Ernest Hemingway has always been an intriguing character for me. He was always critical of what was going on around the world, traveling all over it, and looking for new experiences in his life. He also had a strong obsession with conveying masculinity in every single aspect of his life: going to wars, hunting, fishing enormous creatures, and even being a womanizer. Much has been said about that obsession with masculinity. Some link it to his early childhood, when his mother dressed him like a little girl out of her dream of having twins. It’s said that this was so compulsive that she even used to call him Ernestine and made his sister skip one year of school so that her tale was believable. Naturally, this is something that sounds logical if we were to understand to what extent he wanted to separate himself from anything that had to do with femininity (except women, of course). Besides his image as the ultimate macho man, he also translated these ideas to the realm of literature.
In his article for the Washington Post, Matthew Adams states that, when it came to Hemingway’s pen, he did as much as he could to "man up" literature, which according to him, had been so badly tainted with femininity by authors such as Oscar Wilde. He believed literature had to be straightforward and simple, that figures of speech were nothing but a distraction and an unnecessary “girly” ornamentation. His simplicity and economy of words have another reason besides his apparent sexism, and that is his famous “telegraphic style.” He worked as a newspaper correspondent and had to send his stories through the telegraph. At the time, the cost of a transmitted message depended on a word-counting system. He learned how to be concise and simple, adapting later this style into his own work.
All these quirks, we often know as style, captivated the spirit of several young aspiring writers who wished they had Papa Hemingway teaching them all his secrets. However, there was only one fortunate young man who managed to get along with the writer and made him want to transmit his wisdom and tips. And that lucky lad was Arnold Samuelson, a Journalism grad who thought that the only way to really conclude his formation was by learning from Hemingway. In that way, he followed the writer and convinced him to take him on as his apprentice. Surprisingly, he accepted and had him around for about a year. In this educational relationship, the best advice Hemingway passed to young Samuelson was a list of sixteen must-reads for anyone who wants to become a real writer. Of course, these books are huge pillars of universal literature including master authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Henry James, E.E. Cummings, James Joyce, among others. But somehow I think this list wouldn’t be that suitable for contemporary aspiring writers, especially because it's most likely you’ve read them already, and more importantly, because they are all white-western-masculine perspectives (with the one exception of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights). For that reason, bearing in mind why Papa Hemingway recommended these books, we’re offering 3 alternative choices that might be more relevant today.
Anna Karenina / Small Island
Hemingway naturally recommends what’s considered to be the best novel of all times. And it's likely that there is no contemporary novel that can surpass this one in terms of the masterful use of language. However, there’s no doubt that it has inspired so many writers throughout the years, who have seen in Tolstoy a great example of quality social criticism. Following that idea, in her novel Small Island, Andrea Levy presents a story dealing with social and racial stereotypes between Jamaica’s colonial history and the migration experience in England. In both islands, the characters will see how no matter your social class, race will always determine the treatment you receive.
A Moveable Feast / Never Any End to Paris
It would have been quite pretentious to include himself on a list of must read, and naturally, he didn’t do it. But he clearly learned from the best and became one of the most important writers in history. For that reason, I considered including one of his books. Actually, this is not a novel but a memoir of his time in Paris. Just as young Samuelson, here you can learn all his experiences during such an interesting time for the arts and literature. Following the same path, Enrique Vila-Matas, a Spanish author, takes Hemingway’s book as inspiration and creates a fictionalized autobiography of his own experience, tracking down the lives of the best authors during the twenties to be inspired and become a writer himself.
Ulysses / Mrs. Dalloway
James Joyce is part of Hemingway’s list with his famous book Dubliners. Joyce is considered one of the best authors of the twentieth century and a pillar in the English-speaking literature. One of his most important novels, Ulysses, has been considered one of the most innovative texts in terms of narrative. The story of Leopold Bloom masterly mimics the story of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. With a similar narrative structure, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway presents a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway in the eve of a party she’s organizing. The novel is filled with analysis and ideas regarding feminism, existentialism, sexuality, among others. Many critics claim that this is, in fact, Woolf’s response to Joyce.
If you want to see the complete list, follow this link.
More than a guide with steps to follow, writing is a matter of letting your creativity run amok, cultivating yourself every day, and conveying the ideas you have inside. However, listening to the advice of consecrated authors can be very enlightening. If you want to know their secret, take a look at these tips: