Where Are Today's Hemingways?
By Ron Javers
Ron Javers, former editor in chief of Town & Country and Philadelphia magazines, teaches journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University.
"Professor Javers," said the student, "why do we have to take this course? I mean like I really don't see the point of it. I'm going to go into broadcast journalism, and I have to take a news writing course? I don't read newspapers. Nobody my age reads newspapers."
She was reacting to the dense forest of red marks I'd inscribed all over her most recent effort at news writing. I had tried to point out where she had been successful: a straightforward lead sentence. One good stab at description. But we both knew she was struggling.
"What kinds of things do you read?"' I asked. "You know, the way most writers learned to write was by reading people who were good writers."
"Well, I read Cosmo," she said.
"I mean books ."
She looked at me, screwed up her eyes, thinking, back, back. "Well I read that first John Grisham book, the one about the lawyer – but I liked the movie better."
I liked her a lot. She was bright. She was forthright. She will perhaps make a wonderful local TV news reader, and, after all, that is what she aims to be. But she will almost certainly never be an adequate writer. And, among journalism or so-called "communications" students, she is not alone.
What is it we talk about when we talk about teaching writing? Do we mean teaching students to write like Bob Woodward, one of the biggest "successes" in our business?
Woodward has had six number one bestsellers in the past 20 years. He ranks only behind John Grisham, who seems to have had six number one bestsellers in the past 20 minutes.
In "The Agenda," Woodward writes like this:
Stephanopoulos had come to realize that the middle-class income tax cut, the centerpiece of Clinton's campaign, just wasn't in the cards. It had really hit home the night before. Now, on Clinton's cue, Stephanopoulos came out and said it: "The middle-class tax cut should be abandoned..."
This is a serviceable, if cliché-prone style, often redeemed by the depth of the reporting and the importance of the characters who are thinking such pedestrian thoughts and mouthing such banal dialogue.
Or do we mean teaching students to write like another famous newspaperman, Ernest Hemingway? In "A Farewell to Arms" he wrote like this:
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
More than just serviceable prose, it is simple, direct communication of an overwhelming truth from one human being to another. That's a goal worthy of the best journalism I know. And if the thousands of budding communications majors out there cannot all hope to be the next Hemingway, perhaps we can at least keep them from being the next Grisham.
Ãith hard work and luck we might even be able to teach some to write like Woodward. But nobody ever taught Hemingway to write like Hemingway. He taught himself. And books were the tools he used.
ýeal books, not textbooks. Most of the writing textbooks I've seen are flaccid collections of tired formulae, faux-wit and received wisdom. There are doubtless exceptions. But even great textbooks cannot help us solve the problem that confronts lovers and teachers of writing. Many students don't read: Not for pleasure, at any rate.
Like many other writers before him and since, Hemingway was a voracious reader. He read writers like Shakespeare and Milton and Donne. And he read the work of contemporaries like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson.
They were the Tom Clancys, Danielle Steeles and John Grishams of their day. With writers like these and the movies that put their books on the bestseller lists twice – who really needs literature anyway? Movies have become the new American literature. Dinner party discourse long ago stopped being centered around the latest big books. We talk about what we've seen. Or heard: "Did you hear what Howard Stern said about Clinton this morning?"
The writing in many once-respected national magazines has degenerated into what former Esquire contributing editor John Lombardi recently characterized as "the stenographic style." You know it: minimal description, minuscule atmosphere, little characterization and even less point of view.
It is valid to ask the question, how do we teach writing at a time when the very notion of literariness – the right word, the sleek sentence, the perfect paragraph – is in retreat before the correct image, the shortest sound bite and the right spin.
College students are hardly alone in their retreat from things literary. Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard, says "Surveys show that the average American reads about one book a year. There is no reason to suppose that the average American teacher reads many more."
úut there is reason to believe that teachers at all levels and in many subject areas are moving away from the ritualistic use of textbooks in class. Though some say the abandonment of textbooks in favor of real books is just the latest academic fad, others insist it's a direct result of the "dumbing down" of textbooks that occurred in the 1970s and '80s.
Not that textbooks will ever disappear entirely from the campus. I have discovered that the better ones can be useful in certain situations: organizing material for new teachers; insuring similar content across multisectioned courses, and holding heavy classroom doors open on warm afternoons. l