By Their Epithets Shall Ye Know Them

Michael Maar in the New Left Review:

Ernest Hemingway

There is an ancient piece of classroom wisdom that is not entirely misguided when it states: steer clear of adjectives! Editors are unlikely to grumble about a missing adjective, but they will use up their pencils crossing out superfluous ones. When in doubt, leave it out. The critic Wolf Schneider provides an excellent illustration: ‘If the author of The Linden Tree had written’—instead of ‘By the well, before the gate, stands a linden tree’—‘“By the tumbled-down well, in front of the dilapidated, vine-clad gate, stands a gnarled old linden tree”, his poem would not have been set to music by Schubert.’ Quite so. Once the right verb and the right noun have been found, the writer has a full load and can set out for home (or embark on a Winterreise). That is the approach of the adjective sceptic. In the words of the poet-diplomat Paul Claudel, la crainte de l’adjectif est le commencement du style—fear of the adjective is the beginning of style.

Hemingway was the most effective propagator of this stylistic purism. As a journalist, he knew the value of concise speech. Every word counted, as each one had to be paid for when telegraphed to the news desk. Every decorative, non-informative adjective should be axed. The revolution detonated by the application of this approach to the novel can scarcely be exaggerated. All authors, especially the Anglo-Americans—Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver, Ford—are indebted to this legacy, whether they like it or not. The only writers who have sought to distance themselves from it are the conscious champions of the adjective—Nabokov, Updike and their disciple, Nicholson Baker.

More here.