The Facebook group Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is reading The Best of the Best, Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels edited by Gardner Dozois. This week’s discussion story is “The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman which first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (April 1990). I remember reading the story when it came out. I was around forty then, and I’m seventy now. I thought it might be interesting to explore how my attitudes toward “The Hemingway Hoax” have changed since I got old.
I was an English major in college and had read A Farewell to Arms (1929) and The Sun Also Rises (1926) and a handful of Hemingway’s short stories. Other than classroom discussion I knew little about Hemingway. I’ve read several biographies since then, and more of his fiction, but at the time I didn’t know about the central inspiration of “The Hemingway Hoax,” that Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, had lost all his early manuscripts. At the time I thought that fascinating and probably encouraged me to go read about Hemingway.
“The Hemingway Hoax” focuses on John Baird, a Boston University professor specializing in Hemingway. Baird is a vet, wounded in Vietnam, who identifies with Hemingway’s war wounds, and eventually makes a list of all the things they share. He’s married to a much younger woman, Lena. They are vacationing in the Florida Keys, but are worried about their future. Baird’s trust fund is about to run out and they are used to living a rich lifestyle. Baird is afraid of how Lena will react to living within an academic’s salary. Then Baird meets Castle, a con man who suggests a scheme for Baird to forge a lost manuscript of Ernest Hemingway. Baird is not really interested, but think’s it is an amusing idea. Lena who married Baird for his money connives with Castle to force Baird into the caper. Along the way, Castle cons a woman named Pansy into the scheme too.
The magazine version of “The Hemingway Hoax” is a long novella, which Haldeman later expanded into a short 155-page novel. (Or did he cut it down for magazine publication?) The novella won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. See Mark R. Kelly’s blog for a comparison of the novella and novel. This long story follows three main plot threads:
- The Hemingway Hoax – how to forge a Hemingway unpublished manuscript. I thought this was an A+ idea for a plot both at forty and seventy. Unfortunately, Haldeman doesn’t stick with this plot. A few years ago PBS had an episode of Secrets of the Dead that told of an effort to forge a book by Galileo. It was tremendously fascinating. Baird does do a bit of work on this plot, finding typewriters and paper Hemingway would have used and starting a couple of drafts that were interesting. The old me was quite disappointed when Haldeman didn’t finish this plot, but the younger me was more than happy when Haldeman introduced the science fiction.
- The Baird Con – as a counterplot, when Lena and Castle plan to con Baird into doing something illegal it could have taken the story into noir territory. The older me loves film noir and was excited by that direction. This also could have been an A+ idea too, but it was mainly used for sex and violent scenes. When I was younger I liked sex and violent scenes, but the old me hates excessive violence, and graphic sex scenes only seem suitable for hot romance novels and porn. I could understand taking the noir route with the cheating wife, skipping the science fiction, and selling it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Better yet, I would have been even more impressed if Haldeman had skipped both the noir and the SF and gone the straight literary route like Possession by A. S. Byatt, another story about a literary mystery.
- The Hemingway Demon – the story has one other character, a supernatural character that physically looks like Hemingway from different times in his life. I call it a demon because like Maxwell’s Demon, it guards the flow actualities between universes in a multiverse Haldeman calls the Omniverse. When I was young this was exciting stuff, but the old crotchety me considers multiverse plots much like time travel plots, easy to abuse. When anything can happen it spoils the story for me. I like my fictional universes to have limitations that reign in the plots. Haldeman goes wild with the universe hopping. That was fun at forty but tedious at seventy. It would have been mindblowing to me at thirteen if the story had been available for me to read in 1964.
You can’t expect a writer to write what you want. That’s completely unfair. But as a reader, every story creates anticipation. Stories are great when they fulfill that initial anticipation. In this reading, Haldeman got me excited about forging Hemingway and then didn’t complete the mission. I have to wonder if he felt compelled to add the science fiction thread because he’s a science fiction writer, and knows where to sell science fiction. I wonder if he would have even liked writing the story as mainstream fiction. When I was young I wanted everything to be science fiction, but as I’ve gotten older, my interests have widened. Not only do I not need everything to be science fiction, but when it is science fiction it needs to be reasonably realistic and down to Earth.
Getting old has done something to my reading tastes. My time in this life is dwindling, and my physical health also limits how much I can read. I now hate when stories are padded with extra scenes. I generally prefer science fiction at the short story or novelette length. Most novellas stretch out ideas too much. The older, impatient me, felt Haldeman was too ambitious with this story. What I really love is a story that has lots of realistic details, good characterization, a tight plot, and a compelling narrative style. But I want it focused. I don’t want any wasted words or scenes.
I’m afraid when reading “The Hemingway Hoax” Haldeman hooked me on the writing of a forged Hemingway manuscript and then distracted me with all the omniverse mumbo-jumbo. It allowed him to come up with a clever idea of what happened to the lost manuscripts, and it gave Haldeman a chance to write from Hemingway’s point of view as he lived his life backward. All that was interesting, but wasn’t part of the story that hooked me this time.
When I was young I found stories and novels that used real people as fictional characters to be neat and fun. But over a lifetime of reading biographies, I now see such a practice as exploitation – an easy way to get readers’ attention. Reading such books as The Paris Wife by Paula McLain produced a false idea of what Hadley and Hemingway were like. I wrote about this in my essay, “Why Did Ernest Hemingway Leave Hadley Out of The Sun Also Rises?“
In recent years, we’ve seen more and more best sellers and movie blockbusters that fictionalize historical people, and I’ve realized that I don’t like this trend. That has tainted my rereading of “The Hemingway Hoax.” I thought John Baird was a great idea for a character, a wounded vet who identified with Hemingway in so many ways, including his war wounds. And I thought a fictional character who is a Hemingway scholar trying to forge a lost Hemingway manuscript was a legitimate use of Hemingway’s name in fiction. Creating a supernatural demon that monitors the influence of Hemingway across the multiverse is a fun science fictional idea, but not really significant or meaningful to me at 70.
When we’re young any far-out idea is fun. But now that I’m old, I like my speculation within the realm of realism. “The Hemingway Hoax” is a case where the story was five stars when I was young, but only three stars when I’m old.
James Wallace Harris, 8/15/22