Which Side Are You On?

by | Oct 5, 2006 | The Joys of Publishing, Writers

Well, I wanted to write about Kerouac vs. Hemingway today, but then yesterday the proof arrived from the printer, so I got all kinds of excited until I opened the package.  Just about everything was wrong.  I called them, and it turned out that two minutes on the phone last week would have sorted it all out.  They don’t seem to like telephones.  This afternoon I called to verify that the new proof was going okay.  My account manager said she’d check, and would call me right back.  She emailed me instead.  Here’s dumb old me, flapping around the house, waiting for the phone to ring so I can take care of business before heading outside to replace some steering parts on the truck.  Guess I’ll do that tomorrow.  And then a friend had the nerve to tell me that I was grumpy today.  Humpf.  I don’t want to talk about it.

Hemingway first became known for his short stories, some of which he rewrote sixty times.  Sixty.  He belonged to a coterie that devoted itself to le mot juste, the right word, the idea being that you could not utilize just any old word that came to mind, but had to struggle through until you’d found, discovered, dredged up, unearthed, been hit on the head by the one word that expressed absolutely and precisely what you meant to say.

Kerouac didn’t believe in editing at all.  He’d lock himself in the bathroom with a typewriter, a roll of fax paper, and a goodly assortment of uppers, and when he was finished typing, the book was finished.  I don’t know how many books he actually typed onto rolls of fax paper, but the first time he did it led to a change of publishers.  Jack burst into his editor’s office, flung the roll on the desk, and announced that his latest novel was done.  His editor said something about how difficult it would be to edit, no pages or page numbers and all.  Kerouac rolled his fax paper back up and stormed out.

Hemingway had several theories about writing.  One was, you don’t have to actually tell your reader what’s really going on.  ‘A Cat in the Rain,’  for example, is about a young wife’s unhappiness with her marriage, and from what we see of her husband, she has good reason to be unhappy.  But the action of the story is centered on a cat she sees from her hotel window, a cat that has taken shelter under a café table, and her impulse to bring it in from the rain.  It’s a tremendously well-crafted story.  Every sentence, each detail, works to strengthen the story, and nothing is wasted.

Craft, Kerouac would sneer; crafty writers crafting out their crafty stories.  Writing had to be immediate, like improvisational jazz.  Kerouac doesn’t have to tell you what the book is about.  Kerouac’s books are always about being Jack Kerouac.  They are not novels in any conventional sense, but slightly fictionalized autobiography á go-go.  They’re invaluable as a window on the Beat Generation, and some of the writing is superb, despite Truman Capote’s bon mot about On The Road being not writing, but typing.


Which side am I on? I enjoy reading them both, but, like Hemingway, I believe in craft.  Maybe one of these days I’ll talk about the craftiness involved in The Sun Also Rises, which is on a short list of novels that I go back to time and again.  Hemingway was drinking a lot with James Joyce during the time he wrote it.  Wish I could have gone drinking with James Joyce while I was writing The Great American Desert.

Years ago I took up woodworking, and one of my excuses was so that I would have something tactile to remind me how long it takes to produce finished work that doesn’t embarrass you, and how much thought and care are required.  Fortunately, you get better with practice.  You pick things up along the way, and soon enough you don’t need all sixty rewrites.  I’ve got a houseful of furniture now, and people seem to like it.  I’m well-aware of all the flaws in both design and construction, but each piece is better than the one before, and the latest ones are pretty darned nice.