“Homage to Hemingway” by Julian Barnes, New Yorker, July 4, 2011
I’ve never read anything by Julian Barnes before. He’s among the many writers I know by name alone. I loved this story, maybe because I have writing on the brain and this story is about a notable novelist whose writing fortunes are slipping as the conventional wisdom condemns “the aging white male author.” It’s heartbreaking, really, that the work of an individual, even a white male author, can be so cruelly dismissed.
The story is in three parts, which mirrors the Hemingway story “Homage to Switzerland,” which the protagonist uses as a writing sample in his workshops. He’s surprised to see that Hemingway is out of vogue and judged on his reputation, not on the text itself, and the protagonist is slowly stripped of his authorial power as the students question his (and Hemingway’s) motives. The story also notes how his novels are dismissed by publishers and fall out of fashion, even as he tries to capture his own experiences in them.
For writers, this story is a goldmine of meta-fiction in terms of the blurring of lines between author and the text.
Sample prose (thematic):
“He left it at that, hoping that his students would reflect on the assumptions we automatically make about people…He also hoped that they would reflect on life’s influence on art, and then art’s influence back on life.”
“He thought of trying to explain something he had recently noticed about himself: that if anyone insulted him, or one of his friends, he didn’t really mind—or not much, anyway. Whereas if anyone insulted a novel, a story, a poem that he loved, something visceral and volcanic occurred within him. He wasn’t sure what this might mean—except perhaps that he had got life and art mixed up, back to front, upside down.”
Sample prose (funny):
“He liked his students, all of them, and believed the feeling was reciprocated; he also been surprised how each, regardless of ability, wrote with an individual voice. But everyone’s critical sympathies ran only so far. Take Gunboy, as he thought of him, who turned in nothing but Gen-X stories set in a rough part of Chicago, and who, when he didn’t like someone else’s work, would shape his hand into a revolver and ‘shoot’ the author, adding the gesture of the gun’s recoil for emphasis.”
There is a critical moment when he loses the class completely after being challenged by a female student who doesn’t think Hemingway has anything to say to her (or the other students or by extension, anyone who currently lives or reads today.) He reprimands her and says, “Then try listening more carefully.” I was buoyed by this, because I hate the lazy analysis and its subsequent meme that writes off an author so blithely. If I were a teacher, I’d say read the book with care, and ignore your own likes and dislikes. Evaluate whether or not the craft was strong enough to determine its success or failure. Every close reading generates a better reader on the other end if not obscured by the tiresome politics reading stirs up in writing groups and classrooms.