10:59:12 pmCategories: Writing, Paris

Create expectations for the reader

Canal St. Martin, summer in Paris

I wrote about my expectations of Hemingway’s little book from his early years in Paris, A moveable feast, a while ago. Silly me thought I would find the reason why it was particularly hard to write about Paris in his book, as he wrote so evocatively:

Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough. But that was how it worked out eventually (A moveable feast, 2007, p. 4).

It took me quite a while – silly me – after finishing the book to understand what kind of answer he had given, because the answer wasn’t straight, as I had hoped it to be. It was in Paris that he decided to quit reportage and journalism, at which he seemed quite successful, and test his luck in literature – despite having a wife and child to support. And it was in Paris he acquired his characteristic style of writing and building up a story:

Then I started to think in Lipp’s [he’s writing in the old cafés in the old artist and intellectual quarters at the west bank :-)] about when I had first been able to write a story after losing everything. … It was a very simple story called ‘Out of Season! And I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood (A moveable feast, 2007, 43).

Of course he wouldn’t answer my question, I realised. Merde. Now I have to figure it out myself, and that would probably take me a whole lifetime. Because, after all:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast (Hemingway, in a letter to a friend

On the more positive side, I got an excellent lesson in the important skill of creating expectations for the reader. Before Christmas, the feedback I got on one of the core chapters in my thesis surprised me to the extent of first annoy and discourage me, then – and I hope I’m there now – spurring me on to produce better texts. I had described in detail a slam session where I highlighted a handful of texts and people in order to go more in depth. But what had grasped people’s attention was not at all what I had found interesting when being present that night, neither what I had wanted to convey to the readers. If I had managed to create any expectations at all through my chapter, it had certainly been the wrong ones…

After some days of gloomy afterthought, I came to the conclusion that the whole core of the thesis needed to be restructured. I don’t think it’s very much work, but it will alter the way people read my argument (if there is any?!) fundamentally. And readers’ expectations and their gradual fulfilment (which in the case of literature can be days, weeks or even years after you finished the book) are everything.

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