BULL! HOW TO WRITE LIKE HEMINGWAY

Hemingway disclosed his secret, and committed to his definitive discourse on method, the only indispensable statement he made on writing, in 1926. There are those who lament that Hemingway never wrote a book on the subject, but he had no need of doing so. He had explained it all, and his readers tended to miss it, and continue to. The salient points of Hemingway’s style and method were contained in little more than one page. The writer seriously interested in Hemingway’s method requires only this, and likely they have read it already. You won’t see it collected in an anthology of his letters, he didn’t give it Esquire, it’s not in the collages of aphorisms or platitudes on the Internet, his thoughts on writer’s block, rivalry, how much to write at one sitting, nor is it in any misattributed quotation on a t-shirt about typewriters, veins, and bleeding. It is, very simply, all contained within Chapter XV of The Sun Also Rises. It finds articulation in the matador, Pedro Romero. Hemingway, as Jake Barnes the aficionado, watches the bullfight with Brett Ashley (Duff Twysden). Here is Hemingway’s secret, quoted in full.

I had her watch how Romero took the bull away from a fallen horse with his cape, and how he held him smoothly and suavely, never wasting the bull. She saw how Romero avoided every brusque movement and saved his bulls for the last when he wanted them, not winded and discomposed but smoothly worn down. She saw how close Romero always worked close to the bull, and I pointed out to her the tricks the other bull-fighters used to make it look as though they were working closely. She saw why she liked Romero’s cape-work and why she did not like the others.

Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like cork-screws, their elbows raised, and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of his line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness. Brett saw how something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off. I told her how since the death of Joselito all the bull-fighters had been developing a technic that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling, while the bull-fighter was really safe. Romero had the old thing, the holding the purity of his line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he was preparing him for the killing.

“I’ve never seen him do an awkward thing,” Brett said.

“You won’t until he gets frightened,” I said.

“He’ll never be frightened,” Mike said. “He knows too damned much.”

“He knew everything when he started. The others can’t ever learn what he was born with.” (Hemingway, p.171-2)

And that’s it, the most important thing Ernest Hemingway ever said about writing: it is all about how close one can get to the bull; one must get close to the bull; the bull is, of course, the subject with all its dangers, and the art is to work as close to it as possible. Hemingway’s approach to purity of line was minimalist. But this necessary proximity to the bull does not depend on the adoption of minimalism. Henry Miller worked close to the bull, closer than Hemingway, but with greater prose saturation—in Miller’s case, the ritual with the subject involves precisely “the holding the purity of his line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he was preparing him for the killing.” Miller’s relation to his subject is just so. He does not waste the bull, but wears it “smoothly”. Some may object to my use of metaphor here, those who fall foul of the myth of Hemingway’s lack of latent content, the Gertrude Stein-esque refusal of the unconscious, to whom I would say that if you believe Hemingway avoided metaphor, analogy, and allegory, then you don’t know how to read Hemingway. Simply because the term “hard-boiled” appears a couple of times in The Sun Also Rises, for example, does not mean that Hemingway was so very hard-boiled.

All right, so how does one recognize the faked look of danger, or as we might say, the appearance of intimacy that is a literary gimmick? Hemingway gives us some good examples of this kind of literary hedging in Chapter I of the same book when Robert Cohn (Harold Loeb) is introduced. I have italicized the gestures.

“There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym […] He was so good that Spider Kelly promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn’s distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of a strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose.” (Hemingway, p.11)

The italicized phrases are examples of nominally ‘stylish’ prose gestures that suggest depth that the writer is avoiding, or not yet close to. Almost certainly, the anti-Semitism that defines Robert Cohn is part of this deceptive cape-work. The point is that a phrase like “a certain satisfaction of a strange sort” is indefinite, noncommittal and remote in a sense that suggests literary writing, but provides very little.

In Hemingway’s case, in his quintessential minimalist mode, his style, involving restatement, tight elliptical movements reminiscent of Stein, his “purity of line” is effected with a remarkably narrow vocabulary. Indeed, Hemingway never alienated anyone with a complex sentence. Here is another section from The Sun Also Rises, Chapter XVI (following the bull-fighting/writing manifesto) which illustrates the point, again, in full. Some of the text is highlighted to illustrate the point that follows:

We walked arm in arm down the side street away from the crowd and the lights of the square. The street was dark and wet, and we walked along it to the fortifications at the edge of town. We passed wine-shops with light coming out from their doors onto the black, wet street, and sudden bursts of music.

“Want to go in?”

“No.”

We walked out across the wet grass and onto the stone wall of the fortifications. I spread a newspaper on the stone and Brett sat down. Across the plain it was dark and we could see the mountains. The wind was high up and took the clouds across the moon. Below us were the dark pits of the fortifications. Behind were the trees and the shadow of the cathedral, and the town silhouetted against the moon.

Don’t feel bad,” I said.

“I feel like hell,” Brett said. “Don’t let’s talk.”

We looked out at the plain. The long lines of the trees were dark in the moonlight. There were the lights of a car on the road climbing the mountain. Up on top of the mountain, we saw the lights of the fort. Below to the left was the river. It was high from the rain and black and smooth. Trees were dark along the banks. We sat and looked out. Brett stared straight ahead. Suddenly, she shivered.

“It’s cold.”

“Want to walk back?”

“Through the park?”

We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.
(Hemingway, p.186)

For Hemingway, one intuits, this, is an emotional apex in the novel. It’s not particularly important whether one believes that this writing is affective; the point is that Hemingway trained himself into what I will call The Matador Manifesto and tested it, believing in it himself: “Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of his line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness.” He embraces something else: the dissonance essential to modern art, and the avant-garde of the early twentieth century. One way to understand this use of dissonance, and its inherent risk, is to consider the musical analogy, and so the musicality of the prose. Dissonance in music is created most simply by narrowing the interval between notes. Harmony is the result of intervals. Modernity is dissonant. When Hemingway works with such a minimalist vocabulary, not only does he maintain his commitment to purity of line, to removing the ‘fallen horses’ or distractions (“Romero took the bull away from a fallen horse with his cape, and how he held him smoothly and suavely, never wasting the bull), but it is also necessary for Hemingway to accept dissonance and to incorporate it as method, style, and tone. He narrows the interval between similar words or repetition of the same word. This is modern. This is difficult. It means working close to the horns of dissonance, also, and so it risks accusations of banality, the appearance of a lack of sophistication, or mastery. To write like Hemingway is not, however, a matter of imitating his dissonant minimalism, or overcoming writer’s block, or fishing for marlin. It is yet philosophical rather than purely technical. The danger is only authentic if it is shared, a mutual ritual between the writer and his subject. It is, above all, how close one works to the bull.

—James Reich

Books by James Reich


Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2006.

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