I think The Sun Also Rises is the book that aspiring writers should read at age 19 or 20. I was in Europe on a train from Paris to Brussels with the pastoral landscape sweeping by; suffice to say, it was a three-dimensional book at the time. (The story takes place in Spain, but every European city shares just enough of a homogenous flavor.) This is the novel to read as a young writer for the same reason kids shout “Kobe!” or “Jordan!” when shooting hoops on the driveway: it is a tangible emulation. Though I may explore the bars and cultures of Europe for years to come, I cannot be Hemingway because I cannot be quote unquote ‘lost’ in the same way. But what I and others can capture is the visceral element. Although Hemingway was coming into a talent much greater than The Sun Also Rises engenders, many themes and motifs remained constant throughout his career; and it is that defining constant that writers should aspire to find first and foremost. The constant I saw in The Sun Also Rises was setting as a character. From Robert Cohn being sprawled out upon wine barrels in the dark stockroom of a tapas bar to Brett’s uninterrupted love affair between men and the cities they inhabited, Hemingway was one of the few writers who brought his background to the foreground. In Herman Melville’s monster of a novel, Moby Dick, the setting was meticulously described; not a rope fray went without its own paragraph. However, in thousands of words fewer, Hemingway created a more involved setting with which the characters coexisted rather than walked upon.
Writers may fall into the nasty habit of describing the dew and the grass because the first term any English student learns is “imagery”. If I may be so bold, I would summarize The Sun Also Rises as the successful version of Waiting for Godot. They have no delusions about a figure who is coming to see them and possibly save them; they wander in spite of having no one. By doing away with the pretense of having a purpose other than hedonism, the novel becomes tragic and strong. For a long while, I teetered on the fence of genre and literary fiction, wanting to develop a story from within the characters but not knowing how to do so. If nothing else, The Sun Also Rises instills in writers the confidence to let the characters take hold and steer the story wherever they want.