Hemingway, media culture, and the impoverishment of modern English

It’s been awhile since a conversation at the Shocklines message boards elicited a response from me that I wanted to preserve here at The Teeming Brain, but just yesterday it happened again and resulted in my writing an article-length piece that briefly traced my personal, lifelong evolution and growth as a reader.

The inimitable Des Lewis started the conversation (which, be advised, will at some not-distant point slip away into Shocklines’ unreachable past) almost a week ago by asking people if they as readers prefer the more dense “baroque” prose of a previous era or the stripped-down and streamlined functional prose of modern popular writing. He kicked off the conversation by quoting a passage from George Steiner about novelist Lawrence Durrell’s baroque style. Steiner uses the opportunity to talk about the wider issue of English prose’s evolution away from ornate styles under the influence of Hemingway.

Here’s the passage, followed by my response to the conversation it kicked off:

But this does not mean that this jeweled and coruscated style springs full-armed from Durrell’s personal gift. He stands in a great tradition of baroque prose. In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne built sentences into lofty arches and made words ring like sonorous bells. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, used the same principal device as Durrell: richness through accumulation, the marshaling of nouns and epithets into great catalogues among which the eye roves in antiquarian delight. The feverish, clarion-sounding prose of De Quincey is a direct ancestor to that of Justine. And more recently, there is the example of Conrad. In the later parts of Lord Jim and throughout The Rescue, Conrad uses words with the sumptuous exuberance of a jeweler showing off his rarest stones. Here also, language falls upon the reader’s senses like brocade.

This baroque ideal of narrative style is, at present, in disfavor. The modern ear has been trained to the harsh, impoverished cadence and vocabulary of Hemingway. Reacting against the excesses of Victorian manner, the modern writer has made a cult of simplicity. He refines common speech but preserves its essential drabness. When comparing a page from the Alexandria novels to the practice of Hemingway or C. P. Snow or Graham Greene, one is setting a gold-spun and jeweled Byzantine mosaic next to a black-and-white photograph. One cannot judge the one by the other. But that does not signify that Durrell is a decadent show-off or that his conception of English prose is erroneous. We may be grateful that Hemingway and his innumerable imitators have made the language colder and more astringent and that they have brought back into fiction the virtue of plain force. But they have done so at a price. Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of ‘language,’ toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility.”

George Steiner, “Lawrence Durrell I: The Baroque Novel” (from Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell)

And now my response, which came after quite a few people had already weighed in with their thoughts and opinions:

I’m with those who say they favor baroque prose more when reading some types of literature and a more streamlined prose when reading other types of literature. I love the baroque stuff when reading horror fiction, especially of a gothic or gothic-related sort. Poe wouldn’t be Poe, nor Lovecraft Lovecraft, nor Ligotti Ligotti, nor Campbell Campbell, without the lushness of the prose style. The same can be said of Blackwood, Machen, Mary Shelley, and more. Then again, Fritz Leiber was no slouch himself, nor is Peter Straub, nor is Stephen King, and they opt for the more modernized, streamlined style.

Orwell comes to mind as somebody who was as influential as Hemingway in his towering influence on the streamlining of English-language prose, and I think Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, is perfection itself in both its form and its content. So it depends on the intention, genre, specific literary work, and so on.

Having said all that, I agree wholeheartedly and zealously with this part of what Des quoted:

Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of ‘language,’ toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility.

Actually, I agree passionately with the entire passage you provided, Des. I’m finding that as I age and mature as a reader, I’m growing ever more potently and painfully aware of the phenomenon Steiner describes. Its truth in the culture at large is simply self-evident. But it’s also a personal matter I’ve observed in myself.

From my earliest youth, I considered myself an avid reader. One of my early passions was classical mythology. But the books I read weren’t translations of Homer or Aeschylus but modern adaptations — and simplifications — for children and early adolescents. One time in fourth or fifth grade, I discovered a copy of the Odyssey on my classroom’s bookshelf. I recognized the title and then read the back cover copy and saw that the book contained some of the stories I knew and loved. So I eagerly sat down to read it. After two pages I was utterly baffled and gave up on the thing. I didn’t return to Homer until college.

Similar examples could be multiplied. Why, when I was allowed to choose my own course of reading as a high school senior in a modern literature class, did I devour The Vampire Lestat and It with gleeful abandon but find myself slogging none too happily through As I Lay Dying? Why did I try to read Frankenstein twice in high school and get bogged down, and then return to read it immediately after graduating from college and find it a joy even though the prose was comparatively challenging compared to my normal “pleasure” reading (although I was already a longtime, confirmed fan of Lovecraft, Poe, etc.), and then return after that to read it multiple times, and also to write about it, and find the prose as clear as day? Why is it that in as recent a span as the last five and ten years I have seen my own capabilities as a reader expand to the point where books that formerly would have seemed formidable and offputting because of their dense prose are now inviting and easy to read? And why has this gone in tandem with my growing recognition of the impoverishment of mainstream contemporary English language use?

Obviously I’m not alone in this. I’m just talking about my own personal experience. And when I reflect and introspect, I see the whole thing being attributable to a generalized move from a culture where print and concepts were more central to one where images are more central. It’s the whole Amusing Ourselves to Death/Fahrenheit 451 thing all over again. It’s not necessarily dystopian through and through — I appreciate and agree with the nuance Steiner invested in the quoted passage — but it’s definitely happening. For confirmation one can just compare most of today’s mainstream, best-selling books with the popular best-sellers of an earlier era and note the differences. Dickens is of course the arch-example from nineteenth-century England. He was wildly popular with the everyday crowd, and yet his prose is demonstrably more complex — I’m talking quantifiably, in terms of the various “reading level” measurements that teachers commonly apply to texts to find out whether they’re suitable for students of certain ages and capabilities — than the overwhelming majority of current best-selling books, both fiction and nonfiction. And what you find when you examine the matter is that this shift is bound up with the move towards a culture where text-based communication has become subsumed under the wider and ever-expanding purview of an all-pervasive mass media realm where visual images are more dominant and therefore texts are progressively changed to fit comfortably into that milieu. (Have you checked out the way even popular magazines like People have altered themselves in the past two decades to become simpler and more akin on every page to TV screens or Webpages?)

In addition to the quoted Steiner passage, and in addition to the work of Neil Postman, Daniel Boorstin, et al., I think contemporary scholar Christine Rosen hits the nail right on the head in her 2005 article “The Image Culture,” where she is as nuanced as Steiner and also as unblinking in her assessment of what’s happening to language use right now:

Nor is concern about the image culture merely a fear of losing our grip on what is familiar-that known world with its long history of reliance on the printed word. Those copyists who feared the printing press were not wrong to believe that it would render them obsolete. It did. But contemporary critics who question the proliferation of images in culture and who fear that the sheer number of images will undermine the sensibility that creates readers of the written word (replacing them with clever but shallow interpreters of the image) aren’t worried about being usurped by image-makers. They are motivated largely by the hope of preserving what is left of their craft. They are more like the conservationist who has made the forest his home only to discover, to his surprise, that the animals with which he shares it are rapidly dwindling in number. What he wants to know, in his perplexed state, is not “how do I retreat deeper into the forest?” but “how might I preserve the few survivors before all record of them is lost?”

So it is with those who resist an image-based culture. As its boosters suggest, it is here to stay, and likely to grow more powerful as time goes on, making all of us virtual flâneurs strolling down boulevards filled with digital images and moving pictures. We will, of course, be enormously entertained by these images, and many of them will tell us stories in new and exciting ways. At the same time, however, we will have lost something profound: the ability to marshal words to describe the ambiguities of life and the sources of our ideas; the possibility of conveying to others, with the subtlety, precision, and poetry of the written word, why particular events or people affect us as they do; and the capacity, through language, to distill the deeper meaning of common experience. We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, a society that looks forward every second to an immediate replication of what it has just done, but one that does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.

Returning to my personal narrative above, it’s apparent that I, as an avid television watcher and consumer of the books that were offered to me as a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, was simply conditioned to read in the manner and on the level of what was offered to me, and to read with one half or more of my brain and sensibility always firmly tuned into image-based media culture and therefore primed to have my readerly experienced deeply affected by this cognitive background. Due to quirks of my own nature, I have worked over the years, sometimes unconsciously, at expanding my ability to read more complex prose with ease, and can attest that there’s a real and palpable shift that occurs when formerly difficult texts and prose styles suddenly slide into clear focus. And I have been more than a little interested to reflect on the fact that those people who were literate in a former age — and the idea that average literacy rates in, for example, 18th century America were dismal compared to today’s is unfounded — were reading these difficult types of texts with ease at a far earlier age than I was. The intertwined gain-and-loss nature of the transformation that’s happening today, as described by Rosen and Steiner, is undeniable. But in many ways I think it weighs more heavily on the loss side, since the conceptual abilities associated with the reading of text are more sophisticated, delicate, and refined than the ability to see and experience an image, and the latter’s displacing of the former in terms of its cultural centrality therefore represents a devolution that will be very difficult indeed to get past and recover from.


About Matt Cardin


Posted on August 16, 2008, in Arts & Entertainment, Internet & Media, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I haven’t read this yet, but I thought I’d mention that since Shocklines switched bulletinboard software the past conversations don’t get deleted. Your link to Des’s comment thread should last indefinitely (or, as long as the messageboard does).

  2. If I could make a recommendation: read Pynchon. A modern writer who still writes very difficult/dense prose.

  3. thefaithfulmind

    I feel that I must weigh in on this, too.

    I do cast my lot in support of the baroque-style prose, mostly because it is a higher standard. I believe that such prose becomes easier to read the more you read it; I recently went through Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis for the third time (I think only third…) and found that not only did I understand it quite clearly in contrast to my previous readings, I found the read still more enjoyable than the previous reads. I do believe that such is the way of a reader who seeks to read the classic works; it is a developed test, but once it has taken on a life of its own, it will satisfy a far deeper longing than any modern writers.

    Of course, I say this with the knowledge that I myself am writing in modern times and will likely find my own writings to be a part of the “Modern” category.

  4. Hi, Matt – here’s a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: ‘And from this it follows that
    only the most profound masters of style can tell the truth, and when one
    meets a simple one-syllable writer, one may conclude, without any doubt
    at all, that the poor man is lying.’

  5. I agree, Matt, both styles have merit based on the content of what the author is writing about. Poe and Lovecraft and Ligotti have a set style that wouldn’t be their own without the baroque style of writing those writers are known for.

    While I enjoy those authors, and others like Blackwood and Machen, I don’t automatically think of them as being necessarily “better” than the Stephen Kings or Elmore Leonards of the world simply because they use bigger words and longer sentences. Good writing is more than just writing pretty prose. And let’s face it, there are enough so-called “Lovecraftian” authors pumping out the ornate prose but are nowhere close to being in his league.

    Likewise, I know some people see the sparse style of King, Rowling, Leonard, etc., as somehow proving the suggestion that reading habits are slumping, people are getting dumber, etc. I’m sure this is true in some cases, but it can hardly be described as accurate across the board. I’m sure there are plenty of “smart” people out there who enjoy authors who use a sparser style. I think intelligence is more than reading stories of a baroque style or talking like a British gentleman. I remember a friend reading Hemingway in high school and scoffing that this couldn’t be classic literature because he actually enjoyed reading it, and he understood it.

    I think the reason why an author like Ligotti does it so well is because so many others don’t, or can’t. It’s simply not the way people write anymore. The fact that he’s doing it at all is a bit unusual, and the fact that he does it well is simply a testament to his talent.

  6. Bradbury was correct. Radio as a medium is, by its very nature, distracting. In this process, one’s mind is trained to be in a state of attention deficit. Other media such as television, the internet, comic books, entertainment magazines, etc. tend to guide a person by the hand. The pages of People, Time, Us and other terrible weekly magazines can easily be turned, the next “article” (or picture with caption) draws interest, when watching television you can change the channel, while listening to radio tune to another station, and on the Web you can click a link.

    Reading a book, as has been done for centuries, offers no such escape. You have your choice. Either read it or put it down. When one reads a book without pictures the mind is forced to form an image on its own. You have to think for yourself. And then what happens if you pick up another book which contradicts the former? You have to form an opinion. Today, most people would rather use Google. It is true that one can confirm many things by using a search engine yet true thought takes place when there is no such recourse.

    For example, I recently read Watchmen. It was the first time I have been capable of finishing a work of fiction in over a year. Incidentally, though it is a graphic novel, Alan Moore is a rather capable author. He stated his main inspiration for the work was 1984. The end leaves you to decide on your own the morality of the characters. It forces you to think, which is the most important factor in reading. Before I read Watchmen I had been incapable of reading fiction, as ‘reality’ and the ‘news’ distracted me terribly.

    I arrived at a point where I could not keep my attention on any one thing for more than a few minutes. I would, literally, have a stack of five or ten magazines and books open at different pages. I would read one for a few minutes and switch to another. Essentially, I trained myself to have an attention deficit. I realized that I could do the same thing on the Web.

    Seeing my demise I sought out and started to read again. Nevermind that it was a “comic book” as I had heard such good things about it. I was determined to read something and I figured that if all my years of nonfiction hadn’t kickstarted my mind then I needed to go in the opposite direction. It worked. I have been writing and reading a lot more than usual. I am about to undertake Franklin’s autobiography and then I shall delve into Frankenstein.

    And finally, having been a musician for over twenty years, I have noticed an interesting trend. With the advent of audio recording people have been dumbed down musically. Decades ago, if you wanted to hear music you had to either be a musician or go to a live music event. I think this also shows why Western culture is so glutted with crap. People are no longer creators, they are consumers. As a result, our literature, music, art and culture in general have been dealt a terrific blow.

  7. I definitely agree with your statement, Harvill. Creativity does seem to have suffered under the influence of modern media, and I notice it within myself as well as around me; creativity and originality seem to come to me slower than they used to, and it is annoying and frightening. It really does feel as though some foreign body has been poking around in my head and rewiring things that are necessary to me in the writing process. I also find a harder time concentrating on my writing; I find that I am easily distracted by many other things. Sometimes, these distractions aren’t really bad things (eating, reading, relaxing, etc.), but the sum result is the same. I shall be endeavoring to retrain my mind to stay focused on whatever it is that I am doing instead of doing a little and then moving on (reading a little, then writing a little, etc.).

  8. Hello.

    I’ve drawn on this blog post heavily, here:



  9. Hey, Quentin. Glad you found something useful and interesting in my thoughts here. I’ll look forward to reading your post.

  10. Benjamin Steele

    I simply enjoy good storytelling that impacts me on an emotional level. I really don’t care how the author accomplishes that end. I doubt that writing is in decline. There are plenty of great contemporary writers using a variety of styles. Writing of the past always seems better because only high quality writing tends to get reprinted in the following centuries.

  11. Thanks for commenting, Benjamin. Of course you’re right about the editorial filters that exist between writing from the past and more contemporary writing tending to allow only the good stuff to pass through, thus generating the impression that things used to be better. But I disagree that this is the *only* reason for a perceived shift in the stylistic tone, nature, and quality of much modern-day writing. As I mentioned in my post, the fact that published writing from before the mid-20th century’s stylistic revolution tended to be much more syntactically complex is a *quantifiable fact*. Maybe the positive or negative value one assigns to this shift is up for debate, the fact of the shift itself is simply a matter of verifiable record. Obviously, the value that I assign to it is obvious from what I wrote in the post. 🙂

  12. Benjamin Steele

    I didn’t claim that there was an *only* reason. There are always many reasons. I would add that there are many types of complexity in writing. First and foremost, I prefer complexity of ideas and themes before syntactic complexity. But I do enjoy syntactic complexity when its done well and serves the purpose of telling a good story. The style needs to fit the purpose of the writing. As such, more lush writing might be better represented in certain genres than in others.

    I’m sure that I’m no less cynical than you in other ways, but I’m not one to romanticize that anything was better in the past. I’m of the opinion that the complexity of thinking is increasing… which I don’t think about in terms of being better or worse. I don’t see how thinking processes informed by images are less refined. There are complex experiences that can be elegantly portrayed in an image that would be nearly impossible to convey in words. Anyways, I don’t think our society is turning into image-based per se. Instead, image and text are being brought together in a more complex manner than has ever happened before in history. As I see it, artists are still experimenting with this new convergence and it will be a few decades before anyone has the objectivity to judge the results.

    I suspect that why our culture seems more dumbed down is because the less smart are now allowed to have voices along with the intellectual elite. Ignoring how the internet gives a voice to the common person, I’m sure more books get published now than in the past. It was more difficult to get published in prior centuries and so that acted as a filtering process. I’m thinking that there is just as much (or maybe even more) good writing out there, but it can be harder to find. For instance, few people know about Ligotti. And there are probably plenty more writers like Ligotti out there that neither you nor I know about.

  13. Interesting comments, Benjamin. Thank you. And thanks for correcting me in my odd misreading of your use of the word “only” in your previous comment.

    I certainly agree that that jury is ultimately out regarding the nature of what’s happening right now in the world of text and imagery etc., since such things are only fully recognizable in retrospect, in the context of history seen from a distance. But the type of thing that, for example, Neil Postman noted about the shifting nature of public discourse and widespread cognitive patterns in the age of television’s rise of dominance is already a matter of “past history,” since we’re now 50 years into the television age. So I do think valid evaluative judgments can be made about the issue. And I do think it’s clear — in a quantifiable and verifiable sense — that the average level of ability to work with text and abstract ideas expressed in words and so on has demonstrably shifted in the direction of a relative decline, on both the reading and the writing end of it. Of course, where it goes from here, and the nature of whatever permutations the phenomenon undergoes in the new age of the Internet and other “emerging media,” is still an open question that we’ll need that historical hindsight to answer.

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