When I taught English, there was only one Rule of Literature I wanted undergrads to take away from my classes: different readers want different things, and different writers want to write things in different ways, and good literature comes in all shapes and vowel sounds — don’t let Aristotle tell you otherwise. To illustrate this, I coined the “Hemingway/Wilde fallacy,” inspired by arguments about whether prose should be clear and simple vs. poetic and textured and complex. Hemingway fans tend to hate Wilde and any other writer they accuse of “florid” style, finding little to enjoy in Woolf, say, or Garcia Marquez. That preference is just that, of course, and has no bearing on the degree of Wilde’s skill or the value of his work, and yet that preference has edged perilously close to universal ruledom — a vestige of twentieth-century taste that emerged in a particular but hardly timeless aesthetic context.
As someone who appreciates Hemingway and Wilde, I’ve always been mystified by this skirmish. So I drew up a lesson based on the two names that most frequently came up as benchmarks of — or anathema to — Good Literature in these Eurocentric diatribes, using names most students on a Eurocentric campus would recognize. I pulled a passage out of The Sun Also Rises and another from The Picture of Dorian Gray and demonstrated just how precise both authors were with their words, and how poetic both results. Put simply, the Hemingway/Wilde fallacy operates under the misapprehension that there’s only one way to ink a cat.
You’d think post-modernism would have jolted us out of aesthetic philosophy cum moral certainty, but no. The Hemingway/Wilde fallacy is embraced by editors, not just scholars, and it confuses even seasoned writers, who are nervous about writing fiction in the present tense, writing from second-person or even first-person POV, using frame stories, using long paragraphs, using adverbs, or daring to tell rather than show (is the folktale completely verboten, then? a pity). It’s fair for editors to post, on Submission pages, that certain styles will be hard sells for their press (as someone who dislikes second-person POV, I get it); an editor’s own preferences shape each publication, and that’s a good and inevitable thing. From where I sit as scholar, writer, and editor, however, I contend that it’s not fair to tout our preferences as Universal Ruledom for Good Literature, to the point where writers feel corralled within a single tense, a single POV, and a single more conventional prose style for fear of being labelled “bad” writers. It’s heartbreaking to see exciting and capable authors Twitter-worry that the novel they long to write in present tense “isn’t allowed”; and it’s liberating to read commentary by Raya Wolfsun and Matt Moore (to name the two I read just today) that defends heterogeneity in writing and publishing.
Maybe these laments and defences are signals that the twentieth-century template isn’t as valued or authoritative as it used to be. It may be true that writers must honour the wider taste if they wish to sell their work — but taste is partly a product of what we’re used to seeing, so let’s expose ourselves to contrast before we doom ourselves even further to sameness. It may also be true that editors see a lot of bad fiction written in present tense, or second-person, or florid language — but let’s acknowledge our selective perception and admit we see even more bad fiction written in past tense and third-person POV, full of “masculine” nouns and verbs, and short on “feminine” adjectives and adverbs. Weak writers also write weakly in the common template, and I’ve accepted second-person POV stories for Lackington’s despite my bias because they were well done. Popular fiction continues to be published in first-person or present tense or both, so why this reluctance, this anxiety? Why this haste to “vilify,” as Wolfsun puts it, non-template writing features when these features are skillfully used? Advice that may be of use for rookie writers shouldn’t guide all writers and shouldn’t shape the bulk of our literature, for pity’s sake. I’m grateful to writers who create off-template, and to the editors who appreciate variety. Every time I see a well-written story that refuses to toe the line, I smile a satisfied smile and grow a little as a reader. More of that, please.