It occurred to me the other day that the people who propound THE RULES OF WRITING are much more vocal than those of us who do not. Since I was listening to a John McCormack CD at the time (it’s almost Paddy’s Day, you know, and I’m learning two new songs), I wondered how those proponents of THE RULES feel about music.
There are all kinds of music for all kinds of tastes: from rap to opera, from big band to show tunes to rock, rock’n’roll, rockabilly, country, pop—the list goes on and on. My tastes are probably a bit limited, as I prefer music with a simple message and a complex but repetitive melody. To wit, I like traditional folk music. Whether it’s Irish or Cowboy music, Appalachian or Gold Rush, African-American spirituals or Bob Dylan, I love folk music.
But I also like mid-century Country-Western, doo-wop, contemporary ballads, show tunes and some classical pieces (though I prefer a single instrument to an orchestral arrangement).
It seems to me that almost everyone enjoys more than one kind of music. Just because you like rap doesn’t mean you can’t like show tunes. People who like swing might also savor classical music.
So what if I said that everyone should like Irish folk music and listen to nothing else? If I did, you’d laugh out loud, wouldn’t you? Give me the brush-off, a raspberry or even an inelegant gesture.
You wouldn’t accept anyone at all telling you what kind of music you have to listen to and enjoy.
Why is it then, that all writers are supposed to imitate one author? Why is only one author held up as the ultimate standard for writing well?
And why, if only one author qualifies for such a high honor—why is it not Shakespeare?
Nope. It’s Hemingway. The Heming-way is the way we must write now. We must eschew adverbs, delete gerunds, avoid passive voice, reduce adjectives and write shorter sentences.
In addition, we must only use “said/ask/whispered” for dialogue tags (or use none at all), simplify our punctuation, and make our paragraphs shorter.
There’s even an app now called “Hemingway Editor © ”. It encourages shorter, simpler words and reports a “good” score as 6th grade reading comprehension level. That might be great for 6th graders, but really? The first sentence of this post is 27 words long and the app considered it “too complex” and too hard to read. The second sentence, it considered “very hard” to read. But I’d bet real money that you had no trouble understanding either of them.
Previous generations used reading as a way to increase their knowledge of words and language. Do we really want to encourage people to limit their vocabulary and comprehension? Do we really want to play to the lowest acceptable level of literacy?
It makes no sense to me.
If you were to catalog the classic literature of the early 20th century, Hemingway is only one of many authors you’d find on the list. Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Joyce, Faulkner—all contempories of Hemingway, all hugely popular in their lifetimes. All still have a following today. And all have unique writing styles.
The Sound and the Fury—was there ever a better depiction of a Southern aristrocratic family’s dissolution?* Faulkner employed a number of narrative techniques, including omniscient POV and stream of consciousness. Why do THE RULES hawkers disavow him?
Look Homeward, Angel is my favorite book, hands down. Thomas Wolfe gives us an intimate look into the heart and soul of a poor, socially awkward boy with a miserly mother and an alcoholic father.** The writing is lyrical, melodic, majestic in its reach. The emotional scope of the novel is incomparable. Again, THE RULES hawkers decry.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce manages to blend the most appealing aspects of the two works noted above. And the hawkers tear out their hair and scream “No! NO! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”
I’ve heard from several sources that contemporary readers prefer a style like Hemingway’s. Do they? Or have they just become so inundated with it that they don’t realize they have a choice?
We as writers have a choice. We are free to choose Hemingway—if that’s what we want. But I think it’s equally important to realize that choosing “other” is not a cardinal sin. We have an obligation—yes, an obligation—to create what is in us, regardless of THE RULES.
I don’t discount or disparage Hemingway’s talents at all. But I do object to them being held up as the gold standard. No single author deserves that, not even Shakespeare.
Believe me, if I could write like Thomas Wolfe I would.
So tell me, what kind of music do you enjoy? Does it translate to what you enjoy reading? or to the way you write?
*By the way, Hemingway Editor doesn’t think you can understand the first sentence in this paragraph, either.
**Per Hemingway Editor, this sentence is too long for you to understand, and “miserly” was identified as an adverb. Oy vey!
7 thoughts on “At the Intersection of Music and Writing”
When I lived in Thomas Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, NC, I read all his novels! I always moved around a lot, and always read the local writers…
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That is so cool! I’ve always wanted to visit Asheville. Now that I have relatives in NC, I might actually get there!
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Asheville is the nicest town on the planet (after Jackman in Maine)
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Really interesting, Giff. I must sound really behind with the times (or blind and deaf) when i say I’ve heard little about this issue. I’ve read snippets relating to suggested sentence length and use of tags, of course, but nothing about the ‘Heming-way’ or a Hemingway Editor. I prefer to think we all have our own, unique style and agree with everything you say about the so-called ‘rules’.
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I think it’s a strictly American thing, Millie. We seem to be on the path of encouraging minimal literacy skills. I can totally understand that 6th grade reading level is good for books aimed at grade-schoolers, but Hemingway has a cult of vociferous followers here (though I have to confess “the Heming-way” is my own name for it.)
I totally agree that styles should be unique, and I keep plugging at it — because it’s hard to be heard over the crowd.
Well said, Giff. To answer your specific question, I’m a recent convert to Irish folk music, having just discovered the voice of Jim McCann.
To answer a question you didn’t ask, I think struggling to find our own voice makes it all the richer. And eventually, when you discover your voice and put it out there for others, you’ll be all the happier for it. I’m a fan of all those you mention and many more. Keep up the fine work!
Thanks, John. Yes, I’m a fan of Jim McCann. We lost a good one last year. My favorite is his version of “Grace”, who was an actual woman named Grace Gifford. A heart-rending true story in song.