Hemingway vs. Sparks: Reigniting the Controversy

A few months ago, the marketing team went around and said their three favorite authors. My answer—Ernest Hemingway, Suzanne Collins, and Nicholas Sparks—earned some funny looks. Part of the skepticism comes because I’m not very feminine, but a lot of it has to do with the general surprise at seeing Sparks put essentially on-par with Hemingway. But Sparks did once say, “A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway. Good stuff. That’s what I write.”

It’s been almost six years since then, but I distinctly remember my brain exploding after reading his words. My heart beat a little faster, and my eyes wandered to my bookshelf, where I place my Sparks and my Hemingway novels next to each other. As my eyes scanned from The Notebook to The Sun Also Rises, I kept asking myself: “These two writers I revere—they’re the same?”

They’re certainly not the same, of course, because have we ever thought of Nicholas Sparks as the “manliest man ever,” as our common narrative for Hemingway goes? (Just to be clear: we have not.) But I don’t think Sparks’ claim that he writes books similar to A Farewell to Arms (my favorite Hemingway novel) is completely unfounded. My favorite Sparks novel is A Walk to Remember and my favorite Suzanne Collins novel is The Hunger Games; the two elements linking all three of these books together are first-person narrators and tragic romances, so clearly those aspects do draw me in.

What further links A Farewell to Arms and A Walk to Remember (besides the title construction “A _____ to _____,” which amuses me more than it should) is the focus on two male narrators (Frederick Henry and Landon Carter—no, he’s not a Backstreet Boy) reluctantly falling in love with heroines who die after changing the dudes’ lives for the better. Though the tone and writing styles of Sparks and Hemingway are vastly different, they both deploy this trope to make grander statements about fatalism and the inescapability of tragedy (even when you do manage to escape a war or completely turnaround your destructive, “bad boy” tendencies).

A Farewell to Arms

Both stories are also, to varying degrees, concerned with God and the limits of his powers. Yes, Hemingway has much more complicated and blasphemous feelings about God than Sparks, but both of these books feature prominent ruminations on, and crises of, faith, where pleading and praying and crying manpain tears don’t help the heroes save the girls. Whether or not they agree about God doesn’t change that their explorations of religion are cruel to my tear ducts.

And for all the differences in their styles, what makes Sparks and Hemingway such successful writers is their undying dedication to detail. Say what you will about the smarmy-ness of tearjerkers, it doesn’t change the fact that A Walk to Remember is so effective because every little detail sprinkled throughout the book comes back to punch you in the gut in the end. A Walk to Remember isn’t concerned with Jamie and Landon’s larger place in the world. The only thing that matters is the everlasting intensity of their love in that moment.

By contrast, A Farewell to Arms follows a very personal tragedy as a microcosmic representation of a much larger one. As such, it uses details to the exact opposite effect—it’s an expansive novel about World War I, and it tries to capture the sights, sounds, terrors, and loves of the Lost Generation’s suffering. It’s about an American who drives ambulances for the Italian army and falls in love with a British nurse, and the two manage to escape the war’s front lines by rowboating to Switzerland. It contains my favorite line ever—“Your blood coagulates beautifully”—which is just such a strange and specific and beautiful sentence, four words that encapsulate Hemingway’s knack for descriptive but clipped dialogue. It’s in this concise attention to minutiae that Sparks’ and Hemingway’s prose overlaps.

These similarities create an uncanny valley that causes me confusion and rouses the anger of America’s literary elite. Sparks and Hemingway are not the same—has Sparks ever written anything that remotely resembles The Old Man and the Sea? (Nights in Rodanthe doesn’t count just because it’s about old people near an ocean)—but they make me confront some of the saddest, cruelest, and most redeeming parts of humanity. To ignore their similarities simply because Hemingway is considered an enlightened literary god while Sparks just writes bestselling books that routinely get made into star-studded movies (including the upcoming adaptation of The Choice, just in time for Valentine’s Day) seems just as oversimple as Sparks’ comments that ignited this whole controversy in the first place.

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