Hemingway and Carver: Masterful Fiction for English Language Learners (And Everybody Else, Too)

Many of the greatest novels in English are tough going. If you’re learning the language, it can be a slog to get through Virginia Woolf or George Eliot (though my goodness, it’s worth it).

But for those new to English, there’s plenty of world-class fiction that’s much, much easier to read. In this post, I want to focus on two authors: Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Hemingway is world-famous, but weirdly, he’s almost never read in ESL settings. Carver is well-known among book-lovers, but nowhere else.

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For a long time, I didn’t understand the fuss about Hemingway. Yes, he lived an adventurous life. Yes, he aimed to write simple, honest sentences. And yes, his style was a revolution.

But in my view, his writing wasn’t just simple; it often felt empty. Like the opening of A Moveable Feast:

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.

Okay, I admit it – that last clause gets my blood moving. But for a long time, the passage felt slow to me – stingy, almost gruff. It was as if Hemingway didn’t care about his readers; he seemed to be saying, “Here’re some words – take them or leave them.”

And perhaps I would have taken them, if Hemingway’s simplicity and clarity had felt revealing – if stripping away adjectives and fancy phrases had led to someplace new and powerful. But often, when I tried to read between the lines, I couldn’t find much. His sentences felt too stripped-down, like cars after a visit to the chop shop. It seemed as if Hemingway wasn’t even interested in being interesting. (Which is interesting – but it didn’t make me want to read his books.)

Recently, though, I had a birthday, and my buddy Jackson gave me a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. (We’re moving to Spain in a few months.)

Well, I’m converted.

I don’t really know what changed. Maybe I’d read the wrong stuff before (The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, a few short stories). Maybe I’d had overly narrow expectations of what fiction should be. (Hemingway’s style shocked his contemporaries, too.) Maybe I wasn’t as good a reader before. 

I’m not sure. All I can say is, when I read a passage like this

It was like the excitement of the battle except it was clean... In a snowstorm it always seemed, for a time, as though there were no enemies. In a snowstorm the wind could blow a gale; but it blew a white cleanness and the air was full of a driving whiteness and all things were changed and when the wind stopped there would be the stillness. This was a big storm and he might as well enjoy it. It was ruining everything, but he might as well enjoy it.

I understand what a musician friend once told me: that people who really love music don’t just hear the beat – they hear the space between the beats, and they feel the tension rising. Hemingway creates that same invisible abundance between his words.

But Raymond Carver does it even better.

Carver came after Hemingway, and their styles – spare, repetitive – are often compared. In some ways, though, the differences are bigger than the similarities.

Hemingway wrote novels; Carver stuck to short stories.

In Hemingway’s work, there’s often something momentous happening – a war, a battle with a wild animal, a climb up a sheer mountain face.

Carver’s world is much smaller – at least on the outside. His stories almost all take place in America’s Pacific Northwest. People drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. They sit at kitchen tables and talk or – just as often – don’t. They go fishing. They drive from one place to another.

And yet, everything happens. Magic. Fullness. Space. A sense for what can occur internally, in the little shifts in perspective that let the whole world in, while we’re chopping wood or looking out the window.

None of this is Carver’s ‘message,’ exactly. He isn’t trying to make a point. (“Look how rich life is!”) If he were, his stories probably wouldn’t work.

But they do work – better than almost anything I’ve read – because he somehow creates astonishingly vast, echoing, ineffable moments in the lives of his characters, in ways that feel completely believable and totally real.  

Maybe the most interesting part is that Carver pulls it off without any fancy, ‘literary’ moves. There’s nothing showy here. His characters often aren’t even especially articulate; they don’t necessarily have the words for what they’re experiencing.

And in a sense, neither does Carver. He doesn’t rely on words in quite the same ways that other authors do. Instead, like Hem, he creates immense space between the words, and somehow, you see what’s there.

If you’re interested, check him out for yourself. Two of my favorites are Cathedral and Kindling.