Journalism into Fiction – How Did Hemingway Do It?

by Bill Henderson

When Ernest Hemingway was a young reporter, he filed stories from Europe for the Toronto Star. Many of them chronicled the struggles of various European countries to recover their stability following the catastrophe of WWI. Here, he observes the movement of refugees from Eastern Thrace to Macedonia. Later he turned it into fiction.

Take a look at the two versions:

Hemingway- Journalism into Fiction

Hemingway - 2 Versions

In the Star dispatches, the purely informational terms and phrases are there because he was writing journalism; his primary responsibility was to convey objective information clearly and directly. And though his reporting had an aesthetic edge to it, to create emotion was not his job.

By contrast, look what happened when he “repurposed” the passage in his first volume of fiction, In Our Time. What differences to you see? Which version do you find more moving? More purely informative?

If you are a fiction writer, seeing these passages displayed side by side should confirm what you’ve learned and are still learning: fiction is about feeling, sensation, and meaning, as well as finding ways to “inform” readers emotionally, through subtext, nuance, indirection, misdirection, and all the other “secrets” of the trade.

The dual display should also contain a powerful message for experienced nonfiction writers hoping to cross over into fiction. To you folks––reporters, academics, columnists––who are already confident, experienced writers, I can only say: don’t let your experience work against you. Fiction is truly another country. Take some time and care to learn its ways.

Want some more?

Here’s an interesting example of what Hemingway did with some news reports not his own. Oronte, blogging on Inside Higher Ed, zeros in on the reporting behind one of the most startling passages Hemingway wrote for in our time, the execution of the Greek ministers.

Michael Reynolds (the greatest of the Hemingway biographers), who was an intrepid researcher, produced two news reports of the event. The first is quaint, almost silly in its determination to flaunt the ministers’ elegant bravado in the face of death. Hemingway was an experienced enough war correspondent by then to know it could not happen that way. He fixed on the second report (from the New York Times), which is pretty grim reading.

I won’t put them side by side, but you can check it out by going here, where Oronte, the blogger, quotes liberally from all sources. He also quotes the finished Hemingway passage in its entirety, and I’ll include that here (it’s short). Notice how it wouldn’t work as journalism: there’s hardly any factual information, names, times, places, etc. The story seems to be all about sensations, obsessed with puddles of water, the rain, the shutters. This is not reporting. What it is is great fiction writing:

They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Fee August 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm

I find Hemingway’s writing interesting, and he has a good deal to teach the novice fiction writer, as you’ve shown in previous articles here. But… This may come down to cultural and historical differences between English-speaking nations (I’m in the UK), but I find Hemingway’s fiction harder to read than his journalism. For me, it’s a matter of the relatively unvarying, staccato rhythms in his fiction, as opposed to his reportage, where sentence length varies a little more. The fiction passage above is a little like having a nail hammered into one’s head. Sorry! I know you’re a Hemingway nut, but a lot of British readers and writers don’t really understand the reverence in which he is held. Back to those cultural differences, I suppose.

2 John Linklater July 9, 2011 at 11:48 am

I couldn’t agree less with Fee. Any English reader who finds Hemingway linguistically or culturally alien should make use of the many excellent, unabridged audiobook readings — William Hurt’s fantastic rendition of The Sun Also Rises, or Stacey Keach doing the complete short stories. What appears staccato and repetitive on the page comes alive in the readings as rhythmical and musical.
Returning to Hemingway over many years, I’ve always loved reading him, and I think the attempts to render him unfashionable are laughable. He is enduring and true and fresh. In the short story form, he is second only to Chekhov in world literature. A Moveable Feast is one of the great memoirs. And The Sun Also Rises remains an astoundingly modern novel.

3 Bill Henderson July 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm

I’m in general agreement, John. Even allowing for cultural differences, I don’t see how anyone could read “Out of Season,” to name just one title, and not recognize it as a masterpiece. I think Hemingway was at his best in a form that held him to tight limitations. The short story was his real metier. Of the novels, I like A FAREWELL TO ARMS and to a lessor extent THE SUN ALSO RISES (which, by the way, came within a hair of being titled FIESTA. Thank God EH pulled back from that). A MOVEABLE FEAST is a good read, but as any informed Hemingway “nut” will attest, it’s so full of lies and spin––to say nothing of the mean-spirited bullying of certain people (Gertrude Stein, for instance, to whom EH owed a mighty debt)––to be trusted as a true memoir.

4 John Linklater July 13, 2011 at 1:32 pm

The Sun Also Rises was published in UK as Fiesta, as you probably know, Bill. It still appears here under that title in many editions. In Britain, a Fiesta is synonymous with the bog standard Ford model which has probably been the biggest selling car of the last 20 years. Not the best title, I agree.

Gertrude Stein was herself quite mean to Hemingway after they fell out. She referred to him as a “pupil” and was pretty dismissive of his achievement. Hemingway had a bullying streak, but I don’t think this detracts from his writing. Plenty of great artists were prize shits. In A Moveable Feast I always remember Hem’s description of oysters as metallic and tasting of the sea. I’d never eaten oysters when I first came across that, but I knew I was going to love them.

My favourite portrait of Hemingway is the profile that Lillian Ross wrote for New Yorker. Evidently, many readers were shocked and believed that she was doing a hatchet job. I disagree. He comes over as a big spoiled kid, but he is also funny, intuitive, charismatic and insightful. He remains good company for the reader.

5 Fee July 19, 2011 at 10:51 am

I haven’t clocked in here for a while (I have way too many email accounts to monitor, which was supposed to be a way of organising myself) and I didn’t realise the EH discussion was still live. I will certainly check out William Hurt’s readings when I’m able. He’s a fine actor, with a wonderful voice, so that will be no hardship for me. In the meantime, I still incline to the view that EH is one of those writers who divides opinions quite radically into two camps. A bit like Marmite!

6 John Linklater July 19, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Fee, I don’t want to advertise on here, but if you go to the obvious source there is a download audiobook version of William Hurt reading The Sun Also Rises. That’s where I got mine. I’m not even sure if it’s currently available on disc, and anyway the download is about a third of the price. Hurt is amazing. I’m Scottish and one of the main characters in the novel is a Scots drunk called Mike Campbell. I don’t know what company Hurt has been keeping, but he’s got our glottal stops and grunts down with frightening accuracy. I don’t know what you’ll think of his Brett Ashley. She’s English.
My general point about Hemingway is that if you look at his subject material and settings, only about a tenth of it, if that, (mainly in some of the short stories) is in America. He was the most culturally diverse American writer since Henry James, and a damn sight more readable.
That’s not necessarily what I like most about him, because I think a story like “The Killers”, set in a small town in America, is one of his best. Hemingway has a great ear for dialogue and voice. I’m sure that’s why his work comes over so well when it is delivered by good actors — either on audiobook readings or on film.

7 Bill Henderson July 25, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Hemingway remains a contentious subject, especially among writers. See Julian Barnes’ recent story, “Hommage to Hemingway.” in The New Yorker (July 4, 2011),

8 John Linklater July 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Yes, I saw it. In December, The Guardian newspaper invited writers to nominate their favourite short story. And then read it for a podcast (which is possibly still available online). Julian Barnes chose Homage To Switzerland.

He wrote:

I chose Ernest Hemingway because he is deeply out of fashion, still over-admired by the literary boys-with-toys brigade, still shunned by women readers put off by the macho myth. His style is wrongly thought to be both simple and imitable; it is neither. His novels are better known than his stories, but it is in the latter that his genius shows fullest, and where his style works best. I deliberately didn’t choose one of the famous stories, or anything to do with bullfighters, guns or Africa. “Homage to Switzerland” is a quiet, sly, funny story (Hemingway’s wit is also undervalued) which also – rarely – is formally inventive. It has a three-part, overlapping structure, in which three Americans wait at different Swiss station cafés for the same train to take them back to Paris. Each man plays games of the sort a moneyed and therefore powerful expatriate is tempted to play with the nominally subservient locals – waitresses, porters, and a pedantic retired academic. But as the story develops, it’s clear that social power and moral power are not on the same side. I hope “Homage to Switzerland” will make you forget the swaggering “Papa” Hemingway of myth, and hear instead the truthful artist.

9 John Linklater July 28, 2011 at 1:40 pm
10 David Sandrock June 9, 2013 at 9:37 am

I’ll have to agree with the Scottish dude. Hemingway’s a genious!

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