Thursday, December 09, 2010

Iceberg Theory: Literary Telepathy

Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory has been discussed widely for years, and most writers have discussed it in academic various courses, workshops, or writers’ groups. This week, however, I stumbled upon an essay by the great man himself and read his unique description of the theory.

“The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” Hemingway wrote. “A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

What has always drawn me to Hemingway’s iceberg theory—and to those novels and stories that are typically sparse and dialogue driven—is that the reader is allowed to play a role in the story. Many people interpret this as having to read into the story as if it is additional work they did not agree to do when they undertook the reading.

Not me. I have always loved minimalistic fiction, as a reader and a writer. In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the author tells us only that the girl takes her hat off and sets it on the table before her. That’s all we get in the way of physical or clothing description. But it is all we need. What is she wearing? A dress, presumably of the ankle-length variety. How do I know?

Telepathy.

I don’t know the ins and outs of how the magic works. And, truth be told, I don’t want to know. However, Hemingway’s one tiny detail—she is wearing a hat—triggers a mental image for me and millions of other readers: she is wearing a sun hat and therefore a long summer dress.

I think this literary telepathy, this unwritten information passed from author to reader, is in part why we love stories and novels in the first place. It is magic.

2 comments:

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent!

Hannah Dennison said...

I hadn't thought about the iceberg theory until right this moment. I'm with you - less is more.