A Writer’s Problem & The Problematics of Literature

A writer’s problem does not change. He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it. (Ernest Hemingway)

Placed at the center of the problematics of literature, which cannot exist prior to it, writing is thus essentially the morality of form, the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of his language. (Roland Barthes)

Hemingway and Barthes approached the problem of writing very differently. But surely they are talking about the same thing? Are they perhaps even saying the same thing? If so, is there a good reason to say it so differently? If not, is one of them wrong and the other right?

It seems to me that Hemingway talked about writing as a practitioner, while Barthes talked about it as a theorist. (He considered Writing Degree Zero to be “an introduction to what a history of writing might be,” or what I would call a theory of writing.) Barthes, of course, also did a lot of writing himself, but it would not be wrong to say that the basis of his ideas about writing was his reading of the literature, while Hemingway was reporting on his own struggle with writing, describing his own problem as a writer. I think writing instructors do well to think about this too. What is the basis of their advice to the writer’s they work with? Are they giving their students a theory of writing or guiding their practice?

I will take this up in a couple posts to come. My thesis will be that theory marks a shift from what Hemingway called “the person who reads” to  what Barthes called “the choice of social area”. For Hemingway, writing meant constructing an experience for the reader, for another individual. For Barthes, writing was a social function, a moral problem. The language, Barthes tells us, marks “the limit of the possible”, while “style is a necessity which binds the writer’s humor to his form of expression.” If Robert Graves talked about the “huge impossibility of language” that the poet faces, Barthes posited at least the deep contingency of history. Writing is the freedom to engage with the forces of history, gauging their weight according to one’s “nature”, in one’s own manner, according to one’s own style. There is a morality in Hemingway, too, to be sure, but it is captured straightforwardly in the injunction to “write truly”.

My feeling these days is that writing instruction, grounded in “composition studies”, is too beholden to theory and not sufficiently engaged in practice. This is weakening our style in universities. Instead of telling our students simply to write what they think is true for readers they know who are, we are presenting them with what to them appears to be a huge impossibility, namely, to “situate the nature of their language” (whatever we mean by that) within “the problematics” of an academic “literature”. It’s not that I think Barthes was wrong. In fact, I think he was mostly right. But he was right about writing in theory and this is not a good place to begin when teaching writing. Students do not, first and foremost, have a theoretical problem, nor even a moral one (though, to be sure, our grading is often experienced as a kind of moralizing). They have a practical one. We have to bring that problem into focus for them.

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