For the past couple of years, I have been reading some of the classic novels of the 20th century. Did you know that you can go online and find what the literary experts in this country think were the best works of fiction published in the 1900s by any author in the world, actually the top 223. My goal is to read them all, but I still have about 200 to go. It’s like a never-ending bucket list of words and sentences, and ideas, and philosophy, and turns of phrases and a sprinkling of sex and violence that every educated man should experience. When I initially skimmed the list that I so dutifully printed out, I noticed that Ernest Hemingway (5) and John Steinbeck (4) had several volumes that made the list, along with many authors of whom I had never heard. Of course, everyone has some familiarity with these two American giants of the literary world and, perhaps, most of us have read at least one of their novels, probably in high school. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men come to mind.
So with a few detours along the way, I dug into the works of Ernest Hemingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa. Not all of these novels made the list, but once I began following the spoor of the great Ernest, I continued on a bit farther. And I enjoyed every minute of each of those reads.
Hemingway is famous for his style of writing—short, terse, no-nonsense sentences. His are stories of war and bull fighting and big game hunting, and the ever-present personal turmoil, but there is often plentiful drinking by the main protagonist, apparently based on prodigious time engaged in similar pursuits by the author himself. The drinking in Death in the Afternoon was so prolific and colorful that I found myself wanting bourbon right after breakfast. He made drinking seem as essential as brushing my teeth, and it sounded like fun, with all that camaraderie with interesting characters in exotic bars and hotels around the world. It all blended liquidly with my fond memories of carousing with pals in the army in Korea, of drinking tequila in some cantina with locals in Costa Rica, of knocking down beer with my grad school colleagues at Squirrels in Corvallis. So, I had hit pay dirt early in my reading crusade of the top 223, and the stories themselves were pretty good as well.
Enter Steinbeck. Not Hemingway at all. Longer, more involved sentences with commas. Sometimes even a semi-colon. And thoughtful, about poor people, sad or happy landscapes, how loneliness actually feels, what it must be like to be truly hungry, or truly angry, or pleasantly surprised. Wonderfully insightful descriptions. The kind of writing where I read a line or two, and then have the need to simply stare out of my den window into the forest so that I can think and digest what I just read, and how it relates to my life and decades-old memories of family, and friends, and deep feelings. That is what won me over. I want a writer who makes me spend almost as much time thinking about what I read as the actual time spent reading. I’ve never encountered an author who does that better than Steinbeck. He makes me laugh (Tortilla Flat), and cry (The Grapes of Wrath), and ponder the meaning of life (Cannery Row), and wonder why people are the way they are (The Pearl). I absolutely love every sentence of his as I read it. There never seems to be a throw-away line-never. Every word and combination of words means something, and carries weight. What a gift. I am green with envy. Much better than Hemingway!
But I’m also somewhat dismayed, because Steinbeck was so wonderful, so much better than any other writer, that I now have little desire to read anyone else. It would be a disappointment, almost a waste of time. As for writing anything else myself, I am tempted to forget about it entirely. If one cannot be as good as the best, then why try?
Let me explain something about my personality. I suppose it is a fault, but an interesting, quirky idiosyncrasy. I used to be a competitive tennis player. I played tennis in high school and varsity tennis at a major university. My senior year in college, I was the Number 1 player on the team for both singles and doubles. I was pretty good, but it is all relative. I was nowhere near the best or even 100th best, and I always knew this. I would never get to play in a major tournament, let alone win one. But I kept trying to improve, to get better, and to move up the pack. I loved the sport. I was hopeful. However, if someone had had perfect vision of the future at that time, and they told me that it was a certainty that I would never be the best, I would have quit the game on the spot. I actually knew that I would not, could not, ever be the best, but the 1 in a million chance that I might become the best someday is what kept me going.
And that is the way I now feel about writing. I am now wise enough to know that I will never be as good a writer as Steinbeck. It is impossible. It ain’t gonna happen. A few years ago, I outlined a book I had thought about writing for a long time, but I would be disappointed if I ever completed the damn thing, because I would constantly be comparing the result with that of the master. That would be frustrating and pitiful. It would leave me with a hollow gut. So why waste my time? After all, there is gardening to do, and bourbon to drink, and cigars to smoke. Those activities almost never disappoint me, because I am good at those things. Why spend time in an activity where you are mediocre compared to the best, when you can spend that time doing a thing to which you are well suited?
And think how efficient the entire process of publication and book hawking would become if every author adopted my “fault”. Certainly, less than 1% of the books that are published these days are worth reading. So I would say to these thousands of aspiring authors, “Read Steinbeck. Then, forget about writing. Don’t embarrass yourselves. Save trees and time. Take up bowling. Streamline your life with wise choices and increase your energy efficiency.” I doubt that anyone will take my advice, because they think there is that 1 in a million chance that they might be as good as Steinbeck. But I have seen the other side, and I now have perfect vision of the future in this respect, and I’m telling you in no uncertain terms that you will never be that good.