rose is architecture, not interior decoration”
So said Ernest Hemingway, the writer’s writer. And at first, I was willing to agree with the statement. Now I’m having reservations.
Clearly Hemingway firmed the idea of what a novel should be. His stories were sharp and to the point. I’ve mentioned To Have and Have Not, a wonderful tale that is gritty and sharp and drives towards its grim conclusion.
I’m not an expert of 1930’s literature. Mostly, I’m a Sabatini fan, yet I have to admit that he can be flowery in his prose. Lovers labor over misunderstandings, endlessly blushing and swooning. If I heard Arabella Bishop snipe at Blood about being “A thief and pirate” one more time, I’d have strangled her myself. But putting 2H&H! against this, you have a plate-armor novel that is stark and pure and real.
And that’s good.
Hemingway built his novels solid, I’ll agree on that. He buttressed his plots with sparse description, allowing the plot (and only the plot) to sweep the reader along. In a way, he helped push literature (true literature) into what it is today. And I agree to the idea that a story is architectured into a cathedral of plot and characters and story, all rising to the capped dome of climax and all that. Except, really, you can put a couple of pictures up and slap on a coat of paint.
I’ve read stories that were all architecture, where nothing is noted outside the narrow defines of plot development. Saltine cracker dry, they don’t provide character details. Worse, they completely avoid the effort of adding “truth” (as we will call it, for lack of anything better), which is a turn of phrase (in description, plot, or reflection) providing a clever introspection of whimsy or irony. Specifically, I’m thinking of a fantasy novel I read a while ago where the writer relied on established D&D classes (elves, orcs and so on) to carry the story along. The world was pre-fab, without any effort on the author to create his own world. In that case, it was ALL story, without any “interior decoration” at all.
My own belief is that a good story needs both – the strong supporting elements (plot, character, and build-up) and well-founded (but not overdone) scenery (in characters, background or even meditative observances) to make it work. And that’s the balance of “voice” that a writer seeks, finding that combination of structure, personality and truth that makes a brilliant novel just that.
I suppose Hemingway would have punched me in the nose for writing this. Oh well.