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About Writing Right: The Blog


Have you read Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms? If so, did you love it ... or hate it? One author read a copy as an eBook and found it so lacking in substance and quality of writing that he questioned whether or not it was a bad translation from a foreign language. Then, he asked my opinion, to which I responded.

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That's something of a silly question, isn't it, considering you indicated no source for your eBook or shared any of its contents? That reduces anybody's answer to your question to little more than an educated guess.


With that said, I have studied Hemingway's history and works for decades, and I wrote about him (both fiction and nonfiction) on several occasions. Like everyone else in the universe, I have a distinct impression of the caliber of his writing. It's great.


It's great, that is, for a journalist seeking to become a novelist.


For a novelist seeking to be stylishly relevant, poetic, imaginative, and grammatically accurate, it's not so great.


Hemingway's development as a writer is marked by numerous historical events—from a mother dressing her boy like a precious little girl to his experience as a newspaper reporter. From his being turned away for military service to his numerous lifelong bouts with illness and accidents. From his failed marriages and the constant fear fueled by the FBI's hounding him from his days as a Spanish Civil War correspondent to the end of his life, when he finally found the peace he'd searched for forever.


In short, my guess as to why Hem hadn't a clue as to how to write what most people today would call "great literature" is simple: He had neither the training nor the inclination to do so. His style remained much the same as it was as a reporter, and despite that (and in some cases because of it), his writing caught on with the American reading public. The fact that so many of his works translated into Hollywood films is a tribute to the man's conviction that "story" is everything; style is overrated. And his "stories" came from his own experiences that, in great part, reflected his life in his writings. In that sense, his sparse literary style makes even more sense. He accomplished more as his own memoirist/autobiographer than he would ever do as a writer of great fiction.


Still, If I could name two reasons I would kill to have bent an elbow with Hem in a Havana bar back in the forties, they would be to hear his fantastic tales grow ever more so as the evening wound on and to watch him glow in the admiration of everyone with whom he crossed paths, from kings and presidents to Ava Gardener and Gary Cooper. What a light in the darkness he must have appeared to be.


Anyway, with all this nonsense out of the way, I suspect that your eBook copy of A Farewell to Arms is just that—a relatively accurate copy of the story taken from Scribener's original publication. The fact that you find its style and grammar to be "poorly written" merely welcomes you into a very large club.


I recall as an example a story of one freelance writer frustrated with the endless stream of rejection slips his submissions netted him. To prove to himself that publishers don't know any more about great literature than the average guy on the street, he printed out one of Hemingway's works and submitted it to publication under a pseudonym. Not a single publisher who took the time to comment on the submission had anything positive to say about it. Nor did anyone offer a contract on it.


A sign of the publishing industry's arrogance and stupidity? Or that Hem's work simply doesn't hold a candle to modern literature? Or, perhaps, both? We'll never know. But we can all surmise. And I'm sure the world will continue to do so as long as literary criticism exists.


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at substack.Com.

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