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#ff @hemingway

August 3, 2012

it seems to be the summer of reading male writers, for some reason. it’s been a summer of reading, as a backlash against all of the lols and lmfaos and bad bad twitter trending topics and sheer dross that i’ve been seeing the english language carved up into (though i don’t really capitalise or use serious punctuation on this blog, so i know i’m guilty of it, too). it started off deceptively enough, with charlotte gill and rhea tregebov, but then it travelled to cormac mccarthy and hemingway and jonathan safran foer and jack kerouac, and moved on to tomson highway and raymond carver, and then soon it will be faulkner (again!) and j.d. salinger and gregory david roberts and marquez. i don’t really know how this happened – a combination of book lending from friends and coworkers, and a mania to read all of the border trilogy, i guess, and see all of the different ways mccarthy can butcher a female character. literally and figuratively. damn it!




anybody who listens to me rant (all 2.534 of you) know that i’ve always had haterade for hemingway. based off of nothing, really. based off of the sun also rises (TSAR) and the way brett was described, and the way she was a real drip, yet someone troubled and deep at the same time, and all of this old, scarred machismo that i didn’t understand – the awful stoicism, the reticence to talk about something just in order to release it and heal a little. but sometimes you have to give someone a second chance. (not often, but sometimes.) so i did. and i moved on to for whom the bell tolls and then the old man and the sea and some short stories and now a copy of farewell to arms foisted onto me by a friend, chucked overhead from a dusty bookcase. and i still don’t like him. hem. there are, of course, moments of absolute incandescence in most writers’ work, and there are here, too, but i still get a weird feeling in my gut when i read hemingway’s work and i don’t understand how he can be described as “…[doing] more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century … one of the greatest literary lights of the twentieth century …” – that’s a very big claim, a big one indeed, and i’ll always offer up faulkner as a rebuttal but also because i have a boner for faulkner – he’s such a nutcase.




what i do like (and like is probably not the right word here, because it’s more of a gruff appreciation, a discomfort that i know is good for me in the long run) is the mirror that hemingway holds. (probably shakily, because one hand is either down his pants or around a glass of rum.) a very wonderful professor i once had told me “well, if a book bores you after 50 pages, throw it away. throw it across the room. there’s no time for that. but never mistake anger for boredom.” and it’s true. we have the tendency to put down a book if it makes us angry – with the writer or the characters or the writing style – or if it makes us uncomfortable. not liking something and being bored by something are two different beasts, and while i don’t have time for boredom, i feel that reading something that i’m not so keen on is still helpful, even if it makes me feel a little sick, or a little shaky about myself. hemingway holds a mirror up to the idea of being a woman – not always well, and not always kindly, and definitely not always rightfully so. being a woman, i read books about straight relationships usually from a female writer’s point of view, or just from a woman’s point of view, or i read mainly only women writers, which is a bias. and as much as i appreciate the unwillingness to pull punches that attracts me to male interaction in my day to day life, i don’t like reading books that i deem “misogynist” – whether they truly are (the short happy life of francis macomber basically being an extended fear of the vagina dentata) or aren’t. but some women are mean, and it makes me feel uncomfortable to think that, and to read about it, but it’s still important to read about the thing you never want to become. and some women are mean to men. and that fact tends to get buried sometimes. both (all) of the genders are fucking mean to each other, and people hurt each other always, and it’s been fascinating and hard and exhausting to read the topography of the pain from the other (enemy?) side.

probably what i’m about to say will be offensive.

in the middle of reading all of these male writers – so many of whom write about love, pain, “what we talk about when we talk about love”, and all of the other shit that goes along with that – i realised that this grief, this upset, this anger on the page (anger often directed toward women and their failings in relationships) was something that i wasn’t familiar with. not really. well, firstly because i’m not a man, no matter how high my testosterone might be and no matter how much football i’ve played or scotch i’ve shot. and secondly because i never took the space or the time to sit down and write – prose – about the way that (straight) men and women hurt each other.

i’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that people hurt each other. i’ve been thinking a lot about how women hurt other women, because i was watching the olympics the other day (kind of by accident) and that little 16 year old won the gold medal for women’s gymnastics, and apparently all over twitter other women were making fun of her hair. not all other women, but a good chunk. how cruel is that? and i’ve been thinking about how men hurt other men. about physicality and being stoic and bro culture. and each set of interactions with each combination of gender has its own nuances – and thrusts and parries and twists and grief. and so, following that logic, for the past few years the only prose i’ve really been writing has been about a straight woman and a gay man. and the grief there, the sniping there, and the complex and powerful relationship between those two people – the ups and downs and sads and happys. i can’t use that relationship as a blanket to apply to everyone, of course, but my head has been so far below the surface of other interactions that when i finally pulled back up, all of the other grief that i never wrote about zoomed back to me, through me. i picked up the hemingway i had been shoving to one side and read about impotence, performance anxiety, women who aim to drain men of their prana. i read more and more of the cunt-phobic mccarthy and had to cope with my own feelings about the female characters i kept falling in love with being killed off. i plowed through kerouac’s love them and leave them, women portrayed as gone dolls, gals happy to have just experienced sal paradise and his brief forays. i read tomson highway’s plays and cringed at each invasive rape scene, each scene with women being filled with objects (screwdrivers, crucifixes) until they bled. each book i read made me more and more uncomfortable. it’s not that i was being shown a future – keep being demanding and you tooooooooooo will turn into a shrew – and it’s not that i believe in each of the stories i read – hemingway, for example, cuts down women in each his books i’ve read (except for the old man and the sea, but even then he compares the sea to a woman and says that it’s not her fault when she is wicked…. hrrrmmm) and does it so often that it loses its power, blunts the point he could be making with one well-placed jab. it’s not that i wanted to numb myself to rape scenes, or that i thought that rape scenes could be excused if the woman hurt the man enough in other ways – because they can’t, and they won’t ever be.

it’s that i had left myself wanting. that i had previously avoided reading books written with machismo, or terse, “male” prose, or male point of view, because they made me feel a deep, juddering discomfort, and they made me so, so angry, and also indignant, and also righteously indignant and they made me a little fearful that i would see something in the women, the female characters, that i would recognise within myself.

and then i realised that it was okay to be angry. and that reading a book was – and is! – a safe space to experience anger. a man i dated once told me that he liked watching scary movies because it was a safe arena to experience fear, a feeling that men are not always supposed to show or feel or think about. so therefore, the page is a safe place for me to get angry, and indignant, and horrified, and also to recognise things i don’t like in myself – whether it be a result of my gender, or not (and most often not, but sometimes not not). and it makes me a weaker person and reader and writer not to read a whole subset of literature because i “don’t like it.” i’m not an 8 year old stamping her foot dressed in a tutu at her birthday party, upset about the colour of her napkins. i’m a woman who writes, who loves, who experiences pain at the hands of others or herself, or observes pain, and who writes some more. to read something that makes me uncomfortable makes me a better person all around.

and now i’m going to finish on a quote from hemingway.


“I kissed both her shut eyes. I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into. This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backward as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with brother officers. I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.” (A Farewell To Arms)


goodnight vienna.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2013 9:11 am

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