Myth of Writing #1: Love of Language

Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918
Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More than one English professor has waxed on about Hemingway. His prose was tight, his story tragic, and his habits all of the masculine nature that heterosexual literate men seem to aspire to. When presented with my blunt observation that Hemingway, outside of literary laudation, bores the living shit out of me, I’m met with defensiveness and even hostility. But c’mon, if a date is anything like reading Hemingway… it’s a boring date where you walk away analyzing his insecurities for years.

This love of Hemingway seems to translate to a love of language. Words forming curls of image around specific ideas and descriptions. Just as all commercial perfumes smell of synthesized grapefruit and musk to me, all these laudable literary loves seem to tell the same story over and over, in the same way. I feel like language lovers are a secondary type of narcissist: they are so accustomed to the sounds of these homogeneous voices that they mistake the homogeneity for quality. Literary writing repeats sounds and rhythms. Like four chords of a pop song, the literary has its own pattern: write a catchy scenic intro, introduce a controversial subject and in the process reference personal upbringing whether or not there’s any reason to give a damn. If it involves disease, tragedy or violence, you’ve got yourself an award winner.

It bores me. As this is the year of doing what I like, and not what I should like, or told I’m should like, I’m putting it flat out: I get little to no pleasure out of “literary” fiction. Reading the stacks of highbrow material is just as stupid as carrying on with a sexual partner who just doesn’t care if I have an orgasm.

Genre fiction, on the other hand, may share the same plot across thousands of novels. It may use simple words. Nobody’s writing to show off in genre fiction, and because of that, I can actually show up at their page and have a good time.

The excuse, or argument, given for the literary approach is that wordsmithing is really about the love of language. It’s about getting just the “right” phrase, and presenting just the “right” idea. You should be able to bounce a  quarter off the finished product of a literary work.

From the perspective of a reader, I genuinely question the literacy or the empathy of people so convinced that a turn of phrase matters more than a story conveyed. For example, Jim Butcher and Laurel K. Hamilton both turn plenty of hilarious phrases that convey complex ideas thoroughly in blatant genre fiction. To be so obsessed with word and sound to the loss of the whole story seems utterly joyless to me.

As a writer, I don’t give a flying fuck about “the language.” I just want to make myself understood, or make my character understood, or make the people I interview seen if understanding them just isn’t possible. To spend forever hovering over the language is too much detail for work that already demands insane attention to details that are not life-or death.

While I consider my true voice my written voice, I can certainly provoke laughs and prompt action from others while speaking. I can dip my toe into writing in Spanish – a language I find more viscerally and emotionally satisfying than English – but sliding into another language makes me homesick for my language of origin because of the headaches I incur as synopses burn new pathways in my brain. I collect words as tools and gadgets, each one called upon for a specific use. But I don’t love them, and when a beautiful passage passes me on the page, I acknowledge it but I don’t turn my head to watch it walk away.

I am a writer that does not love language. I like to read – I suspect writers that don’t are out there, but so far I haven’t met one – but again, I read for images and ideas, not the language. While literature majors build temples to the turn of phrase, I cluck to myself about how they’re dramatizing a false idol.

I never say that out loud, though. Kids these days have done unspeakable things to irony, and I don’t wish to contribute to its abuse.