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Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers

“In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”

Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers

“As a writer you should not judge. You should understand,” Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899–July 2, 1961) counseled in his 1935 Esquire compendium of writing advice, addressed to an archetypal young correspondent but based on a real-life encounter that had taken place a year earlier.

In 1934, a 22-year-old aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson set out to meet his literary hero, hoping to steal a few moments with Hemingway to talk about writing. The son of Norwegian immigrant wheat farmers, he had just completed his coursework in journalism at the University of Minnesota, but had refused to pay the $5 diploma fee. Convinced that his literary education would be best served by apprenticing himself to Hemingway, however briefly, he hitchhiked atop a coal car from Minnesota to Key West. “It seemed a damn fool thing to do,” Samuelson later recalled, “but a twenty-two-year-old tramp during the Great Depression didn’t have to have much reason for what he did.” Unreasonable though the quest may have been, he ended up staying with Hemingway for almost an entire year, over the course of which he became the literary titan’s only true protégé.

Samuelson recorded the experience and its multitude of learnings in a manuscript that was only discovered by his daughter after his death in 1981. It was eventually published as With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba (public library) — the closest thing to a psychological profile of the great writer.

Hemingway (left) and Samuelson fishing and talking in Key West.
Hemingway (left) and Samuelson fishing and talking in Key West.

Shortly after the young man’s arrival in Key West, Hemingway got right down to granting him what he had traveled there seeking. In one of their first exchanges, he hands Samuelson a handwritten list and instructs him:

Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.

This is the list of heartening and hopeless-making masterworks that Hemingway handed to young Samuelson:

hemingway_readinglist

  1. The Blue Hotel (public library) by Stephen Crane
  2. The Open Boat (public library) by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary (free ebook | public library) by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners (public library) by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black (public library) by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage (free ebook | public library) by W. Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks (public library) by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell (public library) by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov (public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse (public library)
  13. The Enormous Room (public library) by E.E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights (free ebook | public library) by Emily Brontë
  15. Far Away and Long Ago (free ebook | public library) by W.H. Hudson
  16. The American (free ebook | public library) by Henry James

Not on the handwritten list but offered in the conversation surrounding the exchange is what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” — Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (public library).

Art by Norman Rockwell for a rare edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Art by Norman Rockwell for a rare edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Alongside these edifying essentials, Hemingway offered young Samuelson some concrete writing advice. Advocating for staying with what psychologists now call flow, he begins with the psychological discipline of the writing process:

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

Then, echoing Lewis Carroll’s advice on overcoming creative block in problem-solving, Hemingway considers the practical tactics of this psychological strategy:

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.

He then returns to the psychological payoff of this trying practice:

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. It’s the hardest work there is. I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write I feel like shit. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.

When Samuelson asks how one can know whether one has any talent, Hemingway replies:

You can’t. Sometimes you can go on writing for years before it shows. If a man’s got it in him, it will come out sometime. The only thing I can advise you is to keep on writing but it’s a damned tough racket. The only reason I make any money at it is I’m a sort of literary pirate. Out of every ten stories I write, only one is any good and I throw the other nine away.

Hemingway tempers this with a word of advice on ambition, self-comparison, and originality:

Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one. In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own.

Hemingway shows off a 324-pound blue marlin as Samuelson (far left) admires it.
Hemingway shows off a 324-pound blue marlin as Samuelson (far left) admires it.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neil Gaiman’s magnificent commencement address on the only adequate response to criticism, Hemingway cautions Samuelson about the petty jealousies that arise with success:

When you start to write everybody is wishing you luck, but when you’re going good, they try to kill you. The only way you can ever stay on top is by writing good stuff.

With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba brims with the celebrated writer’s wisdom on literature, life, and the creative experience. Complement it with Hemingway on knowledge and the dangers of ego, and his short, spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then revisit the essential reading lists of Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Byrne, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Patti Smith.

BP

Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers

“If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

In 1977, Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932–February 19, 2016) — beloved novelist, author of vintage semiotic children’s books, proponent of the “antilibrary”, intellectual champion of lists, lover of legendary lands — published a slim book for his students, titled How to Write a Thesis (public library). Although it was intended as an academic aid for graduate students of literature, it endures as a lively, friendly, and immensely potent packet of advice for all writers. Partway between, in both time and ethos, the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style and the contemporary counterpart A Sense of Style by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, this tiny treasure makes a fine addition to celebrated writers’ collected advice on the craft.

While the book deals with the entire ecosystem of the writing process — from choosing a topic to conducting research to planning and revision — in one particularly potent section, Eco offers his most direct advice on the writing itself. After making a general case for the value of rewriting, he offers a number of specific pointers:

You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.

[…]

You are not e. e. cummings. Cummings was an American avant-garde poet who is known for having signed his name with lower-case initials. Naturally he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. But you are not an avant-garde poet. Not even if your thesis is on avant-garde poetry.

[…]

The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Mathhew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

With his signature blunt wisdom — a hard-earned bluntness — he adds:

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.

(The great prose writer William Styron believed higher education is a waste of time for all writers.)

Despite admonishing against breaking up lines in the style of the avant-garde poets, Eco does urge writers to break their prose into digestible segments:

Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.

In another point of advice, he could have easily titled “You are not Hemingway,” Eco encourages students to seek feedback from their mentors and cautions:

Do not play the solitary genius.

Eco continues:

Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points, and do not explain ironies. It is possible to use language that is referential or language that is figurative. By referential language, I mean a language that is recognized by all, in which all things are called by their most common name, and that does not lend itself to misunderstandings.

[…]

We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.

Given my distaste for writers who use italics and exclamation points for emphasis — a way of falling back on font styling and punctuation as the lazy substitute for prose that makes a point — I was particularly delighted by Eco’s admonition against one of the key “bad habits of the amateur writer”:

[Avoid] the exclamation point to emphasize a statement. This is not appropriate in a critical essay… It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat and call his attention to a vehement statement like, “Pay attention, never make this mistake!” But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things.

In this short video from the same Louisiana Museum of Modern Art series that gave us Patti Smith’s advice to the young, Eco offers a higher-order — and perhaps the most important — piece of wisdom to aspiring writers:

How to Write a Thesis brims with more of Eco’s practical, pleasurably stern yet sympathetic advice on the craft. Complement it with Eco on why unread books are more valuable to our lives than read ones and his captivating narrative maps to imaginary places, then revisit other excellent advice to writers from Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, Ann Patchett, Susan Orlean, and Neil Gaiman.

BP

The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

“Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.”

“As a person she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless,” the editors of The Paris Review wrote in the introduction to their 1992 interview with poet, short story writer, educator, and activist Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007). Although Paley herself never graduated from college, she went on to become one of the most beloved and influential teachers of writing — both formally, through her professorships at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, Syracuse University, and City College of New York, and informally, through her insightful lectures, interviews, essays, and reviews. The best of those are collected in Just As I Thought (public library) — a magnificent anthology of Paley’s nonfiction, which cumulatively presents a sort of oblique autobiography of the celebrated writer.

Grace Paley

In one of the most stimulating pieces in the volume — a lecture from the mid-1960s titled “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” which does for writing what Thoreau did for the spirit in his beautiful meditation on the value of “useful ignorance” — Paley examines the single most fruitful disposition for great writing:

The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.

[…]

What the writer is interested in is life, life as he is nearly living it… Some people have to live first and write later, like Proust. More writers are like Yeats, who was always being tempted from his craft of verse, but not seriously enough to cut down on production.

Therein, she argues, lies the key to why writers write. Echoing Joan Didion — “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write,” she wryly observed in the classic Why I Write — Paley reflects:

One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over. He tries to write with different names and faces, using different professions and labors, other forms to travel the shortest distance to the way things really are.

In other words, the poor writer — presumably in an intellectual profession — really oughtn’t to know what he’s talking about.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from ‘Enormous Smallness’ by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

With a skeptical eye to the familiar “write what you know” dictum of creative writing classes, Paley makes a case for the opposite approach in extracting the juiciest raw material for great writing:

I would suggest something different… what are some of the things you don’t understand at all?

[…]

You might try your father and mother for a starter. You’ve seen them so closely that they ought to be absolutely mysterious. What’s kept them together these thirty years? Or why is your father’s second wife no better than his first? If, before you sit down with paper and pencil to deal with them, it all comes suddenly clear and you find yourself mumbling, Of course, he’s a sadist and she’s a masochist, and you think you have the answer — drop the subject.

In classic Paley style, where what appears to be subtle sarcasm turns out to be a vehicle for great sagacity, she adds:

If, in casting about for suitable areas of ignorance, you fail because you understand yourself (and too well), your school friends, as well as the global balance of terror, and you can also see your last Saturday-night date blistery in the hot light of truth — but you still love books and the idea of writing — you might make a first-class critic… In areas in which you are very smart you might try writing history or criticism, and then you can know and tell how all the mystery of America flows out from under Huck Finn’s raft; where you are kind of dumb, write a story or a novel, depending on the depth and breadth of your dumbness…

When you have invented all the facts to make a story and get somehow to the truth of the mystery and you can’t dig up another question — change the subject.

Cautioning that writing fails when “the tension and the mystery and the question are gone,” she concludes:

The writer is not some kind of phony historian who runs around answering everyone’s questions with made-up characters tying up loose ends. She is nothing but a questioner.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘The Big Green Book’ by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

A few years later, Paley revisits the subject in a 1970 piece from the same volume titled “Some Notes on Teaching,” in which she offers fifteen insights as useful to aspiring writers as they are to professional writers like herself “who must begin again and again in order to get anywhere at all.” Noting that she aims to “stay as ignorant in the art of teaching” as she wants her students to be in the art of writing, she observes that the assignments she gives are usually questions which have stumped her, ones which she herself is still pursuing.

She first turns to the integrity of language, so often squeezed out of writers by their education:

Literature has something to do with language. There’s probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue… If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful. Still, if you weren’t a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of schoolteachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language and left them all for correct usage.

She then offers an assignment that puts into practice this essential art of “ununderstanding,” with the instruction of being repeated whenever necessary:

Write a story, a first-person narrative in the voice of someone with whom you’re in conflict. Someone who disturbs you, worries you, someone you don’t understand. Use a situation you don’t understand.

Paley raises a dissenting voice in literary history’s many-bodied chorus of celebrated writers who extol the creative benefits of keeping a diary:

No personal journals, please, for about a year… When you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring. When I find only myself interesting, I’m a conceited bore. When I’m interested in you, I’m interesting.

(It is worth offering a counterpoint here, by way of Vivian Gornick’s excellent advice on how to write personal narrative of universal interest and Cheryl Strayed’s observation that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”)

Ignoring John Steinbeck’s admonition — “If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is,” he asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” — Paley offers if not a recipe then a pantry inventory of the two key ingredients necessary for great storytelling:

It’s possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of money and blood in order to be interesting to adults. That is, everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements; people are rich or poor, make a living or don’t have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. And blood — the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two facts.

Art from the original edition of Henry Miller’s ‘Money and How It Gets That Way.’ Click image for more.

She returns to the essential fork in the vocational road that separates writers from critics:

Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious. Luckily for artists, they don’t require art to do a good day’s work. But critics and teachers do. A book, a story, should be smarter than its author. It is the critic or the teacher in you or me who cleverly outwits the characters with the power of prior knowledge of meetings and ends.

Stay open and ignorant.

Echoing Nadine Gordimer’s enduring wisdom on the writer’s task “to go on writing the truth as he sees it,” Paley adds:

A student says, Why do you keep saying a work of art? You’re right. It’s a bad habit. I mean to say a work of truth.

What does it mean To Tell the Truth?

It means — for me — to remove all lies… I am, like most of you, a middle-class person of articulate origins. Like you I was considered verbal and talented, and then improved upon by interested persons. These are some of the lies that have to be removed:

a. The lie of injustice to characters.
b. The lie of writing to an editor’s taste, or a teacher’s.
c. The lie of writing to your best friend’s taste.
d. The lie of the approximate word.
e. The lie of unnecessary adjectives.
f. The lie of the brilliant sentence you love the most.

She ends by urging aspiring writers to learn from the masters of this art of truth-telling:

Don’t go through life without reading the autobiographies of
Emma Goldman
Prince Kropotkin
Malcolm X

To that, I would heartily add the autobiography of Oliver Sacks — had she lived to read it, Paley may well have concurred.

Complement Paley’s Just As I Thought with this growing archive of great writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, William Zinsser on how to write well about science, and Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing.

BP

Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers

“Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) spent a lifetime contemplating the role of writing in both the inner world of the writer and outer universe of readers, which we call culture — from her prolific essays and talks on the task of literature to her devastatingly beautiful letter to Borges to her decades of reflections on writing recorded in her diaries. But nowhere did she address the singular purpose of storytelling and the social responsibility of the writer with more piercing precision than in one of her last public appearances — a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004. The speech is included in and lends its title to the endlessly enriching posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom.

Sontag begins with the quintessential question asked of, and answered by, all prominent writers — to distill their most essential advice on the craft:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

What might Sontag say of the exponentially more exacting struggle against the cultural momentum of cynicism a mere decade later?

With the disclaimer that “descriptions mean nothing without examples,” Sontag points to Gordimer as the “living writer who exemplifies all that a writer can be” and considers what the South African author’s “large, ravishingly eloquent, and extremely varied body of work” reveals about the key to all great writing:

A great writer of fiction both creates — through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms — a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.

She cautions that despite all the noble uses of literature, despite all the ways in which it can transcend the written word to achieve a larger spiritual purpose — William Faulkner’s conviction that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” comes to mind — storytelling is still literature’s greatest duty:

The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) … Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.

Echoing Walter Benjamin’s ideas on how storytelling transmutes information into wisdom — Sontag was a great admirer and rereader of his work — she adds:

To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.

Still, even now, even now, literature remains one of our principal modes of understanding.

[…]

Everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom in Nadine Gordimer’s work. She has articulated an admirably complex view of the human heart and the contradictions inherent in living in literature and in history.

Nearly half a century after E.B. White proclaimed that the writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” Sontag considers “the idea of the responsibility of the writer to literature and to society” and clarifies the terms:

By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense, too — which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds.

In a sentiment that calls to mind French polymath Henri Poincaré’s assertion that creativity is the act of choosing the good ideas from among the bad ones, Sontag defines what a writer does and is:

Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).

[…]

A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.

[…]

Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.

[…]

The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.

Repeating her memorable assertion that criticism is “cultural cholesterol,” penned in her diary decades earlier, Sontag considers the reactive indignation that passes for criticism:

Most notions about literature are reactive — in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive.

[…]

The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”

Writing nearly a decade before the golden age of ebooks and some years before the epidemic of crowdsourced-everything had infected nearly every corner of creative culture, Sontag once again reveals her extraordinary prescience about the intersection of technology, society, and the arts. (Some decades earlier, she had presaged the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture on the social web.) Turning a critical eye to the internet and its promise — rather, its threat — of crowdsourced storytelling, she writes:

Hypertext — or should I say the ideology of hypertext? — is ultrademocratic and so entirely in harmony with the demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany (and distract one’s attention from) the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism.

[But the] proposal that the novel of the future will have no story or, instead, a story of the reader’s (rather, readers’) devising is so plainly unappealing and, should it come to pass, would inevitably bring about not the much-heralded death of the author but the extinction of the reader — all future readers of what is labeled as “literature.”

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Sigmund Freud’s niece, from David the Dreamer (1922).

Returning to the writer’s crucial task of selecting what story to tell from among all the stories that could be told, Sontag points to literature’s essential allure — the comfort of appeasing our anxiety about life’s infinite possibility, about all the roads not taken and all the immensities not imagined that could have led to a better destination than our present one. A story, instead, offers the comforting finitude of both time and possibility:

Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.

[…]

Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.

[…]

The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.

A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.

Once again echoing Walter Benjamin’s wise discrimination between storytelling and information, Sontag considers the two contrasting models “competing for our loyalty and attention”:

There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.

Illustration by Edward Gorey from The Shrinking of Treehorn (1971).

For Sontag, these two modes of world-building are best exemplified by the dichotomy between literature and the commercial mass media. Writing in 2004, she saw television as the dominant form of the latter, but it’s striking to consider how true her observations hold today if we substitute “the internet” for every mention of “television.” One can only wonder what Sontag would make of our newsfeed-fetishism and our compulsive tendency to mistake the latest and most urgent for the most important. She writes:

Literature tells stories. Television gives information.

Literature involves. It is the re-creation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances — immures us in our own indifference.

The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless — or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.

By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate — the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading — offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

Indeed, this notion of moral obligation is what Sontag sees as the crucial differentiator between storytelling and information — something I too have tussled with, a decade later, in contemplating the challenge of cultivating wisdom in the age of information, particularly in a media landscape driven by commercial interest whose very business model is predicated on conditioning us to confuse information with meaning. (Why think about what constitutes a great work of art — how it moves you, what it says to your soul — when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history on a site like Buzzfeed?)

Sontag, who had admonished against reducing culture to “content” half a century before the term became the currency of said commercial media, writes:

In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always … an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories.

Television gives us, in an extremely debased and untruthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once… space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova for The Jacket by Kirsten Hall.

And therein lies Sontag’s greatest, most timeless, most urgently timely point — for writers, and for human beings:

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

At the Same Time is an indispensable read in its entirety — an eternally nourishing serving of wisdom from one of the most expansive and luminous minds humanity ever produced. Complement it with Sontag on love, art, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books, then revisit this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on writing.

BP

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