Weekend Reading: January 6, 2017

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Quote of the Day: Clinton on Hemingway

In Hillary Clinton’s speech tonight in Florida after winning most of the primaries that mattered on Super Tuesday, she aimed for a tone of righteous struggle:

We have to make strong the broken places, restitch the bonds of trust and respect across our country.

farewelltoarmsThat echo you’re hearing, intentional or not, is Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms:

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

It’s usually quoted these days to signify struggling through adversity and dark times. Hemingway meant it more bleakly, of course:

But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.

Hemingway was right, when all is said and done. But here’s hoping that Clinton’s take wins the day.

Writer’s Desk: Working in Cafes

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When the writing den or (for those lucky ones) the separate writing office don’t offer much hope and the walls start closing in, there is always the cafe. The clink and clatter of dishware, the hiss of the espresso maker, the low burble of conversation; for certain kinds of writers this outside interference focuses the imagination more than it distracts.

Per Benjamin Wurgaft in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Hemingway once reported that in cafés he “was like a charging rhino when he wrote,” noticing nothing but his target. Whether or not this is true, it suggests a familiar kind of authorial self fashioning. For a kid with literary aspirations, to write in cafés is such a cliché that it needs no explanation…

Like anything Hemingway says on writing, this is both utterly true and sheer nonsense. Wurgaft is correct that writing in cafes is a cliche, but for many of us it’s a necessary one. Sometimes just feeling like a writer helps you to become one. And nothing feels more like being a writer than hunching one’s shoulders over a cheap drugstore notebook and knocking out the lines while a coffee of thin brown water (like the Tom Waits line, “the coffee just wasn’t strong enough to defend itself”) goes cold by your elbow…

Writer’s Corner: On Style

For a writer, having a style helps define you. Although Strunk and White and other minders of the literary store have long pushed for the plain and unadorned style that disappears on the page, numerous writers make their name by being absolutely idiosyncratic and unique in how they string words together. Ernest Hemingway might have striven for simplicity, but it was always his type of simplicity. You couldn’t mistake it. Sometimes, this is how careers are made.

Andre Malraux, circa 1974.
Andre Malraux, circa 1974.

Nevertheless, style can be dangerous in the wrong hands. See Anthony Daniels’ aside in his review for the New Criterion of Stephen Parker’s new Bertolt Brecht biography, which clocks in at 600 closely-typeset pages:

The writer of a very long book should at least be a good prose stylist, but unfortunately Professor Parker is not such a stylist. As Sartre said of Malraux, he has a style, but it is not a good one.

In other words, if you’re going to write so that the reader notices, make sure it’s worth their while.