Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

Sometimes I remember an article not so much for the content of it but for a particular sentence that captures my attention. That has nothing to do with the quality of the piece but with the quality of the writer; someone who is so skilful that certain phrases cause me to do a double-take and go back to them. That’s exactly what happened recently when I came upon a feature by one of The New Yorker’s staff writers, Adam Gopnik. I love Gopnik’s writing and on this occasion I was really looking forward to what he had to say about a new Hemingway biography. Yet, I was more drawn to a couple of sentences almost at the beginning of his review than what came after.

On talking about Hemingway’s fall from grace after a long period of almost-sycophantic celebration, Gopnik states that “few would now give the old man theheavyweight championship of literature for which he fought so hard, not leastbecause thinking of literature as an elimination bout is no longer our style.We think of it more as a quilting bee, with everyone having a chance to add apatch, and the finest patches often arising from the least privileged quilters.In recent decades, Hemingway has represented the authority of writing only forpeople who never read.

I swear that I had never contemplated literature as an elimination bout. Elimination from what, exactly? It is my assumption that Adam is perhaps referring to an era when writing, especially in the States, was all about working on the Great Novel (or the Great American Novel, if we are going to be really specific). The next sentence and his mention of a quilting bee sounds slightly snobbish and sniffy. To me it looks as if Mr Gopnik disapproves of the way editors and publishers have cast their nets wider in recent decades to include an ever-growing, varied readership.

Literature is not just about the person who writes the book, but equally important, the person who reads it. The world we enter may be the writer’s, but the one opening the door is the reader. The reader then decides to stay in this world or not. Sometimes the reader stays when this world resembles their own somewhat. Sometimes, they stay for the opposite reason. The landscape in front of their eyes looks nothing like what they experience in their daily lives. Whether realism or escapism is the outcome, literature has achieved one of its main aims: to create a relationship between writer and reader.

Reading is a skill not to be learned passively. It doesn’t matter if you choose a couch or a chair to sit on whilst devouring a book; you are still allowing a piece of someone’s brain (to put it crudely) into yours. You, reader, deserve utmost respect.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

What happens when literature becomes a single-identity creative platform, catering chiefly to a particular demographic? Is this the elimination bout Adam Gopnik was referring to? A group of writers from said demographic sparring with each other to see who comes out on top? In my view, this goes against the democratic nature of reading. Let’s consider this: writing, by its very nature, is anarchic, or at least it should be. It should only obey the laws imposed by its master/mistress. Reading, on the other hand, is democratic (and individual[istic]). We share our passion for a specific book or author with like-minded readers. Harry Potter, pre-marketing frenzy, is a good example. For some reason, the idea of JK Rowling being given a free ride as a quilter (After what? Dozens of rejections from publishers!) makes no sense to me. If I were to twist Adam’s theory around, I would say that the quilting bee he so easily dismisses also includes patches by renowned writers like Papa Hemingway. But the more diverse patches we add, the better literature we will have.

© 2017

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Saturday 15th July at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Writing sure should be a slave to the author writing, while readers can take it in many a way. Pushing on through is the way to be too, as one can get denied a lot but that yes can sure bring about a different swing of things.

  2. Fine thinking on your part.
    What happens when literature becomes a single-identity creative platform, catering chiefly to a particular demographic? Is this the elimination bout Adam Gopnik was referring to? A group of writers from said demographic sparring with each other to see who comes out on top? In my view, this goes against the democratic nature of reading."

  3. After visiting Hemingway's house on Key West I made a point of reading several of his novels. I really didn't like them, with the exception of The Old Man and the Sea.

  4. Writing as a competiton? No, no, no.
    Writers enrich my world and I am grateful to them. For education, for escape, for pleasure. And I bring something of myself to each book and often take away something from them. A collaboration?
    Some of Hemingway's work I like, some I don't. His private life/attitudes are often anathema to me - but a part of who he was, and undoubtedly contributed to his work.

  5. I have been reading more and more of people who assign "lessness" to people they believe to be beneath them. I am sorry that people feel that way. I have said often that no one is better than me. They can be as good as me but not better. It is all a matter of angles.

  6. I look at people for who they are and the way they treat others and animals. Why, you may ask, do I care about the way people treat animals? Because this tells me a lot about what type of person they are. (kind, gentle, cruel, violent, etc.) And people who are cruel to animals are not kind people, and these people I do my best to avoid, as if they can harm an animal who has done nothing to them, they can do the same to a human being. I don't care about the colour of their skin, their social status or income. I think it is a shame that people look down on others.

  7. I wanted to add that kindness is kindness. If you are kind to animals you will be kind to people...and kindness begets kindness. Cruelty is cruelty, whether it be to an animal or human being.

  8. Oh yes - and the marketing people also have some responsibility here. The way books are expected to fall into a defined genre helps no one - not reader and not writer. I'm a woman and I write about travelling and I've written a novel about an Irish emigrant set in the nineteenth century. So I've no idea where I'd fit in your quilt!

  9. You can't please all of the people all of the time! Who wrote that? I only read a book if I enjoy the subject or the tale, anything heavier offends a brain that is struggling to comprehend the reason for certain works having been written in the first place. Heehee Work that one out!

  10. I wonder if Hemingway might have considered himself to in a contest as it appears he was competitive. I have enjoyed many of his novels, but especially enjoyed his short stories written after the end of WW1.

  11. Hi Mario - I suspect authors of yore were more interested in getting accepted and then writing again ... building up that repertoire of literary works considered excellent - few succeeeded ... now it's marketeers/publishers pushing for us to read and thus propel the book forward. Tracy Chevalier wrote about the weavers of Medieval France ... does that count as quilting?! I agree Gopnik's ideas seem a little strange ... cheers Hilary

  12. As you would not know that dropping by via Andrew Scott I enjoyed what I read, despite my laziness at least a short com(pli)ment.
    I tend to agree with Elephant's Child. And I start to understand why Leonardo Padura wrote "Adiós Hemingway". Padura the Bee sucking success from Honey Hemingway. No? :)

  13. Some consider him one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He wrote fiction mixed with a lot of non-fiction which was his own reality.

    I believe it is time for me to read "The Old Man and the Sea" again. It has been a very long time...

    : )

  14. your second paragraph is appealing!

    I have read only " The old man and the sea" and consider it a complete phenomena of universal laws and traits inherited in human nature .
    He has the vision and power to portrait it through his work.

    i give dame about any kind of rat race ,each is blessed with uniqueness and no one can challenge him for his abilities

  15. Much food for thought here and I totally agree with your final statement.

    What I know of Hemingway's personal life, he was a troubled man - yet that is perhaps what served as his Muse.

  16. I agree. The more different "patches" we have the opportunity to read, the more we learn about other people and other ways of thinking. We may choose to read a particular genre, but it is through reading outside of that comfort zone that we expand our minds.

    I have a pretty full collection of Hemingway's works, but my reading life would be far too limited if his works were the only ones I ever read.

    Have a super weekend, Mario.

  17. "Literature is not just about the person who writes the book, but equally important, the person who reads it."
    I would d the person who trnslate it. I have come across some very bad translations :(

  18. I like the idea of literature as a quilting bee

  19. What a fascinating quote! It's very interesting that he said Hemingway is the champion of people who don't read. Perspective and the generation you are from really influence this opinion. I was actually greatly influenced by Hemingway's writing as a journalist and writer. I also happen to live in his hometown and recently visited the town where his family owned a summerhouse and where he kicked off his fiction career. The cult of Hemingway is quite intriguing and I think he was held up as a literary icon partly for his hyper-masculine persona as well as for his writing.



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