic invites the reader to participate in the interpretation of the story because there is a paucity of detail: something is missing, so the reader must provide it.

Moving on. Here’s the next significant difference between the texts:

I tried to wake Cliff. He was passed out. (WWTA)

I tried to wake cliff, but he was passed out. (B)

This example illustrates how small changes in the text affect the ways in which the rhythm of reading works. In the minimalist example from WWTA, the causative ‘but’ is removed and the sentence is divided. It creates a stopping effect, slows the reading down, and in the context of this passage (and story) underscores the feeling of sudden wakefulness or nervous attention. There’s no smooth transition to support from her partner; Cliff (his name itself suggestive of large immovability) remains defiantly unaware of her ordeal. How the story is read, the pace and flow of the text, helps with the minimalist effect.

Here’s the next line:

A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city (WWTA)

A big moon hung over the mountains that surrounded the city (B)

The minimalist technique depended upon inference, elision and ambiguity, so giving the reader too clear a didactic nod would undermine this approach. Typically you find this working in the absence of any kind of interior monologue or access to feelings in many minimalist stories (and in particular, those of Hemingway). Here the effect is the same but more subtle. I like to think that minimalists often describe scenes with the kind of objectivity you find in a photograph. In the example above, the moon was ‘big’ and was ‘laid’ over the mountains that ‘went around’ the city. All of this is detached observation without much of a hint at evaluation.

Carver's minimalist masterpiece

Compare this with the same ‘big’ moon that ‘hung’ over mountains that ‘surrounded’ the city. Both the terms ‘hung’ and ‘surrounded’ are evaluative and don’t sit with their feet inside the hard-minimalist camp (to coin a phrase). For example, the word ‘surrounded’ suggests a kind of siege, which is analogous to how she feels being trapped in her room while. In this case this single word, even though it’s not hard-minimalism, works well to be evocative without overdoing it. (And if you think that’s reading too much into it, then you’re not reading carefully enough – this is what good writers do in general and minimalist ones in particular.) Similarly, the omission of detail in the moon’s face in the first example is typical of the way that minimalist pared back the detail of their writing to hint at more than they told the reader outright.

Now, we know that nothing – including a photograph – is purely innocent, so we might like to say these aspire to this detached, objective condition at such times. But the effect, paradoxically, is very far from detachment. This is the case because often it’s the accumulation of small details working together that create the minimalist approach and its effect. And working together, the ambiguity of being non-specific about which way the gate is opening; the staccato reading of longer sentences divided into smaller, single-clause barbs; and the taming of evaluative adjectives such as ‘hung’ and ‘surrounded’ all work together to pare back the interpretative clues readers have at their disposal, and which invite the reader to find much more in the story than the words printed on the page.

When thinking about the inevitable question about which story (and approach) was better, it depends on how you like your literature. In a crude metaphor, if you’re the kind of person who likes loose ends at the end of the film, who doesn’t enjoy being spoon-fed or manipulated into a precise way of reading a film, if you like the film to make you think a bit, then you might like and appreciate the kind of minimalist writing that made – and sustains – Carver’s acclaim, in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Recently, we’ve become increasingly interested in working in collaboration (following ideas such as ‘collective journalism’ or ‘crowd sourcing‘) but we’re not accustomed to thinking of our most prized writing as being written by what we might pejoratively call a ‘committee’. In many other cases, we still adhere to an outmoded version of creativity springing from an individual mind, perhaps more or less troubled and tossed upon the whimsy of genius, sat in isolation, wrestling with no one other than his or her muse. But as this example illustrates, in a stark harsh light, how far this myth fails to capture the reality of writing, and how writers and editors may work together to create more than the sum of their individual talents.

*I’ve written a PhD on literary minimalism, of which Carver occupies a third (alongside Ernest Hemingway and Frederick Bartheleme). You can read the introduction here.