Exploring the art of prose


The Second Iceberg Theory


By Matthew Duffus •

Every fiction writer I know is familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory,” explained most succinctly in Death in the Afternoon, his nonfiction book on bullfighting: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” The concept of “writing truly enough” has troubled me since I first read this as an undergraduate. How does one write this way? After studying the material included in the Hemingway Library Edition of The Sun Also Rises, I believe the answer lies in the great writer’s revision process.

Scholars often discuss Hemingway’s claim that he rewrote the end of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, as he declared in his interview with George Plimpton for The Paris Review. Less well-known, however, is the work he put into the opening to The Sun Also Rises. After several drafts, Hemingway shared the galleys for the novel with on-again, off-again friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who encouraged him to cut most of the first two chapters. These deletions are included in an appendix to the Hemingway Library Edition and begin with the uninspiring opening sentence, “This is a novel about a lady,” a line that reminds me of Laurence Olivier’s justifiably maligned prologue to his cinematic version of Hamlet: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” In both cases, readers encounter flat openings that offer none of the specificity needed to capture an audience’s interest.

Where Olivier’s editorializing reads as an attempt to control the viewer’s interpretation of the play, much of Hemingway’s original first chapter reads like an information dump before the novel truly takes off with the introduction of Robert Cohn. This jettisoned chapter consists of ten expository paragraphs that contain all of the Lady Brett Ashley backstory readers learn far more organically, in bits and pieces, over the course of the entire published novel. Here, however, Hemingway details Brett’s marriages and current relationship with Mike Campbell, the birth of her daughter, and her impressive alcohol consumption. While all of this is important, it lacks the momentum and polish of the published first chapter.

Consider the opening line quoted above versus the first two sentences Fitzgerald argued in favor of: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.” Ambiguities have been replaced with specificity. The second sentence inserts narrator Jake Barnes’s caustic voice and dislike for Cohn, elements that carry through the rest of the work. This pushes the novel forward in a much different way than the bland second sentence that Fitzgerald urged him to strike out: “Her name is Lady Ashley and when the story begins she is living in Paris and it is Spring.” My students are often puzzled by the emphasis on Cohn at the beginning of the novel, considering how his significance, and even his presence, waxes and wanes. But opening with him provides Barnes a chance to editorialize and his creator an opportunity to signal this narrator’s unreliability and prejudice. Hemingway maintains the cadence of his sentences, as the novel is famous for, but eliminates the lengthy backstory that Fitzgerald urged him to eliminate. The novel’s opening therefore displays all of the elements expected of Hemingway’s well-known style without any unnecessary exposition, thus fulfilling the requirements of the famous “Iceberg Theory.”

In the introduction to the Hemingway Library Edition, Seán Hemingway explains his own enthusiasm for his grandfather’s process: “It is fascinating to see that the novel started out as a story about the corruption of a bullfighter.” In addition to the failed opening, the appendices include several of Hemingway’s lengthy attempts at crafting bullfighter Pedro Romero’s story. Ultimately, as his grandson explains, Hemingway “realized that in order for the reader to understand what happened in Pamplona, it was necessary to know what happened in Paris. He changed the emphasis of the story. He thought first of the bullfighter as the hero, then Harold Loeb [the real-life equivalent of Robert Cohn], Jake Barnes, and even Brett Ashley, until finally there was no hero at all.” Seán Hemingway explains that his grandfather did very little planning until he was “at the end of the third notebook,” when he finally wrote a working outline that he managed to stick to consistently.

Hemingway was assisted in the first draft by the book’s roman à clef elements, but much of it must have been instinctual as well. Perhaps the fruits of this instinct are where “writing truly enough” comes from. I once heard a veteran writer assert that inspiration only comes into play in the second draft, when one begins to see the connections between disparate elements of the first draft. The way he described inspiration, as a synchronicity created within the text and only apprehended after its drafting, reminds me of Hemingway’s “writing truly enough.” From this perspective, this phrase has less to do with being literally truthful and more to do with the writer’s process when facing the page before them. Perhaps this happened for Hemingway as well, even if he only begrudgingly accepted Fitzgerald’s feedback. Regardless, the appendices illustrate the care that goes into developing a story in this way.

Ernest Hemingway was a tireless practitioner of his art. It makes sense, therefore, that what seems effortless when admiring the finished product is actually the result of painstaking labor. Readers then experience that “dignity of movement” Hemingway referred to in Death in the Afternoon without the awkwardness that plagued his early drafts. In this way, Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” applies to revision as well: one-eighth of the work might show up in the final draft, but this does not erase the seven-eighths’ worth of effort it took to get there. The general reader might only be interested in the finished product, but these addendums provide young writers in search of fictional truth with all of the examples needed to show the work it takes to produce great art.


MATTHEW DUFFUS  is the author of two works of fiction, the novel Swapping Purples for Yellows and collection Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories, as well as the poetry chapbook Problems of the Soul and Otherwise. He can be found online at matthewduffus.com or on Twitter @DuffusMatthew.


Featured image by Annie Spratt courtesy of Unsplash