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Literary Journalism: A few thoughts on how to proceed, Part Two

October 21, 2014

Now, before you read further you have got to endorse my self-deception that I am no critic. My reviews—theatre, movies, books—are always complimentary. If I’ve nothing good to say, I don’t say it and my readers are never the wiser. Being a supporter of the arts by inclination, I would rather help fill the seats, or attract the readers by noting the estimable achievements of the producers, writers, actors, and so on. The arts is not an easy place to make a living, and only the lucky few do. Publicity take all, talent has little to do with it. This disclaimer applies to any critiques you may find in this website.

Hemingway I have come to only lately. The first story of his that I read, I was absolutely captivated and astounded. The second, I only finished out of loyalty to myself, for having started it. In the course of reading The Art of Fact [see post “Literary Journalism: A few thoughts on how to proceed Part One” September 18] I came upon a piece describing, in excruciating detail, the author’s (Lillian Ross) few days with the famed author. The piece seemed to be more about Ross than Hemingway, more about the details of attire they wore than anything of any depth. Fortunately for me the time came to board my plane, I dogeared the page and did not return to it for a month.

Being the sort that likes to finish what he started, I un-dogeared and proceeded.

And here is where it gets interesting. Here is where you have to consume the whole piece overlooking its obvious (to you, the discerning reader) flaws, because that is just the place where the whole piece comes into focus, and had you abandoned the work earlier, or let you justifiably honest critiques get the better of you, the loss would have been yours.

The players in Ross’s interview piece go to the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I learned to write by looking at paintings in the Luxembourg Museum in Paris,” said Hemingway. “I never went past high school. When you’re hungry and the museum is free, you to to the museum.. . . I don’t want to be an art critic. I just want to look at pictures and be happy with them and learn from them.” He paused before Cezanne’s ‘Rocks—Forest of Fountainbleau.’ “This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and the woods, and the rocks we have to climb over. . . .Degas is another wonder painter. I’ve never seen a bad Degas. You know what he did with the bad Degas? He burned them.”

There are more words of wisdom from Hemingway in this piece. You’ll have to read it for yourself, the whole piece (“Portrait of Ernest Hemingway”, New Yorker 1950) or as excerpted in The Art of Fact. I close now with this quote, spoken before Manet’s Portrait of Mlle. Valtesse de la Bigne: “Manet could show the bloom people have when they’re still innocent and before they’ve been disillusioned.”

Now that is a matter of high art, one to which all writers should aspire.

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