Hemingway vs. Melville

Did you know there is something called the Hemingway App for writers? You paste your writing in and it tells you how “readable” it is. It counts adverbs (which apparently are bad?) and highlights sentences which are in passive voice. This would have been helpful for me in college. As teachers were cramming SAT words down my throat in high school I developed a bloated style of prose that must have been just terrible to read. My college English teacher ruthlessly dissected my writing and forced me to do better. But this app also gives me reservations…

My sister and I were having a conversation about this just the other week. There seems to be a charge in schools to keep things simple: read books with simple prose, and produce students who can write in simple prose. But is it producing generations unable to understand more complicated English?

My sister thinks it’s atrocious. She thinks the education system needs to push students to read and write Melville-style English. I see her point. But I was in the advanced and AP English classes and I could hardly attain that level. My attempts came out in run-on sentences and misused vocabulary. Maybe if I had gone on to major in English my skills could have been more properly channeled and chiseled. As it was, I was grateful my English professor trained me how to write practically for my field. And that’s what it comes down to for me.

Isn’t it better to teach students to be competent in what they can write? How many of them will pursue higher academia in English prose and literature? I have worked with enough teenagers to know that way too many of them can barely write a decent five paragraph essay. If their teacher were to shove Melville and Dickens on them, they would be lost entirely.

It’s a difficult subject because I adore Melville. I would love to one day be able to write like that. But I don’t know how I’d ever get there when I’m surrounded by watered-down English. Is the finer knowledge of the English language slowly disappearing?

There is a place for both. I think in this modern era it would be strange to have such flowery narration. I can’t imagine “Ender’s Game” written in that sort of prose. So maybe elevated English needs to be reserved for historical or fantasy novels? What do you guys think?

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